A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Monday, November 29, 2004

If one wants to understand why it seems as if religion has changed in this country, has been captured by the right, a number of issues would need to be examined. But this chart summarizes well one of the factors: the decline of the mainline and the growth of evangelical protestant groups. Of course what would be interesting is to pair this chart with the number of Americans who have ceased to identify with a religion all together. I suspect you'd find the numbers rise as religion is largely understood to be under the province of a certain conservative agenda.

One reason which has been given for such a situation is that people desire certainty. As Wesley Blog writes "People want absolutes and they want to hear leaders who speak authoritatively." A recent piece on how evangelical churches are growing while the mainline are shrinking in New Hamphsire hit upon the same theme. But what if the world is constituted in such a way as to prevents us from having such certainty? Is religion doing people a favor by giving them what is not rightfully had?

There was some flap over the women's division of the Episcopal Church, specifically the content of their website. And because tactics change little it should not be surprising that the right has also been looking at the Presbyterian Women's Ministry website only to discover that it is "out of line with the Bible and with the Confessions of the PCUSA." Deborah Milam Berkley, who pinned this piece happens to be the wife of Jim Berkley, head of Presbyterians for Renewal and the person who brought up the charges against Jane Spahr for her blessing of a same sex union.

And now for some good news pieces. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has called for conservatives opposed to homosexuality to stop using inflammatory words against gay and lesbians. I don't think it will change the rhetoric but William's leadership on this issue is still important. The Dutch Reformed church of South Africa apologizes for it's treatment of gay and lesbians. It's one of my hopes that such a thing will start taking place in this country. And Progressive Christian has been wrestling with a number of important questions from historical critical scholarship of the Bible to evangelism. A new site for me to add to the blogroll.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Wesley Blog recently responded to my piece on Rev. Beth Stroud, a United Methodist pastor who is facing a church trial because she is an open lesbian. A number of issues were raised but I thought I'd focus on the crux of the matter. Should she receive censure by a church jury? We both agree that the General Conference is clear in it's rejection of gay and lesbian ordained leadership. And there is no question about her sexual orientation either. So for a jury to not censure her would be to reject the position of the national body. Is this legitimate?

If it's in a jury's power to render such a verdict, then they must be excercising a power which the denomination has given it. So it's not a case of being in violation of the requirements of such a body. But it still is going against the democratic decisions which were made at General Conference. This makes me hesitant to be sure. But what if these decisions were themselves immoral? If so, the nature of obligation to such decisions are at least called into question. Why would they be immoral?

They would be immoral to the degree that they make gay and lesbian members of the church into second class citizens. To the degree that they rob a congregation of a much beloved pastor. I know my bias as a congregationalist is showing. To the degree that they fail to evaluate the nature of individual relationships as opposed to debates on sexual labels. To the degree that the church fails to build up and support loving, committed, mutual relationships because they don't follow patterns set up in the past. To the degree that such decisions send the message that certain people are not wanted in the church.

Do I hope that a jury does not follow the decisions of the General Conference in such an instance? Clearly this issue has been a source of pain and hostilities in the denomination. An innocent verdict would bring up these issues again in a manner which has torn people apart. And this is not a good thing. But I don't think I can endorse a peace, a sort of lack of conflict that fails to address such a fundamental wrong. A peace which would sacrafice this minister's work and ministry and which is secured by continuing to exclude folks from the church is no peace at all.

My hope is that such trials would become a thing of the past. Trials are not a place, for either side, to work over these issues. I suppose that makes me a supporter of a local option. I think if there is a desire for a denomination which can include folks from across the spectrum, such an option needs to be more closely examined. But for now I'll make a plug for the Beth Stroud Legal Defense Fund, which is working to defray the personal costs of this trial. If you want to help out send by a check to the First United Methodist Church of Germantown. Please make sure to indicate “Beth Stroud Legal Fund.” on the check. FUMCOG 6023 Germantown Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19144

Friday, November 26, 2004

Presbyterian Church USA minister, Jane Spahr, is facing charges by her presbytery because she was involved in the blessing of a gay marriage of two men who have spent the last twenty years together. The two men have been active with a group Spahr is the director of That All May Freely Serve, which works for the inclusion of gay and lesbians in the full life and ministry of the Presbyterian church. She has chosen to not plead guilty to the charges so that a church trial will ensue. As she notes:

“If this helps people see LGBT people as persons, that we do make commitments, that we do have dreams, then I’m grateful,” Spahr said of the charge. “If this gives our denomination an opportunity to be in conversation about healthy marriage or healthy relationships and what they might look like, then I’m grateful.”

I'd like to think this would be the result. I commend her courage in doing the right thing, to honor love and committment. But my fear is that a church trial sends the opposite message: that the Presbyterian church is not a safe place to be if one is gay or lesbian. But a defense fund has been established to defray the legal costs necessary to defend the Rev. Spahr through trial. Anyone wishing to contribute to the defense is invited to send checks to: That All May Freely Serve, P.O. Box 3707, San Rafael California 94912.

And a United Methodist minister Rev.Irene Elizabeth "Beth" Stroud, is facing a church trial because she announced to her congregation that she is a lesbian who is in a committed relationship with her partner. Given the actions of the recent methodist general conference, it's hard to imagine how she will be allowed to keep her ordination in the denomination. I'm thinking there ought to be some sort of site, or group which works to support folks like these two pastors who are targeted within the mainline.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

While this is a Christmas piece, somehow it seemed appropriate for Thanksgiving as well. Enjoy the holiday!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I've been out of town over this last weekend, so I apologize for the absence of new posts. Last time I put out a challenge to find one conservative who says that it is important to listen and learn from liberals even while the reverse has been a major theme in the reporting over religion and this election. I think this could qualify. It's an interview of Max Lucado by beliefnet. He says "I wish there could be some way that blue states could kind of intermingle with the red states. And then vice-versa..there’s not that dialogue taking place right now."

There's a generosity of spirit in the piece even if we are worlds apart in terms of religious commitments. Also I appreciated a number of recent comments on this blog. For one, I was able to discover several sites that I wasn't aware of before.

Sonafide.com whose most recent piece on how the image of Jesus is being transformed by the religious right is a must read:

Christ has..replaced by an imposter that cares more about retaining American might than loving one's enemies. The imposter does not pray, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Rather, he prays, "Father, please protect me as I open up a righteous can of whoop ass on those Arabs."

Arbitrary Marks is written by a grad student in philosophy. If you go to her site you'll find a number of thoughtful pieces on a range of topics from faith based iniatives to gay marriage. And the concern for being able to reach across divides is evident throughout the site. As she writes about the cultural and religious divisions in this country: Maybe I'm an idealist, a bad Foucauldian who would like to see power displaced in favor of dialogue

Also wanted to highlight a few other items. One of the conservative religious locals that I tend to frequent is the Wesley Blog, a United Methodist site. He's one of the only evangelical blogs that I know of, who is willing to engage us liberals as fellow Christians who happen to disagree, as opposed to apostates who must be driven from the church. That and he linked me. Also it's been a good day for music for me, with U2's release of their new album: How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. If there's such a thing as progressive Christian rock, this seems like the best candidate out there.

And a prominent liberal protestant theologian recently passed away at the age of 85, Langdon Gilkey. His book Out of the Whirlwind helped to clarify for me a number of the issues which are at stake in the affirmation of God today. In his career he negotiated the intersections of ethics, philosophy, the sciences, and the traumatic events of the 20th century in working out questions of religious faith. As he wrote: The question for our age may well become, not will religion survive, as much as will we survive and with what sort of religion, a creative or demonic one?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Terry Mattingly highlights one liberal journalist's reflections on this election. It's in the form of a confession: "The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible. ... My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist" This is the challenge for all of us, to begin to connect with and understand the values of the other. It's a credit to this journalist's liberalism that he sees this as a problem which ought to be overcome.

But I should note: such a process will not work if it's rooted in a one way exchange. The desire to learn and to be open to each other, even to the point of transformation works to the degree that both sides are committed to this process and it's end. It cannot be the result of victors imposing the conditions of living together, that is the victor wins and it's up to us on the losing side who needs to modify our beliefs and activities in deference to the victor. This journalist's tone is the one all sides need to be working with: the problem is I've yet to see a single conservative echoe the same sentiments.

So here's my challenge to anyone reading the site. I'd like to find one article anywhere where a conservative says: we need to understand the other, whether it's liberal religionists, gay and lesbians, atheists or other folks voted for Kerry. I just want one piece by one conservative who suggests that there is something of value in the 47% of Americans who voted for John Kerry that is worthy of understanding, that needs to be taken seriously. I've seen articles on our elitism, on our insincerity when it comes to matters of religion, but nothing of wanting to learn from us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

In response to a number of articles dealing with understanding conservative evangelicals, I wrote this response. I work with a UCC/Disciples campus ministry and doing the basic outreach had a chance to talk with a Southern Baptist campus minister. Now here's two ministries which are on different ends of the spectrum. One of the wierdest aspects of this conversation was this:

He kept on assuming values that I do not hold to such as relativism. Why? Because our campus ministry is open to gay and lesbians. But it seemed beyond the imagination to believe that such a stance was not based on the refusal to make moral judgments...rather they were in fact expressions of moral evaluation. He was shocked to learn that college students actually attend our ministry, because he believed that no college student could be liberal and still go to church. He wasn't aware of our doctrine, but homosexuality was enough of a divide to insure that he would never work with us in the future.

I learned some things, and certainly learning needs to go happen for those of us on the left end of things, but I suppose because we lost the election all the articles (and confessions) are about *our* lack of understanding. But in my experience it cuts both ways. Many evangelicals do not understand liberal protestants, don't particularily care to actually. Don't understand gay and lesbians. If this was a call for mutual understanding, great. But one sided calls are not likely to get the same reception.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Another item I've noticed in the campaign aftermath. There is this tendency for those on the right to give the democrats electoral advice. And not surprising this advice boils down to: copy the GOP's program, especially its social conservativism. One example is John Leo from US News who accuses the democrats of contempt for religious folks. Why is disagreement always called contempt? And what of us religious voters who are on the liberal end of things?

In this piece Leo pretends we don't exist even though a few weeks earlier he was showing his own version of contempt for mainline protestant churches:

Efforts of the woeful mainline churches are better seen as classic knee-jerk leftism, an expression of hard-core loathing for the United States. The mainline churches believe they still stand for high moral purpose in politics. They don't

Leo, if you'd take your own advice and show some level of respect for religious denominations, perhaps you'd have more standing to make your claim. But you don't respect religious voters. You respect those religious who agree with you and share a certain conservative politics. Which is all fine, but please don't claim to speak for all religion.

Diane Knippers at the Institute of Religion and Democracy does a similar move but within one piece. She counsels the democrats on how they need to be a big tent party which includes religious voters. And then a paragraph later she tells us not to pay attention to mainline protestants. So if one is mainline, not evangelical, one automatically becomes a religious voter that doesn't count as one. Which is odd, because if the mainline was so irrelevant why does the IRD spend so much time trying to silence liberals and certain groups within these denominations?

On a side note, Chuck Currie recounts an interesting experience with an IRD representative. Liberal Christian groups look at the electoral results and discover that not all value voters were folks on the religious right. And for some alarming news Presbyterian Church USA congregations and their headquarters have recently been threatened with arson attacks.

And this weekend I didn't have a chance to post. Instead I gave a paper at Building Bridges, a philosophy conference held at my college. It sought to draw from the work of George Herbert Mead in tackling how religious communities could allow for increasing diversity and the development of a particular openness to the other. Given the times we live in, this might be appear to be an impossible ideal.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Just to let you know, the fight in the Episcopal Church is not over with, as the IRD is now seeking the resignation of Rev. Margaret Rose of the Women's Division in the Episcopal Church for the posting of the goddess liturgy on the church's website. Blogopotamus! has a way for folks to e-mail their support for Rev. Rose. I think some permanent organization needs to come together which can provide support for folks under attack. Any ideas on how that might work is welcomed.

I haven't had much time to pull together a piece on the Democrats, religion and this election, given the uproar over at the Episcopal Church. But suffice it to say, the media coverage over the elections has been a bit painful to read. Some examples include

Village Voice: "Christians are stronger than ever, and whether it's true or not, the spin will be that they played a key role in building the Bush base." Of course those of us Christians who did not support Bush are not part of the picture.

Bloomberg: "Rove, Bush's Campaign `Architect,' Cultivated Christian Base" Again, no mention of us liberal religious folks anywhere in this piece. Whatever happened to the term religious right? Why can't that term, instead of Christian (as if such folks spoke for the whole of the religion), be used?

Here's one proposal which might make a positive impact on the way this story is worked out in the future. Please do not mistake Christian for the religious right in this country. A whole slew of recent articles do this. It confirms in people's minds that religion is the sole province of the right, a great source of power, while ignoring liberal religious folks.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

I don't always have good news to report on the state of the church, but a number of events have transpired which make me hopeful. Charles Bennison, the Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania has rejected efforts to have the two priests involved in a controversial goddess liturgy punished or removed. He pointed out that the IRD's goal has been "to intimidate people in our church who would exercise theological imaginations, who would think out of the box.. We want a church where people can fail and be forgiven rather than a church where no one takes risks." His affirmation of this ideal is important. And given the array of forces working against it, this ideal must be tended to and defended.

The session of a Presbyterian church in California passed a resolution which spoke out against the 11 state constitutional amendments which banned gay marriage. The statement identifies the central problem with such efforts. "Our nation becomes weaker whenever any of us promotes fear of the stranger as a way to increase our own power." When religion is used to cross divides, to enact neighbor love it does quite a different thing then what people saw this last election. The statement goes on to "affirm the power of God's unquenchable love to break down the walls of prejudice and transform human hearts, and we rededicate ourselves to continue the struggle to break down those walls and promote human transformation." An important task for all of us.

Recently a Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky had a hopeful event as Muslim and Jewish teenagers performed musically together, modeling what they hope will be a peaceful future in the Middle East. The article is worth a read as it details the discussions and common efforts over the last few years ing bringing different communities together to work for peace which culiminated in this recent interfaith musical event. If you want to make a difference in this The Cathedral Heritage Foundation is accepting donations to help defray the cost of bringing the musicians to Louisville. Donors should make out checks to the foundation but clearly marked for the effort. They can be mailed to: 429 West Muhammad Ali Blvd., Louisville, KY 40202

Monday, November 08, 2004

Well the IRD was successful in it's mission. It was able to create the sort of pressure for punitive action that has led to Rev. William Melnyk's resignation as priest in his Pennsylvanian parish. The Philadelphia Inquirer pointed to pressure from "national Christian groups and Internet bloggers" but as Blogopotamus! has pointed out, the start of this storm was the IRD.

But the fact that it led to resignations and punishments is due to the silence of progressive Episcopal groups and the local bishop Charles Bennison. Since the IRD's campaign against liberals in the mainline will continue, some thought needs to be given on how to respond more appropriately, in a way which protects folks, not leaving them out to dry. There ought to be groups willing to come out in support of the targets of the right in the church, or this scenario will simply repeat itself.

One of the interesting things about the IRD and conservative groups in the mainline is that their tactics don't change when dealing with the various denominations they are seeking to silence or take over. One key area has been to take over the boards of the denominations. In the Presbyterian Church, we get this from Presbyterians for Renewal: "is this not a good time, then, to look long and hard at the funding, the composition, and the utility of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, arguably one of our most theologically unbalanced groups?" From the Methodists the IRD has it's sights on the General Board for Church and Society which they claim is controlled by the "far left".

Both groups represent protestant liberal views on the social and economic problems which plague this nation. I hope that liberals take note, whether they are religious or not, on what role this could play in terms of shaping our nations' political debate. Most evangelical groups take a definite conservative stance on most issues of the day. The goal of some on the right, is to convince the country that any expression of religion in this country is always conservative. When there are mainline organizations that raise issues like poverty and war from a liberal religious perspective, the right's ownership of religion in our nation's discourse is threatened. Some of the power the right has is their percieved monopoly over religion.

These mainline social witness groups are key for democrats who are trying to figure out a way to connect faith and progressive politics. And it's a threat to the right, thus the efforts to shut down the voice of the mainline. Such mainline organizations are able to respond to questions of war, poverty, and economic injustice in a way which reflects moral concerns and language. They are in a good position to begin the process of widening our sense of morality so that it encompasses all of our corporate life together in society and in the life of congregations. That's why secular liberals have a stake on what happens to the battles in the mainline.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

I wanted to respond to Karen at Heretic's Corner on the controversial liturgy which produced a stir in the Episcopal Church. I suspect my last post sounded like an endorsement of the liturgy, something which is not neccessarily the case. But while the liturgy could be used in a pagan context the biblical imagery and themes certainly could work in several christian contexts. But whether we would ever want to use such a service or not, my objection to this episode is twofold. It's one thing to not approve of the liturgy as well as to have removed it from the Episcopal Church's website. But it's another thing to launch the serious charge of idolatry against the Episcopal Church and the 2 priests who wrote the service.

I also object to the campaign which has sought to punish, if not remove the 2 episcopal priests. Going after folks in a way which attacks their ministry is destructive. It also has a chilling effect on other folks who are the theological edge of the church. This campaign was instituted by some folks at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and they're working to find any way to silence or punish liberals within the church. It's discouraging when liberal folks from Bennison to the Every Voice Network nod to these efforts. It doesn't mean endorsing what one cannot endorse, but it does mean preventing punitive attacks against people which narrows the religious possibilities within the Episcopal Church.

Friday, November 05, 2004

A number of thoughts and issues I'd like to work out but it will probably take a number of days to find the words and time to post on them, especially as they pertain to the election. But there was a controversy which erupted during this last week in the Episcopal Church and it was over a liturgy which used goddess language and it's posting on the website of the Women's Division of the church. The response of the right was quick, furious and over the top, accusing the Episcopal Church of promoting idol worship

How was this idol worship? The feminine language, lifted from the Bible, "The Queen of Heaven" in particular, are subject to idol polemic throughout the Old Testament. But in the liturgy these names are recast. Instead of refering to foreign gods, they become recast as feminine images of God. Given this how can one read this as a call to "worship pagan deities"? Isn't there a difference between: believing that certain feminine images are distinct deities versus believing that certain feminine images can be used to refer to the one God?

I wonder if there wasn't a distinction, which would have been helpful for Christianity Today and other's who issued the charge of idol worship. The distinction between the words which we use in worship and God. Our words are not God, they may point us in this direction but they can't be collapsed together. And yet people spoke as if there was a christian deity and a pagan deity and a muslim one as well. A committment to monotheism would suggest that there is no such thing as a "Christian God" or a "Muslim God"...there is just God and the ways that particular religious communities have sought to interact with such a reality. And we can disagree on what is the most appropriate language, but that's what this is about, not about different deities.

But the sad part of the story was the effort to go after the two Episcopalian priests from Pennsylvania who were the source of the liturgy: Rev. Glyn Lorraine Ruppe Melnyk, and her husband Rev.Bill Melnyk. Apparently they were also involved with a local druidic society and calls for investigation against these two folks were taken up by their bishop Charles Bennison who is regarded as a liberal within the Episcopal Church. The investigation could lead to some sort of church discipline, I'm not sure but within days the Philadelphia Inquirer had an article about the 2 minister's resgination from that society and an open letter to Bennison confessing their sins in this affair. Does the letter have a feel of something coerced?

I repent of and recant without qualification anything and everything I may have said or done which is found to be in conflict with the Baptismal Covenant, and the historical Creeds of the Church

I suppose it's hard for someone outside of these events to know, but given the vigorous defense these two folks were just recently giving over their activities, to have this letter immediately come out with the claims it makes (even thanking the right wing blogs for pointing out their errors) makes me wonder. I wonder about a church which could force people into this position? Are the concerns of the institution trumping conscience? Is our religion taken to be the object of devotion so that any other expression of faith must be at odds (as opposed to seeing worship as that which points us to God)?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Karl Rove did it. He was able to coble together a slight majority in this country by appeals to the base and in this particular election one of the most important components of that base was the evangelical protestant community. I don't have any criticism of Kerry and the moblization of the left in this country was the most impressive I've ever seen. That's probably why I had some level of optimism going into this election. But the problem is that evangelical protestants are so large a voting block that surmounting it in a national election is going to be an a daunting task for democrats in many states.

An example was in Ohio, whose anti-gay marriage amendment won by a lopsided margin. According to NBC news 25% of Ohio voters were evangelicals, the top issue in this and other midwest states was "moral values". Even though these regions, including Ohio had been economically devastated, the "values" issues put Bush over the top in Ohio and I'm assuming these dynamics were at work in places like Missouri and West Virginia. Using the anti-gay issue in a number of states was a calculation that paid dividends for the Bush campaign and that's a sad statement of where we are at this time in our country's history.

As Max Blumenthal noted: the focus needs to be in addressing the rise of the evangelical right. The need he says is "to strengthen coalitions with mainline Catholic and Protestant churches as well as liberal faith-based groups." I agree but this needs to be a long term process and sometimes odd issues like the fight over the mainline has political ramifications that I don't think most in the Democratic Party is aware of. So new thinking is needed. In finding ways to strengthen a liberal religious voice. And there must be a way to expand our moral language so that the war, poverty, and other issues are seen as moral ones.

Blumenthall continues "And the religious Left, if there is one, must work to build a political apparatus to match the muscle of their adversaries" Of course one of the problems which GetReligion has noted, is that we don't have the numbers. Or the resources. I was impressed by the moblization and the hard work of the religious left in this election cycle but we can't at this moment deliver the votes. Or even shape the debate in a substantive way. That needs to change. I think the decline in the mainline denominations has made this job much harder. Some look to picking off evangelical voters, but I think this election will show that they were overwhelmingly behind Bush.

I think that if we look to Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other voters you'll see support for Kerry. A religious left needs to find a way to network, work with, incorporate a number of religious communities that are on the outs in Bush's America. The religious left organizationally is a movement of primarily mainline christian folks on the left. But I don't think that's going to be enough if there's going to be a different religious voice which affects the public discussion. This sort of work is a long term project, not something which pays off immediately in this next election.But we need to be thinking with an eye to the long term.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Sorry I've been away from the blog. In the last few days I was visiting some friends in Minneapolis. But since we're on the eve of the election I thought I'd give one last post on why John Kerry deserveS to be elected tomorrow.

*In foreign policy, a Kerry administration could be in a position to repair the damage done to our relations with other nations, especially those in the middle east. If terrorism is to be successfully fought and if we are going to work on other pressing issues from global warming to global poverty then we need the cooperation and help of nations around the globe and this means engaging in a foreign policy which respects, not disdains other nations.

*On the domestic front, Kerry's got a record. In this front his record stands closer with the US Catholic Conference of Bishops then most senators, because his votes generally side with the poor, with the have nots from opposing Bush's plan to gut overtime pay, to fighting for an increased minimum wage, to proposing a health care plan which could cover tens of millions of Americans who have no health insurance. This last issue in particular is a key moral test of our nation, which so far we have fallen short of.

*On social issues, I'll have to disagree with many evangelicals. Bush has bet his presidency on such voters. But there's something wrong with a campaign based on dividing voters on religion, on geography, and on cultural issues. Kerry's record is quite different. He's shown respect for the pluralism of this country and when it comes to who will pick the next attorney general to the next supreme court justice, this is quite important.

I admit I'm been racked with anxiety as the election day has come closer and closer and the polls remain incredibly tight. I do think this election is more then about this or that issue, it's a fundamental affirmation of who we are as a nation, for ourselves and for the rest of the world. The Bush administration has shown complete disregard for the rule of law from the war in Iraq to the geneva convention to the crack down on civil liberties at home. Will this be rejected by the American people? A number of evangelical groups have recommended prayer as well as votes, and I'm inclined to agree with them. I'll be doing both tomorrow.