I went to hear Robin Meyers pitch his new book last night, Why the Christian Right is Wrong. I might have let it pass as one of now dozens of books on the same topic, all preaching to the choir, but I noted that on the Amazon reviews, the book was endorsed by my three favorite Christian preachers (no, I’m not swinging your member in the tea, as they say in Russian): Bill Moyers, John Shelby Spong, and Desmond Tutu.
Listening to Meyers was like taking a shower on a hot sticky day. First time in memory, I whispered to my friend Jerry, I’ve sat in church and enjoyed a sermon. The guy is a professor of rhetoric and wrote a book on persuasion, but he’s clearly pulling off a sermon when he gets up to talk. And you don’t mind a bit. Finally, a Christian who sounds like one, puts the Beatitudes above the Ten Commandments and leaves you thinking maybe we don’t need lions anymore. He didn’t manage to convert me in ninety minutes – I still think religion is the problem, not the solution, but if anybody ever does convince me otherwise, it will be the likes of this guy.
I’m like the Jew who wants the synagogue he never attends to be orthodox. I want the church I have no use for to be populated by good guys. I want to believe Christianity is something other than the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the shed America keeps its military tools in.
Meyers represents something quite interesting. Leftists tend to be overwhelmingly secular because those who fear difference and change have staked out the right, stolen Jesus just as they have the flag, replaced New Testament love with Old Testament righteousness, substituted the worship of the golden calf of literalism for the search for God in everyman, and given religion a very bad rep indeed. Soft and mild Methodists and Presbyterians have moved over and let angry and shrill Pentecostals and Southern Baptists become America’s default churches.
In Japan, when one of the graduate students at my university wanted to do a master’s thesis on culture and religion, the eyeballs rolled on the faculty in my department. “You take him!” said one of my colleagues. “I have absolutely no use for religion!” My Japanese partner and main squeeze has similar views. “Damn! Another book on religion! What’s the matter with you!?”
Everywhere I look the more thoughtful people I know have come to see religion as something for people who simply haven’t grown out of the need for Santa Claus, for people who tend not to read very much, people easily manipulated by this gang of liars and thieves currently driving America into the ground and using them to help them do it.
The religious right has moved in and sucked the air right out of democracy. The Catholic Church has managed to leave the reforms of Vatican II out in the rain to rust – I just heard the number of American nuns is down from over 180,000 a couple of decades ago to under 6000 women under fifty in the present day. The same trend holds for priests. Not because of a lack of Catholics, but because the church is in the hands of the direct spiritual descendants of Vatican I, the line drawn from the anti-Semitic anti-ecumenical Pius IX, who ramrodded the absurdist doctrine of papal infallibility. Catholics stuck in Vatican I are stuck in a culture that loathes democracy as a modernist aberration, insists on blind obedience and holds like a dog with a bone to the patriarchal hierarchy. It’s a place where progressives struggle to stay above water while authoritarians ride around in yachts.
Because they do, and because the evangelicals have put their fight over who gets into heaven on the back burner and joined forces with them against sexual liberation, together they’ve created the critical mass essential to bringing about a government of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation. Small price to pay, this necessary evil means to moral righteousness.
I’m hardly alone in watching this all come down on us, obviously. The books pour off the presses these days. I’ve just worked my way through a bunch of books by Catholics trying desperately to get back the church of John XXIII – Garry Wills’ Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit; Why I am a Catholic; What Jesus Meant, Michael Walsh’s book on Opus Dei, David Gibson’s The Coming Catholic Church, Peter De Rosa’s Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, Eamon Duffy’s very impressive history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners, and Hans Küng’s The Catholic Church: A Short History. I make no attempt to be representative; these are merely books that have crossed my path.
Among analogues on the Protestant side, besides the Meyers book I just mentioned and those by John Shelby Spong (The Sins of Scripture; A New Christianity for a New World; Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism), there are Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil, Bruce Bawer’s Stealing Jesus, and without saying anything directly about the current culture wars, absolutely anything by William Sloan Coffin, who just died this last April, but especially, Letters to a Young Doubter. Also Jon Meacham’s American Gospel, a book far less harsh and more neutral on the topic of religion in America, yet clearly not comfortable with the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells, who have the ear of the current administration.
Non-Christians take a much harsher look at religion as America’s poison. I’m thinking of Esther Kaplan’s With God on their Side, Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, and Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Less hostile, but equally clear on the dangers of weakening the separation of church and state are Rabbi James Rubin’s The Baptizing of America and Noah Feldman’s Divided by God.
When I was working with the U.N. in Saudi Arabia, a group of students asked me once whether I was protestant or catholic. “Neither,” I answered. “YOU’RE A JEW???” they shouted, ignorant of the fact that if I were I wouldn’t have been allowed to live and work in their country. “How can you have no religion?” they asked. “How do you keep yourself from killing someone?”
Somewhere between the Japanese (and modern European) “Only screwballs believe in religion” and the Saudi “without religion we’d all kill each other” lies the American belief that religion is a fact of life and inescapable political reality. If those of us on the left want to side with the Europeans (and Japanese and others) in dismissing religion, we have no way of joining forces with the Christians and Jews who want toxic religion purged from the body politic as much as we do.
I’ve been struggling for so long to find ways to reach across the chasm to the fundamentalist right so I don’t lose the thin thread of connection to a couple of family members. It’s taken me a long time to let go. All this time I’ve blamed religion when it turns out it’s closed religion that I can’t talk to. Open religion is not the problem. And if you take closed/open as the operant word, it’s not even religion that’s the problem. It’s closed-mindedness. And if you can open your mind around that, as I’m trying to, you can stop saying religion is the problem. Your categories shift from religion bad and secular good to closed and hopeless (including religion toxic) and open and friendly, even helpful (including religion non-toxic).
Which brings me to the question of preaching to the choir. The secular left can do a whole lot more to help bring religion into the political mix, if we can learn to spot non-toxic religion and join their choirs. That way they’ve got folks to preach to that are not automatic yeah-sayers, and we’ve got people to keep us honest in our convictions by bringing in some alternate perspectives.
So enough of beating the Pat Robertson dead horse, I say (preaching to myself more than most of you, who have not taken much time to think of him at all, I’m guessing) and let’s go to church. If that's going too far, I know a local Congregational Church where you can at least go to interesting lectures.
Whether we read books like Phillips’ American Theocracy or Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming in order to whip our anger white hot over what’s wrong with America, or whether we read to find sympathetic allies like Meyers, I think it’s time to relax the resistance to the religious folk among us. And listen to the morality that stems from the kinds of folk who listen for the voice of God instead of claiming to speak in it.
But what I was after when I sat down just now was to give you a sense of this guy Meyers.
Here’s the speech he gave at Oklahoma State which made such a splash on the internet that they called him from New York and convinced him to expand it into a book.
A Minister Fights Back on Moral Values
Dr. Robin Meyers' Speech during the 11/04 Peace Rally at OK University
As some of you know, I am minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, an Open and Affirming, Peace and Justice church in northwest Oklahoma City, and professor of Rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. But you would most likely have encountered me on the pages of the Oklahoma Gazette, where I have been a columnist for six years, and hold the record for the most number of angry letters to the editor.
Tonight, I join ranks of those who are angry, because I have watched as the faith I love has been taken over by fundamentalists who claim to speak for Jesus, but whose actions are anything but Christian. We've heard a lot lately about so-called "moral values" as having swung the election to President Bush. Well, I'm a great believer in moral values, but we need to have a discussion, all over this country, about exactly what constitutes a moral Value—I mean what are we talking about? Because we don't get to make them up as we go along, especially not if we are people of faith. We have an inherited tradition of what is right and wrong, and moral is as moral does. Let me give you just a few of the reasons why I take issue with those in power who claim moral values are on their side:
When you start a war on false pretenses, and then act as if your deceptions are justified because you are doing God's will, and that your critics are either unpatriotic or lacking in faith, there are some of us who have given our lives to teaching and preaching the faith who believe that this is not only not moral, but immoral.
When you live in a country that has established international rules for waging a just war, build the United Nations on your own soil to enforce them, and then arrogantly break the very rules you set down for the rest of the world, you are doing something immoral.
When you claim that Jesus is the Lord of your life, and yet fail to acknowledge that your policies ignore his essential teaching, or turn them on their head (you know, Sermon on the Mount stuff like that we must never return violence for violence and that those who live by the sword will die by the sword), you are doing something immoral.
When you act as if the lives of Iraqi civilians are not as important as the lives of American soldiers, and refuse to even count them, you are doing something immoral.
When you find a way to avoid combat in Vietnam, and then question the patriotism of someone who volunteered to fight, and came home a hero, you are doing something immoral.
When you ignore the fundamental teachings of the gospel, which says that the way the strong treat the weak is the ultimate ethical test, by giving tax breaks to the wealthiest among us so the strong will get stronger and the weak will get weaker, you are doing something immoral.
When you wink at the torture of prisoners, and deprive so-called "enemy combatants" of the rules of the Geneva Convention, which your own country helped to establish and insists that other countries follow, you are doing something immoral.
When you claim that the world can be divided up into the good guys and the evil doers, slice up your own nation into those who are with you, or with the terrorists—and then launch a war which enriches your own friends and seizes control of the oil to which we are addicted, instead of helping us to kick the habit, you are doing something immoral.
When you fail to veto a single spending bill, but ask us to pay for a war with no exit strategy and no end in sight, creating an enormous deficit that hangs like a great millstone around the necks of our children, you are doing something immoral.
When you cause most of the rest of the world to hate a country that was once the most loved country in the world, and act like it doesn't matter what others think of us, only what God thinks of you, you have done something immoral.
When you use hatred of homosexuals as a wedge issue to turn out record numbers of evangelical voters, and use the Constitution as a tool of discrimination, you are doing something immoral.
When you favor the death penalty, and yet claim to be a follower of Jesus, who said an eye for an eye was the old way, not the way of the kingdom, you are doing something immoral.
When you dismantle countless environmental laws designed to protect the earth which is God's gift to us all, so that the corporations that bought you and paid for your favors will make higher profits while our children breathe dirty air and live in a toxic world, you have done something immoral. The earth belongs to the Lord, not Halliburton.
When you claim that our God is bigger than their God, and that our killing is righteous, while theirs is evil, we have begun to resemble the enemy we claim to be fighting, and that is immoral. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.
When you tell people that you intend to run and govern as a "compassionate conservative," using the word which is the essence of all religious faith-compassion, and then show no compassion for anyone who disagrees with you, and no patience with those who cry to you for help, you are doing something immoral.
When you talk about Jesus constantly, who was a healer of the sick, but do nothing to make sure that anyone who is sick can go to see a doctor, even if she doesn't have a penny in her pocket, you are doing something immoral.
When you put judges on the bench who are racist, and will set women back a hundred years, and when you surround yourself with preachers who say gays ought to be killed, you are doing something immoral.
I'm tired of people thinking that because I'm a Christian, I must be a supporter of President Bush, or that because I favor civil rights and gay rights I must not be a person of faith. I'm tired of people saying that I can't support the troops but oppose the war.
I heard that when I was your age—when the Vietnam war was raging. We knew that that war was wrong, and you know that this war is wrong—the only question is how many people are going to die before these make-believe Christians are removed from power?
This country is bankrupt. The war is morally bankrupt. The claim of this administration to be Christian is bankrupt. And the only people who can turn things around are people like you—young people who are just beginning to wake up to what is happening to them. It's your country to take back. It's your faith to take back. It's your future to take back.
Don't be afraid to speak out. Don't back down when your friends begin to tell you that the cause is righteous and that the flag should be wrapped around the cross, while the rest of us keep our mouths shut. Real Christians take chances for peace. So do real Jews, and real Muslims, and real Hindus, and real Buddhists--so do all the faith traditions of the world at their heart believe one thing: life is precious.
Every human being is precious. Arrogance is the opposite of faith. Greed is the opposite of charity. And believing that one has never made a mistake is the mark of a deluded man, not a man of faith.
And war—war is the greatest failure of the human race—and thus the greatest failure of faith. There's an old rock and roll song, whose lyrics say it all: War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.
And what is the dream of the prophets? That we should study war no more, that we should beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Who would Jesus bomb, indeed? How many wars does it take to know that too many people have died? What if they gave a war and nobody came? Maybe one day we will find out.
July 9, 2006