At his massive rally in Washington, the conservative activist called his audience to restore America’s honor and “turn back to God.” But it wasn’t completely clear which god he was talking about.
The long experiment in American Christianity continues to yield interesting results.
As Duke Divinity School theologian Stanley Hauerwas has noted, “America is a synthesis of evangelical Protestantism, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” This odd amalgam has been possible because Americans have made faith in God “indistinguishable from their loyalty to a country that assured them that they had the right to choose which god they would or would not believe in.”
Such a view is so commonplace that it goes unquestioned by politicians, pundits, preachers, and the rest of us — whether we’re conservative, moderate, or liberal; high-church, low-church, or no-church.
It is telling that the least controversial aspect of Saturday’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial was conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck’s insistent call that America “turn back to God.” His sympathizers welcomed it; many skeptics conceded: what’s the harm?
It’s the peculiar triumph of American Christianity that “God” names a vague, innocuous, content-less deity, one incapable of giving offense. This is why, as Hauerwas observes, America has never been able to produce interesting atheists: “The god most Americans say they believe in is just not interesting enough to deny.”
In fact, the American God — the one that Beck (who is a Mormon) and others invoked on Saturday — is a cipher that can be filled in with the kind of content that affirms any number of tenets of our civil religion: American exceptionalism, the sacredness of free markets, honor in war, the American dream.
And if each of us gets to decide who and what God is “for ourselves,” then the Church is unnecessary for the practice of this piety. But that doesn’t seem quite right, so we’ve developed the idea that churches are vital for the maintenance of the democratic institutions to which we pledge our ultimate loyalty. Insofar as church membership/involvement produces good citizens, “organized religion” has done its duty for the state it’s meant to serve.
The problem, of course, is that the American God bears no resemblance to the God revealed through the people of Israel and through the life and death of a first-century Palestinian Jew executed by the most powerful nation on earth. And the American church-as-maker-of-model-citizens looks nothing like the ekklesia of early Christianity — the called-out people who understood themselves to be at odds with an Empire predicated on domination and death. The Pax Romana (like the Pax Americana) demanded ultimate allegiance and tolerated weird, upstart religions only so long as they made no claims on the power of the state.
The ease with which most Christians in America negotiate their relationship with the polis is evidence, Hauerwas says, of how Protestantism is dying of its own success. The experiment, we could say, has worked all too well. Protestant churches in America have “lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain a people capable of being an alternative to the world.”
I wonder how many people attending the “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday heard the gospel reading from Luke 14 on Sunday? The kind of honor Jesus is interested in “restoring” has nothing to do with patriotic pride or the valorization of death in war and everything to with humility and charity; with serving the poor; with standing alongside those who suffer; that is, with bearing witness — with our very bodies — to an alternative way of being in the world.
In our own context we might say that to take Jesus at his word here would mean that a gathering on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial (or any other space or place) should look less like a Tea Party for the disgruntled and more like a banquet for “the the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13).
This means, then, that Christians are those who see themselves as “alien citizens” of whatever country they live in. Which doesn’t mean that Christians must necessarily strike a hostile pose; it’s certainly possible — even desirable — to love one’s country. But Christians are those who struggle and hope to believe in a God who has confronted death and the death-dealing ways of the world and the death-dealing ways in ourselves. And so we register our inability to be at home in a polis where greed and waste and war are taken to be inescapable and necessary — where, indeed, such sins are twisted into virtues.
For all the sincerity on display at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, and amongst the large throngs of proud Americans, this God and these Christians were hard to spot.
Photo by Luke X. Martin from Wikipedia.
This is a developing thought process for me, so please hear me out for a moment. In the heat of the current battle over health-care reform in America, it does seem inevitable to many of us that the federal government will continue to grow.
I don’t think there is an example of a democracy that has “un-done” growth. After all, it is the nature of a living thing to want to grow. This, of course, is at the heart of our nation’s present debate. How much of a role should government play in our lives? The conservatives classify big government as “doomsday coming” and proof of societal decline. The liberals, on the other hand, see the expansion of federal programs as a fulfillment of the government’s obligation to its people. But here is another take …
Justice as an Act of Worship: Christian anti-poverty advocates joined together to pray, praise, and lobby for social justice during Sojourner's Mobilization to End Poverty last month in Washington, D.C. (Photo: ryanrodrickbeiler.com)
Jennifer Otterbein is a first year Master of Divinity student at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York. In late April she did something she’d never done before; she went to Washington D.C. to lobby her congressman and senators on behalf of the poor.
Otterbein traveled from her home in New Jersey to attend the Mobilization to End Poverty (MEP) event hosted by Sojourners at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For three days, some 1,153 people assembled to rally against poverty and hear a lineup of prominent speakers that included Congressman John Lewis, TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, World Vision president Richard Stearns, evangelist John Perkins, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Dallas pastor Freddy Haynes, and urban ministry activist Alexie Torres-Fleming.
Organizers made appointments with hundreds of legislators so that activists could advance three action items designed to “protect and defend budget priorities that will reduce poverty.” These items included: 1) A call for congress to cut poverty in half by 2020; 2) to fully fund President Obama’s foreign affairs budget; and 3) to support passage of health care reform that protects the most vulnerable citizens.
Although Otterbein was nervous the night before her first foray into activism, she received support and training from the Sojourners organization and was energized by the experience. She says it was “a great way to see how advocacy works” and to see that “we do have a voice and can express it.” Now Otterbein is trying to figure out how her gifting and passions can lead to service in the care of her neighbor.
Not all MEP attendees were new to activism or to Sojourners. Sensing a deeper call on his life, Mike Kennedy came from Bradenton, Florida, to his second Sojourners conference looking for inspiration and direction. What this local Habitat for Humanity board member found was worship and fiery preaching, activism, instruction and camaraderie — and that was just on day one! By 9 p.m., he was still searching for direction, but not for inspiration.
Kennedy was one of a couple hundred young people who attended a Monday night session with bestselling author Donald Miller. Miller, best known for Blue Like Jazz, said he was there because he likes to surround himself with “people doing cool things.” He is founder of The Mentoring Project, whose goal is to provide aid to single mothers and role models for boys growing up without fathers. Miller also prayed the benediction at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He talked about growing bored with his literary success and deciding to write a new story for his life. He encouraged his audience to do the same. Good stories, according to Miller, are those in which a noble character overcomes conflict. The more conflict there is, the better the story is going to be. He said good stories adjust our moral compass. He concluded: “Your life, your story must not be one of compromise. It’s that important.”
Taking It to the Beltway: During the conference, attendees took part in meetings with Washington legislators to encourage them to make social justice and outreach to the poor a priority. (Photo: ryanrodrickbeiler.com)
Rudy Carassco is a World Vision board member and, through July, executive director of the Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, California. Carrasco was in town with Harambee teacher Glory Okeke to hear what the Obama administration is planning for its Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and to network with friends and benefactors in the urban ministry community.
Joshua DuBois, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was one of three Obama administration officials to offer Carrasco insight. Dubois outlined three goals President Obama has for the office. First, to “get the economy back on track and address domestic poverty”; second, to “encourage responsible fatherhood”; third, to “support maternal health, support adoption, reduce abortions, and find areas of common ground”; and fourth, to “increase inter-religious dialogue and action.”
Carrasco says, “It’s good to hear people like Josh DuBois and [special advisor to the president] Van Jones who represent the administration, just to hear how they describe the initiatives. … It’s important just to get a feel for things.” He likes what he hears so far. “Having areas of focus seems really practical and pragmatic in a good way. I think the equal access emphasis that the prior administration had was critical. … That’s something that can be leveraged now. …I know a number of people on the faith counsel. I trust them.”
For organizations like Carrasco’s that don’t solicit government funding, networking is vital. He says, “A lot of it [MEP] for us is the relationships with the people we know. … We have a lot of relationships because of the work I do, but also because of our past directors of Harambee [John and Vera Mae Perkins], so we maintain those relationships.”
Urban Strategies president Lisa Cummins served in the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based initiatives. She says events like MEP inspire and energize workers because “a lot of folks in the trenches feel like they’re doing it themselves. Coming together is a reminder that they’re not by themselves.” Cummins thinks great things were accomplished over the previous eight years by the Bush office, but that the work isn’t finished. She’s excited about what the new administration is doing and is supportive of its “monumental commitment” to objective goals.
There were over a thousand dedicated and enthusiastic attendees like these at MEP. Faces of every age and hue filled the downtown convention center. UrbanFaith briefly chatted with a couple Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth, Kansas, who had been reading Sojourners newsletters since the 1970s. These senior citizens said they’d heard a lot of voices since then and the ones at this year’s event were especially inspiring. A young, hip Mennonite from Pennsylvania said he felt as if this was a transformational moment in our nation’s history. He wanted to be “part of the changing wind and broader agenda in the political arena.” MEP surpassed his expectations. His friend, a Lutheran pastor, was interested in “speaking into existence a new American dream,” one for a “post capitalist” society. Still another young man, this one a youth pastor from Florida, was at MEP in search of ideas to expand his affluent teenagers’ vision beyond themselves. When UrbanFaith talked with him, he was toying with the idea of creating a tutoring program for the children of migrant farm workers.
Not only were attendees pumped, but Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, was moved to tears by what he sees as a new political climate. In his inaugural address Wallis said, “More than any time in my lifetime, this is movement time.” He rejoiced at the fact that “poverty is now on the agenda of churches” and said that although we may not agree about theology, we can agree about the need to eradicate malaria and hunger. Wallis also rejoiced in his new found position as advisor to the president. (It was this opportunity that had brought him to tears.) He reminded attendees, however, that “access doesn’t make change by itself.” He said, “This town is known for giving access without results. As long as 30,000 kids die every day due to hunger and poverty, access doesn’t mean a thing.”
Whether someone was a student, an unknown urban worker, or an activist with friends in high places, they were at the Mobilization to End Poverty event to make a difference on behalf of their fellow citizens and that is something to celebrate.
Photos courtesy of ryanrodrickbeiler.com.