Sunday, July 11, 2010

Culture, Politics & Faith

Whenever I blog about religion and mention that not all Christians are intolerant right wing Republicans who bash gays and oppress women, inevitably a few folks come forward to sniff, “well I sure wish these liberal Christians would speak up, then.” The implication being: liberal Christians aren’t working very hard thus their message is not seen or heard.

That always pisses me off enormously because I happen to know some very amazing Christians who are powerful social justice activists. These folks are working very hard and making tremendous sacrifices for the cause of justice. People like my friend Rev. Stacy Rector, former Associate Pastor at Second Presbyterian Church here in Nashville, and now executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I think of another Nashvillian, Don Beisswenger, retired Vanderbilt Divinity School professor who went to Federal prison for six months for his non-violent protest of the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. I think of Nashvillian Father Charles Strobel, who founded Room In The Inn. It’s thanks to him that hundreds of Nashville’s homeless have food, shelter and access to other services every winter (and you don’t get more Nashville than Father Strobel: his brother Jerry was manager of the Grand Ole Opry for 30 years).

I’m sorry that you don’t know these people. They are a tremendous gift to Nashville and our city is lucky to have them.

On the national level, I’m sorry you don’t know of Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and Call To Renewal. He recently took on Glenn Beck when Beck attacked churches which practice social justice. Have you not heard of Shane Claiborne in Philadelphia? Surely I don’t have to remind folks that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher man and President Jimmy Carter referred to himself as “born again”?

Have you never read the writings of the late William Sloane Coffin? His collection The Heart Is A Little To The Left: Essays On Public Morality is the quintessential primer on liberal Christianity for those wanting an answer to the religious right’s claims of Scriptural authority. Reading that book changed my life.

It does annoy me that I know these folks and others do not. But then I remember that my secular friends can’t be expected to read the same things I do and visit the same websites I do. If you aren’t interested in religion, then Pastor John Shuck’s website probably has not crossed your radar. Shuck, a tireless warrior for GLBT equality, pastors a Presbyterian church in Elizabethton, Tennessee--not the stereotypical Southern religious leader. But there you have it. There’s more than one face to Christianity, even here in the mid-South.

My secular friends by necessity operate in the world our corporate media has created, and for much of the past 30 years that has meant Christian = Right Wing Republican. For the most part the media ignores liberal voices of faith in favor of the James Dobson/Pat Robertson/Ralph Reed model, in part because we do not fit the established narrative and in part because right wing Christians have built media empires like the “Christian Broadcasting Network” through which they disseminate their message. The Network of Spiritual Progressives is not on every CNN producer’s Rolodex.

During the Bush years it seemed that every news show included an interview with Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention or Focus on the Family’s James Dobson or CBN’s David Brody or any of the other mouthpieces of the religious right. And it occurred to me that this is because the religious right operates in the realm of politics, which is about power. The religious left for the most part does not do this. The religious left seems to operate in the realm of social change. This is an important distinction.

People on the religious left are quietly doing their thing, trying to end poverty and injustice and serve the homeless and end wars while the religious right is making a lot of noise for the cameras at events like "Justice Sunday." And I really had to stop and think about why that is, and if it’s a good thing or if it even matters.

Thinking about this led me to revisit this post I wrote back in January, “Your Modern Conservative Inferiority Complex.” In that piece I quoted a column by Julian Sanchez in which he writes:
The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy—hence this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.

That resonated with me then, and it still rings true today. Looking at the incoherent message of the Tea Party and the conservative flip-flopping on things like the budget deficit, which didn’t matter during Bush’s spending spree but suddenly matters very much as President Obama tries to rebuild the economy, it’s clear that the right is short on ideas and long on anger, and this anger comes from the right’s cultural irrelevance. The right might score political wins but it is forever complaining that it is oppressed, that “liberal Hollywood” or the “liberal media” treats it unfairly, that everyone is out to get them. Why is that? It’s because for all its political muscle, the right is culturally insignificant. The culture wars are over, and the right lost. That is increasingly obvious to everyone, including, in fact, the religious right.

And this seems to connect to the religious left vs right issue. The religious right battled its cultural insignificance by providing its own alternative to the established culture: Christian music, movies, books and the like, sold at Christian bookstore chains. They have responded to the culture at large by removing themselves from it, at the same time it tried to exert more political muscle. This strikes me as odd and might explain why the right's political wins are hollow ones, why their political leaders like America's Vuvuzela Sarah Palin leave most of us scratching our heads. The religious right, like the political right, is worried about power. The political left is about power too, but the religious left is not. Victories for the religious left are not necessarily political ones, and therein lies the difference.

The religious right is vocal, but it's become increasingly impotent, because it chose to remove itself from those areas of the culture where lasting change is made, and instead devoted itself to empty grandstanding. We need only look at the Justice Sunday events, which were all about not letting Democrats filibuster Bush's judicial nominees. Today we have conservatives claiming it's perfectly okay to filibsuter Obama's judicial nominees, and if you Google "Justice Sunday" the second entry after Wikipedia's is the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's spring human rights program. Despite all of the media hoopla, the religious right's "Justice Sunday" events are no more than a Wikipedia entry--a footnote to history.

So the next time someone tells me they “wish the religious left would step up,” I'm going to hit the pause button for a moment to think about what it means. I'm not sure I want a religious left worried about power. I'd rather they leave the empty grandstanding to a culturally impotent minority, and instead keep fighting the good fight to end poverty, war, social injustice, environmental destruction and the like. Because political victories are temporal. Political winds blow right and left, but social change is lasting. And so far the left seems to have that battle won.