The Religious Parade: Unreal and Real

Click HERE to read and view the photos of religion on the campaign trail in Michael Gerson’s opinion piece in this morning’s Washington Post. Comment below to generate the discussion her.  But…before you do…ponder Steve Shoemaker‘s “The Donkey”  sent to me this morning in preparation for Palm/Passion Sunday.

THE DONKEY (A Children’s Verse)

The coats the folks are throwing down

sure make it hard for me to walk

especially carrying this clown

whose feet are almost to the ground.

“Hosannah King!” is all the talk,

but this guy seems to be as poor

as I am–no one could mistake

him for a Royal–he’s just a fake!

They wave palm branches, and they roar,

but my long ears can hear the real

parade across the city square:

the General, the Priests, the score

of war horses–the whole grand deal.

This pitiful parade will fail

to save a soul, and soon the yell

will change from “Hail!” to…”Kill!”

Throwing Up in the School Cafeteria

Gordon C. Stewart          Feb. 28, 2012

“It makes me want to throw up!”

Nothing causes indigestion more than a food fight over religion and politics. Just because there’s a food fight in the school cafeteria doesn’t mean we should join it.

The 2012 election is shaping up as a battle over religion and the state. But the battle is ill-framed, using a shotgun that sprays everywhere.

The failure to differentiate the issues is widespread in the thinking of the candidates, their supporters and detractors, and news media that are increasing driven by sensational sound-bites that increase viewership and profits than by professional journalistic standards that would help clarify the debate.

Take Mr. Santorum’s statement on ABC’s “This Week” when asked how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing. He referred to then-candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s speech affirming the absolute separation of church and state. The speech, he said, makes him “want to throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

There are three separate issues here: 1) the role of religion in shaping public policy; 2) the role of a candidate’s personal faith in the exercise of the duties of elected office in a democratic republic; and 3) the wall of separation between church (institutional religion) and the State.

The question was not about church (i.e. institutional religion) and state. It was issue #2: how the candidate’s faith/religious convictions would influence the way he would govern, if elected President of a pluralistic democratic republic.

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum asked.

In that respect, Mr. Santorum is correct. For the public or a candidate to assume that it would make no difference would assume that faith and religion are strictly private, personal matters, while politics is a public matter. But as theologians, ethicists and critics of religion like Bill Maher agree, that’s not how it works. What we believe privately informs and drives what we do publicly, whether our personal convictions are religious or some version of secular humanism.

The cross-over between these core convictions and public policy is too important to ignore. The “culture wars” are real. The definition of marriage, the rights of women v. the rights of the unborn, institutional principle/conscience (e.g. contraception) and health care, the value of public education, end-of-life decisions, war and peace, workers’ rights, America’s role in the world, the distribution and re-distribution of wealth, wealth and poverty, and capital punishment are public issues hotly debated by an electorate whose varying religious and secular convictions place them front and center on the national agenda.

The genius of the U.S. Constitution lay in its framers’ ability to differentiate  between individual faith and institutional religion when it comes to matters of State.  What was later described as the “wall of separation” between church and state was, in fact, a wall that prevents the establishment of any one religion as the religion of the State. That is to say, the United States of America was not and would never be a theocracy. It would bea secular democratic republic which respected the free exercise of religion, whatever its stripe.

The founders were also clear that the success of the experiment in representative democracy rested on its citizens being what John Adams called “a moral people and religious people”  instructed in civility and committed to the search for goodness and the common good. They drew the line between the State and institutional religion to protect the republic from the horrors they had witnessed when the two had merged in the attempted theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and to protect the free exercise of religion from the restrictive powers of the State.

In that sense, all three questions are fair game. Given the current food fight, the question is not whether to keep all such discussions out of the school cafeteria. Only when we, the electorate, inform ourselves of the nuances of the debate, will the cafeteria be more civil and the candidates stop throwing up in public because they swallowed the wrong question.

“I’m So Sorry”

Marin Foundation photo of signs at Chicago Pride parade

I’m a pastor. But there are days when I wonder whether I belong in the Christian Church, whether I’m really a Christian. Ever wonder that about yourself? Or have you left the church as a matter of dissent, embarrassment, or protest?

Take the last two weeks. President Obama shares his faith at a National Prayer Breakfast. He declares that we are “our brother’s keeper”. I feel proud. The comments on CNN run heavily against him. Ayn Rand’s “the virtue of selfishness” – not the story of Cain and Abel or the teaching of Jesus – has won the hearts of the people. Rick Santorum tells an Ohio audience that Obama’s agenda is based on “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” I feel sad…and angry. I read the story about the church court case of the Rev. Jane Spahr, a lesbian Presbyterian minister rebuked for officiating at same-gender marriages, one of them the wedding of Lisa Bove. Lisa was an ordained student elder at the church I served at The College of Wooster. She went on to seminary and was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I feel proud of Janie and Lisa, their tenacity, their courage, their strong and gentle spirits, their deep faith. I feel sad that the church still doesn’t get it.

I’m embarrassed by how ridiculous the church debate is and how absurd this church family feud looks to the world. I want to withdraw, pull the covers over my head, go to sleep, take a sedative maybe. But I’m also angry. I want to fight. I want to weigh in on the debate. Yet to do so will only continue the polarization, the disrespect for others, the tendency on all sides of a church argument to proclaim with Little Jack Horner, “What a good boy am I!” If I stick my thumb in the pie, I’ll just continue the ludicrous display of Christian arrogance. What to do? To keep silence feels like abdication of conscience. To speak adds my voice to the appearance of the church’s absurdity. But I’m give fan of the Theater of the Absurd and Albert Camus, as well as Jesus.

I decide to stick my thumb in the story. My comment is the first thumb in a hot pie:

“I know Jane Spahr and Lisa Bove as colleagues and love them both. Lisa was a student leader at the Westminste­r Presbyteri­an Church at The College of Wooster where I served as Pastor. Jane is that rare minister of the gospel who has managed to remain gentle and bold, acting in conscience and ecclesiast­ical disobedien­ce without becoming hard or cynical. Lisa is the same. When you’ve been working for GLBT full inclusion as long as Jane and Lisa, that’s a testimony to their soulfulnes­s. For Jane, Lisa, and so many of us, the Bible calls disciples of Jesus to live in love and to be advocates for justice. The Presbyteri­an Church (USA) last year restored an older principle of church order that removes the restrictio­n against ordaining GLBT members. The issue of marriage remains contentiou­s in the church, as it is in the society as a whole. Some pastors have declared that until church and civil law permit them to officiate at same-sex marriages, they will not marry anyone as a witness to justice. Jane and Lisa are sweet, sweet spirits whose lives bear witness to justice, love and peace, working from that inner light of courage, conscience and consolation that keeps them sane and strong.”

Three replies come quickly:

1) “You are a faithful and honest servant of God.  It has taken a long time, but every year there are more like you” (i.e., “What a good boy am I Good boy!”); and

2) “Pastors should know and preach the truth of God’s word. Please read: 1 Tim: 3:1-7 and Titus 1: 5-9  When folks go against the truth of God’s word, then they are following deceit and you should know who the great deceiver is”  (“Bad boy! Bad boy!”)

3) “Let’s hope this church sees the light and retracts the rebuke.  And perhaps even apologizes­.”

Then this morning a classmate sends me this story about an apology: “Christian Group Shows Up to Chicago Gay Pride Holding Apologetic Signs“.

Marin Foundation photo of signs at Chicago Pride parade

I wish I’d been there to hold one of these signs.

I’ve experienced the forgiving hugs of gay and lesbian church members like the guy in the underwear. And when I write comment or a commentary like this one, I hear a little voice inside myself: “Good boy! Good boy!” Then, as soon as I feel the relief, I know I’ve fallen into the very self-righteousness I despise in others. “Bad boy! Bad boy!” and I’m back where I started: “God help us ALL!”

Read the story. Ponder it. Then stick your finger in the pie with a comment here on the blog.