Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Taking on the Religous Right

There is no doubt that the religious right in the States were pivotal not only in Bush's election but also in the development of his foreign policy, particularly in relation to Israel/Palestine. So I have been delighted to hear how the movement headed by Jim Wallis is beginning to wield so much more influence.

Sunday night I went to hear him speak (hat tip to Paul Burgin of Mars Hill for telling me about this). He has been a strong voice against the war in Iraq from the beginning, telling us of his visit to Blair pre the war to try and persuade him not to support it and having a previous book "God's Politics" endorsed by Gordon Brown. Jim is married to Joy Carroll, the inspiration for the Vicar of Dibley and was back in the UK for a family event so had taken some time out for a book tour to promote his book on faith and politics "Seven Ways to Change the World".
His call for a change of emphasis in the church is clearly touching a chord in the States and is likely to have an impact in the upcoming elections. He is attracting a swathe of particularly young Christians to a message that is based on social justice, human rights, equality, concern for the environment and community. He is vilified in some quarters as a progressive liberal, but sees himself in the tradition of the likes of Wilberforce and Finney.


Now, by bringing up the subject of the relationship between faith and politics I am no doubt going to get the likes of Laurence B into a lather. But so be it. As Jim Wallis pointed out, many of the great movements that have changed the world and changed politics have their roots in religion. Yes, religion can rightly on occasions be be blamed for conflict and evil, but it has also been a force for good. The same may be said about atheistic belief systems such as Communism, though no doubt there would be some debate about the Communist contribution for good. Arguments that religion and politics don't mix are meaningless to those who believe they do, which is why I applaud the work Jim and others are doing to challenge the religious right in the States. As Desmond Tutu says "I wonder which bible people are reading when they say religion and politics don't mix". I have no truck with those of faith who think it is purely personal and should have no impact on what they do to try to make a difference to the lives of others.

Jim Wallis believes that the obsession with abortion and gay marriage by the religious right has totally skewed the message of the gospel. As he says, Jesus said nothing at all about homosexuality but an awful lot about poverty and justice. Similarly he criticises the position on abortion, as he points out, despite the rhetoric, abortion rates have remained steady, dropping slightly under Clinton and actually rising slightly under Bush. He argues that is the result of social policy and that the emphasis should be on reducing the number of abortions, not on criminalising abortion. He decries the polarisation of the debate between pro life and pro choice - a topic to which I will return (having not had time to join in the abortion debate last week).

His challenge to the church is about taking the issues of poverty and justice seriously and asserts that politics is groping to find solutions to some of these great world issues. His position is that faith has been and can be a catalyst for action, reminding us of former campaigns against slavery, child labour, the Civil Rights movement in the US and Jubilee 2000. He told us that the origin of the "alter call" popular in so many evangelical churches, was the call to sign up for the anti-slavery campaign.

I applaud him for what he is doing and his contribution to changing things in US politics, to quote from his book "We have now entered the post Religious-Right era. That doesn't mean the Religious Right is dead, or won't still be an influence in Republican party politics. But its "era", the peak of its influence and its monopoly over faith and politics are now gone. Although religion has been given a negative image in the last few decades, the years ahead may be surprisingly shaped by a dynamic and more progressive faith that helps make needed social change possible. I have always been a progressive evangelical. "Progressive evangelical" has seemed to be a misnomer in recent years, but now it is becoming a movement."







20 comments:

Alasdair W said...

Can't stand the religious right. Don't conservative Christians realise that the conservatives of Jesus' time were called the Pharasees, and he spoke against them. Anyway Jim Wallis is great. I have his book 'seven ways to change the World', I just need to find time to actually read it.
The abortion rates you pointed out show the administrations failures. In the US they teach in schools not to have sex before marriage and don't teach about SDI and protection. Due to the influence of the Religious Right. So 1 in 4 teenage girls have a SDI.

Laurence Boyce said...

Me, in a lather? Surely not!

I actually agree with half your article. It reminds me a bit of something David Howarth said during the Blasphemy debate on 6 May:

The principle of the separation of Church and state is not about the separation of religion and politics, which I think is impossible. We cannot separate people’s moral, religious views from their political views. We are talking about the state, not about society, and about the religious commitments of the state, not about whether people in society are religious or not.

I am glad if this idea that religion is a purely private matter is going away. It manifestly isn’t. Tony Blair said as much earlier this year, Howarth, echoed this, and now you have confirmed it too! I think and hope that we are entering a new era where everyone is going to be much more frank about their faith and how it influences their politics. The flip side is that I am going to say exactly what I think of religion too! But I think it’s best to have it all out in the open.

The trouble is, Linda, that I just can’t think of you as religious at all. Maybe it would help if I could observe you in a religious context. Everything you say sounds so obviously humanistic to me. You are concerned through and through with justice in this life, not the next. Kathleen told me the other day that she didn’t believe in the afterlife. Bit of an admission there, but she chops and changes a fair bit!

Hopefully I’ll have an article out soon about the HFEB debate.

Alasdair W said...

SDIs! What was I on about! I meant STDs. Sometimes I ramble on and don't even know what I'm on about

Linda Jack said...

Alasdair, we must compare notes, I have a copy too!

Laurence...........which half?! I agree, I have never seen myself as religious, I hate the term. As a student i was taken aside by a young man who told me I wasn't what he thought a Christian woman should be.....and its been all downhill since then! I hate religiousity but I do believe we are all made in the image of God. So, you may see my passion for jusice as humanist, I see your humanism as a reflection of the truth articulated in Ecclesiastes that God has put eternity in all our hearts. As for seeing me in a religious context (?)....I am sure that can be arranged!

Laurence Boyce said...

As a student, I was taken aside by a young man who told me I wasn’t what he thought a Christian woman should be.

What a nice compliment! Seriously though, that is the worst of religion – the crushing of the individual human spirit. My father was exactly like that.

I see your humanism as a reflection of the truth articulated in Ecclesiastes that God has put eternity in all our hearts.

Hmm, that’s not quite how I see it. But I’m sure there’s room for both approaches!

The Burbler said...

Amen to all that Linda and thank you for writing it up in such detail. Jim Wallis is a hero of mine, partly because he has tood up to Bush and reminded us that social justice and faith can hand in hand and that there is an alternative in the US to the "evangelical right".

Taking up one of your points, a very good friend of mine who is a priest (favourite saying: "Jesus was a drinker you know") always draws a distinction between "religion" and "faith" saying that religion is man-made (and has often caused violence) but faith comes from God.

The Burbler said...

"Kathleen told me the other day that she didn’t believe in the afterlife. Bit of an admission there, but she chops and changes a fair bit!"

But all people of faith (and not of faith) chop and change. Faith is a personal journey.

Thanks for mentioning Ecclesiastes (or however you spell it - it's a bit like Edward Woodwardwoodwardwoodward) - it's one of my favourite books of the Bible - beautifully poetic and given added weight by being written by Solomon - who we can say had "been there and done that" !

Linda Jack said...

Yes Laurence, I hate that crushing of the human spirit too - I have spent most of my life challenging that - even when I got elected as President of my SU some fellow Christians couldn't cope with the idea of a woman in a position of authority - and in some quarters it hasn't changed much.

Paul, thanks for the positive feedback, yes I agree about religion - religiousity is what crushes the spirit in the way Laurence describes.

Laurence Boyce said...

Religion is man-made (and has often caused violence) but faith comes from God.

It’s all been so nice up until now, so I’m sorry to spoil things! But I can’t agree with that statement Paul. Faith is what you need to believe in God in the first place, so saying that “faith comes from God” sounds to me like a rather tacky cashback offer.

Faith is belief on insufficient evidence. You may think it is far more than just that, but faith does at the very least comprise belief on insufficient evidence. And belief on insufficient evidence is a BAD THING, and is the fundamental cause of the violence, because differences based upon faith cannot be settled by rational discourse alone.

We should instead be teaching our children to proportion their belief to the available evidence. When they get the hang of doing that on a regular basis, religion will be on the ropes.

The Burbler said...

But I think the distinction between faith and religion was shown by your little exchange with Linda. A faith in Jesus does not lead to violence. Quite the opposite. He spoke of love, not violence. It's when temporal matters like Popes and churches and property and monarchs (what can be broadly summarised as "religion" - and before you ask I repeat that I want the dis-establishment of the Church of England)) get involved that the problems start.

A pure and true faith in the teachings of Jesus cannot possibly lead to violence. You only have to read the gospels to see that.

Linda Jack said...

Paul, absolutely agree with you. Laurence, one of the problems in arguing with you is that we start from completely different standpoints - we are running on parallel tracks with no points of contact. You have a lot of faith in the material world - now you may say that is based on evidence, but some of that is still based on faith that it has been ever thus and will be ever thus, that sciencc will not in time reveal that some of what you rely on is wrong?

Paul and I may be totally wrong, but you also have to own that so might you? To use my radio waves analogy - they function in a spectrum we can't see, if we went back in time and told our ancestors about them they would probably think we were loopy.

Laurence Boyce said...

A pure and true faith in the teachings of Jesus cannot possibly lead to violence. You only have to read the gospels to see that.

Paul, I’ve read the gospels and I’m profoundly unimpressed – trite, repetitive, contradictory, not believable for the most part. And your view of Jesus as a man of peace is based upon a selective reading of the text. In Matthew 25, Jesus introduces us for the first time to the fires of Hell – “Depart from me ye cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” In Luke 22, he says (in parable), “Those enemies of mine who did not want me to be their King – bring them before me and kill them in front of me.” In Matthew 10, he explicitly states, “Do not imagine that I came to bring peace on earth; I came not to bring peace but a sword.” – one of the few predictions he actually got right.

I’m really unimpressed with Jesus – with his sayings, his magic tricks, and above all with his legacy of division and bloodshed between the “saved” and the “damned.”

Laurence Boyce said...

Laurence, one of the problems in arguing with you is that we start from completely different standpoints – we are running on parallel tracks with no points of contact.

I don’t think that at all Linda. I feel I have numerous points of contact with you and Paul. I am talking to human beings who share countless common values. Plus of course I used to be a believer myself!

You have a lot of faith in the material world – now you may say that is based on evidence, but some of that is still based on faith that it has been ever thus and will be ever thus, that science will not in time reveal that some of what you rely on is wrong?

It will be the same for both of us of course. But what I am advocating, as I said above (and the idea comes from David Hume), is that we ought to proportion our belief to the evidence. Of course reality is more nuanced than knowing everything for certain one way or another. Instead belief lies on a spectrum – there are things that we can be sure of, other things that we can be fairly sure of, things that we can be only half sure of, and so on. What I am pleading for in this respect is honesty. That our knowledge of the world is incomplete, should not give us a licence to introduce at will fanciful ideas that must surely belong at the lowest end of that spectrum.

(There’s an interesting corollary here in the field of ethics. It is a massive blind spot in secularism to think that once we lose God, we may no longer speak about morality with any authority. Nine out of ten humanists you meet will therefore be moral relativists. At my local humanist group, there’s a guy who maintains that there is “no such thing as truth.” He’s a Lib Dem too! This is madness, and is fortunately being challenged at present in a book by Austin Dacey. The trick, as ever, is to work on a spectrum of values – not to throw everything out just because, in the extreme case, there are no moral absolutes.)

Paul and I may be totally wrong, but you also have to own that so might you?

No, I do not own that. That is to say that I will not concede the point that it is foolish not to proportion one’s belief to the available evidence, and that faith/religion fails this test all the time. I will never consider it wise to place my life’s savings on a million to one outsider – not even when the horse comes in.

The Burbler said...
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The Burbler said...
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The Burbler said...
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The Burbler said...

"Paul, I’ve read the gospels and I’m profoundly unimpressed"

Oh no!. I am so disappointed Laurence. I thought you would have been really impressed by them. Drat! ;-)

Matthew 10 - "sword" was being used metaphorically in the sense of splitting the families of converts. Not killing people. See:

http://www.answering-islam.org/Authors/Arlandson/matthew_10_34.htm

Luke 10 - he's talking about a King - not himself - in a parable.

It's no surprise that Jesus preached about hell but that doesn't mean he advocated violence on earth - quite the opposite.

Stack that debatable and slim "evidence" against:

The Beatitudes - blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers.."anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment"..."settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court"...."I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also"..."Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"...."Do not judge, or you too will be judged"..."Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"....(the second greatest commandment)"'Love your neighbour as yourself'"...."A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." ...."For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. "But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions"...."For if you give, you will get! Your gift will return to you in full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over. Whatever measure you use to give- large or small- will be used to measure what is given back to you"...etc

Laurence Boyce said...

Yes, there is some good stuff in there. But it’s not rocket science, and much of it isn’t original either. Then there’s also some really bad advice in there – love your enemy and turn the other cheek – that won’t do either you or your enemy the slightest bit of good. Sure, don’t get into needless head-on confrontation – sidestep your enemy would be the better advice. Then there’s some stuff in there that isn’t true. – lots of “heavenly fathers.” There’s no heavenly father. And then, even in your own selections, the explicit invocation of judgement from on high. That is a real deal-breaker. We urgently need to move to a situation where people do what good they do for its own sake, not in expectation of reward or in fear of judgement in the afterlife. And the afterlife does mean violence big time, especially if you’re in Hell, but also on Earth as the stakes now couldn’t be any higher for people who are fighting over their various “interpretations” of a divine revelation. But in any case, why hostage ourselves to something that may or may not have been said thousands of years ago? Let’s work it out from scratch. With all the insights of science, history, and philosophy at our disposal, I’m sure we can do so much better than Jesus.

The Burbler said...
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The Burbler said...

I am perfectly happy for you and others to do that Laurence. Go ahead. Well done. You have may best wishes in that venture.