The Common Good

'Religion Everywhere, But None to Drink': God at the Aspen Ideas Festival (Part II)

Three distinctive views about people of religious faith became apparent at this summer's Aspen Ideas Festival:

  1. People of faith, regardless of their religion, are special and we should foster the best in the faithful because even though WE aren't very religious they are important because of their large and increasing numbers;
  2. Religious folk are either irrelevant because they're wrong, or dangerous because they think they're right. So let's ignore them or limit their access to power and influence; and
  3. Tell me again why religion is important? Religious people are neither worth worrying about nor galvanizing as far as we can see.

With so many issues at Aspen intersecting with religiosity, these views and the lack of sophisticated religious reflection were noteworthy (that hasn't been the case in years past).

There weren't many speakers at Aspen this year that seemed to despair of America -- not even environmentalist Bill McKibben (a writer for Sojourners) who continues to offer hope that we can avoid our world's environmental demise. Many seemed to say "the American spirit will win in the end" with as much hope as they could muster. One thesis erupting posits that political parties and religious affiliations have become more akin to one's individual ethnic identity. Thus, departing from the "party line" becomes a loss of face and identity. It's not something you're willing to let go of so easily. One can see how ethnic and political loyalties are both powerfully moving and troubling for many Americans to encounter in one another. They can be empowering to one's self-identity, as well as potentially polarizing among Americans.

The argument that independents have much sway in Washington was given credence when news commentator David Brooks casually dropped the following: "I talk to Obama just about every day." Hold it. Did Brooks say he talked with Obama nearly every day, or did he mean Obama's people? I'm pretty sure he said Obama. Gasps and murmurs followed. Brooks then noted that what's missing in our political landscape is not the "conservatives like limited government" movement, nor the "liberals look to government for equality" movement. Rather, the "limited government is meant to increase social mobility" movement (Hamilton, Clay, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt) is absent or anemic in America today.

Strategist and social scientist Richard Florida (Flight of the Creative Class and The Great Reset) reminded attendees that churches are vital for "life satisfaction." Namely, as upper-middle-class workers have much more flexibility in deciding where they work because of technology, geographic location ironically becomes even more important. So I asked Florida, "If the big three drivers of future U.S. growth are tolerance, talent, and technology as you've demonstrated, how does this relate to churches and Christianity in America?" He responded that he had recently spoken at the Q conference in Chicago (as has Sojourners' CEO Jim Wallis). Florida said that although he grew up Catholic, he saw at the Q conference an intriguing post-modern Christianity that is attentive to many new facets of American life and culture. He was blown away. He was both analytical and hopeful about new roles for churches, Protestant and Catholic. I wished I could have handed him a book by Brian McLaren or Jim Wallis just then, but didn't have one on me.

My favorite one-liner at Aspen was a retort to the familiar condescending refrain often spoken from finger-wagging business leaders to non-profit managers and educators: "You wouldn't run a business that way, would you?" Upon hearing this refrain from one panelist, a successful businessman and the new owner of Newsweek magazine, Sidney Harman stood up and said, "Oh yes they have been run that way; businesses have been run like that [poorly] more than a few times." It seems we're not THAT different, non-profits and for-profits. It's just that most people were betting that their local symphony, homeless shelter, or struggling local school was going to go belly-up before Lehman Brothers or General Motors.

Immigration was also on the agenda. Alan Greenspan told us at lunch that 11 million undocumented workers in the United States are NOT a drag on our national economy -- quite the opposite in fact. Conservative columnist Mike Gerson proffered that any political party seen as anti-immigrant will not be successful ultimately. Superstar authors Tom Friedman and Dov Seidman challenged the audience to demand sustainable values over situational values from their government, business, and non-profit leaders.

And one evening -- in a barely lit tavern forum where David Boies and Ted Olson were moving beyond their past opposition in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case to join together in testing the constitutionality of California's Prop 8 -- I gave my seat to an elderly woman walking toward me as no other seats were available. As she sat down, I realized it was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was later re-seated closer to the front after staff recognized her.

My Aspen Ideas Festival 2010 big billboard summary:

Sky is not falling; not blue either. Solve problems via developing trust infrastructure; depart crusty ideology to avoid failed economies and states.

From a believer's perspective, however, it was also:

"Religion, religion everywhere but none to drink."

Rob Wilson-Black is a senior staffer at Sojourners. A scholar of American religious history and long-time higher education senior administrator, Rob is a speaker and author of a forthcoming book on religion and education in America.

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