Monday, March 27, 2006

Thoughts on the religious-political "spectrum"

This post can also be found as a podcast here. If you want to go directly to mp3 download, click this link.

I opened the paper this week, looking to see if there was any coverage of the new We Believe group, or of the upcoming lecture/discussion with Jim Wallis. I was terribly disappointed to find, instead, that The Other Paper had a cover story entitled "The Dwindling Religious Middle".

Isn't that a bit premature? In my experience, there isn't even widespread awareness yet of faith voices speaking out from a point of view *other* than the far right. I am sure, for example, that many more people were aware of the Justice Sunday events than the diverse, interdenominational events that were held in response to them. I have often heard secular progressives complain that people of faith are not being vocal enough in countering the message of the religious right. I find that very frustrating, because the truth is, there are, and always have been such voices, but they simply don't get as much press. The Other Paper, which *has* given front page, in-depth attention to pastors like Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson, seems intent on being part of the problem. When they finally do get around to acknowledging the people of faith who are advocating a more compassionate, neighborly way of putting faith into action, it is only in the context of describing the plight of the "religious middle". In my mind, the fact that a letter Rev. Tim Ahrens sent out to dozens of area pastors in November has blossomed into a new organization built around the common ground shared by diverse people of faith should be, by itself, front page news. But the Other Paper article glossed over that news on its way to covering the plight of ministers who do not want to be political.

There are a number of things I find troubling about this article. The first is that, even though it is an "alternative" publication, the article falls into the same tired black and white way of seeing the world as most mainstream news sources. Right versus left, with us or against us...can't we please just *try* to have some dialog that doesn't force a dichotomy where one doesn't exist?

From the article: Wallis would like to position himself as a moderate, but the fact that he is embraced by the left probably gives away his proper place in the political-religious spectrum.

Well, thank you for speaking for him. Without translating the words *he* chooses into stark, black and white terms, people might be forced to grapple with the notion that the political-religious spectrum is just that--a spectrum, with a whole range of hues and gradations.

But you notice what the writer just did--he conveyed the message that Wallis is *really* aligned with the left, but didn't *quite* say it is so many words. He left himself some wiggle room--some plausible deniability.

Getting back to the idea of a spectrum, there really is a full continuum of viewpoints, from liberal to conservative on any number of issues. Someone may be more conservative on issues of personal liberties, but more liberal on economic issues, for example. Or vice-versa. Of course, when you step into the voting booth, you typically are faced with a series of either-or decisions. Do I vote for this candidate or that one? Yes or no on this particular issue?

In a time when this country has a president known for such stark statements as "You're either with us or against us", and when the religious leaders who get the most media attention frame political issues in similarly stark terms, it is easy to fall into that type of black and white thinking. But that doesn't mean that they *should*. Certainly, anyone who wishes to call him or herself a *journalist* should be able to see that issues are more complex than that, and, if they are worth their salt, they should be able to find a way to communicate these complex issues to the public in a way that can be understood.

We *must* learn to find common ground and work to create win-win outcomes. The We Believe group, in my opinion, is on the right track. Look at the home page--the tag line is "Uniting diverse religious voices to achieve social justice". By implication, David Niven casts We Believe as liberal, even though they represent a broad range of positions on the spectrums of faith and public policy. I'm sure there are members who, on the "hot button issues" of homosexuality and abortion, have views that are similar to those espoused by Rod Parsley and Russell Johnson. But they disagree with them on other issues, and have covenanted with the rest of the membership of We Believe to work together on issues where they share common ground. The group, as a whole, shares the "strong belief that we must act and speak in public ways to support the poor, the children, and those who are voiceless and unrepresented in our times".

And that is precisely who suffers if we continue to perpetuate the myth that issues of faith and politics are black and white and center around a couple highly divisive issues. It pained me and, yes, even angered me, to see the needs of those Jesus called "the least of these" go unaddressed while people of faith were persuaded of the dire need to vote for a constitutional amendment to make same sex marriage even more illegal in Ohio than it already was. Sometimes it's okay to be angry, and injustice makes me angry. It also angers me, with so much at stake, to see people who purport to be journalists taking their cues from people who, for their own political purposes, want to paint issues of faith and politics in stark, black and white, "with us or against us" terms. They need to do better than that, and, as much as I don't need something else on my to-do list, it's our job to call them on it when they start dumbing things down to the point that they are misrepresenting the truth.

Oh, and did I mention that I *really* have enough to do already, thank you very much. But then I hear about people like Maggie Kuhn, and I feel inspired, humbled, and a little sheepish that I'm not doing more...
Maggie Kuhn, the Gray Panthers charismatic leader changed the face of society with regard to the elderly. She was a committed, hard-working woman who at age 65 began an organization that continues her tradition of fighting for a better life for all. Her advice for those who want to make a change in the world is, "Go to the people at the top - that is my advice to anyone who wants to change the system, any system. Don't moan and groan with like-minded souls. Don't write letters or place a few phone calls and then sit back and wait. Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind--even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants."

Okay, *fine* Maggie. You do make a compelling point. Guess I just need to "keep on keeping on". Now, I just *know* that slingshot is around here somewhere...

UPDATE: Please check out the whole article and share your thoughts with the writer if you feel so inclined. You can select David Niven from the drop-down menu here

Something I mentioned in the podcast that didn't make it into this post is the fact that the other big issue I had with this article is the portrayal of ministers "staying out of politics" as a positive or desirable thing.

There IS NO getting away from politics. It touches everything. It is, in fact, "made of people". And if we just keep trying to respond with charity to the new ways the far right finds of trashing every safety net we have, there's no way we'll ever be able to keep up. The "least of these" will be much better off if they get *justice* than charity, but we can't work for justice without getting some politics on us.

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