CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.
Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.
The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment
An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.
Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.
The use of Scripture in political arguments
While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.
Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.
At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.
The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.
Progressive Christian leaders including former Democratic congressman Floyd Flake and Sojourners President Jim Wallis held a press conference today near the World Trade Center site to announce that they are adding their voices to the conservative chorus of religious leaders (Richard Land, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson) that has criticized New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to exclude clergy from Sunday’s 9/11 memorial dedication at ground zero, CNN reported.
“But there’s a twist. In addition to criticizing Bloomberg, progressive religious leaders are also taking aim at prominent conservatives who have blasted Bloomberg in recent days, alleging that those critics are stoking division at a time that calls for national unity,” the article said.
Surprised and Disappointed
“Utterly disappointed and surprised” was the response of Fernando Cabrera, a New York City councilman and the pastor of New Life Outreach International church in the Bronx to Bloomberg’s decision, CNN reported.
“There’s certain things that government cannot do, and answering questions of meaning of ‘Why are we going through this?’ and ‘Where am I going to get strength from?’ – those are existential questions that can only be answered from a spiritual aspect,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera and the Family Research Council have collected over 62,000 signatures asking the mayor to allow clergy, prayer and first responders (who have also been excluded) at the city’s 9/11 memorial ceremony Sunday, The Christian Post reported.
The Microphone Won’t Melt
Among Bloomberg’s critics is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was widely praised for his handling of the 9/11 crisis when he was mayor. He echoed the recommendation of Southern Baptist Richard Land, who said there should be a priest, a minister, a rabbi, and an imam at the event.
“Say a little prayer. The microphone will not melt,” said Giuliani before launching into a brief lesson at the National Press Club on what the constitution says about church/state separation.
But clergy have never been an official part of the 10 remembrance ceremonies at ground zero; moments of silence have and will be again, The Huffington Post reported.
The ceremony was designed in coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are spiritual, historical and personal in nature and this year’s six moments of silence allow every individual a time for personal and religious introspection, a spokeswoman for the mayor told HuffPost.
An Uphill Battle
Critics “face an uphill battle,” Religion News Service’s David Gibson said, because “Bloomberg is not one to second-guess himself” and “tends to get what he wants.” Besides, Bloomberg defended religious freedom when he “championed Muslims’ right to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero” and when he “rejected the advice of secular critics and defended the inclusion of a cross made of girders from the fallen towers in the new 9/11 Memorial.”
Protesting a Call to Compassion
Meanwhile, protests are being lobbed by some Christians because Evangelicals won’t be represented at the Washington National Cathedral’s “A Call to Compassion” on September 11, the Daily Caller reported. The commemoration will include a bishop, a rabbi, a Tibetan lama, a Buddhist nun, representatives of the Hindu and Jain faiths, an imam and an Islamic musician, but no evangelicals.
The idea that a group that represents at least 35 percent of the population has been excluded “is difficult to comprehend, much less to defend,” said Southern Baptist Richard Land.
What do you think?
Are these egregious omissions or much ado about nothing?
Last night, President Obama concluded his Debt-ceiling speech by reminding the American people that “America … has always been a grand experiment in compromise.”
“As a democracy made up of every race and religion, where every belief and point of view is welcomed, we have put to the test time and again the proposition at the heart of our founding: that out of many, we are one,” he said.
But last week, in a phone conference with reporters, a group of Christian leaders who had met with the president earlier about the budget debate seemed to frame the issue as a matter of social justice for the poor, whom they suggested were being neglected in favor of the rich and middle class.
Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, said politicians in Washington have “twisted Matthew 25 to say, ‘Whatever you do for the forgotten middle class you do unto me.'” He said the group reminded the president that “we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network, affirmed Ramirez’s statement that Matthew 25 is not about the middle class.
“I reminded [President Obama] and all of us that the moral choices about the budget must be made in the context of over 2,000 verses of scripture on God’s concern for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the fatherless, that they be held harmless in the actions of government,” said Skinner.
“Washington is talking about almost everything except how these decisions affect the poor and vulnerable. The silence has been pretty deafening,” said John Carr, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
But Galen Carey, Vice President of Government Relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, struck a more moderate note, saying they were pleased that the president “acknowledged that we face a fiscal crisis.”
“We need to get our fiscal house in order is one of the messages that we also delivered. We are not among those who want to kick the can down the road. We want our nation’s leaders to come together to fix the financial and fiscal problems which we face,” said Carey.
“The president indicated his commitment to do that, and, most importantly, to do that in a way which does not solve our problems on the backs of the poor,” he said.
Carey said the president “acknowledged the good will of the American people and of leaders in congress” in wanting to help those who are in need.
“Part of the challenge we discussed with the president is how we help the American people and our leaders to understand the human impact. …This is an issue of stewardship and we need to come together,” Carey said the group told the president.
“With families in particular, we are seeing the widening gap of poverty, including now many professional people,” explained Stephen J. Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America.
“In our communities, we are seeing teachers that are on food stamps, many of them ex-teachers. We’re seeing lawyers that are on food stamps. We’ re seeing young college graduates that cannot get jobs that are on food stamps, and poverty is taking a new face. The new face of poverty is being seen by someone in almost every family that we are speaking to on Sundays and meeting in our communities,” said Thurston.
UrbanFaith asked if the signatories risk alienating middle class voters by appearing to pit their concerns against those of the poor.
John Carr answered first, saying he may have contributed to this perception.
“I don’t think we’re pitting them against each other. What we’re asking is that the shared bipartisan focus on how this affects the middle class needs to also include, and, in fact, take a particular focus on the poor,” said Carr.
Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, said the 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor, poverty, widows, and orphans don’t mean that God doesn’t care about other people.
“It’s more that we don’t pay attention. We pay more attention to people that seem more important. Politics clearly pays more attention to the wealthy who have more influence than their one vote by far … and both parties want to lure the middle class,” said Wallis.
“The poor don’t vote very much and they don’t make donations, and so Washington D.C. just doesn’t pay attention to poor people,” he said, adding that their job as Christian leaders is to put those names and faces before the American people.
“Bishop Thurston reminded us of the new poor,” said Skinner. “He reminded us of middle class people who never expected to lose their jobs or to have their jobs go overseas. As a middle class person, I’d like to know that I’m in a country that if I get in that kind of straight, if I need food stamps, or if I need Medicaid or Medicare that it’s there.”
“Rather than seeing it as pitting middle class people against the poor, our conversation with the president was about the new poor and about the need to have a country defined by the way it treats all people who happen to find themselves in poverty.”
A study published today by the Pew Research Center indicates that median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic ones.
“These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009,” Pew’s report said.
What about you? Has this recession impacted you and/or your loved ones to a greater degree than previous ones? Are members of your family that never expected to receive government assistance receiving it now? How do we balance economic stewardship with God’s heart for the poor and vulnerable?
If you’re like me, the debt-ceiling debate seems like one more opportunity for various political operatives to sling mud without offering real solutions. But since the House of Representatives voted to approve a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill Tuesday that President Obama said he would veto and Senate Democrats are expected to reject in favor of the “Gang of Six” plan, perhaps it’s time to give the debt-ceiling debate serious thought.
First, what is the debt ceiling?
Reporting for NPR in June, The Root’s Cynthia Gordy said the debt ceiling is “the amount of money, set by Congress, that the federal government can legally borrow in order to pay for its commitments — things like Social Security, Medicare and military operations.” She reported that the government has been overspending since the end of the Clinton administration and borrows money by selling U.S. Treasury bonds, notes and T-bills to the public, financial institutions and other countries. We reached the current $14.3 trillion debt limit on May 16, according to Gordy, but by suspending payments to federal retirement funds, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prevented a default and estimated that the government could continue borrowing until Aug. 2.
Now that we know what it is, what are Christian leaders saying about the debate?
Baptist Press reports that the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy enitity, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is “sponsoring a three-part standard — including congressional approval of a balanced budget amendment — that must be met before raising the country’s debt limit.”
The “Cut, Cap, Balance Pledge” consists of substantial spending cuts, enforceable spending caps, and passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “but only if it includes both a spending limitation and a super-majority for raising taxes, in addition to balancing revenues and expenses.”
The Family Research Council (FRC) published an action alert this week that said, “The House of Representatives will vote Tuesday on Cut, Cap, and Balance to ensure immediate cuts to government spending, place caps on future spending, and would grant the President’s request to lift the debt ceiling only if the Balanced Budget Amendment is passed and sent to the states for ratification.” The organization advises its constituency to contact their U.S. Senators to “urge them to oppose any ‘back-up’ plan, such as Senator McConnell’s surrender plan,” which it says will “allow the President to lift the debt ceiling and only allow Congress a vote to stop it if it could garner a super majority.” FRC advises instead that constiuents ask their sensators to support efforts to pass the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act.
In a July 7 Sojourners blog post, Jim Wallis described the debate as a “clash between two competing moral visions,” one that pits “those who believe in the common good and those who believe individual good is the only good.” Wallis wrote:
“While a biblical worldview informs Christians that they should be wary of the rich and defend the poor, a competing ideology says that wealth is equivalent to righteousness and God’s blessing. It is a morality play in which Washington, D.C. is the stage, politicians are actors, lobbyists are directors, the ‘debt ceiling’ is the conflict, and we are the audience who will pay the cost of the production, whether we enjoyed it or not.”
A group of Christian Circle of Protection signatories including John R. Bryant, Senior Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Stephen J. Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America; and Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network issued a statement that listed the debt ceiling among its concerns:
“Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices. As Christian leaders, we urge Congress and the administration to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.”
UrbanFaith has not yet found any explicit Christian endorsements of the Gang of Six plan. CNN reports that the plan, drafted by three Democratic and three Republican senators, would “impose” $500 billion in budget savings, reduce marginal income tax rates, and ultimately abolish an alternative minimum tax, but create three tax brackets to generate an additional $1 trillion in revenue, require cost changes to Medicare’s growth rate formula, and cut the Pentagon budget by $80 billion.
Is the Religious Right driving the fight?
At The Huffington Post, anti-evangelical curmudgeon Frank Schaeffer, as he is want to do, blamed the current debate on the “religious right”:
“The reality is that the debt ceiling confrontation is by, for and the result of America’s evangelical Christian control of the Republican Party. It is the ultimate expression of an alternate reality, one that has the mistrust of the U.S. government as its bedrock ‘faith,’ second only to faith in Jesus.”
We’ll spare you the rest of his diatribe.
Finally, is this debate really about racism against President Obama?
Believe it or not, there’s a race angle to this fiasco, as well.
At National Review, Andrew Stiles quotes Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) as “strongly suggesting” racism against President Obama is at the root of Republican opposition to raising the limit. Said Jackson Lee:
“I do not understand what I think is the maligning and maliciousness [toward] this president. … Why is he different? And in my community, that is the question that we raise. In the minority community that is question that is being raised. Why is this president being treated so disrespectfully? Why has the debt limit been raised 60 times? Why did the leader of the Senate continually talk about his job is to bring the president down to make sure he is unelected?”
If the reader comments on the post are any indication, the congresswoman may have a point.
What do you think? Is the federal budget a moral document? If so, is it immoral to keep borrowing against the future? Or does the current controversy amount to just another racially motivated political attack against President Obama?
Just say, for a moment, that we were to take Glenn Beck’s counsel seriously and flee any church or parish that promoted the idea of “social justice” or “economic justice.” We’d probably have to close down 90 percent of the African American churches in this country!
You’ve likely caught wind of this controversy already. Beck, the fiery and often humorous conservative talk show host on the FOX News network, told his radio and TV audiences last week that the terms are code for “communism” and “Nazism.” He advised:
I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.
Just to be clear, he added:
Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!