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This morning I note that CNN has brought into its Sunday morning Late Edition program a commentator from the Christian Broadcast Network to comment about politics and evangelical voters. This is the same CBN owned by Pat Robertson who declaimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for abortions in the U.S. and who, according to the blog Yurica Reports, employed Blitzer as a Middle East correspondent when he was beginning his journalism career.

The watchdog site MinistryWatch describes CBN as follows, Christian Broadcasting Network, Inc. (“CBN”) uses mass media, especially television and visual media, to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the everlasting kingdom of God on earth.”

The religious right continues to shape public perception of Christian faith. In his Sunay column, Frank Rich notes that 5.5 million turned to the Saddleback appearances of John McCain and Barack Obama while 32 million tuned into the time-delayed reports of the Olympics on NBC, suggesting, perhaps that the media attention given to religious conservatives might be a bit much, but never the less, it was a debate whose questions were framed by the evangelical wing of the faith.

However you feel about that, nuance and substance in reporting about religion have long since been abandoned by most U.S. media. And now CNN has decided to give legitimation and voice to an expression of an evangelical enterprise that is, in its most generous description, a fringe on the hem of the mainstream fabric of the faith.

All of which brings me to my on-going concern about the absence of mainline voices in the media and, because you’ve seen it before here, I pledge I’m going to just stop writing about it. I’m coming to the conclusion it’s futile to continue to point it out.

What this means is quite simple. Until some leaders emerge who can express theology in the public square from the Mainline tradition the Mainline will not shape public perception of Christian faith and its social reponsibilities through media as it once did.

We don’t have the likes of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., or Fr. Malcom Boyd, who some readers won’t even know, and there is little value in writing about that which only causes me continuing heartburn. So, I think I’ll swear off.

Del McCoury Sings of a “Forgotten America”

Moneyland by Del McCoury“Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can now best be described as ‘Forgotten America.’”

This is the opening sentence of the liner notes on Moneyland, a new bluegrass collection assembled by bluegrass master Del McCoury. It is directed at Washington politicians under a heading of “Obligatory Disclaimer.” The words stake out strong territory, territory once inhabited by Woody Guthrie and later by Pete Seeger. It’s the role of social prophet in a musical voice.

The prophet hears the voices of the oppressed and forgotten and lifts them up, but isn’t necessarily obligated to offer a prescription for social change. The prophet seeks a hearing and calls for justice.

It’s the politicians entrusted with the responsibilities of governance who ought to serve the people and Moneyland makes it abundantly clear that politicians have failed working folks wholesale.  It frames the case in an interesting way. The opening and closing cuts are taken from Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.

Roosevelt began his chats in 1933 when the country was in the throes of the Great Depression and radio in its infancy. The chats revealed his remarkable ability to communicate with the masses, especially working people, despite his patrician background. To put it mildly, it’s an ability that’s been long absent among politicians with roots in Roosevelt’s social vision and belief in progressive government for all the people.

Sterner and more angry voices today call the treatment of working people contemptuous neglect wrapped in hypocrisy and exploitation. And these themes are vocalized in Moneyland.

McCoury sings of greed and forgotten people. As if to nail down the point, the same week the album was released former Sen. Phil Gramm said we’re a nation of whiners concerned about a “mental recession.” He virtually ignored the real, down-to-earth dislocation that is tearing apart lives in the heartland.

Also included is Merle Haggard’s What Happened?, an unsparing critique of popular culture that asks where the America we once knew has gone.

Haggard says mainstreet has gone the way of Walmart. Jobs have gone offshore. Houses and double wide trailers are going back to the mortgage companies, and more and more families are going bankrupt. And it’s seemed as if no one is listening.

A poignant report in the New York Times by writer Michael Powell recounts the experience of Jeana Brown, a Georgia woman working two jobs. She tells Barack Obama about the sacrifices she and her husband are making to keep up payments on their double wide trailer after they went from $670 to $1,378.

Powell contrasts Ms. Brown’s story with the dissonance of Obama going from this conversation to fundraising events in elegant surroundings with wealthy patrons. Obama wrote in the Audacity of Hope it’s difficult to stay in touch with the hard edge of life when wealth provides both a cushion and distance.

It’s this disconnect that McCoury focuses on with clarity and sharpness. Both McCoury’s album and Ms. Brown’s story hint at something stirring in the heartland. It’s the stewpot of betrayal that a lot of people are feeling–economic exploitation, hypocrisy, greed, a toxic culture of consumption and unresponsive politicians.

I heard a man say recently, “This is not the country I grew up in.” When McCoury and Haggard put this disaffection into song it means there’s an audience for it. Something’s afoot.

Ms. Brown told Powell she hasn’t voted in 32 years, but she’s going to vote this year. Now that they’re being directly affected by the greed and neglect, folks who have felt they weren’t being heard and have little stake in the civic process are sounding like they’re ready to join in making change.

Whether it’s hope or desperation, it doesn’t matter, this is a time of opportunity that could re-energize the democratic process if this renewed interest can be harnessed and given active expression.

But it’s not only politics that has failed these folks. (I know this essay is too long and I’ll stop after this.) Much of the mainline religious community has been equally neglectful, sometimes even holding them in disdain, our only contact being when they repair our air conditioners or tune up our cars–despite the fact that some of us are them. We are working class but we got educated and got above our raising, as another Haggard song puts it.

In the process, mainliners lost the the ability to talk with working people and they figured out that mainline churches were no place for them and, maybe, religion was irrelevant anyway. Those who did reach out to them (fundamentalists, evangelicals and religious entrepreneurs) offered biblical interpretation devoid of social justice alongside a privatized expression of faith that was in some cases coopted by political operatives who wed right wing politics to conservative religion and claimed it was family values.

As I see it, the distance of the mainline from working folks is even more serious than the politicians because it’s a fundamental betrayal of the biblical admonition to stand for justice and express concern for your neighbor, especially the excluded and forgotten. (Matt. 25:35-40.)

So McCoury’s album is a prophetic poke at mainline religion as well. Mainline theologians and preachers could do worse than listen to McCoury, Haggard and others on this album and reflect on its themes. It expresses a deeply human, and therefore, deeply religious yearning for respect, dignity and community that deserves to be heard and given attention.

They also show us how the deepest yearnings of the human spirit can be expressed through story and sound, and in doing so point us toward recovering the ability to communicate with folks who are taking it on the chin right now and about whom we should be urgently concerned.

For some of us, “they” are us, but we need to close the gap.

Faith-based Initiatives: Just Say No

It’s hard to tell if Barack Obama and John McCain are merely clumsy in their attempts to appeal to religious voters, if they are cynically pandering to perceived religious sensibilities, if they are fuzzy-headed about religion, or if they have really good ideas about faith-based initiatives.

Obama’s statement on faith-based initiatives last week is causing me to back off and take a long, hard, skeptical look at him. If he’s pandering, he may not be what I thought. If he’s just clumsy about the risks associated with  faith-based initiatives, it isn’t a reassuring trait. And like a lot of other people I don’t think he’s come up with a more excellent way.

A faith-based initiative funded by the government is an oxymoron in the United States. Obama’s comments about having taught constitutional law don’t ease my concern.

Faith-based initiatives are something religious groups should look at carefully and with great reserve. They are a dangerous turn away from constitutional separation of church and state and toward entanglements that could be particularly harmful to them.

Do churches really want to get into a financial relationship with the government, subject themselves to program and financial audits by government auditors and become subcontractors for services that government ought to be providing anyway? See the IRS definition of partnerships here and ask if this is how you want your local congregation defined.

Do they want to set up and keep separate books to account for money and programs with all the attendant personnel needs and administration? Do they want to delineate when monies expended to repair the roof that houses a government-funded feeding program stopped where the shingles covering the worship sanctuary began?

Churches can easily support community groups organized to carry out community service and church members can provide the person power as volunteers to get the work done, but subcontracting services that government should provide has put us in the mess we’re in now with declining public schools, 50 million people outside the private health care system because they lack insurance and inadequate public transportation because government lived with blinders about our dependence on oil and did not step up to support research into alternative energy nor public transport.

In a pluralistic society in which religious expressions range from Scientologists, polygamists, snake handlers and dominionists who want to take over the government, do we want government to define what is distinctly religious in contrast to what is socially constructive and, therefore, acceptable for government funds?

If a church declares that its mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” as mine does, does it not follow that government-funded faith-based initiatives must tolerate this expression of faith, or the church must decide to hold in abeyance its mission at the behest of government restrictions?

The church has, in fact, accommodated to this neutrality by creating  organizations to carry out specialized work. So there is precedent. Entities constituted by religious organizations provide humanitarian services under contract to the government for processing immigrants, providing food aid, carrying out case management in disasters and many other humanitarian needs.

Under these contracts the services delivered are specific, non-sectarian and based on need. They are expressly free of religious conversation and the organizations are highly specialized and uniquely skilled at delivering social services.

Faith-based initiatives that extend beyond these constituted entities into congregational life at the grassroots level will create a more direct and intimate relationship between government and church, putting government funding and regulations into the halls of local congregations, synagogues, mosques or temples.

The risk is great. A faith community is first and primarily a worshipping and learning community. In my church community, worship and response to holy scripture, tradition and contemporary theological insight lead us to outward commitment to social justice, inclusive, democratic governance and concern for the common good.

When it is relevant, the church is an advocate for a government that includes all people and serves them equally but it is not a partner with government nor an agent of government. Our commitment is rooted in faithful response to a loving God, and this is not dependent upon, nor conditional to any form of governance. For us, justice is a biblical imperative.

Admittedly, we have not been nearly vocal enough in recent years about the deterioration of responsible government and have been far too quiet about the misplaced priorities that have led to spending vast amounts on war as federal and state governments cut back basic health, education and social services for those most vulnerable and at risk. But faith-based initiatives are no way to make up the difference.

We’ve already seen enough to know that the melding of religion and politics is a dangerous bond. We need look no further than the influence of the religious right on the current administration.

To preserve democratic society, theological integrity and constructive public policy our best response to faith-based initiatives is just say no.

Off to Côte d’Ivoire

I’ll be in Côte d’Ivoire for the next several days exploring community radio and health programs. I’ll blog from Abijan if possible. If not, I’ll be back here in a couple of weeks.

Jim Wallis Takes On James Dobson

Thanks to Jim Wallis of Sojourner’s for taking on the disingenuous attack of Barack Obama by James Dobson. Dobson’s claim that he is not a theologian was accurate. Absent solid theological grounding he is reduced to a right-wing political operative pushing his agenda under cover of religious rhetoric.

My concern for a long time has been the implication that Dobson is accurately reflecting biblical values and shaping attitudes toward the wider Christian community because he’s widely quoted in mainstream media. But his positions reflect a narrow segment of the religious community and his statements on public policy are not well grounded in biblical theology. Biblical teachings are far more nuanced, discrete and comprehensive than the simplistic formulas I’ve heard Dobson espouse.

Calling Dobson’s attack on a speech Obama made two years ago a distortion, Wallis writes in Sojo mail, “I have decided to respond to Dobson’s attacks. In most every case they are themselves clear distortions of what Obama said in that speech.”

Wallis also commented on an evangelical television network.

In the meantime, I would sure like to see some articulate mainline theology provide framing of crucial issues we face today globally. This fascination with evangelical filtering of faith is beginning to be tiresome.

White-guy Methodists

A letter to the editor in the Friday New York Times comments on the “white-guy Methodist” self characterization by President Bush while visiting in the UK last week. It is the subject of this commentary. The letter was posted after I wrote the commentary.

If my email is any indication, President Bush’s use of the phrase, “white-guy Methodists” in connection with his foreign policies and his effort to impose “self-government” in Iraq at the business end of a gun has caused something less than a stir in the church. I don’t know if that’s good, bad or a sign of indifference.

Maureen Dowd cited the remark in her column on Wednesday, the Associated Press included it in an article  wrapping up the President’s European visit and it made David Letterman last night. It got notice in Europe and on blogs on the right in the U.S.

If they are not simply bemused at one more gaffe, the few who have written to me are perplexed, offended or angry. No one has questioned the President’s faith but one writer sardonically commented, “Great for branding.” Another asked how Methodist teaching could be attached to the use of force to impose self-governance on another state and third said she was both embarrassed and angry.

It’s puzzling for several reasons. The Bush Administration has maintained a sustained relationship with the evangelical right but has not sought to equally engage the leaders of mainline religious denominations. In fact, the distance and lack of dialogue has been notable.

After having no public relationship with his church’s leaders and courting the evangelical right, it comes as a shock when the President refers to his Methodist heritage as the basis for his “hopeless idealism” and associates it with his war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it’s nigh impossible to parse this phrase. It’s fraught with enough racial and gender undercurrents to pull anyone who uses it into a dark and watery hole. It’s contrary to the sensitivity and self-critique that is common in the United Methodist community about equity and justice for all persons but especially for women and ethnic persons.

torture.jpgIt’s also hard to imagine what the phrase means when values are considered. The church through its Council of Bishops and other entities has not been supportive of the Iraq war. It has not been supportive of the use of torture and it has called for support of social legislation such as health care for children (SCHIP) and many other pieces of social welfare legislation that the Administration has opposed.

And if these were not sufficient reasons to leave it unspoken, the harmful implications of this phrase about a leadership patriarchy of white males is just too much for me to contemplate. And it’s not as if this is a new issue, it’s been a concern in the denomination a long time.

I’ve not been one to make the President’s miscues a laughingstock. On the other hand, implicating the traditions of the church in his policies, when the church has not been of one mind with him, is no laughing matter, either.

Pres. Bush–white guy Methodist?

Maureen Dowd quotes remarks President Bush made in the UK about his legacy. He said he will leave behind “multilateralism in dealing with tyrants,” according to Dowd’s column today. And he’s afflicted by “hopeless idealism” about Iraq and Iran.

But the most curious remark Dowd quotes is his reference to his “Methodist” (the complete name of the denomination is The United Methodist Church) faith connection:  “There is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal,” he asserted, adding that he rejected as elitist the notion that “’maybe it’s only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self-government.’”


Media Reform, The Religious Right and Progressive Dialogue

Attending the National Conference on Media Reform 2008 was, in some ways, like attending a revival meeting. Some in this meeting would cringe at the comparison, however, because great damage has been done by the marriage of right wing politics with evangelical faith claims. The alienating nature of the national conversation the past decade (or longer) has cost Christian organizations respect, trust and credibility among many of these activists.

The image of Christian faith created by the religious right is the primary image many people know and it’s been an image of exclusion. To those of us who felt excluded, it seemed more a monologue, as Sojourner’s Jim Wallis called it, than a dialogue.

In panel discussions and plenary sessions at the conference, I heard humane values and a concern for social justice and human dignity that was solid and deeply moving, and I believe this is where progressive faith and media reform intersect.

A young, fourteen-year-old female spoke of her concern about a mysogynist print ad for a Latino radio station that she believed promoted both violence and sexual abuse of women. When she showed the bus card for the ad, it was clear she had a genuine complaint.

Her recounting of the efforts of a group of young women to get the ad pulled was harrowing. The full force of a corporate media headquarters was brought against these teenagers in an effort to discourage them and scare them away. Yet they persisted and eventually the ad was withdrawn.

As she spoke, I don’t think she was aware of the tears in the eyes of many who’ve been in such struggles and know the costs firsthand.

In an address at the end of the conference, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now recounted an experience in East Timor when she and a photojournalist were beaten and her colleague’s skull was fractured. That day the Indonesian Army massacred 231 Timorese, according to Goodman.

She said “Journalists go to the silence,” referring to the role of journalists telling stories that would otherwise go untold, providing voice for the voiceless and powerless, even at risk of their lives.

There were moments such as this throughout. The media reform movement is passionate, grassroots activisim. It contains a wealth of experience and motivational stories. Sometimes the enthusiasm of some participants leads to rhetorical excess but the substance of presenters and panelists is unsurpassed.

To return to my point at the start of this post; the marriage of right wing religion and politics has been an alienating force that has turned off many caring, concerned people. That point kept concerning me as I listened to touching, inspiring stories, the kind of stories that I’ve heard in religious revivals, and more importantly, as I think about the common values shared by media reformers and progressive people of faith (at least those that I know).

There is common ground. But repairing the damage will take time and it will require new conversation between the skeptic and believer. But it’s important to try. There is much to discuss.

At the very least, the values I heard  professed at the conference are complementary to many progressive faith values. Many Christians are concerned about justice, fairness and a willingness to “go to the silence.” Many are willing to make substantial commitments to partner in ways that lead to transforming the world.

And, as Jim Wallis says, “The monologue of the religious right is over.” It’s time for a dialogue, and action, between religious progressives and reformers. We need to go to the silence–and speak.

Meeting Joe Bageant at the National Conference for Media Reform

I’m attending the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis the next couple of days. The conference began four years ago and has evolved into a significant grassroots gathering that helps sustain a movement of media activists. They are concerned about reforming public policy regulating media and taking a proactive role in creating open, accessible media for all people in the future.

It’s a mix of idealism and pragmatism that’s always a wonder to me. Those who lead this movement are gifted, skilled and passionate about the value of media and its influence on our quality of life.

While the event focuses on U.S. media it increasingly identifies the importance of global media and how they connect with poverty, the environment, health and economics, among other things.

The highlight of the first day (so far) was an unexpected meeting with Joe Bageant, the author of “Deer Hunting with Jesus,” which I have referred to in this blog. I’ve also linked to Joe’s website. He’s one of the most perceptive people writing today who understands poor whites and working class folks.

I put him alongside Tex Sample as a clear voice who can help us understand how we have lost touch with a substantial group of people whom we should be communicating with, listening to, advocating for and working with.

I’ve long said mainline churches abandoned these folks and left them to exploitation by the religious right. It’s time to turn that around and Joe and Tex have the insight to help us find the way to do it.

For straightforward critique and sympathetic understanding of the people and the challenges we need to take up to engage with them, you can’t do better than read the works of these two.

How Politicized Faith is Like Pathetically Pliant Media

Reacting to claims by former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan that the President misled us about the Iraq War, CNN veteran Bob Franken writes on Huffington Post that, “We (the media) were pathetically pliant, willing to be timid so as not to offend the White House and be denied the crumbs of access that were granted to those of us who didn’t make waves. When are we going to learn?”

Franken’s assessment is sharper and more  blunt than we’ve seen from those who practice newsgathering in contrast to commentators and pundits who offer opinion.

I was reminded of the words of United Methodist Bishop Mel Talbert in 2003 in a TV message challenging the Bush Administration to not go to war:  “No nation under God has that right. It violates international law. It violates God’s law and the teachings of Jesus Christ. War only creates more terrorists and makes a dangerous world for our children.”

His position reveals even greater moral strength and insight after McClellan’s revelations. In an AP report McClellan is quoted: “The Iraq war was not necessary. Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake.”

The AP article also claims McClellan is engaging in an act of contrition in order to be true to his Christian faith. According to the AP, McClellan writes, “I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be.”

His act of confession and contrition will not be understood by political operatives who hold to different values. His claim that the administration never ceased running in campaign mode reveals the contrasting values.  It was a government of continuing self-serving propaganda which resulted in serving the base at the expense of serving all the people. McClellan’s idealism apparently took a beating.

Values can inform political sensibilities, but politics cannot be an adequate vessel for religious faith.  It’s problematic when sectarian religious precepts are ensconced as public policy. That’s theocracy and while a few have recently have seemed to want it, it was rejected in this country early on and the nation is better for it.

While they were unyielding in attempting to advance their religious views, a few on the religious right were pliant in other ways and were rewarded with access and public affirmation by those in high positions in the administration.

But politics requires compromise, compromise that sometimes undermines the claims of faith. The cost of this identification of evangelical religion with politics is still to be determined.

Bishop Talbert staked his opposition to the war on faith claims as well, but he was appealing to a higher value–the well-being of the human community. And his plea was to refrain from doing harm, not to impose a particular religious precept onto others.

He was roundly criticized by those religious partisans who favored war. Unlike them, those religious leaders who did not support the war did not have access to the Administration. They were shut out. Not only was opposition to the war equated with lack of patriotism, it was also equated with unfaithfulness.

Faith got highjacked. I suspect Bishop Talbert understood this from the start. And I also suspect he knew the cost for his stand wasn’t mere criticism, it carried a much deeper risk—compromised integrity and the betrayal of faithfulness to higher values. And that’s what Scott McClellan is discovering now and what some, even after all this time, still don’t understand.

Politically compromised faith is pathetically pliant.

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