Tuesday, November 29, 2005
A quick tour of Unitarian Universalist blogs:
- Clyde Grubbs argues that UU political thought isn't as homogenous as some of us think, although he suggests that "Unitarian Universalism has been closing ranks politically in direct response to the rise of the political right." I think that's true — but doesn't redeem us from criticism that UU politics are often shallow, ineffective, and dogmatic.
- Will Shetterly reflects on things he hates about Unitarian Universalism.
- Scott Wells is brainstorming systemic improvements for the UUA.
- In a wonderful personal essay, Michelle Murrain shares a story that other UU Christians especially will recognize: "I tossed the baby out with the bathwater, but the baby grew up anyway, and came back." (Blog post and comments here.)
- And Indrax, noting that many great religious symbols can be drawn with only a few strokes, decides the flaming chalice needs simplification.
Incidentally, I happened to be in Times Square on Friday and, naturally, I kept my eye on the NBC superwhatchamavision to see if the UUA's new video ad might come on. It didn't — but the United Church of Christ's latest ad did!
Thoughts about the UUA ad: The screen is relatively low in Times Square, but it's smack dab in the center, exactly where people look as they're heading downtown. The screen basically shows whatever is on NBC with ads like the UUA and UCC spots interspersed with regular TV advertising. Contextually, the screen doesn't look like other advertising in Times Square; it's a bit more like the ticker screens from the various news organizations.
I had seen the UCC ad before — it's the "All the People" ad — but without the soundtrack, its storyline can be hard to follow. One advantage of the UUA ad is that it was designed without sound and presents its entire message as brief, bold text phrases. Another advantage, which I didn't appreciate until I was in New York, is that the graphic starkness of the ad would help it stand out in the visual chaos of Times Square. Unfortunately, the phrase "Unitarian Universalists" and especially the URL "www.uua.org" shows up so briefly that the message of the ad isn't bound to the advertiser. Blink and you'll miss the sponsor.
Postscript: Speaking of missing the sponsor, I dragged my wife, brother, sister-in-law, two nephews, and niece up Fifth Avenue looking for the famous Christmas windows. I remembered "Fifth Avenue," but where? What's the name of that store? Luckily, we stumbled onto them across from Rockefeller Center, stood in line, oohed and ahed, and crossed the street without knowing which store's windows they were. And then, looking back: Saks Fifth Avenue. Of course. It's amazing how easily you can forget something you know.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) is getting some blog buzz. A right-wing blogger who seems to think that you gotta accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior in order to be elected has decided to impugn Conrad's character by attacking the moderate Democrat's religious affiliation. Conrad is the only Unitarian Universalist in the Senate and one of only three UUs in Congress: The others are moderate Republican Nancy Johnson (CT) and liberal Democrat Pete Stark (CA).
The blogger follows wingnut practice by misidentifying the religion as "Universal Unitarian" — you know, like "the Democrat Party." He claims that Conrad "distances his private thoughts with his public actions," although I can't tell what he means by this when Conrad has always openly identified as a UU and seems unusually responsive to his constituents. And the blogger assumes that John Sias's little book published by the UU Church of Nashua, New Hampshire, 100 Questions That Non-Members Ask About Unitarian Universalism, is an authoritative and accurate statement of UU beliefs. Sigh.
In response, partisan Democrats — including a bunch of UUs — are having a field day expressing outrage at Daily Kos and at Street Prophets. A good time was had by all, I'm sure. (Memo to Pastordan: No need to hyphenate "Unitarian Universalist.")
It's worth noting that Unitarian Universalists are not a voting bloc in North Dakota. After all, there are only 165 members of the two Unitarian Universalist congregations in the whole state. (There are probably a few dozen other UUs who are members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU church-by-mail.) I'm impressed and honored that Conrad identifies with us at all. And anyone tempted to think that Conrad's votes in the Senate are dictated by the UUA General Assembly could quickly recover from that notion by comparing G.A. resolutions to Conrad's voting record: This is a senator who represents North Dakotans, not G.A. delegates. Just last week I thought about scolding him here for joining four other Democrats who voted for an amendment barring U.S. detainees at Guantanamo Bay from invoking habeus corpus in the federal courts — a position I find hard to square with American legal tradition, much less with last summer's G.A. resolution denouncing torture and prisoner mistreatment by the U.S. But, since I don't consider G.A. resolutions binding on my conscience, I can hardly complain when they don't seem binding on Senator Conrad's.
Need some good Thanksgiving reading? Pick up the December issue of Harper's, which features "Jesus without the Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas" as its cover story. Erik Reese starts off by looking at Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste version of the New Testament — a text without the virgin birth, any of the miracles, or the resurrection — and then turns to the long-lost Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text that was declared heretical in the late fourth century and then vanished until its rediscovery in Egypt in 1945. (The story of the text's rediscovery is very dramatic, involving murder, a "one-eyed bandit," feuding governments, and surreptitious photocopies — my favorite part.) But the best thing about Reese's article is its comparison of the "gospels of Thomas":
The intuitive mysticism of the Gospel of Thomas would have made Thomas Jefferson nervous. He was a rationalist, a child of the Enlightenment, a student of Locke and Newton. But twelve years after Jefferson's death, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of Harvard's Divinity School, a speech that mightily upset many in his audience. If we set "The Divinity School Address" beside Jefferson's gospel, we can begin to understand how the sayings collected by Thomas present us with an oddly but uniquely American gospel.
Emerson shared Jefferson's concern that "historical Christianity" had muddied the message of its founder. But whereas Jefferson worked to retrieve the ethical teachings of Jesus, Emerson was mining the Gospels for something far more elusive — "the mystery of the soul." Standing before the small group of graduates on a summer night in 1838, Emerson advised the young ministers to renounce preaching the "tropes" of the Gospels and instead point their parishoners back toward their own "divine nature." The problem with the established Church, Emerson charged, is that it teaches our smallness instead of our largeness. "In how many churches," he asked, "by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God?" Emerson, with breathtaking sweep, was replacing American Puritanism with transcendentalism, replacing the Church's emphasis on sin with the individual's concern for his or her own soul. Jesus, [Emerson] said, was ravished by the soul's beauty — "he lived in it, and had his being there." He had climbed to the fountainhead, the fundamental intuition. "One man was true to what is in you and me," Emerson concluded. "He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World." Emerson did not, like Jefferson, deny Jesus' divinity; he simply said the same potential resides in every human heart. He was offering, without knowing it, the first American commentary on the Gospel of Thomas.
Reese also writes about the oppressive fundamentalism of his childhood and the "bitter recriminations and long, terrible silence between me and the rest of my family" that his loss of faith involved. And he says: "So when I first discovered the Gospel of Thomas about a decade ago, I was shocked to find a version of Christianity that I could accept and one that, moreover, could serve as a vital corrective to my grandfather's view that we live helplessly, sinfully, in a broken world." (I had a similarly transformative experience a little over ten years ago reading Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus.) I was struck at this year's General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations by the keen interest UUs showed toward Elaine Pagels's lecture about the Gospel of Thomas. Her book about Thomas, Beyond Belief, was a G.A. bestseller, and I don't think it's just because she's a compelling lecturer (as one Humanist explained it to me).
It's intriguing that Jefferson and Emerson represent, in Reese's telling, two alternatives to American Protestant orthodoxy because, of course, they also represent two versions of Unitarianism. Jefferson (who embraced English Unitarian theology in his later years) is the moral rationalist; Emerson (who started his career as a Unitarian minister) is the mantic intuitionist. Reese links them both to the Gospel of Thomas in an intriguing conceit: "In some uncanny trick of history and geography, the ancient Gospel of Thomas combines these two visions of Jesus to give us what I would call a truly American gospel." In its better moments, Unitarian Universalism proclaims this "truly American gospel."
("Jesus Without the Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas," Erik Reece, Harper's December 2005: 33-41.)
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Now here's a daring way to deliver a computer virus:
One of the books I picked up at the AAR conference this weekend is Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium, which includes chapters on the political engagement of ministers in 18 different denominations — including Unitarian Universalists. John C. Green of Akron University reports on a spring 2001 survey of 1,011 ministers serving UU congregations; 65.9 percent of the ministers responded. The results?
|Independent, lean Democrat||22%|
|Independent, lean Republican||2%|
Presidential choice in 2000
|George W. Bush||2%|
|Did not vote||1%|
What kinds of political activities do UU ministers consider appropriate?
|Take a stand while preaching on some moral issue||99%|
|Participate in a protest march||97%|
|Contribute money to a candidate, party, or PAC||89%|
|Commit civil disobedience to protest some evil||86%|
|While preaching, take a stand on some political issue||86%|
|Publicly (not preaching) support a political candidate||50%|
What kinds of political activities do UU ministers engage in?
|Urged their congregation to register and vote||66%|
|Contacted a public official about an issue||62%|
|Prayed publicly about an issue||35%|
|Took a stand from the pulpit on some political issue||34%|
|Prayed publicly for political candidates||5%|
I didn't find any surprises in this data, although I'll be very interested to look at how UU ministers compare to ministers in the other "liberal" denominations. It would be very interesting to ask a random sample of UU church members these same questions about ministerial political involvement and see if there's any disconnect between lay and clergy response.
Source: John C. Green, "Unitarian-Universalist Association," Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium, ed. by Corwin E. Smidt (Waco: Baylor Univ. Press, 2004): 273-284.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Newsweek's Barbie Nadeau calls Benedict XVI a "religious-fashion icon" and says he has a penchant for designer wear. The magazine's Web site doesn't happen to feature the photo of his red Prada loafers that you'll find on page 10 of the November 21 issue, but Deutsche Welle does have a picture of his Oz-worthy shoes in "The Cassock Wars" (11.4.05).
Monday, November 14, 2005
What a weekend for div school nostalgia! The Globe talks about the "anxiety of influence" and the Times asks, So what does the Bible really say about abortion? Ah, the joy of exegesis. (And don't overlook the Times sidebar, which highlights differences between anti-abortion and pro-ambiguity readings of three key passages.)
("On Abortion, It's the Bible of Ambiguity," Michael Luo, New York Times 11.13.05, reg req'd)
The larger-than-life literary critic Harold Bloom talks to the Boston Globe about his new book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, which I'm sure I won't be able to resist reading. Harvey Blume asks him especially about the way his most famous theory applies to religious history:
Would it be a misreading to say that your theory of the anxiety of influence in literature begins with your ideas about the relationship between Christian and Jewish Scripture?
BLOOM: It would not be a misreading at all. I began brooding about the anxiety of influence well before I came up with the phrase — probably in a course I took, back when I was 18 or 19, about the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible.
I think the Greek New Testament is the strongest and most successful misreading of a great prior text in the entire history of influence. Everything in the New Testament is deliberately lined up so as to serve — so they say — as the ultimate fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible. But, historically speaking, I do not think the treatment Jews have received from Christians is any kind of fulfillment. Rather it's an endless — I must fall back on the Yiddish here — shandah [shame].
("Divine (mis)readings," Harvey Blume, Boston Globe 11.13.05, reg req'd)
We live in an age when at least a few Christian leaders — including Pope John Paul II — have become aware of the great dangers embedded in the idea that Christianity has replaced or superceded Judaism. But it still seems that Christianity will need another profound misreading in order to recast its relationship with Judaism at the popular level. The liberal church practice of reading first from the "Hebrew Bible" and then from the "Christian scriptures" (rather than from the "Old" and "New" Testaments) obscures a relationship while trying to avoid hints of supercessionism — but such gestures don't go very far toward addressing a problem woven right into the texts themselves.
In case you're looking for a good but challenging read, I've found that the essays in Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview 2002) offer a great way to see my own religious tradition through Jewish eyes.
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Hey, academic readers! Are you going to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature next weekend? I'll be attending Friday's all-day mini-conference on religion and politics in the media featuring The Revealer's Jeff Sharlet, the Washington Monthly's Amy Sullivan, and scholars Diane Winston, David Domke, and S. Brent Plate. Beyond that, I'll be sampling. Any recommendations?
Friday, November 11, 2005
For Veterans Day, why not visit the blogs of Unitarian Universalists who have served or are serving in the U.S. Armed Forces: Unitarian Universalists in the Military, (r)evolUUtions, and Trivium, for example.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Last Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine featured a great story about a group of Jewish young adults who revived the city's oldest synagogue, the Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill. (I first noted this story last December, when the New York Times covered it.) Doug Most's article is a great read, and obviously anyone concerned about the revitalization of aging religious communities will find a lot of value in it. (It also provides a brief introduction to the Jewish history of Boston.) The thesis:
A younger, increasingly active Jewish community has emerged in the last decade to restore Boston's oldest standing synagogue, rejuvenate its biggest one, and help to reshape a religious landscape in the city. Why now? Because for the first time in a long time, the younger generation of Jews has a clear vision that its parents' generation supports: education.
Much of the article is focused on how a group of young adults stumbled upon a museum that had been, until 1985, the Vilna Shul, an Orthodox synagogue, and then gathered a community of Jewish young adults to worship there in a contemporary but tradition-sensitive way. Their efforts have been supported by Jewish philanthropists, who see such work as part of a larger initiative to encourage Jewish education.
But the article also describes the way the city's largest synagogue has also made young adults central to its community-building efforts:
[A]t Temple Israel, one in five members is now under 35, thanks largely to [34-year-old Jeremy] Morrison's Riverway Project and events like Soul Food Fridays and Torah and Tonics on Tuesdays.
And what's happening in Boston is happening elsewhere. "Younger singles and married couples are establishing their own congregations," says Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He says there are at least six new youth-led congregations around New York, and that Jews in Los Angeles and Chicago are doing the same. As with new Christian movements, he says, services are less somber. "People are talking about spirituality much more," he says, "and one way to express that is through music."
At Temple Israel, Morrison plays the guitar and leads very musical services through the Riverway Project. But it wasn't music, he says, that first brought in his younger members.
"In the spring of 2001, I had house meetings with nonmembers. I asked, 'What are your perceptions of your synagogue?' By and large, they were seen as negative," he says. He describes the feedback: "'You were not allowed to think critically. Synagogues were like country clubs — they were interested in our money.'" Even so, he says, people wanted to talk. Within a few months, he was leading Friday night Shabbat services in homes around Boston and signing up new members younger than 35 at Temple Israel for an introductory fee of $36 for the first year. (Dues rise, but the rabbi says he works with young members' budgets.) In 2001, Temple Israel had about 50 members under 35 without children. Now, it has more than 200. The Riverway Project not only has an e-mail list of 1,000, it also brought in $6,000 in membership fees the first year and $80,000 so far this year. And Temple Israel is using a similar approach to reach out to empty nesters.
("Boston's Jewish Renaissance," Doug Most, Boston Globe Magazine 11.6.05, reg req'd)
Ah, election day in fair Cambridge — when I had to decide among 18 city council candidates, rank them for nine spots, and vote for them in order because of my city's oh-so-forward-thinking instant run-off voting. I could hardly tell what was at stake and how to tease apart the minor differences between the candidates. Oh, I see, you're even more strongly for traffic lights and open space! (There were also three insurgent Libertarians, bless their countercultural hearts here in the People's Republic — one of whom doomed his candidacy by coming to a neighborhood potluck and acknowledging up front that he never remembers names. Not a good sign for a budding political career.)
Because I'm a dutiful citizen, I spent two hours Monday night in a crash-course in local politics — thanks to a fellow citizen's diligent website and a single article from the 2001 Boston Phoenix archives. Did I realize the article was four years old as I was reading it Monday night? No, I did not. (I hope democracy can survive voters like me.) The article was actually useful, though, because the cast of characters was almost entirely the same four years later.
As you can plainly see, I cared about this municipal election with a passionate and feverish intensity. I rent, don't yet have children, and am not much of an activist, so I'm nine years into my Cambridge residency without feeling at all enlightened about the inner workings of my own city. If only the Boston Globe sent a reporter across the river every now and then, I say to myself. There you have it: Philocrites is a slacker when it comes to local politics. But I love to vote. So I voted. Viva democracy!
Meanwhile, because it's always fun to retreat from the dust of real politics into the pure air of ideology, I have finally mapped myself on the ol' Political Compass, thanks to a link from Exiled from the Underworld. I appear to be some kind of left-libertarian. Just as I thought! My coordinates, for those of you who've always wondered just what sort of pinko-commie I really am and are hurrying over to take the quiz yourself:
Economic Left/Right: -4.13
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -3.74
I wonder where that puts me among Unitarian Universalists especially.
And did you vote on Tuesday?
Update 11.11.05: Oh, yeah: Here are the results of the Cambridge election, in which only 15% of us eligible voters showed up.
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
Also at the top of my reading list: the Christian Century, which has an annoying habit of publishing really compelling essays that never make it onto their website. Such as the cover story a few weeks ago that debunked the often-cited claim that the mainline churches — the liberals — have been in decline because their people have fled liberal theology for more conservative churches. Um, that's a story that I would have thought the magazine would have wanted a lot of people to see.
Sociologists Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa Wilde developed models for identifying factors that could account for the declining number of mainline Protestants (traditional home of liberal Christianity) and the rising number of conservative Protestants. They tested the various models against the trend lines in the various churches over the 20th century to see which ones most closely matched what has actually happened. The only two factors that could have played a statistically significant role? Birth-rate and slower traffic from conservative into more liberal churches.
Essentially, mainline Protestants adopted contraception earlier than conservative Protestants did, although by the late '70s conservatives' families were finally getting smaller, too. And, as no one will be surprised to learn, conservative churches do a better job of retaining members overall. But the study does show that the "culture war" issues in the churches are unlikely to have been a major factor in the decline of the mainline churches; the demographic trends in fertility were already shrinking the next generation of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Lutherans.
Although the Christian Century didn't hawk its own story, the Baptist Standard offers a pretty thorough synopsis, from which I quote:
The researchers investigated other possible causes for mainline decline — support for homosexual and abortion rights, a lower view of the Bible, a higher "apostasy" rate, and fewer conversions from outside the Christian fold. But they dismissed these other factors as irrelevant because none could produce numerical changes significant enough to explain the shift in church membership.
"Higher fertility and better retention thus account for the conservatives' rising share of the Protestant population," they concluded.
Because the birthrates only achieved parity in the last generation, though, the conservative churches will continue to grow for another generation as my peers — born in the '70s — have their own children.
("Fertility, Not Theology, Cause of Decline," Greg Warner [ABP], Texas Baptist 10.28.05)
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Among the many magazines I get at home and at work, the thoughtful lay Catholic magazine Commonweal is near the top of my must-read list. Columnist John Garvey recently responded to a First Things essay by Philip Turner that identified a "theological chasm" in the Episcopal church between "those who hold a theology of divine acceptance" (those dastardly liberals) and "those who hold a theology of divine redemption." Garvey urged readers to go deeper than the easy judgments each side makes about the other — especially around the hot-button sexuality issues that divide Christians today. (His column was a great way to launch into a special issue on the Eucharist.)
Halfway through the essay, Garvey offered this wonderful interpretation of Jesus' acceptance of his faltering disciples:
[T]he Gospels show us how Jesus approached the imperfect, the unready.
In Mark's account (9:14-29) of the healing of the demon-possessed boy, the boy's father begs, "If you can, have compassion on us and help us." Jesus' answer, "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes," calls forth the father's anguished response: "I believe; help my unbelief!"
This is not the faith that moves mountains; it is the divided faith most of us know very well. But it is enough for Jesus, and the boy is healed. Perhaps more to the point is the post-Resurrection exchange of Jesus with Peter in John 21, where Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" and Peter answers, three times, that he does. Most commentary focuses on this passage as a reflection of Peter's threefold denial of Jesus, and this is, of course, a crucial part of the exchange. But a good sermon I heard, preached by a Pentecostal minister, brought up something found in the original Greek that matters deeply to understanding Jesus' relationship with Peter — and with all of us — at its heartbreaking depth.
When Jesus asks Peter "Do you love me?" he uses the words agapas me, that is, do you love me as God loves you, with the love that comes down from heaven. Agape is the word for love that Paul uses in speaking of the most important virtue in 1 Corinthians 13, and the word he uses in Romans when he says that nothing will be able to separate us from "the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8:39). But Peter, answering, "You know I love you," uses the words philos se . . . that is, I love you like a brother. It is a good kind of love, quite commendable, but not the same thing. Simon uses this word in all three responses. But when Jesus asks Peter the third time, he no longer asks do you love me with God's self-emptying love — he no longer asks, "Agapas me?" Instead, he comes down to Peter's level, asking him, "Phileis me?" Do you at least love me like a brother? At this moment, knowing that Peter is capable only of this level of love, it is enough; he knows that it is the best Peter can currently do. But then Jesus goes on to say that Peter will be led where he does not want to go; in his final suffering and martyrdom, Peter will have to learn that deeper love. For now, Jesus meets him where he is, capable of love, though not the love Jesus will ultimately ask of him, and of us.
While insisting that we must take the cross and transformation seriously, the church should also be a place where those who are weak, who are not ready for the whole of what is demanded, can feel welcomed and loved. In one way or another, we all fall into this category. The church is often seen as smug, doubt-free, and self-righteous, and Christians of all confessions are often guilty as charged. When one kind of sinning is seen as more important — more really sinful — than other kinds, we miss the point of the struggle, whether the sins involved are sexual, or have to do with greed or compassion or selfishness. We are called to empty ourselves, as Christ did, called to a radical humility, and morality is only part of this process.
Although I haven't written much here about my experience at the Taize Community in France this summer, I have been brooding ever since on the extraordinary Christian hospitality I encountered there. More than 4,000 people, perhaps 3,500 of them younger than 30, were at Taize the week Mrs Philocrites and I stayed there. They came from all parts of Europe, with smaller contingents from Africa, Latin America, and North America. The diversity of cultures and languages and denominational backgrounds and life experiences was part of the draw for pretty much everyone; it was like going on vacation to Pentecost.
The 100 brothers in the Taize community are on to something important in the way they emphasize friendship — and especially in the way they emphasize worship over doctrine. (They're not hostile to doctrine, and might strike many American liberal Protestants as overly cautious especially around women's equality, but I don't think they fit at all in the left-right template we're getting so maddeningly used to using here in the U.S. ) But Brother Roger's liturgical insight — his emphasis on simplicity and silence, chant, and scripture that doesn't demand sermonic explication — is central. And it creates a space in which an astonishing range of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians can pray together.
Ever since we've returned to the U.S., I've been even more deeply concerned about the polarization of churches and Christians here. I heard again and again at Taize that young people go there because their spiritual yearning and their religious questions are taken seriously at Taize, that they love the prayer and the music and the spirituality of the place, that they love meeting people from so many places. I met one college student who had come several times, even though he doesn't believe in God; another young man, recently graduated from college, grew up in an entirely secular family, had recently discovered Buddhism, and knew that Taize was a place where his newly awakened spiritual curiosity would be respected.
There are congregations all across the theological-political spectrum that provide a genuine welcome for spiritual seekers and connect them to the true depths of their religious traditions. I can't help but wish, though, that one could go somewhere on this continent where Christians with profound cultural, political, and theological differences could meet without suspicion, without endless negotiation, and break bread together. As a Christian in the Unitarian Universalist family of churches, I can't tell you how moving and affirming it was for me to be at Taize, where the brothers have somehow found a way to celebrate the Eucharist in a way that manages to accommodate Protestants and Catholics simultaneously — a tremendous ecumenical gesture.
("Who's In and Who's Out?" John Garvey, Commonweal 10.7.05)
This news is outrageous: The IRS is challenging a California Episcopal church's tax-exempt status because a retired priest said Jesus would oppose the invasion of Iraq in a sermon on the weekend before the 2004 election:
In his [Oct. 31, 2004] sermon, [the Rev. George F.] Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991's Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that "good people of profound faith" could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support.
But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told Bush, "Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster."
On June 9, the church received a letter from the IRS stating that "a reasonable belief exists that you may not be tax-exempt as a church … " The federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns and elections.
The letter went on to say that "our concerns are based on a Nov. 1, 2004, newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times and a sermon presented at the All Saints Church discussed in the article."
The IRS cited The Times story's description of the sermon as a "searing indictment of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq" and noted that the sermon described "tax cuts as inimical to the values of Jesus."
The Times headlines the story "Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning" — but I think the newly politicized IRS is actually more sensitive to the second charge. Every religious organization in the country ought to see how unacceptable this investigation is — or else the IRS should immediately challenge the tax-exempt status of every religious organization that has ever raised questions about existing law.
Since June, the congregation's rector and vestry have attempted to convince the IRS that the church has not violated the section of the tax code — the 501(c)(3) regulations — that prohibit endorsements of individual candidates or parties. But when the IRS said it planned to proceed with a formal investigation, the rector informed the congregation of the investigation this past Sunday.
One teensy recommendation to the IRS: Don't take on a 3,500-member Episcopal church. Those people have money and clout:
In an October letter to the IRS, Marcus Owens, the church's tax attorney and a former head of the IRS tax-exempt section, said, "It seems ludicrous to suggest that a pastor cannot preach about the value of promoting peace simply because the nation happens to be at war during an election season."
Owens said that an IRS audit team had recently offered the church a settlement during a face-to-face meeting.
"They said if there was a confession of wrongdoing, they would not proceed to the exam stage. They would be willing not to revoke tax-exempt status if the church admitted intervening in an election."
The church declined the offer.
("Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning," Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times 11.7.05, reg req'd)
Postscript: If you preached a sermon in the month prior to Election Day 2004 related to anything or anyone on the ballot — gay marriage, abortion, gambling, immigration laws, tax laws or referendums, the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, economic policy, the "war on terror," or anything else that could be construed at applying some leverage to how people might vote — and have had your congregation's tax status challenged by the IRS, please do leave a comment. And if you preached on any of these topics and have not received any communication from the IRS, be brave and speak up, too. Let's see how rare the IRS letter to All Saints Church in Pasadena really is.
Update 5:39 p.m.: Today's followup story in the Times reports two important additions to this story: The IRS is still investigating approximately 60 nonprofits (including about 20 churches) for political involvement in the 2004 presidential election. And a coalition of conservative and liberal church groups responded angrily to the IRS investigation of All Saints, including both the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches.
("Conservatives Also Irked by IRS Probe of Churches," Jason Felch and Patricia Ward Biederman, Los Angeles Times 11.8.05, reg req'd)
Update 11.11.05: Ted Olsen observes that All Saints has learned to manipulate the media as deftly as the Christian right.
Good news for Massachusetts! The annual "Generosity Index" — which year after year puts my state near the bottom in its rankings of charitable giving — turns out to be wrong, wrong, wrong — and not just about Massachusetts. According to a new study, Massachusetts really comes in at number 11. Why is this important? Consider the impact of the annual Generosity Index:
The New York Times called the [Generosity Index] rankings an example of "Yankee frugality." The Florida Times-Union put it more bluntly: "Northern liberals talk about compassion for the less fortunate, Southern conservatives act."
But the Index was inherently flawed:
Using Generosity Index calculations, the study shows that even if [Massachusetts] residents increased their giving by 10 times, 1,000 times, or 100,000 times their current amount and all other states stayed the same, Massachusetts would never rank higher than 23d on the index. Likewise, if residents of Mississippi — the most generous state, according to the index — stopped giving altogether, the state would not fall below 26, the study found.
My Utah (and Mormon) readers will be especially pleased to see that using the improved criteria, Utah is the most generous state in the nation.
("Mass. Generous After All, Study Finds," Sasha Talcott, Boston Globe 11.8.05, reg req'd)
Monday, November 7, 2005
Great recent blog conversations: PeaceBang describes a graduate seminar in which a Baptist suggested that Unitarian Universalism offers training wheels for religious newbies. Jess Cullinan ponders non-theism and the language of reverence. Dan Harper says we're training ministers to serve an ungrowing religion. And, over in the LiveJournal Unitarian Universalist community, bossydude brings up a perennial question for UUs: How political should a congregation get? Good conversation in each place.
Meanwhile, John Cooley has released Version 2 of his excellent UU website aggregator — where you can follow pretty much everything UU that publishes an RSS feed — at UUpdates.net.
As I've been thinking about my own resistance to Davidson Loehr's argument that we Americans are living under a fascist regime, I've spent some time reading and rereading David Neiwert, whose arguments I find more compelling. Neiwert is a journalist and expert on the militia movements in the Pacific Northwest, where neo-fascism has definitely been on display. In October 2004 he wrote a series of essays on the emergence of fascist themes in mainstream conservative rhetoric. (You can find all seven in the left-hand sidebar on his site.) In February 2005 he revised these into one long essay entitled "The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism" [pdf].
A few distinctions between Loehr and Neiwert's approaches:
Loehr relies on an overly general, 14-point taxonomy of fascism by Lawrence Britt. Neiwert draws instead on Robert Paxton's book The Anatomy of Fascism, which describes nine features of the political psychology of fascism. (Neiwert outlines Paxton's nine characteristics in part 6 of his 2004 essay series.) Neiwert concludes that:
All told, of the nine "passions," the presence [in the conservative movement since 2000] of five of them is strong and clear, and in the case of two of these there are not even any mitigating factors. In two instances, the presence is mixed and mitigated somewhat, and in two others the similarity is not particularly strong.
In other words, although several key elements of historical fascism can be found in contemporary U.S. conservatism, the differences are important, too. Conservatives are playing with fire, to be sure, but we aren't — as Loehr would say — "living under fascism." Niewert is also explicit about the fact that he is describing a style of politics that has become prominent on the right recently; he is not describing "conservatism" in general — which is how Loehr can be read.
In "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism," Niewert observes that the way conservatives have gone about cultivating political power has made their movement susceptible to several profoundly illiberal impulses:
It was almost as though the "conservative movement," in its final drive to not merely obtain power but to cement it permanently, transformed itself into a simulacrum, or a hologram, of fascism: structurally almost identical, particularly in the kind of appeal it presented as a perverse form of populism, but lacking in the genuinely black core of violence and seething hatred that is, in the end, what makes fascism fascism.
It was a decidedly new phenomenon related to fascism, which meant that there needed to be a term to describe it: something that looks and talks and sounds like fascism, even when it is decidedly not fascism. I had [a] long evening conversations and a few e-mail discussions with friends who have been following this train of thought with me, and we turned over many ways of describing the phenomenon: - proto-fascism? (nah; already in use to describe genuinely fascist but decidedly germinative movements) - quasi-fascism? (not quite, but close); - happy-face fascism? - friendly fascism? - postmodern fascism? Para-fascism came close, but it didn't quite express clearly enough the sense that this was not genuine fascism.
I finally settled on "pseudo fascism," because I thought it both made clear both the resemblance to fascism and the lack of genuineness to it. Even, then it's a flawed way of putting it, since it implies an intent to deceive, a covering up of an intended purpose.
Niewert is suggesting that the conservative movement has in many ways unwittingly stumbled onto a species of fascism. This is an important observation not simply because many people who sound (to jittery lefties) like fascists would be astonished that anyone could think that about their politics, but especially because a revitalized liberalism in the U.S. can't be built simply by aggravating the paranoia of an embattled left. We actually must demonstrate to non-ideological Americans that much that they hold dear depends on the foundation of a liberal society.
Analytically, it's important to keep in mind that fascism has always been a right-wing phenomenon — a conservative form of totalitarianism — no matter what sophistry Anne Coulter and Jonah Goldberg cook up. And it's important to be able to recognize where such political impulses are being activated or cultivated in the United States. Hence Neiwert's analytic term "pseudo fascism." But politically and culturally, the word is too incendiary; it can't seem to function persuasively unless you're already predisposed to see deliberate evil in your political adversaries.
What we need, I think, is persuasive ways to talk about the corruption and cynicism and fear-mongering of parts of the conservative movement that don't veer off into apocalyptic categories. Others are doing a bang-up job of encouraging the left to develop Rovean strategies, but I'm not willing to join that parade.
Saturday, November 5, 2005
Jazz lovers will be especially interested in Wynton Marsalis's New Republic essay on rebuilding New Orleans, in which he introduces a political philosophy of swing:
Swing is a philosophy of steadfastness. It instructs us to maintain an equilibrium when external forces are conspiring to tear it apart. At the heart of swing, two extremely different instruments—the drum and the bass—must be played with absolutely the same intentions. The cymbal that is struck on every beat by the drummer is in the high high register, and the bass notes, also articulated on every beat, are in the way way low. In order to swing, these extremes must get together, and then they must stay together. If you think getting together is hard, then you probably know that staying together is practically impossible. Anyone can swing for a few measures—but swinging is a matter of endurance. It tests the limits of your ability to work with another person to create a mutual feeling.
That is what is required of the citizens of this country now: sustained engagement with the issues that have been raised by this tragedy.
Can Americans swing together — rather than, you know, at each other?
A lot of people are focused not on coming together or working together, but on driving people apart. Wedge politics, no matter how entertaining and effective in the short term, are morally appalling — and if liberals were even remotely powerful, I'd say something here about the wedge movements on the left. But I find it hard not to notice that the divisive national politics in the United States right now are being driven by the right and amplified by the partisanship of the G.O.P.
Does saying that make me a divider? I don't think so. But acknowledging that fact puts liberals like me in a awkward spot when we are also committed to dialogue, compromise, pragmatism, and the commonweal. If you're tempted to say that I'm a hypocrite for wanting dialogue when I'm also convinced that the conservative movement has deliberately adopted a politics of division in order to consolidate its power, I see what you're getting at — but the even bigger problem is what to do about conservatives who aren't interested in dialogue but are interested in power. Because, friends, dialogue and swing aren't the dominant motifs in America these days. I'm a liberal committed to moderatism, but who's playing that tune anymore?
For more on the political — and theological — implications of jazz, by the way, see my friend and colleague Tom Stites's essay "Improvisational Faith" (UU World, Sept-Oct 2003).
("Strength in Swing," Wynton Marsalis, New Republic 11.7.05)
Two housekeeping changes: Since I can't figure out why trackback stopped working, I've stopped displaying trackback counts or individual trackback URLs. (The code is still in the pages, and in theory should still work, but I've decided this is a very low priority to try to understand and fix.) If you comment on your own blog about an entry here that you'd like noted on this site, please either leave a link in a comment or email me.
And, having run a test of Amazon book recommendation banners just above the comments area on individual entry pages and concluded that these don't seem to be of any service to you at all, I've taken the Amazon buttons and banners down. I'll still include links to books I mention or discuss, but no more Amazon ads.
Friday, November 4, 2005
I woke up this morning hearing Jimmy Carter discussing his break with the Southern Baptist Convention on NPR's "Morning Edition." There's no link to the "Morning Edition" interview yet, but here's an excerpt from Carter's new book and a link to an interview with Terry Gross. Carter's new book is Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis.
("A Former President Warns of 'Endangered Values,'" Terry Gross and Steve Inskeep, NPR.org 11.4.05)
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Now would seem to be a good time for a metablogging post — a meditation of sorts on what a blog is, and especially on what blog comments are for. I'll be speaking, of course, about this blog and about the expectations I have for comments on this site. I'd be eager to hear about your thinking about your own blog and/or the comments you contribute to the blogs you read.