Tag: politics

5 Issues Your Members Will Talk About in 2012

The flood of articles predicting what’s going to happen in 2012 has begun, so I thought I would throw in a small church perspective.  Interestingly, I think 2012 will bring us to a unique intersection of faith and politics.

Here are the top five issues your members will be discussing in 2012:

Religious pluralism.  Your members may not use that phrase – “religious pluralism” – but their conversations will be sprinkled with talk about the rise of other, non-Christian religions in the United States.  With Mitt Romney and John Huntsman running for the Republican nomination, Mormonism has moved into the public consciousness.  Do we take the position that Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, took when he publicly labeled Mormonism a “cult?” Jeffress was condemned roundly for his intolerance by other Republicans.  Your members will want to know about Mormonism — particularly if Romney is the Republican nominee.  Of course, Muslims are also a hot topic as Christians struggle to understand how we should love our neighbors, some of whom wear hijabs.

Extremism.  Many in media acknowledge that the popularity of conservative talk radio and TV news commentary has moved the country further to the right than it has ever been.  Extreme views are now becoming mainstream views.  Some of your members will applaud the rhetoric about arresting sitting judges, isolating our nation from international conflicts, and ending entitlement programs.  Ron Paul’s blatantly racist 20-year old newsletters will continue to be an issue.  Some will see no problem with them, while others will believe those views disqualify him from nomination.  Extreme views are often fear-based, and designed to get media attention, but they find resonance in the frustrations of those who feel marginalized.  As church leaders, our task is to let the Gospel inform our civic dialogue.

Social economics.  This year, politicians are not only touching the previously-fatal “third rails” of Social Security and Medicare, some are proposing ripping them up.  Churches need to have conversations about the role of government and the local church in caring for the poor, hungry, sick, and incarcerated.  Matthew 25 might be a good place to start because Jesus has some pretty harsh words for those who do not care for the “least of these.”  The question for Christians is not should those on the margins of society be helped, the question is how and by whom.  Your members will have a variety of opinions, and all of them strongly-held.

Immigration.  Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, and other states have passed tough anti-immigration laws.  But in Alabama and Georgia farmers are complaining that their laborers have left the state out of fear.  How does the story of the good Samaritan square with the actions of these states and of popular opinion?  Some of your members may want to “fence them out,” but the Bible does have a great deal to say about “the stranger within your gates.” Balancing the rule of law and Christian hospitality can be tricky business.

Hierarchy of beliefs.  In 2012, evangelicals will face the challenge of having to rank their beliefs in a hierarchy of importance when making political choices.  Which is more appealing to evangelical Christians – voting for a candidate who has been faithful to his marriage vows but who is a Mormon (or liberal Christian in Barack Obama’s case); or, electing a repentant serial adulterer and former evangelical-turned-Catholic? Of course, I’m not the first to point out the contrast between Romney and Gingrich, and some evangelical leaders have made their choices public.  But, there are other areas in which we are being forced to choose one value over another, and these cut across party lines.  For example, is President Obama’s use of drones to assassinate individual terrorists more or less acceptable than using U. S. troops in traditional combat roles, both of which result in loss of life?  Does the sanctity of life extend from the issue of abortion to capital punishment, or is a convict’s life not included in that which is sacred? Your members will want to know if some of our Christian values should take precedence over other values when making decisions.

These five issues provide church leaders with opportunities for discussion and Bible study.  Of course, these are hot-button issues and emotions can run high even in church conversations, so tread carefully.  But if we do not offer our members the resources to explore these issues in order to make decisions informed by their faith convictions, then we are missing an important opportunity.  Happy New Year!

Does the President Need a Prophet?

Isaiah the prophet

Normally, I don’t write about politics because it’s a sure way to alienate at least half of your readers.  But I just read Wendell Griffen’s article titled, Obama Protects the Powerful Over the Poor.

Griffen contends that President Obama needs a prophetic voice in his circle of advisers, one who will speak for the poor and the disenfranchised in our society.  He critiques Obama’s calculated preference for the banks over homeowners, the powerful over the poor, and political expediency over the moral courage.

Does the President need a prophet?  Do pastors need a prophet to call us back to concern for society’s marginalized, especially in this economy?  I thought the article deserved a mention here, and I hope you’ll take time to read it.  Rev. Griffen’s sermons are also posted on EthicsDaily.com, and he’s a powerful preacher with a unique insight.

If you don’t know Wendell Griffen, he was the first African-American appointed to the Arkansas Court of Appeals. Currently, Rev. Griffen is pastor of the New Millenium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and CEO of Griffen Strategic Consulting.

I had the opportunity to spend an hour in conversation with Rev. Griffen last year.  We talked about reconciliation and how to help communities come together by building what he calls “cultural competency.”  Through Griffen Strategic Consulting, Griffen’s unique approach to racial reconciliation helps communities and corporations recognize the differences in diverse populations, but also finds common ground for cooperation and understanding.

A New Nominating Process

On another political note, if you’re tired of politics as usual, you might be interested in a non-partisan movement to select a presidential and vice-presidential candidate via the internet.  AmericansElect.org is the first open presidential nominating process using the internet to tap into the growing disconnect between the two dominant political parties and regular folks.  You may or may not be interested, but I find what they are trying to do a refreshing approach versus the two year-long primary process that has already begun.  Visit the site because I think this is glimpse of the future of the American political process.

A Threat To Religious Liberty for Some is a Threat To All

Religious liberty is at risk in the United States today.   Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on Thursday to explore the issue of the radicalization of Muslims here in the United States.  While this might appear to be a legitimate national security concern, Rep. King’s history and previous statements raise serious questions about his intent.

Civil rights groups, religious leaders, and other minority religious communities have expressed concerns about these hearings.  A prominent Baptist ethicist, Dr. David Gushee, wrote an op-ed piece in USA Today this week, voicing concern that “hearings on Muslims could harm us all.”  Gushee contends that King’s hearings “threaten the perceived legitimacy of any practice of Islam in the United States, therefore risking one of our most fundamental liberties — freedom of religion.”

Why do Gushee and others see a threat to religious liberty here?  Congressional hearings have two purposes.  First, televised hearings draw media attention to issues of interest to Congress and to the American public.  The McCarthy anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s, and the Watergate hearings of the 1970s are two of the best examples.  Televised hearings create a political opportunity to make a public point.  But, secondly, congressional hearings often precede legislation aimed at solving the problem spotlighted by the hearings.

Continue reading “A Threat To Religious Liberty for Some is a Threat To All”

The Church of the Future: Urban, Minority and Progressive

millenial_generation_onpageThe church of the future resides in an urban setting, consists of multiple minorities, and espouses progressive social values, according to two recently-released reports.

While most church futurists have focused on church models (i.e., house churches vs. megachurches) in their predictions of the shape of church in the next 50-years, the demographic forces shaping future churches are at work now on a global scale. The report of the Population Reference Bureau, which published its comprehensive “World Population Data Sheet” findings in October, 2009; and the Center for American Progress’s “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation” report contain valuable insights for church thinkers.

Here are some of the findings of the World Population Data Sheet:

1. The world’s population will reach 7-billion by 2011 or 2012. By 2050 10-billion people will occupy an increasingly crowded planet. We are adding approximately 1-billion people every 12-years.

2. By 2050, 90% of Americans will live in urban areas.

3. Most of the population growth in the US will come from immigrants already in the US, or those who will migrate to the US. The US population in 2050 will stand at 439-million, up 135-million from the 304-million today — an increase of almost 50%.

4. By 2050, India will lead the world population with almost 2-billion; China will have 1.4-billion people; and, the US will be the third most populous country in the world with 439-million.

5. No majority ethnicities will exist by 2050 in the United States.

6. In the 20th century, 90% of population growth came from less-developed countries. In the 21st century, virtually all global population growth will come from less-developed countries, with some more-developed country populations actually declining, or being bolstered by increased immigration.

Soong-Chan Rah’s new book, The Next Evangelicalism, points out that while church proponents decry the decline of the American church, it’s the white American church that is decline, while ethnic congregations are flourishing. Subtitled “Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity” Rah advocates a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church whose seeds are already beginning to bear fruit. In other words, the shift that will be realized 40-years from today has already begun in our society. But, because the dominant culture in American society is the white European culture, church scholars are culturally blind to the rise of minority, urban, and ethnic churches.

The report by the Center for American Progress gives additional credibility to the changing nature of the church. The Millennials, born 1978-2004, are an increasing force in American life and politics. The Millennial cohort will dwarf the size of the Baby Boomer generation, while actually bringing about changes in society that the Boomers abandoned after they matured. Sixty-four percent of Millennials agreed that “religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights.” Just 19 percent disagreed.

The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s are quickly fading, and a new generation that is more progressive in social views is assuming center stage. Millennials were a major force in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and by 2020 will comprise 40% of the entire American electorate.

Of course, world events such as the economy, war, natural disasters, and a host of other events could intervene and reshape the future that is evident now.  However, the trend toward multi-culturalism, urbanism, and changing social ideas upon us.  It remains to be seen exactly how these trends will influence and shape the church of the future.

Interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Part 2

imagesThis is Part 2 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. This week, The Family is  #5  in Amazon.com’s sales rankings.  If you’d like to catch up, Part 1 of the interview is here.  My review of The Family is at my blog, Amicus Dei.

The Family tells the story of a secretive quasi-evangelical organization, founded in the late 1930s, which has insinuated itself into the halls of power in Washington and other countries around the world.  In the U. S., the Family is the behind-the-scenes sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast each February in Washington, D. C..

The Family organization operates several residences, one of them “the house at C Street,” where several United States senators and congressmen live when in Washington, D. C..  Two Family members have recently been in the news for marital infidelity — Senator John Ensign of Arizona, and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Sharlet says The Family “is a story about two great spheres of belief, religion and politics, and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America.” — The Family, p.2

Interview with Jeff Sharlet, part 2:

CW:  You report that Doug Coe and others in the Family make repeated references to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and other totalitarian leaders as examples of the kind of effective leadership the Family aspires to.  Did this strike you as odd, and how do you account for the use of these ruthless dictators as role models for the Family?

JS:  Um, yes. And I said as much when I was spending time with them, then again during interviews with Family associates such as Senator Sam Brownback, Representative Frank Wolf, and former Bush White House special aide Doug Kuo. Kuo, whom I like a great deal, insists that Coe uses these killers simply as metaphors. To which the only response I can think of is, You can’t think of a better metaphor for Jesus than Hitler? I make clear in the book that Coe is not a neo-Nazi. Indeed, he cites fascists and communists and even Osama bin Laden. It’s not their ideology he admires, it’s their methods. The Family fetishizes strength. Or, as Coe put it in an interview with my colleague Tor Gjerstadt of the Norwegian Dagbladet (a large daily there), power.

CW:  Your book, The Family, weaves a tale of religious intrigue based on political power that sounds like the latest, far-fetched conspiracy theory.  How do you answer the critics who say that you see conspiracies where none exist?

JS:  First, by pointing out that I don’t see conspiracies. I don’t think the Family is a conspiracy. I’m not sure how I could have made my view any clearer than this, on page 7 of my introduction: “This so-called underground [their word, not mine] is not a conspiracy.”If that’s too vague, there’s always this, later in the book, referring to founder Abram Vereide: “Abram’s upper-crust faith was not a conspiracy.” And this, in response to current leader Doug Coe’s documented decision to “submerge” — his word, not mine — the profile of the organization: “The decision was not so much conspiratorial, as it seemed to those among Abram’s old-timers who responded with confusion, as ascetic, a humbling of powers.”

Is The Family secretive? Yes, by its own declaration. Does that make it a conspiracy? Not in any court of law I know. Rather, as I argue in the book, the Family represents a strand of religious activism that has clearly been influential among some of America’s most powerful Christians and yet which to date has never been subject to any kind of in-depth study. That’s a more modest claim than the critics’  tin-foil caricature, yes, but one that I think would withstand scrutiny if they bothered to review my book rather than their own assumptions about my political views.

CW:  What, in your opinion, are the most objectionable beliefs or practices of the Family?  On what do you base your evaluation of these beliefs and practices?  In other words, what is your particular background or experience that qualifies you to write a book like The Family?

JS:  Beliefs are a matter of conscience; but practices, especially those of the powerful, can be a matter of public concern. The Family has facilitated support for dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, Siad Barre, General Park, and even a Central American death squad leader convicted of torture in the U.S. This, to me, is objectionable, as it is to many Family members who learn about it. I’m inspired by the example, for instance, of the Rev. Ben Daniel, deeply involved as a young man. But he quit when he learned that the Family leaders he’d looked up to were using their access to the powerful to represent the interests of the most murderous elements from countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Or there’s Cliff Gosney, a longtime participant, a deeply Christian man, who quit when he realized that the Family was using him and the foreign leader for whom he was the Family’s point man, South Africa’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, for political gain rather than spiritual development. I’m concerned, too, by the practice of secrecy. “The more invisible you can make your organization,” Doug Coe has preached, “the more influence it will have.” He cites the mafia as a good example, and Family members like to refer to their movement as the “Christian mafia.” That’s just not a good model in a democracy like ours. I have the highest respect for citizens of all beliefs who make their arguments openly in the public square, fundamentalists included. I’ve been heartened by the support the book has received from self-professed fundamentalists who are as bothered by these anti-democratic practices as I am. We may not agree on much, these fundamentalists and me, but we agree that democracy depends on us engaging in our arguments in good faith, with plenty of sunlight.

As for my background, I’m not sure what you mean. You want my professional credentials? Or are you asking me for my religious beliefs? If it’s the former, I think they qualify me: I’ve been a working journalist for sixteen years, have written for a large number of mainstream national publications, have focused on religion for about 14 years, have taught graduate level religious studies at New York University and lectured at colleges, universities, and churches around the country, have been positively reviewed by both conservative and liberal critics, have won prizes and been a finalist for prizes, etc., etc. I’m proud of the fact that Ann Coulter wrote that I’m one of the stupidest journalists in America, and even prouder of the fact that she did so based on her own clumsy misreading of scripture.

But if it’s the latter — my beliefs — my first answer is, What does it matter? The facts are the facts. And then my second answer is contained within the last pages of the book, in which I write openly of my own beliefs, particularly my commitment to the Book of Exodus as inspiration for thinking about the role of faith in public life. I’m not a Christian, though half my family is. But I’ve written for Christian publications and published many Christian writers. I’ve been engaged in that conversation for a long time. I think it’s one of the most important conversations in America.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying I’m a citizen.

__________

Part 3 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet will appear on Thursday, July 16.  In Part 3, Sharlet comments on the continuing influence of the Family, and his thoughts on the future of the Family and evangelicalism.

54% of Weekly Church Attenders Believe Torture is OK

 A waterboarding table.  The victim's head goes down so that they experience a sense of drowning.
A waterboarding table. The victim's head goes down so that they experience a sense of drowning.

The Pew Forum offers a very disturbing view of regular church attenders with their latest report on torture opinions.  We might all be better off staying home on Sunday mornings if this is the best we can do.

When asked to respond to the statement, “Torture to gain important information from terrorists is justified…” here’s how weekly church-goers answered:

  • 16% said torture is justified “often;”
  • 38% said torture is justified “sometimes;”
  • 19% said torture is justified “rarely;” and finally,
  • 25% said torture is justified “never.”

Let me repeat this finding: 54% of weekly church attenders said that the use of torture is okay when used to gain important information from terrorists.  This position, of course, would be a violation of international law, the law of the United States of America, and the U.S. Military Field Manual, not to mention the law of love — love God, love your neighbor.

But, it only gets worse.  Only 42% of those who “seldom” or “never” attend church believe that torture is justified “often” or “sometimes.”  In other words, the non-church folks have a better, more humane ethic than church-goers.

In other words, non-church folks have a better, more humane ethic than church-goers.

I’m reminded of the legendary story of Vince Lombardi who, after his team lost a game, came into the locker room and announced that they were going back to the basics.  With that, Lombardi reportedly  held up a pigskin, and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

Maybe we need to do the same on Sunday mornings.  Maybe we need to hold up the New Testament and say, “This is the New Testament.  It contains the story of Jesus Christ, whose name we have taken.  Matthew quotes Jesus as saying ‘Turn the other cheek. Do not repay evil for evil.  Go the second mile.  Love your enemies.’ ”

Of course, the response we would hear is one I have heard, “But in the real world, that’s not possible.” And that, my friends, is what the incarnation of Christ is all about.  To show that this Kingdom of God stuff does indeed work in the real world.  May God have mercy on our souls for not being clear that we are following the Lord of Love, the Creator of the Universe, and not expedient political policy.