via Charlie Pierce
I was driving through a section of town I don't visit too often recently; and I was struck by a sense of anxiety, of dread, that pretty much came out of nowhere, until I realized I was passing the location of some church judicatories which I had some experience with only a few years ago (although sometimes it seems like only yesterday, and other times like it was another lifetime and another person). They were not, obviously, pleasant experiences.
I can honestly say I've never met people as nasty, malicious, and downright cruel to my face, in my presence, about me, as I met when I was actively engaged in ministry. I lost my pulpit because people felt free to demonize me and damn me for what were more their failings than mine (that I had a hand in those losses, that it was not all a conspiracy against a pure heart and perfect actions, cannot be denied). After that loss I spent some time seeking opportunities in other denominations, largely so I wouldn't have to uproot my family after only three years (with the very definite option of running into the same kind difficulties I had come to town to escape). Whereas being a lawyer between firms had meant a certain loss of access, a certain level of rejection in job interviews and queries, it never meant the absolute rejection of me as a person, the damning (literally) assumptions that were stated to my face, that I met in the effort to contact other judicatories of what were supposed to be my colleagues.
I had people in my church who would defend themselves by pre-emptively accuse me of being "a lawyer" when I didn't take a position absolutely identical to their own; but I never met such animosity among lawyers, whether we were professionally opposed or simply working different sides of the Bar (plaintffs v. defendants) as I met in churches and especially among those who determine who will be allowed admission to the clergy, and who will not. I didn't meet that just in denominations who ostensibly (and in fact as well as by their own rules) should have welcomed me; I met it in my own denomination as well. But one person stands out in my memory: a person so personally vicious towards me, and to my face, a person to whom I was a perfect stranger and who treated me as the embodiment of the threatening Other, that nearly 10 years later I don't pass the area where we met and talked, that I don't shudder as if someone has walked on my grave.
Maybe the worst part of that encounter was talking to fellow clergy, a member of that denomination who urged me to talk to his judicatory, about the experience. He simply couldn't believe my story, and I know from that point on he decided there was something wrong with me, and it wasn't long after we lost contact; when he finally left town to move to a better position, I heard about it from a mutual friend years after the fact. He was, at the time, about the only friend in the clergy in town that I had. These experiences leave deep scars.
What was this man defending? Why did he all but hate me on sight? He had been ordained in my denomination, and given it up as a bad arrangement years before I knew that denomination existed, much less had I been ordained into it. He was determined to keep his new denomination pure from the taint of mine (his old one), and he made it quite clear to me he despised me, because he despised those who had ordained me. His attack on me was as vicious and personal as he could make it. He knew my church and my congregation, albeit again from decades earlier, so he decided whatever problems I had there were my fault, and he wouldn't have them contaminating his Church. Had I been a piece of shit he'd stepped in, he couldn't have treated me with greater disgust.
Not that the judicatory body he represented, nor any of them I approached, were all that interested in my application, either. This was just the worst experience of a bad experience contacting denominations which supposedly had agreements with my own, only to find no one at a local level was too terribly interested in what the national offices had done, and were implementing their ideas largely by refusing to implement them at all. I took me years to sort out just how petty, vain, and insecure most of the people I met in the governing bodies of denominations, really were.
It's taken me even more years to figure out why. And it's because churches now have achieved Madison's ideal; which isn't to say they shouldn't have; it's just to say it's not the paradise Madison might have expected it to be, for the churches or for the larger community.
Despite what Charlie Pierce and others may think, the "god botherers" don't really have the power they wish they had. The group Mr. Pierce is writing about in his post have been trying in vain for years to get the IRS to pay attention to them so they can take a First Amendment claim to the Supreme Court, where even Antonin Scalia would agree with Mr. Pierce's analysis: you have a right to free speech; you don't have a right to tax exemption as a charitable institution. A violation of IRS tax regulations (and the laws they are based on) is not guaranteed to you because of the First Amendment. A church which is found guilty of violating those regulations won't be shut down; it just won't be tax exempt anymore. The fact that this group is only now getting attention (and barely got that; I'd heard about their "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" on NPR recently, but I'd forgotten about it again until Mr. Pierce's post. I forgot about it simply because it never made the news after that.) is a sign of how pathetic and pointless their effort is. Undoubtedly the IRS has learned that these cases are hardly worth pursuing.* I wish this group luck in ever getting its wish granted. And now I'll turn from giving them any more attention than they deserve.
Part of the problem with Madison's dictum in modern times is that we don't have ecclesiastical establishments of the type Madison was familiar with; and we never have. The Puritans came closest to establishing one (Rome never had that authority here, despite the best efforts of Spain), but it didn't last long (except, perhaps, culturally). The ecclesiastical heritage of the Puritans was the Congregationalists, a church determined to have no church hierarchy at all (or, indeed, to even appear to be a "church." I have a friend, a retired Congregationalist pastor, who proudly showed off his "meeting house" to me when we first met. It was a point of pride with him that, by removing the hymnals, the space could be used by a Jewish congregation, because there were no religious symbols in sight except for the Christian crosses embossed on those book covers.). I suppose the ban on Christmas in the Puritan villages was a form of "ecclesiastical establishment," but since they have Christmas trees now even in Boston, that didn't last long. And while the observance of Christmas actually came northward from the Episcopalian South, we no longer associate the South with Anglicans, and even the Southern Baptists resent too much central authority over how they worship or what they believe (the noose has been tightening over the years, but the ability of the Baptists to control even dry counties in Texas is slipping more and more each year).
It's the decline in ecclesiastical authority that leads to the situation in most church judicatories today. People supposedly with power have no power at all, and virtually no reason for being in positions of authority. Authority is granted, it is not generated; and most church denominations can barely get the grant of attention from the larger society, much less gain any authority over it. Consider the UCC "ejector" ads from a few years ago, seen more often in TeeVee stories about them not being accepted by major networks, than as advertisements themselves. I think I only saw them on the internet. I'm sure I never saw them on TeeVee. Think about the ability of any "mainstream" denomination to get its message out about any public issue. When the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church speaks; who listens? When the UCC in Cleveland issues a press release on the death penalty, or on any issue of social justice, who reports on it? What's the position of Presbyterian Church U.S.A. or the United Methodists on any public issue, and who really cares?
You may find out if you go to their websites and look around, but if you don't, they are proof that if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear, whether or not it makes a sound is irrelevant.
As for the so-called leaders of the Religious Right, Jerry Falwell is dead, and the issues he championed are largely abandoned, or carry on entirely without him because they began without him, and never needed him to keep them viable. You may know what Jerry Falwell thought. But aside from harass Bill Clinton, what did he really do? Shift the political debate of the country? Really? People weren't already predisposed to think the way Falwell spoke? Was he even a political leader in any sense of the word? Karl Rove and George W. Bush famously took Falwell's crowd for a ride for 8 years, never doing anything for them while insisting they were the only friends those people had in D.C. Republicans still make a trip to Liberty University, but it's largely a Republican base thing; Liberty University doesn't figure in any political discussions after the primaries are over. Ralph Reed was worse than Falwell and Pat Robertson combined. Reed fleeced the flock better than any Marjoe-wannabe could do, and he's still alive and a respected spokesperson for the "religious right" (which, like the Moral Majority, was always neither), or at least for the right wing that claims religion as their reason to be a voice in the national discussion. Despite the fact he isn't even ordained (he abandoned it to run for office) Pat Robertson is still treated like a religious figure, when he isn't discarded as a clown. His political impact was even more negligible than Falwell's. You may have heard of this group promoting "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." But have they really had any impact on the national discussion? And are they really likely to?
Yes, they reflect the sentiments of certain segments of American society; but what power do they really have? More than the mainline denominations, I'll grant you. But not nearly so much as the bothered by the god botherers crowd gives them credit for. In fact, it's a curious kind of situation, watching the small group so annoyed with religious people engaging in public life; it's like watching "The Departed," when you realize the cops and the robbers are basically the same people, and they're playing a game nobody else is involved in; not directly. The robbers assassinate cops, and the cops assassinate robbers; and in the end, the cops assassinate cops, and robbers assassinate robbers. And the difference between them is, one side gets paid by taxpayers, the other side extorts its money from store owners, but both claim, under penalty of punishment, to be providing a good and necessary service that they people paying cannot, or had better not try to, do without.
So it is with the god botherers in politics, and their discontents.
So I'm not terribly discontent with the crowd insisting the IRS pay attention to them so they can have their day in the Supreme Court. It's almost sad, really, because I've seen these people up close, and while they mean well, they're just misguided, think they're important (to borrow a phrase). They want to be an institution; they want to have some power. And that's where their troubles begin.
In the church, this is visible among the US Bishops, who don't like that the nuns on the bus have slipped the leash, and don't like that what has been accepted law on insurance coverage for non-religious employees of non-religious institutions, is, well...the law. The Bishops wants some authority; they want to matter again. They want to be the princes of the church who can act like princes in the world; or at least draw a line around their church that extends a few more meters out, and shaves off a bit more from the world so the circle of the heilege, or the pure and untainted, covers a little more ground. It was the same impulse that drove the man at the judicatory to all but spit in my face over lunch; to vilify a stranger whom he despised just because he wanted to keep his little bit of heaven free of taint, just because he had the power to crush someone and by God! (!) he was going to use it! Think about it a moment; in this world, what other power do clergy have, except to make life miserable for other clergy? What authority do they wield, except to decide who can be a member of the clergy club, and who cannot? The Bishops have been roundly excoriated on how they handled that; desperate for members, they let anybody in, and kept them in at all costs. Unable to correct that error, unable to close the barn door on a barn that has already blazed to the ground, they turn to other arenas to project their power and assert their relevance. Clergy in denominations, clergy who no longer have pulpits, who know they no longer have and never really had power, exert the feeble power they have against clergy they can punish, clergy then can blame for restive congregations and declining membership and disappearing churches. They have no authority in society, no respect, not even any consideration from the wider world, and they resent this imagined loss bitterly. It's the only explanation I have for the outright nastiness I encountered, for the pure disdain I experienced. I was often accused of being as mean and vindictive as the lawyer I formerly was, especially by church members. But I never encountered such venom, such bitterness, such vileness, as when I was in the pulpit; and I never knew so much resistance, so much willingness to make me the scapegoat of everyone's problems, as I experienced when I found myself between church members and the clergy who was supposed to support me (but who threw me to the wolves in front of my own church council as soon as he could. That was another experience I'd as soon forget forever. People who say life in corporations is cutthroat don't realize that's not the only place where politics turns nasty and where knives in the back are quite common.)
The cruelty, the meanness, the venom, is, of course, in inverse proportion to the amount of power and authority these people have.
My church members, the ones who were most determined that I go and leave them in charge, had no power at all in their lives. Their world had changed around them; the church they grew up in, the center of the community, left behind a huge building which most people passed without noticing. The community that had supported it had grown old, died, moved out, and turned the area over to strangers: new people (immigrants from Mexico and South America, from Vietnam and Korea), people who weren't at all interested in the history of a German Protestant church. The problems of that church were peculiar, but then everybody's problems, like all politics, are local. Having lost all that power they thought they had grown up with, having found themselves in a world where others made the decisions and even the economic vitality of their parent's neighborhood was determined by corporations who moved in, then out, of the area, they struggled with their weakness, and they turned it into anger. The church hierarchy was faring little better. Membership in churches has been in sharp decline since the post WWII peak. Church "authorities" find themselves caught between restive and aging congregations which resent sending any money away from their locale almost as much as they resent giving any money to their locale, and the only communication many have is with church members complaining about their pastors. Sooner or later you decide the problem is with the pastors, and the best way to rest easy is to remove the problems. That this is the problem of the Hydra and all you are doing is cutting off a head, does not change the prevailing sentiment. I've seen this not only in my own personal career, but in the careers of other clergy.
I've also seen the same pattern with political partisans. Individuals at the top of a national party ticket, from Presidents down to Senators, can't afford to be screaming ideologues demanding the world bend to their desires. We've seen a few get elected, at the Senatorial level, but they are far outweighed by the somber men who understand the complexities of a nation: Joe Biden is a more appropriate figure for the Senate than Rand Paul, and even Rand Paul seems reasonable compared to the ravings of Newt Gingrich or Todd Akin. At the lowest level, the level of the true believers in politics, you get the most invective, the greatest anger that power isn't wielded to vanquish their enemies and sow the ground of their houses with salt. The less powerful people are, but the more powerful they perceive they should be, the meaner and nastier they become.
What Madison describes is not peculiar to religious institutions at all. Any institution eventually turns against even its membership, largely because the leadership sees only ignorance and servility in the membership. "Surely the people are sheeple!" was the common cry of all the anti-Bush forces in his second term. The least influential partisans were the most convinced that the political leadership of the opposition was indolent and, except for them, the people were stupid and passive sheep. What did this spawn except superstition, bigotry, and persecution? All Republicans were fools; all of America's enemies were evil and deserving of torture and worse (if worse is possible); all Muslims want to see us dead ("us" being Americans almost exclusively); the Administration wielded strange and mysterious powers which could only be broken by outright revolution, a revolution as inevitable as sunrise or the Messiah, and which would just as inevitably bring our salvation (yes, I do hang out in the wrong precincts of the intertubes).
One does wonder, too, what "purity and efficacy" of religion means to Madison, if it is meant to be confined solely to the private life of the individual. What is the point of corporate worship, then? Even the Society of Friends gathers together to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Is that enlightenment meant to be confined to the meeting house? Does it not go forth into the world at least as a pacifism that resists forced military enrollment in time of war? Did Dr. King, or the Berrigan brothers, or the Nuns on the Bus, sully the "purity and efficacy" of religion with their actions? Or do we like them because we agree with them, because we benefit from their sacrifice, or at least approve of their politics? Has the church in now 17 centuries (by Madison's reckoning) done nothing but destroy religion? If so, where did King and the Berrigans and the Nuns come from? Government?
I would like to guide this to a logical conclusion, an unassailable point, but I can't seem to do that. If I have one, it is what I consider the bedrock truth of the power of powerlessness. Madison is right: the church is better off divorced from the civil power. But by that I don't mean banished from the public square; I mean merely the Church fares better when it is not wed to the power of the state. It also does well when it challenges the state. Yes, there are always people who will insist that what they believe comes from God and therefore is the only guiding principle the government should be allowed. But there are always other people to disagree with that sentiment, and while I knew bigots who hated African Americans simply for being black, those bigots seldom based their hatred on religious grounds. Sometimes it was an excuse, but seldom was it the trigger for their viciousness. That hatred was bone deep; unfortunately, their religious convictions were always more on the surface. Perhaps had they allowed their religion to penetrate to the bone it might have changed their hatred. And after all, it was religion which drove them from the public square, which forced the community to take account of the humanity of those we had collectively treated as wholly other. And it did it by teaching people their power was in their powerlessness; that their authority lay in the defiance of illegitimate authority through acceptance of arrest, beatings, dogs, and water cannons.
That powerlessness is the true fruit of Christianity.
*as an aside, I marvel as well at the ignorance of people who insist churches are rich and should pay their share of taxes. A few are well off (I know a church with finer TV cameras than the local studios can afford), but most are not even property rich. Ever tried to sell a church building? It's pretty much useful for one purpose, and even in the best of times banks don't like to lend to churches to buy established buildings. Who is "the church," especially Protestant ones with no hierarchy? So who is the bank making the loan with? An ever changing cohort of people who might split up over the decision to carpet the sanctuary?
Most churches are valuable for the land they sit on (perhaps), but who wants to pay to clear the property down to construction grade? Churches, like all charitable institutions, have to give money away or they aren't charities, and so not tax exempt. How much they actually give away is just as much an issue for the Komen Foundation or United Way as it is for the little brown church in the vale.