Sunday, January 20, 2008

Labeling Faith and Justice

I remember watching a presidential debate four years ago in which John Kerry was asked to explain his pro-choice position in terms of his Catholic faith. His answer was painful to endure. A veteran politician who surely had to answer this question many times, he had neither the words nor the disposition to talk about his own faith. His response was like scratching fingernails down a blackboard.

That is when it hit me forcefully that the religious right has thoroughly hijacked the language and agenda connecting faith and public policy. I had worked extensively in ecumenical settings over the years and I knew very well that religion had no political affiliation. I knew that there were eloquent voices of faith speaking to issues of peace, justice, and equality. But those voices were seldom mentioned in the media, and were largely ignored by the politicians who needed their insights and their support.

After the Democrats got thumped in 2004 some politicians who embraced the cause of social justice discovered they were in need of some pastoring, and perhaps some mentoring. I posted some thoughts on this at the time, focusing particularly on Jim Wallis and his very influential book, God's Politics. It became evident that a broader understanding of faith and politics was being birthed in the national media.

Now comes a post by Brian McLaren, chair of Sojourners, one of my favorite faith and justice organizations, in which he describes the need for a new name to attach to folks like him:

A lot of us are people without a label these days.

Media folks want to call us the “Religious Left,” since they can tell we’re not the Religious Right. But that bipolar terminology brings a lot of baggage we neither want nor believe in. There’s “Progressive Christians” – but that’s interpreted by some as a euphemism for “Religious Left.” Some people like to mix red/Republican and blue/Democrat and speak of “Purple Christians,” but the image for me evokes bug-eyed believers who have held their breath too long.

Despite the progress made since 2004, it seems that the "faith agenda" is now dominated by Huckabee evangelicals and Romney Mormons--a fascinating thing to watch but certainly not something driven by social justice issues. Obama has pulpit oratory reminiscent of the black preachers but religion is not really at the heart of the man or his policies. The efforts of other candidates to utilize faith talk has been at best uninspiring and sometimes embarrassing. Once again the presidential campaign is lacking the voice that finds justice, not creationism, in faith, and that names the poor, not the privileged, as a religious cause.

Labels are often a negative thing. They oversimplify. They divide. They minimize.

But sometimes a wisp of an idea, however virtuous, needs first to be named. A label will guarantee nothing. It is by deeds that we shall be known. But those of us whose faith embraces social justice need to find a name that gives voice and identity to the cause, perhaps the calling, that defines us and unites us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Huckabee's Pulpit

A few months ago I commented to friends that if I was a religious evangelical and political conservative I'd be looking at Mike Huckabee as a presidential candidate. He is articulate and humorous. His conservative credentials are strong. He's a Baptist preacher, far more orthodox by Protestant Christian standards than Mitt Romney, a Mormon and the other claimant for the religious right vote.

Sure enough, his personal charm and down home style began to attract a following. Running in what many feel is a weak Republican field, he scored an unexpected victory in the Iowa caucuses. Now he has jumped to the top of many national polls.

We should be very afraid.

On January 14 in Warren, Michigan, Huckabee was speaking to a large crowd about proposals for a constitutional human life amendment and an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. I knew his position on those issues, but nothing had prepared me to hear him say this:
I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do is amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than trying to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.
I have no idea what Huckabee truly meant by this ominous assault on the "wall of separation" between church and state. Even the evangelical magazine Christianity Today seemed troubled by his statement, noting that it may cost him more votes among evangelicals than help him. One can only hope.

The constitutional doctrine pertaining to the separation of church and state is certainly a complex topic and, like all constitutional issues, is part of a living document. We are fortunate that Americans have recognized that amending the constitution is a grave matter and should not be a way of resolving parochial differences on cultural or religious concerns.

I know that many so-called mainstream people of faith are appalled at this dangerous statement from a presidential candidate. We must now hope that evangelicals will see beyond the rhetoric and recognize that Huckabee's position puts their own freedom of religion at risk, and not just that of people whose theology differs from theirs.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Finding One's Voice

At the top of his voice...
Originally uploaded by Matt1962
"Over the last week I listened to you and in the process I found my own voice." Hillary Clinton's remarkable statement following her victory in New Hampshire is worthy of serious reflection.

In some respects the political context of the statement mutes its power and importance. Cynics see it as a premeditated softening of her image in an effort to attract new voters, especially women. Others see a hidden agenda, a strong statement of independence by a candidate with a massive network of supporters all of whom want something from her, and a high profile husband who often upstages her.

Frankly, I don't know what to make of it myself. One could question why it took so long to find her own voice when she has spent over 30 years in politics and now seeks the highest office in the land. We may discover more as time goes on. We can be sure it wasn't a slip of the tongue. Hillary Clinton, whatever one may think of her, doesn't make such statements without calculation. Some think that demonstrates seriousness and clarity; others think it depicts a robotic, programmed woman with no soul.

But in truth I don't really care what was behind the statement. I'm sure most of us have found ourselves in situations where life's circumstances leave us feeling inauthentic, abandoned, and experiencing what some call anomie--an uncertain sense of self. In their extreme such conditions lead to depression and a feeling that life has no meaning. For many it is experienced as a loss of voice.

Agents of social change sometimes say they are functioning as a voice for those who have no voice. Others speak of an inner voice, sometimes defined as conscience, discernment, or calling. Those of us with five decades or so of living will remember the famous trademark that depicted the dog Nipper looking into a gramaphone and hearing the voice of his deceased master. The trademark then took on the caption "His Master's Voice" and became the identifiable image of RCA for many years. Voice transcended death and its sting.

Finding one's voice isn't easy. It requires self awareness and transparency. It can be kind of scary, but it can also be exhilarating. I think I've found mine on occasion, but too often it eludes me and begins to sound like laryngitis.

Hillary Clinton's statement was inspiring to me. I hope she is successful in finding and using that voice.

And maybe I'll clear my throat and give it a whirl myself.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Coronation Postponed

Originally uploaded by cizauskas
A few days ago I posted my concerns about Iowa and New Hampshire having such an undue influence on the selection of the presidential candidates. I still believe what I wrote, but it must be said that these few days have delivered some unexpected lessons, and important ones at that.

I haven't decided who I will vote for in this election and I see no sign that the various candidates are restlessly awaiting my endorsement. It is an interesting race, however, especially because it is the first time in decades that there is no incumbent president or vice-president on the ballot. So it's fun for us political junkies to play with possibilities.

However, as events unfolded over these few days the media coverage of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary took things to a whole new level. The online and television talking heads starting running out of hyperboles for Barack Obama and soon had him sweeping the country leading a massive transformation of American society, with the entire world soon to follow.

I like Obama very much. He is a tremendous orator and I believe he has the potential to be a change agent of the first order. For a while there I found myself readily embracing what was happening. But somehow it seemed a bit premature to let one night of caucuses in Iowa anoint a global leader of social change. And sure enough, New Hampshire voters trumped Iowa and postponed the coronation.

All of this is caused primarily by a yearning for fundamental change. The incumbent president has led the country into a tragic and unnecessary war that will have spiritual and economic consequences for many years to come. Debate over immigration policy is beginning to expose our underbelly of institutional racism, not unlike our government's response to Katrina. Health care is fast becoming a crisis that could bump the nation into class warfare.

The country needs a leader who can embody hope, articulate a vision, and bring about tangible results. We all have those yearnings and perhaps that makes us a bit too vulnerable. But we must be careful not to allow the media to prepackage the change process through polls and punditry.

There is a lot of wisdom in the common, everyday people of this nation and the world. We will let the media know when the time for transformation has come.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Blogging, Dialogue, and Idiots

It has been a while since this blog has been active so I thought it might be helpful to review a few of my operating assumptions.

I began this endeavor primarily as a way of disciplining myself to write on a regular basis. That goal has obviously been an abject failure, although I'm giving it one more chance.

Secondly, I really didn't want to focus on any particular subject, but just to let that whimsically unfold according to whatever interests me at the time. You will note a predilection on my part to write about faith, culture, and politics--a result of my own education and profession. But there will be a wide variety of issues here, some of them serious and others not so much so.

Thirdly, I had hoped that we could foster some meaningful dialogue. Blogger, which is the progam I use, has many virtues, the most appreciated being its relative simplicity of use. It does have some limitations in fostering dialogue, however, and that is something I will address should there be sufficient interest to do so. In the meantime, please use the "Comments" section appearing at the bottom of each post. Your thoughts and observations are welcomed.

Finally, I would like to explain why I use moderated posting. This simply means that I must approve each comment before it appears on the public list. Please be assured that I do not use that to censor or screen ideas. I welcome those, whether agreeable to me or not. Unfortunately, I found previously that automated "bots" were finding the blog and posting seemingly innocuous entries but often with links to malicious or objectionable contact. I chose the moderation approach to filter out that junk and thereby protect all of us from idiots, unfortunately not including the elected variety. I can access the blog remotely as well as from home so in most cases your comments will be posted very promptly.

So, with housekeeping and explanations out of the way let's see where this takes us, eh?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Iowa Caucuses 2008

Originally uploaded by John Edwards 2008
Today one of the stranger exercises in American politics will unfold in the state of Iowa. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

In some respects it can be seen as a true demonstration of grassroots campaigning. Millionaire candidates find themselves sitting at the kitchen tables of farmers, trying to demonstrate a working knowledge of fertilizers and hoping they won't be called upon to assist in the delivery of a calf. Given the ridiculous amount of time and money invested in Iowa by the major candidates one would think they have shaken the hand of virtually every citizen in the state. I imagine Mitt Romney sends anniversary cards to every heterosexual couple in Iowa.

I went to college in southern Iowa and enjoyed the exposure to life in small town America. I have always valued those years because it gave me a feel for such a life, even though I am an urban guy. So I think it's good for the candidates to step out of their limos and walk the streets of America's small towns. They need to check out the onion rings at the Bluebird Cafe, and cope with the blank stares that come from trying to order a grande latte with a sprinkle of cinnamon on the foam.

On the other hand the caucus system, especially when coupled with the New Hampshire primary a few days later, gives the fine citizens of those states a wildly disproportional say in the selection of the president of the United States. It is ludicrous to suggest that these states are representative of the country, but the selection of the candidates will be a done deal long before the citizens of most states will even know who's running and why.

The truth is that in the next week a few thousand voters are likely to determine the two people who will run for the presidency in 2008. That troubles me very deeply.

Perhaps I shouldn't fuss about it. It could be worse. In 2000 the President of the United States was "elected" in a cloistered room by nine people in black robes.

Dare I say that the result of that decision demonstrates the wisdom of wider consultation?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Blogging and Birthing - A New Beginning

Over the past months I have been reminded, most vigorously by my sons but also by others, that my blog came to something of a cliffhanger ending a year ago.

Having announced that some traditions withstand all change I then had to confess I was wrong. Some traditions, no matter how virtuous or significant, must yield when life intervenes with demands of a higher order. I said such had happened to us on Christmas Day 2006, chose not to give specific details, but assured everyone that all was well.

I did not intend for a year to pass without further posts, nor can I explain why. My sons have goosed me about it a few times. They seem to think that declaring all is well and then dropping off the face of the blogging earth tends to send a mixed message. Some of you have gently inquired and expressed hope that we might begin again.

And so we shall.

The picture accompanying this post is of our son Brian, his wife Lyda, and our first granddaughter Ashley. (If you cannot wait to see more pictures you may find them in abundance here.) She arrived on December 18. 2007, a beautiful burst of new life, and a whole new reason to talk about those things for which I still care very deeply--the creation of community that embodies heritage, diversity, and peace.

I'm not sure where we'll go with the blog. I'm thinking a lot about faith and politics these days. I wonder why? I've got some rants in me and they're looking for an outlet.

The clinic lost my urine sample one day and I think that needs to be discussed. I'm troubled about the fact that restaurants rarely include spoons in their table service anymore. This needs to be exposed.

I'm upset about Darfur, worried about health care, angry with politicians, and optimistic about the Kansas City Royals. Again.

But I'm also feeling kind of soft and gentle these days. You see, I get to hold Ashley quite a bit. And therein is all the hope one needs.

And therein is a good reason to begin again--blogging and birthing.