Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Don't Sugarcoat It

Richard Cohen, writing in today's Post, has had quite enough of the Christian right:
For too long now, the term "faith-based" has been synonymous with dumb. It's dumb to speak of Islam as if the terrorists are its true representatives (F. Graham). It's dumb to think the Holocaust was God's way of getting the Jews to return to Israel (Hagee) or that Catholics are not true Christians (Hagee, again) or that "Islam is an anti-Christ religion that intends through violence to conquer the world" (Parsley).

It's dumb to reject evolution when all of science thinks the opposite, and it's dumb to oppose sex education, as if knowledge was by itself a sin. It was beyond dumb for the Rev. Pat Robertson to predict a natural calamity for Orlando because of Disney World's policy regarding gay men and lesbians. Yet, the endorsement of such clergymen has been sought by virtually every Republican presidential candidate of our times. To pass this kind of muster is very disquieting.

Agreed. It's more than dumb, though; it's hateful, damaging, and un-Christian. But let's consider our response to these demagogues - they may deserve all of the withering criticism that Cohen levels, but to effectively counter them, we'll need a renewed energy in our own core values. That's how we'll change the tone of religious interaction in America - not by simply negating the destructive philosophies of the Christian right, but by building an alternative vision for faith in this country. Cohen doesn't seem to have a lot of faith in this possibility, which is where my one quibble with his column lies:
The liberal clergy in this country is a faded force. Gone are the days when ministers did such things as leading the civil rights movement and marching to end the Vietnam War. Now, the ones with political clout are too often small-minded men who swaddle their bigotry and ignorance in the soothing word "faith."
This isn't totally accurate. There is a lot of encouraging work being done by an emerging group of religious leaders who are called by their faith to work for peace, justice, and human dignity - and who do so without poisoning the process with spiteful venom. We often call this group the "Christian left" simply because they are the religious opposites of the Christian right, but their eagerness to be identified with a party does not approach the opportunistic self-aggrandizement of Falwell, Robertson, Dobson, or many of the leaders of that fading movement.

One of the most visible, Jim Wallis, has done great work to combat poverty and injustice. He did a panel at Georgetown a few months back with E.J. Dionne (who, in addition to being a WaPo columnist, is a Georgetown professor) to discuss the diminishing influence of the religious right and the rise of a new faith-based politics that is more focused on unity than on division and condemnation. Wallis mentioned that, at a recent book signing, he had been approached by a woman who told him that her daughter was graduating from Harvard that spring. Wallis said that he assumed she had mentioned it because she knew he taught at Harvard, so he congratulated the woman and told her that he was very fond of the institution and loved teaching there. At this point, Wallis said, the woman began to tear up. She told Wallis that 22 years ago, when she was pregnant with her daughter, she was living on food stamps and preparing to be a single mother. She almost chose to have an abortion because she could not afford to have the baby, but because of the food stamps she was able to get by. "She told me to tell everyone that story," Wallis said. He went on to reflect that the moment showed just how Americans can find common ground and make progress without using religion to attack each other. By protecting social safety nets like food stamps, liberal Americans can unite with conservative Americans who want to reduce the number of abortions in this country - and, he said, we can all agree that producing a Harvard graduate through such a political alliance is in our country's best interest.

This is the tone that the new faith leaders are setting, and it is one that will be good for American politics. This country has an incredible tradition of faith leaders and of freethinkers, of compassionate people - both religious and secular - who have done wonderful things. The faith leaders to watch are the ones who are building bridges and encouraging the kind of cooperation for the common good that Wallis described. And, in a sign of the times, they're not just Christians, either. Consider Eboo Patel, a Muslim American Rhodes Scholar and the founder of a wonderful organization called Interfaith Youth Core. He works from Chicago to build networks among young people of different faiths, engaging them in dialogue and helping them to do service together based on their shared values. This is the kind of faith leadership that we need, and it's becoming more prominent every day.

Americans of faith are sometimes given a bad name by Falwell and his ilk, but there's good reason to be encouraged by the work of people like Jim Wallis and Eboo Patel. They're a reminder that no one should be ashamed of engaging their most cherished beliefs in the civic arena - of course, always with a respect for public neutrality, boundaries, and the richness of the myriad traditions, both religious and secular, that have made America great.

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