Monday, February 28, 2005
Beth tells a true story about trying to get to church with her daughter, only to have disaster — and inadequate parking — get in the way.
Doug Muder, the Unitarian Univeraslist who has been posting insightful political essays as Pericles over at Daily Kos, has published his synthesis of George Lakoff and James M. Ault Jr in an essay on his personal website. "Red Family, Blue Family: Making Sense of the Values Issue" is available in a downloadable pdf and in a Web version. Lakoff is the author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think and the current bestseller, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Ault is the author of an engaging book of religious sociology, Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church.
Update 3.3.05: Camassia responds to Doug's essay with some very perceptive and theologically grounded insights.
Sunday, February 27, 2005
I've had it with Governor Romney, who badmouths the state that elected him whenever he's somewhere else. In his "I Wish Massachusetts Were More Like Utah" speech last week, Romney said: "America cannot continue to lead the family of nations around the world if we suffer the collapse of the family here at home." (It's an allusion to a popular bit of Mormon folk wisdom, incidentally: "No success compensates for failure in the home.") Aside from the silliness of thinking U.S. prestige has been weakened among the world's leading nations because a few thousand gay couples have married in Massachusetts, I have to ask the governor: Do you really believe Utah is better for families than Massachusetts?
A few salient bits of data: Which state has a lower divorce rate? Massachusetts. Which major city's educational opportunities were ranked even higher than Salt Lake City's second-place showing in a Forbes magazine study last year? Boston. Which state has a higher rate of children living in poverty? Utah, at 13.6%. (The rate in Massachusetts is 12.3%.) According to the same study, sexual and psychological abuse of children constitute much higher percentages of reported child abuse in Utah than in Massachusetts (where, sadly, neglect seems to be a bigger problem): In Utah, sexual abuse constitutes 21.7% of abuse cases, compared to 3.6% in Massachusetts.
And although neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont came in first and third in the 2004 Most Livable State rankings — oh my gosh, do they not know that gay people are legal in Vermont? how can they lead the family of states around the nation? — lowly Massachusetts (ranked 16) still beat Utah (at 19) and the other conservative states Romney's been wooing recently: Missouri (20) and South Carolina (48). Hey red states: Get your houses in order before you mock mine. We're doing very well, thank you.
How about crime? Romney's chomping at the bit for the death penalty. But which state has consistently had a lower murder rate? Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the state of Utah itself reports that the number of rapes in Utah has more than doubled in the last decade, and that it now ranks 15th in the nation. Finding statistics on mass.gov is maddening, so the closest comparison I've found shows Massachusetts ranked 38th. (Utah cites the 2000 FBI Uniform Reports; the chart that ranks Massachusetts cites the 1999 reports. I haven't been able to find a comparison of both states from 2000.)
Wow. It sures look like things are going to hell here in Massachusetts, doesn't it? I could probably go on all day collecting statistics, but I'm sure none of it matters because we're talking about the collapse of the family, and when there are gay people to be afraid of, everything else just vanishes in the political fog.
Aside from indulging in a little polite gay-bashing with his friends, what exactly does Romney think Utah has that Massachusetts doesn't? Really, aside from a bunch of redundant and punitive anti-gay laws? I take him at his word that he loves living here in Massachusetts; I do, too. Like him, I prefer vacationing in Utah to living there. (Unlike him, I not only went to college in Utah, I grew up there.) He visits to burnish his right wing credentials and bask in the love of fellow Mormons who are proud that he's made it among crypto-socialist "Gentiles." But if there's one thing that really pisses me off, it's a conservative who has always lived in more liberal, cosmopolitan places but who claims he feels more at home among the conservatives. Prove it, Mitt. You want to run as a right-winger? Go ahead: Move to Utah.
When will Massachusetts Republicans finally give us a governor who actually wants to run this state rather than spending all his time preening for a national office? The one consolation I take is that no matter how much Romney panders to the right, Evangelicals just aren't ready for a Mormon president.
Update 2.27.05: The Globe says the governor is walking a political tightrope. He better have quite the balance pole. The Phoenix's Dan Kennedy interprets Mitt's newfound wingerdom as a sign that he won't run for re-election. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Happy 90th birthday, TNR! Before we get to the Reinhold Niebuhr-tinged anniversary issue, though, a look back: Last week's issue included an article by John B. Judis that really ought to interest liberal and non-right-wing Christians and other religious liberals. Judis writes about the Texas IAF community organizer Ernie Cortés:
When I had seen him in Washington [last September], Ernie had insisted that George W. Bush was going to win because Karl Rove and Ralph Reed knew how to organize and the Democrats did not. He feels vindicated by, although unhappy with, the outcome. "The Republican strategy was developing organic infrastructure," he tells me. The GOP, he explains, worked through churches and urged parishioners to get their fellow parishioners or their neighbors to the polls. By contrast, he says, Americans Coming Together (ACT) and MoveOn "parachuted" volunteers into places where they had little in common with the people they were trying to organize. Afterward, they vanished. "They left nothing behind," he says scornfully. He thinks that, if Democrats want to win elections, they have to rebuild the "institutional infrastructure" that used to exist around churches, union halls, and precincts, but he doesn't think ACT or MoveOn have any interest in this kind of patient, person-to-person organizing.
("Organic Chemistry," John B. Judis, New Republic 2.21.05, sub req'd)
The organic infrastructure of liberal churches.
There's a theme here that I emphasized back in December when Democrats where overreacting to the suggestion that their presidential candidates need to learn to talk about religion more effectively: Democrats need some "thick we's":
How liberals talk matters a lot — just not quite so much as panicked secularists who are anxious about the prospects of a Democratic altar call have led us to believe. From a political standpoint, it's not the lingo or the credo that matters; it's congregational life itself — communities of people who know each other, share commitments, interact regularly, and influence each others' choices — that makes religious communities powerful and that made Republican religious outreach so effective this time around. You might say that while Democrats were finessing "message," Republicans were working the coffee hour.
What Democrats need to do is recognize the importance of "thick we" voluntary associations in which people invest their time and generate social capital — and churches, synagogues, and other religious communities are perhaps the most enduring examples of the associations in which many Americans find themselves part of a "thick we."
("Thick we" is a term I learned from organizational consultant Douglas K. Smith's fascinating book On Value and Values: Thinking Differently about We in the Age of Me. You can find a great basic introduction to his idea in a Fast Company profile, "We, Incorporated" (7.04). I asked Smith to apply his ideas to congregational life for the cover story of the latest issue of UU World, "Whatever Happened to We?")
Don't get me wrong: I don't want churches — moderate, liberal, or conservative — to become partisan instruments because I think the very idea of a Democratic or Republican church violates the theological insight of Jesus' famous statement, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s." At the same time, as voluntary associations in a liberal democracy, churches and other religious organizations are powerful local and sometimes even national institutions. Some congregations may wish to pretend that they are not powerful, or even invest considerable energy disempowering themselves (by hiding their light under a bushel, or wasting energy in fruitless internal fights, or embracing indifference in the name of moderation, etc.), but they are nevertheless among the most powerful social forces in people's lives. The congregations involved in community organizing know this, and they've cultivated their power in order to make a difference in their communities that reflects their deepest values.
When churches become clear about their fundamental commitments, recognize that they already have social power, and then decide to use that power to promote their vision in the wider world, they generate change. When genuinely liberal churches do these things, they express a commitment not just to their religious commitments but to the viability of liberal democracy and pluralism, too. We need communities like that.
Of course, congregations that act prophetically create some degree of turmoil. I'm not suggesting that churches "get political" because it will solve congregational problems; it's likely to create a few instead. But Christianity isn't fundamentally about your inner life, and the church isn't fulfilling its mission by neglecting questions of civic and social values. Our failure to act is not being matched by people who embrace different values: They're acting, and we're feeling the pinch.
Tom Schade recently asked a very provocative question:
[D]oes the collapse of public life and organization mean that the church is no longer one voluntary organization among many, but is, in fact, the only voluntary organization out there right now in which people can conduct their public lives?
Ponder that a moment. A lot of political strategists have noticed that many of the other social bases of American liberal politics — especially labor unions — are declining. (The professoriat doesn't constitute a mass movement, unfortunately.) Meanwhile, many conservative churches have sold out to Caesar — or, at the very least, have failed to recognize the political threat to their theological vision in allowing partisan Machiavellis to use them.
Moderate and liberal congregations need to see that their vision of American life has power behind it, if we would only choose to recognize it and learn to use it. We too can build the "organic infrastructure" to support our values.
Wednesday, February 23, 2005
UU blogger and science fiction writer Will Shetterly writes about his Unitarian Universalism, his atheism, and the genres of science fiction and fantasy in his UU World essay, "Speculation and Revelation":
I lost my faith in God when I was young because conservative Christians did not offer stories that seemed literally and morally true. Their insistence that I believe made it impossible for me to believe. But my love of fantasy and science fiction helped me see that ants do not need to talk for Aesop's fables to be true, and Jesus' message of sharing and peace does not require him to rise from the dead. My love of these genres took me further: Jesus rising from the dead is no longer an obstacle to my belief in his teaching. That rising is not a supernatural being's show of power; it's a writer's call for me to trust that, when all hope appears to be lost, hope remains.
Conservative Christians would say that fantasy and science fiction led me astray. I say those stories led me home. They made it possible to read the Bible as if it were a new text, without two thousand years of accreted interpretation by people who wanted me to see what they saw or wanted me to see. Those stories made me a Unitarian who believes that God is in everything. They made me a Universalist who believes that love is available for every living creature. They made me a Christian who believes that heaven is in us all, if we only know how to look. Many writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy will tell you there's nothing religious or spiritual in these books. As a Unitarian Universalist, I respect their interpretation. But I still take revelation where I find it.
I also wrote a brief review for the March/April issue about A Language of Reverence, a collection of essays in response to UUA President Bill Sinkford's controversial attempt to get UUs talking about the personal dimensions of their religion. I'm not sure why my essay isn't on-line, but I'll find a way to have it turn up in a day or two. (If your issue has arrived in the mail by now, you'll find my essay on page 57.)
On a related note, Dr Rieux — whom Philocritics met during our discussion of moments in bad publicity for atheists — has done as I suggested and launched his UU blog for nonbelievers, Infidelity ("Reflecting on the intersection between atheism and Unitarian Universalism"). It's chock full of stuff, including a "Climate Watch" page that tracks what Dr Rieux perceives as the sunny-to-frosty reception of atheism by "prominent UUs." I'll be intrigued to see where Will Shetterly's essay lands on Rieux' spectrum — and, if he's looking for more from me, I'd nominate my academic essays "The Reality of the Symbol of God" and "The Religious Availability of John Dewey's God."
Here's my super-brief take on unbelief in the Unitarian Universalist context: People should expect that talking about God will be taken seriously in a UU congregation — so seriously, in fact, that nontheism and agnosticism (and, in its popular form, atheism) might reasonably be expected to come up as legitimate responses to a perennial religious question. What people should not expect is that talking about God will be off limits in a UU congregation. If you need an institution committed to atheism, a UU congregation is not what you're looking for. If you want a religious community where not believing in God is understood to be a legitimate religious perspective, however, Unitarian Universalism could be for you! (I chops my onions fine.)
The basic issue, as I see it, is what tools we think are available to us as religious liberals. I think imagination — moral imagination, conceptual imagination, devotional imagination — is vital to any religion. For me, God is symbolically and devotionally real, and I am not at all surprised that many newcomers to Unitarian Universalism are interested in talking about God. Philosophically, however, I'm a pragmatist, a historicist, and a liberal, none of which has tended to involve the existence or activity of a divine being. I'm not (in philosophical terms) a "theist." What does that make me? A Christian humanist, I usually say.
In my review of A Language of Reverence, I call particular attention to the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman's essay, "Images for Our Lives," which many people heard as the Berry Street Lecture at the Boston General Assembly in 2003. Although I didn't have space to quote it, here's the section in Hallman's essay that I found most intriguing:
If, as [Suzanne] Langer asserts, language is a relational system, with associations forming themselves around a more concretized concept, then it is hubris for us to believe that we can cut out some words, and put others on the back burner, for they will find their way back into consciousness, often in surprising ways.
As Harry [Scholefield] used to say, "They just put up a hand, saying, 'Wait, I have something to say.'"
What we need to do, then, is to break open these concretized words, to juxtapose them with words that create cognitive dissonance. For it is in the spaces between the juxtapositions that new associations are created.
The first inkling I had of this was when we began to use the pronoun She with reference to God. People laughed nervously when they heard this for the first time. People laughed. It was so strange. So odd.
The idea that metaphors that have suffered misplaced concreteness can be brought to life by simply juxtaposing them in surprising ways is almost too simple. It creates a cognitive dissonance in the listener that breaks them open—not to new definitions of God, or whatever element of mystery you are attempting to point toward, but to a small portion of reality that they have experienced. Remember, we're talking about the religious existential dimension of life, not rigid definitions. We're talking about the products of the imagination here. We're pointing, not positing. (34)
And then she adds, at the end of the essay:
We not only need to invite poets into the rooms of our hearts, but we need to invite our spiritual ancestors as well. They are raising a hand, wanting to be heard. If we say, "We'll listen, but don't use any words that have become solidified in the meantime, no matter how fulsome [sic] they were for you," we will have cut ourselves off, not only from our spiritual DNA, but also from one part of the conversation that we desperately need to have. (39)
This approach makes a lot of sense to me. I suspect that Dr Rieux, as a composer and singer, might even say some sympathetic things about the imaginative power of sacred music even if he sees no philosophical merit in the lyrics as statements of axiomatic truth. Is there a way for nontheists and theists, spiritual seekers and philosophical skeptics, to be part of a congregation that engages in imaginative, existentially rich, fruitfully dissonant religion? I don't see why not. (I sure hope so.) Given the right opportunity, they might even be able to sing a hymn together. At any rate, Rieux, welcome to the Interdependent Web.
Friday, February 18, 2005
Boston's gay and lesbian newspaper, Bay Windows, published an interview with UUA President Bill Sinkford last week in which he talks about the Association's advocacy of same-sex marriage rights in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country.
The national headquarters of the UUA sits right next to the State House, and under Sinkford the denomination has made use of its prime slab of real estate to influence the debate over same-sex marriage. Last February as legislators began two months of debate on the amendment, the UUA draped a 16 x 20 foot banner along the side of their building that read, "Civil Marriage is a Civil Right-Unitarian Universalist Association." The banner was inescapable to legislators and lobbyists filing in and out of the State House each day. Sinkford said that given the denomination's stance in favor of same-sex marriage, the decision was a no-brainer.
"We had a choice. We could either be quiet or we could be articulate about our values. We decided to be articulate. The decision about the banners was made in about 30 seconds, it didn't take long, and we just felt that because of our position here adjacent to the State House we had to take advantage of that and try to make sure that our state legislators, when they were in session and looking out the window, had to see our message," said Sinkford.
The story is pegged to the award Sinkford received February 10 on behalf of the UUA from the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry. Sinkford also talks about Hillary and Julie Goodridge's wedding at the UUA's headquarters last May:
"Hilary and Julie are friends and it was a real privilege to officiate at their wedding. And it's one of those places where the personal and the political intersect," said Sinkford. "For them it was a joyous occasion, a celebration of their long relationship, and for us and for the world it was a political statement that we need to be able to affirm the loving relationships of couples and their commitment regardless of their gender."
While many people of faith may see same-sex marriage as a difficult issue, Sinkford said the marriages of couples like the Goodridges will change minds in the long run.
"The earth has not stopped revolving around its axis, and what we have is a situation where these thousands of couples are enjoying the benefits of civil marriage in the Commonwealth, and the other couples and families in the Commonwealth are continuing to live their lives. I think that's a powerful testimony," argued Sinkford. "This is not dangerous, this is not going to destroy the institution of marriage. In point of fact marriage equality is an affirmation of that institution. Now I think that's a powerful argument for others."
("Talking with William Sinkford: UUA Head Vows Continued Public Support of Marriage Equality," Ethan Jacobs, Bay Windows 2.10.05)
After I say a few things about grace and freedom in the sermon I'll be preaching on Sunday, I'll be getting on a plane to Phoenix to visit my youngest sister. She is performing her senior oboe recital at Arizona State University early next week. I'm very excited to be there because I've lived on the other side of the continent throughout her high school and college years and have missed almost every one of her recitals. In fact, I've really only heard her perform publicly three or four times, including at my wedding and back in 1997 when her youth symphony orchestra traveled to New York to perform in Carnegie Hall. (Now that is a memory: It was my first time in New York, too, and the two of us spent the evening after their performance of Barber's Adagio and other lovely works walking around Central Park and taking in the city.) Needless to say, I'm very proud of her.
Of course, what this means for you, dear readers, is that I'm going away for a few days. Who knows? Maybe I'll find time to post something — I might even finish my essay explaining why Phil's Little Blog on the Prairie was my vote for best UU blog — but then again, I might not post anything at all until Wednesday night or Thursday. While I'm gone, a question: If you could dream up your very own UU magazine, what would it be like?
Update 2.23.05: I've corrected the name of my sister's university.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Ah, a SelectSmart quiz made up of garden-variety dogmas asking "What kind of Unitarian Universalist are you?" Could there possibly be a UU alive who needs this quiz to help them decide whether they're a Christian or Atheist or Buddhist UU? Nonetheless, I'd hate for you to miss out on an Internet quiz.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
An announcement for Philocritics in the Boston area: I will be preaching this Sunday at the Eliot Church in Natick, Massachusetts, at the invitation of my friend (and UU blogger) Adam Tierney-Eliot. The congregation is a community church affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association; the service starts at 10.
The UUA's Web site now includes a report from Connie Haas Zuber, who observed the UUA Board of Trustees' January meeting on behalf of the District Presidents Association. Her report (pdf) is something dedicated UUA watchers will want to read, although the first page or so is specifically addressed to district presidents. Her report includes the first mention of several coming changes, some of which have not yet been formally announced.
Okay, Unitarian Universalist history buffs and seminarians, remember Francis Ellingwood Abbot? If you've read Stow Persons's Free Religion: An American Faith, you know a lot about his science-minded, radical Transcendentalism and about his efforts in the founding of the Free Religious Association and about his rather discouraging efforts to wean two congregations from their Unitarianism. Ah, but that's only half the man. Until yesterday morning, when WBUR broadcast a little Valentine's Day profile of his recently discovered love letters and diaries, I did not know that he was also a dyed-in-the-wool romantic and suicide! He drank poison on the tenth anniversary of his wife's death — at her grave, no less. Listen, and weep.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
I'd like to call your attention to two self-critical articles by pro-war conservatives in the last month about the use of torture by U.S. military and intelligence forces. The Boston Globe's conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby says it took him a while to acknowledge just how awful the abuse of prisoners was, but the way U.S. troops have used "religious humiliation as tools of war" seems to have pushed him to real anger. After describing the sexual humiliation of prisoners, he asks:
How about religious torture?
In Abu Ghraib, the cruelties inflicted on prisoners by Specialist Charles Graner and his little band of sadists weren't limited to the sexual. Inmates told investigators they were forced to swallow pork and liquor — both are forbidden to Muslims — and to denounce Islam.
"They stripped me naked," said a detainee named Ameen Saeed Al-Sheik. "They asked me, 'Do you pray to Allah?' I said yes. They said, '[Expletive] you. And [expletive] him.' They ordered me to curse Islam and because they started to hit my broken leg, I cursed my religion. They ordered me to thank Jesus that I'm alive. And I did what they ordered me. This is against my belief."
He concludes his column:
As regular readers know, I write as a war hawk. I strongly support the mission in Iraq. I voted for President Bush. I believe the struggle against Islamist totalitarianism is the most urgent conflict of our time.
But none of that justifies the administration's apparent willingness to countenance — under at least some circumstances — the indecent abuse of prisoners in military custody. Something is very wrong when the Justice Department advises the president's legal adviser that a wartime president is not bound by the international Convention Against Torture or the US laws incorporating it. Or when that legal adviser tells the Senate, as Alberto Gonzales did last week, that "there is no legal prohibition under the Convention Against Torture on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment with respect to aliens overseas."
If this were happening on a Democratic president's watch, the criticism from Republicans and conservatives would be deafening. Why the near-silence now? Who has better reason to be outraged by this scandal than those of us who support the war? More than anyone, it is the war hawks who should be infuriated by it. It shouldn't have taken me this long to say so.
("Saying Nothing Is Torture in Itself," Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe 1.30.05)
And Andrew Sullivan, who has decided to give blogging a good long rest, writes in his review of The Abu Ghraib Investigations and Mark Danner's book Torture and Truth:
What's notable about the incidents of torture and abuse is first, their common features, and second, their geographical reach. No one has any reason to believe any longer that these incidents were restricted to one prison near Baghdad. They were everywhere: from Guantánamo Bay to Afghanistan, Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi and Tikrit and, for all we know, in any number of hidden jails affecting "ghost detainees" kept from the purview of the Red Cross. They were committed by the Marines, the Army, the Military Police, Navy Seals, reservists, Special Forces and on and on. The use of hooding was ubiquitous; the same goes for forced nudity, sexual humiliation and brutal beatings; there are examples of rape and electric shocks. Many of the abuses seem specifically tailored to humiliate Arabs and Muslims, where horror at being exposed in public is a deep cultural artifact. . . .
Whether we decide to call this kind of treatment "abuse" or some other euphemism, there is no doubt what it was in the minds of the American soldiers who perpetrated it. They believed in torture. And many believed it was sanctioned from above.
Sullivan also condemns the people who are politically responsible for the abuses:
Worse, the president has never acknowledged the scope or the real gravity of what has taken place. His first instinct was to minimize the issue; later, his main references to it were a couple of sentences claiming that the abuses were the work of a handful of miscreants, rather than a consequence of his own decisions. But the impact of these events on domestic morale, on the morale of the vast majority of honorable soldiers in a very tough place and on the reputation of the United States in the Middle East is incalculable. The war on terror is both military and political. The president's great contribution has been to recognize that a solution is impossible without political reform in the Middle East. And yet the prevalence of brutality and inhumanity among American interrogators has robbed the United States of the high ground it desperately needs to maintain in order to win. What better weapon for Al Qaeda than the news that an inmate at Guantánamo was wrapped in the Israeli flag or that prisoners at Abu Ghraib were raped? There is no escaping the fact that, whether he intended to or not, this president handed Al Qaeda that weapon. Sometimes a brazen declaration of toughness is actually a form of weakness. In a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere, it's simply self-defeating.
He points the finger at himself, too:
But in a democracy, the responsibility is also wider. Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against "evil" might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.
("Atrocities in Plain Sight," Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Book Review 1.13.05, reg req'd)
Doug Muder (aka Pericles) is reading the book I keep meaning to start: James Ault's Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church — and he has extracted two important lessons from it. The first:
[C]onservatives have an absolutely genuine reason to be concerned about moral breakdown: Conservative morality is breaking down.
The community Ault presents (a small church outside of Worcester, Massachusetts that he codenames Shawmut River Baptist), teaches its members and their children a just-say-no morality: God made the rules, and they're not up for negotiation. You don't need to know why, beyond knowing where the Bible says so. . . .
Ault describes Shawmut River Church as "villagelike." The members are all involved in each other's business and privacy is minimal. Church activities take up enormous amounts of time, which limits the members' exposure to the mass media and friends outside the church.
But in spite of this attempt at immersion, the moral conditioning of Shawmut River doesn't work. Divorce is rampant in the church, and the decisive moment of Spirit and Flesh comes when the minister's unmarried teen daughter is discovered to be pregnant. In the ensuing battle to oust the minister, true nastiness breaks out on all sides.
Here's the conclusion I draw from all this: The just-say-no, rules-are-absolute model of morality used to work reasonably well in real villages, where everyone believed more-or-less the same thing and the rules were never seriously questioned. But no matter how villagelike a church community is today, members are inevitably going to come into contact with people who do question the rules. And that's a situation where liberals, who have been trained since childhood to question the rules until they find answers that satisfy them, are in much better shape.
Liberal morality, Muder explains, actually works better — as the data bear out. But conservatives won't notice, and this is where I thought Doug might really be on to something important:
But religious conservatives like the members of Shawmut River don't realize that there is liberal morality, much less that it is in reasonably good shape. They know from their own lives how hard it is to stay moral in today's society, and how hard it is to pass their moral values on to their children. And if they are the moral elite — and their ministers and Fox News assure them that they are — they can only imagine how bad things are in liberal families. And if they can't imagine those dens of iniquity, their ministers and Fox News will tell them about it.
He concludes that news of conservative hypocrisy doesn't surprise or shock conservatives; what would surprise them is more news about how liberal morality actually makes things better.
"At what point is something too human to patent?" ("U.S. Denies Patent for Too-Human Hybrid: Scientist Sought Legal Precedent to Keep Others From Profiting From Similar 'Inventions'," Rick Weiss, Washington Post 2.13.05, reg req'd)
Friday, February 11, 2005
Today's Boston Globe reports on yesterday's Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry ceremony at the Massachusetts State House, where the same-sex marriage advocacy organization honored three individuals and one religious organization for their efforts on behalf of same-sex couples. Strangely, although the Globe included fascinating interviews with Roman Catholic legislators Marie P. St. Fleur and Marian Walsh, who described how their faith informed their decision to support gay marriage rights, and although the article also mentioned awards given to Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw and Rabbi Daniel Judson, reporter Michael Paulson neglected to mention that the Unitarian Universalist Association received the "Peace and Justice Award." Hey!
("Walsh, St. Fleur Back Gay Marriage: State Lawmakers Firm in Faith, Belief," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 2.11.05)
Thursday, February 10, 2005
News worth noting:
- The government put off releasing a report for five months that shows the FAA had received numerous intelligence briefings about "Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, some of which specifically discussed airline hijackings and suicide operations," in the months prior to 9/11 — but the FAA and airlines resisted any changes (New York Times 2.10.05)
- A military investigation has concluded that U.S. female interrogators at Guantanamo used "sexually suggestive tactics" to humiliate Muslim prisoners (Washington Post 2.10.05), tactics the Boston Globe's conservative op-ed columnist Jeff Jacoby sharply condemned two weeks ago
- Massachusetts legislators will likely postpone a constitutional convention to amend the state constitution banning gay marriage (Boston Globe 2.10.05)
So much is happening in so many areas that interest me that keeping up — much less giving you a heads-up on what I'm finding — is a tad overwhelming. I've said nothing about Social Security, for example, but I would recommend reading the following: "A Question of Numbers" (Richard Lowenstein, New York Times Magazine 1.16.05), "A Daring Leap" (Allan Sloan, Newsweek 2.14.05), and "What Social Security Crisis?" (editorial, Christian Century 2.8.05).
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Mrs Philocrites amused the priests at her church earlier this week when she posted a recipe card in the vestry entitled "Cooking with Crucifers." Vegetables in the liturgy, or cooking tips for acolytes? (Episcopal humor is such fun!)
The Super Bowl was fun to watch — Mrs Philocrites and I saw the game with two other couples we love to hang out with who also work in the "religion industry" — but I thought the football season would pass without needing so much as a comment from me. Massachusetts UU religious educator and blogger Happy Cindy tempts me out of my contented silence, however, with a boy-friendly Super Bowl revision of the UUA's Principles and Sources she says went over well among her young sports fans. The best one:
The living tradition we share draws from many sources, including . . .
The words and deeds of coaches which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil. While we would hesitate to name the Philadelphia Eagles "evil" per se, we would probably be comfortable claiming that they embody the structure of evil ... Well maybe not, but still, the confronting powers part, and listening to coaches, that part for sure...
Reminds me of the Quaker school fight song: "Fight, fight, Inner Light, / Kill, Quakers, kill! / Knock 'em down, beat 'em senseless, / Do it till we reach consensus!" (Is that apocryphal? Inquiring minds want to know.)
Tuesday, February 8, 2005
An announcement in the February issue of Poetry makes a great offer:
Free copies of the April 2005 issue of Poetry will be given to book discussion groups that request them by March 1. You'll be able to consider the thought-provoking commentary and poems — or simply read them aloud. All we ask in return is that you send us a brief account of your discussion.
It sounds like a great approach to expanding the audience for poetry and finding out how those of us in the non-poetry-writing world make sense of contemporary poetry. The current issue features poets I already love, including the big three Polish poets Adam Zagajewksi, Wislawa Szymborska, and the late Czeslaw Milosz, as well as Carl Dennis, whose book I discovered several months before he won the Pulitzer Prize and who was gracious enough to let me reprint one of his poems in UU World.
A small trend, perhaps, but one worth noting:
More than 70 congregations in a national study of mainline Protestant congregations have experienced renewal through commitment to classical Christian practices such as prayer, despite their denominations having lost millions of members over the past 40 years.
Diana Butler Bass, senior research fellow in church history at Virginia Theological Seminary, has found evidence of growth not just among evangelical congregations, but among more-liberal mainline churches that take traditional Christian spiritual practices seriously.
Mrs Philocrites is especially interested in the example of St. George's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Va., which "has developed an 'urban abbey' with a quasi-monastic rule of life to help members develop regular patterns of prayer, Bible study, worship and service."
("National Survey: Congregational 'Success Stories' Are There To Be Found," Ann Rodgers [RNS], United Church News Jan/Feb 2005)
Sunday, February 6, 2005
The Washington Post reports on green Evangelicals:
Thanks to the Rev. Leroy Hedman, the parishioners at Georgetown Gospel Chapel take their baptismal waters cold. The preacher has unplugged the electricity-guzzling heater in the immersion baptism tank behind his pulpit. He has also installed energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs throughout the church and has placed water barrels beneath its gutter pipes — using runoff to irrigate the congregation's all-organic gardens.
Such "creation care" should be at the heart of evangelical life, Hedman says, along with condemning abortion, protecting family and loving Jesus. He uses the term "creation care" because, he says, it does not annoy conservative Christians for whom the word "environmentalism" connotes liberals, secularists and Democrats.
It's amazing to me that evangelicals haven't gone quicker for the green," Hedman said. "But as creation care spreads, evangelicals will demand different behavior from politicians. The Republicans should not take us for granted."
There is growing evidence — in polling and in public statements of church leaders — that evangelicals are beginning to go for the green. Despite wariness toward mainstream environmental groups, a growing number of evangelicals view stewardship of the environment as a responsibility mandated by God in the Bible.
"The environment is a values issue," said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals. "There are significant and compelling theological reasons why it should be a banner issue for the Christian right."
("The Greening of Evangelicals: Christian Right Turns, Sometimes Warily, to Environmentalism," Blaine Harden, Washington Post 2.6.05, reg req'd)
Saturday, February 5, 2005
Now here's an important story:
A top official of the National Association of Evangelicals told reporters gathered at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary that the Moral Majority, a 1980s political movement dominated by Christian conservatives, was "an aberration and a regrettable one at that," even though it drew evangelicals into the political process, because the organization was "fatally flawed by a hubris that made the movement condescending and more than a bit judgmental."
"The Moral Majority lacked a servant heart of Christ born out of humility and compassion for a fallen humanity," said the official, Robert Wenz, who is vice president of national ministries for the National Association of Evangelicals.
"Instead, it was all about making America a nice place for Christians to live. This is not the kind of social involvement that we need or that evangelicals espouse."
Instead, Wenz cited as a positive sign what he described as "a reemergence of the evangelical church in the inner city" with programs addressing substance abuse, parenting, and "healing ministries of all kinds." He said those churches have emerged at a time when many of the more visible evangelical churches, the so-called megachurches, have located in suburban areas.
Wenz spoke at the first of a series of courses that evangelicals, basking in attention following polls suggesting that moral values played a role in President Bush's reelection, are holding in an effort to explain the influential religious movement to news reporters. Organizers plan similar sessions at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., next month, and then at seminaries in Dallas and Los Angeles.
Wenz said it is important for evangelicals to be clear that they have no allegiance to the Republican Party and that the GOP owes them nothing. In an interview, he said evangelicals, for example, are increasingly concerned about environmental issues, not an issue traditionally associated with the Republican Party.
"Global warming is a reality and is not a bunch of liberal hype," Wenz said in an interview.
There's more in the story — especially about the failure of white Evangelicals "to recognize the economic and social justice concerns of nonwhite evangelicals." ("Official Chides Christian Right: Moral Majority Called Aberration," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 2.5.05)
The award-winning series hasn't been aired in a decade or released commercially because of expired copyright licenses. In late January, members of Downhill Battle, a group of four young activists, appalled that there is so little access to the film, made a digitized copy of the series available through its website. They initially encouraged people to download it and hold screenings this Tuesday.
Downhill Battle created the "Eyes on the Screen" campaign to celebrate the series and to draw attention to the copyright laws that are keeping it from being seen on television or made into DVDs. "The goal of the campaign is that in Black History Month we wanted to make it available to a large public audience again," said Holmes Wilson, a codirector of Downhill Battle.
The problem for the activists is that the company that made "Eyes on the Prize," the Boston-based documentary film production company Blackside Inc., is set to renew those rights and views what Downhill Battle is doing as illegal and counterproductive to its own efforts.
"We appreciate that they are very enthusiastic about bringing 'Eyes' back to the public and making it accessible for the public to screen," said a Blackside lawyer, Sandy Forman, who is working to renew the series' copyrights. "However, the way they're doing this is unacceptable."
("'Eyes' Fight Focuses on Rights," Catherine Foster, Boston Globe 2.5.05)
In other Black History Month-related news: "Many black speakers shun February spotlight" because they feel they're ignored the other eleven months of the year (AP 2.5.05) and — news to me, although the suit has been underway for a while — a lawyer representing Rosa Parks is suing OutKast over the song "Rosa Parks," not one of my favorites (Washington Post 2.2.05, reg req'd).
Not good news: In a letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, a reader wrote: “I was sick and you privatized medicine; I was homeless and you built sports stadiums; I was thirsty and you polluted the lakes; I was hungry and you gave control of the food chain to multinational corporations” (quoted in Expository Times, December).
From "Century Marks," page 6, in the February 8 Christian Century. (Looking for the biblical citation? Here's Matthew 25:31-46.)
Friday, February 4, 2005
The Associated Press reports that "John F. Kerry managed the best showing in decades for a Democratic presidential candidate among mainline Protestants, but his failure to capture a majority of Roman Catholics — people of his own faith — gave President Bush an important advantage in last November's election," according to a Pew Forum post-election phone survey. Key findings:
Among non-Hispanic Catholics, Kerry won the support of 69 percent of those with liberal or "modernist" beliefs, while 72 percent of "traditionalists" favored Bush. But 55 percent of the key swing group of "centrists" picked Bush over Kerry, who was criticized by bishops for his support of abortion rights.
The upshot: A onetime Democratic mainstay, Catholics gave Bush an overall edge of 53 percent to Kerry's 47 percent.
Overall, the mainline Protestant vote split evenly, the poll suggested, with a Bush decline of 10 percent from 2000 and the best showing for a Democrat since the 1960s.
Here's the Pew Forum report.
Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Voting for the UU Blog Awards officially concluded last night at midnight. Philocrites received three awards: Guest-blogger Jake's essay, "Liberalism Reframed," tied for Best Review or Cultural Commentary and Philocrites won the Best Links and Best UU-Themed Blog awards. Wow! (Come back later and I'll tell you why I voted for Phil's Little Blog on the Prairie for Best UU-Themed Blog.) Thanks to everyone who participated in the nominations and voting process this year, and to all the writers and readers who have made Unitarian Universalist blogs so interesting. If you have some ideas for improving the process for next year, please leave them in the comments or send e-mail to feedback at philocrites.com.
Some post-election thoughts: I can't help but note that yes, there was something odd about me being both the host of the UU Blog Awards and one of the winners. (I'll swear on William Ellery Channing's "Baltimore Sermon" that I did not stuff the ballots.) I'll add that the voting process itself was not entirely immune to manipulation. No fingers were stained purple, so it's possible that some people may have voted more than once. (Shame!)
And, most amusingly, I didn't realize that setting each individual poll to "Disabled" after midnight last night did not in fact turn them off — people are still voting. (Major Gregory, please, tell your fans they can stop now!) Which brings us to a situation I wish I had foreseen: I only recorded the number of total votes cast in each category and the percentage carried by each winner as of midnight; I did not record the number of votes cast for each nominee. So I fear you'll just have to trust me.
Despite those caveats, we all had a splendid time reading the nominations and enjoying the visits from new readers, so let's declare the first-ever UU Blog Awards a success and return to our regularly scheduled blogging.
Say, did you know that the White House has given press credentials to a GOP-funded propaganda Web site's reporter just so he can ask the President and his Press Secretary easy questions whenever the press corps gets aggressive? Freedom is on the march! Not only that: The Amish are on the march, too, all the way to northern Maine where 100 of them have moved to get away from tourists and sprawl. That's today's news.
Tuesday, February 1, 2005
From the long and distinguished annals of Unitarian Universalists who decided that the grass was greener on some other side (aka the Orestes Augustus Brownson files), here's a wonderful essay in Commonweal. Jean Hughes Raber asks, "What happens when someone in her late forties tries to 'be Catholic,' having been reared a Unitarian and spent most of her adulthood as an Episcopalian?" Happily, rather than embrace the cliches of most conversion narratives — I once was lost, but now am found — she reflects on the complexities of the post-conversion experience:
In truth, though, every convert may end up at that happy altar of First Communion, but his subsequent journey of faith is complicated, varied, and often filled with struggles. We are Mother Church’s step-children, and our super-Catholic attitudes that amuse or annoy cradle Catholics are both an effort to fit into the new family and (sotto voce) to atone for the yearning we sometime feel for our old families.
For although I call myself a Catholic, my faith was formed and informed outside the church, and what I know and believe about God will always (to use my inner Unitarian’s favorite word) transcend church teaching in some ways. This leads to what my inner Anglican calls my “Protestant moments,” those times when my new and old faiths clash, and I must struggle to “be Catholic.” Ironically, those Protestant moments, with God’s grace, can take us converts deeper into our new faith.
It's a very fine essay — and part of an issue with several other reflections on ecumenical and interfaith experience.
("The Bumpy Path to Rome," Jean Hughes Raber, Commonweal 1.14.05)
The Boston Globe tells us about Johnny Damon's upcoming book tour, for which his contract says he can't cut his Jesus hair. Damon, the author of Idiot . . . Or How I Stopped Thinking and Beat "The Curse", waxes all comparative religiogical:
Asked about those goofy comparisons to God and Jesus Christ, Damon replied, "It's incredible. . . . What more can you ask for? Even being mentioned in the same sentence as Jesus or God. . . . I mean, those guys are awesome. I'm just a knucklehead."
("Zorn Sounds Off; Damon Shares a Hairy Publicity Tale," Carol Beggy & Mark Shanahan, Boston Globe 1.31.05; third item)