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A Priest, a Progressive, and and A TheoCon Walk into a Bar…


[Thanks so much to Peterr for beginning a conversation which needs to be had amongst progressives and conservatives alike.  Personally, I have had an aversion to any marriage of religion and politics — the faith under which I was brought up has always been something internal, just like the values under which I was raised.  Religion has never been something that I have used (for political or personal gain, especially, for that is beyond crass) — it has simply been something that I do.  Buying an extra sandwich for the homeless guy on the corner on my way home from class in grad school.  Leaving the anonymous bag of groceries or clothing or presents on some desperate doorstep at the holidays, ringing the bell, and leaving before they see me.  

For me, religion and faith and values are all those things that you do when no one is watching, except your own soul and God — that is the true test.  I’m so pleased that Peterr is beginning a conversation on the things that bind us together, regardless of our faith or lack thereof, or our political affiliation.  Oh, and Peterr — I just couldn’t resist this photo of Stephen Colbert.  I miss his "religion" segments on The Daily Show most of all.  –CHS]   

The guest posters at FDL bring their particular backgrounds and skills to bear on the political life of the progressive community in a variety of different ways. Last Monday, Ian Welsh posted a thread here called Send in the Cons . . . where he laid out seven different species of the genus "Republican" – TheoCons, NeoCons, CorporateCons, RichCons, LibertarianCons, PaleoCons and MilitaryCons.

As is the case with many threads, we heard from vets about the MilitaryCons, economists about the CorporateCons, and political scientists about LibertarianCons. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the religious conversation is . . . less. Here at FDL, we have posters, commenters and lurkers of all religious stripes, including those with no use for religion at all, and we don’t want to offend each other. The TheoCons, on the other hand, are all about religion, and by golly we’re not like them . . . so we mostly keep religion to ourselves around here.

But I don’t do that everywhere. You see, I’m a pastor and a preacher . . .

I know a thing or two about religion and politics, as well as how one communicates across the various borders that divide one group of people from another. I’ve messed around with the interplay of religion and politics for most of my life. One of the Religious Right’s biggest pitches to their crowd is that the Left isn’t religious – or at least not religious in the proper way. Insofar as progressives let that go unchallenged, it’s a big tactical win for the TheoCon leadership. If we let that go unchallenged, we also have abdicated to them the ability to define us. I’ve yet to meet someone who calls themselves progressive who is happy to meekly take the labels and beliefs others want to project onto them.

I do not believe that we should let them keep their view of us, nor should we write off them as unreachable.On the contrary, if we on the progressive side engage them properly, we can help them to remove the blinders from what the NeoCons, PaleoCons, CorporateCons and other Cons are doing – much of which is offensive to their religious beliefs. The strong religious theme of caring for the poor and oppressed runs completely against the "survival of the fittest" mentality of the CorporateCons, for instance. Even if all we want to do is respond to the TheoCon arguments or pitch our arguments to them, we have to do better at speaking a common language with them.

What I’d like to kick off here is a discussion about how to have conversations with TheoCons. I’m not talking about how to debate the Jerry Falwell-wanna be’s in your town or how to face down Fred Phelps’ minions on the sidewalk outside of church – been there, done that, and there are much more productive ways to engage the Right. Trust me.

What I am interested in – passionately – is more immediate, more personal, and more ordinary. I want to look at how we talk about politics with our hardcore TheoCon family members, with the fundy neighbors who listen to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio programs the way some of us check out the latest at FDL, and with the oh-so-pious person with the kid on the same little league team as your kid who brings a Bible into the stands at every game. If we’re going to talk politics with them, that means we’re going to talk religion too. But how?

Naturally, I’ve got a few ideas about this that I’ll toss out to get things rolling. I’m really anxious, though, to hear your ideas.

Let’s start by looking at a couple of loaded terms. The late Senator from Illinois, Paul Simon, was the son of Lutheran missionaries, and his brother Art founded the hunger relief organization Bread for the World. Paul’s first career was as a journalist and newspaper publisher who went after crooked politicians, and only later did he enter politics and take them on at the ballot box. (Full disclosure: I volunteered in several of his campaigns.)

In 1985, Simon wrote an article for a clergy entitled "Religion and Public Life: A Partnership of Conviction or Convenience?" [pdf warning!] In it, he notes that religious people don’t like the word "compromise." Beliefs, after all, are not something to bargain away. But that doesn’t stop religious people from trying to work out their differences. When, for example, Lutheran and Catholic theologians attempt to bridge some of the disputes that have separated them for centuries, he observed that the media reports say that they have come to a mutual "understanding." Not a compromise, but an understanding. A compromise is a horse trade where people give things up; an understanding is an entirely new way of looking at things, so that what once divided the sides no longer stands between them.

When we progressives engage the TheoCons, that’s what we’re looking for: mutual understanding, so that progress can be made together on some issue of dispute. A critical requirement for reaching this kind of understanding is sincerity. From Paul Simon:

       . . . we should do more than sit in one corner of a dispute, feeling good and virtuous and put upon. Sometimes we grow comfortable in our antagonisms rather than go through the discomfort of searching for answers that can bring us closer to our goals. . . .

If the other person senses that you respect him or her, that establishes a totally different tone for the dialogue that follows. If someone approaches me on an issue and clearly indicates by small signals that he or she believes I am not sincere, it is almost impossible to have dialogue that is anything other than confrontational. But the same works the other way around. If I approach others with an attitude of antagonism, they are not likely to be moved by anything I say.

It’s hard not to get antagonistic when confronted by some of the beliefs of TheoCons. It’s hard for them not to get antagonistic when they run up against some of our beliefs. But it is possible. What makes it possible is the recognition that despite all that separates us, we do in fact share common ground with one another.

I saw an example of that here, just yesterday, on the Sorrow thread. Hundreds of messages were left for Jane as the word spread about the death of her mother. Some commenters I recognized, but there were also hundreds of self-proclaimed lurkers who were moved to post for the first or second time because of a shared sense of loss and grief. Sadly, there were some trolls as well, who were promptly sent packing and not allowed to disturb the gathering. (Thanks, trollsweepers!)

Kids grieve when their parents die, and to dump on a grieving family because you disagree with their politics . . . well, that’s just Phelpsian.

That’s one of the things that drew me here to FDL. Even when we disagree, we keep it civil and respectful of one another. [Ghostman, Larry: how do you really feel about Carville and Matalin? ;)] It’s not that we tolerate each other – toleration a dirty word in my book; just a fancy way of saying that person A gives person B the right to exist. It’s that we accept one another around here, and if we don’t, then someone is shown the door by the moderators.

The most common way most people show respect for someone’s religious beliefs, especially in progressive circles, is to not talk about them. But then look at the Sorrow thread messages from yesterday. There was a huge – absolutely huge – amount of religous language being used: biblical quotations, Christian prayers, wiccan blessings, new-age poetic expressions of sorrow, as well as more non-specific but generally religious wishes and thoughts being sent Jane’s way or offered on her behalf. Sometimes the religious language was direct, and other times subtle. Sometimes it was prefaced with words like "this brought me comfort when someone close to me died," and other times it was simply expressed. And I noticed, too, that no one apologized for their beliefs. I’ll venture a guess that when the commenter’s beliefs don’t match those of Jane or her family, she won’t get angry about the comment ("How dare they force that religious belief on me!") but she’ll acccept them in the spirit with which they were offered.

Firepups: surely we can talk and listen that way in political discussions, too, without someone having to die.

With the goal of mutual understanding, and a presumption of sincerity and acceptance, that leaves only tactics. How does one address the TheoCons? That, as an old math professor of mine was fond of saying, is left as an exercise for the class. Progressive Christians will talk to their sisters and brothers in the right-hand pews in one way, while progressives who are non-Christians will engage the TheoCons differently. If we have a strong relationship with the TheoCon we are talking with, we might be more direct; if the person is more of an aquaintance, we’ll walk more gingerly. If we know the Bible well, we’ll use that; if American history is our thing, that might be our approach instead. If it’s music that make our hearts sing (especially hymns and spirituals sung by both the progressives and the TheoCons), then maybe that’s what we’ll pull out. Each of us is different, and so are each of the TheoCons we want to reach.

Here’s a fast example, from back in 1851. In a debate over women’s suffrage, Sojourner Truth took on one of the conservative religious voices of her day in her "Ain’t I a Woman?" remarks at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention:

      Then that little man in black there [a clergyman], he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. 

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

She takes two biblical stories – the birth of Jesus and life in the Garden of Eden, and holds them up against the clergyman who opposed her. She spoke to him in his language, with his images, drawn from the sacred text they both hold dear, and tried to show him where he is off the mark. She respected the sincerity of his beliefs, and showed equal respect for her own by challenging the political conclusions he reached based on his beliefs.

One of the most fully articulated statements of how one can link progressive politics and personal faith came from Mario Cuomo. As the governor of New York back in the 1980s and a faithful Roman Catholic, he was being pressed by bishops and others within the Catholic church to support a federal constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion (among other things). He made what has become a classic response for those who study religion and politics, in an address to the Department of Theology at Notre Dame University in September 1984. He’s speaking as one Catholic to other Catholics, but his words resonate for people of all faiths – or none.

As a Catholic, I have accepted certain answers as the right ones for myself and my family, and because I have, they have influenced me in special ways, as Matilda’s husband, as a father of five children, as a son who stood next to his own father’s deathbed trying to decide if the tubes and needles no longer served a purpose. As a governor, however, I am involved in defining policies that determine other people’s rights in these same areas of life and death. Abortion is one of these issues, and while it is one issue among many, it is one of the most controversial and affects me in a special way as a Catholic public official. So let me spend some time considering it.

I should start, I believe, by noting that the Catholic Church’s actions with respect to the interplay of religious values and public policy make clear that there is no inflexible moral principle that determines what our political conduct should be. For example, on divorce and birth control, without changing its moral teaching, the Church abides the civil law as it now stands, thereby accepting ­without making much of a point of it­that in our pluralistic society we are not required to insist that all our religious values be the law of the land.


Our public morality, then­the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives ­ depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not­and should not­be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.

That values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either. The agnostics who joined the civil rights struggle were not deterred because that crusade’s values had been nurtured and sustained in black Christian churches. Those on the political left are not perturbed today by the religious basis of the clergy and lay people who join them in the protest against the arms race and hunger and exploitation.

The arguments start when religious values are used to support positions which would impose on other people restrictions they find unacceptable.

So can we find consensus with TheoCons on anything? I believe we can, but getting to that point takes work. I am fully aware – painfully and personally aware – of the violence that some people inflicted on others in the name of God, such as "reparative therapy" for gays and lesbians, or urging beaten women to return to the husbands that battered them "to preserve the family." Even so, I am unwilling to let that violence diminish the many acts of compassion and courage to care for those in need and stand up to those who oppress. My hope here is to encourage progressive voices of all kinds to take up the challenge of engaging the TheoCons, and not simply writing them off. Just as the Democrats as a party are starting to be serious about a fifty state strategy to meet the Republicans in every state of the nations, I’m hoping that Firepups will take on not only the NeoCons and CorporateCons, but the TheoCons as well.

[PS — There was an interesting discussion on NPR this morning regarding evangelicals and their abandonment of progressive principles in favor of gaining power through the Religious Right.  An intriguing listen, if anyone is interested. — CHS]

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.