Religion & Politics
Lately there have been a number of local events highlighting the current intermingling of religion (especially fundamentalist Christianity) and politics, the separation of church and state and how these issues affect our lives. I have been meaning to blog on this for awhile but have been busy with both the holidays and a case of bronchitis. I attend as many of these events as I can and would like to share my impressions.
On August 29th there was a debate between Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values and Michelle Goldberg of Salon.com at Xavier University’s Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. Ms. Goldberg, who is also an adjunct professor at the graduate school of journalism at New York University, has written a new book titled Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. The evening’s topic was “The Role of Religion in Politics: Views from the Right and Left.” The event was mobbed and many people participated in the Q&A session following their exchange. I certainly felt that Ms. Goldberg got the better of Mr. Burress but you can listen for yourself at DEFCON’s website.
On Monday September 18th I attended a panel discussion at Wise Temple titled “Pluralism vs. Puritanism: Fighting for America’s Soul.” The keynote speaker was Rabbi James Rudin, the author of The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plan for the Rest of Us. For more than thirty years, Rabbi Rudin has been deeply involved in efforts to foster understanding between people of different faiths. I have read his book and it’s excellent. I was at the program (it was also mobbed) and found it most interesting. Here is a report on the program by Wise Temple’s Political Advocacy Committee:
Pluralism vs. Puritanism: Fighting for America’s Soul
by Pam Kuby
Before the Bill of Rights and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibiting state-sponsored religion, Article VI of the Constitution set forth the “no religious test” clause. But the current movement of Christian extremists to obtain political power in the United States seeks to create a theocracy. This movement was the focus of the September 18 program attended by nearly 400 people at Wise Temple Political Advocacy Committeeâ€™s “Pluralism vs Puritanism: Fighting For America’s Soul.” The featured speaker was Rabbi James Rudin with respondents The Reverend Robert L Rademaker and Sister Alice Gerdeman. The moderator was Amy Litwin.
Rabbi Rudin, who has devoted more than thirty five years to fostering interreligious dialogue and understanding through the American Jewish Committee, touched on some of the points of his current book, “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.” He spoke about his term of service as an Air Force Chaplain in Japan and Korea where he was moved by the wonderful spirit of interreligious cooperation that he found in Asia. And during his lengthy term as the Director of the Interreligious Affairs Department of the American Jewish Committee, he remained very optimistic about the separation of church and state in America. But he is not optimistic now. “A specter is haunting America,” he said. “Religion has become an ideology.”
This ideology is espoused by a group Rudin refers to as Christocrats. They represent a small proportion of the evangelical community, and they are seeking to forge a theocracy making the United States a legally mandated Christian nation. Quoting the late Saul Alinsky, a renowned community organizer, Rudin noted that it takes only 2% of society to make a change, especially when the other 98% are passive and indifferent.
Rudin said, “We live together as owners of the American mansion, and now, every room is under attack by the Christocrats.” They attack existing structures and try to replace them with their own. In the bedroom they want to regulate public and private sexual behavior; in the hospital room they want to outlaw abortion and stem cell research; in the schoolroom they want to banish Darwinism; in the library, they want to decide what books can be on the shelves and what magazines can be read; in the public room, they want to display the Ten Commandments. “As a Jew, I love the Ten Commandments, ” Rudin said, “But I don’t want to see them in courtrooms or public buildings.”
Rudin reminded the audience of the different eras in the nation’s history when tense battles were pitched over church-state separation. He noted the fierce debate between fellow Virginians and Anglicans Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Henry wanted a church tax in Virginia with money going to then-dominant Anglican Church. Jefferson, backed by Madison, opposed this proposal and was successful, but by a 47-32 vote. If Henry had won, we could now have taxes supporting specific religions. Further, Rudin refuted the idea that references to the Bible, Christianity, and God’s law had been omitted from the Constitution by oversight or sloppiness. Again, bitter debate preceded the outcome. North and South, ministers and lay people were up against each other, but the final document represents no oversight. The founding fathers were clear in their intentional omission.
Rudin refutes the charge that he is overreacting to a natural swing in history towards religion. “We have cast and recast and shaped and reshaped what is the relationship between church and state. And now we are at war.” The Christian right started mobilizing in 1979-80 with Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and will continue working long after the 2008 election, according to Rudin. Pat Robertson and Falwell have virtual empires with their own universities and law school. Regent University in Virginia founded by ordained Baptist minister Robertson is turning out lawyers and journalists and directors whose mission is to change the rooms in the mansion. Ralph Reed, the first director of the Christian Coalition has said that he likes to come in under the radar-in local elections for school boards and city councils. While people are focusing on a showy Presidential race, Rudin says, the Christocrats are gaining power.
Rudin ended his talk noting that his sternest critics had been his “Jewish brothers and sisters” who do not want to offend the political group that is so supportive of Israel. But Rudin offers a caution: “The Jews are not a one issue people and we will not stand idly by.”
The Reverend Robert L Rademaker, rector of The Church of Ascension and Holy Trinity, called for the need to eschew labels and to get beyond the superficial ways we identify and then stereotype each other. He called himself “Lib Con,” a Republican who is Liberal on many issues. As a former Army Chaplain and the son and grandson of servicemen, he had become alarmed by the Patriot Act and what he saw as infringements upon American liberties. When approached by two Jewish women in the Wyoming community who wanted to start a dialogue about the separation of church and state, he agreed; they became the nucleus of Under One Tent, an intentional group of clergy and other Ohio citizens dedicated to the idea that an informed and engaged public is the only defense against extremism. A student of history, Rademaker said: People can no longer choose to remain unaware of what’s going on around them. There need to be illumination, dialogue, and action.
Sister Alice Gerdeman, an activist and educator well known in the Cincinnati community for her work around housing, hunger, immigration, and globalization, invited the audience to consider the goals of institutions in our society: the religious, the political, the religious in the political. The goal of religion, she said is to find God, and we usually do this in a congregation. Our political goal is to form a community which brings different people together around the common good with protection for the weakest and freedom for the individual to be who s/he is. “This model does not work well in a theocracy,” she said.
In this time of important elections, Sister Alice said that she would like to put a copy of Article VI of the Constitution in every room. No religious test for anyone seeking any office. “The most frightening person to me is the person who has all the answers,” she said. “If there was ever a time when we need clear-thinking people in is now–locally, nationally, and internationally.”
The program was presented by the Isaac M. Wise Political Advocacy Committee in co sponsorship with the American Jewish Committee, Adath Israel Congregation, Beth Adam Congregation, National Conference for Community and Justice of Greater Cincinnati, National Council of Jewish Women, The Interfaith Alliance, Under One Tent, and Woman’s City Club. It was made possible in part from a grant from the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fund.
Here is an article on the event from our local Jewish newspaper, The American Israelite. I did not see other coverage in the local media.
The Rev. Russell Johnson, chairman of the conservative-leaning Ohio Restoration Project, whose goals are to pray, serve and engage the culture. The Rev. Eric Williams, representing We Believe Ohio, a liberal -to-moderate interfaith clergy group whose mission statement says “yes to justice for all” and “no to prosperity for only a few.” Williams and other clergy have filed IRS complaints against Johnson, alleging he improperly used his church and affiliated organizations to promote Blackwell’s campaign. Johnson denies this. Other panelists…[were]… the Rev. John Putka, political scientist at the University of Dayton, and Andrew Cayton, distinguished professor of history at Miami University.
The next local event, Partisan Pulpits: Is your Freedom of Religious Choice Under Attack?, will be held at Congregation Beth Adam on October 15th. Speakers will be Rev. Cedric Harmon from Americans United and tax law expert Marcus Owens. I hope to attend it and report back. I will post more on this topic later.