Sunday, October 28, 2012

Love Your Neighbor, Vote with Prayer

Ten days left until the 2012 election. My phone is busy with robocalls imploring me to save America, and my mailbox blooms with glossy colored postcards urging me to stand against a mix of urgent threats.

For some of us, voting is easy: walk into the polling booth and vote the party ticket. For others, though, that seems immoral: a sell-out to party power, an encouragement to our politicians to represent the agendas of deep-pocket party supporters rather than the needs of simple citizens.

A few weeks ago, registering voters in our local library, I found myself in conversation with a recently naturalized citizen, a man eager to participate in American democracy.

“How will I know who to vote for?” he asked earnestly.

“You can find a sample ballot at this website,” I said, scribbling a web address on the handout we’d given him:, offered by the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters. It provides information about polling places and hours and sample ballots for every precinct.  (In other states, the same information is available on Vote411, provided by the US League of Women Voters). 

“But,” he seemed uncertain how to say it, “how will I know . . .” He paused, unsure.

“What they stand for? What their positions are?”


“That’s harder. But this is still a place to start." I explained that SmartVoter (and Vote411) provide links to candidates' websites, plus pass on answers some candidates have given to specific League questions. 

I admired the man’s motivation. Still learning the language, still struggling to find his way in a confusing new country, he was determined to understand the issues and to use his vote wisely.

I set out several months ago to think through issues and to argue that “voting as a Christian” doesn’t mean giving my vote without thought to the party that claims to stand for “Christian values.” In a recent article, The Politics of Abortion: Should Christians Vote Straight Ticket, Elliot Miller of the Christian Research Council argues that in their zeal to oppose abortion, Christians have become pawns of a party that claims to uphold a pro-life movement while often pursuing conflicting goals: “ Straight-ticket voting allows your party to get away with paying mere lip service to your issues.”

I find myself wondering: how many of us are aware that of the seven Supreme Court judges who ruled in favor of abortion in the landmark Roe v. Wade case, five were Republican? Of those who dissented, one was Republican, one Democrat. The history of political party and issues of life is far more complex, and in many ways more cynical, than most of us understand. 

Miller argues, as I did in my post "The Least of These":
“A pro-life ethic should not only apply to the unborn but also to the born, including people whose lives would be lost in a frivolous war, the catastrophic loss of life that could occur from a policy that results in nuclear war, loss of life due to environmental degradation (not just apocalyptic global warming scenarios but present-day famines in Africa and elsewhere that we have the means to do something about), the lives that are being lost daily in America through the ready availability of assault weapons, and so forth. If a candidate claims to be pro-life but promotes reckless policies on some or all of these issues, that needs to be factored in. 
As Miller notes, pro-life Democrats have found their  more holistic pro-life efforts“sabotaged by the pro-life movement.” This is currently the case in Pennsylvania, where a moderate pro-life Catholic Democrat, Bob Casey, has been ranked “0 percent faith-friendly”  by a blatantly dishonest "Voter Guide for Christians.

A closer look at Casey’s positions shows  a consistent pro-life stance that still insists on accessible contraception and womens’ health care screenings, whether through Planned Parenthood, health insurance mandates, or other health care provision. He has been unfairly labeled “pro-abortion” because he insists, I think correctly, that the fastest way to reduce abortions is to make sure women have affordable family planning information and support, while the current “pro-life” movement seems determined to cut funding for anything that might help women limit family size wisely. I admire Casey’s respect for women and for life, and his courage in trying to vote his conscience, even as the pro-life movement joins the party faithful in aggressive and deceptive attempts to unseat him.  He is one of very few pro-life Democratic senators left, and unapologetic about his Christian faith, passion for justice, and motivation to serve the poor. Wouldn’t it make sense to encourage and support him? Apparently not.

The Faith and Freedom scorecard disseminated widely in churches and religious sites offers ten essential topics for a Christian to consider when voting, including "Repeal Obamacare," "20% Across-the-Board Income Tax Cut," "Cap and Trade Carbon Tax."

I've been reading the Bible all my life. Please: in what way is a 20% across-the-board-tax cut a “Christian value”? 

And how is repealing "Obamacare" one of the top ten priorities for someone concerned with seeing faith play a role in our political decisions? From what I can tell of God’s concern for our health, I’d say Good Samaritans among us should think carefully before deciding that those with pre-existing conditions or low-paying jobs don't really need insurance. 

Cap and trade? Am I expected to believe that Christians should – as a matter of faith and freedom - vote AGAINST protecting the environment fromincreasing carbon emissions and worsening climate change? (Ever hear of Kiribati?)

I’ve mapped out some of the issues I’ll be considering as I prepare to vote:
While we many argue about the wisest, most faithful approach on any of these issues, I am more convinced than when I started that the Christian faith has much to say about matters too often ignored by those who claim to speak for the church.While some would like the government to legislate on moral issues and stay out of the way on matters of economy and regulation, others believe that the role of government is to maintain justice and protect the common good, while leaving matters of personal morality to the guidance of the church. In every arena, solutions that seem obvious to one person may appear implausible, wrong-headed, or genuinely evil, to another. 

Which is why, as I suggested when I set out on this series back in July, we are responsible to examine issues, think through the proper role of government, and advocate and vote in ways that reflect our own convictions. For those of us who claim to follow Christ, the need is greater than ever to demonstrate our commitment to the priorities Christ taught us, priorities of mercy, compassion, peace, justice, rather than the agendas promoted by party politics, wealthy donors, and slick political ads.

When we let the maneuverings of political "faith leader" groups shape our votes and our voice, both our witness for Christ and our influence for good are hijacked.

To find out individual candidate's stances on issues that matter, Smartvoter, or, in other states, Vote411, offer answers to specific questions, and links to candidate websites. For those who hold or have held public office,  On the Issues offers specifics on votes cast for and against legislation, as well as quotes from candidates on a wide variety of issues. The public record of candidates sometimes paints a much more nuanced picture than opponents might give; it also can show inconsistencies, and obvious attempts at manipulation of voters. 

The Voter Guide, a national site, offers links to local voters' guides, some with more information than contained in the League sites. OpenSecrets provides information about campaign finances, contributors, lobby groups. Another website I'll be consulting is the Grover Norquist "Taxpayer Protection PledgeSigner" site. I object strongly to anyone taking a pledge that prohibits wise consideration of all solutions. It’s highly doubtful I’ll be voting for anyone on Norquist’s extensive list. 

We live in a broken world, with broken institutions, broken people. There are no perfect candidates, no perfect platforms. Those who cry for peace will have to look elsewhere. Those who long for justice will find that agenda sadly missing. Those who pray for wiser use of natural resource will search, maybe in vain, for candidates standing firm on clean air, clean water, clean food.

But I’ll still vote. I think of the hundreds who died in Tiananmen Square, hungry for the rights we take for granted. I think of the women in Liberia, facing down men who used violence of every kind to maintain control and silence opposition, or the dissident writers spending decades in prison, gulags, camps, composing poems in their minds, writing speeches in their memories, waiting behind bars for the simple right to speak. I listen to reports of young activists in Syria, battered for their dream of freedom, and promise to invest more deeply in the freedom I've been given.

Our votes are not about defending our own rights, our own parties, our own strongly-held opinions. They’re tools in the service of the common good, one more way to defend the rights of the poor and needy, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, even when that neighbor speaks a different language, or prays for peace in a country other than our own. 

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.
    (Proverbs 31:8-9)

Learn to do right; seek justice.
   Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
   Plead the case of the widow.
   (Isaiah 18:17)

This is part of a continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform? Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

For further thoughts on values and faith, I recommend the work Miroslav Volf has done this fall in thinking through Values of a Public Faith: Values of a Public Faith (part one), Values of a Public Faith (part two), Values of a  Public Faith (part three). Sojourners has also produced a downloadable pdf,  "Why Voting Matters: An Issues Guide for Christians." And Evangelicals for Social Action provide a similar guide: "Can My Vote Be Biblical."  Note: none of these resources say "This is who you should vote for." Instead, they raise important questions, offer suggested guidelines, and argue for informed individual decisions. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Would Make Your Change Your Mind?

I've been thinking this week about how we know what we know – and how hard it is to change our minds.

Information that fits our mental grid is affirmed, accepted, repeated, even when it’s wrong. Information that challenges our tightly-held assumptions becomes proof of bias, of deliberate deception, or is simply dismissed as “talking points from the other side.”

A fascinating commentary on climate change, posted by Tom Chivers of The Telegraph last June, explores the evidence for climate change and the challenge of seeing beyond our own areas of blindness:  
Ask yourself the following: what would it take to make you change your mind on a strongly held belief? An empirical one, a matter of fact. Especially one which you have, in part, defined yourself by.
It's very difficult to do. The power of confirmation bias is well known;Jonathan Haidt, in his fantastic book The Righteous Mind, says that our rational faculty acts like a press secretary, seeking support for policies that are already in place, not looking for new evidence to base policies on. We get a pleasure-chemical reward when we find evidence that supports our argument; holding controversial views, he says, is literally addictive. And now, with the advent of the internet, it is easy to find supportive evidence for almost any beliefs you may hold. Illuminati nuts, 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers, Moon landing conspiracists, Aids denialists, Young-Earth creationists; all of them can find superficially convincing evidence for their beliefs within seconds of reaching the Google home page. 
Yesterday I attended a challenging performance of TheScrewtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’ exploration of spiritual warfare, staged by the Fellowship for the Perfomring Arts. The play, drawing on Lewis’ portrayal of his own mental gamesmanship, illuminates the difficulty of seeing what's true: we are constantly tempted to slide into lazy habits of thinking, to take the easy way out, to judge others and truth itself through a superficial grid of personal preference and emotional response. Real illumination, genuine insight, takes hard work, and as devious Screwtape makes very clear, we are easily deterred by the simplest distractions.
I admire the legacy of Lewis because he chose to do the work of hunting for truth, despite his own prejudice against faith, his own academic arrogance, his own experience both for and against belief. That work is chronicled in a wealth of titles that continue to encourage and enlighten honest seekers: Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, God in the Dock, The Great Divorce.  His stance was always "wouldn't you want to know what's true?" "Isn't it worth the work to find out?" 
"Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is hiding. Either that is true, or it isn't. And if it isn't, then what that door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal 'sell' on record. Isn't it obviously the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then devote his full energies to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this giant humbug?" God in the Dock (1946)
Lewis was helpful to me in my own time of wondering. We all grow up with certain opinions, with certain voices loud in our heads. Maturity comes when we’re able to evaluate, to sort through the voices, to look at our own biases and ask: What's true? What is clearly, without question, false? Which voices deserve to be heard? Which can we safely ignore?

In my own faith background there were voices desperate to hold authority, and frightened of science, intellectual exploration, open discussion. I remember, as a high school junior, sharing an interesting fact I’d picked up in my much-loved physics class, and a Bible study leader saying, without hesitation, “that’s not true.” As if somehow science, all science, stood in opposition to faith.  I attended a new youth group with a friend from another denomination and was warned “Don’t go back. They don’t believe the same things we do.” As if hearing and experiencing the Christian faith from another tradition would somehow dislodge me from my own. I saw a narrow path set out ahead of me: “Don’t look left or right. You might be drawn off-course.” As if I were a horse with a bit in my mouth, and thick blinders keeping my eyes straight ahead.

My exploration led me far from that narrow path. The Christian college I attended insisted “All truth is God’s truth” and offered robust discussion in biology, physics, philosophy, history. C. S. Lewis, among other authors dead and living, encouraged me to push hard on what I’d learned about faith, reason, human motivations, Biblical interpretation.

As I’ve read, explored, investigated faith, science, politics, I’ve found voices I trust without question, voices I trust on particular issues, voices I weigh along with others. I believe the Bible, but also know interpretations can be faulty. I value the deep tradition of the Christian faith, but can point to places where the faith was blown off course. There are church leaders I admire, while knowing they are human. And church leaders whose lack of integrity leaves me grieving, and looking elsewhere for insight and wisdom.

This question of authority is essential – whether discussing religious faith, as in the case of C. S. Lewis, scientific understanding, as in climate change, or political persuasion: economic theory, tax policy, health care funding. How do we decide whose authority to trust? Are we able to evaluate authorities wisely?

Last week, thinking about lies, deception, and the faiths that can ensnare us, I spent time reading the stories of people who came to doubt the authority of the Mormon church. Their exploration of their roots was costly: they speak of ostracism by families, threats from leaders, financial hardship. Yet, they also speak of a growing discomfort with deceit, and a determination to know the truth.

The Apostle Paul was certainly one who had been misled by authority, had misused his own authority to search out and harm those who followed Christ, and knew the danger of mistaking power for truth. He warned that leadership lay in setting an example, not through coercive practice or “dominion”:
“Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy.” (II Corinthians 1:24)  
“The elders who are among you I exhort...Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion...nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3) 
Paul was clear that each person is responsible to seek out the truth and determine what’s right, aware, on a very personal level, of how easy it is to follow authority in the wrong direction:
“But test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ." (Philiippians 1:9-10) 
"Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:1-2)
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent. (I Timothy 6:3-5)
As I noted last week, James 3 offers a good test for recognizing wise leadership and appropriate authority:
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”  
Any voice that is too fast to shut another down, too fast to stir up controversy, too quick to accuse, too eager for power, is a voice I choose to ignore. I’m looking for good fruit, in my own life, and in the lives of those whose example and voice I'm willing to follow: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Leaders whose private lives and public statements don't demonstrate those qualities are not high on my list of trustworthy sources.

In the discussion of climate change, (back to where I started), Tom Chivers calls attention to the question of authority: 
"As a non-climate scientist, I have to accept certain things on authority, as I do with all expert knowledge. This is an argument from authority, but we all do it, and it's vital: if I had cancer, I'd accept the authority of the oncologist and the body of knowledge of the oncology community, rather than try to guide my own treatment with information I'd found on the internet. As Ben Goldacre said long ago in a different context, you have only two options: "you can either learn to interpret data yourself and come to your own informed conclusions; or you decide who to trust".
 "I've decided who to trust, and it's mainstream scientific opinion: the Royal Society, the Royal Institution, Nasa, the US National Academy of Sciences, the US Geological Survey, the IPCC, the national science bodies of 30 or so other countries. And that gives me a possible route out of the confirmation-bias trap: I have, in advance, outsourced my judgment to expert bodies. If several of them changed their position, I would change mine. It's far from perfect, but short of becoming a climate scientist myself, it's the only option I have; otherwise my reasonable belief that the climate is changing due to human behaviour becomes an article of faith. As it is, although it is mediated through authority, it's still, I hope, based on empirical data, on the scientific method.
 "What I want to ask those sceptics who, like me, are not professional climate scientists is: what's your way out? You are as trapped by confirmation bias as I am. You will not be able to disinterestedly search through the torrents of information, false and true, on the internet and elsewhere: the more you look, the more you will confirm your own beliefs, because that's what we do. Since the design of the human mind makes you an unreliable judge, what evidence would it take to change your mind? Who, in short, do you trust?"
In all the pressing issues of the day – religious, political, scientific, economic - the questions remain: Where do you gather evidence? What do you do to offset your confirmation bias? Who do you choose to trust? And why? 

And what, if anything, would make you change your mind? 

This is part of a continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform? Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Questions of Character

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?
The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
. .. who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    (Psalm 15)
"You shall not repeat a false report . . .Neither shall you allege the example of the many as an excuse for doing wrong. . . Exodus 23:1-2 (NAB)
Last Monday I sat down to watch the first Presidential debate. I was busy the night it aired, but after hearing so much about who won, and why, I felt convinced I needed to watch it.

I wasn’t looking so much for who had the best zingers, who seemed most in control, who dominated the conversation, but for any hint of wisdom, humility, patience, grace, compassion.  I had in mind an issue raised in the list of values and questions from the Miroslav Volf page I mentioned last week: “The debate should be about what dimensions of character matter most and what blend of virtues and competencies is most needed at this time.”

What struck me most was the level of contradiction I heard in Romney’s arguments, and the ferocity with which he repeated some of the statements most in conflict with things he’s said before. I had spent time the evening before looking through his website with a friend trying to write a comparison essay for a college class and was surprised to hear Romney saying things that seemed strangely out of step with his own published positions.

I found myself increasingly uncomfortable as he sharply contradicted the President when Obama tried to hold him to previously stated positions, when he sharply contradicted things I’ve heard him say before, in effect said “I didn’t say that” to statements any researcher could easily prove he said.

I was reminded, watching him, of kids I’ve worked with who are gifted at spinning stories with little bearing on the truth. It sometimes feels like a family thing: if a child grows up in a household where adults will say whatever works, their children will do the same, with energy, conviction and a scary sense of outrage when met with disbelief by reasonable adults who dare to question obvious, easily-countered lies. In the game of manipulation, truth will lose to power every time.

I try – hard – to be charitable to those whose views don’t align with mine. We all want to do what’s right, don’t we? We just start in different places, and sometimes come to different conclusions.

I understand that factual accuracy is hard in a complicated, constantly changing arena. And I understand that “spin” is part of the discourse of the day. I understand as well that things promised are not always easily delivered.

But is there a point where the spin goes too far? Or the promises are too facile, too quickly set aside?
And what should we conclude when those who should be advocating for truth fall back on the weary, adolescent defense: “They started it! And everybody does it!”

What happens to a culture where “truth” is twisted and contorted by those who claim to defend it, where “facts” are whatever works in the moment, even for those who insist truth can be known, who contend that Truth – with a capital T - should be the foundation of what we do and say? Those who decry the dangers of relativism should watch carefully as leaders who should stand most firmly for honesty in public discourse pass on lies themselves when it serves their political agendas.

Yes, the fact checkers have been having a busy time, with fallacies attributed to both sides, and deceptive ads generated by a widening mix of players.

Again – is there a point where the deceptions go too far?

It’s not hard to find clear documentation of Romney fabrications. Just google “Romney lies,” or “Romney contradictions.” Steve Benen, one of Rachel Maddow’s producers, has been “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” since last January, with a new list of lies posted each Friday.  A Ron Paul supporter took another tack, with video documentation of Romney contradictions in The Ultimate Mitt Romney Flip Flop Collection, created last April.

The documented lies and contradictions are large and small, passionate, puzzling, strange. Sweet stories about political moments with his dad: didn’t take place.  Insistent memories of specific career changes: don’t agree with facts. Earnest affirmations to wealthy donors: contradicted from the public stage.

And then there are the deceptions employed as business strategy, from pushing  young colleagues to “falsify” their identities to spy out competitors operations, to hiding profits in off-shore tax havens, to promoting profit at the expense of public good in the fragile young Russian economy.
Add the endless untrue accusations throughout the primary, primary debates, convention, through to today about opponents' policies, plans, practices, personal histories And the constant changes of position: last October former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman described Romney as a "perfectly lubricated weather vane on all the major issues of the day." At the same time, Brit Hume of Fox News suggested: "you are only allowed a certain number of flips before people begin to doubt your character. And i think Romney exhausted his quota sometime back."

Interesting that Republicans most vociferous about Romney’s lies during the primary now cry “partisan” when that pattern of dishonesty is again brought to public attention.

A June, 2012 column in Time magazine, by psychoanalyst Justin Frank, explored “The Root of Mitt Romney’s Comfort with Lying.” Dr. Frank probed Romney’s roots in the Mormon faith, and the fraudulent claims at the heart of that tradition, suggesting that for Romney, authority trumps truth:
“[I]n the Mormon Church, there was a decision to accept authority as true — whether or not evidence supported it. Hence Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith in 1820, claimed he was illiterate and received the Book of Mormon directly from God. But he could read, and read very well.
“This unwavering faith is central to Romney’s comfort in deflecting any examples that the press might bring up of his lying. Further, it allows him to repeat lies again and again — both personally and in political advertising — because to him they are not lies at all. I’m reminded of that old epigram from the 1960s: ‘My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.’ That may be all good and well in many offices, but it’s not so good in the Oval Office.”
Frank’s very non-pc comments sent me digging further, to testimony by those who have left the Mormon faith, decrying the duplicity endorsed and encouraged by church leaders, and warning of the culture of secrecy and dishonest authority woven throughout Mormon history. Spend time examining the roots of Mormonism and it becomes clear that Joseph Smith, the founding "prophet," was a convicted con man and shameless self-promoter, hungry for money, power, and women.

The Mormon Delusion, Jim Whitefield
Park Romney, Mitt Romney’s second cousin, served like Mitt as a high priest in the Mormon Church, but became an “apostate” when he concluded that the Mormon faith is an "insidious contemporary fraud.” In a brief discussion of Romney’s presidential candidacy, he notes the extensive documentation of dishonesty throughout the history of the church (summarized on his website, with links to sources):
“The inescapable questions that we are left with, as they relate to the campaign of Mitt Romney, are not whether we are comfortable with Mormonism as our President’s religion; not whether Mormonism is a cult; not whether Mormonism is compatible with Christianity; not whether Polygamy is good or bad; not whether the average lay member of the Mormon Church is a good citizen who we are reticent to offend; but rather, whether Mitt Romney, a current High Priest of the Mormon Church, and former regional church leader, is aware that his religion is a demonstrable contemporary fraud in which the leadership of the Church are exploiting the faith of the lay members in extracting countless millions of dollars in tithing receipts, a significant portion of which being invested in world-wide commercial enterprises controlled by the Church, and real estate development in down town Salt Lake City, and all over the world? Is the man in whom so many hope to place all of their hope and faith for a brighter future for America, and in whom they will rely for the assessment of intelligence briefings that are the basis of world-wide military action, aware of the unmistakable, and incontestable evidence that his Church is a fraud? If he is aware, how do we escape the conclusion that he is a party to this fraud, as a High Priest of the Mormon Church. . . . If he is not aware that it is a fraud, amidst glaringly unmistakable evidence . . . then shall we not have profoundly serious questions about his judgment?  
Park Romney's questions are worth considering.

Another question: What happens when leaders put political expedience ahead of allegiance to truth?

And another: What happens to a people willing to accept what they're told rather than do the work of checking sources, listening more carefully, and coming to conclusions of their own?

Does truth matter? And is faith a simple game of follow-the-leader?

Jesus and the prophets had strong things to say about leaders who misused their power to maintain control and serve themselves, and both Old and New Testaments are full of warnings about testing what’s said, discerning the truth, praying for wisdom. Unfortunately, concerns about truth, my own included, are far more likely to be met with ad hominem attacks or cries of “they do it too!” than with prayerful investigation.
Friend deceives friend,
    and no one speaks the truth.
They have taught their tongues to lie;
    they weary themselves with sinning.
You live in the midst of deception . . .
     (Jeremiah 9)
“In the midst of deception,” I find myself praying for the wisdom so sadly lacking in our current political debate, and for the ability, for myself, our leaders, and fellow voters, to step past partisan blinders to see and do what’s true:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  (James 1:5)
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3)
This is part of a continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform? Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pulpit Freedom, Public Faith

As we slog towards election day, it seems more and more difficult to speak of political matters without raised voices, wild assumptions, uncharitable accusations. Just deciding whether to watch the debates was cause of anxiety in many households.

“Why watch? Why vote?” some ask, while others are certain any vote other than the one they have in mind would be an act of heresy contributing to the immediate destruction of the American nation.

Today (October 7), has been deemed “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” An estimated 1400 preachers will take to their pulpits to record sermons specifically endorsing candidates.

Should preachers endorse specific candidates? What happens when “faith leaders” proclaim that one candidate is God’s choice, only to see that candidate flounder; then proclaim another as God’s choice, despite that candidate’s repeated infidelities and profound selfishness and dishonesty? What happens when those same leaders now stand in their pulpits to tell their congregations to vote for a man they insisted, just months ago, no Christian should vote for?

In A Public Faith, How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Miroslav Volf describes what he calls “malfunctions of faith”:
"In the course of Christianity’s long history – full of remarkable achievements by its saints and thinkers, artists and builder, reformers and ordinary folks – the Christian faith has sometimes failed to live up to its own standards as a prophetic religion. Too often, it neither mends the world nor helps human beings thrive. To the contrary, it seems to shatter things into pieces, to choke up what is new and beautiful before it has a chance to take root, to trample underfoot what is good and true. When this happens, faith is no longer a spring of fresh water helping good life to grow lushly, but a poisoned well, more harmful to those who drink its waters than any single vice could possibly be "(4).

The malfunctions Volf describes are all fully at play in our current condition:

Functional Reduction: In this malfunction, practitioners "employ religious language to promote perspectives and practices whose content and driving force do not come from or are not integrally related to the core of the faith"(10). Volf suggests that this is not a result of "bad faith" or intentional manipulation, but instead "the language of God is hollowed out from within, maybe by lack of trust and inconsequential use, until only a shell remains. And then that shell is put to what are deemed good uses."

Volf charitably refrains from current examples of these malfunctions, but examples aren’t hard to find: discourse that promises God’s condemnation if a particular party loses, or that claims prophetic vision when situations make clear the vision is far more pragmatic than prophetic.

Idolatric Substitution: Volf speaks of this only briefly, recounting the story of Moses, Aaron, and the golden calf, and asking his reader to imagine a scene in which Aaron waits patiently as Moses returns, not with tablets of stone, but with the golden calf:
 “The prophet himself would have now engaged in idolatric substitution. He ascended the mountain to meet with God, but he has returned with an idol. Impossible? It happens every day, and to the best of ordinary prophets.  . . 'Take up your cross' morphs into 'I'll bring out the champion in you,' or the cross itself becomes a symbol of destruction and violence rather than of creative love that overcomes enmity." (12)
from Faith in Public Life
Again, Volf doesn’t offer contemporary examples, but my mind goes back to the procession last fall of Occupy Wall Street supporters carrying a golden calf through the streets of the Manhattan financial district, lamenting the way love of profit has replaced concern for the common good. False idols are rampant. Party, profit, country, security: all are held high by those claiming to speak for God himself.

Coerciveness of Faith: Volf devotes a chapter to this, and explains that while simply speaking of our faith may seem coercive to those who don’t share it, it is possible to speak of faith in ways that respect the other. He talks of 'thick faith' and 'thin faith,' suggesting that a zealous, unthinking Christianity can promote godly goals in immoral ways. Adherents of 'thin' faith 'have used and continue to use their faith to legitimize violence they deem necessary, and they have done so on a massive scale"(53). As Volf makes clear, coercive behavior has no place in the legitimate "thick" expression of Christian faith:
“Whenever violence was perpetrated in the name of the cross, the cross was depleted of its 'thick' meaning within the larger story of Jesus Christ and ‘'thinned' down to a symbol of religious belonging and power – the blood of those who did not belong flowed as Christians transmuted themselves from followers of the Crucified to imitators of those who crucified him."
Volf’s restraint in not offering examples is admirable; again, it’s not hard to find coercive expressions of Christianity, both past and present. Violence, hinted violence, abusive speech, scapegoating: all are tolerated, even encouraged, by those who claim identity with the prince of peace.

Idleness is a less visible malfunction, but possibly more widespread. Some people are stuck in an idle faith because they "pick and choose, as in a cafeteria, filling their tray with sweets but leaving aside the broccoli and fish." Others "find themselves constrained by large and small systems in which they live and work . . . they feel that they must obey the logic of those systems, not the demands of the faith they embrace." Yet others deem faith irrelevant to contemporary issues. "With these three reasons for faith’s idleness combined, no wonder people misconceive faith and treat it as  performance-enhancing drug or a soothing balm rather than as a resource to orient their life in the world." (23-24)

For those with "idle" faith, there seems no reason to connect faith and politics: faith is irrelevant to the challenges of the day; the systems that govern economics, education, polity have their own demands impervious to spiritual concerns.

Volf posits "engaged faith" as the alternative to the malfunctions. His ideas on this are well worth reading, especially in light of his willingness to talk about avenues of respectful engagement in a pluralist world where we begin from different places.

My own growing concern is not with the malfunctions Volf outlines so convincingly, but with another: what I’ll call "silent" faith.

I know many faithful followers of Christ who are alarmed at “God-talk” that promotes partisan ends, who are not convinced by the equation of faith with patriotism, capitalism, or party politics. I know faithful Christians who shake their heads at coercive Christian speech, and sacrifice time, resources, creativity to serve and love those they know and don’t know.

Unfortunately, many of those faithful followers I most admire are silent on political matters. They don’t want to be offensive, they don’t want to stir up anger, they are advocates of peace, and draw back instinctively from conflict.

Yet, in their silence, they miss an opportunity to give voice to those who can’t speak for themselves, and allow angry factionalism to shape our public discourse.

In a thoughtful chapter on "Public Engagement," Volf advocates a public square that makes room for all to speak.
"Encounters with others don’t serve only to assert our position and claim our territory; they are also occasions to learn and to teach, to be enriched and to enrich, to come to new agreements and maybe reinforce the old ones, and to dream up new possibilities and explore new paths. This kind of permeability of religious individuals and communities when they engage one another presupposes a basically positive attitude toward the other – an attitude in sync with the command to love the neighbor and, perhaps especially, to love the enemy."(133)
Professor of theology at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Volf has been modeling public engagement himself in an ongoing conversation on his facebook page, introducing values he considers worth discussing, offering rationale and avenues for debate, and suggesting questions we might ask of political leaders. While his page is private, it’s possible to subscribe to posts, and read the issues and responses. Just a sampling:
  • Which candidate is more likely to give the destitute effective access to healthcare? Which candidate is more likely to reduce the number of people who need to seek medical help?
  • Is the candidate firmly committed to reducing the number of abortions performed?
  •  Has the candidate unequivocally condemned use of torture?
  • Has the candidate supported or advocated ending of unjust wars in the past? Has the candidate condemned significant forms of unjust conduct of war?
  • What policies does the candidate propose to help encourage meaningful employment for adequate pay for all people? What will the candidate do to encourage people to work not just for personal gain but for the common good?
  • Is overcoming extreme poverty a priority for the candidate? What poverty reducing policies is the candidate prepared to fight for?
We can practice both faith and politics in ways that demonize the other and make barriers more and more difficult to cross, we can withdraw into our own safe cocoons and hope it all ends well, or we can see the political arena as one more opportunity to love God with our whole hearts and minds and our neighbors as ourselves. My prayer is that we choose the latter.

This post is part of the October Synchroblog on Faith and Politics. Other bloggers writing on faith & politics this month:

This is also part of my own continuing series about faith and politics: What's Your Platform? Join the conversation.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.