Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Christian Unity -- A Calling worth pursuing

I am a pastor serving within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In 2009, we will celebrate our 200th anniversary. Born on the Frontier (Western Pennsylvania) the Disciples movement began as a unity movement. It came into existence as Thomas Campbell, and later his son Alexander, discerned a major problem developing out West. All kinds of movements were emerging, all competing for members, and all doing so by attacking other groups. Thomas Campbell had come from Northern Ireland, a pastor of a breakaway Presbyterian church (anti-burger, seceder sect, Presbyterians). He came to the frontier and found a scattering of Presbyterians of many different stripes. When he invited them all to the Lord's Table he was censored by his supervisors. As a result, he chose to go out on his own and invite everyone to come together as one body. At about the same time Barton Stone was embarking on a similar course, and in 1832 the two movements merged.

I preached on the Disciples "Ecumenical Principle" on Sunday. It is part of a series I'm doing that deals with "Disciples Values." The ecumenical movement is central to who we are as a people. We've not been perfect stewards of this calling, but we've remained committed, despite our own divisions.

One of our own, Michael Kinnamon, is General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. In an essay published in Disciples World, Kinnamon speaks to this calling. He reminds us that standing at the center of the Disciples plea is a belief that "Unity and freedom can and should go together." According to Kinnamon Disciples believe that 1) "unity is a given" -- that is, it is something to be received and recognized; 2) unity must be visible; 3) unity is inherently diverse.

It's on this third point that I'd like to focus. Kinnamon writes:

At the risk of over-generalizing, let me suggest that the Roman Catholic Church has, at times, maintained unity at the sacrifice of freedom, while Protestants have, at times, safeguarded freedom at the cost of unity. Disciples have been unusual in our conviction that unity and freedom can and should go together -- which means that the oneness we envision has nothing to do with uniformity. (Disciples World, October 2008, p. 19)

If we are to receive unity as a gift of God, to affirm with Paul that even as there is one bread that we break, we are also one body -- for "we all partake of the one body" (1 Corinthians 10:17). Sunday is World Communion Sunday. It is a day to reflect on our unity in Christ, a unity we should be celebrating at the Lord's Table. The call of Christ is here, I believe, no matter your differences in theology, ideology, ethnicity or national origin, no matter your politics, if you are a follower of Jesus, then you are one in Christ. May we affirm that, especially at this point in history. And why? Because we are called to witness to God's work of reconciliation in the world (2 Corinthians 5).

Country First?

It's mind boggling to think that Congress failed to pass yesterday's epic rescue bill. I understand that the American people can't seem to understand why this is needed. And I expect there are reasons why our representatives might choose to vote no. But do they have a better plan?

Yesterday the House voted down the bi-partisan bill 228 to 205. 60% of Democrats voted yes, while only 33% of Republicans. What's ironic is that this bill is the child of a Republican administration. Unfortunately, George Bush cried wolf too many times and no one in America, apparently including members of the Republican House delegation believe him. So, what we have is a Democratic Party trying to rescue an unpopular Republican President. We have Republican House members saying that they didn't vote for it (or at least some of their members didn't vote for it) because Nancy Pelosi hurt their feelings. I'm sorry, but let's be adults. Of course Pelosi said what she did, she needed to put down some cover for Democrats to vote to bailout George Bush.

This morning as I was listening to the various commentators what became abundantly clear is that neither the President, nor his Treasury Secretary, nor members of Congress have explained this problem in ways that the American people understand. What they hear is that Washington is going to bail out the fat cats of Wall Street. But, once again, we need to understand that Wall Street and Main Street (whatever that is) are interconnected. If my bank fails or my place of employment is unable to make payroll, I'm in trouble.

So, John McCain has a sign up -- Country First -- so let's see everyone from the people living on Elm Street to the people up their on Pennsylvania Avenue come together and decide to work on this problem.

As for McCain and Obama, well my suggestion is stay out of this mess. Let the people in charge do their job. McCain has tried to interject himself in this, as the one who rallied the troops and solved the crisis (or so he claimed before the vote) and when it failed he said that Obama had injected partisanship. Give me a break. First Obama didn't do enough, then he injected partisanship.

Whatever the politics, yesterday the Dow (just 30 stocks) fell 777 points, the biggest drop ever, losing 1.2 trillion dollars in value. Now it will likely make up some of that today, but the credit markets remain frozen. If the critics have a better plan, then let's hear it. This morning I heard Lou Dobbs gleefully say that it's a good thing that this failed. He said that the economists and CEOs he's talking to say this should fail. Okay, Lou, who are your advisers? Just saying the one's talking to him say this is a bad bill means nothing.

So, again -- Country First?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pulpit Freedom from the IRS

Martin Marty takes up the issue of yesterday's ADF "Pulpit Freedom Initiative." He deals with the question of tax exemption, what is allowable, and what we should do when we feel constrained. Marty seems to feel that if we feel strongly that our freedoms are constrained and we must speak, so be it but expect to pay the consequences. Anyway, I'll let you read and comment!


Sightings 9/29/08

Pulpit Freedom from the IRS
-- Martin E. Marty

Less noticed than its law-breaking advocates hoped it would be, given the economic turmoil of the week, dozens of churches defied federal regulations and used their pulpits yesterday to challenge IRS regulations, which insist that tax exempt organizations dare not spend a "substantial part of [their] activities in carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation." When this line was added to the tax code, the intention was not to target religious organizations but to deny tax-exemption to "sham" or "front" organizations which used religion to propagate a particular agenda. Also added to the code in 1954 by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson was a denial of tax exemption to organizations that "participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office."

May 19th's Sightings treated the history of these policies and punishments, so we need not revisit that. Yesterday, as announced, preachers and congregations, with the backing and on the impulse of the Alliance Defense Fund, staged a "Come and get us!" program called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." Preachers announced that they, in the name of "pulpit freedom," would very explicitly taunt and defy the IRS, which does try to be non-partisan and fair in efforts to enforce the law. My May 19th column described how The Christian Century, which was and is close to my heart and word-processor, had to give up tax-exemption in 1964 when, in a momentary fit of Goldwater-as-President panic, it ran a cover supporting Johnson. One of our Catholic counterparts chose to give up tax-exemption rather than comply with regulations; that was an act of integrity few religious organizations could even contemplate imitating.

On subjects like this, most citizens come to recognize that there can be no pure, clear, determinative, or final decision as to what is involved. It is hard to define "religion" or "organization" or "substantial" support. It is easy to see that tax-exemption, a privilege taken for granted but argued for on often-shaky grounds, is secure: Try to get elected to Congress while advocating removal of the privilege. It is hard to know exactly when someone oversteps the boundaries. Catholics, Lutherans, the Salvation Army, and many other public policy groups devise legally air-tight separate divisions for advocacy or political action, and refrain from mixing "religion" with those divisions.

No doubt myriad violations occur in pulpits and church bulletins, but most of them tend to be casual or subtle or only semi-substantial. The Pulpit Freedom Sunday of the Alliance Defense Fund does not want to be casual or subtle or less than substantially substantial. The preachers it backs and propels want to make this a law-defying act of "freedom." We can be sure that opponents of this generally right-wing political cause will be provoked into counter-testing, asking the IRS and the feds to insist on support of law. Is this a real "pulpit freedom" issue? Some want to compare it to Martin Luther King and conscientious objectors and any who appeal to a "higher law." But King and the objectors know that they are vulnerable to arrest or penalties, and have often paid them by sitting in jails. The Pulpit Freedom advocates appeal to no "higher law;" they simply want the freedom to break existing laws. They may serve some purpose by forcing more definition from IRS and church leadership, but most immediate purposes are to be straight-out political and to have the citizenry at large pay, indirectly, to subsidize their messages.


For a reliable, extensive, and learned discussion of "Regulation of Religious Bodies," with a section on "Tax Exemption as a statutory privilege with deep constitutional roots," see pp. 431-458 in James A. Serritella, Religious Organizations in the United States: A Study of Identity, Liberty, and the Law (Carolina Academic Press, 2006). It is a giant, often-overlooked resource which belongs in offices and studies of those who lead religious organizations, and attorneys and judges who face issues on this front. The author of this chapter is Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr., widely recognized as the leading expert in this field.

Read May 19th's Sightings on churches and tax exemption at http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_2008/0519.shtml.

Read the September 24th Wall Street Journal article, "Challenge to IRS From Pulpit", at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122221687842869577.html.

Read the September 25th Los Angeles Times article, "Pastors plan to defy IRS ban on political speech", at http://www.latimes.com/news/la-me-pulpit25-2008sep25,0,4144701.story.

Read the September 26th New York Times article, "Ministers to Defy IRS by Endorsing Candidates", at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/26/us/politics/26preach.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=tax%20exempt%20pulpit&st=cse&oref=slogin.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
This month, the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism, Religious Renaissance, and Social Conflict in Asia" by Richard Madsen of the University of California, San Diego. The concept of secularism as a political, social, and cultural phenomenon developed in the midst of and in reference to Western countries. Madsen applies this framework to East and Southeast Asia, finding that, while it "does not perfectly fit, the lack of fit is useful for highlighting particular dilemmas faced by Asian governments in an era of political and religious transformation." Formal responses from Hong You (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore), Robert Weller (Boston University), and Hans Joas (University of Chicago) will be posted throughout the month. http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

What's Wrong with Being Cerebral?

One of the criticisms of Barack Obama is that he's too cerebral, too professorial, too intellectual. Somehow being intelligent, thoughtful, reflective, calm under pressure, analytical, is a bad thing. After 8 years of a less than reflective, less than cerebral, President, you'd think we'd want something different. No, we're told that Americans want a leader who is emotive, visceral, reactive.

So, let me ask the question: Why do Americans consistently downgrade intelligence? This despite the fact that it is America's commitment to research and exploration have set the nation apart?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Light at the end of the financial tunnel

We're not out of this yet? There are still pitfalls in front of us, but it appears that Congress has put together a package that will get the financial markets moving again. It is a plan that could result in the spending of 700 billion dollars, though that would happen in increments. It would eliminate golden parachutes for executives and tax heavily salaries above $500,000. For some of the loans taken over, they will be backed by insurance guarantees (as requested by House Republicans). It's not a perfect bill, by the admission of its negotiators, but it's workable.

There are lots of people angry about this, but if the market collapsed we would all be in trouble. Buying houses, cars, or just about anything would be limited. Companies might collapse sending the unemployment rate skyrocketing. So far, most of us have not been effected, but if this started to creep through the system, it wouldn't take long for things to get bad.

So, my hats are off to those who worked long and hard to bring this to fruition. It would appear that Senator's Judd Gregg of New Hampshire (R) and Chris Dodd of Connecticut (D), together with Congressmen Barney Frank (D-MA) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), did the heavy lifting. Both Obama and McCain have signalled support of a measure that they will have to shepherd in a matter of months. This is George Bush's gift to his successor -- along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Faith, Values, Politics

Today, besides preaching and leading worship at my church, as well as visiting a parishioner in the hospital, I participated in a faith forum at the local Obama headquarters. The numbers were small, but I was a presenter (actually I think I was the non-staff presenter). It was an interesting conversation -- our leader wanted us to focus in some part on creating an action plan, but we didn't get much of that done before people had to leave.

But the conversation was helpful. It showed in part that Democrats as a whole are not sure where faith fits in and their concerned that religion can be an impediment to political change. But when we turned to the question of how we can start a dialogue about faith and values and politics, that would lead to a conversation about Obama, I think we came to the conclusion that biggest barrier to conversation is fear. If we are to move forward and solve the problems of our day, we need to recognize the reality of our fears. But instead of preying fear and manipulating it, we must bring out and deal with it. At this point, people are afraid of a lot of different things, and economic survival may be the biggest issue out there. A member of own congregation is struggling with the fact that her husband, who is hospitalized worked for GM, is now retired, and has been cut off from being insured. What does she do?

I tried to interject into our conversation -- the principles of being my brother's or sister's keeper (a theme that Barack Obama has appealed to) and to the principle of "love your neighbor as yourself," as a way of getting at this issue of taxation and spending.

The GOP mantra is that each one should be responsible for himself or herself. Put the money in the pockets of families and let them decide. It is the principle of rugged individualism. With that in mind the GOP has argued for limited government and limited taxation.

The Democrats have historically, at least since FDR, argued for a more communal understanding. In this view, we are in this together, and government is an important contributor to the welfare of the people. That is, to speak biblically, we are called to be our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper. We have a responsibility to make sure that everyone in this country has affordable health care and doesn't have to go broke getting it. John McCain talks about a $5,000 tax credit that will allow us to get health coverage. If you can find decent coverage for less than $10,000 let me know where to find it? And if you do find it, you have to be in good physical condition and probably under 50.

So, where does faith come in? How does it help us deal with the issue of fear? How does it move us from being concerned about self-preservation to concern about the community?

Ultimately this is a question about how does religion be part of the solution rather than part of the problem!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Politics and the Pulpit

Let me be clear: I will not be endorsing or condemning any candidate for public office tomorrow morning as I enter the pulpit. There are other preachers, however, who will be doing just that tomorrow. Code named the "Pulpit Initiative," a small number of preachers who have been recruited and encouraged by a conservative Christian entity, the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that was founded with support from among others James Dobson, will go to their pulpits and defy a 54 year old IRS ban on pulpit electioneering. The point of this effort is simply this, the ADF wants the IRS to go after these preachers and their churches so that they can sue to overturn the ban.

Now, I must confess (as I often must) that I have endorsed a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. I've done this deed on this blog (I don't think it's a secret--if you read the blog). That said, I make a strong distinction between what I do on this blog and what I do in the pulpit. Yes, I address important public issues -- many of which have political implications -- and on the Sunday before the election I will preach a sermon encouraging my congregants to vote their conscience, consciences hopefully informed by their faith. But, I will not endorse nor will I tell them that a vote one person over the other is better or more Christian. I won't forbid anyone from coming to the Table -- as if I have any authority to do so (after all, it's the Lord's Table, not mine). I understand that in my congregation there are Republicans and Democrats, Independents and maybe even a few Third Party enthusiasts. We are, however, in spite of our political differences, one body in Christ.

As for that ADF event, I think it's wrong headed and probably will end up with the ADF lawyers getting in trouble for advising clients to break the law. The pastors and the churches, well some of them may get punished. But ultimately it's really not about the IRS. It's about whether we should use politics to divide the body of Christ. Even as I boldly support Barack Obama, I do not believe that support for him is more Christian than support for John McCain. Ultimately endorsing candidates from the pulpit is a bad idea. Whatever I do here, I do as a private citizen.

Crossing the Threshold

In the weeks (maybe months) prior to the first presidential debate, the question in the minds of many people has been whether Barack Obama has the wherewithal to be Commander-in-Chief. John McCain, and Hillary Clinton before that, tried to hammer on the issue of experience. Barack Obama has always countered that while he might not have the same amount of experience (i.e. time on the job) he does have the judgment, temperament, and demeanor necessary to be president. Last night Barack Obama's primary job was to convey to the undecideds out there, about 10% or so of the voters, that he would not be a risky choice. The analogy often used is Ronald Reagan in 1980 showing in his debate with Jimmy Carter that he wasn't a whack job who would lead America into nuclear annihilation.

So, what happened last night? Well, I didn't get to watch the whole thing -- about 45 minutes or so -- but I saw enough to get a sense that by and large they were even. I later watched some of the late night observations, and the consensus was that this was pretty tight and not the game changer John McCain needed. So, whether you thought it was a tie or whether you thought one candidate or the other won on points, the consensus is that Obama came out of this debate unscathed. Why is this important? Last night's debate was on John McCain's turf. So, if Obama squeaked out a 1 run win or in soccer terms tied, he won. If John McCain was going to change the playing field, he failed. Now, we look back at a candidate who for the past 2 weeks has been as erratic as any in memory, and you have to say that Obama came out of this debate in a good place. Now, they move on to territory that should favor Obama. Of course there could be gaffes and all, but hey round 1 went as well as could be hoped for.

Of course, whatever the pundits might say, the key is how the polls respond. That we must wait for! But at the end of the day, the most important thing that came out of last night is that Barack Obama looked presidential, showed he knew the stakes at hand, and showed that he would not be a risky choice as Commander-in-Chief of our national armed forces.

By the way, notice the body-language in the photo above. I think that catches things well. McCain refuses to look at Obama. He didn't look at Obama when Obama was speaking and can't look at him when shaking his hand. For whatever reason, McCain seems to despise Obama -- and it shows.

Friday, September 26, 2008

American Racism

For the next two Sundays we will be taking the annual Reconciliation Offering, an annual collection for the Disciples' anti-racism program. That we have to take this offering is indicative of the fact that racism still runs rampant in this country.

We hear regularly from pundits who wonder why Barack Obama hasn't run away with this election, considering how badly the Republicans are doing. Well, the answer seems pretty clear to me -- it's the color of his skin. Yes, for some it's experience, but all signs point to the fact that many Americans aren't "comfortable" with Barack Obama -- why? Sometimes we hear that he's an elitist or aloof -- but what does that mean?

If we don't believe that racism is a problem in America, news out of George Fox University in Newberg, OR should give us pause. George Fox is a growing, highly regarded evangelical university that is situated not far from Portland, OR. It is historically related to the Friends Church (Quaker). News is that this past Tuesday an effigy of Barack Obama was found hanging outside one of the school buildings, covered with grafitti complaining about a scholarship program. That such a thing might happen on an evangelical campus -- one that is Quaker in orientation -- should send a chill up one's spin.

Eugene Cho, writing in the God's Politics blog, points us to Paul's word of reconciliation in 2 Cor. 5.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Whatever one's political persuasion, whether one supports Barack Obama or some other candidate, may we consider this call to be reconciled to God and to one another. As we pursue this reconciliation, let us consider that racism still marks our country long after the end of the civil rights movement's hey day.

The Bail Out and the Public

The polls say -- the public is against the bailout. Senators and congresspersons are getting all kinds of responses, very little positive. Part of the problem is that neither the President nor Congress is held in high regard. The President tried to go out and sell a plan he'd rather not have to sell. It came through in his presentation. Things are bad so we have to do something I'd rather not do. It's kind of like Jimmy Carter's malaise speech of years ago. So, we had a little revolt.

So, America is angry. They'll rail against Washington. Most of them on election day will send their own representative back to Washington -- because it's always the other guy's representative who is the bad guy. The question is -- at this point -- what should the government do? Do they risk voter wrath or do they simply do nothing? The reality is, everyone says, something must be done -- that is, the experts. Of course in this anti-intellectualist time, no one trusts experts. Of course, the experts can be wrong, but if my car breaks down, who should I call -- a certified mechanic or my neighbor who recently bought a new car?

At the end of the day, I believe that Congress will act, the President will sign, there will be some hue and cry, and the markets will stabilize on Monday. Right now, everyone is waiting. And, of course, when all is said and done, people will seek to take credit for the "deal."

Time to Suspend . . .

Stephen Colbert always seems to gets to the heart of things!

Are We Still in a Financial Crisis?

The week ends with no deal in sight. We essentially have the White House, Senate Democrats and Republicans (or at least a sufficient number of them), and House Democrats willing to make a deal. John McCain came to town, met with the rebellious House Democrats, and other than that has done nothing substantial. A debate is scheduled for this evening, though Barack Obama may be doing a town hall rather than a debate.

There's been lots of drama but nothing concrete. Barack Obama was there yesterday, asked good questions, and was told by Hank Paulson that the House Republican "plan," what Barney Frank called this morning a one page set of bullet points, was unworkable. Obama has stood steady, conferring with the Democratic leaders and negotiators. He didn't make a grand entrance in the capital like McCain, didn't say he was riding to the rescue, but he showed, in my mind a steady hand, letting the designated powers do their job.

Now, perhaps McCain will rescue us by the end of the day, but right now it almost seems as if McCain is using this as a stunt to distance himself from Bush -- to undermine Obama's claim that McCain is more of the same.

As for the "bailout," no one is thrilled about this. In fact, it seems odd that the Congressional Democrats are the ones working hardest to bail out a failed President from the opposing party. Why? I guess because they're convinced that as unpalatable and unpopular this is -- the welfare of the country comes first. Could that be?

Last night Washington Mutual was taken over and its banking operations sold. I banked with Washington Mutual for years -- in fact Cheryl and I banked with Great Western Bank, which WaMu bought out. We had stock in the company until recently. It was an excellent bank, served us well, and seemed strong and steady, until the bottom fell out of California's housing market. Today we'll watch the markets to see what they do. We rail against Wall Street, but almost all of us are touched by Wall Street. We have loans and investments and 401Ks that are related. To suggest that it's Wall Street versus Main Street is a bit simplistic. Everything is related.

What we need right now are adults willing to do what might seem unpopular to right the ship -- a ship captained by GW Bush and crewed by these same House Republicans that are now in revolt.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Preaching Good News to the Poor -- Sightings

In today's edition of Sightings, Debra Erickson, takes up the question of the emerging Evangelical concern about poverty and the poor. In doing so, she points to an essay by Peter Berger that suggests that we take another look at Pentecostalism and Prosperity teachings, movements that instead of distracting the poor, may empower them. It also suggests that lower income people may be attracted to the conservative message not because of wedge issues, but because they have been disproportionately affected by social upheaval. As a progressive, this is an idea at least worth considering. So, take a look, and offer your thoughts.



Preaching Good News to the Poor
-- Debra Erickson
It is by now old news - or should be - that evangelical Christians have developed a social conscience that goes beyond wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. Some are even (gasp!) registered Democrats. In the most recent issue of Books and Culture (put out by the editors of Christianity Today), sociologist of religion Peter Berger, currently Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University, launches the latest missive in the debate over what it means to do justice and love mercy. He invites scholars of religion, and particularly Christian theologians, to reconsider the prosperity gospel that is sometimes related to and often conflated with Pentecostalism, the fastest-growing religious movement in the world with followers numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Rather than deeming the poor around the globe who flock to prosperity churches - where they are taught that faith in God leads to health and wealth - to be gullible, stupid, or greedy, Berger offers a sociological account of the movement's this-worldly values: thrift, hard work, and family stability will, over a relatively short period of time, lift people out of poverty. Those who follow prosperity preaching may attribute their material success to faith rather than deeds, but that is not Berger's concern here.

A connection between spiritual and material well-being can also be found in the early evangelical movement, recorded in the writings of Anglican John Wesley, a leader of the transatlantic Methodist revival. Wesley urged his followers to "Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can." Unlike unflattering stereotypes of contemporary evangelicals, Wesley was so concerned with the physical well-being of his poor adherents that he wrote a home-remedy guide, The Primitive Physik, in which he collected folk treatments for various ailments and rated the efficacy of ones he had personally tried. Wesley coined the phrase "cleanliness is next to godliness," recognizing ahead of the curve that sanitary conditions were less likely to breed disease. Berger notes these historical similarities, but points out that the prosperity gospel explicitly pursues the material goods that earlier Protestants viewed as merely a byproduct of righteous living.

The work of evangelical historians, including George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Harry Stout, as well as evangelical philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, has enhanced the image of evangelicals in the academy. And the high public profiles of socially conscious Rick Warren, Jim Wallis, and others have contributed to a more positive assessment of evangelicals among non-evangelical opinion-makers. Berger asks whether a similar re-assessment can be made about prosperity believers and Pentecostals, the latter of whom he terms "the elephant in the living room of respectable Christendom."

How will his plea be received? Never mind that Berger published this essay in a journal primarily aimed at evangelicals; evangelicals eager for respectability may not be so eager to acknowledge their kinship with prosperity churches. Other observers of these charismatic movements express surprise that intelligent and accomplished people continue to believe in supernatural causality that defies rational explanation. But responses of fascination or repulsion (rather than a conviction of significance and even religious merit), Berger might say, keep evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike from truly understanding Pentecostalism's (and prosperity's) appeal.

Berger's line of argument has more than a passing similarity to a central thesis of just-published Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, in which authors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam contend that the working class is drawn to the conservative social stance of the Republican party because they have suffered disproportionately from the fallout of sexual liberation, no-fault divorce, and abortion on demand, positions championed by the left. Rather than distracting them from root economic causes (the liberal view), Republican emphases on family values and law and order address the social disruption that contributes to the economic woes of the working class.

Together, Berger's essay and Grand New Party point out two ways of condescending to the poor. The first, a favorite of conservatives, is to blame poverty on poor people's lack of industry and moral rectitude. The second, a favorite of liberals, is to claim that the poor aren't smart enough to know what is good for them. Neither attitude helps. Whatever else we think of them, Berger argues, Pentecostalism and prosperity preaching empower the poor. Let's hope they are taken seriously.

Debra Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This month, the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism, Religious Renaissance, and Social Conflict in Asia" by Richard Madsen of the University of California, San Diego. The concept of secularism as a political, social, and cultural phenomenon developed in the midst of and in reference to Western countries. Madsen applies this framework to East and Southeast Asia, finding that, while it "does not perfectly fit, the lack of fit is useful for highlighting particular dilemmas faced by Asian governments in an era of political and religious transformation." Formal responses from Hong You (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore), Robert Weller (Boston University), and Hans Joas (University of Chicago) will be posted throughout the month. http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Deal or No Deal

It is fascinating to watch the drama unfolding in Washington. It might even be entertaining, almost soap operatic, were the stakes not so high. Earlier in the day I read that Congress had essentially worked out a deal to take to the President's afternoon summit. Both McCain and Obama were there. McCain "suspended" his campaign to help work out a deal and suggested that tomorrow evening's debate be postponed.

I'm not sure what's going on here -- whether it is another dramatic political stunt designed to catch headlines or something else. Obama has rejected McCain's idea, saying that they should be able to do both debate and deal with the crisis. The reality is that while either of these two candidates will inherit this mess, neither of them are yet President nor are either of them on the Senate Banking committee. They can offer input, but hanging around Washington does little good.

What appears to be the case is that the Republicans won't back the President's call for action. It is possible that the President will have to work out a deal with the Democrats, but success really requires a bi-partisans plan. That doesn't seem to be forthcoming, at least at this point.

So, we wait to see what happens next and consider the question: what's the hold up?

Obama Speaks to Financial Mess

Barack Obama in this video version of a news conference speaks to his views of the financial mess and his intention to continue with the plan for the debate. He speaks calmly and forthrightly.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Polkinghorne on Creationism

The issue of scientific creationism never seems to go away. If it's not a creationist museum opening up in Kentucky it's news that a politician (this time Sarah Palin) wants creationism taught along side evolution. I'm reading at this moment biologist Kenneth Miller's Only a Theory, and will comment later on it, but British theologian/physicist John Polkinghorne has a new statement out on this issue in the London Times.

In this essay Polkinghorne takes on the problem of biblical literalism and the way in which it misuses and abuses Scripture -- especially when its proponents make an ancient text speak to modern scientific issues. What makes all of this even more interesting is that we are on the eve of two important events -- the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal text -- On the Origin of the Species.

To give you a taste of Polkinghorne's statement, here is his opening paragraph.

An irritating feature of modern life is the way in which useful words get hijacked and used for different, and often unacceptable, purposes. An example is “creationist”. As a Christian believer I am, of course, a creationist in the proper sense of the term, for I believe that the mind and the purpose of a divine Creator lie behind the fruitful history and remarkable order of the universe which science explores. But I am certainly not a creationist in that curious North American sense, which implies interpreting Genesis 1 in a flat-footed literal way and supposing that evolution is wrong. (To continue reading, click here).

H/T to Chris Tilling for reference to this article.

Stupid Bible Tricks

We preachers have a tendency to make the Bible say what we want it to say. That is, when it comes to sermon time we've got to say something about the Bible even if the text only tangentially fits our purpose. I'll admit that last Sunday I preached a sermon on the Restoration Principle. I used at passage from Acts 3 that spoke of restoration, but I didn't make much use of the text. Of course, this was more of a topical sermon than a textual/expository one -- and I had to have a text. But some preachers go to extraordinary lengths to make the Bible say what they want it to say.

Well, Dr. Susan Pigott, an OT professor at the Baptist seminary at Hardin-Simmons University, tells the story in an Ethics Daily post about one really "stupid Bible trick." She tells of a Baptist pastor who fit Jesus into Genesis 1 by using the Hebrew word "et," a word that is not translated into English because the word simply serves as the sign of a direct object -- and it is found throughout the Bible. But, because the letters "aleph" and "tav" are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, this preacher found "alpha and omega" and thus Jesus. My, why hadn't I thought of that.

So, the moral of the story -- watch out for those preachers who tell you they're preaching the Bible! Make sure they're not doing any "stupid Bible tricks."

This looks to be the first in a series, so check it out at her blog -- OT Prophetess.

Observing the Financial Mess

So far this financial mess has not effected me all that deeply. I'm a new home owner but had good credit. I have a strong job situation (at least for now I'm still in the honeymoon stage). Our family debt is small -- besides the house, we have 2 cars we're paying on. We have assets in the bank to draw on if necessary. So, all in all, we should be able to ride this storm out.

But I recognize that there is great anxiety out there. People are losing jobs and homes. We hear dire warnings of what might happen if the government doesn't intervene, but we also hear voices suggesting that this would saddle the American taxpayer with an unpayable debt (not that this has stopped anyone in recent years).

What is interesting is that the current bailout plan satisfies no one. You have Senator Jim Bunning calling it unAmerican, others calling it socialism (of course for some any government is socialism), others calling for more regulation and oversight. The reality is that something will pass and it will likely be a hybrid. In other words, Treasury will get its money, but Congress will attach stipulations like congressional oversight and maybe some relief for homeowners. It seems that both Obama and McCain are agreed that executives can't walk away with golden parachutes or retain unregulated salaries.

The biggest danger here is that we act in fear and create a monster worse than the one we face. Chris Dodd says he understands we must do something quick, but he wants to make sure we do this right. The one things I can say is that Congress won't be going home Friday to campaign. And whatever happens will require that the Bush Administration give the Democrats some of what they want because the Republicans seem to want to let the "markets" work this out.

Here is, I suppose, that 3 o'clock call! But neither McCain nor Obama are in a position to do anything substantial!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Dangers of Moralism

Jesus was known to challenge the self-righteous and the moralizers. I realize that the text's authenticity is uncertain, but the exchange with those who came to judge the woman caught in adultery seems authentic to who Jesus was. As the woman's accusers stood up to stone the woman, hoping to get Jesus involved, he said: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her." As the narrator continues with the story, everyone slithered away, embarrassed at their own defects. Then, Jesus released the woman and charged her to sin no more (John 8:1-11).

The reality is that there are many in our midst, both on the right and on the left, who are so certain of the rightness of their cause and of their person that they don't slink away, but assume that it's their right and responsibility to throw that first stone. Much of this is due to a lack of reflectiveness, a lack of self-awareness. And such a perspective easily fires up the ideologue.

What is unfortunate about the McCain-Palin ticket is that both parties hold such a view of themselves -- though I think for different reasons. For Palin, I believe it is a rigid religious identity that fuels her "crusade." She has a "mission from God," and she will complete it. For McCain I do think that the experience of imprisonment and torture has contributed to his own sense of importance. He has been tested like few others, and if you've not been so tested then you have no right to challenge him. Either way, however, to be a moralist means not allowing the other to have dignity or rightness.

It is important that we be righteous -- that is right with God and with one another. It is important that we live ethically/morally in the world. But we must, it would seem, give room for the other to differ with us. To differ from me doesn't make you evil, it just means that you see things differently. It's okay to push the point and hold fast to what you believe, but it's not appropriate to demonize the other. Of course, both religion and politics seem to be the center of such thinking!

Temperament in Times of Crisis

I can't say that I agree with George Will on much -- though I do believe he is opposed to the designated hitter in baseball, as do I -- and I'm not in agreement with all that he says in an editorial today in the Washington Post. That may be because I'm a political liberal who is more comfortable with government intervention in the economy than is he, but that's not my point.

What is interesting is Will's take on McCain's fitness to be president. That his attacks on Christopher Cox show a shallowness of understanding and a moralizing impulsiveness that can be dangerous.

What is central to McCain's persona, one that appears he shares with his running mate, is a self-righteous moralism that pits "us" against "them." If you disagree with me, you're not only wrong but you are immoral. Will writes:

In any case, McCain's smear -- that Cox "betrayed the public's trust" -- is a harbinger of a McCain presidency. For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are "corrupt" or "betray the public's trust," two categories that seem to be exhaustive -- there are no other people. McCain's Manichaean worldview drove him to his signature legislative achievement, the McCain-Feingold law's restrictions on campaigning. Today, his campaign is creatively finding interstices in laws intended to restrict campaign giving and spending. (For details, see The Post of Sept. 17, Page A4; and the New York Times of Sept. 20, Page One.)

It is this "us" against "them" that has caused the US to plunge in world regard. We are viewed as arrogant and self-righteous, and also unreflective. Could Barack Obama be a bit too analytic and cautious? Perhaps, but is reactive impulsiveness a better quality?

Will is likely not a fan of Barack Obama, but his concluding paragraph suggests that he's even less enamoured with John McCain:

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

In just a few weeks from now, we will have an opportunity to cast our vote for a new President. I will admit that Barack Obama is not the most experienced candidate ever, but he brings intangibles that can be enhanced and supported -- with a good team of advisers and a clear headed sense of the world. John McCain and Sarah Palin seem ready to go to war with whomever they deem the enemy. That's our choice!

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Risk We Can't Afford

Even as the financial sector melts down, largely due to a lack of oversight, Barack Obama's campaign raises questions about McCain's intentions with health care.

More Peter Gomes

Peter Gomes, Dean of Chapel at Harvard, talks about his call to ministry and more at Salon.

Crash -- Sightings

How should we respond to the financial mess? How do we interpret what's going on? What is the solution?

Martin Marty speaks to this question today in his Sightings column. He points to a Wall Street Journal article that bemoans the failure of the markets to "self-heal," that is, they've not corrected themselves without outside intervention. As he shares his insights he points to a symposium that featured Milton Friedman, that guru of unfettered free markets and contrasts that with a bit of Niebuhrian realism.

It is interesting that John McCain, king of deregulators, seems to have concluded that maybe there's need for at least some regulation - maybe because the market is not able to heal itself or patrol itself!


Sightings 9/22/08


-- Martin E. Marty

"Worst Crisis Since '30s, With No End in Sight," screamed the September 18th Wall Street Journal, in company with all other headliners. The four authors of the full-page story tuck in this line under the sub-head "Spreading Disease:" The U. S. financial system "is trying to fight off a disease that is spreading…The illness seems to be overwhelming the self-healing tendencies of markets." "Self-healing" is a key term here, a concept which will be exegeted, parsed, run through hermeneutical wringers, preached about, perhaps repented over, and certainly examined. It's too soon to see how theologians and ethicists will treat the current crisis, but one expects them to take on the concept of "self-healing."

Like so many treatments of the market and other elements in life today, from the personal to the global, this story focuses on "self." The nation has gotten used to isolating elements, seeing them "go it alone," and bragging about the results, so it should be ready to picture that "self-healing" in one sector would work. No. We have heard enough in recent years about how the United States could make decisions about wars in which to engage, considering only its "self." Nowhere has the language of "self-generating," "self-developing," "self-correcting," and "self-healing" been more regularly employed than in respect to the market as it has come to dominate in the modern free world.

Years ago, don't ask me why, I was drawn into the moderatorship of a panel starring then-colleague Milton Friedman. His main point, iterated in the face of any criticisms or questions by panelists and audience members, was that markets succeed because, "unfettered," they are the best expression of perfect freedom. They needed no watching or help from other spheres of life. Challenged: "Do you mean, Dr. Friedman, that there is no place where, say, the governments have a part to play in the market world?" "Roads!" The confident, one-word response sounded rehearsed. Roads have to run through private properties, subject to eminent domain. Anything else involving "others" with the "private" world? No, only "roads."

Of course, not all advocates of "unfettered" and "unregulated" markets were as sure of themselves as Dr. Friedman, who was as informed and skillful a debater as I've ever known. Yet for most, governments were not to play any part in regulating or monitoring markets. Today we are hearing from many who are suddenly "born-again" advocates of some measure of regulating agencies and companies and transactions. The various sectors of society do have different interests and can mess each other up, but the headlines and prime time utterances this week indicate that, to give a secular translation of a "body of Christ" theme, "we are members one of another." We re-learn it again, too late, during this "Worst Crisis Since 1930s," and hope for healing.

(Reinhold) Niebuhrian irony provides perspective here: As with this nation and its foreign policy, so now with the markets. We are well aware of our own virtue, knowledge, power, and security, and these are real enough to be celebrated. But we did not recognize their undersides: vice, ignorance, weakness, and insecurity, which overtook us. Niebuhrians quoted Psalm 2:4: "God sits in the heavens and laughs." (But, added Niebuhr, God also held and holds us responsible.) This comes close to being a "Sightings Sermon," so it needs a text. Isaiah 5:8 (NRSV): "Ah to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land." We'll now hear about mutuality in healing.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

This month, the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism, Religious Renaissance, and Social Conflict in Asia" by Richard Madsen of the University of California, San Diego. The concept of secularism as a political, social, and cultural phenomenon developed in the midst of and in reference to Western countries. Madsen applies this framework to East and Southeast Asia, finding that, while it "does not perfectly fit, the lack of fit is useful for highlighting particular dilemmas faced by Asian governments in an era of political and religious transformation." Formal responses from Hong You (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore), Robert Weller (Boston University), and Hans Joas (University of Chicago) will be posted throughout the month. http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The Financial Mess

What a mess we've gotten ourselves into! Just weeks before one of the most significant presidential elections in history the economy went into melt down. The candidates can really do little except suggest what they might do and perhaps criticize what the other candidate might do. There is a danger in saying too much (McCain has been more vocal about what he would do) and saying too little (I think Obama has taken the right balance here, but perhaps he could say more). The current president is in his final months in office, which means he has little clout. The one person who seems to have some clout at this moment, and by all reports is doing a good job is the current Treasury Secretary. Both candidates seem to agree on this and praise his leadership while suggesting the need for oversight.

What is the cause of this? Greed, yes I think there's some greed here, but greed is the driving force of capitalism -- which makes McCain's populist rant against greed sort of odd. Is it hubris, I think this is the more likely cause. Without hubris greed can do little long term damage, but when we think we can do what we want, when we want, even if we don't know what we're doing, well -- that's hubris. And I think hubris is different from cockiness. Cockiness is being outwardly self-assured, but that attitude expressed might cover a more thoughtful demeanor underneath.

John McCain has called himself a strong proponent of deregulation. Now, we've all experienced red tape! It can get overwhelming at times. But as we have seen (and McCain seems to acknowledge) with out some rules things get out of hand (yes I know I'm theologically a non-creedal type). Obama has been an advocate of broader government oversight, but the question is -- what kind?

As for the promises both candidates are making?

McCain's continued promise to continue the Bush tax cuts, which turned the Clinton surplus into a record deficit, seem problematic. There are some parts of that tax policy that will have to be addressed -- for instance the inheritance tax, which expires in 2010, will return to previous levels in 2011. That will have to be looked at to bring it up to date -- though I can't see it being totally eliminated. Considering what we're entering into, McCain's declaration that he'll cut taxes and then balance the budget through cutting earmarks is pretty silly. Back in California Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to balance the budget without raising taxes by cutting the fat in the budget. Well, the amount of fat found was pretty small. It was a choice of cutting into essential programs. And you know this debate about pork is an interesting one. What is one person's pork is another person's necessity. If a congressperson or senator doesn't bring home some bacon to our state, we'll get rid of them. And I'm sure that John McCain has brought some home to Arizona -- if not then he's not been representing his state very well.

So, back to the financial mess. I'm not an economist, so I'm trusting that there will be some steady hands on the wheel. I'm pleased to see that the leaders of both parties are involved. I'm expecting that the final bill won't be to any one's liking in all its details, but it will, hopefully, put us on the right track.

More on Peace Day

I reported yesterday that Central Woodward Christian Church hosted the Troy Interfaith Group's observance of International Day of Peace. Here is a report of our event and others around Metro Detroit. By the way, we made peace pinwheels as well!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

International Day of Peace -- An Interfaith Observance

Today the Troy Interfaith Group observed the UN's International Day of Peace. About 90 adults, youth and children gathered at my church -- Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI -- to share their visions of peace. We had Muslim, Hindu, Baha'i, Unitarian, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Sikh, and Amaddiyah Muslim groups come together. It was a good day, all in all. I'll share below my opening comments -- sans the directions!
May today be a day of peace, the beginning of a new possibility for our nation and world.

International Day of Peace

Today is, by decree of the United Nations, the International Day of Peace. This day of peace was first set aside by the UN in 1981, and since 2002 it has been observed each 21st day of September. According to the organizers:
"Peace Day should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples . . . This day will serve as a reminder to all peoples that our organization, with all its limitations, is a living instrument in the service of peace and should serve all of us here within the organization as a constantly pealing bell reminding us that our permanent commitment, above all interests or differences of any kind, is to peace." (http://internationaldayofpeace.org/about/background.html).
All across the world, groups and individuals concerned about peace will gather to remember, to consider, to pray, that war and violence would be done away with, and that peace would reign. We gather as representatives of the various faith communities, to bear witness as people of faith to the importance of bringing peace to our world.

It is especially important for us as people of faith to participate in this event, because:
  1. Religions have often been at the heart of our world’s violent conflicts, whether that be war or terrorist attacks. Whether or not faith traditions are the cause of a conflict, more often than not they are called upon to provide a rationale for the conflict or to give their blessing – and thus the blessing of God – to their "cause." And as much as we would like to believe otherwise, there is no religious tradition that has not been implicated. If we examine our sacred texts and look back at our histories, it is likely that we will see sufficient examples of calls to arms and defenses of violence.
  2. But, most every religion, if not all religions, also have a tradition of peace. Even as we can find calls to violence and defenses of war in every tradition, so we will also find a witness to peace and to justice.

Today we come to confess our complicity in violence and commit ourselves to the cause of peace in our world. And to do this, we will take time to listen to each other’s witness to peace. For instance, in my own tradition there is the witness of Jesus, who said: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9). From the Hebrew Bible, there is the witness of Isaiah:

Many peoples shall come and say,‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,to the house of the God of Jacob;that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations,and shall arbitrate for many peoples;they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,and their spears into pruning-hooks;nation shall not lift up sword against nation,neither shall they learn war any more. (Is. 2:3-4)

From Taoism comes this witness:

Armies are tools of violence; they cause men to hate and fear. The sage will not
join them. His purpose is creation; their purpose is destruction
. (Tao Te Ching

These are but three statements, but each of the religious traditions represented here today have come to share their own witness to peace. We recognize that none of us can offer a complete promise of peace. We know that there will always be challenges to our embrace of peace. But, that does not mean that we shy away from making that appeal.

As we prepare to join in this journey let me share with you this prayer for peace, which is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although neither the date of its composition, nor the identity of this prayer’s author, is truly known. But whoever may have written it, it remains for us all, no matter our faith tradition, a call to peace:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,

Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console,
not so much to be understood as to understand,
not so much to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we awake to eternal life.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Scandalous Jesus -- Peter Gomes talks to Stephen Colbert

Peter Gomes appears on Stephen Colbert's show to plug his new book on Jesus -- The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (HarperOne, 2008).

Gomes tells us that the gospel is scandalous because churches are agents of conservatism and the status quo, but Jesus upsets the status quo. Enjoy the video!!

It's the Economy Stupid

The mantra of the 1992 election was "It's the Economy Stupid." Bill Clinton took down an incumbent US president because that president, though he had presided over the successful conclusion of the first Gulf War, seemed out of touch on economic issues. Go buy socks he told us -- kind of like his son told us after 9-11 that everything would be fine if we just go out and buy things.

Not long ago it was the Iraq War and national security that sat at the top of the agenda. People in 2004 voted for GW Bush in large part because he suggested to people (and many believed) that a vote for John Kerry would make the US unsafe from terrorism -- what people forgot was that the issues were much bigger than just terrorism (and it's quite questionable that GW made us safer). But this last week put the economy front and center again. Now neither candidate can do anything substantive about the economy at this moment -- neither has any real power to do so. All we can do is look back at what they've done before, what they've said before, and what plans they've laid out to move the country forward.

But what seems quite apparent is that while there is a small pocket of voters who will try to make this about "traditional values," that is banning abortion and reducing the rights of gays and lesbians, while allowing religion to get a better foothold in government, those issues likely will not, nor should they be the driving force in this election. This is a perspective set out in a recent LA Times editorial.

Indeed, from a biblical perspective, I would think that the principles of Matthew 25, which call for compassion and care for the poor among us would have priority. While I'm not exactly thrilled watching the government bail out investment banks and Wall Street firms, we need o remember that in this day and age most of us -- through our retirement plans and more -- are impacted by what happens on Wall Street. But, it is time for more accountability and oversight. It's not so much that we need lots of regulations, but that we need smart ones that will end the practices of CEOs making huge salaries at the expense of their workers, and when corporate officers are given huge bonuses upon leaving their firms in a shambles.

Now, it's my opinion that Barack Obama is better prepared in temperament and belief systems to accomplish this task, but each of us must make that decision for ourselves.

Maybe I'm really a Conservative

David Brooks wrote a column the other day about Sarah Palin, and whether she's qualified to be VP. He concludes that while she brings certain qualities to the table, those qualities, at this time do not fit well with her proposed duties. That's not the point though, that I have in mind.

Brooks makes a different point as the foundation for his argument. Brooks, like George Will, is a conservative. And Brooks points out that conservatism historically has been an "elitist" philosophy. Only recently has the "conservative" movement in America taken on a more populist hue. That may largely be due to the influx of social conservatives into the mix. When I was growing up Republican, the GOP of my youth was focused on economics and projecting a forceful military presence in the world. It was in many ways the pro-business party. It was the party of the bankers and the CEO's. It wasn't the party of unions or blue collar folk. Things have changed, in both parties. Indeed, in may ways neither major party looks the way it did 30 or 40 years ago.

But back to the elitist versus the populist sentiment. The other day we saw a wealthy socialite and former Hillary Clinton fundraiser say rather bizarrely that she was shifting her support to McCain because Obama is an elitist. Now how a wealthy socialite can say that Obama is an elitist is rather odd, at the very least. But what is interesting, and Brooks brings this up, is that Americans today seem to take a dim view of those who are educated. For some reason, Barack Obama's time at Columbia and Harvard Law School is held against him. That John McCain, like George W. Bush before him, did poorly in school seems to be a badge of honor. We embraced term limits because it returned American to rule by citizen legislators. Of course that can sometimes lead to major problems. In California, legislators are termed out just as they begin to understand their job. There's no experience present in the legislature, so most of the major decisions are farmed out to the voter through resolutions, and the voter knows even less -- but the legislators lack confidence and so they pass the buck.

Brooks speaks of the value of experience, and obviously experience comes in a variety of forms. Barack Obama's experience is less rooted in political experience and more in life experience. What seems to be present in Obama is a pragmatic, thoughtful, analytical methodology, much of which is informed by his own educational path. He's not a quick draw cowboy. He takes his time, and formulates a plan. He gathers people together, hears their views, and makes a decision. McCain has plenty of political experience and military experience, but his rhetoric suggest someone who reacts quickly and often impulsively. The choice of Sarah Palin is a good example. Now, this brought a surge of support from the base, but he has had to paper over her record and work to suppress an ongoing ethics investigation that he apparently was unaware of when the decision was made.

So, if trusting people with education and experience is conservative, then maybe I'm a conservative. Of course, in my principles, I believe in openness and inclusion, and in that sense, I'm a liberal. I guess, in reality I'm an elitist and not a populist! But what's wrong with a little elitism? Is every educated person an idiot? Not hardly! Is it a good thing to be populist? Not necessarily!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

American Islam Enters its Next Phase -- Sightings

Until recently most Americans had little interest in or connection to Islam. Most of us knew very little about it -- though we knew that Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar had both converted to Islam -- back in the 60s. We may have heard about Malcom X -- whose fiery rhetoric made many Americans embrace Martin Luther King as the less radical version of the Civil Rights effort. But for the most part we've known little about Islam -- and continue to know little about it, though interest is growing (mostly out of fear).

Omer Mazaffar, a University of Chicago Ph.D. student directs us to the person of W.D. Mohammed, son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Mohammed. Unlike his father W.D. Mohammed came to embrace orthodox Sunni Islam and became a leader in American Islam -- across ethnic boundaries. W.D. Mohammed was buried on September 11th, just a week ago, ending a family legacy that has had a significant impact on American religious and political life. It is a helpful piece, introducing us to a person few of us know about.



American Islam Enters its Next Phase

-- Omer M. Mozaffar

Thousands of Muslim mourners flocked to Chicago last week to bury their beloved Brother Imam, Warith Deen Mohammed, who died on September 9. They laid to rest what may be the single most significant legacy in the history of American Islam. Many of the roads that today define American Islam pass through this family, beginning with Elijah Muhammad and culminating with his son and successor W. D. Mohammed.

To his critics, Elijah Muhammad was a racist demagogue; to his sympathizers, he was the divine voice of dignity for the dispossessed, reclaiming the religion of their forefathers. W. D. Mohammed, conversely, was a quiet, humble voice for universal brotherhood and sisterhood both within mainstream Islam and across faith communities. Though his following was large and loyal enough to rival that of most American Christian preachers, he was often overshadowed in the media by another of Elijah's students, Minister Louis Farrakhan. Nevertheless, W. D. Mohammed was perfectly comfortable and effective outside of the limelight, earning the audience of presidents, princes, pontiffs, and pundits across the globe. The paths of so many prominent Muslim Americans of the past century – Congressmen Keith Ellison (Minnesota) and Andre Carson (Indiana), and athletes Muhammad Ali (whose manager was the recently deceased Jabir Herbert Muhammad, brother of Warith Deen) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to give a few examples – find their origins in this family or its ideological descendants, who include Malcolm X. But it is less well-known that the other cultural strands of American Islam are also rooted in this family.

Following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, waves of South Asian, Arab, and African Muslim professionals and students migrated to the United States. Throughout the 1970s, as Elijah Muhammad's heterodox Nation of Islam transformed into W. D. Mohammed's orthodox World Community of al-Islam, immigrant Muslims found tutelage, support, and engagement with Mohammed as they founded their own communities. These different branches of African American, African, South Asian, and Arab Muslim communities grew rapidly throughout the 1980s, developing their own distinct, diverse personalities.

The 1990s, however, saw another period of transformation. As the Cold War ended, the notion of "West vs. East" continued, except that "East" was no longer the red menace of "Communism," but the green menace of "Islam." The Salman Rushdie affair, the first Gulf War, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia and Kosova, the first attack on the World Trade Center, the Russian war against Chechen separatists, the rise of the Taliban from the chaos of the former Soviet Occupation, the witch hunt for Muslims and Arabs immediately after the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the American Federal use of Secret Evidence in prosecuting prominent Muslim leaders and organizations compelled many American Muslim communities to shift focus away from growth, establishment, and flowering, toward self-defense and survival against a growing sense of mistrust. This concern amplified in the past decade following the attacks of 9/11/01, the destructive occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the PATRIOT Act, and the repeated reference to "Islamic Extremism" as a tool of political propaganda.

Nevertheless, American Islam did continue to grow across new horizons. Spike Lee's film Malcolm X inspired millions to discover or revisit the life of the slain leader, and W. D. Mohammed expanded his interactions to the global stage, while his followers focused on developing academic credentials in order to lead and teach. Farrakhan organized the astoundingly successful Million Man March, and began a subsequent change in his rhetoric. And the children of the immigrants began to come of age as parents, professionals, community organizers, and scholars.

A new generation of Muslims – spanning many ethnicities and religious outlooks – works along various threads of consciousness and activism. Many seek to develop a healthy Islamic practice that is as loyal to its traditional roots as it is to its American home; many seek to strengthen defenses against an increasingly hostile political climate; many seek to return America to a place of prominence on the global stage, demanding that it lives up to its own ideals; many seek to confront a radicalization that is microscopic in scale but wide in potential devastation (as well as political opportunism); and most seek to continue life simply as family members and professionals. Imam Mohammed's influence can be felt in all these threads.

It is perhaps more than coincidence that Warith Deen Mohammed was buried on September 11. The Janāza (funeral prayer) and burial were perfumed with both sadness and great hope. Among the tears and laughter of thousands of mourners were discussions about the immediate and long-term future of Muslim America, and throughout those discussions was a strong sense of confidence, dignity, and faith.

Omer M. Mozaffar is a PhD student in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Chicago, and teaches in the Asian Classics Curriculum at the University of Chicago's Graham School of General Studies

This month, the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism, Religious Renaissance, and Social Conflict in Asia" by Richard Madsen of the University of California, San Diego. The concept of secularism as a political, social, and cultural phenomenon developed in the midst of and in reference to Western countries. Madsen applies this framework to East and Southeast Asia, finding that, while it "does not perfectly fit, the lack of fit is useful for highlighting particular dilemmas faced by Asian governments in an era of political and religious transformation." Formal responses from Hong You (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore), Robert Weller (Boston University), and Hans Joas (University of Chicago) will be posted throughout the month. http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


We are witnessing a major financial meltdown in our country. Investment banks, insurance companies, normal banking institutions, lending institutions are collapsing. People are loosing homes through foreclosure. Why? We're being told be people on both sides of the aisle that the culprit is greed. Does that surprise anyone? It has always been true that for most people, the more you have, the more you want.

Reinhold Niebuhr writes of the root of human sin:

Man is insecure and involved in natural contingency; he seeks to overcome his insecurity by a will-to-power which overreaches the limits of human creatureliness. Man is ignorant and involved in the limitations of the finite mind; but he pretends that he is not limited. He assumes that he can gradually transcend finite limitations until his mind becomes identical with the universal mind. All his intellectual and cultural pursuits, therefore, become infected with the sin of pride. (Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed., Collins, 1989, pp. 136-137).

Listening this morning to NPR and watching a bit of news on CNN and MSNBC, it seems that we're talking about people who in the pursuit of wealth entered into investments or sold investments that no one understood and besides that no one seemed to care about. We have a government that decided to let the "markets run free," without any oversight, assuming that the markets would take care of things. Well, greed and hubris both seem to have stepped in and now the economy is at risk. Niebuhr would call this, I believe, sin.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Biden's Response!

I love Joe Biden! I believe that he's an excellent running mate for Barack Obama, in part because Joe not only understands foreign policy, but he speaks from a middle class perspective. But most of all, Joe says what he thinks! That gets him into trouble, but he does so with such grace and wit you can't help but like him. And he'll own up when he makes a mistake.

He was here in Michigan yesterday and spoke to the people of the neighboring county. Michigan is an important vote in the upcoming election, and Joe unmasked McCain-Palin. Here he is on the economy.

You can read the rest of the speech here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Subordinate but not Submissive -- Sightings

I have to admit, when I first saw the title of the post I thought Martin Marty was going to deal with the issue of Conservative Christian support for a woman candidate for the VP -- given that women can't hold church office and must submit to their husbands at home. But that's not the focus of this essay, no it has to do with whether we should follow the biblical injunction to disobey when the government's judgment runs counter to our faith perspective. And if so, should we be willing to suffer the consequences?
Take a read and offer your thoughts:


Sightings 9/15/08

Subordinate but Not Submissive
-- Martin E. Marty

You did not ask to be born into a republic which legally subordinates religion to civil society. You thought that because religion usually makes reference to whatever or Whomever it is that transcends society, society and its laws should come in second in any contest. You thought that because we see messiahs in or make saints or heroes out of those who, within civil society, appeal to a "Higher Law"—as did Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of pacifists—there are special legal privileges for those we honor as prophets, but it does not work out that way. You thought that because your faith calls you not to be submissive or supine in the face of claims by the civil order, you did not have to locate faith's claims in the category marked "subordinate." You thought. . . wrongly.

Of course, I was talking to myself, so "You" in those lines was "I." I do not know what "you" thought, because I cannot know what goes on in your mind. However, reading our history and observing our practices should lead at least to a tentative conclusion that I was representing you fairly accurately. The theme stays with me, thanks to criticism I received from some who tracked my Yale Law School address of several years ago, in which I tried to provoke with the "subordinate, but not submissive" idea. I was not original in making that point, but the point keeps on having to be made.

I thought of all that, as I often do, as I scanned CAFF Newsclips for just one week, August 31-September 7. Headlined in this one week alone were stories like these who headlines I'll scan, there being no other or better way to make my case than dazzling with headings:

"Federal Prosecutors Drop Most Charges in refiled Holy Land Foundation Case," "Federal Court Injunction Requires Equal Access for Bible Club at California School," "Federal Court Upholds New Jersey School's Holiday Music Policy," "TSA Restores Muslim Pilot's Flight Status, Federal Lawsuit will Continue," "Rebuking Homeland Security, Immigrant Judge Grants Imam Permanent Residency," et cetera. In state courts, people of religiously-inspired conscience press cases such as "Oregon Gay Marriage Ceremony May Test American Indian Sovereignty," "Nebraska Supreme Court Will Hear Religious Objection to Infant Blood Screening," and others which refer to Muslim Scientists, Prison Chaplains, Voucher Amendments, "Muslim Dress Policy," and "LDS Woman Files Suit against Mobile Home Parks for Religious Discrimination."

Hello, again. If you yawned or your eyes glazed over, do at least reckon with the conclusions: that ours is a society of competing interests; that law can both restrict and enhance religious freedom as perceived and fought for by competing religious groups; that final solutions to legal church-state issues are in range if our lawyers and judges are good enough and smart enough. No, they are not merely in range. Their expanding, not declining, presence testifies to the contentiousness of fellow-citizens, to the hold religion has on millions and the hold those millions have on religion of all sorts, and to the fact that, irritating as they may be, we are well-served by complaining, crabby, often self-centered people who press their issues and say, "We ought to obey God rather than men."

Because of the prime role law plays, it is important for religiously-minded citizens to ally with freedom-lovers in general to test laws, work to revise them, and pay the price when conscience clashes with law. They serve the rest of us better than do those who snooze and just "go along" and let "the state" always have its way.


CAFF Newsclips, a listserv that circulates news articles about religious freedom nationally and abroad, comes from the Council for America's First Freedom in Richmond, VA.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

This month, the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism, Religious Renaissance, and Social Conflict in Asia" by Richard Madsen of the University of California, San Diego. The concept of secularism as a political, social, and cultural phenomenon developed in the midst of and in reference to Western countries. Madsen applies this framework to East and Southeast Asia, finding that, while it "does not perfectly fit, the lack of fit is useful for highlighting particular dilemmas faced by Asian governments in an era of political and religious transformation." Formal responses from Hong You (PhD candidate, University of Chicago Divinity School), Prasenjit Duara (National University of Singapore), Robert Weller (Boston University), and Hans Joas (University of Chicago) will be posted throughout the month. http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.