Faith and Politics
I'll never forget the time I was handed a Voting Guide when I walked into church on Sunday morning.
It was 2008 and I was a 23-year-old single woman, attending a large Southern Baptist congregation in Florida for the very first time.
The high school football coach I'd just written a profile on for the front page of the sports section had recommended I attend his church. He was, I'd ascertained, a good man and a genuine Christian. Plus, he and all the other football coaches from the area attended church here. There was the potential of additional scoops, plus an opportunity to make friends - or more - with some of the younger assistant coaches.
It was an impressive campus, all palm trees and white arches. We sang some familiar music, and to be honest, I don't even remember the sermon.
I remember the seemingly harmless Voters Guide. It was 2008. On the second page, listed in alphabetical order, was the man who would become our nation's first black president.
It could've been a simple typo, an auto-correct. But as we were all told to bow our heads and pray for awhile to end abortion, I figured out this little Voters Guide might have a slight political agenda. And perhaps that little agenda might have contributed to them not bothering to spell the Democratic candidate's name correctly.
Much as I would have loved going to the church of the football coaches, I couldn't go back after that.
In Tuesday’s elections, most voters didn’t see their candidates as leaders. Americans are cynical about politics, exhibited by the broad-based discontent with both parties, the president, and Congress. Nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t even vote — turnout this year was likely lower as a percentage of the electorate than any time since 1942. Negative campaign ads reached depressing lows, directly appealing to Americans’ fears and anxieties, and most people don’t think the results of the election will change political gridlock in Washington. This election campaign was a loss for the common good.
We seem to have become cynically resigned to politicians always blaming the other party for every problem instead of solving them and alleged political leaders pursuing a 24/7, 52-week strategy of winning instead of governing. There are no more off election years to make society better; every day and every decision is just a part of the next campaign.
The campaigns and the media coverage were all about polls, attacks, and sound bites. The Republican campaign message was simply: vote against President Obama. And the Democrats deserted him, wouldn’t discuss either his accomplishments or his failures, and had no message of their own that got through. The campaign wasn’t about the most important issues facing the country. Here’s what we should be talking about.
Conservative Christians are taking credit for the Republican sweep of the U.S. Senate and GOP victories farther down the ticket in Nov. 4's midterm elections, and they predict they will prevail again in 2016.
“This is not only the largest single constituency in the electorate, but it is larger than the African-American vote, the Hispanic vote, the union vote, and the gay vote combined,” Ralph Reed, one of the most recognized figures in conservative Christian politics, said Nov. 5 in a celebratory post-election press conference.
Reed, who chairs the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which mobilizes conservative Christian voters across the nation, said politicians in both parties ignore this constituency “at their own peril.”
Reed pointed to a poll commissioned by his group that shows that conservative Christians — Protestants and Catholics — made up 32 percent of the Republican electorate, and that they overwhelmingly voted (86 percent) for Republicans Nov. 4. These voters contributed 52 percent of the total votes received by Republicans, according to the Public Opinion Strategies survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
But some experts pointed out that little has changed in the religious electoral landscape.
On Nov. 6, Wheaton, “the Harvard of Christian colleges,” is hosting a forum on the death penalty. But it’s not just any forum. It has potential to reshape the way evangelicals in America think about the topic.
In addition to Wheaton’s own ethicist Vincent Bacote and Mercer University scholar David Gushee, the panelists include Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Also on the panel is Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who witnessed executions. And finally, there is Gabriel Salguero, who heads up the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and is also a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, a Christian powerhouse representing 45,000 congregations from over 40 denominations.
This is big.
I’ll admit, part of me wished this monumental death penalty event was happening at my alma mater, Eastern University. After all, Eastern is well-known for its social justice edge, its progressive faculty — folks like Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. One Eastern alum, death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson, was recently called “America’s young Nelson Mandela” by Desmond Tutu and interviewed in Time magazine and The New York Times.
After I pouted a little while, I realized the significance of this forum.
Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old suffering with an aggressive brain tumor, died Nov. 1— as she said she would.
Sean Crowley, spokesman for the non-profit advocacy organization Compassion & Choices, confirmed Maynard’s death Nov. 2.
“She died peacefully on Nov. 1 in her Portland home, surrounded by family and friends,” according to a statement from Compassion & Choices, which first publicized Maynard’s controversial plan to take control of her death.
The statement said Maynard suffered “increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms.” She chose to take the “aid-in-dying medication she received months ago.”
She captivated millions via social media by announcing her plan to end her life around Nov. 1 by taking a lethal prescription provided to her by a doctor under Oregon’s death-with-dignity law.
The mayor of Houston on Wednesday withdrew the subpoenas of sermons from five pastors who opposed an ordinance banning discrimination against LGBT people.
Filed two weeks ago, the subpoenas outraged many conservative Christians as an affront to religious freedom.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker said Oct. 29 that as important as it is to protect the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), the subpoenas became a distraction. They were aimed at pastors active in the movement to overturn HERO through a citywide vote.
Parker, Houston’s first openly gay mayor, said she made the decision after meeting with Houston pastors and then with national Christian leaders, including National Clergy Council President Rob Schenck.
“They came without political agendas, without hate in their hearts and without any desire to debate the merits of HERO,” Parker said. “They simply wanted to express their passionate and very sincere concerns about the subpoenas.”
Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, called the subpoenas a “gross abuse of power.”
I believe that Nelson Mandela was the greatest political leader of the 20th century — because of his 27 years of spiritual formation in prison. Visiting Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island was the most emotional moment of my visit to South Africa this past summer. How could such a small place so change the world?
I found this quote by Mandela when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on my last day in South Africa. It’s about how “the cell” drove him much deeper into his interior life. I think his words are a good reflection for us as we choose our elected leaders next week:
“The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”
Let’s reflect on that quote, both personally as leaders in the faith, and politically as we confront a very depressing election.
Know yourself. That is such different advice from what our candidates and other leaders get from their advisors and pollsters and boards of directors who want them to know their audience, their constituency, their potential voters or consumers — but not so much themselves. Leaders are often being told to “be who they need you to be,” and seldom are they invited to go deeper into themselves.
Right-wing Christians and the politicians who pander to them like to say that the United States was, is and always should be a “Christian nation.”
Why, then, are they so obsessed about money and political power and so determined to make people afraid?
After all, Jesus spent an estimated two-thirds of his teaching time on wealth and power. His message was clear, if radical: Give wealth away rather than build bigger barns. Submit to others rather than seek power. Love your enemies rather than smite them.
Moreover, his one new commandment was equally clear: Don’t be afraid. Live without fear. Live in trust and confidence. Live in harmony. Make peace. But whatever happens, don’t be afraid.
Instead of preaching a gospel of self-sacrifice and generosity, right-wing Christians support the mega-wealthy who yearn to stifle democracy and move us further toward plutocracy: Keep the riffraff from voting. Keep alternative views out. Live in the bubble of like-minded people, not the marketplace of ideas and diversity where Jesus lived.
Religious groups are battling the state of California over whether employee health insurance plans require them to pay for abortions and some forms of contraception that some find immoral.
So is the state forcing churches to pay for abortions? It depends on who you ask.
The issue gained traction after Michelle Rouillard, director of the California Department of Managed Health Care, sent a letter to Anthem Blue Cross and several other insurance firms in August warning providers that state law requires insurers to not deny woman abortions. “Thus, all health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally,” she wrote.
Rouillard wrote that state law provides an exemption for religious institutions.
“Although health plans are required to cover legal abortions, no individual health care provider, religiously sponsored health carrier, or health care facility may be required by law or contract in any circumstance to participate in the provision of or payment for a specific service if they object to doing so for reason of conscience or religion,” she wrote.
“No person may be discriminated against in employment or professional privileges because of such objection.”
However, two legal groups have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, alleging the California rule puts faith-based organizations in a position to violate their conscience.
A while back, a blog post speaking into the pain of miscarriage was making its rounds on the Internet. Having never miscarried (that I know of), or grieved the death of any child, I asked my friend who lost her two-month-old son whether she felt highlighting the pain of miscarriage diminishes the story of her own tragedy. She replied:
“It is not very helpful to compare pain.”
But how often do we do just that? There is a phenomenon of what I call, “First-World-Problem-Shaming,” where we make people feel bad about their anxieties because somewhere in the world children are starving. I don’t know about you, but in general, I feel WORSE after being reminded of greater problems in the world in response to my petty issues, not better. We compare our pains, assigning degrees of severity attached to the problem, deem one pain more worthy of compassion than the other, and manage one another’s grief as if it can be contained by our metrics. Yet everything we know about grief is that it defies our expectations, bowling us over unsuspectingly or releasing us with surprising turns. Everyone grieves in their own way.
This dynamic carries over to the way we do justice.
At certain key points in history, often sparked by dramatic and sometimes violent events, oppressed and marginalized people stand up and declare, We’re fed up and we’re not going to take it any more.
Those liberating acts of defiance—which are usually met with brutal attempts at suppression—are often just a moment of protest, an expression of the usually hidden anguish and rage that soon fades back into the daily resentments of injustice.
But sometimes those moments become a movement, one that ignites not only hope but real, lasting change.