Thursday, December 18, 2008

The people, Lord, the people!

I'm really not trying (again!) to become the anti-"Street Prophets," or the evil twin of Pastor Dan, but I'm really confused by this:

That being said, stories like McCurry's are incredibly offensive. They strain credulity, for one thing. Did McCurry forget about Hubert Humphrey, who wrote letters to Reinhold Niebuhr? Did McCurry forget about everyone from the seminary graduate Gene McCarthy to the Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter to the to the seminary graduate Gary Hart to Father Drinan to Jesse Jackson to John Kerry to Mario Cuomo to Bill Moyers to his own former boss, the very publically religious Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary?

Did he just forget about Walter Mondale, who said in a debate with Ronald Reagan:

"I have a deep religious faith. Our family does. It is fundamental. It's probably the reason that I'm in politics. I think our faith tells us, instructs us, about the moral life that we should lead. And I think we're all together on that."

Did he really forget all those people, or just not meet them? Does he really expect us to believe that they have not been a part of the life of the Democratic party?

Or would he rather ignore them, as he ignores the millions of other faithful members of the party, because he has an axe to grind?

Democrats are just now "getting" religion? Really?
I guess because most people today, despite my feeble efforts, don't really remember Reinhold Niebuhr (sic transit gloria mundi), or if they do, it's because of Andrew Bacevich and Bill Moyers, not HHH ("Who?," most of the internet savvy generation is asking.) Most pundits and politicos mocked Jimmy Carter's Sunday School earnestness, and even now ignore the religious roots of his public good works. And who remembers that Bill Moyers was a seminary student, or Gene McCarthy or Gary Hart (yikes!) were, for that matter?

Does anybody even really note Chris Hedges' background (who is not a politician, but at least is a more current public figure identified with progressive politics than anyone Pastor Dan mentioned).

My first thoughts actually ran to the Berrigan brothers and Will Campbell, but maybe that's just another generational thing. Anyway, this led me to McCurry's article, where I grew even more confused:

For the progressive left, social activism grounded in faith and theology crested in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was maybe the high water mark – a Biblical-based sermon addressed from one black preacher to a group of his white, Southern peers, calling for a radical transformation of perspective on the main social issue of the day.

That history needs to be remembered because faith-based social activism on the left largely disappeared for a generation in the aftermath of the 1960s. Various movements flowered – the antiwar, feminist, and environmental movements – and the action in the streets helped stimulate enormous social change. But organized religion – in the Catholic and mainstream Protestant denominations – began its slow, steady decline in the midst of the social turmoil.
I would quibble with the causal connection there between social activism and church decline, but I don't find anything else to disagree with in those paragraphs. McCurry goes on:

The liberal faithful fled the scene in favor of latte and Tim Russert on Sunday mornings. Organized expressions of faith were rare at Democratic party gatherings. When I worked at the White House in the mid-1990s, I would not have dreamed of sharing my beliefs on faith with my colleagues. Our prayer and spiritual life was furtive even though we were all drawing on it to make it through rough and trying days. I sat next to George Stephanopoulos for a whole year on the campaign trail in 1996 and never discussed the moral turmoil he writes about in his book, All Too Human. More than once, I inadvertently interrupted Rahm Emanuel’s weekly session with his rabbi as they studied the Torah (yes, that Rahm Emanuel), but it never occurred to me to pull up a seat and join in the conversation.
That first sentence is certainly true. It took me a long time in left blogistan to establish my bona fides as a religious person concerned with political issues without being a fringe "evangelical" or a superstitious fool. And I certainly think the explanation of staying home to watch Tim Russert on Sunday mornings is a better sociological explanation of the decline in church membership than the first reason he offers. Still, what offends here? Indeed, McCurry indicates that the zeitgeist didn't allow for public expressions of faith, all the while faith continued to be an issue for individuals.

Which pretty much tracks my experience of the last 50 years. As I say, maybe it's a generational thing. As McCurry might agree:

All that is changing now. In Barack Obama, Democrats have put forth a man of strong religious faith who is comfortable connecting his spiritual life to his public role as a policymaker. Obama’s campaign benefited from a determined effort – which started during the 2004 campaign and accelerated since – to reach out to communities of faith and let them know that Democrats are their brothers and sisters.
The change is in the group dynamic, in other words. The topics of conversation have shifted, and the "moderate" believers feel welcome to the agora. Again, what's the problem here?

I've said before that religious people needed to reclaim the vocabulary so we can re-enter the public discussion. My church roots lie, in no small part, in the "Evangelical and Reformed" Church. The second word of that title is almost meaningless, although it has a 500+ year history in Western culture, and the first word has become a shibboleth and symbol of blinkered superstition and close-mindedness. When the public discourse is dominated by Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells, and now by Joel Osteens and Rick Warrens, it is rather difficult to be easily conversant with one's faith, unless you are of the Osteen or Warren ilk. Certainly, as McCurry points out, even people of faith like Stephanopoulos and Emmanuel and McCurry, felt cut off from each other and from any public conversation on the topic. The fact that Bill Clinton went to church more often than Ronald Reagan didn't really change that dynamic, either. It took something more.

It took a change in the zeitgeist, a change we now have. Is McCurry's prescription for more change on target? Well, it's interesting that his focus is not on "What God can do for me" but on "What I can do for God's people:"

During the primary season, various forums allowed candidates like Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others to profess their Christian faith and witness to the ways they are called to fulfill scriptural mandates to care for “the least, the last, and the lost.” None of the witnesses those candidates gave was phony: all of them, especially the new president-elect, seemed genuine in describing what the gospel news of Jesus requires them to do as humble servants of God.
And frankly, I find his conclusion encouraging, not off-putting:

Many Democrats are rediscovering the connections that exist between the moral teachings of religion and the things we must do to create a community of the common good here in America. Our nation is entering hard, troubled, and painful times. It’s not a bad thing that the Democrats who are about to inherit positions of power have had a Great Awakening about how their own personal faith speaks to the needs of a dispirited nation in need of a big lift.
There is room there to include conservative Christians, progressive Christians, Jews both observant and secular, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, what-have-you. As an observant Christian I sense a movement of the Holy Spirit in this, not just a confluence of historical events. And if that's sweeping away some of the old, well, isn't that the way it's supposed to be?

Cease to dwell on days gone by
and to brood over past history.
Here and now I will do a new thing;
this moment it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it?
I will make a way even through the wilderness
and paths in the barren desert;
the wild beasts will do me honour,
the wolf and the ostrich;
for I will provide water in the wilderness
and rivers in the barren desert
where my chosen people may drink
I have formed this people for myself
and they shall proclaim my praises--Isaiah 43:16-21, NEB

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