Location: United States

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Never, My God, the GOP

Earlier this week, that bastion of the liberal press, the New York Times published an op-ed by Joseph LaConte entitled "Nearer, My God, to the GOP". It's unlikely that anyone on the right will take notice of such an article, but it gives a very good indication of what the right wing thinks of the gathering Religious Left.

If Democrats give religious progressives a stronger voice, they'll only replicate the misdeeds of the religious right.


When Christians - liberal or conservative - invoke a biblical theocracy as a handy guide to contemporary politics, they threaten our democratic discourse. Numerous "policy papers" from liberal churches and activist groups employ the same approach: they're awash in scriptural references to justice, poverty and peace, stacked alongside claims about global warming, debt relief and the United Nations Security Council.

followed shortly by this statement:

This trend is at its worst in the misplaced outrage in the war against Islamic terrorism. It's true that in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, some Christian conservatives shamed themselves by blaming the horror on feminists and gays, who allegedly incited God's wrath. But such nonsense is echoed by liberals like the theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University.

"The price that Americans are going to have to pay for the kind of arrogance that we are operating out of right now is going to be terrible indeed," he said of the United States' response to the Qaeda attacks. "People will exact some very strong judgments against America - and I think we will well deserve it." Professor Hauerwas joins a chorus of left-wing clerics and religious scholars who compare the United States to Imperial Rome and Nazi Germany.

To deal immediately with Mr. LaConte's fears and example, anyone can see an immediate contradiction. Stanley Hauerwas' words have no scriptural reference at all. Furthermore, there is no comparison to any country, past or present - so the reference to Rome and/or the Nazis is within LaConte's own head.

He continues with this nugget:

Democrats who want religious values to play a greater role in their party might take a cue from the human-rights agenda of religious conservatives. Evangelicals begin with the Bible's account of the God-given dignity of every person.

So - Christian Democrats should "take a cue from religious conservatives" - but doing so will "replicate the misdeeds of the religious right". Which is it?

The problem with Mr. LaConte's statements is that they completely ignore any reality within the religious left. True, many faithful liberals have begun to demand that an accurate and honest public voice be included on their behalf in political discourse. However, every single group and individual I have spoken to has argued strenuously against shadowing the religious right. The difference should be obvious to anyone who looks at how the left addresses the right or the right addresses the left. The left urges the right to engage in earnest debate and to stress the entire sum of scriptural reference. The right says that the left simply aren't really Christians and, thus, can be easily dismissed as heretics and cranks.

I believe the first thing to do is to realize that Mr. LaConte is no where close to being a disinterested party. He holds the post of "William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society" at the Heritage Foundation. Here's his commentary about the issue of gay marriage:

The other fact is that Caesar cannot be neutral about these religious claims: In effect, the State will help decide which religious viewpoint should govern political life. If government endorses the sacred nature of traditional marriage, it must build legal firewalls to protect its unique status. If it approves of gay marriage, then the state must promote the values of religious liberals: The conclusion that there’s no important difference between gay and hetereosexual unions, after all, is exactly what Bishop Robinson and many other ministers are insisting upon.

Many Christians would be wildly surprised by Mr. LaConte's attack on peace theology:

These same pacifist assumptions are repeated by the United Methodist Council of Bishops in a paper long on sloganeering and short on logic. Peace and security will arrive, the bishops write, "when all have access to and enjoy food, housing, clothing, medical care...and a living wage." No mention of how a living wage might tame bin Laden's cult of death. Finally, there is the document from the liberal magazine Sojourners called "Confessing Christ in a World of Violence," signed by scores of theology professors, ethicists and church leaders. It rejects the "crude distinctions" being made between Islamic radicalism and Western democracy. "The distinction between good and evil does not run between one nation and another, or one group and another," the petition reads. "It runs straight through every human heart."

I flipped through some of Mr. LaConte's writings - and I am often in complete agreement with him. However, his views always seem to take a screeching turn to the right when it comes to implementing his theology. Given the ideological bent of the Heritage Foundation, that shouldn't surprise anyone. What is surprising is that he is able to come off as a moderate while simultaneously digging the left at every possible opportunity (at least he will admit that the religious right makes mistakes).

It would seem that Mr. LaConte (or possibly Loconte - I've found it spelled both ways for the same man) is actually more concerned with staking out early political attack grounds. I expect that much of what he writes will be echoed endlessly by the right as the religious left gains greater levels of success in establishing a more inclusive and tolerate public voice for faith. The purpose seems clearly to discourage the religious left from gaining that voice while continuing to use the right's voice for political purposes.

His words would conflict directly with those of the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King:

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

as well:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

If Mr. LaConte is worried about formalizing ties between church and government - like for example the direct line that runs from such figures as Ralph Reed to Jack Abramoff to Tom DeLay - then I find myself in agreement with him. If, however, he is claiming that the voice of the left is not only desirable, but a badly needed balance to those on the right; then we have no agreement whatsoever. Faith exists to uphold individuals and churches exist to create communities for the faithful as well as outreach for those not in the community - but it is not wrong for leaders in the public arena to speak openly of their faith as the basis of their actions. Doing so allows people to more easily understand the people that are asking for their votes (and money). No one should be compelled to speak of their faith, but no one should be shamed into silence because their understanding of Holy Scriptures differs from that of someone else.

I don't consider Mr. LaConte to be evil or wrong, but I do wonder if his secular position is influencing his position towards liberal Christians (and Jews, and Hindus, and Muslims, etc). Regardless, I think it is important to listen to what he is saying. Before any movement gathers too much steam, it should make sure that it is pointed in the right direction. Beyond that, we are likely to hear such words against us for quite some time into the future. We must find the answers to them within ourselves now - and we must be open and honest about what we desire.


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