God’s Politics; How the Right Got It Wrong;
And How the Left Doesn’t Get It!
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
Last year, I finally had a chance to hear and see Jim Wallis…. I was taken by his sincerity, and his willingness to criticize his own religious tradition of evangelical Christianity, while promoting a more exciting, viable alternative that was evidenced in the last elections by the swing towards the middle on moral and religious issues. (He spoke at part of a series funded by an endowment at a large church in the Western suburbs of Minneapolis where I was serving a U-U congregation. Some patron had set aside a generous fund for an ongoing series of lectures on religion and culture, and he was one of this year’s speakers.) Wallis is the editor and the founder of the Christian magazine called Sojourners. Sojourners occupies a place on the religious spectrum of ideas to the left of the Christian Century, but not as far to the left as, say, Mother Jones…
For over 25 years, Wallis has argued against the increasingly hostile and the increasingly vapid influence of fundamentalism on Christianity and American culture. He has decried an almost complete co-opting of mainline religion into a more conservative, militant, and a more dogmatic straitjacket.
Now he feels more vindicated, and rightly so, as we have seen, in this last election, there is evidence of a dramatic shift back toward the center in American Protestantism, that has allowed the more open and tolerant evangelicals within mainline churches to widen their scope and deepen their concerns. This widening and deepening as Wallis book attests, is clearly seen as being in greater accord with Jesus’ social and interpersonal teachings about our neighbor, about poverty, injustice, and political corruption that are central to the Gospel message.
When asked by Harry Reid, now Senate Majority Leader, to address the nation as a part of the Democratic response to the President’s weekly address, Wallis included these words:
So, I want to be clear that I am not speaking for the Democratic Party, but as a person of faith who feels the hunger in America for a new vision of our life together, and who sees the opportunity to apply our best moral values to the urgent problems we face. I am not an elected official or political partisan, but a religious leader who believes that real solutions must transcend partisan politics. For too long, we have had a politics of blame and fear, while America is eager for a politics of solutions and hope. It is time to find common ground by moving to higher ground.
At this moment in history, we need new directions…
Whoever is left out and left behind is always a religious and moral question. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the health of a society was measured by how it cared for its weakest and most vulnerable, and prosperity was to be shared by all. Later, Jesus, in the prophetic tradition, proclaimed a gospel that was “good news to the poor.”
Our earth and the fragile atmosphere that surrounds it are God’s good creation. Yet, our environment is in jeopardy as global warming continues unchecked and our air and water are polluted. Good stewardship of our resources is a religious and moral question. Energy conservation and less dependence on fossil fuels are commitments that could change our future – from the renewal of our lifestyles to the moral redemption of our foreign policies.
The path of partisan division is well worn, but the road of compassionate priorities and social justice will lead us to a new America. Building that new America will require greater moral leadership from both Democrats and Republicans, and also from each and every one of us.
All of Wallis’s personal and literary efforts have been, over these years, aimed at pulling mainline churches away from the shallow, inaccurate, and self serving scholarship of fervent fundamentalism, and all the politically tailored outrage that these banal preachers of doom and sin, war and patriotism affirm. The role of religion is to inform politics on how peace, justice, and equality are to be ethically supported, and how the domestic tranquillity is to be maintained.
From reading Wallis, and authors like him, it seems as if, our whole society has just awakened from its own self inflicted stupor concerning how easily fundamentalism has hijacked politics, and how that skewed point of view promoted issues such as an unjust war, a terrible national debt, inept responses to domestic storm disasters. To combat those inane philosophies that underlie fundamentalism, significant theologians such as Matthew Fox, Wallis, and Rabbi Michael Lerner, have finally caught the attention of the American cultural majority. This shift, when enhanced by the religious right’s own self induced scandals and glaring hypocrisies, has led to a serious questioning of how these pious media driven prognosticators of rapture became the champions of an unrepublicianism, yet because they were embraced by hard line poltical conservatives, they were allowed to prosper and gain preeminence on the political landscape. All of this questioning, and now its growing dissatisfaction with the results on our national dilemmas and directions, demonstrates clear evidence that fundamentalism is on a decline, and to which I say with Wallis- good riddance!
Now, before we as religious liberals become self satisfied, and before an array of secular dissenters can show much relief or even much glee in those last election results, Wallis has reserved some biting criticism for the Left as well…
Namely this: One’s faith, if sincerely understood and applied, challenges the status quo, and will encourage a community towards making a lasting impact on its environs. Yet, we, progressives who call ourselves Christians, Theists, humanists and other such groups, did precious little to combat that pious political takeover. It seems that, for many of us, we lost our way…
Among the explanations Wallis lists for our lack of direction is our secular and amoral outlooks about social problems, our cynical intellectual sophistication, our over-reliance on technology as a savior, even to the point of the worship of science which actually encouraged the reaction formation of the cultural and religious backlash! When combined with a overly generalized disdain for sincere religious views, we did very little to encourage our society towards more open-mindedness, facilitate the growth of ethical dialogues, or moral discernment. All we did, Wallis claims, is to form a smug reaction to the religious conservatives and their irrational teachings!
If having a liberal faith and belonging to an inclusive community is supposed to be a bridge to deeper and higher wisdom and compassion, greater caring and involvement, we who are the churches, temples, congregations and societies who occupy the left of center, did not, by in large, engage those religious zealots in any meaningful debate; We did not, as a counter measure, build our own strong, inviting, programmatic churches, we did not fund an alternative liberal religious media to counter their persuasive claims and guilt ridden messages; we did not work together across theological differences and along common lines of ethical concern to build up interfaith dialogue and to create pathways of effective peacemaking, justice-making cooperation… In short, Wallis attests, we sat back, and as the self appointed elite, and we passively criticized Republicans and Evangelicals… with corrosive results!
It seems that we did not heed Wallis or his contemporary theologians when they taught this: The answer to bad religion, superficial televangelism, or negative fear based church teachings is not rejection or becoming more secular, the answer is to create better churches; more effective, just, and compassionate religious communities!
Now, I fully realize that what Wallis recommends throughout his writings is not what most religiously liberal churches will adopt or recommend, for his position is as a devout progressive; his book is the Bible; and his frame of reference is the larger Christian story. Therefore, while admirable and sincere, we can only draw from his conclusions or guidelines… This being said, it does not exempt us however, from our cultural and religious literacy- recognizing that most liberal religious churches are still ethically Christian in their history and their heritage, and that whatever theological reticence we, as U-Uists might harbor or possess, it is, in actuality, no excuse to not take up our ethical responsibilities for active engagement, no excuse for not establishing interfaith dialogue, and if agreed on by members and minister, together taking a leadership role in our respective communities.
In just the past two or three years, more evangelical and traditional Christian communities has opened their eyes, and dropped their exclusive lens of concern for personal sin or moral rules, and now understand what Wallis teaches: “That [any belief in a just or loving spirit or a God] is personal, but it is not private”, and the concerns of spiritual and/or ethical person is to concentrate on solving social problems; those crises that are more inclusive of the whole of humanity. The focus of concern and commitment, then, has shifted towards the systemic, and global and towards resolving the neighborhood issues such as poverty, homelessness, disease, street violence, that extend out to world militarism, and the ecological crisis…
What have we learned? What can I distill from reading about these shifts and changes on the religious landscape?
That it is tragic, and myopic, at best, to contend or believe that a God would have a favorite political agenda! How outrageously naive, and how arrogant or ignorant can a nation be? Well, we got our answer, didn’t we? Just as futile as praying to win at the football games, is the idea that a God would lead a nation, or help to set a national agenda… I reaffirm what Lincoln said when people asked if he prayed for God to be on his side… He replied, I only hope and pray that I am on God’s side- that my values, actions, and guiding ideals can be seen as just, noble, unselfish, and compassionate.
I have also learned that language counts; that political spin, to the left or to the right, influences people. Through adept political persuasion, and through artful linking of words, emotions, and images to a particular political and then to a certain religious point of view, the subverting or the corruption of a national agenda is exactly what happened! Our liberal leaning society of the 1960’s and 70’s had, in large measure, sacrificed or even threw away religious language, with all of its powerful metaphors, historic legacy, and ability to move human emotion, and generously gave its exclusive use to these right-wing zealots who used this language deftly to infiltrate politics and to co-opt the political process that normally requires debate, discussion, and objective weighing of issues.
However, I have been amazed, since the 2006 election, to hear that many true political and economic conservatives who also hold moderate or even liberal religious outlooks have begun to clearly separate themselves from hard line emotionally laden policies and previous dogmatic or doctrinare positions.
Consequently, many conservatives are no longer willing to swallow hard, and accept the terrible twosome of narrow politics and irrational religious fervor as justification. They are backing away from the current political and religious marriage of the last two decades, choosing now to lean more libertarian, or to divorce themselves from immoderate policies and intemperate programs that damaged true conservatism and that have increased both the warlike rhetoric and the national debt.
Now my goal this morning is not to give you a book report… You are all too bright and aware for me to offer you that…
However, I will say and I will recommend that there are books, such as Rabbi Lerner’s The Left Hand of God, that do deserve serious mention as a adult philosophical study guide and that would serve a diverse group like ours as a possible blueprint for meaningful social action and interfaith coalition building.
In my remaining time, I want to consider today how we, as a theologically inclusive community can benefit from this emerging and I would say, positive and productive religious shift… How we can participate more effectively, and benefit from building local alliances, and from becoming more involved as a congregation.
Ever since Theodore Parker, one of the founders of Unitarian social action took to his pulpit in pre-Civil War New England, there has been a growing awareness that focus of religion and ethics cannot be exclusively private, or be limited to the questions of personal morality. He began to promote the awareness that it is our social structures, and our governmental alliances that hold the key to civic power, that they also have great influence on matters pertaining to each of us and to all of us: education, medicine, poverty, civil rights and systemic change.
We, too, in our day, have to understand our role better and deeper by looking at the groups we join, the causes we support, and the ideals we cherish. Not that individuals cannot make a difference, but it is more likely that groups of people- historically and spiritually gathered in churches- will be deciding factors in our social and moral landscape. How well we stand up is crucial, and ultimately, how well we will stand up together will make all the difference.
Today, I invite you to empower your message of what it means to be a liberal religious community, to infuse your interest and commitment with true enthusiasm, and to welcomes seekers and questioners into dialogue, and into the heart of this community as a safe and secure place for their anguish and social concerns.
Today, on MLK weekend, I invite you to find ways and means for greater social impact, and for a stronger lasting influence; Working together … first with one another, and then later doing our part as members of a progressive interfaith coalition, we can become authors of a new civic hope and that we can create a new day for justice, equality and peace and that hope will be given out to all to share … All who have eyes to see… ears to hear, hands that help, and hearts that care!
AMEN; So Be It