Monday, December 22, 2008

You don't need a weatherman...

I'm trying to figure out where in this Pastor Dan and I disagree:

In any event, I wasn't aware that conservatives were the only ones to talk faith. Rather, they had a massively effective PR campaign that snowed a generation of journalists into believing that the only religious people who counted were the conservative opponents of abortion and homosexuality. Had the media been somewhat more curious, they would have found that religious progressives never went away; they've been here all along. It's just that everyone stopped listening to them.

For the most part, we've got nobody to blame but ourselves for that. But losing a PR campaign and actually shunning faith are two different things. McCurry, like Amy Sullivan, Jim Wallis, etc. ad nauseum, don't seem to understand that. They've picked up Nixon's politics of resentment and run with it until it becomes a politics of self-hatred.

In other words, they're doing Republicans' jobs for them, and largely to feather their own nests. Because as we know, every political problem has to have a solution, and those solutions only come about when you pay someone to analyze and advise you on how to fix it.

You don't have to be a boomer to recognize a crock and a borderline scam when you see it.
Because the conservatives did have a massively effective PR campaign, but it was first aimed at liberal Christians and German Biblical scholars, and only later at cultural issues and politicians. This "war" started with Gerhard Von Rad and continued on through Rudolf Bultmann (I still remember picking up a book by Francis Schaeffer in college, one almost devoted to vilifying Bultmann. Made me want to read Bultmann, though it would be another 3 decades before I did.). It later turned its guns on liberal Christians who worked with the Civil Rights movement, and so found its way into politics. Pastor Dan notes unironically the irony of people like Jim Wallis using the same tactics Richard Nixon did, and for the same ends.

Like I say, where do we disagree? Probably on the emphasis. He reads McCurry as claiming Democrats haven't been religious enough, i.e., used the vocabulary now recognized by the media as a religious one. Fair enough, sez I, since the vocabulary of liberal Christians like the UCC (we're fellow pastors in the same church, if you didn't know), can sometimes sound like we've expunged all those "religious" ideas and kept the warm fuzzies and nice thoughts about how to think about treating people.

I've mentioned before the retreat I attended, one meant to formulate a UCC response to the then new idea of genetic engineering. When I pointed out the statement we'd crafted after a few days effort made almost no use of the word "God," another committee member jumped my sh*t, telling me he was tired of pastors bashing scientists. These days, I chalk that up to the Vocabulary Wars, where the conservatives and fundies got a chokehold on what "spiritual" means, and anyone who spoke of God without meaning what they meant, was a blasphemer. The "liberal" response, more often than not, was to eliminate any such words (or ideas) from their discourse.

Which is kind of where Pastor Dan's other evil twin goes with this discussion:

Soft-headed boomer that I am, McCurry's account rings true in a way younger folk may not realize. Those of us who came into political consciousness in the wake of the Eisenhower Revival lived in an intellectual world far more suffused with religion than is generally recognized. Forget about the Niebuhrs and their neo-orthodox realism. What counted was the existential witness of Bonhoeffer et al. on the one hand and the neo-social gospel of the civil rights leaders on the other. One reason that the prophetic witness was so powerful in those days was that the priests of the 1950s had done their work well. There was a lot of spiritual energy in those batteries to discharge.

But discharged it was. And I challenge anyone to make the case that progressive politics after, say, 1975 had anything like the religious underpinnings of what had gone before. Sure, leading Democratic pols (including the Clintons themselves) continued to enact their faith in public, for better and sometimes for worse. But the sense that doing the right thing meant engaging one's religious identity was far less widespread. McCurry's point, let's be clear, is not that Democrats ceased being religious. He didn't, nor did Rahm Emanuel. But the religion tended to be privatized and, according to the secular lights of the era, only implicitly connected to a public agenda. Very possibly the self-righteous, Sunday School piety of Jimmy Carter soured Democrats on the exercise. Certainly the failure of the Carter presidency didn't help. Whatever the case, Democratic Party politics began increasingly to depend on a secularist base--and for what it's worth, there's much to be said for secularist approaches to politics.
Funny thing, but I think all three of us would agree with that last bit, the part I highlighted. As Pastor Dan says, Jim Wallis and Rick Warren and many others, are just using a religious veneer to cover a purely political power grab.

As I've said here, I think this issue goes deeper and further afield than politics or cultural shifts that made religion a more properly private matter. The latter is, I think, part of the ebb and flow of religion in American public life: sometimes we're Jeffersonians, and religion is a nice idea for how to live one's personal life; sometimes we're devoted to a religious vision that all must share in public, or be declared politically apostate. It's not a very pretty yin-yang, and not exactly a fruitful one, either; but there it is.

I put this "war" in the context of, not politics, but a genuine fear of loss of identity, and consequent loss of power (so, yeah, it comes back to politics, huh? But politics is about how to wield power; it isn't the source of power.). The German scholarship which sparked American fundamentalism threatened to undermine the religious identities of God-fearing Americans (as they saw themselves, that is). It was the last blow of the agnostic European 19th century (an ironic result of Romanticism, but ain't that always the way?). As the response to that fear quelled the rising tide of "liberalism" in the churches, that "liberalism" spread out into the culture, mostly because of the churches, both from radical priests like the Berrigan brothers, and from liberal mainline Protestant clergy, both black and white (mostly black, of course; white pastors had more to lose; black pastors were supported by their congregations). The Berrigan brothers opposed the Vietnam War, bu they were marginalized; when Martin Luther King, Jr. did it, that was another matter. Those kinds of religious liberals drove the fundamentalists v. liberals wars out into the public arena, and before you know it, we've got Jerry Falwell wedding himself to Paul Weyrich and producing the "Moral Majority," and Pat Robertson running for the GOP Presidential nomination (something he gave up his ordination for, which tells you where his interests lay).

This is, in other words, an older and bigger story. Is McCurry 100% right? No. Is Pastor Dan right that McCurry's main point is "that 'secular politics' chased faith out of the party"? I don't think so. I think it wasn't politics, it was liberal Christians who both thought they'd "won" the fight against the fundamentalists (who were largely marginalized in America. Until televangelists started making inroads among the middle class, fundamentalists were mostly poor, white or black. And in this country, the poor have never had much political voice at all.), or who weren't all that interested in fighting in the first place. (It was, remember, the fundamentalists who were "born fighting," their movement created by what they perceived to be the threat of liberalism in religion.) The one thing "liberal" Christians never did was take over the vocabulary of religion sufficiently to dispense with some of the odder results of biblical literalism (try, just try, to explain the two nativity stories as both being literally true. It simply can't be done.), such as the emphasis on the reality of the crossing of the Red Sea (find the Red Sea on any map of ancient Egypt. Heck, find a "sea" in Egypt at all!), or the Christmas star, or....well, you get the idea.

The fact that people are only now learning what Rudolf Bultmann was teaching almost 100 years ago, or what Von Rad and others taught in the 19th century, is a fantastic failure of "liberal" Christianity, and one we can't possibly blame on anyone but ourselves. (When I first encountered Bultmann's ideas in college, I was assured he was already passé, his "liberalism" proved false by, of course, conservative Christianity. Even today, in many mainstream denominations, Bultmann is too radical for most congregations.) And in that failure lies our current problem with a discussion of religion in the public square in America today. We simply don't have a vocabulary all participants in the discussion can agree on, not even (pardon the pun) fundamentally.

Which is why I keep talking about hacking at the branches of the tree of evil, instead of the roots. Oddly, I think Pastor Dan and I are both attacking the roots. Even if, to both of us, it doesn't seem like it.

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