Religion & Politics http://religionandpolitics.org Fit For Polite Company Wed, 17 Dec 2014 20:35:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 Ebola and U.S. Hospital Chaplains: A (Deliberately) Untold Story http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/16/ebola-and-u-s-hospital-chaplains-a-deliberately-untold-story/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/16/ebola-and-u-s-hospital-chaplains-a-deliberately-untold-story/#comments Tue, 16 Dec 2014 16:05:48 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8772 (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/AP Images)

(Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/AP Images)

In August, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, medical missionaries who were serving in Liberia, arrived at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital. The facility was the first to treat Ebola patients on American soil, and in the early days there was no shortage of public criticism. “People responded viscerally on social media, fearing that we risked spreading Ebola to the United States,” wrote Emory’s head of nursing in The Washington Post. Later that month, a poll by the Harvard School of Public Health found that four in ten adults still feared a massive U.S. Ebola outbreak. Even as the staff performed their duties with confidence, the Rev. Robin Brown-Haithco, the hospital’s director of spiritual health, could sense anxiety among some of the personnel. So she wrote a two-page letter reminding employees what was easy to forget: why their work matters.

In her memo, distributed to the entire clinical staff, Brown-Haithco invited healthcare professionals to compare their own vocation with that of the missionaries, who followed their callings to help those in need in Liberia. “When Emory heard that same call a little over a week ago, we also knew there was only one way to respond,” she wrote. “We knew it was our ethical and moral responsibility to open our doors to receive the missionary aid workers and to provide the care we provide for all who come through our doors. We responded, not because it would bring notoriety or fame, but because it is our calling as a health care institution.”

In the days that followed, many healthcare workers talked with Brown-Haithco about their vocations. These conversations often mirrored the tone she had set in her memo, neither ignoring the risks of treating Ebola patients nor succumbing to panic. A calling doesn’t exclude fear, she explained, but fear “does not prevent us from moving with compassion toward someone in need.”

Neither does fear encourage a dull news cycle. When the Ebola outbreak began, the American public heard from doctors, nurses, public health experts, and WHO officials. Once healthcare workers were diagnosed in Dallas, we heard about PPE procedures, CDC guidelines, and airport screenings. We heard about hospital employees in New York who faced discrimination for working near an infected patient, and about the exotic dancers who started a GoFundMe account to support their voluntarily quarantine. Most recently, we heard about the $27,000 the city of Dallas spent taking care of Bentley, the beloved dog of Dallas nurse and recovered Ebola patient, Nina Pham.

But during the initial frenzy of U.S. Ebola coverage, we didn’t hear much about hospital chaplains, the members of hospital teams tasked with providing spiritual and emotional support to patients, their families, and medical staff. According to university estimates, there were 42,410 stories mentioning Emory and Ebola published between July 31 and September 22; Brown-Haithco and her chaplain colleagues were interviewed four times, including a segment with Matt Lauer that never aired.

And really, the public isn’t supposed to hear from chaplains: Chaplains are trained to keep a low profile, remaining calm in health crises, not interfering with the lifesaving work of medical personnel. Professional chaplaincy standards emphasize sensitivity, respect for boundaries, and self-awareness, managing and minimizing one’s own emotions and religious preferences to better respond to the needs of others. A chaplain’s work isn’t flashy: listening, praying, and simply being present to those who suffer.

Not to mention: the dual confines of HIPAA and clergy confidentiality limit the information chaplains are allowed to share—hardly ideal interviewees for eager reporters.

Yet, silence isn’t absence. In the five American hospitals that have treated Ebola patients, chaplains have been a key part of the healthcare team, quietly alleviating anxiety amid national paranoia, tackling loneliness amid clinical isolation, and protecting patient privacy amid intense public scrutiny. And although these chaplains have taken their responsibility to the U.S.’s 10 Ebola patients seriously, they are also mindful of the larger health crisis at hand—a global epidemic that has infected more than 18,000 people and claimed the lives of more than 7,000.

 

IN LATE OCTOBER, I talked with the Rev. Paul Steinke, a Lutheran pastor and chaplain at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. It had been a week since his hospital admitted its first Ebola patient, Dr. Craig Spencer, a Doctors Without Borders volunteer who had been treating Ebola patients in Guinea. “It’s kind of nuts,” Steinke said. “Thirteen thousand people in three African countries have Ebola; we only have one patient. There are still video trucks outside.”

As he saw it, there was nothing newsworthy about a hospital treating an infectious patient. “We’re a hospital. This is what we do. We take care of sick people,” Steinke said. He added: “And we do a damn good job of it.”

The Rev. Joyce Miller, also a Lutheran pastor, works as a chaplain at Nebraska Medical Center, which has cared for three Ebola patients to date—medical missionary Dr. Rick Sacra and NBC cameraman Ashoka Mukpo, who both recovered, and Dr. Martin Salia, a surgeon serving in Sierra Leone, who died in November. She concurred with Steinke’s assessment that much of the fear surrounding Ebola patients is unwarranted: “I’ve been in chaplaincy long enough to know that I have gone through outbreaks of HIV/AIDS, influenza, RSV, and all kinds of stuff that has scared people,” she said. “It’s scary stuff, but the biggest danger is our fear and the best way to deal with that is education. So, yes, this is another health crisis, but it’s what we do.”

And I heard this same unflappable, business-as-usual approach when I asked chaplains how best to minister to Ebola patients. “I don’t know that I see my role with an Ebola patient any differently than I do with a patient who is here for a stem cell transplant,” said John M. Pollack, a Catholic deacon and chief of the spiritual care department at the National Institute of Health Clinical Center in Maryland where nurse Nina Pham was treated and later released. “I think largely the greatest spiritual issues we encounter here are loneliness and despair. And those are universal questions that come with a rupture in health,” Pollack explained. “This is a different disease than we were used to seeing, but the spiritual issues are very much the same.”

Paul Steinke agreed. He said the best way to care for any patient is the “old-fashioned, chaplain-talking-to-patient” approach. The only real trick was doing that within isolation guidelines. Chaplains, like patients’ family, could not interact with Ebola patients face-to-face due to the intense training required to meet CDC requirements. The chaplains instead turned to technology. Due to HIPAA, none of the chaplains could confirm whether they had contact with Ebola patients, but Pollack said that “in the event that we had a patient in isolation where it would be unsafe for a chaplain to work with a patient, then we would use Facetime or Skype.” Other chaplains indicated that if an Ebola patient wanted to speak with a chaplain they would use the telephone.

But chaplains weren’t the only ones who wanted to minister to the patients. As attitudes about treating Ebola patients shifted from national anxiety to approval, the chaplains were faced with a new problem: how to handle the well-meaning community groups who wished to show their support for Ebola patients—often in ways the hospital could not accommodate.

Steinke said someone mailed him a box of stones inscribed with words like “hope” and “faith” and requested that the stones be delivered to the Ebola patient in isolation. But quarantine procedures made the sender’s request impossible. And besides, people don’t want inspirational rocks, Steinke said. “People in the hospital want a connection with a human being that can talk to them.”

At Emory, Brown-Haithco reported there were church groups, especially among Atlanta’s Liberian Christians, that wanted to host prayer vigils in the hospital’s small, interfaith chapel. She ultimately had to turn all the religious groups away. “We wanted to protect our campus and protect our other patients and our other families and their privacy,” Brown-Haithco told me. The hospital chapel was intended primarily for patients and staff, not the city. She encouraged groups to pray for Ebola patients around the world—at their own churches.

During the Ebola ordeal, Emory’s hospital administration invited chaplains to join their leadership team meetings—something the chaplains described as “unprecedented.” The Rev. George Grant, who oversees spiritual health throughout the Emory network, said the chaplains’ inclusion points to a growing acceptance of integrative healthcare, a model that considers patients’ mental and emotional wellbeing alongside physical needs. His chaplaincy staff encouraged the hospital administration to be sensitive to the medical personnel’s emotional needs and to the Ebola patients’ faith traditions. “There’s something about persons of other disciplines gathering together and having those disciplines cooperate, collaborate toward this whole person health perspective,” Grant said. “That took us into another kind of level of care that Emory heretofore has not been about.”

Dr. Arthur Kleinman, a physician and anthropologist at Harvard, said that the growing inclusion of chaplains—religious professionals—in mainstream healthcare isn’t so unusual. He cited the large number of programs dedicated to spirituality and health at a number of elite universities. “We’ve become more fluid in moving back and forth between values and professions, between technical practices and moral practices,” he said. “And I think it’s not surprising then that rather the separate the sacred and the secular, we’re more comfortable seeing them connected.”

 

IN ATLANTA, SHORTLY AFTER Brantly was declared Ebola-free, a local news station produced a three-minute segment focusing on the role of divine intercession in his recovery. “Instead of getting down on himself, going into a depression, he looked to a higher power: his faith,” says the reporter, as the camera slowly pans to a church steeple on the Atlanta skyline. “People here in Georgia, the U.S., and around the world prayed with him.” The segment, entitled “Power of Prayer,” featured a snippet from Brantly’s press conference, in which he said, “God saved my life—a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.”

Brown-Haithco, who was also interviewed for the segment, was frustrated with the shallow portrait of prayer the segment seemed to offer. If prayer is powerful when a patient recovers, what do we say when a patient prays but still gets sicker? As professionals caring for the critically ill, hospital chaplains are all-too-aware that prayer doesn’t guarantee medical miracles. Prayer is “not just the traditional form of prayer where we have our hands together and we’re on bended knee, praying to a deity,” Brown-Haithco said. “For us, prayer is about accompaniment. It’s about journeying with people in critical and dark times.”

Ultimately, this kind of prayer is the heart of a chaplain’s work: they don’t try to heal people—they leave that to the medical staff. Instead, chaplains simply listen to people who are suffering and give them a place talk about what they’re experiencing. “I think once that pain is able to be expressed to someone who is able to listen, I often think the pain dissipates,” said John Pollack. “I wouldn’t say that it goes away completely, but I would say that it’s a sharing of the burden.”

Chaplains know that the world does not share Ebola’s burden evenly. “We have been barely touched by Ebola in this country,” said Miller at Nebraska Medical Center. “My pain is that this is very much a crisis in Africa and we don’t see one quarter of the coverage of what’s happening there, except maybe some fear-mongering stuff that we should seal our borders and that will fix the problem—and it won’t.”

Pollack pointed to the high level of medical care that has boosted Ebola survival rates in the U.S. and Europe. “There is a troubling sense of inequity that it’s not also the same case for the people who are suffering with this in West Africa,” he said. He praised the “compassionate response of caregivers,” like Doctors Without Borders volunteers who traveled to West Africa and N.I.H’s own staff who volunteered to serve in the isolation unit. “That’s a tremendously courageous thing to do and it really does come from a place of compassion, which in my view really emanates from God.”

Brown-Haithco agreed. When I asked her where she has seen God, she responded: “Right smack in the middle.” She cited the doctors and nurses at Emory who volunteered to treat Ebola patients even though there was no known cure. “They walked voluntarily into that situation with their own fear,” she said. “But they went anyway.”

 

Betsy Shirley writes about religion, faith, and social justice. She studies American religious history at Yale Divinity School. Follow her @BetsyShirley.

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Do Liberals Always Win? An Interview with Stephen Prothero http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/10/do-liberals-always-win-an-interview-with-stephen-prothero/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/10/do-liberals-always-win-an-interview-with-stephen-prothero/#comments Wed, 10 Dec 2014 19:04:33 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8753 (Washington University in St. Louis)

(Washington University in St. Louis)

On October 23, Stephen Prothero spoke at Washington University in St. Louis as part of the Danforth Distinguished Lectures, sponsored by the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics. Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and an author of numerous books, including The New York Times bestseller, Religious Literacy: What Americans Need to Know. He contributes regularly to popular media outlets, including USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN’s Belief Blog. A historian specializing in American religion, Prothero’s current projects include his upcoming book titled, Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage, which was the basis for his lecture.

During his visit, Prothero sat down with R&P’s Jack West for an interview. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R&P: Your lecture at Washington University in St. Louis has quite a provocative title: “Why Liberals Win: America’s Culture Wars from the Election of 1800 to Same-Sex Marriage.” Can you explain to R&P readers in a few distilled points why liberals win?

SP: The book that I’m working on looks at the culture wars as a recurring phenomenon in American history, from the early nineteenth century to the present. In all the cases I look at, the culture wars are started on the right and won on the left. The reason, I think, for that is that conservatives, in picking these fights and starting these culture wars, typically choose issues that are already going the other way because it puts them inside this narrative of loss and recovery, where the society is moving away from their traditional values. It suits them to pick subjects where they are already losing. If they pick subjects they are already winning, then the complaint that is inherent in this narrative of loss and recovery doesn’t resonate. So they pick an issue such as, ‘There are too many Catholics in America,” at a time when the Catholic population is growing relatively quickly to the point that Catholics are going to become mainstreamed into American life. If they had picked that fight earlier, there would not have been enough Catholics to reasonably be worried about them, and if they picked it later, no one would have cared. They pick it right at the moment when they are losing, and it seems that this recurs and is part of the reason why liberals seem to win these battles.

R&P: Why do those on the right choose that specific moment to raise an issue? Is it to paint themselves as victims?

SP: Yes. Culture wars are often seen as these battles between liberals and conservatives over cultural questions. But I see them more as dramas that are produced and acted in by conservatives. They are conservative projects whose purpose is to drum up support from traditionalists in society who perceive that something precious is being lost to them, and that something precious changes over the course of history. It might be the traditional family, with a man at its center. It might be a society in which the leaders are all white. It might be a society in which the important figures are Protestants. In order to activate that anxiety, which is an important part of my book, which is going to create a political upsurge for your party, you need to find an issue that will agitate peoples’ emotions. The moment of highest agitation seems to be the moment when it’s becoming clear that the liberals are starting to win, the conservative complaint kicks in, but lo and behold, the liberals actually do win. It is a fixed game. It’s not really a fair fight because the conservatives are not picking the issues on which they are winning, which are many. In my lifetime, conservatives have done better than liberals on many political issues. But on questions in the culture wars, they tend to pick the issues that they are losing or are about to lose.

R&P: This lecture stems from your upcoming book of the same title. What led you to pursue this research and this topic?

SP: It started for me in the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. There was a lot of debate whether Muslims could build this Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero in lower Manhattan. I followed the debate because I have always been interested in church-state questions. I was very surprised when it shifted from being a local issue to a national issue, and when some of the leading members of the Republican Party began weighing in against the mosque. I was surprised because it was a clear-cut case where you had two issues deeply held in American society that were in favor of the Muslims who wanted to build the mosque: first, was private property rights—they owned the land—and second was religious liberty. It surprised me that there was so much agitation about it. Since I’m a historian, I tried to understand it in a historical context, by going back and looking at these moments in the past. The moment I discovered was when Thomas Jefferson was accused of being Muslim in the election of 1800, so Barack Obama is not the first American president to be accused of being Muslim. So that is how I got started looking at culture wars before the Islam wars.

R&P: That is very intriguing. Do you think that a lack of religious literacy contributes to some of these religion-state issues, especially with Muslims?

SP: Yes, I think that’s part of it. If we knew more about Islam, which, as a society, we know almost nothing, the culture wars around Islam would be different. They would be more sophisticated. However, we had a huge battle about slavery that was conducted to a great extent around the Bible, and both sides seemed to understand that if they lost that biblical debate, they would lose the slavery debate. People really understood the Bible, not just intellectuals, but ordinary people could comprehend the arguments for and against slavery that could be marshaled based on the Bible. I do not know how the Islam wars would play out differently, other than the fact that they would be more sophisticated. I think some of the dumb arguments would go away, but you would also probably find some smarter arguments against Islam that would potentially take their place. In two other culture wars I address in the book, the anti-Catholicism movement in the early nineteenth century and the anti-Mormonism of the later nineteenth century, both have a quality of talking past each other, where the Protestants, who are typically the conservatives in those culture wars arguing against Catholics and Mormons, stick to their talking points about those traditions and to the stereotypes against them. They didn’t know a lot of Catholics or Mormons. I think if they had had better Catholic or Mormon literacy, those conflicts may have played out differently. But like I said, sometimes that would have provided more arguments rather than fewer. I don’t believe that if we knew more about religion that all of our religious problems would go away. I think sometimes people kill each other for religious reasons because they don’t understand the other religion, but sometimes they also kill each other because they do understand the other religion. So I’m not sure religious literacy is much of a fix for religious violence. I think it is a start, but it does not do that work by itself.

R&P: You have been an advocate of religious literacy. Why do you think Americans generally lack a basic understanding of religions? Has it been something that has been happening throughout history, or is it a relatively new phenomenon because, like you mentioned earlier, during the early nineteenth century, both sides had a very competent understanding of the religious arguments surrounding the slavery debate.

SP: The religious right argues that religious literacy goes away in the early 1960s because of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court bans devotional Bible reading and prayer in public schools in 1962 and 1963, which critics argue essentially exiles God from public schools so that they are now religion-free zones. Now, children grow up not only without a reverence for God, but also without an understanding of the Bible and Christianity. The argument I make about religious literacy is that the story actually begins a century earlier. The villains are not secular people in the Supreme Court but actually religious people. It is caused by the Second Great Awakening and the replacement of Puritanism by Evangelicalism as the dominant religious impulse in the country. Before the Second Great Awakening, there was always this conversation among Christians between the head and the heart, trying to get a religion that was both intellectually sound and emotionally resonant. But with the Second Great Awakening comes this new form of religion that really prioritizes feeling and emphasizes loving Jesus rather than knowing what Jesus had to say. This is when religious literacy starts to go away. It doesn’t really matter much what Christianity teaches, what matters is how it feels to be in a relationship with Jesus. Simultaneously, as you have that shift from knowing the doctrine of your tradition to feeling intensely about God, there is a shift toward morality where the focus of the tradition becomes making the society more Protestant by using voluntary associations to get rid of slavery, to make the schools better, to improve prisons. In order to do that, it is important for people to downplay denominational differences. You don’t really want to bring up the distinctions between Methodists and Lutherans because you want both denominations to work together to get the Bible printed and distributed or to do the work of the American Tract Society. So that also pushed people away from conversations about doctrine. As the theology side of religion starts to go away, our collective memory starts to atrophy. That really happens over the course of the nineteenth century.

R&P: How do you think increased religious literacy, not only for the various denominations of Christianity, but also for other major world religions, would change the political landscape in the United States?

SP: I think of the religious literacy problem as happening in two arenas, domestic and foreign. On the domestic side, we have two religious political parties. Since 2004, the Democrats have started doing with religion what the Republicans have been doing since the late 1970s: invoking God, the Bible, and Jesus to support their public policy and politicians. Then we have a public that does not know enough about the Bible or Christianity to dispute whether what they say makes any sense. So when Hillary Clinton says she opposes a Republican initiative on immigration that would demand that citizens turn in undocumented immigrants because of the Good Samaritan story, because the Good Samaritan story tells us to take care of the strangers in our midst and not to turn them in to the authorities, how do we know whether that makes any sense? Many don’t know enough about what the Good Samaritan story says to make a decision. Similarly, politicians will do this with abortion. “Why are you opposed to Roe v. Wade?” “Well, because I am a Bible-believing Christian.” Well, what does the Bible have to do with abortion? What does it say about abortion? If you read the Bible, it doesn’t say very much. Neither, by the way, does it say much about marginal income tax rates, which we also try to debate on the basis of the Bible. You asked how the political landscape would be affected by more religious literacy, and I think that if we were more religiously literate, we would have a lot less Bible-talk and religion in our public space because the silly God-talk would go away.

R&P: They couldn’t make those claims based on religion anymore.

SP: Yes, people would say, “That doesn’t make any sense, we know that it doesn’t make sense to invoke the Bible on that issue because the Bible doesn’t say anything about that issue.” Or, they would be able to say, “Yes, we know you win that argument on the basis of the Bible, we know you have all the goods there.” I think that would have a huge effect, and, of course, it would elevate our capacity to engage in those debates so they would start to look like the slavery debate of the nineteenth century, which was very sophisticated on both sides.

On the international side, the problem is not that we don’t know enough about Christianity and the Bible, it’s that we don’t know anything about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. We can’t really understand what is going in the Middle East or Kashmir or Myanmar or Tibet or wherever we might want to look, because in all those places religion is powerful and a real force politically, economically and militarily. If we had more religious literacy, we would be able to make much better calculations about what we should do, in terms of our foreign policy. There is an argument to be made that we might not have gone into Iraq or Afghanistan if we had understood Islam better. Maybe we would have, but I don’t think we understood what we needed to know about the difference between Sunni and Shia when we initiated those wars. If we had known more, we might not have gone in. Similarly, if we had known more, we might have been much more successful then what we have been.

R&P: In the past, you have advocated teaching religion in public schools. What are the benefits, and how do you think it could be implemented in a sustainable manner? There has been some criticism that teachers would allow their own biases to reflect in the course.

SP: The benefit of a world religions course in high school is to address the international problem, which I mentioned earlier, so that we could better understand what is going on in the world. We would know how to act as better citizens, we would know how to vote and could more effectively criticize our leaders. If you live in a religious world, you have to know something about religion to make sense of it. A public school course on the world’s religions would address that problem so that more would know that the Quran is the holy book of Islam, whereas only half of Americans know that right now, according to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey that was done by the Pew Forum in 2010. We lack such basic information, that we can’t engage in these debates.

As far as how it is sustainable, obviously you need people who are trained, which is a problem because we don’t have a lot of people able to teach a high school course on religion. You have a perception problem as well, where a lot of people think that this course would be unconstitutional. In fact, only one-third of the people interviewed in that Pew survey knew that courses on world religions were constitutional—most thought it was illegal to teach religion in public schools. That is not true if you read what the Supreme Court has written. They have basically endorsed both Bible courses and world religions courses in Supreme Court opinions.

Then you have the problem of bias. As I read the First Amendment, you are not allowed to preach religion or atheism in public schools. So a course on world religions should not conclude that Jesus is Lord, that Allah is the one true God, or that religion is bunk. It should leave those truth questions open. It would be a problem if you had a teacher whose intent is on violating the First Amendment and proselytizing. But I think the scrutiny of these courses would be higher than it is now. Today, we have people violating the First Amendment in public schools. We have biology teachers who are violating the First Amendment by either preaching atheism or a fundamentalist understanding of creation. We have teachers in English schools that are violating the constitution by using conversations about the Bible to preach a particular religious understanding. Some of those things pass under the radar because they are not courses that have the word “religion” in their title. There would be a lot of scrutiny for courses on religion, so those people that would want to seize on that opportunity to push their religious point of view would be exposed pretty quickly.

R&P: You have made the point before that, for example, history teachers must set aside their party affiliations to teach a course on history. Is that similar to a teacher teaching a course on religion?

SP: With religion, you have to be even more careful. You don’t have a First Amendment that calls for the separation of historiography and the state, so there is a higher bar. You see this at state universities. I took courses in college from socialist historians. You knew that they understood history from the socialist perspective and they were not trying to be neutral, they were presenting their point of view. There is a huge place for them in college. In fact, some of the most interesting courses are taught by professors who have really strong points of view. They teach twentieth-century American history and they think that the New Deal is the pinnacle of twentieth-century American history. They are not trying to finish the course with you wondering whether or not they believe New Deal was a good thing. That’s admirable in some ways, and students can either take or leave it. With religion, due to the First Amendment and other reasons, we try really hard not only not to teach our biases but also hide them so effectively that at the end of the class we think we have succeeded if the students have no idea what our religious perspectives are. Religious studies, as a discipline, rely on an effort at objectivity. We need to maintain, in high schools and state universities in particular, this distinction between teaching religion and preaching religion.

R&P: In your last book, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide and Define a Nation, you discuss specific texts that stir controversy and debate in the United States. What texts or speeches cause similar controversy in today’s politics and culture?

SP: We keep returning to a lot of classics. One interesting aspect about the texts in The American Bible is that they are used by both sides. They are sufficiently malleable, in a way like the Scriptures, hence the title, and, therefore, can be understood in a lot of different ways. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is seen as an argument for the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action. But people from Ronald Reagan forward have argued that the speech actually argues against affirmative action. When King talks about imagining a society in which we are all judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character, conservatives are saying, there you go: why should we be worried about the color of your skin when you apply to Washington University in St. Louis or when you apply for a job at IBM? The color of you skin should be irrelevant; there should be no affirmative action. The same goes for King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” That letter is an amazing combination of a lot of difference sources, religious and political, from the American tradition, Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition, from Protestants and Catholics. Sarah Palin has looked at that letter and said look at the way King combines religion and politics here, he doesn’t see a dividing line, he is not worrying about injecting too much Scripture or too much Christianity into American politics. If that is fair for people on the left like King, why shouldn’t that be fair for the Tea Party and Sarah Palin and other cultural conservatives? Why can’t they bring the Bible into the public space?

R&P: Do you think improved religious literacy would affect how these documents are interpreted and applied in today’s culture?

SP: Certainly. There are a couple ways to improve. One is the kind of literacy about the documents themselves. When we debate Huck Finn, which is also in The American Bible, some say it is the most racist book in American history and others say it is the most anti-racist book in American history. One of the problems is that a lot of people who engage in the debate have never actually read Huck Finn. If they had, the debates would be more sophisticated and our democracy would be stronger. One of the huge premises behind that project is that an assumption of our democracy is that we have informed citizens. As we vote and engage in politics, it is crucial to know something about the things we are debating. The problem is that we know less than we used to and our politics are more fragile because of it.

R&P: Continuing going through the books you have written, in God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World, you argue that the attempts to reconcile differing religions as different paths up the same mountain are, in fact, incorrect. You argue that they are disparate paths that achieve different things. Why is this an important distinction? How should this understanding affect interfaith work, specifically?

SP: It is an important distinction for reason of truth. It is just not true that the religions are basically the same. It is a misunderstanding. Almost always, when people make that claim, it sounds like a pluralistic statement. But when you follow up and have them describe what the religions are all about and what they share, invariably, that description becomes the religion of the person making the statement. “All the religions are one,” really means all the religions are basically like Christianity, or all the religions are basically like Judaism or Hinduism. There is a kind of intellectual imperialism, which is opposed to diversity and demands eliminating the distinctiveness of these traditions so that they conform to one another when, in reality, they don’t conform. There is a straightforward truth aspect. You want to let the traditions be what they are rather than pretending they are something else.

The other feature is that there is confusion about what creates interreligious rivalries and violence. Many assume it is religious difference. I don’t think that is true. Difference does not cause violence or war. We have always had difference, in every society. The student body here at WashU differ with each on all sorts of things, over what movies they think are good, what religions they affirm, or what politics they support. But that doesn’t mean they have to be at each other’s throats. The way we live in a society with difference is through various civic activities and ideologies of tolerance.

There is a confused hope in the “all religions are one” school that we can all be the same. There is a confusion about the danger of difference which is not as dangerous as many others think. The perennial philosophy school that says religions are the same and the clash of civilization school that say they are different, share the assumption that if there is difference, there will be warfare. I don’t think that is true. I prefer to let the religions do what they do, and observe that they are doing very different things.

R&P: With today’s global upheaval, which seems to be ever-present in the media, what is to be done about religious tolerance internationally?

SP: That’s the hard question. You certainly saved the hardest question for last. There is some pretty good evidence, from people who study genocide and the places where the danger of racial or ethnic killing is highest, that there is no civic engagement across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, or religion. If you look at areas that have experienced that kind of killing, it is typically lower in places that have integration. For example, if Muslims and Hindus are engaged in civic institutions, activities, and leadership together, then the probability of violence is much lower than in places that are completely separated. The premise is pretty simple and intuitive: people become humanized as you engage with them. Say you are hostile toward Muslims, and the first Muslim you meet seems to be a good person. You might be able to say, “Well, they are the exception.” But if you meet 12 Muslims and you start working with them on a library committee or a parks committee in the city, you start to see that they have families like yourself and they share in the effort to promote the civic goods that you are also promoting.

Another idea is this diffusion of tolerance, with which you started your question. It is a very laudable goal. However, there are a lot of people in academia who don’t see tolerance as such a good thing. They want what they call pluralism, where difference is celebrated as a positive good, rather then merely tolerated. But tolerance would be much better than what we have in a lot of places. I would add that, and I have written about this, tolerance is an empty virtue unless you actually know something about the people you are tolerating. If you claim to be tolerating Muslims or Christians or Buddhists, but you don’t understand much about them, that is very shallow and a probably less effective form of tolerance. 

R&P: Thank you very much for your time today.

SP: Thank you for your questions.

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Local Religious Leaders Respond to Ferguson http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/01/local-religious-leaders-respond-to-ferguson/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/12/01/local-religious-leaders-respond-to-ferguson/#comments Mon, 01 Dec 2014 19:23:40 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8693 (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

(AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis County, on August 9, 2014, and especially since the November 24 announcement that the grand jury would not indict the police officer who shot him, the nation has been awash with anger and fear. Protests and calls for justice have amplified, most of them peaceful but some spilling over into destruction. Many people are insisting on concrete action and social change to meet the challenges and racial inequities of today; others, perhaps believing those inequities no longer real or relevant, resist such action along with the protests and call instead for healing. In the aftermath of these messy events and the political divisions they have highlighted, we invited a range of clergy and religious leaders in the St. Louis region to offer responses such as they have offered their own congregations. We asked: How are you and your faith community responding to these recent events? What does your religion call you to do during this time? Not everyone responded, but many did, despite the considerable duress they all face in this trying moment.

We present the following assorted reflections to our readers, which embody a spectrum of religious views and thoughtful approaches to the current situation in St. Louis and the nation. They are not representative of all viewpoints, but if there is a unified message to be found here, it is that these local faith leaders want unity for all people. It is a vision that will only be achieved when each person is treated with the same measure of fairness, justice, and human dignity as every other.

Rev. Rodney T. Francis, Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church

“Wake Up Everybody” was a popular anti-war song performed by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass as the lead vocalist. Written during the height of the Vietnam War, the song was a critique of our country’s seemingly apathetic stance toward the war’s impact on the domestic social disorder and unrest of the day. The song was a clarion call for change:

Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’ time for thinkin’ ahead
The world has changed so very much from what it used to be
So there is so much hatred war an’ poverty

Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
‘Cause they’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
When you teach the children, teach ‘em the very best you can

 The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me

Given the unrest in Ferguson and urban communities around the country, the song could not be more prophetic. The international coverage has awakened many to the reality that there is a subculture of poor and disenfranchised young people of color who are disenchanted with the current state of affairs. These young people and their allies have proven they are willing to march, protest, disrupt, confront, agitate, loot, burn and stake their very lives on calling for change. One can debate the merits of their methods in expressing themselves and their frustration, but what is not debatable is their effectiveness. Since engaging their varied forms of protests, many have miraculously awakened. The governor has appointed the first African American to a cabinet level position in his administration, created a new Office of Community Engagement led by two African Americans, allocated funds for a youth summer jobs program to hire 2,000 low-income youth and convened a special Ferguson Commission. The Regional Chamber of Commerce and local corporations have offered to create job opportunities for disaffected youth. The U.S. Justice Department continues a regional investigation into unfair police and municipal practices, and national news outlets interrupted their regular programming to carry remarks from President Obama. Finally, the chain of global protests have drawn crowds into the thousands in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Boston, Atlanta, and London. Right or wrong, justifiable or not, if the intent was to wake everybody up, I’d say they have succeeded.

The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me

Excerpt from a sermon using Nehemiah 2:17 as its foundational text, preached on August 24, 2014, at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO.

Rev. Seán Charles Martin, president of Aquinas Institute of Theology;
Fr. Léobardo Almazán, OP, assistant professor of moral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology

“No justice, no peace,” the crowd chants. “Justice for Mike Brown,” the sign proclaims. To some people, the demand for justice looks like a threat; to others, it represents an outcry against oppression. As Catholic theologians, we recognize that the desire for God and the desire for justice are integrally intertwined. More than 2,700 years ago, the prophet Micah saw the necessity of justice in the life of the believer: “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Catholic thinking on justice emerges from contemplating the Scriptures, of course, but it also develops from a sustained reflection on the nature of human beings, especially as we live out our lives as social creatures. Using language that is meant to appeal beyond denominational identity to include those of different religions or even no religion, Catholic teaching holds that a just society is one in which the common good can flourish, one in which people are able to participate in the life of their communities, and one in which the goods of society are accessible to all. Justice, in Catholic thought, is founded upon twin convictions: (1) that every human life possesses dignity, worth, and value; and (2) that society thrives when the rights of every human person are acknowledged and protected.

On August 18, 2014, President Barack Obama delivered a brief statement regarding the situation in Ferguson. First, he acknowledged the rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to cover the story in the press. Second, he reminded the nation, “Ours is a nation of laws: of citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them.” Third, he made an appeal to “our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment.” Fourth, he invited all to build, and not tear down; to listen and not just to shout; to unite and understand each other, and not simply divide ourselves from one another. The president concluded by saying, “And that’s how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace.”

From a Catholic perspective, President Obama is calling the entire nation, the people of St. Louis, and those living in the Ferguson area to remember three fundamental truths: we all share a common humanity. As sons and daughters of God, we all have the same worth and we are all entitled to the same basic acknowledgement and respect for our human dignity and our human rights. Many commentators have remarked that the situation in Ferguson did not start on August 9, 2014, with the death of Michael Brown. Instead, the violent reaction grew from something larger, from years of imposed racial profiling, discrimination and resultant poverty, from mistrust, indifference, and scorn.

We are all called to contribute to the common good in a spirit of solidarity. The president’s call “to build, to listen, to understand, and to unite” finds its source on the biblical emphasis to live in a covenantal relationship with God and neighbor. After all, human dignity can only be realized and protected if we live in true and lasting solidarity with our brothers and sisters. This solidarity calls us to “eradicate racism and address the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In light of recent events in Ferguson, it seems appropriate to assess the extent to which we have become a true community of persons. How much and how truly have we been interested in the extent of the suffering of our African American brothers and sisters living in Ferguson? The wound caused by poverty, racism, and violence will be healed only by greater solidarity. Addressing these issues in a spirit of solidarity is the only sure way to true justice and lasting peace.

We are all called to contribute to the common good, in accord with the principle of subsidiarity. This means that each and every individual, organization or institution has an appropriate role in promoting justice and peace. Government leaders, both national and local, should seek to promote communication, cooperation, and peaceful resolution in close collaboration with other community groups (parishes, congregations, synagogues and mosques, neighborhood associations, civic clubs, and the like). Law enforcement agencies charged with protecting citizens and preventing unlawful activity must enforce the law while, at the same time, respecting the human dignity and rights of all. Finally, people of good will of all races are expected to be informed, to participate, to promote unity, harmony, and concord.

Ultimately, the Catholic Church finds in the dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God the firm foundation for the promotion of peace. All of us, regardless of race, language, color or creed, have the same basic needs, the same fundamental rights, and the same responsibilities to work for the common good. From a Catholic perspective, this is “how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace.”

Rabbi Susan Talve, Central Reform Congregation

Standing on the steps of the Old Court House in St. Louis the night before the funeral of Michael Brown, many who had been on the front line of the protests stopped marching and chanting and prayed quietly for his family and for the families of so many black men who have been shot by police. In that very place where Dred Scott sued for his freedom and was denied his citizenship and his humanity by our legal system in 1857, we remembered that the next morning, Michael would not be a cause, but the son of a family who would have to bury their child. We stood in silence standing on the very ground that witnessed the Dred Scott case, feeling the legacy of slavery and wondering if the exposure of the disparities of Ferguson had to happen here to redeem the shame of that decision so many generations ago.

Standing with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy I thought of how the story of Abraham, Sara, and Hagar tried to teach us that if we were willing to sacrifice the child of Hagar, (Ha-ger, the “other,” in Hebrew,) then, in the next moment we would find ourselves sacrificing our own children. Michael Brown’s death and his mother’s grief touched a nerve that shot across the racial, geographic, and economic divides of our region. Enough of us got the message that a threat to our children anywhere is a threat to our children everywhere. The gun violence was crossing the divide and it was time for us to do more than talk.

The past three months have challenged us to “walk the walk” as a congregation. As a community that embraces Jews of color and has always been committed to challenging the injustices of racism in St. Louis, we could not stand idly by as Michael Brown’s death forced people of faith to confront the reality that there are two Fergusons, and two Americas.

As the story unfolds, it is clear that we cannot let the narrative be reduced to an oversimplified battle between police and protesters. We have police officers in our congregation and our families, yet we must not be afraid to demand accountability from law enforcement that practices racial profiling and provocation and has done so for many years. This is a historical moment that has the potential to grow a movement that pushes the demands for civil rights further in this country. Our core values of being a justice-seeking congregation guide us and challenge us to be part of the next chapter in this nations civil rights struggle.

So, I stand with the protesters because the death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for me and many others who were ready to say enough to the profiling of young black men and women by the police in St. Louis and beyond.

I stand with the protesters because they have their fingers on the pulse for change and are demanding the entire St. Louis community to step out of our comfort zones day and night.

I stand with the protesters because in our liturgy we say that every life matters and their lives should not be more at risk because they are black and brown women and men.

I stand with the protesters because they are calling for a serious confrontation with institutional racism and I believe that we all need to do this work.

I stand with the protesters because many of them are our children, the children of the baby boom, and we taught them to expect more from their lives than to keep their heads down in fear because of the color of their skin.

I stand with the protesters because they are drawing from the experiences of other communities like Oakland, California, and Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to lead a successful campaign for social and political change.

I stand with the protesters because even in the face of the failure of the legal and justice systems to be fair and unbiased they remain committed to non-violent civil disobedience that provides ways for many who are frustrated and angry to express themselves.

I stand with the protesters because I have seen them do their best to identify and de-escalate those who would use violence and those who would use the protests for their own agendas.

I stand with the protesters because they are each individual whole worlds of potential. They are graduate students and nurses and mothers and they are kind and smart and have seen their brothers and sisters dying around them for too long and shaken their heads in silence. Now it’s time to show up, time to care, time to be an ally.

I stand with the protesters because I believe that they are our future leaders.

I stand with the protesters because they have brought us out of our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, and into the street to pray with our feet. As Jews who believe that our purpose is tikkun olam, we are required to recognize the brokenness before we can repair the damage.

I stand with the protestors because one day we will look back remembering how things were and celebrating how we changed them for the better and I want to be able to say that we were part of the solution and not part of the problem.

These are a few of the changes the protesters are asking for:

  • Civilian Oversight Board for Police for the City and the County.
  • Legislation that limits the practice of profiling by police.
  • Body cameras that are working, turned on and visible name tags on all officers.
  • Departments that reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods they serve.
  • An end to departmental practices that measure a police officers performance by the number of stops and arrests.
  • The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission resulting in reparations for police brutality victims.
  • Consolidation of county police departments.
  • Cultural diversity training for law enforcement departments.

This is very challenging and complicated work. This movement has also unleashed a strain of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It has been messy, and being white and Jewish has not made it easy to show up. But, I will continue to stand with the protesters because this is my home and I have to believe that our vision of spreading our Sukkat Shalom, our shelter of peace where the streets are safe for all of our children, is possible.

Rev. Shaun Ellison Jones, assistant pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church-Christian Complex

The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” I wholeheartedly believe we live in a hypocritical country. The United States was formed through acts of civil disobedience by a minority that felt oppressed by an unjust majority. From the Boston Tea Party to the First and Second Continental Congress, every child is taught to cherish what is now deemed as a fight for freedom by those America calls its founding fathers. We celebrate these protesters with monuments and museums, songs, and even federal holidays because of their courage to challenge what they believed to be an unjust and oppressive system.

Yet, when brown and black youth in Ferguson exhibit the same courage to challenge oppressive systems like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Paul Revere, they are arrested and told to be quiet. While our founding fathers used guns and swords to challenge the system, Ferguson protesters only use their mouths, feet, signs, and social media. Yet many of us have not honored them as patriots invoking their constitutional rights. Instead they have been labeled agitators and thugs. Why is it considered rowdy and violent to stand up and proclaim that “Black Lives Matter”? Why are black and brown protesters demonized for keeping the issue of police brutality and “death for walking while black” in the media, when all they are truly doing is having the courage to challenge?

As a follower of Christ, I believe it is the solemn duty of every believer to speak out against anyone or any system that oppresses or marginalizes a group of people. The Bible says in Proverbs 31:9: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Beloved, the Bible is replete with stories about individuals who had the courage to speak truth to power and tell them their “whole damn system was guilty as hell.” God commissioned Moses to liberate the Israelite slaves from Egypt and Pharaoh. Elijah told Ahab and Jezebel that it would not rain until the nation stopped worshipping false gods. Jesus stood up to up to corrupt religious leaders by throwing the moneychangers out of the temple because the house of prayer had become a temple of thieves.

In Daniel 3, there is a set of Jewish freedom fighters by the names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who had the courage to challenge an immoral and ungodly system. These three protesters exhibited character, conviction, and a willingness to accept the consequences of their actions. They stood in the face of corrupt officials and pending death by a fiery furnace and refused to obey what they deemed as an unjust decree. As we, in St. Louis and beyond, face an uphill battle to challenge and change our society we can look to their example and too find the courage to challenge.

Rosalynde Welch, Frontenac Ward
St. Louis Missouri Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

It was a bleak way to usher in what should have been a season of glad anticipation for the Lord’s birth. The city was divided along gnarled ethnic fault lines. Sharp economic inequality between poor and rich poisoned community relations. The legal system was in upheaval, and many had lost confidence in the rule of law to deliver justice. Citizens walked the streets fearful of violent eruptions. Conspiracy theories abounded.

This was not St. Louis in November 2014, though it could have been. It was an ancient city, described in the Book of Mormon, poised on a knife’s edge between the best of times and the worst of times. Into this tense scene would arrive an unlikely messenger, a member of a despised racial minority, who, with great courage, would call the troubled city to repentance and share the astonishing news that the Son of God would soon come into the world. In that dark moment, hope of deliverance from the intractable generational conflicts that plagued the city must have seemed like a madman’s fantasy.

Latter-day Saints seeking to make sense of the troubled situation that Ferguson has revealed, and seeking to discern own their role in our path forward, will find much to consider in the Book of Mormon. Like the Old Testament, to which it is closely related, the Book of Mormon is preoccupied with social justice: its prophets urge us to attend to the welfare of the poor and the suffering of the oppressed. Furthermore, it traces the inevitable decay of a racist culture with violent proclivities. It’s a sobering picture for its present-day readers.

And like the New Testament, to which it is similarly related, the Book of Mormon ultimately teaches that the Christian gospel redresses all racial, sexual, and political inequities with the power of Christ’s love. “[B]lack and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God.” As its expectation-defying narrative progresses, the divisions between black and white, righteous and wicked, are shown to be spiritually bankrupt. God’s Spirit is at work in people of every color, circumstance and persuasion. It’s an illuminating picture for its present-day readers.

The Book of Mormon addresses itself directly to the present day. It specifically invites its modern readers to “liken the scriptures” unto ourselves. That means us, St. Louisans in the aftermath of Ferguson. The book goes so far as to provide us with a historical example of the righteous society toward which we are instructed to work and pray. For a brief period, the conflict and upheaval that characterized this ancient civilization for centuries lifted, as night gives way to dawn. Modeled on Christian teachings, a peaceful and unified community emerged. They renounced their previous racist ideologies, economic inequality, and warlike violence. They embraced perfect equality, harmony, and understanding. “They were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.”

But this utopia was short-lived. Peace brought prosperity; prosperity brought pride, privilege, and complacence. Eventually the old divisions re-emerged. It’s heartbreaking to read. And it’s a warning that even the best-conceived reforms, the most inspiring idealisms, must be strengthened with ongoing commitment, work, and remembrance. The problems of St. Louis’s racist past are never only in the past: they are always just ahead in our future, if we lose touch with our deepest values and visions.

These lessons and many more for our moment are alive for Latter-day Saints in the pages of the Book of Mormon. Some of these lessons are relevant now; some will be relevant in the coming months and years. One episode seems particularly germane to our mood in St. Louis today. At perhaps the darkest moment in Book of Mormon history, the nation has been wrecked by a series of cataclysmic natural disasters that seem to act out all the human hatred, violence, and injustice that simmered at the surface of society for centuries. The morning after the destruction, shocked survivors wait in darkness, weeping with anguish and confusion and grief. Then a profound silence descends. After many hours, a voice materializes. It is a quietly compelling voice, but the words are incomprehensible. Again the voice comes, and again the crowd understands nothing. The voice comes a third time, and this time the people open their ears, their eyes, and their hearts. Finally they understand. Meaning dawns, and with it the darkness dissipates.

For stunned St. Louisans on the figurative “morning after” our own upheaval, we would do well to remember that after the anguish and the confusion and grief, a period of prayerful silence is in order. Meaning and light will dawn, but it will take time and desire. Not all voices are clear the first time. Listen. Listen again, and then again. And keep your heart turned toward heaven.

The Very Rev. Mike Kinman
Dean, Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

In these days and nights, young women and men are appearing on the streets of Ferguson. And New York. And Oakland. And many other places. And they are proclaiming:

“Who are we? Mike Brown!”
“I’ve got my hands on my head. Please don’t shoot me dead.”
“Show me what democracy looks like. THIS is what democracy looks like.”

Like John the Baptist before them, they are contemptuous of the authorities—the civil authorities and the church authorities that have turned their backs on them.

Like John the Baptist before them, they are calling the people to repentance.

But unlike John the Baptist, many of the people of St. Louis and all America are not going out to them. Instead many if not most are calling them names like “thugs” and “criminals.” They are telling them to go home or to get jobs and go to school, not knowing that’s where many of them are spending their days.

In Matthew’s Gospel, John stands at the Jordan River and bids the people to come and repent? Why? Because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Christ is coming, and we need to prepare to receive him. It is that Advent work of preparation, but really, it is the work we are about all year round.

John cries out to the gathering crowd: “Repent!” Now, we hear John’s voice and maybe our first thought is that he is calling us to fall on our faces and wail. We picture the wild-eyed man on the street corner crying, “Repent, the end is near!” The man who, like these young people in Ferguson, is so easy for us to turn into a caricature and dismiss.

John isn’t saying, “Repent, the end is near!” The word we read as “repent” is metanoia, which means a transformation. John is saying, “Change your life, the beginning is near!” And it’s not to individuals, John is saying you—plural—change your life, your common life together, the beginning is near. Turn—all of you—turn to a new direction, a new way of living. Get ready to receive new life.

In Matthew’s story, the people do just this. They don’t fall to their knees and wail or individually mumble a few pious words. The word Matthew uses for confess is ἐξομολογέω (ex-om-ol-og-eh’-o), which means “together, acknowledging openly and joyfully.” This is a loud, communal, joyful confession.

In order to be ready to receive Jesus, the people have to turn from being individuals with all the things that separate them to being one body. No them and us. Only we. And because this is an act of liberation. Because when we do this we become so much greater and richer than we are by ourselves, the people actually confessed their sins out loud and with joy.

John the Baptist is alive in the young women and men who are protesting on the streets of Ferguson every night. The call is the same. The question is—will we go out and see them. Will we heed the call to change our life, the life we all live together?

Will we as the church lead our people out to this new Jordan River? Will we lead our people into bearing fruit worthy of a common life changed? Or will we be the Pharisees and Sadducees? Will we, like them, claim the righteousness of our history as our security blanket? Will we deny that even now God is raising up from these streets children of Abraham, a new generation of Johns not to be baptized by us but to baptize us and to point us anew to Christ?

Isaiah and Matthew both spoke of an in-breaking—a moment in history where the people of God (and that’s all of us) are being invited to listen to a cry in the wilderness that a savior is coming. That the sufferings of the past can be over. That redemption from our sin is within our reach.

Ferguson can be that moment for us as a nation. The moment where we engage in that crucial act of discipleship that is reconciliation. Of self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life. This can be the moment where we acknowledge openly and even joyfully that our nation’s original sin of racism has bound us but that we will be bound no more. That we are willing to put the axe to the trees that sustain systems of white privilege and racial profiling, of oppressive policing and huge gaps of educational opportunity. That we are willing to be a tree that bears fruit worthy of a changed life.

That like the heavenly Jerusalem, we are willing to make the streets of Ferguson and all our cities’ streets flow with living water and with trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.

But it will only be this moment if we go out to these new Jordan Rivers and hear the voices that are out there. It will only be this moment, we will only be pointed to Christ if we listen deeply to the voices of young women and men of color, not just in Ferguson but in every city—and particularly if those among us who are white guard those voices and amplify them and interpret them for one another.

We are in a prolonged season of Advent, and really we have been there for a long time. These voices are not new. They have been crying out and crying out for awhile. But we are beginning to hear them now.

Will we go out and see them. Will we heed the call to change our life, the life we all live together?

Leah Gunning Francis, Ph.D., associate dean for contextual education and assistant professor of Christian education at Eden Theological Seminary

We have gathered here today to express our outrage over the shooting death of Michael Brown that has been deemed a justifiable homicide.

In August, Governor Nixon was repeatedly asked to appoint a special prosecutor to present evidence to the grand jury. Elected officials, civil rights organizations, local clergy, and even the Brown family were among those making this request. State Senator Jamilah Nasheed presented an online petition with more than 100,000 signatures asking Prosecutor McCullough to recuse himself, but all requests were denied.

These requests were made because of a potential conflict of interest between the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office and the Ferguson Police Department. Many were rightly concerned about the integrity of the process, and demanded an unaffiliated party to oversee it.

Governor Nixon refused to appoint a special prosecutor. Attorney General Chris Kostner and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill supported this decision. U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay initially called for a special prosecutor but ultimately stood by Governor Nixon’s decision.

Now that the grand jury decided there is no probable cause for indictment and the evidence has been released, we are left with far more questions than answers. There were enough inconsistencies and missteps to warrant this case going to trial, as pointed out by Washington University Law Professor Mae Quinn.

As a result, we stand here today to ask Governor Nixon to now appoint a special prosecutor for a new grand jury. He has the legal right to do so, and we call on Senator McCaskill and Congressman Clay to support this action.

It should come as no surprise that mothers have galvanized to make this call. Throughout our country’s history, mothers have organized and worked together for the benefit of their children.

How different might our drinking laws be, and how many more lives lost if it were not for the tireless work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)? What about the relentless efforts of Moms Demand Action and Mothers Against Gun Violence to stand up against the NRA and challenge our lawmakers to enact sensible gun laws that keep children safe?

Now it is time for this country to hear from Mothers of Black Boys and Girls, and our allies, as we stand together and say, “Stop Killing Our Children!” Too many of our children have died at the hands of those who were sworn to protect and serve them. Enough is enough!

We call for an end to racial profiling and police brutality.

We call for an end to policing policies that justify the use of lethal force upon unarmed people.

We want policing policies and practices that start with seeing our children as human beings first.

To be clear, Officer Wilson did not kill a gentle giant or Hulk Hogan. He killed a human being. An unarmed human being. Perhaps if our children can be seen as human beings first, they may have a better chance of being afforded the rights and privileges of one.

As calls for justice ring out around the world, we join those voices as we say “Never Again!”

This should never, ever, ever happen again to another one of our children.

And we will keep praying with our feet until there is no more blood in our streets!

This contribution was the opening speech given at the Mother’s March for Justice on November 29, 2014.

Mufti Asif Umar, imam at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis

“O mankind! Verily, We have created you from a single male and female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Verily, God is All-Knowing, the Aware.” (Quran, 49:13)

There is a very famous saying that we all have heard at some point in our lives. The saying goes: “United we stand, divided we fall.” This small phrase conveys a grand message: the message of unity, the message of oneness, the message of working together. Unity is very important in any society, any group, and any organization in order to achieve the goals they have. This message is ever so important in our current time, especially with what has happened in Ferguson and with the grand jury decision.

Islam is a religion which commands and stresses unity, not only among Muslims but when working among non-Muslims as well. It is necessary to have a mutual respect for each other, to fulfill each other’s rights, to work together in a peaceful way. A hadith or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which is a common saying in other faiths as well, is, “You must love for your brother what you love for yourself.”

In Islam, unity is so important that it’s included in many different things, even when a Muslim is worshipping God. For example, praying five times a day in a congregation is considered unity. Fasting together in the month of Ramadan, there’s unity in time. Getting together for the Hajj pilgrimage, there’s unity in time and place where the various steps are performed. These are all rights of God. So one is taught that there is unity even in worship.

But there is another aspect of religion, besides the rights of God, and that is fulfilling the rights of our fellow human beings.

God says in the Quran: “Hold fast onto the rope of God, all of you together, and do not become disunited” (Quran, 3:103). So we must regard all human beings as one body, and unity as the health of that body. We must identify those spiritual diseases that make the body sick so we know how to cure them; otherwise these diseases will lead to the body’s demise.

In chapter 49 of the Quran, entitled “The Rooms,” God mentions some of these spiritual diseases, such as mockery, defamation, slander, backbiting, and suspicion. All are causes of disunity among each other. In fact, they are so harmful that God compares backbiting to “consuming the flesh of one’s own dead brother,” an unthinkable act. Immediately following these verses, God also mentions the issues of racism and tribalism, which is the verse I posted in the beginning of the article. God created different races and tribes so that different people would recognize each other and learn from each other—not for people of different races to fight each other.

Islam is against all forms of racism and bigotry. Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another, or one color of skin is superior to another, or the people of one country are superior to another. Such beliefs were the characteristics of the idol worshippers in Makkah before the days of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad came and eradicated these beliefs. In Islam, Muslims believe all races are equal to God and the only characteristic that makes someone superior to another is righteousness.

In fact, the Prophet Muhammad said in his final sermon, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white—except by piety and good action.”

We must all stand together peacefully in support of one another wanting fairness, justice and equality for all, so that society can be the way God wants us to be. United.

Rev. Scott Stearman, Ph.D., senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church

Recently, I attended another meeting of clergy trying to grapple with how to be a positive force for good in our current city crisis. In a few trips to, and a few meetings about, “Ferguson” I’ve observed some things worthy of your consideration.

First, there is a reason Jesus appointed women as the first “evangelists.” In this present situation the effective voices right now are often women. Mothers, and female clergy, are on the front lines here. In the Metropolitan Congregations United clergy group, my friends Rev. Mary Gene Boteler of Second Presbyterian Church, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reformed Congregation, and Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ are key leaders providing leadership. I’m grateful to live at a moment when we no longer suppress these essential voices in and outside the church.

Second, we truly all do see through a glass darkly. As I have said, if I’ve learned anything over these last few years of dialogue about race it is that we see as much with our past experiences as with our present perceptions. We wear heavy glasses shaped by our past. Our past influences everything we see, or everything we ignore. It is vital that we seek to understand how another person’s lenses were formed, and that we be patient with those whose perspective is different than ours. This is part of what the great writer William Faulkner meant by his famous: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And when Jesus said to “love your enemy” he did so recognizing that most often our “enemy” is just another person with different glasses.

Third, as with so many things in life, the problem is not as much knowledge of the good, as willingness to do the good. I’m glad that the governor is appointing a commission to study the issues that have come to light in Ferguson. However, I do worry that sometimes our issue is primarily about political will, not needed knowledge. We know that free pre-K education pays huge economic and social dividends. We know that incarceration rates in the U.S. are off the charts because of a system that needs serious reform. We know that the secondary education system in many communities needs major funding and reform. One in three African American males born in 2001 will go to jail in their lifetime. That’s not simply poor decision-making. Between the 63105 (Clayton) and 63106 (North St. Louis) zip codes, there is an unfathomable 18-year difference in life span. Multiple causes are at root, but clearly it’s not simply about a few bad actors.

The last thing I’ll mention (although, there’s always much more to say) is that while no rational person wants violent protests, we people who make up the majority must recognize that non-violent protests are part of the way progress has been made in this country. Go back just a century and you’ll find progress made by laborers who were successful in instituting basic workplace protections, or women who successfully earned the right to vote, or the freedom riders and marchers who helped bring about the Civil Rights Act. Protests are annoying to those of us who, frankly, have little to gain. But the right to free expression is part of what makes our country great. It is how we’ve progressed so far in the liberties we now take for granted.

So in this regard pray for two groups who have been on the front lines since the announcement was made about the grand jury decision. The police, who are tasked with protecting our city from violence, and those clergy who will be working to “de-escalate” protests that get out of hand. The fact is we need the good work of good police and we need the work of protestors who will spur our state and city to do what needs to be done. And ask the question, not what would Jesus do, but what in this moment is Jesus doing, and what is my role in that?

Rev. Jacquelyn L. Foster, D.Min., pastor of Compton Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Compton Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) opened as a designated “24-Hour Safe Space” immediately following the grand jury announcement that there would be no indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old, black teenager Michael Brown.

Throughout the night people flowed into the building. Some were protesters who came to get warm, have something hot to drink, use the restroom, pick up a couple of those little hand-warmers, and go back out. Others were people who were not protesting, but came to be of support to each other, and to those who were protesting. Some sat together in the choir room where we had set up a TV to watch events unfold on the news. Others sat in the sanctuary praying, surrounded by candlelight and music. Some gathered in conversation. At one point a man with both Buddhist and Christian connections led a small group in “Turtle Island Prayer” with the deep tones of the Didgeridoo allowing people to express the emotions of pain and hope with their voices. And there were those who spent much of the evening out on the church lawn or on the sidewalk in front of the church blessing protesters on their way and encouraging them in peaceful protest.

At one point as I walked through the candlelit sanctuary, I saw a young woman sitting in the last pew in the back. She was praying and crying. I gently offered her care and then left her alone. One of our volunteers told me that this young woman, who was participating in the protest, had said, “Tonight I lost my church.” She felt that she could no longer connect spiritually with a community that could not hear the cry of her voice in protest. She felt abandoned by the church.

A little later a pastor from another congregation came in to pray and simply be in this space, in part because the congregation she serves was not responding, and she simply could not act as if what was happening in our city and nation is separate from the church. She, among others, needed to be in a church with others who were praying, talking, and caring through this moment in history.

I suspect that the young protester represents others who feel that they have “lost their church” in this time, and that the pastor represents others whose congregations are not ready to face, discuss, and take action on the issues of racial justice at hand. Their story is not uncommon. In fact, I could see the overwhelmed thankfulness in the eyes of those who found a few churches open in these days. Many thanked us profusely and with tears, for being open to them. Some asked “Why?” “How did you decide to do this?” Their questions, I believe, are not about the decision process; rather they are asking what we believe. How do we understand God? What does it mean to be Church?

These are the questions of the ages that we will never completely answer. Yet through the events of this great unfolding moment, I have seen a clarity in our congregation that is breathtaking.

The night after Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, I saw several of our church members stand vigil on a street corner here in our neighborhood to witness that this was about all of our communities and that God was with us. Others made it a point to go to Ferguson, simply to support the people there. Certainly our people did not shy away from reaching out to a family in our congregation who live right in the hot spot of Ferguson.

It was in September that our Stewardship and Outreach Ministry Group adapted “The Race Card Project” for use on three consecutive Sundays to facilitate conversation in the congregation on race. NPR’s Michele Norris started “The Race Card Project” in 2010 to encourage a wider conversation about race among her readers and listeners. On each Sunday, our congregation was asked to respond briefly in writing to a word. The first was “Race”, the second “Reconciliation,” and at last, the question of what this congregation can do to work on these hard issues and to be a reconciling community as we move forward.

On Wednesday, October 9, a group of adult leaders ranging in age from 30s to 70s was gathered at the church drinking coffee and tea as we responded to the cards on “Race” and “Reconciliation.” As we discussed the hard things and shared our pain and hope, little did we know that yet another young black man was shot and killed by a police officer. This time it was about four blocks from us and it was Vonderitt Myers, Jr. We had gone in the church to talk about race at 7:00 p.m., and by the time we came out another young man was dead and our neighborhood was spinning.

By the next night, we were hosting an ecumenical prayer service for Vonderitt Myers, Jr., and for the community in our sanctuary.

Whether marching or serving in Ferguson, or downtown, or South City, members and friends of this congregation have approached the issues with compassion for everyone involved. On Sundays we have prayed for the young men who were killed and their families, for police officers and their families, and for those who protest and for those who are fearful of the protest.

As tensions heightened, I witnessed a strong sense of calling among our elders as they, without hesitation, said “Yes” to the call of Metropolitan Congregations United to serve as a safe space. Then they and the congregation as a whole backed it with the commitment of their presence to hold this space as a place of comfort, prayer, care, and encouragement. We have been clear that “to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves,” required action in this time. The Church could not be silent. We had a role to play in helping to bring peace and the call for justice in our community. Even as individual elders (and their pastor!) expressed some concern, there was an abiding sense that our decisions must grounded in hope rather than fear. We are able to live and act in hope because we experience God in Jesus the Christ who “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). In God, we are already one people. It is our task to live into that oneness.

This congregation holds a deep commitment to the “radical hospitality of Jesus” which we see embodied in his repeated welcome, engagement, and offering of healing across the barriers that divided God’s people. This is what that hospitality has looked like in these days:

First, to serve as a “safe space” where people in the community were welcome, whether protesters or non-protesters, to pray and talk and simply feel safe in the presence of others. We would be open for at least the first consecutive 24 hours after the announcement and then as needed.

Second, to become a space where people who wanted to protest could be taught how to protest peacefully. Some would learn how to be legal observers. Some would learn how to care for those who needed help on the street. Protesters would gather before going out, so that they were connected with a purposeful group. For instance the first evening, we welcomed a large group of students from St. Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis, who came for training before hitting the streets.

Third, to become a site for meals to be prepared to care for those on the streets. In our space, volunteers have made everything from burritos to spaghetti to fried chicken, and then finally a huge Thanksgiving meal to be served in Ferguson, remembering the young black men who were not at the table.

Fourth, to serve as a site where protesters could receive care if they were suffering from pepper spray, tear gas, or other injuries. One great gift was the commitment by the staff of “Places for People” to have two mental health professionals with us from 8 p.m. to midnight each evening in case they were needed.

Hopefully, our work now is to help the church and the community we serve to learn to listen from the heart and to speak from the heart. Having trained with the Compassionate Listening Project, based in Seattle, I facilitate a Compassionate Listening Practice Group. We have used and taught this process within the congregation and have offered it in the wider community. We believe that we must learn to listen without judgment, to listen from the heart so that we may come to know the story of the other. Quaker Peacemaker and Mystic, Gene Knudsen Hoffman, who pioneered Compassionate Listening as a tool for deep understanding and reconciliation, often said: “The enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard.”

Surely the Church must be the community to help all God’s people hear each other’s stories and to become each other’s friends rather than enemies so that we may bring healing to our world. Because God so loved the world—all the world and all the people. And because we are the Church of Jesus the Christ, the one who embodied God’s compassion, mercy, justice, and love. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re open in these days.

Rev. Nora Jones, pastor at Samaritan United Methodist Church

Upon hearing the grand jury’s decision over the death of Mike Brown, I found myself angry, yet not surprised at the decision. I was overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment. I was sad over how the decision would affect the city, our children, and the world. I was sad how once again skin pigmentation is still a major problem in the world and that people still judge others by it. I was angry over how time after time peaceful protests were met with such aggressive policing. My spirit was uncomfortable with how St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough had demonized Mike Brown. Yes, as I watched the announcement, I was not surprised at the decision, or at my anger or grief.

As I thought back on the events of Mike Brown’s death, several things were revealed. First, the cities of Ferguson and St Louis and the world were changed by the use of social media; secondly, our understanding of how and when to protest evolved; and finally, on a personal level I too had been changed. My faith was changed, challenged, and stretched to new understanding of faithfulness.

I realized that the movement was changing quickly, which caused people to be more apprehensive about joining the initial protests, particularly during the night hours. Although I identified with the protesters, I was having difficulty embracing the nighttime protests because it did not fit my paradigm of a protest. In addition, my family begged me not to go out there, so I stayed at home. My heart was with the protesters, and trying to honor my family wishes. Yet God was compelling me to express my faith in a more visible manner that was less comfortable and safe. I was uncomfortable.

I attempted to walk a difficult path between God nudging me from my comfort zone and honoring my promise to my family. So I followed God into Ferguson during the day, where I could see those around me and those who stood with me. I was not afraid of the other African Americans around in the apartment, but the nighttime protests and the militarization of the police terrorized me. I was terrified of the teargas, of being beaten with batons, and of the pepper spray. I understood the protesters’ rage and anger but I did not condone their violence.

I quickly identified the systematic causes that brought us to this moment and recognized the implicated racism that lead us to this day. During the night, Ferguson became a different city and it was dangerous, and it was too far from honoring my promise to my family. Still God kept nudging my spirit to be a part of God’s visible presence in the middle of the chaos.

My involvement in Ferguson started with praying at the site where Michael Brown was killed. I listened, prayed, and wept with others. I listened to young African Americans stories of loss and faith. I listened to stories from individuals who were afraid of living in Ferguson, due to aggressive policing policies. I listened to a woman who saw the whole incident between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, yet she was too afraid to testify because she feared retaliation of the police. I went to Ferguson in the mornings and late afternoon to listen, to pray and to weep for loss and the world.

Due to the cancellation of classes in the Ferguson School District, I found myself joining other clergywomen in providing a safe shelter for displaced children at the Methodist church. I listened to others and together we prayed for them and the world. It was hard to absorb the children’s fears and I attempted to alleviate the anxiousness on their faces. The children and teenagers became burned in the darkness of my closed eyelids. Often when I try to close my eyes to sleep now, I see the faces of those children instead. Each day we gathered, we heard questions of faith, asking why of God. The children who we shared hours with in Ferguson were grieving not only the loss of a community safety, but also for their futures. As the week ended, I found myself longing to do more but what more looked like was unclear to me.

But with certainty I knew my spirit was changing and God was enlarging me, urging me to pursue sustainable change for Ferguson. Acting on God’s widening of my faith I found myself attending clergy meetings and volunteering for more and more activities. Every opportunity I spoke to others about the importance of understanding the issues of racism and white privilege in our world.

I understood it was difficult for some individuals to believe Ferguson’s problems had anything to do with who they were or where they lived. I challenged people inside and outside the church with Scriptural passages of how we are called to love as God so loved and to be our brother and sisters’ keepers. The conversations not only challenged others but also changed me and my resolve to work on behalf of justice. I prayed and lamented over our human depravity more frequently, and I was more committed to be a part of the solution for pursuing equality.

Each new opportunity broadened my horizons to be more prophetic. Slowly God was dissolving my fears and my need to be comfortable. As God removed my paralysis of fear, I found myself enlisting my colleagues and people from my parish to cook meals for the children and volunteer too. I told people there are more ways one can serve than just to protest on the street. One could make a difference in life of a child in your own neighborhood. One could participate by praying for the city, the police, the protesters and peacekeepers. One could start by inviting others to have a conversation about racism and white privilege.

I preached and I cajoled individuals about how it is within our power to make a difference in others. As the days passed, I knew God was calling us out of the safety of our churches to work alongside of the young adults in the streets. Moment by moment, God pushed others, as well as myself to try new ways of being in the world. Again, I must remind you, that this new level of faith that God was pouring into my spirit felt uncomfortable, awkward and strange—similar to learning a new language.

However, what I love about God is that God longs to transform all of us, in how we think, act, and believe even in our uncomfortable-ness. God longs to change our understandings of what is comfortable and safe. God wants to challenge us to be more faithful and to trust God’s spirit to lead us. God did this for me by using the most common things in my life—strangers, friends, and the events in Ferguson. God desires every individual’s faith to be stretched farther than he or she believes is possible. I know this broadening of our faith is not just for clergy but also for anyone who is willing to follow where God leads.

The next step of enlarging the elasticity of my faith came through an urgent text message received from a colleague. The text stated they needed more clergy who could serve as peacekeepers in Ferguson as soon as possible. What if I die? Surely there was another who was more prepared than I. There must be someone, anyone, who knew how to speak the right words to the police and young adults to keep the peace. Someone who possessed the tools to dismantle the structures of racism.

As I mentally wrestled with doing the right thing, the words of one of my favorite theologians, the German pastor Martin Niemöller, rang in my heart. The words grew louder, obliterating my need to be safe. I found myself changing clothes and putting on my clergy collar. I called my mother and told her that I love her. I went out into the night. I went out into the night with my fears of being tear-gassed, or pepper-sprayed. I went out with my uncomfortable-ness and awkward feelings. I went out in power, confidently assured that God was with me. I went out ill-equipped but equipped by God to pursue justice and love for all of God’s people. I went out to where God was leading me and I went out saying to myself Niemöller’s quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Nights, days, and months have passed since my first visit to the nighttime protests, and today I find my comfort still being challenged. But I go with God believing I will be alright and I urge all God’s people to do the same. After the grand jury announcement, we opened Samaritan United Methodist Church’s doors for people who needed to find a safe shelter, to worship, to pray and lament and to discuss our racial relations.

Today, I find myself weary of humanity’s inability to see injustice but I still persevere in hope. Praying that somewhere and somehow the world’s Martin Niemöllers will show up with their urgent message for us to act on behalf of injustices. I am hopeful that one day we will have a sustainable and just future that encompasses all ethnicities, and genders, as well as housing, employment and affordable healthcare for everyone.

So, when you are facing a crisis that is causing you to stretch your faith, lean in toward greater trust in God. Remember to pray first and then to act. And just know that not everyone is called to be a protester on the street but there are millions of ways you can fight for justice. Finally, I pray you stay open to God’s broadening of your spirit and faith and recognize that each of us can make a difference. Open yourself up to new possibilities.

Remember that it is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

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The Protestant Mainline Goes to Washington http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/11/19/the-protestant-mainline-goes-to-washington/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/11/19/the-protestant-mainline-goes-to-washington/#comments Wed, 19 Nov 2014 17:14:08 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8666

(Getty/LIFE/Paul Schutzer) President Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles arrive at National airport in Washington, DC.

On a Sunday morning this past October, some 1,500 preachers and ministers across the country joined in a nationwide protest they called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. They spoke defiantly from their pulpits about political campaigns and pending legislation. They even endorsed politicians, knowingly violating laws meant to prevent such mixing of church and state. Organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, this group of evangelicals targeted the Johnson Amendment, which forbids tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates and getting involved in campaigns. By violating these rules in an act of civil disobedience, they hoped to trigger a court case to get the amendment overturned. The issue, as they see it, is too much involvement by the government in religious life. The government should not tell Christians how to run their businesses, how to teach their children, or—as the Pulpit Freedom Sunday protesters asserted—how to write their sermons.

These sermons of protest were part of a broader political mobilization among religious institutions in the United States in recent years. The number of “Nones”—those professing no religious affiliation—is on the rise, and a small but vocal group of atheists are challenging Christian displays in public spaces. And the Christian Right appears to be losing the battle on gay rights. In response, many of the leading conservative religious organizations are mobilizing politically while also shifting their strategy. Their new aim is to mark off a part of life that can remain Christian, to protect Christians as a minority that can stand apart from the demands of a national culture they see as being dominated by secularism. The Hobby Lobby case was only the most prominent example of this trend.

On the other hand, a broad swath of American Christians sees things entirely differently. Although they receive far less attention, members of the religious left do not feel besieged by their country. Instead, they are pushing law and politics in the very directions the religious right is resisting. The United Church of Christ filed suit in April 2014 to overturn the prohibition on gay marriage in North Carolina. In the same state, many ministers are participating in the “Moral Monday” campaigns, a movement that is saturated in religious language. And Jim Wallis and Cornel West were arrested last month for protesting police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Although the left differs with the right on cultural policy, both groups see political mobilization as being at the heart of religious thought and practice.

How did politics become so central for religious life? The most familiar story goes something like this: in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and neoliberal Jews agreed to overlook their differences and work together to combat these trends. In the late 1970s, groups like Moral Majority mobilized religious conservatives, who threw their collective weight behind Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement. Emboldened by the rise of the New Right, religious conservatives launched the Culture Wars, which thrust their cultural agenda into the political sphere, leading to the polarization that we live with today.

The political mobilization by evangelicals in the seventies is important. But the moment when politics became inseparable from Protestant life came earlier, in the 1940s, and it came not from the religious right but the religious left.

 

WRITING IN 1950 FOR a small religious journal, two Protestant activists noticed a strange development in the decade that had just passed: Twenty mainline denominations and ecumenical organizations had opened up permanent lobbying offices in Washington, D.C., without much fanfare or notice. These lobbying offices pushed for progressive policies, in line with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Harry Truman’s Fair Deal agendas. One of the authors of the article was Thomas B. Keehn, himself a registered lobbyist for the Congregational-Christian denomination, which today is part of the United Church of Christ. Working from a small office near the Capitol, Keehn was at that very moment lobbying for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, which would ensure access to jobs without racial discrimination, and for the removal of racial quotas from immigration law. The Cold War was beginning and Keehn protested against universal military training. He also pushed for the expansion of Social Security and the creation of a European-style universal healthcare system. Mainline Protestants had pushed for progressive policies in the past but never in such a sophisticated and direct way.

The affinity between Protestantism and progressive politics was well-known in the mid-twentieth century. And the opinions of mainline leaders carried weight. Like today, American Protestantism was largely a two-party system in the 1940s, and it was clear then that the liberal Protestants affiliated with the mainline denominations were winning against their evangelical opponents. Their churches were not growing as fast as evangelical ones but they were being filled with the right kinds of people: America’s middle and upper classes. Virtually every president, senator, big business leader, Supreme Court justice, and university head of that era was a member of one of the mainline denominations. Strangely, the religious representatives of America’s elite, especially those who were responsible for lobbying, were promoting a progressive political agenda.

It was World War II that made this confluence of power and politics possible. Largely forgotten leaders like the Rev. Henry P. Van Dusen believed that “secular” forces caused the war and that only religion could ensure a prosperous and safe postwar world. Van Dusen enlisted John Foster Dulles to coordinate a massive political and publicity campaign to keep America from making the same mistakes it made after World War I, when the country rejected the League of Nations. In the early 1940s, Dulles was working as a lawyer but he also actively advised Republican leaders and the State Department on foreign affairs. Later, he would become secretary of state, after a Republican (Eisenhower) was elected to the presidency in 1952, after 20 years of Democrats in the Oval Office. But even before he assumed a cabinet position, Van Dusen believed that Dulles’ political and religious connections made him the perfect advocate for what became the United Nations.

Dulles was raised in a pious Protestant household. He first got involved with Protestant politics in the 1920s, during the modernist-fundamentalist debates, when he was asked to defend Van Dusen and others in heresy trials for denying parts of the Presbyterian creed, like the virgin birth of Christ. Dulles acted as a lawyer in some of these cases on behalf of the modernist faction. By the 1930s, as the world was heading toward war, he attended international conventions of Protestant and Orthodox churches. The unity of these churches impressed him at a moment when the League of Nations was falling apart. Before the start of World War II, Dulles was already convinced that Protestants would lead the way in creating a new world order.

Once World War II began, Dulles and Van Dusen got to work. In early 1942, they organized a conference in Delaware, Ohio, at which they laid out a 13-point program for world peace. The nearly 400 delegates in Delaware included 15 bishops, seven seminary heads, eight college and university presidents, along with important intellectuals and ecumenical leaders. Fearing that this program would suffer the fate of Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point program, Dulles whittled their plan down to “Six Pillars” the following year. “The peace must provide the political framework for a continuing collaboration of the United Nations,” the first pillar declared. Moral persuasion was not enough to avoid a Third World War: Protestant values needed to be expressed politically.

The Protestant values elaborated by the Six Pillars did not seem especially “Protestant.” They included the creation of international economic treaties, continuously renegotiated political treaties, autonomy for colonial peoples and diminution of racism, control of militaries, and religious liberty. Some of these values, like religious liberty, were longstanding Protestant concerns. Others, like anti-colonialism, had emerged only recently. But the major development was the widespread understanding that all of these values needed to be expressed politically, or else the world would go through war after war without end.

To promote the Six Pillars, Dulles orchestrated the World Order movement. He enlisted members of Congress, along with America’s cultural and economic elite, to go from city to city and implore Americans to support the United Nations on religious grounds. At the same time, denominations used radio programs, sermons, the press, and church curricula to mobilize churchgoers. In total, tens of millions of Protestants participated in one way or another in what became the biggest political mobilization by mainline Protestants since Prohibition. While the grassroots were becoming enthusiastic about the U.N., Dulles kept his eyes on the political sphere. He met with American and world leaders, and attended the 1945 U.N. conference in San Francisco to make sure this organization was being created in line with Protestant principles.

Through the World Order movement Protestant lobbying was born. At a time of widespread enthusiasm for the United Nations, there was little objection to using modern bureaucratic techniques to express religious principles in national and international politics. Mainline leaders wanted to keep watch over legislation affecting the postwar peace process because they believed that Washington politicians might repeat the mistakes of World War I, when the Senate rejected the League of Nations. Offices began popping up on and around Capitol Hill. The Congregationalists opened theirs in 1944, and the Federal Council of Churches office opened during following year. The first religious lobbying offices were often no more than a room in a larger building, with a single person in charge of most of the work. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Northern Baptists crowded together in a building on 11th Street. A secretary or two would help organize some of the day-to-day work for lobbyists like Keehn, the Congregationalist, and an advisory council made up of local leaders met regularly to discuss the latest legislation. When needed, lobbyists could also tap into the broader national network of influential political players, like Dulles. Although they started small, these lobbying offices could be quite effective in Congress.

The organizing was clumsy at first, but over time the Protestant mainline became a sophisticated political animal. Budgets and staffs grew, drawing praise from some and condemnation from others. As early as 1946, one Congregationalist minister protested at a national gathering by carrying a placard that read:

When the overwhelming majority of our Congregational Christians who hold to the free American way of life, find out how their tithes and offers for ‘missions’ are being misused by [the denomination] to maintain a left wing lobby in Washington and to promote state socialism, how are they going to react? Eighty thousand dollars for political action in 1945!

The consequences of Protestant political mobilization during the 1940s transformed both American religion and American politics. Keehn focused on creating an international organization at first but soon switched his attention to other concerns, like ending segregation and fighting poverty. Mainline Protestants were not the only ones who pursued these goals but they were unique because they represented disproportionately a white, wealthy, and Republican constituency. In the short term, they helped create a modicum of bipartisanship on some of the important social questions of the mid-century.

In the long term, however, the “left wing” lobbies split their community. The policies they pursued had alienated some conservative members of the Protestant mainline. At a 1942 meeting in Oxford, Dulles had promoted “something like a ‘new deal’ for the world” to his British colleagues. But by the 1950s, he was telling acquaintances that the National Council of Churches was full of people with “Left Wing and Socialist tendencies.” As mainline leaders moved to the left, they left people like Dulles behind, who found new allies among evangelicals, and later, likeminded Catholic and Jewish conservatives.

 

WHAT WAS THE PROPER relationship between church and state? Could church leaders make policy on their own or did they need the approval of the laity? The architects of these lobbying groups could only plead caution and non-partisanship.

When the Johnson Amendment passed in 1954—the amendment that was the target of the recent Pulpit Freedom Sunday—it was in the context of the political mobilization of mainline Protestants, not evangelicals. That same year, “Under God” had been inserted into the pledge of allegiance and two years later “In God We Trust” would become this country’s national motto. Yet Congress concluded that there ought to be limits to church-based political activity. Political mobilization, voter registration, lobbying, and preaching on controversial subjects was fine. Political partisanship, especially the promotion of specific candidates, was not. Mainline leaders were on board with such caution. Even though vigilant denominational lobbyists kept an eye on the legislation, there was little reaction to the amendment at the time, either from politicians or from religious organizations. At a time when denominations did not clearly align with party goals, the desire to keep these groups nonpartisan was widespread.

The prominence of mainline Protestants has dwindled since their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Their most important institution—the National Council of Churches—has faced funding problems for decades and has recently relocated from its historic home in Manhattan to a cheaper location in Washington, D.C. Yet their move to D.C. was not just a matter of finances: it was also an affirmation of the importance of politics for the National Council. In fact, the current National Council president, James Winkler, was previously the director of the United Methodists’ lobbying group. With a staff of nearly two dozen, Winkler was in charge of “the implementation of the Church’s Social Principles through Capitol Hill advocacy work,” according to the Methodists’ website. Now Winkler works to translate the moral vision of his ecumenical organization into a political force.

Today, segments on both the left and the right insist that they must fulfill their religiously inspired missions in the realm of politics. No simple call for church-state separation is a plausible solution to the challenges that religious political mobilization creates. To ask Protestants to stop getting involved in politics is to ask them to stop fulfilling what they see as a religious injunction. What must be carefully considered, from the perspective of the religious groups who engage in politics and from the perspective of those who are more generally concerned with the relations between religion and government, is if and how this relationship should be regulated.

Gene Zubovich is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. His dissertation, completed in 2014, is titled, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960.”

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After the Midterms, Where Can Congress and Obama Find Consensus? http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/11/12/after-the-midterms-where-can-congress-and-obama-find-consensus/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/11/12/after-the-midterms-where-can-congress-and-obama-find-consensus/#comments Wed, 12 Nov 2014 16:40:45 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8629 (Getty/Pool)

(Getty/Pool)

Abetter-than-expected performance in the recent congressional midterm elections left the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress. Not only did the GOP capture control of the Senate by ousting a slew of Democratic incumbents, Republicans also added to their majority in the House by at least 13 seats. The result is a very divided government, which has already prompted renewed concerns about gridlock. Will the next two years promise to be an unfortunate sequel to the last two in terms of legislative accomplishment?

Some analysts are expressing cautious—albeit perhaps unwarranted—optimism that the new congressional configuration might actually jump-start the legislative process. Carl Hulse at The New York Times noted that Obama and a GOP Congress might find common ground on trade and energy issues, such as the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Even newly minted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once vowed to make Obama a “one-term President,” has promised a productive session. At a recent news conference, he promised to end the “gridlock” and “dysfunction” stifling Washington in recent years.

If our political leaders are serious about identifying areas of common purpose they might consult the public, which both reelected Obama by a significant margin in 2012 and gave him a robust Republican congressional majority to work with two years later. Although recent acrimony among elected leaders might suggest otherwise, there are a number of issues about which the public agrees.

Over the last five years, my colleagues and I at Public Religion Research Institute have found that there is widespread support for increasing the minimum wage to $10-an-hour—a move which consistently garners the approval of roughly 7-in-10 Americans. And although Americans differ sharply by race and class on many economic issues, white college-educated Americans (58 percent) approve of this policy almost as readily as white working-class Americans (66 percent). Meanwhile, black and Hispanic Americans overwhelmingly support a minimum-wage hike.

Any doubts about how the public feels about increasing the minimum wage were answered resoundingly with the passage of ballot initiatives raising state minimum-wage laws in four unlikely places—Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Every state that had minimum wage on the ballot in 2014 saw it succeed, most by fairly wide margins.

Policies that address sick and family leave also engender strong support. Nearly 8-in-10 (78 percent) Americans favor requiring businesses to provide all full-time employees with paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Support is similarly robust for a policy that would require companies to provide all full-time employees with paid sick days (81 percent favor). Regardless of where Americans place themselves on the political spectrum, support remains strong for both policies. Fully 70 percent of Republicans favor paid sick days for full-time workers, compared to 82 percent of political independents and 90 percent of Democrats.

Another area of consensus has emerged around eliminating mandatory minimum sentences—policies that dictate the length of a prison sentence based on the crime and that may lead to long prison stays for non-violent offenses. The issue of mandatory minimums has received increased media attention of late after it found an unlikely advocate in Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Paul has already co-sponsored legislation with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would give judges more discretion to ignore mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in certain cases. But in leading on the issue, neither Paul nor Leahy is advocating a position that would alienate their base supporters. Quite the contrary. Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Americans who are part of the Tea Party movement agree that mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent offenders should be eliminated. Ninety-one percent of liberals also agree. There are few issues that put liberals and Tea Party members on the same side, but eliminating mandatory minimums is one.

Popular accounts of the current cultural and political landscape consistently portray the public as hopelessly divided. Increasing polarization among our legislators is a reflection of the growing divisions in the public. Certainly, policy differences between Democrats and Republicans are real, and recent work has shown that the ideological rift between them is growing. However, media accounts often exaggerate our differences and inflate the volume of disagreement to gin up interest and boost ratings.

As pollsters, we are at times complicit in promoting this narrative by spending an inordinate amount of time cataloguing America’s many fault lines. Few would argue that this is unimportant. It would be impossible to fully understand the increasing diversity and complexity in the U.S. without highlighting the ways we are distinct and unique from one another. But by focusing unrelentingly on our differences, we sometimes fail to identify the issues that unite us. Certainly, when it comes to governing, the reasons we differ and the issues we disagree over are less important than the areas of consensus that we are able to find. It may not appear dramatic or interesting to political observers, but perhaps no issues better define who we are as people or where we are as a country than the issues about which we all basically agree.

Dan Cox is director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute.

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The State of Interfaith Work: An Interview with Welton Gaddy http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/11/04/the-state-of-interfaith-work-an-interview-with-welton-gaddy/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/11/04/the-state-of-interfaith-work-an-interview-with-welton-gaddy/#comments Tue, 04 Nov 2014 13:26:19 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8576 (Courtesy of the Interfaith Alliance) Welton Gaddy

(Courtesy of the Interfaith Alliance) Welton Gaddy

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy might seem like an unlikely champion for interfaith activism and for the separation of church and state. Raised in what he describes as a staunchly conservative Christian household, Gaddy completed his undergraduate education at Union University, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and earned a doctorate from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Gaddy became a prominent member of the SBC’s national leadership, which included a term on the convention’s executive committee (1980-1984).

And yet for Gaddy, it was the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC that launched his career as a leading voice among progressive Christians calling for the inclusion of people of all faiths, and of no faith, in the American political process and against what he calls the “prostitution of religion for the advancement of partisan politics.”

In 1998, Gaddy became the president of Interfaith Alliance, which bills itself as “the only national interfaith organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of both religion and democracy in America.” In 2008, with the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Gaddy co-authored First Freedom: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State. Gaddy also hosts a nationally broadcast weekly radio program, “State of Belief,” and serves as senior pastor at Northminster Church in Monroe, Louisiana.

At the end of 2014, Gaddy will retire from Interfaith Alliance. He recently spoke to R&P about his years as president of Interfaith Alliance, a position that Gaddy describes as having two roles. “The first is to help people to understand that you can be very religious, but you also have to be understanding of people that are different from you. And the second is to teach Americans that the role of the government is not to support one particular religious view, but to give all Americans the right to practice their religion.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. –M.P.M.

R&P: What is the theology behind your interfaith work?

WG: Theology is very important to me as a foundation for ministry and also a foundation that provides the kind of security to think broadly and deeply—and to have the right to change your mind.

You will understand where I’m coming from better if you know that I grew up in a very conservative home. My parents were wiser than they were smart in terms of formal education. But they did understand the importance of love and honesty and trying to apply faith to every dimension of life. My move—a theological move an institutional move away from fundamentalism, personally and institutionally—was grounded in those original values. They weren’t divorced from them.

The further I got into ministry, the more I realized that there was a scarcity of real honesty, within both the church and the government. That was important to me because I understood that religion and government are the two institutions that I consider the most influential in relation to our lives together, whether in a small community or in the global community.

R&P: Your upbringing and formal theological training come out of a tradition that many consider intolerant of other faiths and explicitly and openly engaged in the political process to make the government reflect its particular conservative social values. How has this background affected your own understanding of the proper relationship between church and state?  

WG: I was very fortunate to be at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when we had top-notch scholars that did not want to indoctrinate but instead wanted to educate their students to think for themselves and to come to their own conclusions. But even in that institution, the two issues that, in my opinion, now have to be at the center of theological education were on the periphery.

One is how the individual and the house of worship relate to government. And the second is how we relate, personally and institutionally, to people who are of different religions and people who hold to no particular religion. And so it was imperative for me to come at both of those questions with a level of honesty that made me very uncomfortable sometimes in my thoughts because they were not just different, but were often contradictory to what I had grown up believing.

R&P: You often speak critically of the SBC’s turn to fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s. How did that experience affect your later advocacy for interfaith work and for the separation of church and state?

WG: I was right at the center of leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention when the fundamentalist takeover of that convention started. Much of the change that has taken place in me regarding the theology that I embrace, as well as the theological principles that influence my decision making and actions, grew out of the disappointment that came with what happened in Southern Baptist life.

But then the surprise, the joy of freedom [that I found] in a larger community, changed my mentality and worldview. My work at Interfaith Alliance grew out of that change in theology and the broader vision that showed me that most religious institutions, like other institutions, have their own selfish purposes, and sometimes even divert from their mission in order to preserve the institution.

The realization that the SBC was not going to be my home was directly related to my decision to pastor a congregation that was not within that convention, and to embrace a profession and leadership in an interreligious community. And it was directly related to what I saw happen in the name of religion that wasn’t religious.

R&P: Religion was thus a cover for a political agenda?

WG: Yes, and let me be very specific. The issues of divisiveness in the Southern Baptist Convention were always portrayed as theological issues. In reality, they were issues of politics, power, and economics.

For a long time, there was talk about the inerrancy of the Bible being at the center of the controversy in the SBC. That was a flag under which a power-based, independent, fundamentalist movement worked in order to take over the convention. Not necessarily to make it a new and revived kind of Baptist institution, but to make it an institution that reflected the politics of the leaders of the movement and handed to them the power to try and shape that convention, and ultimately to shape the nation, according to their politics.

I remember one of the first speeches that I gave after coming to D.C. [in the late 1990s] was a presentation to Republicans. I remember saying to them, “the same people that stole my spiritual home in the Southern Baptist Convention are the same people that want to steal this nation and your party.”

Today we’re seeing changes to the nation’s perception of what counts as religious liberty, which is much more about politics than it is about religion.

You know, when I was growing up, if you asked what does it mean to be a Christian, the answer to that was, you believe in Jesus as the revelation of God and commit to following him with devotion in both belief and behavior. Now the measurement of religious authenticity in much of Christianity is not about that confession, but about where you stand on abortion, where you stand on gay marriage, where you stand on the role of women in the church, the method of interpretation you use while studying the scripture, whether or not you believe that members of the GOP community are the people of God, or whether they’re sinners that God looks away from, and whether or not government money should be used to advance religion. Those are the issues now. So, being a Christian—and I’m talking about this because I am a Christian—being a Christian now has a political interpretation of it that I never knew in the simplicity of an earlier stage of my life.

R&P: So these fights over theology in the SBC, for example the inerrancy of the Bible, weren’t about Bible. The Bible became a proxy fight for politics?

WG: That’s exactly right. The fundamentalist movement in the Southern Baptist Convention used the Bible as a tool for organizing a political movement and claiming authority for it. I grew up believing the Bible. I have, from day one until this day, taken the Bible very seriously. My understanding about interpretation of the Bible has changed, but not my respect for the authority of the Bible. I think what has been most helpful in that pilgrimage has been understanding the nature of the literature of any biblical text, which ought to determine the way in which we interpret that text.

In a study of the Bible, you find passages that textually don’t make any sense in relation to the whole sweep of biblical truth. When that happens, you have to measure that text over and against texts that seem to be out of step with others.

Let me just say to you, I have struggled with passages of the Bible. My own changes in thought about race, about homosexuality, about government, all of those changes have come as a result of not only looking carefully at what was around me, but also studying the Bible, which I have always considered an authority.

R&P: So, are there particular passages that you find not to fit into the Bible’s comprehensive truth? Are we talking about Leviticus, for example?

WG: Leviticus is a good illustration. Most people had never read Leviticus until LGBT movement started. Often in speeches to LGBT groups, I thank them because they’ve done more for the popularity of Leviticus than any other group in the history of the world.

But interpretation of Leviticus within the larger context of the biblical message is important. I think the same is true in understanding key passages in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was written in a very specific historical setting, which highly influenced some of the passages that we read. What we have in the fundamentalist mission, the phrase, “No one comes to the father but by me,” on the lips of Jesus, has perpetrated a kind of exclusivism in Christianity that I find without credibility when looking at the ministry of Jesus. One verse does not a Bible make.

We’re seeing right now the danger of “proof-texting” because not only have many people used it to prove Christianity, now proof-texting is used to peddle hate against Islam. This whole controversy about whether or not Islam is a religion of peace is based on people citing out of context various parts of the Qur’an. One Sunday in the church that I pastor, I started a sermon by reading several passages from the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, intermingling with those some verses from the Qur’an. And the people couldn’t tell the difference.

My point is that I respect the authority of sacred scripture, but I also know that sacred scripture has been manipulated to make people comfortable with and even to justify behavior that is anti-biblical in every sense of the word.

R&P: Let’s talk about leadership. You talked recently to Paul Raushenbush on your radio show about the legacy and import of the Social Gospel, with which Paul is intimately familiar. What does it mean to be a religious leader both inside the pulpit and away from it, in the city streets, for example, as the Social Gospelers would teach?

WG: I’ve always liked as a definition for preaching that of Phillips Brooks, “Preaching is truth through personality.” I think there cannot be an inconsistency between what a person says in the pulpit and what a person does in the community. When you get that separation, you have a sense that the faith is not for all of life, but for only part of life, and that’s not, of course, the case.

I found that one of the best decisions and the most freeing decisions that I ever made was when I decided to be the preaching minister in a congregation while at the same time being the leader of a national interreligious agency. I take into the pulpit the great debates that go on in the national and international community as well as what’s happening in our own local community.

R&P: And yet when it comes to politics, at least formally speaking, you believe that there should be a bright, red line?

WG: I do not believe that you can be faithful to the Christian tradition and not be interested in and involved in politics. But, there is a difference between doing partisan politics and what you do in the pulpit and what you do in the community.

Philippians (1:27), it says, “Let your conversation be worthy of the gospel.” The word there is polis, the word from which we get politics. So I try to talk about the politics of the gospel. And the politics of the gospel are all about justice and equality, and breaking down barriers in the community, and seeing to it that people are not hungry, and that we are working for peace. And those are the politics to which I’m called.

But the demarcation has been greatly blurred in the last years of our nation. I do not want any politician telling me what I need to believe or how I need to pray or to what source I should turn for ultimate authority. I don’t trust any politician to tell me that. In my experience, when religion and politics, especially partisan politics, become totally entangled, religion loses. And politics wins.

R&P: Recently, you’ve been particularly critical about how religion has influenced politics, in particular the politics of the Supreme Court. You’ve called the Hobby Lobby decision a “grave error.”

WG: I think that the Hobby Lobby decision was a sea change moment in America’s dedication to religious freedom as historically interpreted in the Constitution. What we’re seeing now is one case after another of individuals or corporations saying that their religious freedom is being denied because they can’t practice something that they’ve been practicing or they can’t refuse to do something that they’ve been refusing to do. This is out of step with the historic interpretations of religious freedom.

R&P: And yet you have not only been critical of the Religious Right’s entanglement with politics.

WG: From day one, I personally, and the agency that I have led, opposed faith-based funding from the government, and certainly a faith-based office in the White House. And my hope was, and it was perhaps an unrealistic hope, that President Obama would simply do away with the faith-based office in the White House.

I’ve done enough testimony in congressional hearings with people who worked in the Bush Administration and otherwise to know that there is widespread support to do away with the faith-based initiative. This is the kind of hope that Obama gave us with his initial run for the presidency that has not come to fruition. And so we now have a very confused situation that has worsened the entanglement of religion and government.

We now have government funding religious ministries and, at the same time, we have religious organizations lobbying the government successfully to be exempt from regulations that were born out of religious freedom concerns. That’s one of the sea changes that got us to Hobby Lobby.

R&P: So when you say government funding of religious ministries, do you mean, for example, drug and alcohol facilities that are explicitly faith-based?

WG: I’m talking about what most houses of worship would call social ministries. And they could be related to a drug rehab program or they could be a children’s education program like Head Start.

Here’s the rub. I am for all of those programs. I want to see to it that organizations that work on feeding hungry people have the money they need to do that ministry. But I don’t want any of it done in a way that compromises the integrity of religion or further entangles religion and government to the point that the government has a reason and claims a right to intrude on the religious house of worship or organization involved.

And that’s what we’ve seen. As early as I can remember, in my Baptist tradition, we said government regulations follow government dollars. That’s exactly what happens. The faith-based office, especially during the Bush Administration, became a political tool. It was always interesting to see that some of the biggest grants from the faith-based office went to some of the most politically close districts in election years. We’re not naïve enough to think that there weren’t politics in that.

R&P: One of the things that struck me listening to your radio show is that you highlight a very pluralistic religious calendar, from Jains to Jews to Orthodox Christians to evangelicals to Catholics. What purpose does highlighting this diversity serve?

WG: For one thing, it is a decision rooted in my approach to Christianity. I view Christianity as a religion of respect and reconciliation and a religion that points towards cooperation for the common good. Secondly, I’m aware that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world. And I am convinced that the religious vibrancy in our nation stems from the religious liberty clauses in the Constitution that brings respect for all religions. I want listeners of “State of Belief” to know that we can’t exclude anybody from the religious groups in our nation. And we have an obligation to know something about them and to give them at least respect to do what they do. And one small way to do that is to know what’s going on in various religious communities across the country on any given day.

R&P: I’d like to raise a question of a different kind of diversity, that is of the inclusion of LGBTQ folks in American politics, in American culture, and especially in American houses of worship—efforts that you have championed. Take the rainbow flag: For many, seeing that flag flying on a church door is a sign of inclusivity. But for folks who are honestly grappling with the question of marriage, it could feel like a sign that they aren’t welcome. Does the Religious Left need to be careful about the limits of its own inclusivity?

WG: That’s a great question. And it’s one that I appreciate because as a minister, this question has been a source of controversy for me because of my position on LGBT issues.

If you look at the church where I’ve been for 22 years now, you will not see a rainbow flag. And my strong conviction is that it is a redundancy to have to prove that a church is inclusive. I think we have to start with the assumption that a church is inclusive, so the people that come to that church come with interest in being recipients of ministry. I would no more ask a person wanting to become a member of our church if they were gay or straight than I would if they were a Democrat or a Republican or if they were affluent or poverty-stricken. The church is for persons.

This is relevant to what you’re saying. I have always argued against the idea that Interfaith Alliance be considered a part of the Religious Left, in opposition to the Religious Right. The things that are wrong with the Religious Right remain wrong if they are done in the same way by the Religious Left. What I’m interested in is an open-minded approach to religion that is willing to embrace distinctions within various congregations without those distinctions becoming barriers for cooperation.

Let me talk specifically then about marriage. Marriage is one of those issues in which neither the leaders [on the left or right] of the government have been as honest as they out to be. The same is true for many religious leaders. Marriage is, in the United States, like it or not, a civil issue. It is a religious issue for a lot of people, but marriage is totally a governmental issue. I cannot perform a wedding ceremony that’s recognized by the state unless I get a license from the government. And so if marriage is a governmental issue as it is, then every person in this government ought to have the same rights.

I remember when we were dealing with the hate crimes bill, and I had lots of calls from people about [Interfaith Alliance] supporting the hate crimes bill. I remember the day the vote was taking place, and a guy called me, and he was just outraged, and I said: “Listen. This bill will not affect your right to hate. You still have it. They can’t take it away from you. You just can’t go into your pulpit and preach a message based on hate that would cause someone to want to go out and kill someone they disagreed with.” And it’s the same thing that I say to people who get so upset about same-gender marriage. That is a civil rights’ issue. If we’re not going to give the same rights to every citizen in the nation across the board, then we’re not being true to our Constitution.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t still preach against that kind of marriage, if you want to do it. That’s your prerogative. But the prerogative that you claim for your pulpit, you can’t enforce on the nation. That’s the way I’ve come at that, and I understand there’s differences in opinion on it, as you would expect there would be. But we’re a nation that can manage differences of opinions, and we can still work together on our democracy.

R&P: Can politicians learn anything from the model of civility and respect that you and other interfaith leaders foster?

WG: One of the great joys of this job at Interfaith Alliance was getting to know Walter Cronkite and getting to be one his close friends. And I remember one day Walter and I were talking about the low levels of trust in Congress, when they hit under 10 percent of people trusting them. I said what do you think should be done about that, and he said, “Well, it would help if they would just tell the truth.”

Now, I go back to that because I still believe that is essential. You cannot tell me that the partisan votes on issue after issue actually represent the opinions of every member of Congress. I want to elect people to office who will tell us what their values are and then be honest about how they apply them.

Sure, they can learn something important by looking at the interreligious community, but they have also got to get off the high horse of thinking that every political decision is also a moral, religious decision. That’s what’s caused the hard-lining on both sides of the aisle. Unless we can return to the basic definition of politics, which is the art of governing, and work on that art without bias and without prejudice and with honesty, knowing that compromise is the way forward, then the gridlock will not stop. I think there’s more to be learned about our historic, American tradition than there is to be looking at the interreligious model.

R&P: I know that you have to run and we’ve gone well over our allotted time. I thank you, sir.

WG: You’re welcome.

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A Theme Park, a Scandal, and the Faded Ruins of a Televangelism Empire http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/28/a-theme-park-a-scandal-and-the-faded-ruins-of-a-televangelism-empire/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/28/a-theme-park-a-scandal-and-the-faded-ruins-of-a-televangelism-empire/#comments Tue, 28 Oct 2014 17:28:56 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8586 (AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, Diedra Laird) An abandoned site at what was the Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina

(AP Photo/The Charlotte Observer, Diedra Laird) An abandoned site at what was the Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina

If you happen to find yourself on I-77 just south of Charlotte, North Carolina, consider a detour to the crumbling ruins of what used to be the third-most-visited theme park in the United States. Heritage USA was founded in the late 1970s by Pentecostal superstars Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker as part of their ministry, PTL (Praise the Lord, or People that Love). Conceived and built during the rise of the modern religious right, Heritage USA combined the Bakkers’ growing televangelism empire with theme-park hedonism, offering an immersive experience in the sights, sounds, and practices of American conservative evangelicalism.

In its heyday, the “Inspirational Park for the Whole Family” boasted something for everybody. A miniature train carried visitors around the main campus, where activities included tennis, horseback riding, and swimming. In 1986, the Bakkers added a $12-million waterpark that included the world’s largest wave pool and a 52-foot waterslide. Heritage USA also included an extensive campground and R.V. park, timeshares, mid-range and luxury hotels, and even condominiums for PTL supporters—mainly retirees—who wanted to live near the ministry’s headquarters year-round.

Heritage USA’s size made it remarkable—spanning approximately 2,300 acres, it was more than 10 times larger than Disneyland in California and nearly 20 times larger than Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. But size was not the main feature that set Heritage USA apart from its secular rivals. This getaway spot was intended to be, as one park map put it: “A Special Place for God’s People.” Included among its other attractions were Billy Graham’s boyhood home, a shop that replicated the experience of shopping in a Jerusalem marketplace, and a passion play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, with the aid of light-show special effects.

Another major draw was the park’s life-size version of the Upper Room, which Christians believe was the site of both the Last Supper and the Pentecost (when the early disciples first received the Holy Spirit and found themselves able to speak in many tongues). Like the Jerusalem shop, the Upper Room offered a curated version of the Holy Land for Christians unable to or uninterested in travelling to the Middle East. In fact, Jim Bakker expressed his hope in 1986 that the park would one day include a “full-scale replica of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Jesus.”

But these attractions weren’t intended to be mere facsimiles. In promotional literature and on their television programs, the Bakkers described the Upper Room as a pilgrimage site in itself. They shared the testimonials of people who had received spiritual and even physical healing by praying in the Upper Room, or even by having someone else pray for them there. “Michelle was unable to afford a lengthy hospital stay,” one report began, but luckily she “knew of a physician who worked for free and was on call 24 hours a day.” Prayer in the Upper Room reportedly healed Michelle’s foot; it also saved people “from the brink of suicide” and “delivered [a man] from the practice of witchcraft” one Halloween night. The room was open and staffed by PTL pastors 24 hours a day. And for those unable to visit in person, the lower level housed PTL’s International Prayer Phone Center, where volunteers answered calls and prayed for believers around the clock. Within a year of opening, the Upper Room had its own show on the PTL television network that invited viewers to call in to share their prayer requests and testimonies. In this way, the Bakkers’ theme park and their media enterprise readily supported one another. The Upper Room provided content for PTL’s television programming, and PTL broadcasts advertised the Upper Room to potential visitors.

Heritage USA—as a part of the Bakkers’ broader ministry—offered visitors a very specific brand of Christian devotion and spectacle. During the 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were among the most prominent examples of a reinvigorated prosperity gospel. (Interested readers should pick up a copy of Kate Bowler’s book Blessed for an in-depth analysis of this fascinating movement). Often derided as “health and wealth” theology, prosperity gospel ran through the Bakkers’ ministry, from their promises of divine healing to their own conspicuous consumption and flashy lifestyles. During a historical moment in which more and more Pentecostal believers were climbing into the middle class, the over-the-top experience of Heritage USA helped to reinforce the message of a new Pentecostalism. Far from banning makeup, soda, and leisure activities as their forebears had, this new generation embraced some measure of self-indulgence and they gave it Christian outlets, including a theme park. The Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper published for visitors to the park, emphasized earthly pleasures like dining and shopping alongside testimonials about spiritual healing and renewal.

Believers who chose to vacation or even to live at the park were drawn in part by the opportunity to become a part of the Bakkers’ world. Guests were almost certain to be able to see the Bakkers in person by attending any number of live tapings throughout the day. By the mid-1980s, the PTL Satellite Network was broadcasting 24 hours a day. Many programs—from talk and variety shows to televised church services and Bible studies—required studio audiences, which were made up of Heritage USA visitors and residents. A visit to Heritage USA offered fans the opportunity to become a very real part of the shows that they were accustomed to watching at home.

The Heritage USA campus was also home to several of PTL’s other ministries, including Bible study retreats and Christian counseling services that were open to visitors. Supporters who had donated to any (or many) of PTL’s ongoing fund-drives could benefit from these services, but they could also come to see their money at work and to be reassured that their dollars were doing good. Park guests were also encouraged to spend part of their vacation time volunteering for the ministry in order to help “save the ministry thousands of dollars a year which can then be spent on other PTL ventures such as world missions.” And for those who wanted a more direct return on their investment in the ministry, PTL “lifetime partnerships” (offered for donations of $1,000 or more) promised three free nights annually at the Heritage Grand Hotel.

As much as Heritage USA offered a specific version of Christianity, it also demonstrated a particular vision for America, intertwining Christian and patriotic themes to the point that they were inseparable. Though Heritage USA was a centrally religious venture, its name did not directly evoke religion or even the PTL ministry. Instead, it called out to the nation and its past. The park itself was a pastiche of iconic Americana, from “Fort Heritage” to a stylized “Main Street” lined with pastel restaurants and old-timey shops, including Susie’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Noah’s Ark Toy Shoppe, and a “General Store.”

These features were not unique to this park—consider, for example, the Magic Kingdom’s “Frontierland” and “Main Street, USA”—but their inclusion in a religious theme park should not be taken for granted. Heritage USA exhibited a particular fusion of religious and national symbols that was becoming widespread in conservative Protestant theologies at the time, even within ministries that did not make political activism a central concern. Appeals to an idealized American past relied on the same assumptions about national decline that were fundamental to the religious right, and places like Heritage USA demonstrated what the nation could be if it returned to its moral, Protestant roots. It is not surprising, then, that the Heritage Passion Play had its opening day on July 4, 1984—one facet of the park’s annual Independence Day celebrations that year.

Less than three years later, a scandal broke that would spell the beginning of the end for PTL and Heritage USA. In March of 1987, The Charlotte Observer was finally able prove the persistent rumors that Jim Bakker had had a sexual liaison with a young woman named Jessica Hahn seven years earlier. More than that, he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in PTL funds to buy Hahn’s silence during the intervening time. On March 19, the Bakkers stepped back from PTL and bestowed interim leadership to Jerry Falwell. Once at the helm, Falwell fanned the flames of controversy. Working with other prominent evangelists, he opened a broader inquiry into moral and financial misdeeds within PTL and added new allegations to a rapidly growing list.

In 1988, following a 16-month federal investigation, Jim Bakker was indicted on a total of twenty-four charges related to the ministry’s financial dealings, including 15 counts of wire fraud, eight counts of mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 45 years in prison, though he ultimately served a little more than five years.

While the scandal captivated national and international media attention, Heritage USA became emblematic of the excesses of contemporary television ministers. For detractors, the park’s amenities stood alongside the Bakkers’ mansions and air-conditioned doghouse as evidence that their focus had never really been on God, but on money. One of the most iconic images of the Bakkers’ ouster from PTL was the widely published photograph of Jerry Falwell zooming down the park’s enormous waterslide, fully dressed in a business suit and tie.

The park’s financing was also central in the federal case against Jim. Internal memos revealed that although the ministry had raised more than double the money needed for a new hotel called Heritage Towers, the hotel had not been completed, and more money was still being solicited. Money donated specifically to Heritage USA had been diverted to other things, including high salaries and generous bonuses for the Bakkers and PTL board members. The ministry had also sold so many lifetime partnerships that if every eligible person claimed his or her three free nights at Heritage USA, the park would not have been able to accommodate them all.

In the decades since the PTL scandal, the Heritage USA property has been at the center of several legal battles and failed plans. In 1988, the new executives at PTL hoped that Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn would buy the land to build a new professional sports complex. When that deal fell through, the Bakkers bid $165 million on the property but missed a critical deposit deadline and lost the opportunity to continue negotiations. Other potential buyers emerged during that year, but each of them also failed to meet the conditions of sale.

In 1991, the Pentecostal evangelist Morris Cerullo bought the property and attempted to reinvigorate both the Christian theme park and the televangelical network, but a disagreement between Cerullo and his investors eventually led to Cerullo’s ouster from the venture. A secular iteration of the resort run by Radisson Hotels was ultimately unsuccessful.

To see what remains of the park today, interested explorers can take exit 90 off I-77 in South Carolina. Driving southeast on Carrowinds Boulevard for a mile, you will pass subdivisions and townhouses that have sprouted up on much of Heritage USA’s former 2,300 acres, courtesy of a local real estate developer. Pass by the refurbished golf course and stop a moment to notice the brass-capped pyramid that once held PTL’s main offices as well as the PTL World Outreach Center. It is now the U.S. headquarters of Welsh textile company Laura Ashley, a fully owned subsidiary of the Malaysian MUI Group.

You will eventually come to a crumbling parking lot, with the still-unfinished Heritage Grand Towers ahead of you and the remains of Heritage USA on your left, bordered by a chain-link fence and overgrown with weeds. If you peer through the fence, you can see the lake that sat at the center of the park and you can make out the island on which the Heritage USA waterpark stood. You are unfortunately too late to see the fiberglass “King’s Castle” that had become emblematic of the park’s excesses. Intended by Jim Bakker to be the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, it was eventually repurposed as a go-cart track but was demolished last year.

Across the parking lot and behind the Towers, in the building that was once the Heritage Grand Hotel, you will find a burgeoning evangelical ministry that in some ways resembles the vision of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Rick and Julie Joyner founded MorningStar Ministries in 1985 and began buying former Heritage USA properties in 2004. What was once the Heritage Grand Hotel is now the headquarters of their sizeable ministry, which includes regular church services as well as conferences and retreats, a K-12 school and a university, an online television broadcast, and targeted ministries for men, women, youth, and children as well as those interested in particular spiritual gifts including healing and prophesy. The Joyners are currently involved in a legal battle over the right to finish and restore the Heritage Grand Towers. But while they envision a Christian retirement community adjacent to the MorningStar church, many in the Fort Mill area are desperate to see the deteriorating towers torn down.

The Joyners are not the only ones to have reclaimed pieces of the park for evangelical purposes. In late 2010, local Christian concert promoter Russell James reopened the Upper Room, which is once again staffed by volunteers and open for prayer on weekends. The Billy Graham boyhood home is now a part of the Billy Graham Library site in Fort Mill, which also houses museum exhibits, “Ruth’s Attic Bookstore,” and the “Graham Brothers Dairy Bar.”

Tammy Faye Bakker died in 2007, but Jim Bakker now leads a new televangelist ministry based in Branson, Missouri. That town has become a center of kitschy Christian tourism in itself (explored in-depth in Aaron K. Ketchell’s Holy Hills of the Ozarks), and a powerful reminder that the spirit of religious tourism is alive and well in the United States. Indeed, even if you don’t find yourself driving down I-77, just south of Charlotte, chances are you’re not far away from a vacation spot brimming with religious sights. Heritage USA did not survive, but its ruins are a persistent reminder of an important era in American religious history—and of the ways in which the country’s landscape is marked by the legacies of this changing but still-popular brand of Christian Americana.

Emily Johnson is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Tennessee. She recently completed her doctorate in history at Yale University, where she wrote a dissertation entitled “Activists, Authors, Apostles: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right.”

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Atheists in Foxholes: The Military Chaplaincy’s Humanist Problem http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/21/atheists-in-foxholes-the-military-chaplaincys-humanist-problem/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/21/atheists-in-foxholes-the-military-chaplaincys-humanist-problem/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 15:11:47 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8547 (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) U.S. Navy Chaplain Father Bill Devine holds Mass for Marines in Baghdad in 2003.

(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) U.S. Navy Chaplain Father Bill Devine holds Mass for Marines in Baghdad in 2003.

Do American military chaplains need to believe in God? Or, as the Navy Times once asked, “Who supports the atheists in the military?” These questions attracted renewed attention this year after the Army formally recognized humanism as a religious preference for soldiers in April, and the Navy rejected the application of a humanist chaplain to join its ranks in June. The issue of how to meet the needs of non-theists in the military is neither new nor incidental. Rather, “who supports the atheists” is a question that has vexed the military for the better part of a century, as the U.S. tries to determine how to best serve a religiously diverse population.

More recently, a growing percentage of the military population has identified as non-theist. A 2012 Pentagon survey found more than 13,000 atheist or agnostic personnel, along with 276,000 troops (nearly a fourth of all personnel) who claimed no religious preference—a proportion of whom may also be non-theist. Since 1993, the chaplaincy has welcomed Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist chaplains, but Christians still comprise more than 90 percent of the current chaplain corps. For humanists, atheists, and their allies, the absence of any representative leaders within the chaplaincy remains a significant problem as it leaves them without any official support.

The military chaplaincy is as old as the nation itself, but its recognition of and commitment to ecumenism and pluralism developed slowly over the twentieth century. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, only mainline Protestants and Catholics served as military clergy. Six months—and a successful lobbying effort—later, Congress formally opened the chaplaincy to Christian Scientists, the Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Mormons, and the Salvation Army. Military demobilization after the war ended may have thwarted this tentative step toward a more religiously inclusive military, for only a small percentage of chaplains remained in the peacetime armed forces. The 1920 National Defense Act granted the chaplaincy organizational autonomy and permanent leadership in the form of a Chief of Chaplains. Buoyed by positive feedback about interfaith cooperation in the midst of war, the chaplaincy embarked on an expansive effort to define and refine its work in times of peace.

In 1926, the Army convened an array of military, civilian, religious, and lay leaders for a “Pan-Denominational Conference” on the moral welfare of soldiers. The invitation list was extensive, spanning numerous denominations, crossing the color-line, and bridging political differences. But one group was explicitly not invited: the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (AAAA).

Feeling spurned, the AAAA lodged a complaint with the secretary of war, who saw little merit in their plea. Without a commitment to the paired mission of God and country, atheists seemed to fall outside the chaplaincy and the conference’s ecumenical rubric. Then again, the AAAA’s concurrent effort to sue the military for breaching the First Amendment’s establishment clause by paying chaplains presumably didn’t help their cause.

During the interwar years, atheists couldn’t shake this antagonistic relationship. By the late 1930s, critics lambasted atheists as a threat to American ideals and to the country’s preparedness for war. Opponents lumped together atheists and pacifists (a rather odd pairing, given the deep religious roots of many pacifist groups in the 1930s). They perceived atheists as agitators rather than interlocutors. Irreligion and unbelief imperiled the nation, as the imagined atheist-pacifist threat menaced religious patriots and loyal soldiers alike.

During World War II, as chaplains surveyed the religious preferences of their units, some acknowledged the presence of atheists among enlisted men and officers—not as dangers, but as an unremarkable, if tiny, presence. Moreover, when the military desperately needed more chaplains to serve its rapidly swelling ranks, the Humanist Society of Friends (the predecessor group to today’s Humanist Society) offered their services. A nontheistic division of Quakers who had split off from their theistic, pacifist counterparts, these humanists strove to meet their patriotic obligations as non-combatant chaplains. The Army chaplaincy again resisted, declining to take up the humanist offer.

But this time the refusal was different. Unlike the 1920s rebuff, lack of belief did not propel the War Department’s response. Instead, insufficient numbers did. Army policy dictated that chaplains were allocated to groups with a minimum of 100,000 adherents according to the 1936 Census of Religious Bodies. The Humanist Society of Friends—like a number of fundamentalist Christian churches who also volunteered their ministers—failed to reach the necessary threshold.

Demographics have long played an important but inconsistent role in determining how to apportion chaplains. For almost 50 years, from World War II until 1988, the military used a quota system intended to reflect the religious composition of American society. On the one hand, this policy enabled some minority religious groups, like Jews, Christian Scientists, and Mormons, to establish a foothold in military chaplaincy. On the other hand, numbers could be dismissed. When Japanese-Americans petitioned for Buddhist chaplains during World War II, the Army conducted a half-hearted search that concluded when Christian chaplains assured military leaders they could do the job. The Buddhist experience is telling because it highlights how the absence of even a single religious representative eliminates an internal voice of expertise about the actual, rather than perceived, needs of a faith.

The Cold War continued the specter of atheism as dangerous and atheists as potentially disloyal. But the 1950s also offered non-theist American soldiers a glimmer of hope. For the first time, men could use their dog tags to announce they were not Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Initially, non-theists, like their religiously excluded counterparts—such as the Eastern Orthodox or Buddhists—acquired the abbreviation of “X” for “Other” or “Y” for “no statement” to signify they stood apart from the nation’s dominant tri-faith religious configuration. By the early 1960s, all Americans could write out their religious preference—in 18 letters or less. Atheist or humanist would fit, although regulations did not highlight these options.

In 1969, a landmark court case heightened awareness of non-theists and the military—but through resistance to military service, rather than through participation in it. In Welsh v. U.S., a plurality of the Supreme Court ruled that conscientious objection to war need not be rooted in religious belief. Rather, moral and ethical convictions, so long as they were not “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical” views could earn conscripts exemption from the reach of the draft.

Although the Welsh decision enabled non-theists to stay out of the armed forces, it did little to aid those who wore the uniform. Michael Dean Hagen, an atheist Naval corpsman, acutely felt the exclusion of services for men like him and launched a concerted effort to bring atheist leaders into military space. Being lumped together with “various indecisive Christians, apathetic individuals and agnostics” in the “no religious preference” category bothered him because, he stated, “I do have a preference. I don’t believe in God.”

In 1979, the petty officer proposed the creation of an Armed Forces Atheist Council. Backed by several other Naval personnel and civilian supporters, Hagen asserted that the group would “provide unparalleled opportunity for non-theist oriented military personnel to find and create more meaning in their lives.” To do so, it would serve as a clearinghouse for material “recommended by various national atheist groups” as well as organizations such as the American Humanist Association. It would also unite non-theists in fellowship and provide non-spiritual pastoral counseling to those in need. Its mission would be educational as well, providing information to those personnel who self-identify as “other” or “no religious preference” because they were unaware of the full array of options and ease the way for those “frightened by the traditional social stigma.”

Hagen and the chaplaincy regarded one another with wariness. The non-believers wanted an atheist alternative to the religious chaplaincy because, like some current non-theist personnel, they found it difficult to relate to “Judeo-Christian indoctrinated clergy.” The military acceded to the view of “a basic incompatibility between the military chaplaincy and the envisioned Armed Forces Atheistic Council” because the former emphasized a belief in God and the latter disbelief. Dismissing atheism as mere “philosophy,” the Department of Defense denied the application to create an atheist council.

Still, Hagen had some support from within the service. Unitarian Universalist Navy Chaplain Jim M. Bank cautioned that the Hagen’s efforts highlighted the failure of the military chaplaincy to do its job. The military’s “commitment to religious pluralism” worked only when “all chaplains help all people” and “aid them in achieving religious wholeness as they—not we—see it.” Prospective Muslim or Buddhist chaplains, he remarked, could not be commissioned if they didn’t aid Christians or Jews. Why, then, would humanist or atheist chaplains be any different? Just as religious chaplains needed to find ways to reach non-religious personnel, he insisted, so too would non-theist chaplains need to serve religious personnel.

Civilian Unitarian Universalist clergy, whose congregations and pastoral leadership often included atheists, agnostics, and humanists, also advocated for the appointment of a Humanist chaplain. In Sacramento, the Rev. Theodore A. Webb explained that definitions of religion vary widely, and the decision to exclude atheists and humanists as non-religious was just “a statement of opinion.” He warned that legal trouble lay ahead.

While Webb did not articulate the legal problem, the Welsh plurality opinion had, in fact, implicitly disclosed the crux of the problem non-theists posed to the chaplaincy—and the issue that continues to bedevil the military today. The five votes that earned Elliot Welsh conscientious objector status in 1969 arose from two very different lines of reasoning. On the one hand, four justices led by Hugo Black saw non-religious belief as functionally equivalent to religious belief, and thus warranted the same accommodations. On the other hand, Justice Harlan argued that religious and non-religious belief were distinct but nevertheless required equal and non-preferential treatment. Meanwhile, the 3-justice dissent saw Welsh as non-religious and thus standing outside First Amendment protection.

These positions—that non-belief and belief are equal and deserve comparable treatment, that they are unequal but merit comparable treatment, or that they are unequal and don’t need comparable treatment—reflect the arguments made in current debates about whether the military ought to employ humanist chaplains and/or make space for atheist events.

Jason Torpy, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, serves as president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. In an interview with The New York Times, Torpy argued, “Humanism fills the same role for atheists that Christianity does for Christians and Judaism does for Jews. It answers questions of ultimate concern; it directs our values.” In contrast, Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who introduced legislation to forbid the Department of Defense from appointing humanist chaplains, asserted in a statement, “The notion of an atheist chaplain is nonsensical; it’s an oxymoron.” Despite the chasm between their views, Fleming and Torpy agree on one thing: that all chaplains must serve all personnel. For Fleming, this means there is no need for a non-theist chaplain because what he deems a “true chaplain” will provide adequate coverage for atheists, while for Torpy, the commitment to serve all means that a humanist chaplain is just as capable of organizing a Catholic service as any other non-Catholic chaplain is.

When a reporter from Religion News Service recently asked the Department of Defense why there are no non-theist chaplains, a DOD spokesman said the department “does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization, and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.” This position ducks answering the question posed by the Navy Times in 1979—“who supports the atheists in the military”—by failing to address exactly how the military understands atheism. Is atheism, per the Welsh rubric, functionally equivalent to religion? Is it distinct but sufficiently like religion? Or, is atheism not at all like religion?

If there seems to be a stalemate about how to respond to the prospect of humanist and atheist chaplains, it’s because there is. But it’s clear that the experience of atheists and humanists in the military follows historic patterns of resistance and accommodation experienced by other minority and marginalized groups. And, unlike in previous eras, there is a significant and growing population of non-theists in the armed forces. Whether the chaplaincy extends its mottos of “unity without uniformity” and “cooperation without compromise” to include non-believers remains to be seen.

Ronit Y. Stahl is a postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Meet Chad Connelly, the Republican Party’s Faith Ambassador http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/14/meet-chad-connelly-the-republican-partys-faith-ambassador/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/14/meet-chad-connelly-the-republican-partys-faith-ambassador/#comments Tue, 14 Oct 2014 15:40:08 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8515 On left, Chad Connelly prays on the floor of the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Getty/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

(Getty/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) On left, Chad Connelly prays on the floor of the 2012 Republican National Convention.

On a Thursday morning in early September, a handful of Louisiana pastors gathered at a Baptist church on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain to meet with Chad Connelly, the GOP’s first-ever director of faith engagement. The former head of the South Carolina Republican Party, Connelly was tapped by the Republican National Committee (RNC) in June of last year to be the party’s new religious ambassador. His job is to travel the country with a sales pitch, of sorts. “I’m there to tell them that voting isn’t political, it’s spiritual,” he says. “I ask them to preach biblical values from the pulpit so the people in the pews can go vote those values.”

In Louisiana, where I reached him by phone, Connelly was juggling both a long and a short game. His immediate task was to urge pastors to shepherd their flocks to the polls in the upcoming midterm election, when incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu faces a challenge from a Republican congressman, Bill Cassidy. Over the past few months, Connelly says he’s brought the GOP Faith initiative’s message to 29 states, but competitive Senate races merit extra attention; the September trip was Connelly’s sixth visit to the Pelican State. But he’s also sowing seeds for the 2016 presidential election by assuring religious leaders—primarily evangelical Christian pastors—that the GOP isn’t taking their support for granted.

The Southern Baptist Connelly insists that large numbers of Christian voters are politically unengaged—either unregistered or so disillusioned with the GOP that they don’t see a point in going to the polls on election day. His strategy is top-down: he’s asking pastors to tell churchgoers that political participation is a spiritual matter. “If we can get those people to vote their values, that’s a game-changer,” he says. “That’s why I ask pastors to host voter registration drives, and to start voicing their political concerns from the pulpit.”

The GOP Faith initiative, a nine-person team led by Connelly, was born out of the Republican introspection that followed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential defeat. The exit polls painted a bleak picture for Republican strategists: Barack Obama won thanks to a young and diverse coalition, while Romney’s supporters were older and far more racially homogenous. A 2013 RNC report dedicated to revamping the GOP’s strategy warned that Republicans “have comfortably remained the party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next.” The bulk of its recommendations had to do with engaging voters of color, low-income voters, young voters, and women. Yet in the report, religious voters’ concerns were barely a footnote. The idea of an outreach director for religious groups within the Republican Party appeared almost in passing, on page 79 of the 100-page document.

Still, Connelly came on board four months later. Even amid the wider demographic realities, he believes reassuring values voters, long a dependable pillar of the GOP base, is crucial. “We’ve been so focused on getting our message out to new folks that we’ve forgotten to engage with people of faith, who are really the bedrock of our party,” Connelly says. By meeting with pastors, he’s hoping to breathe new political vigor into a group that—he says—is increasingly marginalized in American public life. “I talk to so many of these religious leaders who say, we feel neglected, we don’t know what we can preach, and we don’t know if it’ll matter,” he says. “So they’re not telling Christians to go vote Biblical values in the way that they used to. I want to change that.”

 

THE GOP FAITH PROJECT isn’t reinventing the wheel. Ties between evangelical Protestant religious leaders and the Republican Party are long and deep, stretching back three decades to the 1980 election, when evangelical mobilization helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House. The difference is that now the GOP is taking responsibility for maintaining this storied relationship, rather than relying on independent evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family or the Christian Coalition.

The GOP’s decision to step into this role could mean one of two things. The Christian Right’s influence has been on the wane in Washington over the past few years, and the decision to task a Republican party operative with outreach to pastors could be a sign that the GOP no longer trusts evangelical leaders to do this work on their own. But it could also signal that the party is worried about losing touch with its evangelical base. The GOP Faith outreach initiative’s goals are, on one level, rhetorical—maintaining the status quo by reassuring evangelical Christians that they remain integral to the party’s future. Connelly’s second aim—marshaling truly disengaged GOP supporters into voting booths in November—will be more of a challenge.

There is little evidence that the evangelical voters who make up the party’s base are deliberately sitting out elections. Questions about whether conservative Christians would withhold their votes first emerged in 2008, when John McCain, a longtime critic of the Christian Right, received the Republican presidential nomination. Similar concerns resurfaced in 2012 with the rise of Mitt Romney, a Mormon, as the GOP frontrunner.

Despite their purported reservations, evangelicals turned out in large numbers in both elections. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of white evangelical Protestants voted for McCain in 2008, and almost 79 percent of white evangelicals cast their vote for Romney—the same margin of support that George W. Bush received in 2004. Moreover, white evangelicals’ share of the electorate remained constant at 21-23 percent. According to a September poll from the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants identify with the Republican Party, a number that hasn’t budged since 2008. “This is not a group that’s tuned out politically,” says Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “And most of their support goes to the Republican Party.”

Convincing unengaged white evangelicals to get involved in the political process will be a harder sell. Corwin Smidt, a professor of political science at Calvin College, says that a slice of every demographic group is composed of people who simply aren’t interested in politics, and evangelicals are no exception. White evangelical Protestants turn out at roughly the same rates as other groups. In the past three presidential cycles, nearly 75 percent of white evangelical adults reported that they voted. In Smidt’s view, it will take more than a pastoral plea to get the remaining 25 percent involved—at least, in numbers that could swing an election. “I think it’s a strategy that could work on the margins, maybe in a close Senate race where you need to mobilize a few thousand extra people,” he says. “But in something like a presidential race, I just don’t see white evangelicals voting at a significantly higher level. Let’s just say it’s not low-hanging fruit.”

If white evangelicals show no sign of straying, the growing diversity of evangelical Christianity provides both an opportunity and a challenge for Republican strategists like Connelly. Latinos—a traditionally Catholic constituency—are increasingly identifying as Protestants, with a sizeable number claiming the mantle of “born-again” or evangelical Christians. “Evangelicalism is becoming less white and southern, more ethnically diverse and urban,” says Brian Steensland, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. “I think with this mobilization effort, Republicans are reading the tea leaves and trying to engage with a more diverse base of evangelicals.”

Latino Protestants tend to side with the GOP on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but they don’t reliably support Republican candidates, nor do they turn out as reliably as white evangelical Protestants. In 2004, 54 percent of Latino Protestants cast their votes for George W. Bush, but majorities swung back to the Democratic candidate, Obama, in 2008 and 2012. There’s certainly room for GOP outreach among this constituency: According to a new survey (which I consulted on) from the Public Religion Research Institute, half of Hispanic Protestants say they did not vote in the 2012 election.

But an appeal to traditional culture war issues isn’t a guarantee of success. In the same survey, 30 percent of Hispanic Protestants reported that the most important issue for their 2014 vote was immigration, while fewer than 1-in-10 said the same of same-sex marriage or abortion. “I can’t see the Republicans picking up large numbers of Latino Protestants without making a serious effort to reform their stance on immigration,” Smidt says.

That won’t stop Connelly from trying. A video posted on GOP Faith’s website in August features the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, declaring that Hispanic Christians will be a “firewall of righteousness and justice and the preservers of our Judeo-Christian values system.” Connelly wants to shore up support from Latino Protestants with conservative views on same-sex marriage and abortion. “Hispanic Americans are deeply values-oriented people,” Connelly says. “Making sure they know they have a home in the Republican Party—that’s going to be a huge part of our outreach effort.”

 

THE GOP FAITH ENGAGEMENT project is relying almost exclusively on pastors to get the word out, so Connelly spends his days talking up the spiritual value of political action. Part of the challenge, he says, is that religious leaders are confused about whether they’re even allowed to preach about politics. Churches, as tax-exempt organizations, are forbidden from endorsing political candidates. “A lot of pastors have been intimidated into thinking that means they can’t preach about the issues of the day,” Connelly says.

By focusing on voter registration and pastor engagement, Connelly is drawing a leaf from a venerable playbook. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority famously coordinated church voter registration drives and distributed voter guides, urging evangelicals to vote against the past decade’s tidal wave of social change. Leading up to the 1980 presidential election, the guides and drives were tacit messages to vote for the conservative candidate Ronald Reagan and against the liberal Jimmy Carter. That election cycle, Falwell claimed to have registered four million evangelicals to vote, according to Dan Williams, an associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia. “He was doing precisely the same kind of work that Connelly and the GOP Faith initiative are setting out to do, and he was wildly successful.”

The question is whether the strategy that propelled Reagan into the White House can help the Republicans take the Senate in 2014—or the White House in 2016. Williams warns that evangelical Christians today, especially younger evangelicals, may not be as hungry for political engagement as they were in the 1980s. If Connelly is following a script from another era, his overtures run the risk of sounding tone-deaf. Messages that resonated in the 1980s aren’t likely to have the same meaning for younger evangelicals, who don’t have the same cultural perspective. “There was a real sense when Reagan was emerging that the country was changing in a profound and disturbing way but that people of faith could turn the country around,” Williams says. “Evangelicals who are young today don’t have that frame of reference. They’ve grown up in a pluralistic society and they’re comfortable, for the most part, with the idea that they’re a minority.”

Pastors, too, may have lost some of their appetite for overt political discourse. Corwin Smidt conducted surveys of white evangelical and mainline Protestant clergy in 1989, 2001, and 2009, finding that political participation declined in the intervening decades. Smidt chalks this up to pastors’ fear of dividing their congregations by invoking political issues, not fear of retribution from the IRS. He says that pastors who use religious language to promote a political agenda run the risk of alienating churchgoers who might have a different point of view. According to the most recent wave of his survey, a slim majority (53 percent) of evangelical pastors approve of taking a stand on a political issue while preaching, while only 1-in-10 say it’s their role to endorse a candidate from the pulpit.

Connelly contends that his strategy isn’t to convince clergy to infuse their sermons with partisan talking points. Rather, he wants pastors to see voting as a spiritual practice and to bring that message to their flock. The stakes, for him, are higher than any individual political contest. In his view, evangelical engagement is a crucial facet of the campaign to reclaim religion’s place at the center of American public life. Telling them that they are vital to the GOP’s success is, more than anything, what he believes will energize evangelicals who feel beleaguered.

Driving away from the pastors’ meeting in Louisiana, Connelly was optimistic about his chances. Pastors are eager to be taken seriously again, he says. When he makes his pitch, he emphasizes that they are the bedrock of GOP Faith—he’s only the messenger. Religious leaders have to take up the call to galvanize their communities, and so far, he says, they’ve responded enthusiastically. “I think they’re going to realize that the GOP’s the party that’s going to keep faith alive,” he says.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a freelance writer based in Chicago and a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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The Sources of Creationism’s Disjointed Science http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/08/the-sources-of-creationisms-disjointed-science/ http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/08/the-sources-of-creationisms-disjointed-science/#comments Wed, 08 Oct 2014 18:50:14 +0000 http://religionandpolitics.org/?p=8488 AP Photo/Ed Reinke

Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Once upon a time, in the West, sacred history, human history, and natural history were one. The Hebrew Bible, refracted through the prism of the Christian New Testament, told a story in which time, nature and humanity came into being together. From that beginning, history, with its low spots (Eve, the serpent, the apple) and its high marks (the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ) was the unfolding of God’s plan for the redemption of a fallen humanity. For Christians, time had a plot, and its beginning and end were both part of written history: even as its bright unfolding was traced in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, its ending in cataclysm, judgment, and eternal life was laid out in the Book of Revelation.

Humans were there from day six of creation, made by God in his image. Both free will and the moral and ethical understandings that allowed us to live in community with each other were grounded in divine creation: they were gifts of God. Nature was understood to be fitted to human use and to operate on something of a human scale. As this story was told in medieval Europe (roughly, the centuries between the fall of Rome and Columbus’s voyage to the lands that became the Americas) the earth was nested at the heart of the cosmos. Ringed around it were the moon, the planets, the sun, and the stars, all encompassed by the heaven where God reigned in majesty. We looked up from the center not at infinite space but at a mansion made of nested spheres spinning in perfect harmony.

Once upon a time, indeed. Though very few would argue any more that the earth is at the center of the cosmos, many find the notion that humanity is as old (or as young) as the earth to be a true, and immensely satisfying, story. According to the latest Gallup poll on this question, some 42 percent of Americans—a number that has hardly budged in over 30 years of surveys—claim to believe in young-earth Creationism. Drawing on the work of Biblical chronologists active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, young-earth Creationists date the origins of the cosmos to roughly 6,000 years ago. Organizations like Answers in Genesis, whose director Ken Ham recently debated Bill Nye on the scientific merits of young earth creationism, defend it ardently.

Assenting to this vision of history requires a series of strategic denials. First and foremost for Ham and his organization is the denial that science, and scientists, can say anything at all about history. “Historical science” cannot be proved: no matter what geologists, biologists, and paleontologists might infer about the past by applying their knowledge of natural processes to the present conditions of the rocks, living organisms, and fossils, they were not physically present to witness the events their sciences explain. History is a thing written in a sacred book.

Yet Ham is not eager to deny science altogether: rather, he attempts to discredit “historical science” while preserving “observational science.” Observational science is responsible for the technological innovations that smooth modern life, a point Ham illustrated in his debate with Nye with a Powerpoint slide of an iPhone. Yet in attacking “historical science,” Ham (and Answers in Genesis more broadly) creatively appropriate scientific language and scientific methods. In doing so, they pay a backhand compliment to scientific modes of apprehending reality, suggesting that for all it appears to be under threat in this postmodern world, scientific ways of knowing the world remain our primary means of securing publicly shared knowledge.

Perhaps surprisingly to those of us weaned on the “two cultures” divide between the humanities and the sciences, many of the sciences—especially those that tend to invalidate literal readings of the book of Genesis—are fundamentally historical in nature. They read “the book of nature” in ways that are analogous to the ways in which historians read written documents and archaeologists ancient artifacts. If the earth is an archive, fossils, and even living species, with their information-rich genomes, are documents.

It was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—at least two hundred years before Charles Darwin and his intervention into our understanding of the development of human life—that science first began to be historical. At that time, natural philosophers seriously began wondering what fossils were. Marine fossils posed a particular problem. Robert Plot, an English natural historian and museum curator, and others argued that they were naturally produced in rocks, “jokes of nature,” in which the rock mimicked organic forms. Others, the mechanical philosopher Robert Hooke among them, began to suspect that they were the remains of living animals. But, if they had once been living animals, how could it be that fossils of sea-dwellers were now found on dry plains and the tops of mountains? The naturalist John Woodward, reasoning from the shared understanding that natural, human, and sacred history were one, produced a sweeping theory that fit fossils into the unified, biblical history that he and his colleagues knew so well. Marine fossils in unusual places were natural evidence that confirmed the biblical story of the flood, which had swept across the earth, lifting ocean dwellers up to the highest heights and destroying everything and everyone except for Noah, his family, and the animals he packed on to the ark.

This debate was perhaps the closest thing the seventeenth century had to 2014’s “Ham on Nye”—with one exception. God was on both sides. Robert Plot promoted the “jokes of nature,” theory because he could not conceive of a mechanism that would move ocean animals to the tops of mountains and also accord with biblical history. Those on the other side, including Robert Hooke and Woodward, could not accept that God would create something so apparently purposeless as a rock that mimicked the form of a shell yet had never sheltered a soft bodied sea dweller. God was a being of loving and rational purpose; he did not play jokes on his human children.

Though both camps were trying to reconcile the evidence of nature to the biblical record, they each slung accusations of atheism at the other. Proponents of the “jokes of nature” theory were atheists because they seemed to deny that God operated in rational, purposeful ways that could be understood by human observers. Eyebrows were raised at Woodward, as well: in his theory, the flood was a product of natural laws. These natural laws were ordained by God. But still, Woodward’s flood was not a miracle—it did not involve God breaking into the world in violation of the laws of nature—and it just happened to coincide with a period of extraordinary human sinfulness, as required by the Genesis narrative.

In the short term, the diluvians won the day—most naturalists were persuaded that the spread of marine fossils was due to the biblical flood. The unified timeline of human, sacred, and natural history was preserved, as was the notion that nature was authored by a loving, rational God. Yet over the course of the eighteenth century, as fossil evidence became more fully integrated into a developing knowledge of geology, this explanation came to seem less and less satisfactory. The earth’s terrain, and the spread of the fossils in the layers of rock that cloaked the earth, were too varied to be explained by a single global flood. Geologists began to argue that there were no miraculous, global cataclysms. Rather, one could argue backward to the past from forces visible in the present—volcanoes erupted, spreading magma that hardened into rock, which wind and rain eroded, grinding it into soil. Rivers carved canyons and deposited silts. Glaciers gradually pushed great boulders immense distances.

But these processes were slow, so slow, that, to produce the earth as it now existed, they had to operate across many more centuries than the time scale allowed by the biblical story. Eighteenth century geologists largely refused to specify precisely how old the earth was, believing they had insufficient evidence to make such judgments, but they generally agreed that it was much older than the human race, possibly by as much as a million years (to a people that had previously agreed the world was about 6,000 years old, an almost unimaginable span of time). Yet, though they dramatically expanded natural history, setting human history adrift in a sea of time, many natural philosophers continued to believe that nature’s past was legible because the natural order was underwritten by God.

For Ken Ham, as for many young-earth creationists, the history of science stopped in 1700: Ham’s theory is essentially Woodward’s. Ham’s distinction between historical and observational science is not merely a curiosity: real harm is possible, for example, in that Answers in Genesis uses it to discredit the science behind global warming, which relies on reconstructing many millennia of climate history. Yet, living in the twenty-first century, Ken Ham is also forced to defend his distinction between historical and observational science in modern scientific terms. Answers in Genesis provides essay after essay dissecting the latest fossil finds, and explaining how geological evidence can be read in terms of a catastrophic flood. In order to do so, they delve deeply into the sciences of radiometric dating, fluid dynamics, stratigraphy, and even quantum mechanics. The question of whether Christians should “believe in ‘weird’ physics” (a category which, in the Answers in Genesis view, includes relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory) animates a long, detailed essay on the history of physics. (Short answer: yes.)

Although a scientist might read Answers in Genesis’s engagement with scientific knowledge as disingenuous, it can have unpredictable effects—a curious reader might well find the detailed scientific explanations of geological phenomena more convincing than their rebuttal. Or, she might ask: if I’m allowed to accept quantum mechanics, why not radiometric dating, which relies on quantum mechanical understandings of the atom to establish the ages of human and fossil remains? Answers in Genesis also seeks to preserve the products of scientific and technical research that are integrated into our lives—in addition to that iPhone, the slides that Ken Ham threw up during the debate with Bill Nye included an image of Craig Venter, the lead scientist on the Human Genome Project. Venter may be an atheist, Ham admits, but he does good “observational science”—the kind that produces new medical breakthroughs that many rely upon. Yet analysis of the genome leads to enriched understandings of human evolutionary history, as well as new cancer treatments. Ham’s distinction between historical and observational science is incoherent, as Nye pointed out in their debate.

Yet it is also true that we owe the notion that fossils, rocks, and genomes are documents from which we can read nature’s history to a theological conception of nature. Seventeenth-century natural philosophers turned against the “jokes of nature” theory of fossils because they refused to believe that Nature’s God played tricks on humans. Their God was an author, one who wrote a Book of Nature that humans were meant to be able to read. Modern science (as a matter of general methodological principle—this is to say nothing of the beliefs of individual scientists) may have declared the divine author dead, yet a way of divinely-inspired reading continues on in the belief that nature operates according to rational laws that humans can decipher. That assumption is so fundamental that, for scientists, it is an article of faith.

Elizabeth Yale is an historian of science and adjunct assistant professor at The University of Iowa Center for the Book.  

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