Note to rmj: this is not an argument for the full-scale politicization of religion. Rather, it's a reminder that when citizens - religious or not - walk away from the public square it empowers those who stay behind. Denominational leaders need to be involved in the political process in the same way that all citizens need to be involved: as educated and responsible decision-makers, and as effective advocates for their own interests. The more people who choose to be involved, the less power any one person or group of people can accumulate. That's the American way.The Daily Show ran a statistic the other day, showing the US is just above Mexico in voter participation. We’re 139 to their 140, if I recall. What we have in common with Mexico, it seems to me, is one-party rule. At least Mexico had one-party rule, until recently; the US still does. We call the one party two different names, but the differences between them are discernable only to another politician.
So it seems to me that Kuo's proferred solution is exactly what got him and his fellow evangelicals in the pickle they're in. (More to the theological point, it's a mistake to think that one cannot "pray, learn, listen and serve" in the midst of being a citizen.) It's the conservative desire to withdraw from the fallen world that paradoxically leaves them vulnerable to quasi-messianic figures like George W. Bush who have a quick and easy program for the restoration of the earth to sell.
And most American citizens are not politicians.
Now it is true that there will always be government, and there will always be rulers, and ignoring them will not make them go away, nor make them improve their game. But neither is that argument much of a motivator for participation in the political system. If it was, we’d be giving Western Europe a run for their electoral money. But let’s begin by admitting this much: our national government, just like our local governments, is run by the lunatic fringe. It is owned and operated for the people with the greatest vested interest in what it can provide, and those people are, by and large, businesses. As Jon Stewart put it last night, every four years 50% of 40% of the electorate chooses the person who will occupy the most powerful office in the land. Out of 43 such leaders, we've had a handful who are considered significant. "43" is not so much an anomaly as the norm.
Houston makes a fine microcosm of an example for my purposes. To judge by appearances, the business of city government in Houston is to provide roadways: lots of them. There was a tiny pocket park in the corner of an intersection of the interstate near my house, and the toll road. It was overshadowed by the spaghetti bowl of overpasses that formed that intersection, and basically was a bit of useless land in front of a hotel tucked in under one of the taller off-ramps (18 wheelers must pass freely!). But it was sponsored by the county, not the city, and actually paid for by a corporation (not even a local business). And it’s now gone: plowed under and churned into mud as the interstate is expanded to twice it’s original size. The city is not in the business of building parks, apparently. I know of one, and it’s old, large, and in the wealthy residential area of town; nowhere near where the rest of us live. The other park I know of is near my house, but that, too, is a county venture. Why Texas retains a county government in places like Harris County, which is all Houston, is another mystery for another day. But the City of Houston, as I say, is all about the roads.
There is a shopping mall complex near my house which is devouring the land around it at a rapacious rate. I call it a “complex” because it now includes a hospital (expanding rapidly), buildings for doctors’ offices, a separate office complex (my bank is in that one), and new residential (apartment) buildings, as well as strip centers for other retail ventures. It is expanding over so many city blocks that it is its own quasi-government authority, (called a “TIRZ” in Texas; it’s a low-tax zone meant to induce business investment in low income areas. The other big TIRZ in town is the wealthiest shopping center in Houston, the Galleria. You see how this works, now). The local TIRZ wants more roads, so more people can get to it’s business. The six lane road that now serves it, running north/south, is not enough. They want another road on their eastern boundary, a two lane road that runs through a residential neighborhood and past an elementary school. It is to be widened to four lanes, simply to push more traffic through the area and toward the stores on the south side of the interstate. This is Houston: it will happen. Business rules, everyone else drools. Neighborhoods be damned, they are in the way of “progress.”
Why am I telling you this?
Because it occurs to me that what George W. Bush does on a daily basis has no more effect on my daily life than what Tony Blair does, or Angela Merkel, for that matter. Because national politics is not about my life, or my friends, or my family, or my community. Because much as I enjoy railing about “neo-cons” and the evils of Dick Cheney or even the suspension of habeas corpus, it has damn all to do with what my day will be like today, or what my neighborhood will be like tomorrow. The one national issue which really has any effect on my life is immigration, and I know nothing is really going to change about that. So why should I get worked up about how cynical George Bush is in dealing with his supporters? I can’t stop a road from tearing down houses and uprooting trees over the distance of less than a mile. What effect am I going to have on the foreign policy of the United States? What makes me think I’ll have an effect at all?
Which is not to say national politics doesn’t matter; but some perspective is called for, here. I have a friend in ministry, who got involved in the UCC boycott of Taco Bell without ever meaning to. It seems the supplier of tomatoes to Taco Bell was headquartered in his town, and the plant which processed the tomatos that went on the tacos that Taco Bell built, was in that town. The UCC, wanting to express solidarity with the pickers of those tomatos, in Florida and other states, urged a boycott of Taco Bell, a boycott which would directly affect people in my friend’s congregation (did I mention he’s a pastor, too?). Several pastors in his town, my friend included, realized the national church’s position was far from simple, and far from clear. The national church, however, in the form of an executive from Cleveland, didn’t realize that at all. When the local UCC clergy urged the national representative to sit down and talk to them (he was coming to town to promote the boycott with direct public action), the UCC representative was condescending and, well, shrill. He lectured the pastors, rather than worked with them collegially. His mind was made up, and the local condition, the local issues, the lives of people in the pews who would be affected by this boycott, meant nothing to him. He had bigger fish to fry, and he even obliquely compared himself and this “struggle” to the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., urging the UCC clergy to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as he had done, and realize the social justice issues involved. I read his letter to them; it all but said “Stand away from me, for I am holier-than-thou.” No recognition of the people, however; it was the idea, the abstraction, which was more important.
Reinhold Niebuhr tells the story of being a pastor in Detroit, and giving a blistering sermon one Sunday about layoffs at one of the automobile plants. He was, of course, on the side of the working man. After the sermon, a parishioner on the way out told Pastor Neibuhr that he, the parishioner, was an executive at that plant, and had spent the week personally handing out the pink slips. He made it clear to Niebuhr the pain and anguish he felt as he did his job; that he realized every man represented a family that was going to go hungry, struggle to pay its bills, possibly lose its housing. Niebuhr, chastized, reconsidered the priority of abstractions over human beings.
I’m not trying to contradict what Pastor Dan said; I’m trying to augment it. But I’m also trying to point out that ministry, whether of the laity or of the clergy, is local; it is personal; it is about individuals. Grand sweeping theories are the stories we tell each other to paper over the selfishness and venality of our own efforts and aims.
All of which has to do with why I don't read Noam Chomsky. Nothing against his theories or his books. But reading him I might be inclined to think the world's problems have rational solutions, and that I might be part of that solution simply by having the knowledge he has, and thinking the thoughts he thinks. I might actually come to believe that theories and reason will save the world; which would lead me right back to the position of European society just before Sarajevo plunged them into World War I, and the generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Eliot was "Lost." I've seen that movie; I know how it ends.
The reality, of course, is that I have no such power at all, and all my Chomsky-inspired consideration of international relations will have no effect on James Baker III or Condoleeza Rice, or even Madeline Albright, whatsoever. I just heard the Ambassador from Syria on the BBC World Service, talking about Syria's offer to help the situation in Iraq, an offer the US has consistently rejected. Everything he said made perfect sense and seemed quite pragmatic, to me. But if he can't influence events in that troubled country, what hope do I have? I am as likely to influence US foreign policy with my deeper knowledge of Chomsky's theories as I am to stop a local business from driving bulldozers through my neighborhood. Undoubtedly it's a matter of strength in numbers. Perhaps if I team up with a group like The Metropolitan Organization, something could be done. That's a blending of religion and politics I certainly support. But am I going to change the world? Maybe one heart at a time, if by that much. Certainly no faster, or more broadly, than that.