Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama And the Religion Problem in America

To be honest, I wasn't going to post anything for a few days. I was ready to take some much needed time to catch up on chores. As the old Joan Rivers joke goes, I was ready to call the cops to report a robbery because they dust for fingerprints.

My house is a serious allergy trap right now. So, it's either dust or report the burglary and let the police do it.

But this post from Chap Petersen, the Virginia senator from the 34th District, caught my eye as absolutely needing to be read by others.

Chap writes about "Controversial Topic #2, Race. Controversial Topic 1, was guns. I guess Chap likes to live more dangerously than other politicians, who would actually take cover to avoid controversy, not deliberately write about it.

In Controversy 2, Chap, of course, is weighing in on the flap over Barack Obama's minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose inflammatory words, captured on video, finally hit the major media and prompted a very eloquent speech from Obama distancing himself from his pastor's words.

If anybody has a right to weigh in on Obama's membership in a controversial church, it's Chap Petersen.

Some may recall that Chap is a member of Truro Church, one of the churches that broke away from the U.S. Episcopal Church due to the ordination of a gay bishop. Truro voted to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a mission initiative of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, under Bishop Peter Akinola, who opposes homosexuality.

Chap's church membership, in it's day, created a minor Virginia stir. However, Chap maintained that his membership in Truro predated the anti-gay controversy. In fact, Truro is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Fairfax. Both George Washington and George Mason served on its vestry. Even more important, on a personal level, Petersen's family have been long time members. Truro was the church he was baptized in and married in. Sound familiar here?

Therefore, if anybody has a right to weigh in on the difficult choices a politician has to make and the intersection of private religion and public policy, Chap does. And he does so in a thoughtful, intelligent, wise and compassionate post.

Here's Chaps assessment of Obama's speech, explaining his relationship with his pastor and Trinity United Church of Christ.
It was a great speech. But I'm not sure it was the right one.

I will say, first of all, that my sympathies are firmly with Obama. The reasons why people attend a certain church or synagogue are much deeper and more important than their political aspirations. (I know this, believe me). Your fellow members are your "brothers and sisters" in a common purpose. Politics is trivial.

I will say, secondly, that personally I have never felt more welcomed as a Christian than in my travels and visits to African-American congregations in Virginia. For example, I consider First Baptist of Vienna and Rev. Kenny Smith my "home church" when I'm in Vienna. I highly doubt that any parishioner of Wright's (white or black) felt threatened by these incendiary comments.

Having said that, Obama needs to do something more. We are aware of his gifts as an intellectual. We are also aware of his speaking gifts. What we need for him to do (and say) is something that breaks through the cone of political correctness and actually shows some muscle.

Sometimes you must say to a friend: "I love you. But stop acting like an idiot."

Obama can say the first. Can he manage the second?
Meanwhile, there's an intersting article by Frank Schaeffer, on Huffington Post, pointing out the hypocrisy on the right over reaction to Obama's minister.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of the late conservative, fundamentalist theologian and founder of L'Abri, a mission in Switzerland, Francis Schaeffer. Americans are more familiar with the flamboyant evangelical ministers, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. But Francis Schaeffer, a strict Calvinist, was the ideas man for them. His theological writings gave their movement its ideological underpinnings.

Frank Schaeffer, the son, rebelled against the religion and its dogmatism and has been a critic of the Religious Right for years. He's published novels satirizing his family's dogmatic faith. Here's what he has to say about this whole kerfuflle.

When Senator Obama's preacher thundered about racism and injustice Obama suffered smear-by-association. But when my late father -- Religious Right leader Francis Schaeffer -- denounced America and even called for the violent overthrow of the US government, he was invited to lunch with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, Sr.

Every Sunday thousands of right wing white preachers (following in my father's footsteps) rail against America's sins from tens of thousands of pulpits. They tell us that America is complicit in the "murder of the unborn," has become "Sodom" by coddling gays, and that our public schools are sinful places full of evolutionists and sex educators hell-bent on corrupting children. They say, as my dad often did, that we are, "under the judgment of God." They call America evil and warn of immanent destruction. By comparison Obama's minister's shouted "controversial" comments were mild. All he said was that God should damn America for our racism and violence and that no one had ever used the N-word about Hillary Clinton.

Dad and I were amongst the founders of the Religious right. In the 1970s and 1980s, while Dad and I crisscrossed America denouncing our nation's sins instead of getting in trouble we became darlings of the Republican Party. (This was while I was my father's sidekick before I dropped out of the evangelical movement altogether.) We were rewarded for our "stand" by people such as Congressman Jack Kemp, the Fords, Reagan and the Bush family. The top Republican leadership depended on preachers and agitators like us to energize their rank and file. No one called us un-American.
He also has more to say in a follow up post.

I guess all Christians must be disqualified from running for president. How can we trust any candidate that follows a violent Jewish-supremacist like Jesus? He called a woman of another race a dog just for talking to him! He said his enemies would all burn in a lake of fire...

There may be a few secularists out there who have never been to old-time church but the rest of us know that hyperbole, overstatement and ranting and raving (from the left or right) is a time honored style of preaching in just about every denomination -- other than in particularly boring Unitarian churches.

Religious biblical overstatement started with Jesus, actually with God the Father, who tended to do things like kill the whole of humankind to make a point to Noah. Most churchgoing Christians know how to take this stuff in the Bible, or from our preachers. That's why most Christians don't lop off their arms and penises when they feel lust. That's why even though Jesus said he only came to save Jews some of us "filthy dogs" (as Jesus called non-Jews) still believe in him. That is why reasonable people of good will who hear a black (or white) pastor saying "God damn America" in the context of a moralistic tirade know they're watching theater.

Besides being terribly funny, Frank Schaeffer is on to something.

In fact, my first thought, upon hearing Wright's sermon, was to simply roll my eyes and think "oh God, another hellfire Christian preacher.

Hmmm, maybe we all could become Buddhists. I don't think they do hellfire and hyperbole.


Dan said...

It all brings to mind that old line: The only thing wrong with Christianity is Christians.

Catzmaw said...

Good post. I remember when I saw the clips my first reaction was "what's the big deal. It's just a lot of hyperbole." It was a little excessive, but nothing as bad as what I've seen from the right.

Hank Bostwick said...

Top notch post. Incredibly good insight. I'm still absorbing it all.

Thanks for putting the Wright-story in context.

As the husband of someone employed by the US Episcopal Church, I am reading the Chap excerpts closely. We can politely disagree with Chap over his stance on homosexuality, his followers' misinterpretation of the alleged Pauline prohibition against same-sex relationships, etc., yet still affirm his efforts at explaining the Obama-Wright controversy in the context. Americans of all creeds have to reconcile some of their political beliefs with the statements of their candidates and the laws of their societies (I'm digressing, sorry).

The Buddhist point is interesting. I'm sure passionate Buddhists vehemently oppose our military policies, etc.

The mine field that is part and parcel of the American religious landscape can be difficult for all of us to navigate.

Thank you for giving me some new insight from a quarter of my own religious tradition that I normally write-off as intolerant and schismatic.

As you can tell from this comment, my thoughts on this important post are jumbled a bit.

Thanks for challenging me to see things from a different perspective.

Happy Easter!