The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Whose Church? Whose State? Who’s Right?, Pt. 2. of 3

Watching the debate over religion in public life in America over the past week has been a little like watching a Three Stooges routine. One stooge smack the other, who then turns to retaliate but ends up poking the third stood in the eye when the first one ducks. All very amusing, or it would be if — as a non-Christian in America — I weren’t standing somewhere between one stooge and the other.

Reading about religion in the news and in the blogosphere lately has been kind of like that. At least part of the time I’ve been watching the various stooges, smack, kick, poke and run into one another, which is apparently what they get up to when they’re not attacking some other victim. It becomes a kind of visual riff on the “who’s on first” routine. It’s amusing up to a point, usually because some intra-stooge dispute distracts them from their original target. But the mayhem usually turns back the “non-stooge.”

I was reminded of that, and thus stifled a chuckle when, so soon after Chuck Colson pooh-poohed paganism, Cal Thomas declared that Hillary Clinton is not a “true Christian.” (A phrase I don’t run into much except at Landover Baptist Church or when I pay a visit to Betty Bowers. So sometimes I forget people actually mean it when they make that distinction). I knew what was coming when Cal questioned Hillary’s Christianity. Of course, the audience always does, and that’s what makes it funny because the stooge never sees it coming. He just swings away.

Liberal faith, which is to say a faith that discounts the authority of Scripture in favor of a constantly evolving, poll-tested relevancy to modern concerns — such as the environment, what kind of SUV Jesus would drive, larger government programs and other “do-good” pursuits — ultimately morphs into societal and self-improvement efforts and jettisons the life-changing message of salvation, forgiveness of sins and a transformed life.

…One might ask, which the reporter did not, that if there are other ways to God than through Jesus, why did He bother to come to earth, allow Himself to be crucified and suffer rejection? He might have stayed in Heaven and told people about a spiritual GPS system that would get them there another way.

…Sen. Clinton is entitled to whatever faith she wants to practice, but when she uses it as an election tactic, she should not be allowed to alter classic Christian theology.

Cal, applying the “I know it when I see it test,” is essentially judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to Clinton’s faith. Kind of like the “smart stooge” who knows it all, knows he knows it all, and thus is entitled the smack the others for not “getting it.” In Thomas’ case, Clinton must be smacked, because she staking a claim on his turf. He knows what “true” Christianity is. He knows what he knows, and knows what he knows is truth. (Not “true,” but “truth.”) And if Hillary’s approach to her faith is as valid as his own — if she knows what she knows, and knows what she knows is truth — Then maybe Cal can’t know anything. In other words, he’s got no certainty.

Thomas’ assertion embodies the valuing of one faith above all others, and thus the impossibility of other beliefs receiving equal treatment or respect. If there can be no other truth or way to the truth, then there’s an inherent danger in treating all faiths as equal, particularly if we are a “Christian nation.”

Now comes the argument over just who’s right and who’s wrong.

Cal’s first mistake (though presumably not a lie) is thinking he knows something about theology. Because Hillary connects faith and social responsibility, Cal tut-tuts that she must be a heretical believer in “works salvation.” He has no idea what he’s talking about, as actual (rather than make-believe) theologian Robin Lovin demonstrates here.

Cal soon sheds the plausible deniability of bad intentions, though. To prove that Hillary is committed to a “strictly ‘social gospel’” — which, to Cal, means a gospel concerned only with public issues and not faith in Christ — he quotes a passage saying she was a guest speaker at an adult Sunday school class that often addressed nonreligious topics. Too bad Cal omitted the sentences that immediately followed:

…In building his case, Cal also pretends he didn’t see Sojourners’ recent forum on faith and politics (never mind that he wrote a column about it) where Hillary, in discussing her personal troubles, said: “At those moments in time when you’re tested, it is absolutely essential that you be grounded in your faith.” Hillary expressed gratitude for the “prayer warriors” who “sustained” her in dark days.

Are these the words of a woman who doesn’t believe in the individual aspects of faith? Of course not. But inconvenient facts aren’t a concern for Cal.

(And here’s where I gotta jump in with a quick aside about Sojourner’s “faith forum.” In the name of all thati s unholy, can we stop calling it a forum on faith in politics and just call it a forum on Christianity in politics? Can we stop pretending that “faith” in this country means anything else or is even intended to be inclusive of all beliefs and even non-belief? Else,why would a “faith forum” not incorporate any other faiths represented in this country?)

The back and forth is amusing to the viewer, and maybe even to the “straight man” in the scene, because he sees what the battling stooges don’t. In this case, they don’t see Pope Benedict’s two fingers ready to poke them in the eye. Turns out Ratzinger doesn’t think Cal’s Christianity passes muster, and he’s got the apostolic pedigree, dontcha know.

Pope Benedict XVI has reasserted the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, approving a document released Tuesday that says Orthodox churches were defective and that other Christian denominations were not true churches.

Benedict approved a document from his old offices at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that restates church teaching on relations with other Christians. It was the second time in a week the pope has corrected what he says are erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that modernized the church.

…In the new document and an accompanying commentary, which were released as the pope vacations here in Italy’s Dolomite mountains, the Vatican repeated that position.

“Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one church,” the document said. The other communities “cannot be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense” because they do not have apostolic succession – the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ’s original apostles.

And, of course, the other stooge has to ask, “What’d you do that for?” Leave it to David Kuo to supply that element, a post longing for the “good old days” when Pope John Paul left his coreligionist alone to focus on the rest of us.

That is what makes Pope Benedict’s decree today so hard to take. In saying that Orthodox churches were defective and that other Christian denominations are not true churches, the lover has been replaced by the enforcer. It is just so sad.

Does Pope Benedict have every right to clarify church law? Of course. He is the pope. It is his responsibility to clarify mistakes he identifies in his church.

Has he said anything that is fundamentally different from things that have been stated before? No.

My friend Rod Dreher is right – this is not a theological stunner.

It may be worse.

At a time when the Christian church faces extraordinary opportunity and extraordinary peril, it appears the pope has decided to fiddle in matters of minutia.

It’s mildly amusing to watch evangelicals squirm when the Pope slips onto their foot the same ill-fitting shoe they seek to hobble the rest of us with. One man’s minutia is the difference between salvation and damnation to another. And who can prove either right or wrong ultimately, in a context where proof is beside the point in the first place?

But then Kuo’s post reaches its most plaintive pitch.

Why is it necessary to slap protestant demoninations across the face? Why is it necessary to belittle their churches and their history and their love for Christ?

…Theology matters of course. Theology matters a lot. But sometimes it matters far less than other times. This, I would suggest, is one of those times. A time when love and grace and mercy and kindness would have been much more powerful than an iron fist.

Why is it necessary to slap other faiths or non-believers across the face? Why is it necessary to belittle their beliefs, their history, and their contributions? Why is it necessary to belittle their sincerity?

What about the possibility that theology doesn’t matter because it’s all just so much trying to get ground under our feet? What if it’s all just so much grasping for certainty that we think will save us from realizing that perhaps all we have is here, now and one another. What about the possibility that love, grace and mercy shown to one another is more important than theology or the truth of anyone’s unprovable beliefs in the first place.

What if what matters is not what we believe but how we treat each other, and the only reward for doing so is doing so?

I’m about halfway through Sheila Kennedy’s God and Country: America in Red and Blue, and something she wrote while referencing another author’s work — distinguishing between people who “casually adopted” cultural attitudes and could thus be “educated to see past” them, and people who are more deeply invested in their world view — kind of summed up Colson’s response to Paganism, Cal Thomas’ response to Clinton’s Christianity, and Pope Benedict’s response to every other Christian Church.

[Gordon] Allport believed that the former group could be educated to see past their casually adopted, culturally sanctioned attitudes. Those whose worldviews were rigid, however, who were so emotionally invested in a particular view of reality that the loss of any one piece of it would be experienced as a threat to their very identity, were beyond reach.

Like I said before.

“Being right,” especially in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, is a lot of work. Over time, maintaining that level of certainty — with the threat of eternal damnation and hell itself yawning before you — would have to be anxiety-inducing. Wouldn’t it? And, given the stakes, how strongly might one react to a threat to that certainty?

…“We know” quickly morphs into “We know best,” which is a short jump to “We know best for you.” The first takes a lot to maintain in and of itself. The second is where the anxiety begins, when the first assertion is challenged. The third brings even more anxiety, as well as exhaustion, because it has moved from assertion to enforcement.

And I know I keep wearing out this bit from Pema Chodron, but I this it’s applicable again here.

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and nonBuddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

For those who want something to hold on to, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, theism is an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope — hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

Because there’s just not enough space for everyone on that ground under their feet. Any foothold someone else gains is a threat to their position, their stability. If that happens, they’ll have nowhere to stand; the won’t know where they stand. If the ground under their feet is big enough for everyone, then everything they know — absolutely and unquestionably know — about the world, including who they are and their place in it might be wrong too. Might not even exist at all anymore.

So, they stand their ground. And when someone gets a foothold, they’ve got to be shoved back off, because the ground under their feet is theirs and nobody else gets on it except on their terms. (Because if everybody gets on it, maybe not worth having, like a those secret clubs of childhood that were only fun to belong to when they excluded others.) And if, by a kind of manifest destiny, the ground under their feet gives them dibs on the public square — the actually ground under everyones’ feet — then nastiness will inevitably ensue, as happened in Senate.

Today was a historic first for religion in America’s civic life: For the very first time, a Hindu delivered the morning invocation in the Senate chamber — only to find the ceremony disrupted by three Christian right activists.

…The three protesters, who all belong to the Christian Right anti-abortion group Operation Save America, and who apparently traveled to Washington all the way from North Carolina, interrupted by loudly asking for God’s forgiveness for allowing the false prayer of a Hindu in the Senate chamber.

“Lord Jesus, forgive us father for allowing a prayer of the wicked, which is an abomination in your sight,” the first protester began.

“This is an abomination,” he continued. “We shall have no other gods before You.”

Which leads me to repeat a question I’ve asked before (with apologies to Tonto): What do you mean “we,” religious man?

They don’t, of course, really mean “we.”

After all, it may look like fun, but not everybody gets to be a stooge. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Crossposted from The Republic of T.

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