Partisan Piety

Concepts of separation of church and state, the divide between science/academia and religion, faith and politics are generally muddy and misinformed.  Early attempts to guarantee religious freedom and protect against theocracy have come to mean, in some minds, that the physical and the metaphysical should have nothing in common.  And when we blur lines and pigeon-hole positions as clearly one thing or the other, we get in trouble fast.  Political labels do not line up cleanly with theological labels, and to reduce people to categories is the worst kind of judgmental heresy. We live in a charged society where we define ourselves as much by what we hate as by what we love, by what we oppose as much as by what we support.  Rather than focus on our own attributes and virtues, we waste so much time and energy castigating, attacking and insluting those with whom we disagree.  We love living in the polarity — but not the polarity of separate, but equal.  Instead, we want to prove superiority over inferiority.  We take what we are not and make it a terrible thing that no decent, self-respecting person would ever want to be — like those people over there…

For example, I am an evangelical.  My whole belief system is built upon the concept that we have a belief system of such power and beauty that it would be a sin not to share it.  I want to offer every person in the world an opportunity to meet Christ as Savior and to know the unconditional, expansive love of God.  I believe that the place we go to on a Sunday morning is not “the church,” but that the place we go to Sunday morning has the privilege and responsibility to equip people to “be the church” in the world 24/7/365.  I believe that the gospel should be embraced not only in word, but in flesh and spirit as well — meaning our witness to the world is an active witness, never passive or carried out by the few for the many.  And I believe a woman can do this as well as a man, a teenager can do this as well as an adult, a third worlder can do this as well as a first worlder, a street person can do this as well as a rich person, a gay person can do this as well as a straight person, and (shockingly) a lay person can do this as well as a clergy person.  I am for human rights, egalitarian treatment, universal health care, restorative justice, celebration of life, economic balance, open borders — and I am against domestic violence, addictive substances and practices, gun and other forms of violence, religious intolerance, persecution, torture, human trafficking and reality shows on television.  For me, this defines me as a Christian in close alignment with my understanding of the gospels.  These standards and principles are the core upon which I make ethical, cultural, social and political decisions.  What this doesn’t do is make me think that people who disagree with me and feel strongly in opposition to my position are wrong or “not Christian.”  Often, when I frame my “fors” and my “againsts” people will knowingly nod their heads and tell me that I am a “liberal” or a “democrat.”  This frustrates me… but it absolutely incenses my gay Republican friends or my liberal friends who oppose abortion and favor capital punishment.  In my recent work on Immigration and those I know who work on Health Care reform, I discovered that there were as many Republicans as Democrats working toward common goals.  See, we cross a dangerous line when we make core values and central religious beliefs either/or.  This past week I raised up some of the peace and justice issues that inform the work of our General Board of Church and Society and a couple of people who left comments labeled the work the focus of “Democrats.”  Certainly, our partisan politics divide around major (and minor) issues, but there is a very weird implication here, that a friend of mine aptly contests:

I voted for Dole, Bush (twice) and McCain.  I’ve worked at Republican campaign headquarters for the past fifteen years.  I believe in state’s rights as strongly as I believe in Jesus.  I HATE domestic violence, gambling, human slaving, capital punishment — and I think the United Methodist position on abortion is the most sane, sensible and cautious I have ever seen.  And because of this some airhead calls me a DEMOCRAT??  I dare them to say it to my face, but they better keep in mind that I do belong to the NRA!

(Which reminds me of a funny thing that happened when I was in Mercer, Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago.  I was watching the news and they were interviewing a man who was promoting “NRA for Romney.”  The man was sharing his group’s commitment to Mitt Romney, and the commentator said something to the effect that, while Romney supported the gun lobby, there were some other things — economics and taxes for example — that might not work in favor of the NRA group.  Growing more and more exasperated with the commentator, the gentleman finally said, “Look, I don’t care what a man’s politics are as long as he’s a Republican!”)

It is a slippery slope to equate human rights, economic justice, care for the poor and marginalized, fair treatment for the stranger with one party over the other.  Twice, once in the fifties and again in the sixties, satirists raised the concept that, were we to bring the players from the first century into our own, Jesus would be a Democrat and Paul would be a Republican — and in a head-to-head election, Paul would win in a landslide.  You can imagine the controversy and argument such satire raised.  Yet, there is a kernel of truth in every absurdity.  Matthew 25 aligns more tightly with a left-leaning political worldview than it does a right-.  The Sermon on the Mount may shift toward moderate, but not too much.  This is the tragedy of trying to view gospel through modern political lenses — the teachings of Jesus pre-date our artificial categories and postulates.  The alignment of political leanings to left and right, liberal or conservative, deviant, sinister, foolish, gullible (early meanings of left) or true, proper, straight or strong (early meanings of right) all postdate Jesus and his teachings.  We need to realize that we are dumping the words of Jesus into our conservative/liberal molds and that it is ridiculous to point to the words and actions of Jesus and call them “socialist,” or “communist,” or “liberal,” though “progressive” fits somehow.

Feeding a starving person is not primarily a political act, (though many make a case that denying food to a starving person is) but comes from a deeper center and a higher value.  To feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, give water to those who thirst, visit those in prison, and heal the sick should not depend on whether we are a Republican or a Democrat.  How Republicans choose to fulfill the gospel may differ from how Democrats do it, but that’s fine — as long as we are all doing it!

Most of the criticisms I have heard about the “violations” of our Board of Church & Society are grounded in misinformation, incomplete information, ignorance or misunderstanding (but not all — there are legitimate gripes, concerns and differences of opinion.  Huh, what a surprise in an organization of 7 million plus…).  But there is a HUGE difference between an agency doing something wrong or doing something poorly and an agency that does things with which we personally disagree.  I invite, I challenge, I ask, I beg, I implore, beseech, and humbly request people to study our Social Principles and our Book of Resolutions and find things that our Board of Church and Society is doing in violation of what our General Conference has decided.  I am impressed by how well we navigate some treacherous and emotional waters (read our Social Principles on Abortion before you claim we are “pro-abortion; actually read our position on Health Care — you may be very surprised at what you find there.  (One woman I was talking to who was “leaving the church for its liberal stance on gays, abortion and no-fault divorce,” yelled at me that I had changed the Book of Discipline when I read to her what it said.  She said her pastor had told her what we really believe, and it sure wasn’t what I read!)

For me, this is the bottom line: why are we looking for things to divide us and keep us upset?  There are so many more things about which we agree than disagree.  There are so many good things we are doing.  Why can’t we park our politics at the door for a minute and let the church be God’s space, where gospel and Holy Spirit are the only two parties we need to attend to in the present moment.  When it comes right down to it and I am working on a Habitat project or serving food in a soup kitchen or sleeping over at a Room at the Inn program, I don’t really care who in the room is a Republican or a Democrat — I am just happy to be together in Christian community.  I would much rather work to find out things about others I like than to seek ways to dislike them.

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14 replies

  1. All of my criticisms of the GBCS comes from articles posted on the site. In particular, the ones on abortion come from the Sex and the Church series.

  2. How many of the resolutions in the Book of Resolutions were written by GBCS? They get passed at conference and then GBCS claims to be carrying out the mandates of General Conference. We have the self-licking ice cream cone.

    • “they get passed at conference”…um. That’s us. United Methodists. Not like some group of Baptists or atheists passed crazy resolutions. WE did. Not agreeing with the stance doesn’t mean it was somehow magically passed by GBCS.

      • When these resolutions are wrapped up along with a bunch of others and passed in some omnibus fashion without any real discussion or debate I do not know what to call that but I do not call it holy conferencing. Lots of things can slip in under the radar with a system like that.

  3. Not sure what our social principals say about abortion. Here is what the Religious Council for Reproductive Choice says

    “The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism all have official statements affirming reproductive choice
    as a matter of conscience, adopted by their governing bodies”

    Make of that what you will.

    • FWIW, the head of the RCRC has an article in latest Faith in Action issue. It’s titled “A call to reproductive justice” I encourage anybody who is curious what a portion of their weekly tithe goes to support to read it.

    • Here is the language from the 2004 Book of Discipline (I don’t know if it changed at all in 2008 or 2012):

      The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born.

      Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.

      We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See ¶ 161.K.)

      Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.

      • Thanks John, People will still read through filters, but the idea that we see this as a tragic reality that has complex and far-reaching implications gets lost in the fact that we realize a “one-size-fits-all” situations policy is impossible gets lost. Nice to see the actual language lifted up.

      • None of that changes the articles routinely posted to the GBCS site that are more radical than this. Or our shameful association with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

        And since our tithes and offerings go to keep the GBCS running, I think it’s only fair that those of us who do not like it complain.

      • This is the language from the 2008 BOD. There have been a few word changes. Not sure if it really makes a difference.

        J) Abortion—The beginning of life and the ending of life are the
        God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have
        always had some degree of control over when they would die, they
        now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether
        new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn
        human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.
        But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and
        well-being of the mother and the unborn child.
        We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify
        abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion
        under proper medical procedures. We support parental, guardian,
        or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions
        can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of
        legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of
        birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender
        selection.
        We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and
        extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice
        except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other
        medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies
        incompatible with life. Before providing their services, abortion
        providers should be required to offer women the option of anesthesia.
        We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into
        the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion.
        The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies.
        We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries
        to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a
        crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth.
        We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social
        service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. (See
        ¶ 161.L.) We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry
        of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately
        help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.

        There are some internal conflicts within this policy statement.
        • “equally bound to respect.. mother and the unborn child”. In reality the unborn child is not treated equally. The mother always gets 100% of the vote.

        • Support notification of parents when minors receive abortions. I will bet most of these teenage abortions are for the purposes of birth control and not the physical health of the mother.

        • Notice that we do not affirm abortion as a means of birth control but we unconditionally reject abortion as a means of gender selection. Do not affirm is not the same as rejecting.

        I know that for some people this issue is very simple. For others it is very complex. As for me I find my own feelings are somewhat ambiguous. I feel for the women who had abortions sometime in their past who may be experiencing a deepening sense of guilt as time goes by. Look around the pews and you have no idea who has been touched by this issue in some way. More than we might think. I wish our UMC policy had somehow addressed that.

      • I will admit that my views on this changed after having a child with “special needs.” In a few decades when genetic testing advances, it may be a case that children like my son will not be born because people — in the name of compassion — will decide that it is better that they were never born.

  4. I agree that we are confusing faith mandates with political action. As citizens we need to be concerned with both, but we also need to keep in mind which is which. If someone disagrees with my political views, they are not condemned for eternity.

    Earlier today I received a forwarded email asking that everyone pray for our country for one minute a night. The person who originally wrote it is very concerned about this election, although I’m completely sure from which end of the spectrum. However, I believe that there is not a political issue that will not benefit from a complete hearing of ALL viewpoints and suggestions, so my prayer is that we will elect people who will work with each other, and that people of faith will start putting their faith in action–in the soup kitchens and food pantries, at a Habitat project or free clinic, listening to someone who is down and out and needs a helping hand to get to the point that they can try to help themselves.

    Sorry, living in a “battleground state” is really getting to me.

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