Religion & Politics Fit For Polite Company Wed, 01 Oct 2014 17:49:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Illinois: An Autoworker Reconciles God and Mammon Wed, 01 Oct 2014 17:00:44 +0000 An Autoworker Reconciles God and Mammon


(AP Photo/Paul Beaty) The Chrysler Automotive Plant in Belvidere, Illinois

Growing up in an Illinois factory town that seemed to have as many corn silos as smokestacks, I often wondered why everything around me sounded so cosmopolitan and French. My grandfather, for example, worked more than half his life in a Chrysler Automotive Plant in Belvidere, a town named after a French term of Italian origins that described a decorative garden summerhouse. He’d tell me our town and other Illinois place names like DuPage, Bourbonnais, and DesPlaines conveyed just how prized the region was when Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first mapped the territory in 1673 while expanding the French empire. As a youth, I wondered if the whole thing was a colossal miscalculation, because there was nothing decorative about Belvidere. The 3 million-square-foot factory where my grandfather worked dominated the town, its parking lot filling the landscape not with greenery but with rows and rows of hauntingly uniform cars awaiting shipment. Do belvederes, as the term is more commonly spelled, even have parking lots?

Though odd to me as a child, I have come to appreciate Illinois’s curiously French origins. They seem to embody something essential about the state. As my amateur historian grandfather taught me, Marquette and Joliet initially sought out the territory of the Illini Indians for ostensibly different purposes. Marquette, a Jesuit, hoped to find new communities of Native Americans to Christianize. Joliet, a merchant, wanted to map new routes for trade. But as the state’s history makes clear, their endeavors were actually quite complementary. Over the next century, missionaries followed Joliet’s maps into the territory Europeans now phonetically spelled Ee-lee-nwah, while trappers utilized the missions Jesuits founded as outposts on the fur trade.

The priest and the merchant. One wanted to build a church, the other wanted to make money. They ended up making Illinois.

To talk about the religious and political life of a Heartland state such as Illinois is to talk about how capitalism in America often mediates the relationship between the two. As one of the few states in the union—and the only one in the Midwest—to be both a top manufacturer and agricultural producer, Illinois is defined by its economic largesse. Residents invariably describe themselves and even their sports teams as “blue collar” or “hardworking,” as if some kind of unrelenting labor was required to live there. Yet Illinois’s industriousness has also long been accompanied by an ambitious religiosity. Indeed, it’s often been difficult to distinguish one from the other. Home at varying points to the nation’s largest factory, tallest skyscraper, and biggest bakery, Illinois still boasts America’s highest church steeple, tallest freestanding cross, and largest Catholic Mass in American history.

In its business and its religion, Illinoisans make no little plans. For more than two centuries residents like Marquette, Joliet, and my grandfather have flocked to the state with equal parts economic aspirations and religious concerns. The result of this interplay has made the Prairie State what it is today.


MY GRANDFATHER WAS NOT an Illinoisan by birth, but, then again, few are. Even favorite son Abraham Lincoln was born elsewhere, a product of Kentucky’s rolling hillsides. Yet the successive waves of immigrants and newcomers that have made and remade Illinois have all come to the state in search of a prosperity imbued with spiritual significance. Lincoln’s arrival in 1830, for example, was a part of the first wave of white settlers who migrated from as far as New England to farm the rich, black topsoil that lay beneath the state’s unbroken prairies. To these largely Protestant pioneers, the farms they plowed would not only enhance their personal fortunes but also yield the towns, villages, and churches that would save the frontier. In the century and a half that followed, millions of immigrants from across the globe similarly flocked to the state in search of their own kind of redemption. Catholics and Jews from across Europe and Latin America joined Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other traditions from Africa and Asia in transforming Illinois’s small towns into some of the most religiously diverse cities in the world. To them, the jobs they found, the shops they opened, and the communities they built were more than just material necessities. They were also refuges from the famines, revolutions, and pogroms of home. As many of the half-million black Southerners who fled Jim Crow for Illinois in the decades between the World Wars put it, cities like Chicago, with their industry and community, were nothing short of a “Promised Land.”

This almost religious belief in capitalism’s power to transform and uplift families, communities, and nations has long informed Illinoisans at the polls. In addition to accounting for the state’s fervent pride in the value of hard work, it also helps explain why a state more known for the strength of its unions has also produced and elected some of the nation’s most pro-business conservatives. Ronald Reagan, for example, claimed to have learned the importance of unfettered entrepreneurship while growing up in Dixon, where his parents owned a small dry goods store. The state voted handily for him twice, helped elect his Republican successor, and continues to regularly send a number of conservative leaders to Congress. And while Reagan and many of these elected officials are in many ways the ideological opposites of a fellow party member like Lincoln, their politics were quintessentially Illinoisan in their attempts to use public policy to unlock capitalism’s sacred potential. Lincoln’s support for free labor was as much about atoning for the nation’s sins of slavery as it was about ensuring its prosperity. Reagan, meanwhile, cast economic regulation not only as detriments to America’s financial growth but as impediments to a soul’s access to the sacred market.

I don’t think my grandfather ever thought he would save the country working in an auto factory, nor was this white, native-born Protestant fleeing oppression. But his move to the state was just as much an economic pilgrimage. Like Lincoln, he too hailed from Kentucky, a part of a much smaller migration of white Appalachians to Illinois’s industrial centers in the decades after the Second World War. He followed an implausible rumor northward that factories in the state were paying more than two dollars an hour for entry-level work. Such wages were unheard of in the coal towns where he was from. So in 1964, he moved my grandmother and mother to a small town with a funny French name, Belvidere, where he got a job at what was then the largest automotive plant in the world. To him the job was a godsend, a chance to provide his family with opportunities he thought unavailable in Appalachia. Where I would later see an eyesore, my grandfather looked at that Chrysler Automotive Plant and saw a blessing.

In Illinois, wealth, prosperity, and economic ambition have rarely been in conflict with religious faith. Rather, they have been integral to the state’s development, collaboratively fostering an abiding faith in the American marketplace.

But with such high hopes have also come steep expectations.


AS A WHITE, WORKING-CLASS, former Southerner, my grandfather was in many ways the quintessential evangelical, right down to his membership in a Southern Baptist church. He believed deeply in Scripture and would occasionally remark upon the world’s moral decline, wondering if it might mean that Jesus was returning soon. The church he attended near Belvidere was full of the rants against liberals and secular humanists that often define stereotypes of American evangelicalism. Yet my grandfather departed from such conventions of American religious life in crucial ways. In addition to being a church deacon who took pride in his perfect Sunday school attendance, my grandfather was also an active, loyal, dues-paying member of the United Auto Workers who knew how to vote his economic self-interests. While pundits, the press, and even academics would define my grandfather’s faith by the sermons he heard on Sunday, his religious world was never so narrowly defined. Rather, it also included such seemingly worldly rituals like paying the mortgage or feeding my mother. His politics almost always emerged from these latter spaces. Rarely did the dictates of the former determine them.

Such practical economic concerns have long been the most accurate barometer of Illinois’s political life. Its voting record notwithstanding, Illinois’s faith in the opportunities capitalism affords has rarely blinded it to the inequalities capitalism invariably yields. The conditions in which many have lived often made such disparities unavoidable. Even Illinois’s midsized cities contained, and continue to contain, the industrial slums and blighted neighborhoods first described by Chicago-based novels like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). The low wages, poor housing, and lack of services endemic in these communities has meant that campaigns in the state are often about ameliorating or rectifying capitalism’s most immediate injustices.

This is not to say, however, that the grassroots efforts of everyday Illinoisans did not shape national concerns. The infamous Pullman Strike of 1894, which eventually shut down railroad traffic nationwide, began as a protest of 3,000 Chicago factory workers over a wage cut. Out of the conflict emerged an association of Illinois railroad executives who worked closely with the U.S. Attorney General to perfect the use of federal court injunctions to break organized labor. The practice remained in place throughout much of the twentieth century, curbed only by the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s. Workers in the Prairie State proved essential here as well, helping to “make a New Deal,” in the words of one historian, by joining steelworker, coal miner, and meat packer unions by the millions.

Religious institutions and ideas have been central to these efforts to engage and shape capitalism. Often the most recognized and respected members of working-class communities, religious leaders have been essential allies in advancing and publicizing Illinois’s economic struggles. The minister of Pullman’s Methodist Episcopal Church, William Carwardine, became the strikers’ religious spokesperson, reminding both the company and the general public of Scripture’s own injunction that “the laborer was worthy of his hire.” Religious spaces have also been vital in providing a safe place for Illinois’s dispossessed to coordinate and organize. The devotional societies and religious associations of the state’s largely Catholic industrial workers became staging grounds for the formation of CIO locals, while parish priests became key interlocutors in building the New Deal coalition.

Yet Illinois’s religious communities have done more than just logistically support political campaigns. They have also spiritually sustained them. As a young, more secular Barack Obama learned while organizing black communities on Chicago’s South Side, faith has often been the most potent weapon of the oppressed. After years of writing off African American ministers for their emphasis upon preparing for the next world over changing this one, Obama has said his entire view of the black church changed after attending Trinity United Church of Christ when it was led by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. There he discovered how worship, prayer, and congregation were essential for steeling one’s soul for the fight. And while Obama’s association with Trinity and Wright has since become beset by controversy, it should not distract us from the power of its devotions, where Obama recorded an elderly woman praising God amidst the city’s violence and poverty for “carrying us this far.”

Indeed, religion has carried Illinois’s politics of late. This fervent faith in the cause of justice and economic equality has knitted together a number of labor, immigrant, African American, and community organizations into a loose coalition whose ardent support for economic equality has made Illinois the Democratic stronghold it is today. Last spring, more than one hundred ministers, priests, and rabbis sent an open letter to Senator Mark Kirk letting him know their support for his reelection hinged upon extending the nation’s unemployment benefits. After twice rejecting the measure, the senator caved. Illinois’s Interfaith Worker Justice has similarly coordinated with religious communities in the cause of economic justice, sponsoring “Labor Sunday” rallies with the Illinois AFL-CIO. Participating churches invite local union leaders to talk to their congregations about their community’s most pressing labor struggles. And in South Chicago, Crosswalk, an interfaith organization founded at All Saints Episcopal Church, has organized a number of rallies, marches, and summits to advocate for an increase in both firearm regulation and economic development in order to stem the tide of gun violence that has wracked Chicago of late.


MY GRANDFATHER GOT OUT of the factory while the getting was good. He retired after 35 years on the line and lived comfortably on his pension and Social Security until his death a decade ago. His coworkers, however, have not been as lucky. In 2006, Belvidere’s Chrysler factory became the first automotive plant in the world to assemble vehicles entirely by robotics. The transition sent waves of unemployment through town, a trend the Great Recession of 2008 only escalated. And unlike the rest of the Heartland, Illinois has yet to experience much of the Rust Belt’s recent recovery. The state’s credit rating remains the nation’s lowest, while its 8.3 percent total unemployed rate is surpassed only by Nevada and Rhode Island. Conditions are often even worse at the local level where double-digit unemployment rates recently ranked among the nation’s highest. In fact, the Belvidere region’s enduring 9.4 percent unemployment rate is less than a half a point below that other paragon of postindustrial America, Detroit.

But as before, Illinois’s religious commitments and economic realities continue engage and shape each other. In light of the current downturn, one local congregation now offers its long-term unemployed members career transition services, as if the church is recommitting to its belief in capitalism’s transformative power. Others, however, continue to draw inspiration and resources from religious sources to engage in direct action over economic issues, as when a number of priests, rabbis, and local ministers took the streets alongside striking fast food workers in support of turning America’s minimum wage into a living one. And as the economy continues to improve while rates of inequality persist, there is no reason to believe such debates will cease.

Capitalism in America has generated some of the globe’s greatest prosperity. Yet Americans have benefited from this prosperity in unavoidably unequal ways. How these benefits and blessings should be apportioned has been one of America’s most enduring political questions. And in Illinois, as elsewhere, it has also been a decidedly religious one.

Christopher D. Cantwell is assistant professor of public history and religious studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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Passages: A Glimpse into the Hobby Lobby Family’s Bible Museum Wed, 24 Sep 2014 17:29:42 +0000 (Courtesy of Passages Exhibit)

(Courtesy of Passages Exhibit, Museum of the Bible)

On a humid afternoon in early July, I pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript warehouse just off Highway 65 in Springfield, Missouri. Flanked by a used luxury car dealership and organic food grocer to the west and a Sam’s Club wholesaler to the east, this was the 30,000 square foot home of Passages: Treasures of the Bible, a traveling exhibit comprised of a selection from evangelical business magnate Steve Green’s private collection of biblical artifacts. A Southern Baptist from Oklahoma and the president of the highly profitable craft store chain Hobby Lobby, Green has made headlines this year as chief litigant in the fight against the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Yet as consequential as the Hobby Lobby decision has been, Green’s footprint in American public life extends beyond the arenas of policy and law. Passages is one aspect of a larger effort to shape the very narratives Americans use to make sense of their lives, their faith, and their nation.

I grew up in Springfield, “the Queen City of the Ozarks,” in the southwestern corner of Missouri. I’ve never met Green or his family, but I recognize them in my own family and childhood community, in the people with whom I often disagree on matters of politics and religion but whom I love and admire for their faith and their convictions. It would be easy for many commentators to reduce Passages to the periphery of American culture, or to prop it up as a pivot point in the unrelenting culture wars. I had a hunch that this was bigger, of greater consequence, than a Hobby Lobby coattail. Still, I found something curious in the promotion of a “Founding Father’s Exhibit” on the Passages website and in the installation’s glossy presentation of academic credentials. Was this Sunday School or civics? Biblical scholarship or public history? Could it be both, and to what end? I had to find out.

Passages is one arm of the Museum of the Bible, the official name of the Greens’ nonprofit organization. In 2012 the organization purchased the Washington Design Center for $50 million as the location for the Green Collection’s permanent home in the still-to-be-named museum—scheduled to open in 2017—a location five blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The Museum of the Bible also includes the Green Scholars Initiative (GSI), which focuses on research relating to the collection’s artifacts and oversees the development of an “elective Bible curriculum for high school students.” (The Greens had planned to launch the curriculum this fall semester in a school district near Hobby Lobby’s Oklahoma headquarters; in July they announced a delay until January, after experts deemed their textbook needed revisions to correct bias.) Speaking directly about the planned D.C. museum, but indicative of the Museum of the Bible generally, the nonprofit’s public relations firm stated its intent “to showcase both the Old and New Testaments, arguably the world’s most significant pieces of literature, through a non-sectarian, scholarly approach that makes the history, scholarship and impact of the Bible on virtually every facet of society accessible to everyone.”

But beyond official rhetoric emphasizing accessibility and inclusion, there is also a subtle message that is communicated in the collection’s arrangement of artifacts, historical data, and exhibit space. This other, tacit but quite palpable, message is the cultural work that shapes visitors’ interpretation of the objects on display and that, like museum dust, is carried out of the exhibit and into the world around them. This message is the good news affirmed by insiders and extended to outsiders: we are on the right side of history. The Museum’s collecting habits, exhibit curation, and academic efforts combine technological savvy and strategic planning to advance a particular history of the Bible in American public life.

From its debut at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2011, through installations in Atlanta, Charlotte, Colorado Springs, and Springfield, Passages has changed in modest ways in each of its five locations. The installation in Springfield, which will run through January of 2015, is a professionally curated exhibit of approximately 400 artifacts ranging from ancient papyrus fragments to medieval illuminated manuscripts to a full-scale, operating replica of Gutenberg’s press. As the eager khaki-clad docents remind patrons, despite the expansive breadth of the traveling exhibit—my self-guided tour was five hours, and I skimmed a great deal of the Renaissance and Reformation periods—Passages comprises a mere one percent of the Green Collection. Internal calculations gush that the entire collection amounts to “more than 40,000 antiquities [and] includes some of the rarest and most valuable biblical and classical pieces … ever assembled under one roof.” All told, Green has spent more than $23 million amassing his collection, which he began in 2009.

On the day I attended Passages, almost all of the other visitors were women, some with school-aged children; but the website claims a far more diverse audience. My request for attendance figures was declined by the Museum of the Bible’s marketing manager, but it seemed well attended for a stormy Tuesday afternoon. Location likely matters as much as anything when observing an audience—Springfield is nearly 90 percent “white alone,” overwhelmingly Protestant, and the warehouse is located in the city’s affluent southeast. Admission is just shy of $16 for adults, with another $3 for the self-guided iPod Touch tour.

Passages’ displays are designed to immerse patrons in situ, or in an imagined context of direct encounter with the artifacts—the caves of Qumran, a monastic scriptorium, the door to Wittenberg’s Castle Church, an early modern English print shop, Anne Boleyn’s chamber in the Tower of London, a Holocaust ghetto. The orchestration of a wealth of technical historical information—carbon dating, multispectral imaging, scholarly commentary—within an ideological framework of evangelical politics is not a new strategy. The collection joins a trend in antiquities collecting by affluent evangelical enterprises, such as the Scriptorium exhibit at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida, and the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University, each of which asserts their academic qualifications to audiences both sympathetic and critical. That such collections are founded on evidence, and not faith alone, is the unstated claim. Passages emphasizes that artifacts have been studiously acquired through the counsel of the Green Scholars Initiative, an arm of the Museum of the Bible that includes “Distinguished Language Scholars,” “Senior Scholars,” and “Senior and Distinguished Scholars and Consultants” from institutions including Pepperdine, Baylor, University of Chicago, Oxford, and King’s College, London (among a host of largely evangelical liberal arts schools conducting GSI Projects).

But, like most exhibits, Passages is as concerned with interpretation as it is with display. The Museum of the Bible is particularly successful at ironing the seams between data and interpretation (at least one early consultant has severed ties with the Museum, citing concerns over the “balancing” of history and evangelical message ). The Museum conveys political arguments through various spokespersons—Martin Luther, Anne Boleyn, St. Jerome—who speak directly to audiences either as video displays or animatronics and who bear witness to the twin virtues of accessibility and individual authority in matters of scriptural interpretation. Passages is decidedly Protestant in conceptualization, positioning Jewish scriptures as incomplete antecedents to Christian scriptures and collapsing the sweep of Jewish history—no matter how recent—into an uncontested “past.” A display early in the exhibit, for instance, moves seamlessly from first-century papyrus fragments to nineteenth-century Torah tiks with no reference to the intervening centuries of cultural, social, or theological development. Catholic history is likewise presented as a historical backdrop, full of textual inaccuracies, deliberate obfuscations, and compulsory interpretations that the Reformation corrected through vernacular translations that “folks like us can understand,” as a peasant woman pleads with her unconvinced neighbor in a video display; and the theological privileging of individual interpretation, as Martin Luther explains in an imaginatively staged video debate with Desiderius Erasmus and Johann Eck in the “Reformation Theater.” The entire sweep of Western history is stitched into a synchronized narrative of the birth of freedom.

These messages are materially reinforced in the exhibit’s gift shop, where patrons can purchase full-scale reproductions of Sebastian Adams’s 1871 Chronological Chart of Ancient, Modern, and Biblical History. Demonstrating a nineteenth-century obsession with classification, the Chronological Chart is an ambitious catalogue of world history divided into epochs, empires, and nations, from the beginning of time through the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. Adams was a Unitarian born in Ohio who ended up teaching in Oregon, but his chart has been reclaimed by twenty-first century evangelicals who promote it as a model for conceptualizing history. The illustrated and color-coded chart is a conceptual fragment of the exhibit—a token—that patrons can take home (for $39.95) and, along with the exhibit catalogue, experience the marvels and promises anew. Not unlike the theories in Adams’s chart, Passages is designed to demonstrate not only the history of the Bible as a religious document but also as a narrative of political and religious interdependence.

Throughout the exhibit, political messages surface in oblique references to individuality, religious freedom, technological discovery, and popular sovereignty. The exhibit’s conclusion, however, leaves little room for ambiguity. The final displays break with the chronological organization of the rest of the installation and take visitors back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the founding of the American republic and to the Civil War that threatened to sever it. A new addition to the Springfield location, the Founding Father’s display case, is anchored by an oversized poster board facsimile of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson’s 1809 letter to Richard Douglas of the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A selection from Jefferson’s letter is quoted in such a way as to nudge attentive patrons to the Greens’ contemporary political battles:

No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man, than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprizes of the civil authority. [I]t has not left the religion of it’s citizens under the power of it’s public functionaries …

Using eighteenth-century erudition, the display frames “civil authorities” and “public functionaries” as threats to citizens’ “rights of conscience.” In his 2011 book, Faith in America, Green attributes a great deal of his training in early American history to the counsel of David Barton. Barton is a highly polarizing evangelical historian whose credibility among many earlier sympathizers evaporated after his book, The Jefferson Lies, was recalled by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, in 2012 for gross factual errors. Despite the additional blow to his credibility, Barton remained influential among Americans who found reassurances in his narration of history. Central to Barton’s historical imagination are founding fathers seeking to establish Christianity in American law—rather than creating a public commons that protected individual conscience and conviction—and his influence has remained especially palpable in energizing forms of evangelical patriotism in conservative American politics. The selective framing of Jefferson’s 1809 letter is indicative of Barton’s influence.

The conclusion to the exhibit, however, is not Jefferson but the holographic testimonies of Abraham Lincoln and Julia Ward Howe, the nineteenth-century Unitarian abolitionist who composed the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The display includes the manuscript of the original lyrics that Howe composed after a restless night in the early days of the American Civil War. The song, audiences learn, “derives much of its imagery directly from the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, which deals with the Final Judgment.” The connection to the rest of the exhibit may seem tenuous, but the display is the final punctuation in an orchestration of history that positions today’s political landscape not only as the most recent cultural battle in which the Bible will emerge victorious, but also as analogous to the sectional division of the 1850s that erupted into Civil War in the 1860s. We, too, live in a house divided. The holograms do not speak to each other so much as they make direct appeals to the audience. Here, no one has to mention abortion—the exhibit is careful not to reduce its message to a specific issue—but within the exhibit it is difficult not to anticipate this as one of any number of unspoken political, ethical, and religious scourge to the twenty-first century that the morally charged political issue of slavery was to the nineteenth. And as were Howe and Lincoln, today’s Americans must answer “the trumpet that shall never call retreat.”

Passages is a carefully crafted public history that demonstrates to receptive audiences how, in Julia Ward Howe’s voice, the Bible is “the book that assured the very foundation of our country.” This is a space in which, not unlike Sebastian Adams’s illustrated chronology, biblical history and national heritage are part of a common story that is still unfolding. Modern-day political battles emerge quite clearly as the “hidden transcript” to the official message of the Bible’s “indestructability”—as another layer of meaning lying just beneath the surface. The traveling exhibits, no matter how extensive, will reach limited audiences. But the national museum is another matter entirely. Sitting a stone’s throw from the nation’s cathedrals of national mythology—monuments, museums, and the landmarks of each of the three branches of federal government—the permanent location of the Green Collection in Washington, D.C., will undoubtedly attract national and, just as likely, international attention. There is, of course, nothing wrong with making ideological claims, particularly within the context of religious convictions. But the Museum of the Bible offers a particularly timely example of the house of mirrors refracting history, religion, and politics in the United States—of how the accumulation of facts is preamble to the consequential work of storytelling. Perhaps it is worth our while to pay attention to the museum dust.

Rachel McBride Lindsey is associate director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Us v. Them: The Pitfalls of Righteous Rhetoric Tue, 16 Sep 2014 17:33:13 +0000 (Beverly LaHaye, courtesy of Concerned Women for America)

(Beverly LaHaye, courtesy of Concerned Women for America)

Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America
By Leslie Dorrough Smith
Oxford University Press, 2014

On June 19 of this year, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) hosted its second annual “March for Marriage” in Washington, D.C. An article posted on NOM’s website two days before the march expressed hope that the event would “encourage each of us to continue standing up without fear in the legal, political, and cultural spheres to preserve marriage and every child’s right to both a mother and a father.” In an email to supporters sent out the same day, the national lobbying group Concerned Women for America (CWA) also promoted the march, saying that “God’s model for marriage is under attack, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand for truth in this area.” This urgent, battle-ready language is typical of conservative Christian rhetoric on the issue, which depicts gay marriage as a force that will debase American families, victimize children, and ruin the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, supporters of gay marriage portray groups like NOM and CWA as the real threats to the nation’s values, its children, and its families. The pro-gay Family Equality Council recently filed an amicus brief in a Virginia gay marriage case, focusing on the children of same-sex couples and arguing that “the denial of marriage as an option for their parents affects their legal well-being, personal self-esteem, and sense of purpose.” On both sides of the debate, activists and spokespeople identify themselves as “supporters of marriage” and portray their adversaries as dangerous forces, not only in terms of this issue but also in terms of Americans’ well-being and the well-being of America.

Leslie Dorrough Smith has a new name for this kind of political reasoning, which she argues has deep roots in American political history. She has coined the term “chaos rhetoric” to describe it, and she offers a rich analysis of its uses and significance in her new book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Smith defines chaos rhetoric as a particular kind of “emotion-laden” narrative of national decline, which focuses so intently on a perceived threat “to a beloved entity” that it draws attention away from any gaps in the speakers’ logic or any shifts in their priorities. Smith argues that “chaos rhetoric’s signature is not necessarily its connection with reality, but its persuasive value.”

Smith takes as her case study the recent rhetoric of Concerned Women for America (CWA), the self-proclaimed “largest public policy women’s organization in the United States,” and a powerful force within the modern Religious Right. CWA was established in 1979, the same year that Jerry Falwell inaugurated the Moral Majority. Beverly LaHaye, the group’s founder, is a well-known figure in conservative evangelical circles, both for her political engagement and for her popular books on Christian marital and family life. To people outside of these circles, she is more commonly recognized as the wife of Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and author of the bestselling apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind. Over the past 35 years, CWA has grown into a powerful lobbying organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., and supported by hundreds of local chapters across the country.

Smith focuses on the CWA website as a rich and representative source of chaos rhetoric, which operates, first and foremost, through a division of the world into categories of “us” and “them.” This is perhaps most obvious in CWA leaders’ frequent appeals to the “real women” of America—women whom they represent as conservative and religious, proudly feminine and “family-oriented.” In CWA rhetoric, women who fall outside of these categories—especially feminists, lesbians, and pro-choice women—are not “real women,” and they pose significant dangers to American values.

This is another function of chaos rhetoric. By focusing on looming threats to “the nation,” chaos rhetoric reflexively defines what the nation is and whom it excludes. Or, as Smith puts it, the chaos rhetoric that CWA employs is “almost always constructed in such a way that the reader cannot identify with CWA’s opponent while considering herself reasonable and moral.” CWA presents an understanding of the nation that conflates national priorities with the organization’s priorities and national health with the organization’s gains. Thus, feminists are represented not only adversaries of CWA but as enemies of the nation as a whole. At the same time, chaos rhetoric allows the organization to set the nation apart from the government or even from public opinion by arguing that the government is controlled by elites who do not have the nation’s best interests at heart, while most members of the public have been duped by those same elites into acting against their own well-being.

A defining feature of chaos rhetoric is its flexibility, and this too is particularly apparent in CWA’s approach to feminism. The organization is centrally opposed to liberal feminism, and has been since its founding. In my own work on CWA’s early years, I examine how Beverly LaHaye relied on the specter of feminism to explain why she founded CWA in 1979. When she moved the organization’s headquarters to Washington, D.C., four years later, she announced at a press conference: “This is our message: the feminists do not speak for all women in America, and CWA is here in Washington to end the monopoly of feminists who claim to speak for all women.” More than 30 years later, opposition to liberal feminism is still a central CWA concern. Yet CWA has also recently joined with other conservative Christian women’s groups in identifying with the label “conservative feminism.” They claim to be the rightful heirs of an early twentieth-century feminist movement that the Left has distorted and betrayed. This simultaneous identification with and against feminism is made possible through chaos rhetoric, whose binary logic allows CWA to argue that feminists are not real women, and are therefore disqualified from representing women’s interests.

The book’s focus on CWA in particular and conservative Christian politics more broadly requires a discussion of the ways in which religion and politics interact. Smith offers a nuanced discussion of religious and political diversity among American Protestants. In an effort to avoid essentializing religion or implying that it is something that exists outside of culture, Smith chooses to treat “religious speech as political speech, and presume that separating the two creates a false dichotomy.” But while the religious speech of organizations like CWA is almost always also political speech, Smith’s decision to treat “religion as a tactic” risks implying that her subjects are insincere in their religious beliefs or that they only deploy religious rhetoric cynically, for political gain. The book’s focus on rhetorical analysis ends up characterizing both religion and politics as mainly strategies for gaining power, without making room for considering how religious and political belief function in people’s lives. This analytical gap stands out in a study that otherwise deftly balances empathy and criticism.

Smith rightly notes that both popular and scholarly interpretations of the Christian Right in the United States often situate this movement as uniquely absolutist, argumentative, and even illogical. In a predominately liberal academy, Smith argues, scholars have tended to characterize the language of the Religious Right as unique in part because it is easier to recognize chaos rhetoric in the language of groups whose political views clash with one’s own. Indeed, Smith asserts that scholarly interpretations of the Religious Right have sometimes amounted to “chaos rhetoric about chaos rhetoric,” which presents conservative Christian groups as particularly uncompromising, strident, and detrimental to civil political discourse.

Smith argues that the Religious Right is not especially absolutist, although conservative Christians often portray their values as unchanging and rooted in tradition. Tracing the history of conservative Christian activism through the twentieth century, Smith demonstrates that the priorities and positions of Religious Right organizations have shifted along with the dominant culture just as in any other political movement. CWA’s changing approach to feminism is one example; its stance on working mothers is another. Whereas Beverly LaHaye once blamed working mothers for juvenile delinquency and national moral degeneracy, CWA now officially condones mothers’ choice to work outside of the home as long as they continue to put family first.

CWA stands in as the case study at the center of Smith’s analysis, but the book offers much more than a narrow examination of a single organization. In her final chapter, Smith broadens her scope beyond CWA in order to make a compelling case for applying the framework of chaos rhetoric not only in analyzing the language of the Religious Right, but also in considering arguments from across the political spectrum. Analyzing the language of two liberal groups—the National Organization for Women and the People for the American Way—Smith highlights how both rely on the tools of chaos rhetoric, including a binary “us vs. them” worldview, an insistent focus on impending danger, and a conflation of the organization’s values with the values of the nation writ large. So while CWA represents “radical feminists” as “anti-family” militants “blinded by a searing lust for a woman’s right to abort her child,” the National Organization for Women characterizes Religious Right groups including CWA as “anti-woman” fanatics for whom “[m]isrepresenting ideology as science is a favored tactic.”

Indeed, what makes this book so valuable is not just that it offers an insightful analysis of an important national organization. It also provides a significant new framework for understanding contemporary political rhetoric across the political spectrum. Chaos rhetoric is not solely a mechanism of the Right, as Smith’s final chapter makes clear. While CWA lauded the recent Hobby Lobby decision as a victory for religious freedom, one Planned Parenthood appeal presented it as evidence that “we can’t count on lawmakers and politicians to do the right thing—protecting women’s health and rights is up to us.” Smith’s framework offers new insight into the rhetorical strategies embedded in each of these claims, and helps to explain how—and why—groups like these continue to talk past each other in such critical debates.

Emily Johnson is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She completed her Ph.D. in History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University in 2014.

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For Michael Brown, Justice Is Not a Gift. It’s a Right. Tue, 09 Sep 2014 14:05:28 +0000 (Alex Wong/Getty)

(Alex Wong/Getty)

“This whole Michael Brown thing,” a local white business owner informed me, “is a case of reverse racism!” The Saint Louis native continued, “Those people over there on the north side kill and shoot each other all the time and nobody says a word. Now that it’s a white cop, it’s suddenly a big deal.” As he brazenly brushed aside the “no free refills” sign at the coffee shop in order to refill the beverage he bought yesterday, he continued without a hint of irony, “And I’m glad they released that video of him stealing, they tried to paint that kid as an angel. He wasn’t no angel. He was a thief!”

Black and/or impoverished people steal. White and/or wealthy folks enjoy customer perks.

“This kid was a criminal,” he maintained, “plain and simple. You can’t expect to steal, assault a store clerk, and then expect to get away with it.”

I asked him why, then, Wynona Rider or Lindsay Lohan do not end up fatally shot when they shoplift or engage in familiar, reckless young adult behavior? Or why police officers did not accost the seven privileged 18 and 19-year-olds who recently broke into NBA all-star Ray Allen’s Tahiti Beach home in Coral Gables?

He responded, “Look, I don’t have all the answers okay.”

But he did have the parameters by which a just inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown should occur. He concluded his lunchtime soliloquy by stating, “Look, those people over there just need to work on their own problems before they blame or ask the police for anything and expect any sympathy.”

Residents of a nearby suburb expressed similar sentiments to a New Republic reporter. Under the condition of anonymity, a group of white residents gathered in a coffee shop chimed in with disputed narratives about the crime, followed by certainties such as “I don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” Another embellished, “The kid wasn’t really innocent … he’s got a rap sheet already, so he’s not that innocent.” In reality, Mike Brown does not have a criminal “rap sheet.” In fact, Mike Brown’s juvenile record is stellar compared to that of white teen idol Justin Bieber. But Brown does have another kind of rap: he is black. African Americans and those living in underserved communities, are expected to somehow pull off the herculean feat of proving themselves fit for justice in the eyes of the wealthy and elite before they can “rightfully” petition for a just investigation.

These local spokespersons resonate with their national religious counterparts.

MSNBC host and activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, spoke for many when he employed a similar trope during his eulogy for Michael Brown. The Obama administration, according to one former top Obama aide, “sort of helped build him [Sharpton] up” because the White House needed someone “to deal with in the African-American community.” As the anointed one, Sharpton is considered the point person in all things black and B/brown. At the funeral he sharply and rightly criticized national policies but then made a caveat: “What does God require?” he asked rhetorically. “We’ve got to be straight up in our community!” Certain expressions of youth and hip-hop culture and especially “black-on-black crime,” he told the congregation, are seen by many (and perhaps himself) as “justifying” malicious and neglectful policies toward black communities. Since the expression “white-on-white crime” (also an all too common occurrence) does not exist in the everyday lexicon, black communities are stigmatized and pathologized. Justice is then intricately tied to the perceived communal standing of black people. When black neighborhoods (finally) begin the process of internally rectifying all their ailments, the plot lines goes, then black and poor people will prove themselves ready for justice. Sharpton made it plain: “Nobody,” he enlightened mourners, “gone help us if we don’t help ourselves.”

Perhaps Iyanla Vanzant best put this sentiment in motion. The acclaimed spiritual guru, celebrity life coach, and star of her own show “Iyanla: Fix My Life” on the Oprah Network (OWN) has helped countless followers and admirers navigate personal and family crises through her spiritual wisdom. The stated purpose of her special televised visit to Ferguson was to “join the community in finding a path from violence into healing.” Looking into the OWN cameras she stated, “We are heading off to Ferguson, Missouri, hopefully to bring a healing bond to a very hurt and angry outraged community. A community that’s calling for justice.” After praying, singing a Negro spiritual, and making a water offering to pay homage to Michael Brown, she talked with locals, and then sat down with Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Brown’s great uncle, the Rev. Charles Ewing. After Ewing expressed his emotions and fears, Vanzant asked the chief several apropos questions about the investigation—How did this shooting happen on his watch? Why was there no police report made immediately? Why the tear gas, etc. Seeing the chief flummoxed, however, she relented and asked what he needed in order to conduct a thorough investigation. “Fourteen days of peace,” he responded. Vanzant asked Ewing on camera if he could agree to such terms. He did. The peaceful protests were actually the result of an incompetent investigation shrouded in secrecy and nondisclosure (the lack of an officer statement, no immediate police report, etc.). However, for Vanzant and her crew, black protest was the cause of the slack legal proceedings. Stopping the protest would be a show of good faith by African Americans, and the condition by which justice and transparency would flow freely.

My respective encounters with these echoing critiques left me with one question: Why must black people and black communities always prove themselves worthy of receiving justice?

Local and national discussions in the aftermath of Brown (as before the shooting) continually link just proceedings in the case to black performances of respectability and decorum. Justice is held up as a gift bestowed upon “model” minorities and their communities. Equal treatment under the law is not deemed a right. It’s a prize.

As my coffee shop lecturer kindly told me, “See, look at you,” he said, dressed in his shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. “Look at how you dress. You aren’t scary and intimidating like those folks over there on the north side.” My necktie won me the prize of his gracious presence, comments, and the benefit of presumed innocence and worth. Glad I wore a tie on my day off.

This local and national mood, and the religious language that complements it, is deeply flawed. Spiritual guidance that calls for racial minorities to prove their individual and collective abilities and respectabilities before they can expect justice or seek the accountability of their elected officials is paralyzing. Moreover, as Howard Thurman wrote in The Luminous Darkness in 1965, it further entrenches the ideology that the wealthier classes and those in power are the rightful and “sole judges of who should and who should not be granted the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship.” Everyday people are rendered as idle patients of democracy or undeserving beggars waiting on the diagnosis and alms of elites. Once black communities get in line, “black leaders” can then bargain for equality on their behalf.

When a local or national religious professional and/or celebrity cleric unintentionally espouses such “politically debilitating” spirituality, as Jeff Stout points out in his book Blessed Are the Organized, that minister can be said to be negligent at best. If the spiritual guru is intentional in such effects, “something harsher should be said.”

One thing can certainly be said now: Part of the work of doing justice and pursuing equal treatment under the law in the aftermath of the Brown shooting is to eschew all rhetoric, monologues, dialogues, and reasoning that unwittingly or purposely supports ideas of black pathology (black-on-black crime) or places black and/or poor communities in the position of proving that they are worthy of due process and the resources of justice American law provides all its citizens.

This kind of freedom language may not be abundant in the chatter of coffee shops across the region and nation or in the pronouncements of national media, celebrity ministers, and life coaches. However, I have heard it echoed countless times during peaceful marches, in local faith communities like Christ the King, Washington Missionary Baptist Church, and Eden Theological Seminary, as well as in the meetings of local groups, such as the Organization of Black Struggle and the Metropolitan Congregations United and their partners, and in many classrooms at Washington University in St. Louis. The call is the same: Just investigations are guaranteed under our constitution for all U.S. citizens regardless of race and class. It is not a gift. It is a right.

Without this shift pervading both our local and national conversations, we will have missed one fundamental lesson of “this whole Michael Brown thing.”

Lerone A. Martin is Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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The Religious Roots of the Wilderness Act Tue, 02 Sep 2014 14:00:47 +0000 (David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty).

(David McNew/Hulton Archive/Getty)

When Howard Zahniser was drafting the Wilderness Act—which marks its 50th anniversary today—he confided to a colleague that he wished he were writing poetry instead. “If I had to do this again,” he wrote, “I would much prefer to state all this in iambic rhyming couplets or even in the sequence of sonnets.”

Zahniser drafted his bill in prose, of course, and its details, at least initially, seem prosaic. The Wilderness Act bans all kinds of motors, roads, and permanent structures from large tracts of American territory. It provides a legal definition of wilderness, as land that’s “untrammeled by man” with a “primeval character and influence.” Over the last half-century, the federal government has used the Act to preserve more than 100 million acres of land. It may be the most comprehensive, stringent land protection bill in legislative history.

We take it for granted that wild, inhuman areas are beautiful, uplifting, and worthy of protection; that the natural is superior to the artificial; and that something pristine and untouched by human hands is better than something that’s been touched by human interference.

None of these ideas, though, just emerge automatically in the depths of our modern souls. When we drink bottled water with a picture of an alpine waterfall on the label, seek out foods free of genetically modified ingredients, try to mimic the eating habits of our Paleolithic ancestors, or visit one of the country’s wilderness areas, we’re reflecting a very particular way of thinking about purity, and a very particular kind of skepticism toward humanity’s ability to improve upon nature.

These ways of thinking aren’t religious, exactly. But they’re entangled with religious stories, and religious experiences. With the Wilderness Act turning 50, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the religious roots of our fascination with primeval lands, “untrammeled by man.” After all, that fascination owes much to Romantic spirituality, mountain mystics, and the Book of Genesis. Zahniser wasn’t kidding: the Wilderness Act is policy founded on poetry.

It all starts, of course, at the beginning, with a tale of three gardens.

The first is the Garden of Eden, as depicted in Genesis. Eden is portrayed as very much an agricultural paradise, as the Biblical scholar Theodore Hiebert has pointed out. Eden’s trees are selected for the quality of their fruit. The garden needs human cultivation: “God took the man and placed him the Garden of Eden,” says Genesis, “to till it and tend it.” In a description that spans fewer than 300 words, the author of Genesis still finds time to explain how Eden is irrigated.

Eden is neither a desert nor a wilderness. When the Bible does talk about wilderness, it’s usually as a kind of testing ground: the harsh lands through which the Israelites would be forced to wander for 40 years, and where Jesus would face his Satanic test. In Isaiah, the prophet foresees a time when a voice will proclaim “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!” Suffice it to say that such activities would not be permitted under the Wilderness Act.

Over time, Eden evolves, which brings us to our second garden, the earthly paradise that issued from the imagination of John Milton. In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the spare prose of Genesis and elaborates it into thousands of lines of elegant pentameter. Milton’s Eden, like that of Genesis, is watery and lush. But Milton takes the Garden and makes it a bit wilder. The agricultural details fade away. Eden, now, is ringed by mountains and dense forests, “a steep wilderness” that’s “grottesque[sic] and wild.” Eden’s river, in Milton’s rendering, has a rapid current and a waterfall. There are grottoes and caves nearby. The land is beautiful, pastoral, and poetic. Eden isn’t just a garden. It is, in Milton’s words, “a Lantskip.” A landscape.

Paradise Lost was a bestseller, and Milton’s description of Eden would, among other effects, help revolutionize English gardening, making it more apt to mimic natural forms. (In this detail, and others, I’m indebted to the work of the historian Mark Stoll). It would set off, too, a slow-burning Eden fever. In the 1790s, a certain Thomas Butts visited the poet William Blake and his wife, Catherine, at their home in London. They were in their garden, naked, reciting sections of Paradise Lost. “Come in!” Blake is reported to have said. “It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!”

To Romantic thinkers like Blake, Eden wasn’t necessarily an actual geographic place waiting to be discovered (as many explorers have hoped), nor was it a kind of theological promise, the Zion to which one could return through piety and divine grace. It was, more than anything else, a state of mind—a state of mind that ran counter to the strictures of civilization. It could be discovered, perhaps, in the back garden of a London suburb. As Parita Mukta and David Hardiman write in “The Political Ecology of Nostalgia,” “During the 19th century, the search for Eden became displaced. No longer was it looked for in the form of a contemporary social and geographical reality, but as a state of being which had existed in the past of human society, and which would be resurrected in the future.”

That state of being could be found in certain landscapes. Our final garden sits in the mountains of California. Waters wend their way right down the middle. There are waterfalls nearby. It’s a pleasant park, ringed by steep mountain slopes. Throughout the nineteenth-century, poets, writers, and travelers visited Yosemite Valley and, as Stoll writes, they regularly compared it to Eden, with both explicit and implicit nods to Milton.

It should be noted, though, that the Romantic ideal of wilderness, which was later enshrined in the Wilderness Act, is in large part an illusion. The New World, after all, had been inhabited, for millennia, by cultures perfectly capable of trammeling the land. The landscape of North America was much further from its primeval state than most European settlers realized.

Nevertheless, Yosemite would also become the world’s first protected wilderness park in 1864. But it wasn’t just Yosemite that evoked thoughts of Milton in its visitors. Comparing the American backcountry to Eden, or to Zion, or to Arcadia, was a common pastime among nineteenth-century Americans. In a famous painting, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the founder of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole, rendered the expulsion from Eden in the style of an American landscape painting. As many critics complained at the time, Cole had blatantly plagiarized—and Americanized—some recently published illustrations, by the British artist John Martin, for an edition of Paradise Lost.

It wasn’t necessarily that Cole and others thought they had found the literal Eden. They had found a landscape that seemed to conform to their expectations of what an Edenic experience would be like: a place that seemed primeval, untouched by man, and separate from society, where the governing law was not the law of man, but a law of nature, or a law of God. This vision of Eden sounded different from an orderly agricultural paradise, tilled by Farmer Adam. It’s closer to Milton’s sublime Eden-scape, with its waterfalls and grottoes. And it expresses a very upper class, very civilized yearning for something—anything!—that seemed uncivilized.

THE URGE THAT NINETEENTH-CENTURY Americans felt to connect with a landscape untouched by the conscious working of human hands remains a force in modern society. With greater technological power, it seems, comes a greater yearning for the un-technological (the Wilderness Act, with its lengthy provisions against road-building, was passed in the midst of Interstate construction). Pay a visit to farmer’s market today, and it can feel as if you’ve entered a kind of reverse Jetsons, in which people in sleek cars, with substantial material comforts, imagine a future that looks like the past. Or chat with Paleo Dieters, who try to model their way of eating on the hunter-gatherers. These phenomena share a sense—seen in fantasies of Edenic submission; in ideas of the Noble Savage, in tune with the workings of nature; in polices that, like the Wilderness Act, ban technology—that there exists something purer, something realer, once you cross beyond the edges of human control.

Fittingly, what characterizes the heroes of the wilderness movement in the United States, above all, is their capacity for total abandon. Reading the memoirs of John Muir, it’s astonishing to realize how often Muir nearly died—trapped under a waterfall on a frozen night, after trying to glimpse the moon through the watery veil; sitting high in a tree during a mountain storm; stuck while free climbing a high cliff. Muir’s writing is ecstatic, laced with Biblical imagery and wild adventure. “Adam and Eve lose paradise through an act of choice,” writes the historian David Wyatt in The Fall Into Eden. “Muir regains it through an act of abandon.”

In a milder way, the same can be said of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act. The son of a Free Methodist minister, Zahniser was a devout, albeit unorthodox, Christian. After a stint with the federal government, he spent the last twenty years of the his life working for the Wilderness Society. Zahniser died in 1964, just weeks before the House of Representatives passed his Act, by a margin of 374-1.

In 1957, Zahniser had a mystical experience while camping in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. “As I lay there, inspired to worship, the words from some psalm came to mind: ‘Great peace have they which love thy law,’” Zahniser later wrote, quoting Psalm 119. “It came to me—a thought—that the peace of wilderness is indeed a peace of orderliness, of law.”

Zahniser was a bureaucrat, but his epiphany isn’t all that different from Muir’s mountain reveries. Nor it is all that different, I suspect, from the search for Eden in the vistas of the New World: namely, a hope that, when one sets aside the laws of civilization, another kind of law will appear, one that’s older, truer, and better than whatever humans have devised. Eden, after all, wasn’t just the landscape of primeval innocence. It was a fine-tuned mechanism, prepared to tick perpetually, and blessed with the most inhuman—the most divine—of designs.

BY THE 1960s, ZAHNISER was, perhaps, unusual for his explicit mixing of faith and preservationism.  “Early on, the environmental movement was deeply suspicious of religious people, and religious people were deeply suspicious of the environmental movement,” said Rebecca Gould, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at Middlebury College, in reference to the budding environmentalism of the 1960s and ’70s. As we spoke by phone, Gould was feeding her flock of five sheep. Her research focuses on the growing alliances between evangelical Christians and environmental groups, “a process that began the 1990s and has continued since.”

This deepening of Christian environmental activism, much of it oriented toward climate change, can feel fresh. But, as the roots of the Wilderness Act remind us, American attention to the environment has long been inflected with religious overtones. At times, those overtones may sound more pantheistic than Biblical. But, as Gould says, “I think underneath there’s always this love of nature as part of the American story.”

In 1967, Robert Bellah wrote a landmark, controversial essay about the concept of an American civil religion. Civil religion, in Bellah’s mind, isn’t specific to Christianity or Judaism or any other faith. It is, instead, “a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals” that permeates the public sphere, and that help the nation make sense of itself and its purposes.

Strangely, discussions of civil religion rarely touch on the idea of wilderness, even as wilderness areas become a kind of American sacred space, with sharp boundaries dividing them from other kinds of land, and with allusive names (Zion National Park). Wilderness protection, like so many religious searches, involves a search for something permanent, with a kind of order that transcends human law. In its own way, the Wilderness Act is a legislative attempt to grapple with the idea of eternity. Dealing with primeval landscapes, and with the idea of permanent protection, Congress addresses itself to timescales that are more commonly the purview of priests and paleontologists. As Zahniser told the Sierra Club in 1961, “We are working for a wilderness forever.”

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. 

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The Hope of Ferguson Mon, 25 Aug 2014 17:56:39 +0000 Canfield Drive in Ferguson

A shirt and roses are left at the spot where Michael Brown was killed by police Aug. 9 on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In May 1970 four unarmed college students were shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. The iconic image from that horrific episode is a photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old girl, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller on a university road. Its details—the mundane particularities of green lawns and academic buildings juxtaposed to students walking and standing around randomly, enveloped in a moment of collective disbelief and shock around the fact of a dead body—evoke both the startling specter of mortality and the terrifying suddenness with which tragedy can intrude on the business of ordinary life. Bodies ground us. At once unrelentingly specific and yet universal, flesh and blood keep us undeniably tied to the forces of life and death that we can’t escape. During the Civil War, the body of abolitionist John Brown, martyred for his attempt to foment a slave insurrection in 1859, gave birth to a song sung by Union soldiers and eventually transformed into a nationalist theme, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And the body—first crucified, then resurrected—forms the core of the message for Christian believers, who celebrate both the particularity of the incarnation, of God in Jesus, and celebrate the universal message of salvation that Christ’s triumph over death offers them.

So, too, the mental picture of Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Drive in Ferguson has been evoked, memorialized, and etched into the minds of people within and beyond the limits of that small town over the last few weeks. The blood that escaped from Brown’s lifeless body as it lay for four hours in the road has now been replaced by rose petals, posters, balloons, and stuffed animals. But the memory of that body endures and has, indeed, been invoked as a powerful symbol in these days of frustration and sorrow. For some protesters and residents, it represents an enduring history of black bodies enslaved, lynched, and shot down senselessly, a struggle that continues. For others, it offers the hope of a renewed movement to combat injustice.

For the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, bodies are the business of the Christian church. She was already a formidably busy woman, working both as a pastor and a nurse, both professions in which intensive care for others plays a prominent role. But she has been on the run since Michael Brown’s shooting: less than five miles from Canfield Drive, Christ the King has served as a community gathering place for residents and their supporters. The church has hosted several packed meetings, and has collected goods for the residents of the Canfield Drive neighborhood who have been terrified by nights of unrest. Rev. Blackmon has counseled congregants and local residents, she has run to the grocery store for mothers stranded by the suspension of bus services, she has organized food distribution, and she is now planning a candlelight vigil for one evening and a session with Elder Bernice King, of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violence and Social Change, for the next. She attends to the bodies that remain, helping them both to commemorate the dead and to move on and work for a better way.

She is not the only shepherd of black bodies in Ferguson and beyond. Clergy and their community supporters in social work and mental health care have been meeting on a regular basis, organizing voter registration, food drives, career counseling, childcare, and even finding alternate housing for residents affected by tear gas. Karen Anderson and Tommie Pierson, two other local pastors, among numerous others, have been equally consumed in caring for bodies. To be sure, there are plenty of visitors—media, ministers, politicians, and others—who have claimed Michael Brown’s body for larger purposes: as a symptom of pressing social ills, of state sanctioned control of African Americans, of enduring economic structures that prevent social mobility. And white ministers locally have also been involved in protests, support, and community workshops to educate local Christians about the history of a city that they may never have heard.

All this is critically important, Blackmon reminds us. Christians need to advocate for peace, for justice, and for healing. But being in her presence for even a short amount of time reminds you that her focus starts with the body and its immediate needs. She is unrelentingly particular in her approach. The first week after Brown’s death, she preached a guest sermon in Kansas City, taking as her theme “The Blood Did It.” In her address she spoke about the body in Ferguson, relating it both to her own role as a mother of three children and as an African American who shared a history of distrust of the legal system. And she connected it to the blood of Jesus and the unity of believers made possible by his sacrifice. This week, her message back at her home church ranged widely, circling around Michael Brown’s death. Her main focus was on the interconnection of people: “We are not alone,” she insisted. Not the protesters, not the looters, not the police, not the Brown family. We need one another to get through this and to move on.

The essayist Rebecca Solnit has written persuasively about the need to use the past, to learn from it, but to move into the future with hope: “The past guides us; the future needs us.” So much of what has been written about Ferguson lingers on the anger and frustration, and keeps people trapped in cycles of recrimination. And there is plenty of anger to go around. Many folks, mostly whites who are sick of hearing about their complicity in racist institutions and structures, just want everyone to get over the past and move on. For African Americans, and for others who were inescapably shaped by the racial injustices of the last century, the past has been a touchstone as well as a burden, providing hope and solace along with grief. It’s a body that they can’t give up, but need to use to move forward.

But if anyone will help us find a way forward, it is the Traci Blackmon’s of this world. Traditionally there has been a division within black churches, between those who saw their main mission as advocating for political change and social justice, and those who provided food and solace, ministering to bodies but not seeking to reform structural impediments to full equality. The black churches around Ferguson reveal a very different, and more hopeful strategy. Heal the bodies, be present with bodies, resurrect the deadened bodies, and you can help them change the world.

At the conclusion of the service yesterday morning at Christ the King, the Rev. Blackmon invited those who wanted to join the church to come forward. She was met there by a young mother from the Canfield Green apartments who will join the church soon. In her introduction of the new member, Blackmon quipped that some people have said the role of the pastor is to give voice to the voiceless: “I don’t believe that there is anyone without a voice. There are only people without an audience.” Her role, as she sees it, is to find the audience, to let the residents of Ferguson speak up, participate, vote, and bring their own voices to life.

Such a strategy may bring social order, she asserts. But peace may not be the ideal outcome, as she says, “We don’t need peace right now—we need unrest.” Maybe she is implying that only death brings peace, while life offers something more complicated but more vital. A movement, not a memorial. Many clergy in St. Louis, both black and white, are hoping that communal resurrection will come from the tomb of Canfield Drive.

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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Amnesty Is Not the Answer Without Genuine Border Security Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:57 +0000 Over the last several years numerous prominent evangelical officials and agencies have assertively advocated mass legalization of illegal immigrants as a biblical imperative. They joined more liberal Mainline Protestant agencies and officials, who have for many years urged this same policy. Both liberal Protestants and evangelicals frequently cited Old Testament commands to offer hospitality to strangers as their theological justification for sweeping immigration legislation.

Evangelicals are an important Republican constituency. So mobilizing evangelical support for legalization was considered key to persuading the GOP-run U.S. House of Representatives to acquiesce to the U.S. Senate’s version of comprehensive immigration reform, which included legalization first followed by later border security enhancements.

The Evangelical Immigration Table, a program of the National Immigration Forum, was formed to rally evangelicals for the legalization cause. With generous funding, it gathered an impressive list of endorsing organizations and individual religious leaders, from Jim Wallis’ Sojourners on the left, to the National Association of Evangelicals in the center, to Southern Baptists on the right. Hundreds of clergy were flown into D.C. for rallies. There were national radio and newspaper ads. There was a very successful media campaign, with almost every major news outlet announcing that immigration “reform” was the new key issue for evangelicals.

But as one Southern Baptist supporter of the immigration push regretted, it was largely a “grass tops” and not a “grassroots” campaign. Supposedly countless polls proved that evangelicals, along with nearly all other Americans, backed mass legalization over mass deportation. But almost no House Republicans were persuaded. The surprising defeat of GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his June primary in Virginia against an outspoken legalization opponent helped to ensure the death of sweeping immigration legislation in this Congress.

The Evangelical Immigration Table after Cantor’s loss was defiant, and prominent evangelicals signed a letter to the GOP House leadership insisting they pass immigration legislation before the August recess. But soon even President Obama acknowledged publicly that immigration “reform” was dead for this year.

Why were the evangelical advocates for mass legalization not more effective politically, despite tremendous funding, organization, and media? They perhaps believed their own media hype. Polls usually show evangelicals and others favoring legalization over mass deportations, if forced to choose between the two, although almost nobody advocates the latter. But polls also show most Americans, and almost certainly most evangelicals, favor security first before mass legalization. And when asked, most evangelicals favor reduced levels of even legal immigration. Even when forced to choose between legalization or deportation, evangelical support for the former actually dropped earlier this summer, despite the massive media blitz, according to a report at The Atlantic.

So why have evangelicals not followed many of their elites urging mass legalization? What is the right way for churches and people of faith to address illegal immigration? And how does the recent influx of minors from Central America affect the debate?

Nearly all polls show that evangelicals are the least supportive among religious groups of legalization proposals. Most evangelicals are conservative, and shifting them into a new cause not seen as conservative is naturally difficult. Like other skeptics of immigration “reform,” many likely are doubtful that the promised increased security that would follow mass legalization, as in the Senate legislation, would ever actually happen. The Evangelical Immigration Table pledged support for “secure national borders.” But the rhetoric of its leaders often implied otherwise. Some evangelical elites emphasized that all immigrants, legal or otherwise, are biblical style “sojourners” meriting full hospitality. Some faulted political opposition on racism and xenophobia, disregarding serious arguments for security.

Evangelicals have for decades often politically mobilized for issues like abortion, marriage, and religious freedom. These issues are closely tied to historic Christian teachings. Despite claims of “biblical” immigration policy, the Bible offers no specific policy guidance on U.S. immigration law in the twenty-first century. Christian teaching broadly affirms the dignity of all persons, and the state’s vocation for maintaining order. But the details of immigration law, like most of politics, are matters of prudential judgment about which Christians and others of good will can disagree.

The Catholic bishops, like some evangelical elites, strongly favor mass legalization. But Catholic teaching, with more nuance than often found in evangelical thought, suggests a hierarchy of teachings. Not all public policy issues have binding direction from Christian faith or equally compelling urgency. For example, Catholic teaching asserts that church strictures against abortion and euthanasia are absolutely binding. But what bishops may say about economic policy, or immigration law, while instructive and important, doesn’t claim the same binding moral authority, leaving room for prudential judgment. Evangelicals, among whom I number, can learn from Catholic thought.

Groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table, to be more effective, might take more seriously the deep concerns of legalization critics. What is the economic impact on working-class natives and legal immigrants of increased immigration and mass legalization? What are the theological imperatives for governments to secure borders? When does justice require deportations? And why not prioritize security first, which might facilitate a broader coalition for a legalization process later?

Finally, the dramatic arrival of many underage illegal immigrants at the border has aroused calls by many religious legalization advocates for the U.S. to embrace all minors who arrive at our shores. Churches are right to offer their ministry of compassion to all. But too many religious activists confuse the church’s vocation with the state’s. And often they succumb to narrow sentiment of the moment while disregarding potential unintended consequences of the future.

Many minors and adults illegally rushing to our borders did so believing de facto U.S. policy would permit their entry. Further talk of legalization or non-enforcement inevitably will encourage others to make the dangerous journey. Meanwhile millions around the world, many of whom live amid greater poverty and violence than Central Americans, wait for years for legal entry.

Evangelical elites and other religious advocates for mass legalization would be less polarizing and more persuasive if they listened to, instead of speaking for, their own constituency. They would do well to show more interest in genuine border security and to stop stigmatizing its advocates, recognizing that the Bible is not a detailed political manifesto. Churches would be more faithful to their vocation if they encouraged conversation and consensus on issues like immigration instead of contentious and dogmatic advocacy for only one side in the debate.

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The Blame Belongs to House Republicans Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:54 +0000 Long a priority of the faith community, comprehensive immigration reform is dead. Our response to thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at our southern border points to the consequences of our broken immigration system and our broken politics. Instead of using the legislative process to institute a reform that a majority of the people and their representatives favor, it appears that we are going to muddle along and deal with the issue incrementally in accordance with what best suits the Republican Party’s political interests.

What should have happened—truly for the best interests of all—is straightforward.  In 2013, U.S. Senators on both sides of the aisle created a bipartisan, comprehensive plan to secure our borders, protect intact immigrant families, and offer a pathway to citizenship for those who were in the U.S. illegally but who were willing to wait in line, pay a fine, and meet other requirements. Neither party received all of what it wanted, but the Senate nonetheless compromised and passed a good piece of legislation last July. That’s what competent, functional legislative chambers do.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the Capitol, we no longer have a competent, functional legislative chamber. The House of Representatives should have passed the bipartisan Senate bill. House Speaker John Boehner is, like his predecessors, loath to pass legislation that a majority of his party opposes. Yet at key moments, Boehner has broken this unwritten rule (called the “Hastert Rule”) and passed legislation with mostly Democratic votes in order to avoid political harm to his party (as when he reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act) or economic calamity to the nation (as when he ended the GOP’s shutdown of the federal government and prevented the Tea Party from forcing the U.S. to default on the national debt). Though he claimed he wanted to lead on immigration, Boehner was bullied into submission by his party’s right flank. His weak leadership means that, in the end, broader Republican political and electoral considerations will determine when the House GOP will, and it inevitably will, hold its nose and pass immigration reform.

The House Republican Conference is divided on the issue of immigration and, among its manifold disagreements about policy and politics, clearly lacks a consensus view on the party’s future self-interest. To most Republican leaders, it is clear that the party must expand its reach to groups other than churchgoing and/or affluent whites. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an author of the Senate bill, warns the GOP not to be “delusional” about immigration. “If we keep playing this game that self deportation is the only answer for the Republican Party, we will have destroyed our chances in 2016 and dealt a death blow to our party” because of long term demographic changes, Graham said.

In this line of thinking, it is not only good policy but also good politics for the GOP to support immigration reform. Republicans should want to compete for the growing Hispanic vote. They should not cede it to the Democrats for generations as they did with African Americans. Liberty University’s Mat Staver and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez argue that embracing immigration is consistent with Christian values and conservative politics: “If we ever hope to see a social conservative return to the White House, we would do well to encourage our legislators to embrace the bipartisan proposals for immigration reform.”

The faith coalition that emerged to support immigration reform was almost unprecedented in its unanimity. It was quite an achievement to bring the less reflexively partisan elements of the Christian right alongside the Catholic Church and liberal and ethnic minority Protestant groups. Conservative faith leaders are used to having their way with Republicans on sex-related issues. Catholics and moderate evangelicals are often influential because neither party owns them. I have written elsewhere about why even conservative evangelical support could not save immigration reform. It is actually quite normal for GOP leaders to defy their pastors, bishops, and denominations. They do it on non-sex-related issues every day. Faith leaders’ activism, however admirable, is rarely decisive. Greater political forces conspired to render the near-unanimous voice of the faith community virtually irrelevant. The Republican Party knows that Southern Baptists and Mormons aren’t going anywhere.

The politics of the issue are more complex than many advocates let on. Immigration reform would be a difficult vote for GOP representatives in relatively homogenous white districts. Just because the Republicans as presently constituted have no future in 2050 does not mean they cannot survive—and even thrive—as a white party for the next several decades. Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels reminds us, “Even momentous demographic changes occur slowly; non-Hispanic whites will remain a majority of the U.S. population for the next 30 years, and a majority of the electorate even longer.” In the meantime, empirical research suggests that the specter of increased immigration could create a white backlash that further benefits the GOP.

If the House GOP thought immigration reform would improve its prospects of adding to its majority in 2014, it would have acted. Many observers still expect Boehner to pass the reform next year in order to take it off the table for 2016. But if the GOP strategy is to maximize the white vote and cede overwhelming majorities of Hispanic and Asian American votes to the Democrats, it may prefer to punt on immigration through the 2016 presidential nominating contest as well. After all, there are comparatively few Hispanics in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other winter primary states. The early states that actually do have a sizeable number of Hispanics, Nevada and Colorado, use a caucus system. In any case, few Hispanics vote in Republican primaries because they increasingly identify as Democrats.

House inaction carries one more important benefit for Republicans. In forcing the president to issue executive orders to mitigate the mounting adverse effects of our broken immigration system, the GOP can spin this as further evidence of Obama’s abuse of executive authority.

My friend Mark Tooley is correct to point out that only a small group of utopian liberals wants amnesty and open borders. But neither amnesty nor open borders was ever a part of any serious policy discussion.

Our leaders had ample opportunities to do the right thing, but a powerful minority chose intransigence over compromise and obstruction over governance. The undemocratic result was precisely the opposite of what should have been done. This ruinous course exacerbates the brokenness of Congress, divisions within the Republican Party, and the perilously fractured relationship between the executive and legislative branches. It also helps ensure that the hyper-racialized nature of our politics will continue to be prominent for years to come.

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We Must Fix Our Broken Immigration System Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:45:08 +0000 The U.S. immigration system is broken. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have argued that the immigration system is in urgent need of an overhaul. Essentially we have a twentieth-century immigration system addressing twenty-first century immigration realities. The question is not whether or not we need to repair a broken system but rather what should be done to repair this broken immigration system. I am reminded of the existential question of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the height of the civil rights movement: “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?”

As an evangelical leader, Scripture and Christian tradition help shape the principles I bring to bear on the immigration debate. St. Augustine provides a guiding question for Christians interested in moral laws and good policies. When it comes to any action or law, Augustine asks, “What is the summa bonum (highest good)?” Christians and all people of good will should relentlessly pursue the highest good. The highest good could modernize our immigration system while providing a way for 11 million people, created in the image of God, to come out of the shadows. For the sake of our shared humanity, we must find a better way forward.

While no policy is specifically endorsed by Scripture, biblical principles overwhelmingly point to practicing hospitality while not imposing undue hardships on citizens. Common-sense immigration reform can do both. Scripture continuously underscores the moral mandate of hospitality. The word for hospitality in the New Testament is “xenophilia”— love of the stranger. Love is the highest Christian principle and must always be balanced with justice. That is why I have endorsed the principles of the Evangelical Immigration Table that balance border security, fairness to taxpayers, family unity, and an earned path to citizenship. We can do all of these things. The status quo is both unsustainable and keeps the door closed to approximately 11 million people. Reform would provide a way for many of them to get right with the law and contribute to the future of our country. Few opponents to comprehensive immigration reform have provided a rational response to what do we do with these 11 million people, many of them women and children. No one argues that keeping 11 million people in a state of perpetual limbo is the right course of action.

Of course, love of the stranger must be balanced with love of the citizen. Fortunately, wise immigration policies can do both. Our country has the creative genius and economic viability to make immigration reform a win-win for everyone. Some opponents of common-sense immigration reform said we have a duty to not put undue hardships on those who are already U.S. citizens. We do have this duty, and immigration reform helps us fulfill this responsibility. Any argument that says immigration reform would do irreparable harm to our economy is premised on a false dichotomy of winners and losers that often stokes the flames of economic fears and insecurity. Just laws cannot be based on fear. Moreover, conservatives like Grover Norquist, Alberto Cardenas, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have made the case that immigration reform makes economic and business sense. A recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center reinforced the fact that common-sense immigration reform would help both the economy and contribute to reducing the deficit. Spurious economic arguments that create zero-sum winners and losers are falling away. In short, immigration reform is not just the hospitable thing to do, it is the economically sound way forward. Our country needs bipartisan leadership to move forward on reform this year rather than kicking the can down the legislative road. No action is simply a de-facto endorsement of a broken system.

One of the most difficult tensions to resolve has been between border security and providing a pathway to citizenship. The reality remains that the border is more secure than anytime in history. In addition to a historically high number of deportations, most people enter legally and overstay their visas. Immigration reform could address the issues of both backlog and visas by modernizing our immigration system. Tragically, some have used the argument that the number of unaccompanied children entering the southwest border in recent months is a sign of a porous border. This argument is not supported by the facts. Many of those displaced children are not sneaking into the United States; they are turning themselves in at the border, seeking asylum as they flee from extreme violence and life-threatening conditions. Diverse voices such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the conservative columnist George Will have argued that the United States could easily integrate these children and that playing political ping-pong with the lives of these children is unacceptable. I agree.

The largest obstacle to overcome in the immigration conversation is global myopia. We need a comprehensive response beyond immigration reform. Immigration requires us to look more deeply at U.S. foreign policies and their effects on the people of the world. Immigration conversations require that we take a close look at economic depravation, gang violence, environmental degradation, corrupt governments, and global hunger. We must advocate for a robust foreign policy of sustainable development and security to address the root causes of mass immigration. Ignoring these realities will always leave us with an incomplete response to the movements of people across borders.

In short, the great commandment of “loving your neighbor as yourself” is at the core of why we advocate immigration reform. When the undocumented man, woman, or child seeking a better life dies in the desert between Mexico and the United States or in a large cargo vessel from Asia, we all mourn. Perhaps the way ahead is simply remembering the words of Christ, when he said, “I was a stranger (xenos) and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35). On immigration reform we can and must do better. Inaction on a broken system is not viable, wise, or the summa bonum.

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From Berlin to Jerusalem, a Lament for Gaza and Israel Tue, 12 Aug 2014 16:18:49 +0000 (Mamoun Wazwaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

(Mamoun Wazwaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This year, I fasted on Tisha b’Av, a Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of both Jewish temples in Jerusalem. In commemoration, on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, Jews fast and read the book of Lamentations, which describes the poverty, violence, and alienation that come with destruction and disenfranchisement.

I don’t often fast, but as the day approached, fasting seemed the intellectually, spiritually honest thing to do. The ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel supplies many losses to grieve: Loss of civilians and soldiers, loss of infrastructure, loss of safe public spaces. Racist violence in Israeli streets and racist pronouncements in news and social media alienate and endanger us.

I know less and less what to say. So I ritually grieved. Grief is not a substitute for speaking; it does not anoint silence with sanctity. As the holy day approached, I mentioned my lamentations to a friend, who replied, “But you’re on the wrong side, aren’t you?”

This seems to be a refrain these days. Critical journalists, thinkers, and activists are maligned as traitors by the Israeli right (and center), accused of complicity with Hamas’s threat to their people and Europe’s malice to their nation. Conversely, those who defend the Israeli government’s actions are accused of moral complacency and callousness in the face of civilian death and destruction. The famed Hebrew poet, Bialik, wrote, “No such revenge—revenge for the blood of a little child—has yet been devised by Satan.” Bialik was quoted by Gideon Hausner, then attorney general of Israel, in his opening arguments in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Bialik was quoted again in Leon Wieseltier’s recent cogent analysis of the morality of the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel.

So, as facile as it is, “Which side are you on?” remains a potent ethical question. Some would say I have no right to grieve Palestinian deaths. Others would say if I include them in my grief, I dishonor my own nation’s fallen soldiers, my own family cowering fearful in bomb shelters throughout Israel. To avoid such discomforting accusations, many of us make a daily discipline of whittling down our identities to simple, stable categories. This helps us make sense of the world, helps us know which deaths to grieve, and helps us decide where to spend our money. I’m an Israeli Jew, so (most of) the losses of July are not mine to grieve. That’s the idea. I think it’s false.

At the end of June, I participated in a ten-day Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), as part of a group of twelve medical students. Several historians and two physician bioethicists guided us through Berlin, Krakow, and Auschwitz, as we studied the role of physicians in the National Socialist apparatus and then invited the history to inform our discussions on contemporary questions in medical ethics.

At sites in which the Holocaust unfolded, FASPE positioned fellows to feel the horror and grief of this history. We also had to examine equally scary, less familiar relationships to this history—namely, to identify with the perpetrators, rather than with the victims. We asked ourselves: As future physicians, how will we be vulnerable to becoming perpetrators of violence? What ethical principles guard against dehumanization not just of us, but also by us?

It was all too easy to find historical relevance. Physicians were instrumental in the development of Nazi murder strategies, for example, in formulating philosophies of “racial hygiene,” planning economies for “public health,” and developing technologies and techniques of abuse and murder. In 1920, German jurist Karl Binding and German psychiatrist Alfred E. Hoche coined the German term translated as “life unworthy of life,” and justified the concept, writing, “The question of whether we can justify the expense necessary in all directions for all these burdensome lives was not urgent in the past age of prosperity. Now that has changed, and we must address it seriously.”  Over the course of the 1920s, physicians and bureaucrats used such ideas to evolve the rhetorical and technological infrastructures that ultimately became the “final solution” and the gas chambers. The logical moves animating these arguments are uncomfortably similar to contemporary bioethics discussions about futility and distributive justice. Similarly uncomfortable resonance can be found in discussions on the tolerable costs of “just war.”

So what is the proper moral calculus, and how does a perpetrator deal with loss? Berlin—the city itself—teaches us about this. The city is textured with ornaments of absence. The artist Gunter Demnig has nestled “stumbling stones” in the sidewalks. These are brass squares, the same dimensions as the surrounding cobble stones, engraved like tombstones, laid in front of apartment buildings from which Jews were captured and deported. Amateur historian Ronnie Golz has etched images and narratives into bus stop shelters, in situ histories describing wartime crimes planned or performed at the nearby addresses. Will Lammert wrought emaciated bronze figures to wait forever on a concrete platform, built into an empty lot where once a building stood. Originally the building housed elderly Jews, then briefly housed all Jews awaiting deportation, then no one, then, one day, it was gone. The grassy lawn behind the lot was a Jewish cemetery, where tombstones once named the buried. The tombstones were desecrated and removed, and German soldiers were buried above, in a mass grave. The few markers that survive now line the perimeter of the property, while the carefully mown lawn looks to the sky.

I thought it would be complicated for me to witness the grief of Germany and Poland—the grief of the perpetrators—because in some ways I see in them the cause of my grief. But my experience, though deep, was uncomplicated. Grief was recognizable and human, even in German.

My friend might say I was on the “wrong side” for these experiences, too. I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, four Jews who fled Europe, in varying states of personal danger and with varying degrees of difficulty, between 1934 and 1942. Houses abandoned, fortunes lost, families murdered, camp guards blindsided.

But I’m on both sides, aren’t I? I have inherited survivorship, and with it a complex of anger, grief, and pain, and I will be a physician, ambitious and empowered. If I cannot see myself on both sides of violence, how will I learn to prevent it, from whichever side I awake in the morning? Both possibilities—my vulnerability to violence, my capacity to do violence—guide my ethical action. If I do not see my vulnerability to be manipulated by power, bureaucracy, habit, or bias, then how could I hope to protect others who will be vulnerable in my hands?

As FASPE ended and I traveled to Israel to visit family and friends, I was still asking these questions. It was the first week of July. Three Israeli boys had been kidnapped and murdered, with funding and support from Hamas, and the Israeli government was responding by attacking Hamas institutions. Three Israeli men also responded by kidnapping and burning alive, to death, a teenage Palestinian boy from a north Jerusalem neighborhood. In that first week of July, as I walked through neighborhoods of West Jerusalem, from my grandmother’s apartment in Old Katamon to the old city, I passed clumps of teenagers chanting for revenge. At a rally in Tel Aviv, against a war we all knew was coming, people cursed at us as they passed. Leftists called right-wing apologists fascists, right-wing demonstrators called for revenge against leftists and Arabs, and no one seemed ashamed of themselves.

Hamas’s violence toward Israelis and Palestinians is unconscionable, and many writers have written articulately about this. Does this assessment bring all Israeli actions within the category of self-defense? I have studied the doctrine of double effect and proportionality in war, but are these sufficient moral foundations for relationships among neighbors? Is there a distinct line between self-defense and immoral killing? Or is it possible that one act can accomplish both? I couldn’t help but ask these questions, walking the worn limestone streets in the Jerusalem pedestrian malls, crossing the narrow state to swim into the salty, swirling sea.

These are uncomfortable questions to ask in the Jewish state, maybe in any state. There seems to be an anxiety that allowing an imaginative or discursive space where we might be impugned as perpetrators would cost us existential rights. We like to think of our violence as limited to the moral performance of self-defense. But the categories in which we see ourselves must be flexible, or they cannot be accurate. We need to be able to see ourselves as possible perpetrators in order to make astute assessments of the political situations in which we find ourselves, and this is necessary in order to stand on moral ground.

Perhaps this flexibility is the privilege of my generation, a third generation of Holocaust survivors, who grew up benefiting from some of the healing that our grandparents and parents did. Our parents and grandparents fulfilled a moral obligation to bear witness to the insults and injuries that they so narrowly survived.

I inherit this moral obligation to witness, and perhaps it includes a moral obligation to bear witness to other injuries, too? Perhaps I am obliged to fast when someone else’s city is destroyed, even as it is destroyed in my name? Perhaps I must fast and mourn and be a friend against hatred, however disenfranchised that position?

It is important to be able to recognize myself on both sides. The book of Lamentations describes Jerusalem among her own adversaries; it counts her transgressions among the root causes of her destruction by foreign armies. This attitude does not exhaust the moral or causal relationships in war, nor would I rely on self-blame to teach me all of the necessary political lessons that must be learned. Still, this attitude teaches us to reflect critically on our own actions, to see our failures even if they are ugly. It teaches us to think about long-term consequences in the causal chain of our actions. It may teach us, this summer, that defense has not been our only form of aggression, and aggression may not be a reliable form of defense.

Yael Shinar is an Israeli American poet. She is a second-year medical student at the University of Michigan and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.

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