Saturday, December 29, 2007

Religion in Politics: Who's a Christian?

On the Christian right, it's common to question or reject the True Christianity of "liberals" and members of other suspect sects or "cults". In this interminable presidential campaign, the candidacy of Willard Mitt Romney has made the issue of "I'm a Christian and You're Not" an important, though carefully and slyly handled, one.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Hucklebee blandly, with seeming naivete, inserted a Mormon doctrinal issue into an interview with a New York Times reporter. It's reasonable to assume that it was a calculated dig intended to raise the hackles of the Faithful Christian against Strange Unchristian Mormon Beliefs. Similarly, it's reasonable to assume the bookcase cross-effect in a Huckabee tv ad was a consciously crafted effect, suitable for a candidate whose fliers describe him as a "Christian Leader", differentiating himself particularly from the Mormon Romney, as well as from other less than evangelical Republican candidates.

So I've been reading up on Mormonism lately. Long ago, I lived in Salt Lake City for three years and got to know a bit of the basics. I've occasionally read some more about it (out of anthropological and comparative religion interests) and now, with Romney's candidacy, I've been taking another look. With Christianity so much in the public square, the question of who is and who isn't a Christian has taken on heightened political importance.

The arguments are always based on doctrinal differences. But since there are so many differences within Christianity, with doctrines changing throughout its history and with many doctrinal divides of greater or lesser importance existing today, it's difficult for an ordinary person to decide what doctrines should be considered out of bounds and what doctrines are genuinely normative for all who want to be recognized as Christian.

Looking at the problem in purely ideological terms, you see incompatible definitions. How to choose among them?

My suggestion is to chuck all the doctrinal discussions and look at physical behavior, not verbal behavior. The simplest first cut is to look at what books are being used in rituals and in training ritual leaders. We can call them "scriptures". What they contain isn't important to this analysis. It's just necessary to be able to identify the labels on the books.

Using this approach, at the elementary level it's clear that Judaism and Christianity are different religions because they use different scriptures. The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, is incorporated into Christian practice, but another book, the New Testament, is added. New scripture, new religion.

Islam, while acknowledging and giving some respect to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, has the Qur'an. New scripture, definitely a new religion.

Consider, then, Christian Science -- with Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures being a necessary adjunct to the Christian scriptures. Christian Science ritual focuses on a Bible Lesson, composed of citations from both the Bible and Science and Health. Without the new book, there's no Christian Science practice and no Sunday and Wednesday ritual gatherings. Therefore, although Christian Science is an offshoot of Christianity, it's not Christianity.

With three new scriptures added to the Christian Bible, the Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), make the decision easy. The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price define a new religion, not just a new wrinkle within an old religion.

So, without doctrinal considerations or theological bias of any kind, it's possible to come to a completely objective classification of the LDS as a separate religion distinct from Christianity.

This approach saves the time and trouble that would come with having to read a lot of theological arguments. Of course, one can always go further into it and define a variety of Judaisms, Christianities, Islams, and Mormonisms by looking at the use of other books (like the Talmud in Judaism) and by observing other behaviors. In Christianity, for example, it's informative to see who can take communion with whom.

Considerations of doctrines can then follow later, if one is so inclined. What I find helpful is to be able to make objective distinctions first, without having to ponder imponderables or dealing with charges of heresy or apostasy. Discussions of variant theological ideas, like Huckabee's idea of the Trinity vs. Romney's, can then be descriptive and comparative, without requiring the reader to adopt any particular doctrinal or judgmental stance. Establishing a "value-free" definition of differences might enable people to look at these things more calmly and rationally. (But I don't count on it.)

At the very least, though, it allows people to cut to the chase more quickly -- and, if they're going to discuss religion in politics, have their discussions focus on the impact, if any, of candidates' religious doctrines on policy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Helpful Hint from Huckabee

I disagree with most of Mike Huckabee's positions. Still, I find a couple of things about him that I do like.

Big money Republicans are bothered by his candidacy's recent surge. They don't like his moderating touch of economic populism. His concern for the poor does make Huckabee much more of a "compassionate conservative" than most of his colleagues. In his campaign, he criticizes corporate policies, Wall Street, and the damage done to workers by US trade policies. He's even won a union endorsement, from the Machinists.

His platform, however, as displayed at his website, doesn't go into these matters. It's much more conventionally and conservatively "faith-based" as defined by right-wing evangelicals, and more reticent on compassion.

Despite this, his economic populism is a plus factor. And he has an enlightened attitude toward the arts: he supports more arts funding in public education and made music and art education mandatory in Arkansas for every K-12 student. The arts are often the first to be cut either as an unaffordable "frill" or as taking time away for "more important" academic work. Huckabee, an amateur musician, knows they are integral to mental development.

What's more interesting to me is the deft way he deflected a question on Biblical inerrancy. It could be a model for the way Christian Progressives deal with the inerrancy issue. When a young man held up a Bible and asked "Do you believe every word of this book?" this is what Huckabee said when his turn came:

"Sure. I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It's the word of revelation to us from God himself. (Applause)

"And the fact is that when people ask do we believe all of it, you either believe it or you don't believe it. But in the greater sense, I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says "Go and pluck out your eye," well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye. That obviously is allegorical.

"But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation. "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"And as much as you've done it to the least of these brethren, you've done it unto me. Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated.

"And as the only person here on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don't fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite god, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small."

The two things that I see as significant here is that first he both asserts inerrancy and recognizes that what he believes to be inerrant meanings are beyond complete understanding. Then he sets out what I think is the important idea that's shared by both theologically conservative and theologically liberal Progressive Christians: "love your neighbor as yourself" and "as you do unto others, you do unto Jesus." That's a powerful notion, regardless of how metaphorically or literally anyone takes the "doing unto Jesus" part.

What Progressive Christians need to be reminding each other, as well as reminding the Unprogressives, is "Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated."

Programmatically, those simple things aren't that easy. But the words themselves don't need interpretation. Progressive Christians of whatever stripe will spend their time better in thinking together about how to be faithful with those words than in fighting over the other parts.

Although I will oppose Huckabee if he's the nominee, I thank him for a helpful hint. I expect to find myself reminding Progressive and Unprogressive Christians of the need to do the simple things first.

Thanks, Mike.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Romney's sad speech

I wasn't going to write about Romney, but my local paper printed a column about it which riled me enough to spur me to write to the columnist. If I were starting out to write a blog entry about Romney, I might have written a different kind of piece. Maybe I will later. But this is what I have now:

Dear Kathleen Parker,

I'm afraid the point of his speech and the point of your column are both not in accord with historical facts. Freedom and religion are not inextricably linked. All you have to do is remember the obvious: the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, Franco's Spain. As a Jew, I can't help but think of a long series of oppressions by Christian nations, as well as their own religious wars and mutual oppressions. And as one who had intellectual contempt for Christianity, I can assure you that my passion for freedom was no less when I was non-religious than it has continued to be since my baptism as an adult.

Romney's mention of the "ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages" is laughable. The old temple religion is gone and the rabbinic tradition is cumulative and varied. I was bar mitzvahed in a Conservative temple that had a Reform rabbi; it was quite different from the Orthodox synagogue down the street.

Take a look at Christian Reconstructionists if you want a clear idea of how intense religious commitment can be linked to a desire for domination and the absence of freedom. Gary North, for one, is enthusiastic about the benefits of death by stoning. In his view, when Reconstructionists become the overwhelming majority, death by stoning will be a normal punishment for adulterers, homosexuals, rebellious children, and religious apostates, not to mention witches, blasphemers, and many others. He's enthusiastic about it because it's cheap, it builds community since everyone can participate, and it symbolizes God's ultimate "breaking open the head of Satan".

Perhaps his most famous line is this: "We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."

Freedom from religion helps keep freedom of religion honest. Romney, in effect, would rule the non-religious out of order and somehow dangerous to freedom. In addition, he papers over the immense differences in religious values in the USA by overstating the existence of shared values among the religious. Just try to reconcile Quakers and Christian Reconstructionists!

All in all, I think it was a very poor speech. But what would a Jewish Episcopalian know about religion?



Saturday, December 01, 2007

Praying for rain

Sonny Perdue, the Governor of drought-stricken Georgia, caused a bit of a stir a couple of weeks ago by holding a public prayer meeting to intercede with God for rain. His prayers on the Capitol steps in Atlanta, along with those of Christian clergy, were heard by hundreds of Georgians, including many state legislators.

One Methodist minister prayed "We've been so busy industrializing that we've forgotten how to spiritualize. We've been so busy with our economy and what we can have and what we can possess that we've forgotten that you possess it all. Great God, this is your land. We till it for you. We are entrepreneurs for you, dear God." As if in response, an entrepeneur who had traveled from New York for the event distributed leaflets promoting his company's Wataire Atmospheric Water Generator, a device to make pure filtered water from the air.

Amidst the amens, many secularists complained about the mingling of church and state: "the government needs to take action, not call prayer meetings. Let the churches call prayer meetings." But Dave Ross, a liberal CBS radio commentator, had a different and interesting take on this prayer, and on prayer in general. I couldn't find a transcript, but what I was able to make out was this:

The governor prayed ""Father, we come before you today to acknowledge that we are needy. We acknowledge our wastefulness. We acknowledge that we haven't done the things we need to do." Another of the ministers prayed "We acknowledge that we have not been good stewards of our land."

Dave Ross, who, according to what I've read, is usually quite cynical, then commented: "Wow, that's some serious truth-telling, because people who believe in God know that He wants us to acknowledge the truth before He acts." He went on to suggest that if the prayers weren't answered, maybe God was waiting for a little more truth.

So Dave suggested that the next prayer could go like this: "Lord, we acknowledge that we your children have mocked the idea of climate change and ridiculed the idea that our desire for wealth and comfort could affect your delicate balance."

"You may disagree", he said, "but try it, and if that doesn't work then try something like "Lord, we realize our selfish development practices have threatened the very water supplies we are praying for --and just keep going, keep telling God the truth until the drought finally ends. Because that's the real power of prayer, that it gets you to proclaim the truth loudly enough that even the people who are doing the praying can hear it."

Something to think about there: truth-telling prayer is like the prophets' words of truth. Without truth, prayer becomes a con job, conning the self, conning the people. Only if we face the truth do we have a chance of coming to our senses and dealing reasonably with our messes.