Covering the Progressive Faith Community

14 June

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

David Brooks‘  (@nytdavidbrooks) column in today’s New York Times is headlined  “Religion and Inequality.”  In it, Brooks laments the decline of religion as a source of cultural standards, leaving “the meritocratic hierarchy of professional success” as the only remaining social metric. That’s all well and good, but the online correction is what really caught my eye:

An earlier version of this column misattributed a passage from Corinthians that ends with the statement, “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” The letter to the Corinthians is by Paul, not Jesus.


13 June

God, Politics and the Difference Between Charity and Justice

Presbyterian minister Mark Sandlin (@marksandlin) minces no words in his list of “10 Political Things You Can’t Do While Following Jesus,” posted on the God’s Politics blog on Sojourners.

Among the items on the the list:

  • Force your religious beliefs and practices on others (#10).
  • Favor the rich over the poor (#8).
  • Support capital punishment–execution (#1).

Sandlin writes that he created this list after an earlier list of things one could not do while following Jesus was criticized for being too political. Instead of retreating, he opted to write an explicitly political list and take whatever grief was headed his way. As one might hope, the comments on both of these blog posts are substantial and interesting.

Not surprisingly, many of the items on the political list deal with policy issues–immigration, budgeting, health care, the death penalty, etc.–and that resurrects the battle over whether Christians are called to follow Jesus personally while leaving government to be government, or whether government–as something we create and maintain–should reflect our core values. I strongly believe the latter, though I recognize it gets tricky when trying to make policy in a religiously and otherwise pluralistic society. For my part, faith motivates me to care, but  I find it easy to make wholly secular arguments in favor of policies that ensure people get food, education and health care.

Furthermore, if we are going to rely solely on personal acts of kindness and charity, we miss the opportunity to seek justice. In our modern, complex society, that comes through policy. Through laws and courts and social movements. Charity is wonderful, but it is not a substitute for justice.

Rev. Scotty McClennan (@scottymcclennan), the dean for religious life at Stanford University, delivered a sharp sermon in 2004, differentiating between charity and justice, drawing heavily on the ideas of McClennan’s mentor, Rev. William Sloane Coffin.

McClennan, who has worked in law and ministry, recalled the emergence of homelessness in the United States in the 1980s:

I was doing a lot of housing law in the 1970’s, when there was virtually no homelessness problem in Boston or anywhere else in the nation. A big problem had developed, though, by the time I left my law practice go to Tufts as the university chaplain in the mid-1980’s. A political decision  had been which had reduced the federal housing budget from $33 billion annually to $7 billion. This was accompanied by political decisions nationwide to de-institutionalize mental patients, without the willingness to fund the community mental health centers required in local neighborhoods to house those patients, as had been promised. A lot of mentally ill people were simply discharged to the streets. As a direct result of these two types of political decisions, in Boston and all over America we suddenly had homeless people visibly everywhere — sleeping in subways, in parks, on heating grates.

Strangely, this was all happening at the same time as new governmental incentives were being implemented for business, along with general tax reductions — helping fuel an economic boom which resulted in enormous increases in wealth for the already well-to-do, but not for the poor, who lost ground during the 1980’s. Churches and other charitable organizations were asked to step in, provide shelters and food pantries, and help the homeless and hungry at dramatic new levels. Now, certainly “The churches have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. But they have also to remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice” (Coffin [2004] Credo: 155). They need political action and structural change in society, not just a warm meal and a bed in a church basement.

More from that sermon, quoting directly from Coffin:

Charity is finding a baby drowning in a stream and pulling it out; charity is pulling out a second baby and a third baby that come floating down the stream; justice is going upstream, finding out who’s throwing the babies in, and stopping the evil at its source. “Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of
it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation” (Coffin 2004: 62).


11 June

Bradley Whitford: Make Grace Happen on Earth

The web site Babble has posted “15 of the Best Graduation Speeches Ever,” a compilation that includes Bradley Whitford‘s 2004 speech to graduates of the University of Wisconsin. It’s a good speech. Here’s the bit that Babble highlights:

Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.

But the part that really captures my attention comes a little later. From the transcript:

Infuse your life with action. Don’t wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen — yourself, right now, right down here on Earth.

Don’t wait for grace; be grace. A fine progressive faith manifesto.

I recently discovered, somewhat to my shameful surprise (more on that later), that Whitford has been engaged in progressive faith activism for some time. I knew he was a liberal activist–I’d seen video of him speaking in Wisconsin during the battle between state workers and Gov. Scott Walker–but I was surprised to learn that he was part of a religious community and involved in social causes through his church.

And then I was bitterly disappointed in myself for being surprised. It’s too easy to fall into the false assumptions that all people of faith are conservative and all liberals are secular. I know liberal Christians exist–really, I know it–and, still, I was startled to learn that Whitford was one of them (us).

I discovered Whitford’s religious activism when I stumbled onto a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post in 2005 in defense of his church, All Saints (Episcopal), which found itself under IRS scrutiny for a sermon delivered just before the 2004 election. Whitford’s defense of the sermon is short yet eloquent, and his larger argument in favor of churches holding political leaders to account is plain but powerful, as is his discussion of what Christianity is and is not. Notes Whitford:

Jesus Christ was the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of Preemptive War. He was an advocate for the poor, not of supply-side economics. And let’s not forget that Jesus himself died in a bogus death-penalty rap. His was the original “bleeding heart,” yet I am afraid he would be described pejoratively by many today as a “do-gooder.”

Whitford has been involved in pro-marriage equality activism, and last fall, he conducted a Q&A at All Saints with Bishop Gene Robinson (@BishopGRobinson) about Robinson’s book, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk on Gay Marriage. It’s worth the hour.

10 June

Thistlethwaite on Privacy, Security and Religion

In today’s Washington Post, Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite (@sbthistle) discusses privacy and security, in light of recent NSA news.  She notes how these issues applied to Jesus, teaching under Roman occupation and the watch of the Jewish elite, and reminds us of more recent spying on domestic activists, from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Occupy movement. Says Thistlethwaite:

Is our privacy really at odds with our security? I would contend that privacy or security is a false premise. Privacy helps create real security, the security from political and even religious tyranny over our thoughts and actions. Privacy is a social space free from public oversight and interference, and it has been a key incubator for the forms of dissent that enable people to create movements that change their society for the better, in fact to reform it.

She concludes:

The key point is that whether in politics or in religion, privacy has functioned as a way dissenting groups could formulate their views and organize to challenge oppressive policies. I believe it has been, and in my view, will continue to be our real security from tyranny and the ultimate guarantor of democracy.

President Obama has invited us all to debate the privacy versus security issue. Let’s really have this debate. It is crucial.

Read the whole thing.

06 June

God and Gays: Helpful Material for Pride Month

Rev. Susan Russell (@revsusanrussell) has posted her annual update to “Frequently Asked Questions About God, Jesus, the Bible and Gay People” on Huffington Post. In it, she addresses whether being gay is a sin, what Jesus had to say about the matter and how to respond to politicians who condemn homosexuality by citing the Bible. It’s all solid, straight-forward advice, great talking points from the Episcopal priest from All Saints Church in Pasadena. Her pithy closing:

Should I try to “pray away the gay”?
No. If you need to pray away something, pray away homophobia. Homosexuality doesn’t need healing. Homophobia does.

Read the whole thing.

Evangelical preacher Rev. Mel White (@melwhite) of SoulForce put together a much longer take on these questions–“What the Bible Says–and Doesn’t Say–About Homosexuality”–several years ago. It includes a very useful discussion about how to think about the topic and then dissects the Scripture passages commonly cited in opposition to homosexuality. It’s long, but useful.

This is by no means new, but this clip of Mel White debating Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council on Anderson Cooper 360 still feels timely:

05 June

Diana Butler Bass: More St. Francis, Less St. Boniface

Religion author Diana Butler Bass (@dianabutlerbass) notes in a Huffington Post blog post that today is both World Environment Day and the Feast Day of St. Boniface. This is a less-than-ideal coincidence, as St. Boniface’s claim to fame involves cutting down a large tree dedicated to Thor as a means of converting ancient Germans to Christianity.

The post discusses Lynn White’s 1967 exploration of the tension between Christianity’s tendency to endorse subduing nature for human benefit and suggests that St. Francis might be a better role model:

St. Francis is of course, a better-remembered and more beloved figure than St. Boniface. But,on this World Environment Day, I can’t help but think that far too many Christians give lip service to Francis while still acting like Boniface. For the sake of all creation, I think we need to embrace Lynn White’s 1967 suggestion: to stop cutting down sacred oaks in favor of following St. Francis, “the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ,” who according to White, “tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.”

This Boniface-versus-Francis battle got me thinking about a recent Religion & Ethnics Newsweekly story about Interfaith Power & Light, a multi-faith group of clergy who take on climate change both by helping individual congregations (and congregants) be better stewards of energy and by getting involved in policy making.

As part of that R&EN story, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb takes up the Jewish imperative to protect creation, including trees, in an extended interview. Worth a watch:

Watch Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb Extended Interview on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

31 May

Rev. Ed Bacon on gun violence, marriage equality

This is almost a week old, but in case you missed it…

Rev. Ed Bacon of All Saints Church in Pasadena was on Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday” program (May 26, 2013) talking about gun violence and marriage equality, among other things, with Susan Lesser, Mark Lepo and, of course, Oprah. Good material here, including Bacon’s discussion of how marriage equality enhances the institution of marriage. (The gun violence material starts just before the 12-minute mark. The marriage material starts at about 29:25.)

31 May

Don’t wear the sign; be the sign

Sally Steenland (@ssteenland) of the Center for American Progress posted audio and an edited transcript from an interview she did with Sr. Joan Chittister (@joancdc), a Benedictine nun who has served in leadership positions among her Catholic sisters and who is a writer and speaker about spirituality and justice in many forms.

The top of the interview deals with the nature of power, authority and leadership–interesting, if a bit academic in places, at least for me on a Friday night. Then they turn to the new Pope and his advice that nuns not use their vocations to pursue ambition. (Asked for her response to that, Chittister reviewed the competent worker-bee history of nuns in the Church and concluded:  “Nuns don’t get money, they don’t get power, and they don’t get civil or ecclesiastical positions. So no, I can’t answer the question because I don’t understand it.”)

My favorite part of the interview, however, is Chittister’s response to Steenland’s inquiry about the increase in the share of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, the so-called “nones”; here’s an excerpt from the nun’s take on the nones and how to respond to them:

Well, the way you spread the word is: Don’t worry about wearing the sign; be the sign. You don’t have to wear a sandwich board saying, “I am religious and spiritual and know what you should do.” You do have to be the best of the mystical presence that your tradition brings. Certainly in Christianity, that means that you begin to go through life putting on the mind of Jesus, trying to see the world as Jesus saw the world.

There has always been a great mystical dimension to Christianity. Our saints were mystics. That means they go right into the heart of the Gospel and the spiritual pulp of human life; they’re not as intent on the hierarchical, legalistic, and clerical.

What happens in a world that sees itself as participative and in a state of transformation? People rise up and say, “We’re here too. We want to be part of the discussion. We want to be as honored.” I am a carrier of the best of my tradition; I believe the spirit of God is still alive.

There’s more–on that question, the lives of young women today and other topics. Read the whole thing.

31 May

Dan Savage: Half Right About the Christian Left

For some time, Dan Savage has been challenging liberal Christians to do something to dislodge the notion that all Christians are conservative and, in particular, anti-gay. I think Dan is right–we do need to do something–but I think he is wrong about what we ought to do.

As he promotes his new book, Dan has returned to this issue, with this video and this interview (also with video) on Huffington Post. Dan recognizes the existence of “Not All Like That” Christians–NALTs–the ones who are not like the religious right. He suggests that proclaiming their existence to him is beside the point, what they should be doing is taking on the religious right and getting in their faces. He mentions other possibilities in his video, but he tends to return to the getting-in-their-face option.

Um, no. Bad idea, Dan.

What the progressive faith community has to offer is not more screaming, but a reasonable, faith-based alternative to the screaming. We need to do a better job finding our voices, but not to out-shrill the other side. Indeed, we are most effective when we speak quietly and when we listen. We are most powerful when giving witness to the value of our gay and lesbian family, friends and clergy. To the duty we have to care for our God-given environment. To the need for tax and energy and health care policies that reflect our religious values to care for one another. We are most successful when we demonstrate that there are liberals who are liberal because of our faith, not in spite of it. We win by being who we are.  And there is no point at yelling at those on the far end of the other side. We are not going to convince them:  Frankly, too many of them think we’re Satan. Our audience is the larger community.

And we need your help. The next time you get invited onto a cable show to debate an issue with a member of the religious right, suggest–or even insist–that the show feature a progressive faith voice, too. Use YOUR voice to help us use ours. Use your status to help us defeat the idea that people of faith are all “like that.” I will gladly connect you with folks who are great for this!

Oh, and drop the NALT label. It’s clever, granted, but no one wants to be defined by what they are not.


31 May

What this is about…

This site has been created to highlight and uplift the progressive religious voice in American politics and public-policy debate.

As a liberal Christian, I often have been frustrated by the media’s tendency to equate “religious” with “conservative.” I don’t deny the existence of religious conservatives–I know they exist. But I know that progressive people of faith exist, too.

Too often I see representatives of the religious right called upon to debate the issues of the day on television–as the sole faith voice, pitted against  representatives of the secular left, as though those were the only two sides with anything to say about values, culture or policy. To the extent that the press covers progressive (or even moderate) religious views, it tends to be on the media fringes. We get on the faith page, not the front page.

I’d like that to change, and toward that end, I will help bring attention to progressive faith voices by pointing to the good coverage they DO get. I also will feature Q&As with progressive faith leaders–broadly defined–and with those who study liberal faith movements in this country. Stay tuned!