Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Liberals in the Cross-Hairs

“Liberal” has become a dirty word in America. Right wing radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh use it like a term of disgrace, tantamount to treason. The rhetoric has become vicious, and it was only a matter of time until the irresponsible potshots ended in real shooting.

Sunday morning, Jim Adkisson walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church with a shotgun hidden inside a guitar case. He’d been planning his attack for at least a week, and chose a special children’s service for the assault. Before he was tackled, Adkisson managed to kill at least two parishioners and seriously wound seven others.

Adkisson targeted the church, according to Knoxville’s WBIR-TV, “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets."

The shooter told reporters that "he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them in to office."

Inside Adkisson's house, officers found Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder by radio talk show host Michael Savage, Let Freedom Ring by talk show host Sean Hannity, and The O'Reilly Factor, by television talk show host Bill O'Reilly. So it wasn’t just another random act of violence that took place Sunday. It was the culmination of years of mean-spirited fulminating from the fanatic right.

These right-wing pundits have made a travesty of America’s liberal political tradition. Because our nation’s founders almost all described themselves as “liberals.” Not all of them were Unitarian—the denomination that Adkisson decided to put in the cross-hairs—though John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both identified as such. But certainly others shared in the liberal spirit: respect for personal freedom and tolerance of cultural diversity coupled with a non-dogmatic approach to life.

If a white supremacist bombed a black church, one hopes that people of goodwill would speak out against such bigotry. If a neo-Nazi targeted a synagogue, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims alike would ideally be quick to condemn that kind of violence. I wonder, will the presidential candidates, or other political and faith leaders, speak out against Sunday’s mayhem?

Liberals should not be intimidated or silenced by Sunday’s attack, but defend the progressive legacy they bequeathed to this country. The Declaration’s dictum that “all people are created equal” and endowed with inalienable rights to life and liberty was a radical precept. The defense of human rights inevitable led to the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights, children’s rights and the rights of labor, gay rights and the rights of indigenous people--even animal rights. The world is a better place thanks to these “liberal” innovations which lie at the heart of the American Dream.

We can’t let that Dream remain in the cross-hairs.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Intelligent Design: Religion or Science?

Several people wrote in challenging my column titled “Intelligent Design and Intelligent Faith.” One asked, why it is important to keep the findings of research separate from the teachings of revelation? Another wondered how I could be so sure a man like Jefferson wouldn’t endorse Intelligent Design today.

The phrase “intelligent design” originated in a book by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon, Of Pandas and People. They wrote the volume in 1989, two years after the Supreme Court outlawed teaching so-called “creation science” in public schools. Up to that point, both Davis and Kenyon were wholehearted advocates of creationism, arguing the historicity of Noah’s flood and the book of Genesis as an accurate guide to the science of life. One of them had already written a book titled Case for Creation, published by the Moody Bible Institute. But after the Court’s ruling, the two men realized they needed a subtler approach and popularized the phrase “intelligent design” through their Pandas book, which asserts that life “owes its origin to a master intellect” and that “new organisms arise from a blueprint, a plan, a pattern, devised by an intelligent agent.” Though the intelligent agent is never precisely identified (and might be God, Krishna, or a space alien), the volume is published by an organization that describes its mission as “proclaiming, publishing, preaching and teaching the Christian Gospel.”

Teaching and preaching the gospel is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But it is not science. Revelation claims to convey truths from supernatural sources, while science looks to the natural world to develop its theories. One belongs in the church or synagogue; the other belongs in biology class.

At its root, science is really a systematic way of asking questions about the world, along with an agreement about the kinds of data that will count toward the answers. The data have to be in the public domain of shared sense experience—facts that can be seen or weighed or otherwise commonly observed. Information that is derived from mystical states, that draws its authority from being written in old books, or that comes from private visions just isn’t relevant.

America’s founders shared this scientific temper. Men like Franklin, Washington, Adams, Paine, Jefferson and Madison were all members of the American Philosophical Society, the New World’s counterpart to Britain’s Royal Society, whose guiding motto was “Nullius in verba,” roughly translated as “don’t take anyone’s word for it … find out for yourself!” To determine how life began and evolved, their commitment was not to any pre-conceived set of answers, but to a disciplined system of inquiry, experiment and observation. This is why, despite being men of deep principle and the highest moral character, they were often deviant in their theological perspectives. They rejected a literal interpretation of the Bible and viewed the tale of Noah’s ark as a fable.

In their own day, they were aware of cutting edge discoveries and carried out their own investigations in homemade labs. So men like Jefferson would hardly be likely to endorse Intelligent Design today—a theory that can lawfully be taught in Sunday School, but that has no place in a biology classroom. And the founders were be dismayed that the state of Louisiana is trying to sneak religious teaching into its public school curriculum.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Intelligent Design and Intelligent Faith

How did life begin? How do human beings relate to the rest of nature? These are religious questions, but also scientific ones. It's important to keep the scientific answers separate from those based on revelation.

The Governor of Louisiana signed the Science Education Act into law last month, a piece of legislation that would allow public high school teachers to introduce "alternatives" to Darwinism in biology classrooms. The bill touts academic freedom, but many fear it is just a subterfuge for sneaking "Intelligent Design" into the state's science curricula.

The furor concerning life's origins has been with us for a long time, and even predates Darwin. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson wondered how life originated back in the eighteenth century. They were particularly fascinated by the theories of a French naturalist, the Comte de Buffon.

Buffon rejected the Biblical account of creation. He supposed the Earth was formed eons ago in a cosmic collison, when a stray comet smashed into the sun. As a result of the collision, a chunk of hot stellar material spun off into a roughly circular orbit. As the millennia passed, the chunk cooled. A crust formed over the surface of the planet. Water vapor condensed to form liquid, in the form of oceans. And after a long time, heat acting on naturally occuring chemicals in the ocean depths spawned the first living creatures. It was a purely naturalistic account of creation, without relying on any divine intervention.

A recent book on the founder's faith by Steve Waldman asserts that Jefferson believed in "intelligent design." It's a specious claim, like observing that Jefferson believed there were only six planets, or that he thought wooly mammoths were still roaming the northern regions of Siberia. As a man of the eighteenth century, Jefferson was limited in the astronomical and biological information available to him. But he was an empiricist and scientifically-minded. Had he been alive today, he doubtless would have subscribed to the overwhelming consensus among biologists that Darwin's theory of natural selection and random variation (not ID) is the best explanation for the amazing diversity and complexity of life.

Together, Jefferson and Madison wondered how Buffon's theories could be tested. Madison proposed careful surface measurements of the Earth's radiant heat. If our planetary home began in an astral collision and still contained a hot core, a gradient of temperature changes ought to be observable as one moved from equator to pole, because the planet is not precisely spherical. While Madison never had the time or instruments to carry out such researches, his commitment was to experimental method.

Madison and Jefferson together did dissections of various North American mammals, comparing their anatomy to their European counterparts. This was to test Buffon's hypothesis that the Earth's cooling had forced mass migration of animal species in the distant past, causing the creatures to gradually evolve new adaptations in response to the changing climate.

What we need today is not Intelligent Design, but more intelligent faith--a faith like that of the founding fathers, who were not afraid to inquire and explore, following the data whevever the conclusions might lead.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Spiritually Correct Candidates?

Faith shows up in weird places. When I was a young man in Oklahoma, I would occasionally see classified ads in the newspaper, advertising the services of a “Christian Dog Groomer.” Peculiar. Why would anyone with a dirty dog care about the theology of the person working at the Pooch Parlor? All I’d want to know is whether the groomer is good with animals.

It’s the same with political candidates. Why should it matter to me if Barak Obama is a Muslim or a Christian, or McCain a Baptist? I want a president who’s a skilled manager and consensus builder, who will uphold the Constitution and execute the laws fairly. Their economic philosophy is important to me. But whether they’re Catholic, or Mormon, or Jewish is immaterial, except as private beliefs spill over into public policies.

That’s evidently what America’s framers thought when they wrote the Constitution. The only mention of religion appears in Article Six, which states there will be no religious tests for public office. Had spiritual correctness been required, probably none of our first four presidents—neither Washington, nor Adams, nor Jefferson, nor Madison-- would ever have been elected.

What would our founders have thought when Campbell Brown asked the Democratic candidates about their faith at a forum last spring in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Addressing Hillary Clinton, Brown observed that “You said in an interview last year that you believe in the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. And you have actually felt the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions.”

Mr. Brown then went on to ask Hillary to “share some of those occasions with us.”

Why is that the voter’s concern? The electorate at the time had every right to learn about Hillary’s health care plan and hear her views on NAFTA. But her encounters with the Holy Spirit should have had no bearing on her campaign. The height of indecency came when Mitt Romney’s underwear became a media topic. Bloggers wondered, exactly what do the Latter Day Saints wear under their trousers? The proper answer, of course, is that it’s none of our damn business.

George Washington said that when he needed a job done on his Mount Vernon estate, he was an equal opportunity employer, willing to hire “Mohometans, Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists” so long as they were able workers. Perhaps we should apply the same common sense standard to our current crop of candidates. They may be Muslims, Jews, Christians or Atheists. The question is, are they up to the job?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Faith-Based Foolishness

Churches never have enough money—and since I’m a preacher, I should know. That’s what makes Faith-Based Initiatives so tempting.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the government subsidize our congregation’s good works in the community? Or dip into the public purse to repair the steeple on our historic building?

But having tax-dollars pay for church-sponsored programs is a devil’s bargain, whether the “initiative” is coming from neo-conservatives or Barak Obama.

Glen Ford, writing in the Black Agenda Report, took Obama to task this week for reviving George Bushes’ electoral game plan. According to Ford, “Bush garnered record-breaking numbers of Black votes in states like Ohio in 2004, based on mobilizations of Black ministers tied to faith-based Republican money.” Essentially, he used federal dollars to buy votes at the polls.

It’s no surprise, because where money is concerned, there are always strings attached. When churches become dependent on government hand-outs, can they still serve their prophetic role? Criticize the king—like the Hebrew prophet Nathan criticized King David—and your funding might get cut.

Isn’t there already enough religious tension between Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Jews in this country? They already compete for converts, for visibility, for numbers. Inviting them to compete for tax dollars just inflames the sectarian turf wars.

That’s why our Founders were careful to separate church and state. Madison and Jefferson, for example, regarded the elimination of Virginia’s official Anglican establishment as among their proudest and most important achievements. Some, like Washington, straddled on the issue—but history has now had time to render judgment.

If we’ve managed to avoid the worst kinds of religiously inspired mayhem that’s wracked other countries—from faith-based militias to faith-based political parties—we can thank those scrupulous about keeping government and organized religion at arm’s length.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. And when you see Barak Obama cozying up to George W. Bush, you know it’s like the mating dance of church and state—not a marriage made in heaven, but in more infernal regions.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Reason for the Fireworks

On Independence Day, Americans celebrate their founders, visionaries who were centuries ahead of their time.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, foresaw the threat of climate change long before Al Gore and recommended surveys of temperature and rainfall at 50-year intervals to assess the impact of human settlement on the wilderness. Benjamin Franklin and James Madison were equally concerned with population pressures and the long term carrying capacity of the planet.

But the founders were even more prescient in their political views. When George Washington was elected president, there was still a king in France, a czar in Russia, a shogun in Japan and an emperor in China. The prevailing wisdom held that governments were divinely instituted, with rulers appointed by God to preside over their subjects.

The United States, on the contrary, predicated its Constitution upon the authority of "We the People," never mentioning a deity. Legitimate power derived not from sacred writ but from the consent of the governed. So John Adams cautioned that the framers never "had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven," that ours was the "the first example of government erected on the simple principles of nature."

The concept of popular sovereignty caught on. Now, kings are a vanishing breed, while even the most brutal despots must hold sham elections and at least pay lip service to the people's will.

Our founders, moreover, invented the notion of human rights. In an age of slavery, it was an ideal they practiced imperfectly, and their complicity in the trade was their greatest moral failure. But even the worst offenders, like Jefferson, unleashed the radical precept that "all people are created equal," and once that spark of freedom was ignited, the fire would spread. The idea that individuals possessed a natural right to life and liberty led to the demand for civil rights and women's rights, the rights of labor and of children, gay rights and the rights of indigenous people -- even animal rights. Our world has been transformed for the better, thanks to the flame they kindled.

Most important, our founders embraced the principle of religious pluralism. Violent wars had engulfed Europe in the 17th century because of the presumption that citizens of the same nationality must share a single creed. Millions died in conflicts that pitted Protestant against Catholic and everyone against the Jews. Determined that faith could be a positive, cohesive force in human affairs, the Founders guaranteed that America would be a land where spiritual variety might flourish. No religious litmus test would be imposed as a bar to public office. Under the guarantees of the First Amendment, people could worship differently, according to the directives of their conscience. The government would stay doctrinally neutral. In answer to the recurring question -- was America intended to be a Christian nation or a secular one? -- the founders would have rejected the premise. They intended the United States to be a land where faith could thrive in the private sphere, and while believers of all stripes might compete for converts, they should never compete for political domination or tax dollars or military might. That's what led to the religious convulsions of the 17th century -- and it's what the founders, by separating church and state, tried to avoid.

Today, thanks to their wisdom, the United States is not only one of the most devout countries on earth. It is also the most spiritually diverse, where mosques, churches, synagogues and zendos are filled with ardent seekers. In contrast to many lands where religious feelings run high, Christians, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, Jews and atheists manage to live in tolerable harmony in this nation of ours.

It's a legacy that people of all persuasions can commemorate on this Fourth of July.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Who's In Heaven?


As Saint Peter ushers a new entrant around his orientation tour of heaven, the inductee is urged to be quiet as they pass a room filled with people. “Why the hush?” the newbie asks. “Those are Baptists,” Saint Peter explains. “They think they’re the only ones here.”

But most believers—including Baptists—are more broad-minded than that, according to new research. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently asked Americans of varied denominations to respond to the statement: “My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.” Among Catholics, mainline churches, evangelical Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Moslems, a resounding majority affirmed there may be many routes to salvation.

Only Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses fit the stereotype of the joke—clueless that there might be other residents of heaven.

America’s Founders would be pleased. Tom Paine likened God to a father with many children. To honor him, his offspring might bring many gifts—one a fragrant bouquet, another a beautiful poem—and the Father would be equally pleased with all these offerings. But God would delight the most, Paine asserted, in acts of charity and justice.

Thomas Jefferson agreed with what he said was the philosophy of the Friends. “I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that he who observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven as to the dogmas in which they all differ.” Creeds might divide humankind, but on the fundamentals of ethics—don’t lie, don’t steal, share with your neighbor—all great religions were united.

The news that 70% of all Americans agree there are many roads to redemption is good news for a world too often torn by sectarian strife. Perhaps we can learn to live together after all; faith can be a cohesive, rather than a divisive force among us.

If there is a heaven, I’m sure that Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders are there … and that they must be smiling.

Followers