Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Appalled at the Bigotry and Narrow-mindedness

Robert Jamieson, a columnist for the local Seattle PI, posted an op-ed piece recently which lumped three different churches together in an astonishing exhibit of ignorance and a frightening display of prejudice.

One of Jamieson's critiques was well taken: he correctly identifies the folks out of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas as "psychotic". In reality, they should be classified alongside the KKK. (And the media should do a better job of noting that this church claims the name "Baptist" without the slightest sanction from any actual Baptist denomination.)

It was therefore astonishing when Jamieson lumped two popular local churches, Mars Hill and Cedar Park Assembly of God, in with this bizarre, right-wing hate group. Mars Hill came in for criticism because they hosted a speaker named Tedd Tripp, an advocate of corporal punishment; Cedar Park (and their pastor, Joe Fuiten) was taken to task for opposing gay marriage. These positions earned Mars Hill and Cedar Park the epithets of "evangelical extremism," "zealots", "right-leaning theocracy", "biblical arrogance", and "kookiness".

Now, I should start off by saying that I disagree with at least some of what these churches teach: I've been to services at both, and each is considerably more conservative on these issues (and others) than I am. There are absolutely things that I'd be happy to argue about with both Joe Fuiten (a somewhat distant relation of mine) and Mark Driscoll. I don't typically share Joe's unapologetic conservative viewpoint, and some of Mark Driscoll's ideas are, in fact, just a bit strange.

But the political and cultural views these two churches espouse, however unpopular in today's culture, were every bit a part of mainstream Christian values, and indeed, mainstream American society, until very, very recently. When I was born in 1968, only a tiny fringe on the very far left believed that homosexuality was a legitimate lifestyle, or that children were too fragile to be subjected to physical discipline. None of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence would have objected to the idea that children should be spanked. None of the authors of our Constitution would have found anything objectionable in the idea that marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman. And yet somehow, nobody accuses Thomas Jefferson of founding a theocracy, or George Washington of right-wing kookiness.

It may be pointed out that many of these same notables were also OK with owning slaves, and I'll grant that this is a permanent stain (but for the blood of Christ) on every Christian who so argued and so believed. But it was also the "zealots" of "evangelical extremism" who fought to outlaw the slave trade in England, to abolish slavery in the United States, and to remove poverty and degradation throughout the US. George Marsden records of the 19th century American evangelicals, the forerunners of today's fundamentalists, that "their record of Christian social service, in an era when social reform was not popular, was as impressive as that of almost any group in the country."

As a result, it frankly goes beyond worrisome and moves into the realm of frightening when mainstream columnists start equating these traditional opinions with "Islamic fundamentalism" and right-wing hate groups. Apart from the sheer bizarreness of this claim, I think it's significantly problematic for two reasons.

The first is that when we marginalize these traditional positions, we separate ourselves from the great tradition of liberation out of which modern society has emerged, and we deprive ourselves of the very resources on which we depend for our great freedoms. "Liberation", of course, is the great mythology of modern society, the overarching meta-narrative which provides our default interpretation of every event and social movement. And like every cultural mythology, it needs to meet a certain baselines of accuracy to provide convincing interpretations. Constitutional monarchy really was an advance over absolute monarchy, and so likewise democracy. Women should have been granted the vote long before they were, and it was an appalling betrayal of our political ideals that America was able to live so long as "a house divided, half slave and half free". But this very tradition of liberation was founded on "the laws of nature and of nature's God," in Thomas Jefferson's phrase. Slavery was wrong in the 19th century, and segregation was wrong in the 20th, because these practices violated the imago dei. It's the divine imperative that we treat every human being with love and respect because we can see God reflected in every human being. But this same moral tradition that silently undergirds our mythology of liberation has other elements which our modern society would just as soon not hear. The same account of creation which provides the only real rationale for human rights, establishes certain other creational norms around the roles of male and female, and it's these creational norms to which Joe Fuiten appeals when he says that "homosexuality is a sin" and that "a sin ought not to be given social sanction or social blessing".

As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man (a book to which I seem to return, again and again):

[These] 'ideologies' all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity.

And I might add, if I believe the great tradition of human morality when it tells me that I should love my neighbor as myself, I should believe it when it adds that there's one way to love my wife and a very different way to love my friends.

The second reason I find Jamieson's piece so disturbing is that it seems to reflect a larger cultural movement which objects to any sort of public religion on principle. One of the comments on Jamieson's post (#556610) said:

I am mortally tired of being accosted in parking lots, in my home, and in the media with prosyletizing "Christians" peddling their own favorite version of how I should "believe" and how I will go to hell if I don't comply with their beliefs. I have no issue with people quietly living according to their own religious beliefs but I have a major issue with this kind of invasive and destruction intrusion into the lives of other people, assaulting their personal religious beliefs and behaviors. A true "Christian" engages in actions of a benevolent nature focusing on the provision of meeting the physical needs of those who are in dire straits...working to serve others in a way that provides a positive example of "Christian" behaviors. That so many choose to spend their time castigating others and attempting to "spread the word", about the "right way to believe" and the dire consequences of not complying with the beliefs of their sect, is absolutely contrary to any historical Christian foundation. Christianity is not a religious belief system for the sake of religion...it is the integrity and kindness demonstrated when one leads their life by emulating the encompassing love of fellow man.

I hear this claim so often, and it underlies so much of what we hear in the media, that I think it can be taken as the accepted, conventional wisdom. Now, I'm aware that it's not entirely clear how religious positions should be argued within a public sphere that is officially neutral when it comes to matters of religion; my friend Nick Adams just wrote a whole book on Habermas' (only partially successful) attempts to provide such a framework. But I do know that any position – like Jamieson's, or that reflected in this comment – which holds that religions should speak only when they can offer opinions already blessed by the reigning cultural consensus, should be absolutely unacceptable to any serious adherent of any serious religion. Religious speech necessarily claims to concern the nature of reality itself, and the insistence that religion should remain a purely private matter is a betrayal of this fundamental claim.

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