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.
CLASHING PERSPECTIVES: Conservative activist and Tea Party member Jesse Lee Peterson (left) will protest the NAACP's convention; NAACP spokesman Hilary O. Shelton welcomes the debate.
On July 24, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) holds its annual convention in Los Angeles, the newly formed South Central L.A. Tea Party will be there to protest.
In a press release, the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND Action) said the NAACP has made “false allegations of ‘racism’ against the Tea Party movement,” has supported failing schools and teachers unions in opposition to black parents, especially in Harlem, where the organization filed suit along with the United Federation of Teachers to stop 22 school closings and the expansion of 20 charter schools, has “remained silent while black thugs attack white Americans and commit crimes in flash mobs across the country,” and “supports black genocide” as an ally of Planned Parenthood.
“The NAACP is set up as a non-profit organization with the pretense of helping black people get themselves together, but I can clearly see that the NAACP is a political pawn for the liberal elite white racist Democratic party and they are using black Americans for their own personal gain,” said Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder and president of BOND Action.
“They’re continually being served by our tax dollars and black Americans continue to support them because they don’t really know and understand that the NAACP is out of touch with reality,” he said.
‘We Were Lied To’
Peterson used to believe in the NAACP and its goals, he said, but about 20 years ago he changed his mind.
“I stepped back and realized that we had been lied to and that they’re deliberately keeping the races divided. They’re deliberately keeping blacks dependent on governmental programs so that they can use black Americans for their own personal gain,” said Peterson.
In contrast, the Tea Party stands for freedom, the Constitution, God, country, and family, he said.
Peterson has spoken at Tea Party rallies around the country and has never seen “one glimpse” of racism, he said.
It’s not that clear-cut, says one NAACP representative.
“The NAACP did a very extensive analysis of the Tea Party, so it would be good to find out which Tea Party he spoke for,” said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and Vice President for Advocacy. “One of the things the Tea Party says all the time is that there is no one Tea Party.”
Shelton wondered if Peterson had spoken to the Tea Party Nationalist group out of St. Louis that Shelton said is the outgrowth of the Conservative Citizens Council and the White Citizens Council or the Tea Party construct in Kansas that he said was built by the Minutemen Association.
“There are some Tea Party constructs that we’ve been in contact with, quite frankly, that as much as we may not agree with them politically, they are advancing an agenda that is done in a civilized manner and they are, quite frankly, just fine, as far as we’re concerned,” said Shelton.
A resolution that was passed at the NAACP’s 2010 convention grew out of a number of racist incidents, he said. Among them were Tea Partiers using the N-word to describe the president of the United States, the painting of swastikas on the side of U.S. Congressman David Scott’s office in Georgia, an incident of spitting at U.S. Congressman John Lewis, and a racial slur directed at U.S. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II.
“We’ve never denounced the entire Tea Party, but, as the resolution says, only those racist elements within the Tea Party. What [the NAACP] calls upon the Tea Party to do, and Rev. Peterson as well, is to simply denounce that kind of behavior,” said Shelton.
Defending the NAACP
BOND Action’s charges that the NAACP supports abortion and ignores black-on-white crime are “simply not true,” Shelton said, and the NAACP has never taken a position on “a woman’s right to choose,” but does support “a woman’s right to control her reproductive life” and Planned Parenthood’s other work in providing basic health services to women and children in underserved communities.
“If you look at the NAACP’s position on crime and violence, it is never limited to African Americans. We want to stop crime and violence for all Americans. The issue you hear most often is us talking about the disparities in how our criminal justice system treats African Americans,” said Shelton.
He suggested Peterson examine the NAACP’s new report, Smart on Crime, which compares spending on criminal justice with spending on education. The report advises redirecting resources away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation and education. Shelton also suggested Peterson look at a bill the NAACP supports that would create a federal blue ribbon commission on crime that would investigate the root causes of racial and ethnic minorities over-representation in the system.
In regard to the NAACP’s opposition to charter schools, Shelton said, “There’s a disagreement there.” The lawsuit filed by the NAACP was designed to “advance the concerns” of the 96 percent of New York students who attend traditional public schools, he said. (See the sidebar below for another perspective.)
In regard to this and the other issues outlined in BOND Action’s press release, Shelton suggested that Peterson read its position statements before making “ill-informed comments.”
UrbanFaith emailed Peterson’s office to ask if he had read any official documents about the issues he had publicly criticized.
“Rev. Peterson read news reports about the lawsuit before releasing his statement,” an email reply stated.
‘Good vs. Evil, Nothing to Do with Color’
This is the first time BOND Action will protest an NAACP convention, but it isn’t the first time its members have protested a civil rights organization. For five years, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, BOND Action held Repudiation of Jesse Jackson rallies outside Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH office in Los Angeles, Peterson said.
“Bad things were written and said about me, but it also educated those blacks that really didn’t know about Jackson and as a result, he doesn’t have that same influence prior to us exposing him. We showed the contrast between Dr. King’s dream and Jesse Jackson’s nightmare with those rallies,” said Peterson.
UrbanFaith spoke to a media relations representative in Rainbow PUSH’s Chicago office on July 14. She said she would ask Rev. Jackson for a response and get back to us, but never did, despite several follow-up phone calls.
As strong proponents of free speech, the NAACP has a policy of honoring protest picket lines wherever they are, said Shelton. “[Peterson] is welcome in a non-violent, non-disruptive way to express his position, regardless of how inaccurate it might be,” he added.
“We want black Americans to know that this is a spiritual battle that we’re dealing with. It’s a warfare between good and evil, right versus wrong. It has nothing to do with color at all. Once upon a time black Americans understood that, but when they turned their lives over to government and to other people to lead and think for them, that’s when they lost that reality of what the matter’s all about and then they fell away from God and that’s why they’re living the type of lifestyle that they’re living,” said Peterson.
At one time Shelton was Federal Policy Program Director for the United Methodist Church’s social justice advocacy agency. He said that as a fellow Christian, he finds some of Peterson’s critiques “inconsistent with Christian values” as he understands them.
“I don’t want to judge what’s in his heart. I believe our faith is something that we carry in our hearts. I do think he is factually inaccurate and when you have factual inaccuracy, what you deduce from those facts is also going to be inaccurate. My guess is if he was better informed, he’d probably come to very different conclusions,” he said.
“It’s appropriate for Christians to tell the truth and if the truth is harsh; there’s nothing I can do about that. But the truth is only harsh to the ear that loves lies,” Peterson replied in an email.
Listen to Jesse Lee Peterson’s over-the-top criticism of Barack Obama and his presidency.
What do you think? Is Rev. Peterson out of bounds? Or, is he just crudely stating what an increasing number of African Americans already believe?
NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.
The NAACP’s opposition to charter schools has opened it to criticism from conservative activists like Jesse Lee Peterson, but there are also progressive voices that take issue with some of the group’s positions on education.
RiShawn Biddle is a columnist for The American Spectator, a former award-winning columnist for the Indianapolis Star who covered education and urban affairs, and publisher of DropOut Nation, a website dedicated to education reform. In a blog post, Biddle questioned NAACP president Benjamin Jealous’s insinuation that the U.S. spends more money on prisons than schools.
Biddle sent UrbanFaith statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education comparing spending on criminal justice and education. In 2006-2007, the U.S. spent $228 billion on criminal justice and $562 billion on K-12 education; $1.5 billion of that spending went to building new prisons and $62 billion went to school construction.
“The reality isn’t so much that America doesn’t spend too much on prisons or that too much is spent on education. It’s that the country spends far too much on both inefficiently and ineffectively,” DropOut Nation concluded.
“When it comes to education, the NAACP has had a very proud legacy. What they did throughout much of the last century in terms of fighting for desegregation, trying to provide greater resources for schools that serve black children, to pushing for integration, those are wonderful legacies,” said Biddle.
But, Biddle added, there is definitely room for improvement in today’s NAACP. “The issue for the NAACP these days, at least from the perspective of those folks who are supportive of school reform, is more of where is the NAACP? They seem to be adrift in terms of having an education policy and in having some approach to improving education for black and Latino children that really matches what’s happening in the 21st century,” he said.
Biddle pointed to the NAACP’s longstanding relationship with teachers’ unions, particularly the American Federation of Teachers, and the fact that many older members are themselves teachers, as reasons for the organization’s opposition to charter schools.
“They’re opposed to anything that in their minds seems to lead to the denigration of public education, even though what is happening is basically charter schools are public schools, privately operated,” said Biddle.
It’s not just Tea Partiers who are disappointed in the NAACP’s stance on education, Biddle said. Notable black leaders who have criticized the organization include Kevin Chavous, chairman of Democrats for Education Reform; New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch; Capital Prepatory Magnet School founder Steve Perry; former New York City councilwoman Eva Moskowitz; and Harlem Children’s Zone president Geoffrey Canada.
“I am unhappy in many ways that the NAACP is not living up to its legacy, and not moving with the times, and basically is fighting against black children. But we have to get them on board because they are the grandaddy of the civil rights movement, and, in all honesty, we need everybody on board to reform American public education,” said Biddle.
Should government be more or less involved in the lives of its citizens? Most of our political clashes stem from our different answers to this question. And when Christians get entangled in the debate, the conflict often gets translated into biblical terms.