Defending Progressive Moral Values Against Religious IntolerancePosted in Democracy, Diversity, Speeches
A presentation to the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR), May 23, 2005 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Royal Oak, Michigan. Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III
I want to call attention to some of the troubling trends that I see developing between conservative Evangelicals and conservative Republicans in their efforts to consolidate political power and homogenize America.
The ethical values, beliefs and practices emerging in this new climate of volatility seems to be setting the nation’s teeth on edge and legitimizing the move to a more closed rather than an open society where political ideology and Christian theology are used to stymie democracy, curtail open honest debate and punish dissent. It appears in some sectors that both some conservative Christians and some conservative politicians are using the theology ofJesus to justify these new trends.
Tonight I want to challenge this attempt to restrict the theology and ethics of Jesus to a narrow set of politically defined and politically charged issues, and call us back to broader pro-life understanding of the progressive nature of Jesus’s moral and ethical concerns.
The last presidential election, and perhaps more than in any other election in recent memory, witnessed the rise and convergence of the theology of Conservative Evangelical Christians with the politics and ideology of the Republican Party.
The emergence of this new hybrid politics, which is a curious coalescence of Dominionism and Republicanism (See Chris Hedges “Feeling the Hate with the National Religious Broadcasters, ” Harpers Magazine, May 2005), has also heralded the escalation of the rhetoric of violence. The loathing oflanguage precipitates the antipathy of mankind and the hatred of humankind fuels odious language.
In this atmosphere, we have also seen the vilification of Christians who are left, liberal and even moderate in political ideology and theology; the persecution of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent; the demonization of gays and lesbians; the denigration and disparagement of members of the judiciary whose task is to maintain and ensure a balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government; the global ascendancy and hegemony of multinational corporations some of whose budgets are larger than some Third World countries; the preemptive launching of an immoral and unjust war in Iraq; the torture of prisoners at Abu Gharib; the increase of poverty, hunger and disease among poor and middle class Americans; the plundering and exploitation of the environment as well as the pension funds of common laborers; a rise in unemployment; the erosion and retrenchment of various personal freedoms; the deterioration of public education in the central cities and urban and rural areas; an assault on science; the monopoly of the media as new propaganda centers which don ‘t present views that are fair and balanced but biased and unbalanced; the rescinding of various entitlement programs; an exponential escalation of military spending; voting irregularities and possible fraud in national elections in Florida and Ohio; and the emergence of a general climate of intolerance, close mindedness and reactionary thinking that now appears to be setting the tone for the emergence of a new Christian theocracy subtly under girded by a kind of Christian theofascism.
In his article, “Fascism Anyone?” Dr. Lawrence Britt delineates fourteen characteristics fa sci st regimes have in common. He lists the eighth as religion and ruling elite tied together. He states, “Propaganda kept up the illusion that ruling elites were defenders of the faith and opponents of the godless. A perception was manufactured that opposing the power elite wa s tantamount to an attack on religion.” (See Dr. Britt’s article in Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol. 23, Num. 2)
Moreover, this new movement is a precarious merger of conservative evangelical Christianity and conservative Republicanism which left unchallenged, unbalanced and unchecked can dissolve the basic principles of a free thinking and free striding democracy and diffuse the broader tenets of a compassionate, more inclusive Christianity.
The danger is that in their effort to apply moral antiseptics to disinfect the nation of its ills and sins, some Christians themselves can personify the very evils and sins they seek to abolish.
If current trends are allowed to go unchecked, could all of the homophobic rhetoric and logic of the last election create a climate of homosexual persecution and annihilation reminiscent of totalitarian regimes of the past?
Many Evangelicals, both progressive and conservative, do not subscribe to the abbreviation and subversion of our rights and freedoms in the name of God. The danger is when religion is used as a tool of the state to create a moral double standard which on the one hand justifies the oppression and condemnation of people who are different and who think differently than the party in power, and then on the other hand surreptitiously supports those who are guilty of the same sins because they are in power.
The problem is compounded when Jesus or Christianity become exclusively identified with a political party. As Jim Wallis reminds us Jesus was neither Republican nor Democrat-and I might add did teach those higher moral principles that affirmed the more sublime precepts of both political parties. (Jim Wallis, God’s Politics; Harper, 2005) My purpose here today is to call us back to the broader, pro-life moral vision of Jesus and to challenge those who want to make him into a paranoid homophobe or a religious fanatic.
My concern is for how Christianity can be used as a weapon of the state to suppress rights, trample freedom and punish dissent. My concern is for a religion that is long on law and sholi on grace; a religion that breeds intolerance, bigotry and close mindedness; a religion that preaches a theology of love but breeds an ideology of hate; a religion that relishes condemnation and alienation and opposes understanding compassion, and reconciliation.
Jesus, the founder of Christianity, and Paul the principal interpreter and emissary of the Christian faith, were not narrow minded, freedom fearing, homophobic, war mongering, money grubbing, prosperity driven antiintellectuals that some Christians and politicians have made them out to be.
As we survey the political and religious landscape of America we should all be concerned about what we are seeing and hearing in religion and politic. s and how the higher principles of our faith are being compromised and distorted to fit a particular political world view. Needed today is more rational, sane discourse, and not the one sided vitriolic rhetoric that fuels the fires of prejudice and which seems to characterize so much political and religious conversation today.
Particularly disturbing was the effort in the last political election by conservative Evangelicals and Republicans to define Jesus’s moral and ethical concerns solely along the lines of partisan political thinking. I am speaking of a pamphlet I received before the election, stating how Jesus would vote on such issues as abortion and gay marriage. In others words, the pamphlet created the impression that Jesus was a Republican because he would have voted the same way that the Republicans and evangelicals would vote on these key issues. If you voted Republican you were truly Christian and voting as Jesus would vote. If you voted Democrat you were the anti-Christ.
The true Christian knows that the spectrum of Jesus’s moral and theological concern is much broader and inclusive than those’ who define morality along the lines of political self interest. For example, commenting on how killing an unborn child is morally wrong through abortion and then ignoring how killing innocent children in an unjust war is also morally wrong may be politically expedient but ethically creates a double standard. The morality of this issue is shaped more by party politics and framed more along the lines of what is politically feasible rather than what is morally defensible. The real ethical concern for Christians is killing innocent children whether by war or by abortion and that means wars started by Democrats or wars started by Republicans.
This problem is thus exacerbated when we say that Jesus is morally and exclusively concerned for one type of killing and not the other type and then selectively avoid moral discourse on the other because it does not fit our political agenda.
A kind of moral hypocrisy is evident here, where the unethical behaviors of a politici: il party are unequivocally condemned and similar unethical behaviors of another political party are thoroughly denied and over looked in the name of Jesus.
What we have then is a kind of ethical gerrymandering or moral red lining and reductionism, if you will-the besmirching of Christian ethics in the name of power politics. The killing of innocent children by abortion or by war would both fall within the domain of Jesus’s moral concern, Democrats and Republicans notwithstanding. My contention is that ethical gerrymandering distorts the value of Jesus’s concern for all of humanity and reduces him to a patsy for political interests.
Moreover, we see further a problem in how lies and distortions of opponent’s personal and political records were permitted and disseminated in the mass media to gain the political advantage virtually without protest. The Republicans stated that John Kerry was for abortion. The truth is that he was for a woman’s right to choose. They stated that he supported gay marriages and the truth is that he was for civil unions. In each instance, John Kerry allowed the Constitution of the United States to be his guide rather than the Bible. And by the way, since when does the Bible become a guide for determining who should receive rights as citizens in this country? Again, the lies and distortions went virtually unnoticed if not unchecked by Christians on the right, middle and left, by conservative, moderate and liberal Christians alike.
For a political campaign to jubilantly enshroud itself in the language and symbols of the Christian faith- to boast divine providence, being born again, moral sanctity, family values, compassion and faith in God- as some of the driving forces and under girding themes of this presidential election, why didn’t more Christians protest the lies, half truths and distortions that were disseminated in the national media?
The problem again for Christians is the double standard of morality that says lying is acceptable for one political party to get into office because that party represents my interests, while it is not acceptable in the other party because I don’t share their political points of view. A kind of public moral hypocrisy is allowed to persist that can create a climate of moral ambiguity in our nation which can easily create a “legitimate” moral tone for the persecution of those who are different and those who have opposing views.
We have seen in the past how totalitarian and fascist regimes have been given the power to religiously detennine what is moral and immoral, righteous and unrighteous and how these regimes have used religion as a tool to suppress and annihilate political opponents.
According to Christian ethical principles, if it is wrong for Democrats to lie and distort the truth of a Republican opponent’s record in order to get into office, then it is wrong for Republicans to lie and distort the truth of a Democratic opponent’s record in order to get into office.
If it is wrong for Bill Clinton to lie about Monica Lewinsky, it is wrong for George Bush to lie about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. If private welfare is wrong then corporate welfare is wrong. Ifit is morally wrong to kill innocent children through abortion, it is morally wrong to kill innocent. children in war.
If it is morally wrong for workers to get paid overtime for work, it is morally wrong for employers to exploit workers and pay them slave wages under life threatening substandard conditions in order to make a profit.
If it is wrong for a man to rob a bank and steal money in Detroit, then it is wrong for Halliburton to pad government contracts and wrong for somebody to steal $1.8 billion in US government and provisional authority money in Baghdad.
If it is wrong for a man to steal a bag of cookies, then it is wrong for corporations to steal the retirelnent savings of their workers. If it is wrong for a person to break into another man’s house and steal his belongings, then it is wrong for a country to break into another country and steal its belongings.
My concern is how the Christian faith is being exploited and misrepresented for political purposes- how religion is being used as a tool of the state to justify the disqualification of those who are different. My concern is for how Christian faith is being potentially used as a means of destroying our freedoms and polarizing our society in the name of God.
If the Bible, instead of the Constitution, is now used as a standard for denying homosexuals their full rights as citizens of America because they are sinners, do we now apply the same moral standards to fornicators, adulterers and bigamists and then deny them their rights on that basis as citizens of America?
Jesus’s ethical and theological concern is certainly pro-life. It is an ethic concerned with how we treat one another, how we conduct our affairs, how we treat the poor and oppressed and how we distribute the • resources of this world in the eyes of God and in the hearts of man so that everyone can have a happy, healthy life.
By pro-life, we mean embracing beliefs, espousing principles, modeling behavior and engaging in actions that will recognize, affirm and practice the worth an’d humanity of all people. Pro-life means working to create a world where every man, woman and child can actualize his potential, live a long, healthy and productive life, receive distributive and retributive justice and become all that God would have them become notwithstanding race, religion, sexuality, gender, age, ethnicity, culture, national origin, economic status, vocational status or political party.
It means developing an appreciation for those who are different and entering into genuine dialogue to further understand and establish common ground with them. It means sharing hope and living in love with compassion, empathy and an overall concern for the welfare of others and the welfare of our planet. It means using religion, politics and every other field of human endeavor to bring this reality to fruition.
Pro-life does not mean simply having things my way. It means recognizing that there are other people in this world with different points of view who have a right to live in this world and think as they think and be different in this world.
It means recognizing that we are all different but share much more in common than our differences propose. It means that because I am in a position of privilege, power or might I do not have the right to shove my agenda down the throats of everyone else and then tell them to love it, like it or leave it.
As Ashley Montague put it, “True Feedom is not the license to do what you want but the opportunity to do what you ought. “
This is the meaning of pro-life. It is recognizing the value of life and affinning the purposes oflife bec’ause it is God given. It is saying what you are “for” before saying what you are “against.” It is affirming diversity in the midst of plurality and individuality in the midst of corporality.
Moreover, it does not mean that because I question the decisions and direction of my beloved country that I am a traitor or a non-Christian. I am a patriot and I am a Christian when I raise legitimate moral questions about where my country is headed. This is the meaning of being pro-life. It means not being afraid to speak out when things have gone wrong.
If you don’t flush your bible down the toilet don ‘t flush the Koran down the toilet. Have respect, demonstrate grace, mercy and compassion for others including people of other religions, cultures and races.
This Christian moral principle or what H. Richard Neibuhr called the ‘relational ethic of the responsible self’ applies to Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, Confucianists, and even atheists who have a right not to believe in God just as we have the right to believe in God. (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self)
If we are going to judge others by a moral standard, let us judge ourselves by the same standards. If some one else is wrong because they commit a certain sin or error than I too am wrong if I commit that sin or error according to Christian moral principles. Political paIiy or religious faith or affiliation does not exempt me from ethical judgment or evaluation from a Christian point of VIew.
As C. S. Lewis reminds us, it is not subscribing to a system of value that says, “My neighbor has done something wrong because he is bad and J did something wrong because J didn ‘t get enough sleep . .. If the political Christianizing and Christian politicizing of America means adopting practices that polarize us into waITing bitter camps, then America ShOLild not be Christianized. If everyone is thinking alike, it means someone is not thinking.
Jesus himself lived 111 volatile, tumultuous times in Palestine. He understood the implications and devastations of Roman Imperial power and valued the religious and spiritual autonomy that was the faith of his Fathers. He valued freedom, free speech and affirmed the importance of the individual in society. He understood how violence, repression and suppression could lead to lasting oppression and devastation.
My concern today is that we move back to those progressive values that make for open dialogue in an open society and that we not compromise our highest ethical standards in the name of power politics. “Right is still right even if everyone is against it and wrong is still wrong even if everyone is for it.”
All current walls can be laid down and made into bridges of hope, compassion and understanding. These concerns are at the heart of Jesus’ progressive moral values and should be at the heart of our community as we strive to build a stronger, more compassionate America.