God in Wisconsin: Scott Walker's Misguided 'Obedience'
As the stand off between workers and Governor Scott Walker continues in Wisconsin, religious leaders have weighed in on the dispute. Roman Catholic bishops came out on the side of the unions, urging the governor to protect worker's rights. Many mainline pastors, including Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and American Baptists have written letters, issued statements, and preached sermons supporting labor, unions, and collective bargaining. In Madison, interfaith prayers and proclamations have upheld and encouraged the teachers, police, firefighters, and other public employees in their resistance to the governor's plan to break their union.
This is an impressive religious group by any standards -- particularly so in Wisconsin where traditional faith still plays an important role in the life of a large number of its citizens. Wisconsin is almost evenly split between the three largest American religious groups: 29 percent are Roman Catholics; 24 percent are evangelical Protestants; and 23 percent are mainline Protestants.
Yet none of these prayers or sermons has swayed Scott Walker. He has steadfastly stayed on his original course, unfazed by the full weight of Roman Catholic authority or the mainline social justice tradition pressing upon him and urging him toward compromise and change.
Scott Walker is neither Roman Catholic nor a mainline churchgoer. The son of a Baptist pastor, born in Colorado Springs, the heartland of the Religious Right, Walker is a member of Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, a non-denominational evangelical church. Meadowbrook's statement of faith, a fairly typical boilerplate of conservative evangelical theology, includes beliefs in biblical inerrancy, sin, exclusive salvation through Christ, and eternal damnation.
In other words, Scott Walker does not give a rip about pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church, any Lutheran, Episcopal, or Methodist bishop, or the Protestant social justice pastors. These religious authorities, steeped in centuries of theology and Christian ethics mean absolutely nothing in Scott Walker's world. His spiritual universe is that of 20th century fundamentalism, in its softer evangelical form, a vision that emphasizes "me and Jesus" and personal salvation.
Before he was elected governor, Walker shared his testimony with a group of Christian businessmen. In it, he said that his religious life was expressed in the words of an old hymn, "Trust and Obey." From childhood onward, Walker recounted how God specifically directed his life, how he had learned to trust that direction, and how he sought to obey Christ in all things and at all times. He related the biblical story of the apostle Peter in a boat, whom Jesus directed to walk on the water. At first, Peter followed Jesus and did, indeed, walk upon water. But Peter became fearful and sank. According to Walker, this is a parable of the whole Christian life. If you "fail to trust and obey," Walker said, "You sink." Doubt is not allowed. Only obedience.
This is the same sort of evangelical spirituality that shaped George W. Bush -- and led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Once you know God's direction, no change is allowed. Doubt opens the door to failure. Obeying Christ's plan is the only option. In this theological universe, hard-headedness is a virtue, compromise is the work of the devil, and anything that works to accomplish God's plan is considered ethically justifiable.
In other words, the Catholic bishops and mainline pastors -- as well as the Quakers, Jews, Buddhists, and others -- who have been trying to convince the governor to shift course are pretty well preaching in the wind. Other than David Koch (fake or otherwise), Walker is listening to One Person and One Person only: Jesus speaking directly to him. God, evidently, has directed him on his current path. Scott's just trusting and obeying. He bears no responsibility other than that.
Unlike the Roman Catholics and traditional Protestants who have spoken on behalf of the laborers, Walker has no spiritual "check" on him, no authority other than the ones he hears in his own head, and no moral culpability in this situation. He's the good Christian soldier, just following God's lead.
And this is why Scott Walker's religion is actually dangerous in the public square. Because it lacks the ability to compromise, it is profoundly anti-democratic. Many faith traditions actually possess deep spiritual resources that allow them to participate in pluralistic, democratic, and creative political change. But those sort of traditions tend emphasize the love of God and neighbor over strict obedience to an unyielding God. Despite anything Scott Walker might say, the confident dictum of the old hymn, "Trust and Obey" is not the best way to govern a state.
Diana Butler Bass blogs at Christianity for the Rest of Us and The Huffington Post, and is the author of A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. This article is cross-posted from Beliefnet.