Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rep. David Price on Religion & Politics

While reading up on Religion and Politics, in preparation for a discussion I have been tasked to lead, I came across a wonderful exchange in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's website. A transcript for One Electorate Under God? A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics. Held almost five years ago but still rather timely, the panel included North Carolina Congressman David Price, Indiana Congressman Mark Souder, David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, Jr. It is an excellent conversation and I am struck by the intelligence and humility of Price's arguments. While I might not agree with everything he said (more on that later), I think it is worth sharing.
Good morning. This has been a productive discussion. I'm happy to be able to be a part of taking it to the next stage today. And I'm impressed with the turnout, with the diversity and interest of the group here, and I'm looking forward to the morning.

There's a basic assumption that underlies the exchange between Mark Souder and Mario Cuomo and the interlocutors (he is referring to the genesis of this panel, an exchange between the congressman and former New York governor). The basic assumption is that religious faith will and should shape political action. And there really isn't any serious dispute to that proposition, at least in my perception. Religion – our faith, our traditions – are central to the motivations that draw us into politics and central to the shape that our political advocacy assumes once we're in politics.

Now, beyond that basic proposition there are substantial differences, and I want to just highlight a few of those this morning. First, I want to address this leading question, which is at the heart of the Cuomo-Souder exchange, and that is not whether our religious faith should shape our political advocacy, but exactly when and how should it do so? When and how should we attempt to translate religiously grounded precepts into civil law, to be more specific?

Now, Governor Cuomo has a suggestion. He says that we should attempt to do this when those religious precepts connect with broader and more universal values. When should we not try? His answer is, when the religious precept is largely confined to a specific tradition or specific traditions and/or enacting it would violate the spirit if not the letter of the Establishment Clause. In my essay I suggested another condition: that our religiously grounded approval or disapproval of certain behaviors, when it comes to translations into civil law, needs to respect democratic values; that religiously inspired disapproval of certain behaviors, for example, shouldn't be translated into laws that violate basic democratic values such as civil liberty, nondiscrimination, and equal opportunity.

Now, you may have conditions of your own. Those are some suggestions. What I'm afraid is missing from Mark Souder's presentation (taken from a fundamentalist viewpoint) is any indication of where he would draw the line. Is there any area of religious belief and religious conviction that it's inappropriate to translate into civil law? Is there any example that can be given of an establishment of religion that would be inappropriate? I'm sure there is, but we do need to talk about that and talk about those limits, because those limits, in our republic, do exist and should exist.

Now, Mark and Roberto Suro, and other interlocutors in this discussion, bridle at the kind of limitations that I'm proposing and that Governor Cuomo is proposing. They don't necessarily tell us where they would draw the line in legislating religiously based precepts. They scoff at attempts to find common ground, dismissing such widely-shared beliefs as least common denominators or watered-down precepts. Well, I'd suggest to you that our founders, the founders of this country, would have been astounded at that notion.

My daughter, a few years ago, was asked to write an essay for her college application asking, "What's the most politically powerful idea of the 20th century?" And I've gotten a lot of mileage out of this – I actually thought she did a really good job – (laughter) – because what she wrote was, the most politically powerful idea of the 20th century is exactly the most politically powerful idea of the 18th century and the 19th century, namely the idea of the American founding: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the basic human values around which a society is to be organized. Wasn't that a good answer? And remember, the appeal was to nature and nature's God. The appeal was to universalistic values which were shared across traditions.

Wouldn't it come as news to Frederick Douglass, who appealed to precisely those universalistic values in making the case against slavery – wouldn't it come as news to him that that's a least common denominator, that it's watered down, that it's impotent? Wouldn't it come as news to Martin Luther King? Since when have these universal human values around which the American experiment has been organized represented some kind of pale reflection of the values we're committed to that give us no convincing basis for political action, or for that matter for political argument?

Now, a lot of this discussion does focus on the issue of abortion, and I would grant at the outset that abortion is a complicated borderline case. Some of the opposition to abortion is not necessarily based on distinctive theological doctrines. I would grant that. The essay that most directly addresses this is Robert George's essay on "Cuomological" fallacies in the book. (Laughter.) I've also observed, however, that very few people talk about, reason about, argue about what George calls "prenatal homicide" and "postnatal homicide" in equivalent terms (in fact, if he does this, he would be the first I've ever observed to do it). At the very least, they seem to always propose different punishments for the two.

Now, Governor Cuomo is saying that in his view, abortion is a sufficiently problematic issue, in terms of mainly proceeding from theologically grounded premises, that he prefers in this area not to translate convictions into civil law, including his own convictions, but to leave individual conscience free. Now, I suggest to you that that's a defensible position. It's not the only legitimate position. We can and we should debate this issue in broader terms. I would say, though, if we're going to do that, that neither side should treat theological assertions and theological beliefs as a conversation stopper. There needs to some engagement on broader grounds such as the presence of what we regard as life. And I would suggest to my friend Mark that, yes, that's a scientific issue; it also is a theological issue. There are many ways in which the abortion issue needs to be engaged, including competing personal liberties. So while I think Governor Cuomo is on solid ground in demurring on that issue, it's certainly not the only position that could be taken.

Secondly, I hope we can attend in this ongoing discussion to the peculiar phenomenon of competing agendas. If you haven't noticed, people of faith seem to have very different lists of what issues they think should be brought into the public arena with the benefit of religious conviction, the backing of religious conviction. Mark's list in his essay is abortion, same-sex relationships, gambling, pornography, evolution across species. Other people have other lists: questions of war and peace, capital punishment, world hunger, American hunger, poverty, inequalities and abuses of wealth and power, and on and on.

I think most of us would grant that religious faith can and should speak to this full gamut of issues. I assume we would also think that people of faith can disagree on these issues, that your argument is not predisposed by the agenda you latch onto, but that in religious terms we can have profound disagreements, for example, about the question of same-sex relationships that's currently before the Congress. The religious arguments don't all point in one direction.

But I think the fact that we seem so selective in the agendas we put forward ought to occasion some soul-searching. We need to be honest with ourselves and with each other that maybe the selection of an agenda is itself a matter of religious conviction, but maybe not entirely. Maybe there are other factors, other interests, some element of political comfort or discomfort, that are entering into that choice, leading us not only to 'lead with our strength,' you might say, but also to put some other issues on the back burner. If so, that's a matter of concern, and I think in this discussion it's a matter of honesty with ourselves and with each other as to how these agendas get formed and what we are willing to address.

Thirdly and finally, I do believe that there are some theologically grounded counsels of restraint that should inform this debate. I called it humility in my essay, picking up on Brent Walker's comment in the original discussion. But in any event, I'm talking – and I want to underscore this – I'm talking here not about some kind of secularly based view that religiously grounded convictions have no business in the public arena. That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying on the contrary that there are theological reasons for humility, for refusing to identify our own power, our own program – or anyone else's –with God's will.

I think those theological foundations are two-fold. The first is the voluntaristic character of religious obedience. This discussion goes, of course, way, way back, perhaps most famously Thomas Aquinas: is it the business of law to make men good? We know the answer to that is complicated. We also know ultimately that in Christian and Jewish teaching, goodness is the product of a clean heart, of a good will. There is not the slightest hint in the teachings of Jesus that goodness can be externally imposed. He taught by inspiration and example. Religious obedience is voluntary. We all know the old arguments saying you can't legislate morality. I don't accept that; I didn't accept it in the civil rights years and I don't accept it now. There are useful things that the law can do. There are times when widely shared values, many of them religiously grounded, should be translated into civil law. But we need to always have that sense, I believe, that ultimately religious faithfulness is not a matter of obeying civil law, or indeed of obeying a law of any sort. It's a matter of good will, good faith, and that creates an inherent limitation to whatever we attempt to do in politics and whatever we claim for politics.

And then finally, there is that matter of human sinfulness – not just that it's hard to understand what scripture dictates, not just that we're fallible, but that we're sinful. And goodness knows, there ought to be enough human history to convince us that it is a very, very dangerous thing for any group or any individual to claim the divine mantle, to identify his own program or policy or power with God's will. The American statesman who best understood this was Abraham Lincoln in that wonderful Second Inaugural. You'll notice in this volume many quotations of Abraham Lincoln, and of Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom made this a central part of their view, of their presentation to the American people, of the kind of role religious faith should play in politics: a counsel of humility, a warning based on religious faith regarding any attempt to institutionalize religious values in political life.

So there is a religious humility that our faith traditions counsel, grounded in awareness of human sinfulness and divine transcendence. That, I believe, should be central to this debate, as well as the conscientious effort to translate our deeply held values into public policy. The power of the Lincoln example is how he combined this humility on the one hand – this recognition that ultimate judgment belongs to God alone – with, on the other hand, the strength and the determination to pursue the right as he saw the right. It is a remarkable combination. It is absolutely, I think, integral to our religious traditions, almost miraculously embodied in that Second Inaugural, uttered while the war was still going on. That, I think, is a text in American history that should inspire us and warn us, providing a counsel of restraint, as we pursue this debate.

Thank you.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Let My People Go

One of my favorite things to do in Washington is attend presentations and panel discussions at think tanks. I get top notch continuing ed for nothing, hear leading political and social thinkers in person and feel really smart in the process. Best of all, I get to watch people. There are those who are present because they are students of the topic or experts themselves. There are retirees who appreciate the mental and social stimulation. There are interns and research assistants who sneak in for the free food. There are characters who manage to get their names into mailing lists for the free food. And there are those who come determined to hog the mike and pontificate as soon as the audience is invited to ask questions.

At a Brookings Institution event entitled Immigration, Politics and Local Responses, I was not disappointed. The presenter and panelists included top immigration researchers and a noted practitioner. I certainly learned a whole lot. And yes, there were those who came to talk. About themselves. But one bested them all.

She patiently bided her time, the entire hour and a half, legs crossed, left arm slung on the back rest and right hand propping up her chin. With her thick, luscious black hair, Frida Kahlo eyebrows, off the shoulder full skirted black dress (think Catherine Zeta-Jones in Zorro but without the rapier), black leather stiletto boots and black bangles, she was ready for the bespectacled gringo y gringas presenting their quantitative findings and analyses about her people. The floor was opened. She raised her bangled hand. She caressed the microphone.

Five minutes later we knew her story and her mission. She was born in Mexico, is highly educated, married an American and immigrated to the United States, all along struggling, always struggling. Six year ago, she had an epiphany that her job was to save her fellow Mexicans, especially the undocumented, get their documents. But then somehow, somewhere along her rocky path, she realized that it was all for naught because it has been so difficult, always difficult, oh so difficult. She now thinks Mexicans should be sent back to Mexico, that they shouldn't come here, that they should stop coming here, that all Mexicans should be kept in Mexico. It is all McDonald's fault.

The microphone was eventually freed as were the rest of us. But the woman had a point somewhere in her elocution. Why, in the first place, do Mexicans and other immigrants leave their families and homelands, sometimes even risk their lives, and come to the United States? As a panelist pointed out, people don't want to leave their families, homes and everything they know. They do so because they need to feed and house their loved ones. This simple fact has policy implications. Immigration policy certainly, but foreign policy as well.

If Mexico and other Latin, African and Asian countries were able to employ its citizens, provide them with a decent standard of living and ensure basic freedoms, I doubt that there would be as many of us foreign born folks here in America. If the United States and the rest of the developed world were able to support and encourage economic growth, prosperity and freedom among developing countries then the dreaded influx of strangers might be stemmed. But that's assuming that having us come is not a good thing.

And with the current global recession, this might be all moot. I should have gone for the mike .

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Republican Identity Politics

I am concerned about the RNC. Sincerely I am. Not because I agree with their leaders and policies but because I care about democracy. In order for democracy to function well, it needs various reasonable and sound voices informing and vying to influence citizens and their representatives. With a Democratic president and super majorities in both Houses of Congress, the RNC needs to regain its footing and get back into the fray. I suggest three things.

First, rediscover conservatism's core principles of limited government, fiscal restraint, unfettered capitalism and unabashed love for God and country. But create a platform that is relevant to the current time and spirit. Doing the latter does not necessarily mean compromising ideals. For instance, these extraordinary times demand an expansion of government. A necessary evil perhaps yet undeniable. However, this change does not have to be permanent. Legislators can agree to policies that extend government's reach with a guaranteed deadline. Another example is revisiting definitions of family as wider society begins to accept its various forms - straight, gay, single parent, extended, mixed race and multinational. Protecting all kinds of families does not diminish the idea of family. On the contrary, acknowledging what already exists in great numbers from big cities to small towns can only strengthen the nation.

Second, raise up leaders who think rationally and speak well reasoned arguments rather than react instinctively and spew vitriol. Identify women and men who truly want to serve people not only their ambitions - individuals with integrity. Unfortunately, those who have taken the reins care more about their future than the present realities of their constituents and fellow Americans who do not have the power, privilege and security they enjoy.

Finally, Republicans might want to try out bipartisanship and take the president's extended hand. This will prove to Americans that they do know people are hurting and that they are more concerned about finding a solution than doggedly clinging on to "principles." Moreover, they can take an active and vital role in diminishing the polarization that seeps beyond Washington and poisons our democracy.

Republicans are engaging in Identity Politics. Yes, Identity Politics. After all, they are the minority. But Identity Politics does not preclude participation and cooperation. If they are to remain relevant, the GOP needs to get it together.

Image from Applesauce.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Exporting Hate

Although I am solidly for the First Amendment and against prohibiting anyone from worshipping whomever one chooses and saying whatever one wants, I confess to applauding the Brits for banning hate baiting bigots from entering their shores. A friend forwarded a BBC News Online article about the America-hating, soldier-thrashing, and gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church mentioned in an earlier post.

Fred Phelps and his spawn Shirley Phelps-Roper were not allowed entry because the UK Border Agency opposes "extremism in all its forms." According to a spokesperson,
Both these individuals have engaged in unacceptable behavior by inciting hatred against a number of communities. We will continue to stop those who want to spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities from coming to our country. The exclusions policy is targeted at all those who seek to stir up tension and provoke others to violence regardless of their origins and beliefs.
The sociopathic father and daughter team planned on leading protests against the staging of "The Laramie Project" in Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, Hampshire.The play is about Matthew Shepard, a college student who was brutally tortured and left to die only because he happened to be gay.

Phelps-Roper warned the British that denying them passage would "bring great wrath upon your heads." She also taunted the authorities assuring them that other cult members will slither in undetected. "Unless they intend to begin checking the bare backsides of every person coming into that country to find that tattoo that says 'Property of WBC' - they will have no way of identifying who is from WBC."

Now fact of the matter is, freedom of speech in this country is subject to certain exceptions such as defamation or incitement to riot. However, an outright interdict on hate speech is rather controversial, subject to much heated debate and is not likely to pass anytime soon. In contrast,

Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India all have laws or have signed international conventions banning hate speech. Israel and France forbid the sale of Nazi items like swastikas and flags. It is a crime to deny the Holocaust in Canada, Germany and France.

as an article in the New York Times points out.

Having to live with people like the Westboro Phelps is the price we pay for a freedom we jealously protect. Thankfully, a great majority of us are not as hateful and deluded. Most of us stay clear of extremes and if anything, I sense that as a nation, we are tired of all the anger and hate. While a sad few cling on to worn arguments, burdensome ideologies and warped interpretations of religious texts, many are realizing that civilized discourse and respectful coexistence is possible. We simply need to ignore the fanatics and reactionaries screaming at the fringes.

For whatever it's worth, Westboro Baptist Church was sued for picketing the funeral of a fallen serviceman, lost and is liable for $5 million.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Religion in Politics

At a church forum on Ethics and Human Sexuality, I was asked if I thought religion should stay out of politics. Much as I wish religious zealots and organizations were barred from imposing their man made ideas and truisms on society, the reality is they can't and they shouldn't. The beauty of a democracy like ours is in its ability to absorb a wide range of opinions and interests. Individuals and groups are free to jostle for time and space in the public square to air their grievances or agendas with the hope of influencing others, particularly elected officials and other policymakers (who themselves bring their values and beliefs to the discourse), and ultimately determining laws, policies and institutions that regulate our lives. The strength of our democracy is in the possible consensus that comes out of the process. And if not consensus at least agreement among most. And at the very least, extremes are avoided. Most of the time.

However, a good question is whether politics should stay out of religion or not. Again, it can't be extracted from religion, that is, religious organizations. As with any other human collective, there is struggle for power and control within these groups. Concurrently, each one has to ensure its place and further its interests in wider society. An excellent example is the Anglican Communion and its figure head, Rowan Williams, whom we were discussing during the forum. For those familiar with the ongoing drama within this coalition of national churches, conservative forces from the global South are trying to establish dominance and wrestle control from progressive factions concentrated in North America and Europe. As the third largest Christian communion following the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, the outcome of this not so cosmic battle is of interest to many religious believers.

So Religion, that is, very human mortals and associations that argue from a "higher" authority, can not and should not be locked out of the commons. And politics can not be denied by the religious. Politics permeates society. The challenge, I think, is to have civilized discourse and fair policies and institutions guided by reason with the good of both the individual and society in mind.

Image by Jessica Honikman in Heeb Magazine.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

E Pluribus Unum

The Oscar Nominated Danish short film Grisen (The Pig) asks a simple question: should we adjust to newcomers, especially to those who look and live so differently from us, or should they adjust to us?

Asbjorn, an elderly tailor, checks himself into a hospital for a colonoscopy that ends up in surgery to remove polyps. Throughout his ordeal, he finds his only consolation in a cheesy albeit whimsical painting of a smiling pig hanging in his room. Silly as it may sound, he soon considers the pig his guardian angel who keeps him company and gives him courage and strength.

Upon waking up from surgery he is confronted by a few surprises. First, he might have cancer. Second, he now shares the room with a man constantly surrounded by loud family members speaking a language he recognizes but does not comprehend. And third, his solace - the pig - has been removed from the room.

He asks about the missing painting and tries to converse with his neighbor but does not get answers. It turns out that the picture has been removed as his roommate and the family are Muslim. Because of their religious beliefs, they find the porcine image offensive.

Still needing comfort, Asbjorn draws his own little pig on a pad and pins his illustration on the wall. Soon thereafter, the son of Aslam, the man lying a few feet away, rips the sketch off the wall, crumples the piece of paper, and tosses it into the waste bin. As can be expected, all hell breaks loose. Asbjorn contacts his lawyer-daughter, who rushes to her father's aid, confronts the son of Aslam, and threatens to sue the hospital for violating Asbjorn's rights.

"What about our rights?" the son of Aslam shouts.

In Western countries that are seeing increasing numbers of immigrants with darker complexions, exotic manners and strange beliefs, and in the United States whose population is a third non-White, who adjusts to whom? Should Latinos and Asians who come to America learn English? Or should the majority learn Spanish? Should newcomers learn to behave like "Americans?" Or should most people let go of their cherished ways and traditions? Whose rights prevail?

Or, is it an either/or proposition? The United States was founded by and thrives because of immigrants. Yet opposition to newly arrived strangers is a recurring theme in history. Racial and class conflict constantly bubble up to this very day. Fact is, the nation's founding principles of freedom, justice and equality along with its burgeoning diversity will continue to draw foreigners to its shores. Principles and Diversity can also guide us all from conflict to tolerance. E pluribus unum.

As for Asbjorn and Aslam, turns out that Aslam was blind all along and Asbjorn agreed to be Aslam's eyes while they share the room.

Image: Japanese American children and their classmates say the Pledge of Allegiance in San Francisco, CA. Raphael Weill Public School during World War II.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Comment on Hope for the Future

Responding to the last post, a friend emailed:
What I like about these protesters is not such much their lack of homophobia, or their active support of their gay relatives and friends, but it's their real understanding that Jesus loved us all and supported us all. Whenever something awful is going on in the world, Stephen Gerth reminds us that God loves us and we love God. These people get that -- and from people like that, eventually we will lose bigotry.
Stephen Gerth is rector of Saint Mary's Times Square.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Hope for the Future

Buried under the Daschle Drama, Stimulus Package Spectacle and Insatiable In Vitro Baby-Mama Insanity of the past week was a piece of good news from America's heartland that speaks of a better future. It tells the story of growing tolerance and engagement among the next generation.

Last Thursday, members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church - the fringe group that interrupts funerals of fallen service women and men - protested outside Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas, because Shawnee's last prom king was openly gay. While the kids who voted for Matt Pope obviously had no problem with his sexual orientation, the self-righteous fundamentalists were apparently very much discomfited. Shirley Phelps-Roper said "Those children elected a prom king, queen, thing ...They showed that they don't have a clue about their duty to obey the standards of God." Westboro members believe that god hates America and is punishing the country and its people for tolerating homosexuality.

The evangelical lunatics however were outnumbered by hundreds of students, parents and other good citizens of Prairie Village, intent on showing their profound disagreement with hate-mongering and bigotry. The counter demonstrators filled up three corners of an intersection, while the cultists were confined to the fourth. Students held signs reading, “God is love,” “God does not hate” and “No hate in P.V.”

“Everyone is equal, whether you’re gay or straight,” exclaimed a 16 year old junior who helped organize the rally. His mother showed up to support her son and the students. A 20 year old college student also drove in to participate with a placard that read, “Jesus wouldn’t hate. Why should you?”A 43 year old area resident, held up a sign she had made and sighed, “I’m just tired of hate." Another woman whose daughter attends the high school, waved a board that read, “SM mom for love, not hate.” “I think it’s important for parents and other Prairie Village people to take a stand against hate,” she said.

The controversial prom king also returned from college to be part of the movement."I've been targeted for almost my entire life," he shared. "I've been out since 14 and being really, really active in school, in the community, I've definitely been targeted a lot, but I'm just taking it with a grain of salt, and they're going to think what they're going to think, do what they want to do, and we're just going to do our thing and keep our spirits high."

This little tale from small town America challenges those who continue to cling on to intolerance, hate and bigotry, and deny equal rights to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals. There is no doubt that they are not on the right side of history. Or the Right side for that matter.

Image from

Monday, February 02, 2009

American Family

It's so heartening to know that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue houses a family of regular, down to earth people. The Washington Post's vignette of the extended first family is one a lot of us can recognize: hardworking folk who hold on to each other, supporting and protecting their own, only wanting what's best for the children.

It is the story of my own immigrant clan, the Sorianos, which has in the last half century, reunited mother, father, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces, struggled and achieved the American dream, birthed a new generation, and along the way embraced Heltons, Dilays, Pascuals, Beddingfields, Douglases, Babiczes, Engs and Youngs as well as a phalanx of trusted friends and old compatriots. Like Marian Robinson, Maria Luz - nanay, mother, lola, mamaw, grandma - travels across the country to watch over grandchildren and great grandchildren, at 89 years old. It is the story of African, Asian, Eastern European, Latino and Middle Eastern families that have sacrificed much to give their children all they can muster.

The Robinson-Obama family story is also that of two women who regularly take their daughter to visit two sets of grandparents, dozens of aunts and uncles and countless cousins who remain in a working class community up North. It is the story of lesbians and gays who form extended families of their own as blood relatives are unable to accept another kind of family. It is the story of single moms, strong grandmothers and selfless neighbors who circle around their young and bravely provide day in and day out.

It is the story of family. One many of us share and many others still hope to tell one day. The pregnant teenager who chose to keep her child, the battered woman finally free with children in tow, the refugee lost in abundance, the gay young man who crossed into our borders hoping for acceptance and a family of his own.

Indeed, the family is society's bedrock. And family comes in many forms.

Image from ACLU.