Monday, April 13, 2015

Culture Wars....postscript

After last weeks posts, there have been a few comments and conversations of substance outside of the blog. I want to share some of my responses in those conversations. I haven't asked the others I have spoken to in these conversations to share their comments. I will only give the framing question and my response.

I was asked by one dear friend: What is the United Methodist churches stance on same-sex marriage?

My response:

We are in a state of quiet disagreement. There are plenty of voices on both sides of the issue stating clearly their opinion. The quiet part of the disagreement is two-fold. 

First, we have put a moratorium on clergy trials for clergy who perform same-sex weddings. There are clergy who feel it is their Christian duty to perform weddings in states where it is legal. There are clergy who believe that, since our Book of Discipline has clear rules against it, no one within the UMC is legally/ecclesiastically eligible to do those. (That brings up an interesting precedence argument: if the book of rules does not allow a clergy to perform a wedding, does that invalidate the marriage license since they are not acting within their scope.) The trials were sapping resources and not moving the issue, so a moratorium was placed on clergy trials. 

Second, our quadrennial meeting of the entire UMC, General Conference, is convening next year. Any changes to the Book of Discipline must be enacted by the General Conference. There are always discussions and prognostications of how the rules regarding the subject of same-sex relationships will go. The UMC will not make any big moves until the General Conference is completed.

The UMC is divided. There is no clear majority. Some want to retain the language of the Discipline as our official way forward. No clergy or facilities of the UMC can be used in the performance of a same-sex marriage. We have clergy who feel the language should be changed to allow them to occur within the sphere of United Methodism. If the language stays the same, the UMC will continue to have periods of loud disagreement. If the language changes, there will most likely be a division of the UMC. 
I was also asked, by the same friend, what my stance is on the issue. I admit that I didn't clearly state that in the previous writings. What follows is how I feel at this time.

Where am I? Torn. I cannot in good conscience go against the rule that binds me. I agreed by ordination vow to uphold the Book of Discipline. I cannot simply cast that aside. I try to maintain a faithful obedience to the rule of law. My livelihood depends upon it. To go against the rule that I have sworn an oath to uphold is very serious to me. 

But I believe that same-sex couples deserve recognition under the law to gain the same privileges as mixed-sex couples take for granted. I support the idea that all people should be treated equally under the law. I feel that civil rights are not universal or "God-given", but that all members of a given people within the boundaries of the government establishing those laws have the right to them without regard to status, race, or other discriminating factors.

I believe that RFRA's are being enacted or reinforced without clear, logical thinking. And I feel that the discrimination that is being ballyhooed at the present is fear mongering more than foresight. That isn't to say that discrimination wouldn't happen. But religious rights/freedoms (I consider them privileges) can be discriminated against just as easily as civil rights/freedoms. There have been many cases of discriminatory backlash on those businesses that were the spark of the cases. This is not as easy as one clear cut set of rights being infringed upon.

I do feel that there is a messed up set of priorities in this current battle. Marriage is not about weddings. The current crop of "rights" being argued is not about marriage issues. Every case that is pending that spawned a RFRA discussion in the last month have only had to the do with wedding preparations. I feel that is a horrible place to argue rights. I feel that if same-sex couples want to solidify the right of marriage, it should be in the realm of fighting for those protections and privileges gained by marriage status.

But that brings another issue to light: are we talking about civil marriage or religious marriage? Those are two separate states of being. As a minister, the church grants me the authority to bless a union between two people. But in order for that marriage to be "legal", I have to act as an officer of the State. I can tell couples (and have told couples) to go to a judge and seek the civil relationship to guarantee their status. Then, after that has been completed, I would perform a blessing of their relationship (it had to do with immigration issues, immigration status, and other related time sensitive matters). If a couple is desiring recognition under the law, then a wedding is unnecessary. If a couple wants to celebrate their relationship status, then the arrangements for that celebration is not a rights issue. It is a preference issue.
Finally, another friend asked me about my stance on homosexuality. It is complicated.

I stand by the verses that say that it is incompatible with a Christian lifestyle. When Paul was writing, it was a specific setting. But the act of sex between same genders was not acceptable within the Christian communities. [insert comment here: Whether you say that it only referred to temple prostitution, or it doesn't apply to committed, monogamous relationships, Paul was saying that the act was not acceptable in a Christian community]
Now, I don't think that it is any worse or damning than any other lifestyle sin that people choose. As Americans, we ignore that there are thousands of children who die every year from a lack of food, yet our churches are filled with obese persons. Yep, I am a hypocrite in this regard. I hear a lot of good Jesus loving Christians still gossiping every day of the week, including in Sunday Schools. We don't share our resources or protect our environment or fight injustice or forgive family members (much less our enemies). And church [inserted: members]  are just fine with those lifestyle sins because those are matters of privacy.

I see homosexuality as a sin but not one to be raised up above any others. And if we aren't going to hold ourselves accountable for our private sins then shut the trap on others.

Friday, April 10, 2015

No Winners In This War

Part One: Religious Freedom In the Midst of the Culture Wars
Part Two: Culture Wars...and Politicians and the Media
Part Three: Onward Christian Soldiers...

Before I begin this post, let me lay out my biases first. I am an Evangelical (putting much authority on what Scripture says). I am a traditional Wesleyan Methodist (I gain my theological perspective from the theology of John Wesley and the Methodist movement of the 18th century). I believe in the Church's creedal statements from the middle of the first millennium.  That means I look at the world through a biblical, orthodox, Wesleyan lens.

I also have some confessions to make. I struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage. I don't like weddings, period. I don't feel that gays deserve any more special treatment (positive or negative) than any other citizen of the United States. I do not judge another person's sins as greater than mine and I try not to let those sins diminish that person as a human being. Sometimes I mess up on that last part. My greatest fears are not grounded in my flavor of religious faith losing ground in American culture. In truth, I am afraid that my religious faith tradition has lost itself because of its prominence in the American culture.

With all of that said, I believe that there are just as many faults on the part of supporters of same-sex marriage as there are in religious corners. The demonizing language is just as present. The rhetorical fear-mongering is just as loud. The hopeless division is just as stridently maintained. Is it a reaction to the tactics of the Religious Right? Yes. Is it justifiable? Possibly. Is it right? No.

I have heard that the fight for gay rights is this generation's civil rights movement akin to the fight for blacks in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. While I disagree with that (it's one of my confessions I didn't make above), I will accept that claim for the purpose of this discussion. So, if this is a civil rights movement, whose example are you following?

As I look back on the civil rights movement, there is one person who is lifted out as the shining example of leadership for the movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was an amazing man to lead our nation in seeing people of different races as equal. He led with words of wisdom and grace. He lived that example as he led the movement. He faced opposition with grace. He led his followers in rejecting the status quo with a style that has marked our nation.

But as I look at the current battle for the civil rights of gays in this issue of marriage, I don't see Dr. King. Supporters of the awareness of marriage are not staging peaceful demonstrations. I don't see words of wisdom and grace toward those who are the opposition. I see demonizing and hate.

So I have to wonder if those who are supporting marriage for same-sex couples are following in the civil rights tradition of Dr. King. Or perhaps they have chosen to follow in the path of another leader of the movement: Malcolm X. The tactics of demonizing the other side, the declarations of superiority of non-religious points of view, and the prophetic calls that religious people will be destroyed are all present. And while I don't hear physical violence and attacks on religious institutions, the spirit of the words rings more true with the message of Malcolm than Martin.

If that is the case, and this is just my opinion, then this is not a civil civil rights movement. There is no effort at civil discourse. Of the incidences that have been published in the newspapers and are making the rounds on the internet, there has been few examples of civil discussion, mediation outside of courts, or reconciliation among the parties involved. There have been "civil" lawsuits brought (which I feel may be one of the great oxymoron's of modernity) in order to make a point or claim damage, not to bring about what is wanted. There have been demonstrations that have blocked businesses from operating or defamation attacks that do not focus on the services but on the owners.

If this is going to be a civil rights movement, then I feel the greatest movement and success will be found in the civil discourse of sitting down with opponents and finding the ground of what is common and good between. The greatest success comes when we work together to find a way forward. The legacy of Dr. King has brought greater movement than the legacy, as necessary as it was, of Malcolm X.

If we are going to make this a civil rights issue, then we have to also accept that civil rights are also equal rights. Civil rights are the privileges granted to all of the people under a government. Once in a while a new perspective on how those rights need to be adjusted. The founding government found that the original laws of the land (the Constitution) were not completely adequate to understand what rights were allowed to people. The Bill of Rights were written, and codified, to  clarify those rights in certain circumstances. And the amendments that have been added to address the awareness that rights were being overlooked. But every time an amendment was added, it had to go through the fires of proving itself.

In our current civil rights issue, and in light of our current concerns, this is not a simple adjustment. The new frontier of gay rights is challenging because in cultural terms, gays have not been overlooked (as blacks were for so many decades). They have been hidden. I'm not saying that was right. I am only speaking to the reality. This is a "new people group" for our culture.

It is also challenging because blacks had an obvious wrong that needed to be corrected. There were two centuries of ill treatment that needed to be righted. Gays, while they have suffered in recent history, do not have the same sympathy quotient. I'm sorry to be brutal about this but it is true. I'm not saying it is right but it is a reality based on long held perceptions. If gays are going to gain equal rights, then it will take time and changing perceptions.

But in the fight for equal rights there is the conflict between rights that we, as a nation, have to find balance. The growing need for gay civil rights is running headlong into the established rights of speech and religious expression. Those rights have been fought over and established. There is precedence to carry into forward conflicts. The opinions and legal struggles that have gone before will shape and guide future rights arguments. Unless we undo the Constitutional rights established regarding speech and religious expression, then any further rights that are secured will need to be balanced to those previous established.

But I want to make one final argument. None of the current round of battles has anything to do with gay marriage. They have to do with weddings. And those two are not the same thing. Marriage is an institution that guarantees certain things for those joined. I believe that the legal guarantees that marriage offers to spouses should be offered to same-sex couples. I feel that same sex relationships are not going away. The need to protect each other in those relationships will be a necessity. If the legal guarantees that the marriage relationship offer are not present, then there will be future burdens on the civil systems (healthcare because insurance doesn't offer coverage, legal as property matters are decided, etc). There is a need for some civil guarantees in these relationships.

But the fights that are happening right now have to do with flowers and cakes and venues. And I feel that those are not civil rights issues. No one has a right to the kind of flowers or the florist. No one has a right to a cake. No one has a right to the venue. Those perceived rights are benefits of a free market society. We have convinced ourselves in this consumer society we have created that if someone doesn't have what I want when I want it, then I am the victim.

And that is what I have seen in these current battles. The rights of a couple to have insurance coverage is a necessity. The rights of a couple to have a particular florist do their arrangements is trivial. As a pastor, I have seen too many instances where weddings are of higher priority than the marriage that will follow. I have had to fight against cultural standards of what a wedding is about to clearly inform the couple what a wedding accomplishes in a church setting. When the bride is more important than God who has institutionalized marriage (for Christians), then I have a problem with weddings. It is my bias.

I want to believe that good will come of this. I want to believe that all Americans will receive equal treatment under the laws of this land. But I cannot support cases where personal choices in a free market society are not met. I cannot argue for civil rights when civil discourse is abandoned. And if violence of word and spirit, by either side, is used and justified, then you are only damaging your cause and those you claim to support.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Onward Christian Soldiers...

Part one of the series:Religious freedom in the midst of the Culture Wars

Part two of the series:Culture Wars....and the politicians and media.

I have been a Christian since I was 7 or 8. I remember my first experience of accepting the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I remember sitting in church and Sunday School listening to the lessons of what the Bible says and is about. I remember reading the Bible, finding its messages for myself. And in all of that, I came to believe the Bible to be an authority in my life. Its words I have allowed to speak into my life. I make the best attempt possible to transform those words into a lifestyle. I don't make the best example of what the scriptures say at all times of my life. I am called to account for bad choices and I hold myself to account for bad choices. 

 

And to those Christians who have chosen to represent the Church in a stance against gays, I want to hold you to account for your choices.

 

Let me begin with a point of clarification. See the big "C" in that previous sentence? That "C" does not represent a building in a community or even the gathered members in a place in community. It does not represent a larger body of connected communities (some may call it a denomination or some other word). It doesn't even represent the groups of bodies that form faith traditions. When I use that big "C", it represents one thing: the entire body of Christ gathered under the name of Jesus the Christ. It represents anyone who calls upon the name of the one we believe to be raised from the dead and have sworn allegiance to as our king. There are no lines that separate in the big "C". Just because I happen to be (and love being) United Methodist, when I talk about being a part of the big "C" I mean people of all forms of Christian belief. 

 

And on behalf of a considerable number of my fellow big "C" sisters and brothers, I want to say that you do not speak for the Church when you stand against gays because of your religious beliefs or convictions. Some of us have a different understanding of how we are to treat people. And our understanding of that behavior is just as biblical as your "right" to refuse to serve them.

 

I know the line of "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching". It is brought up just about every 4 years. Around General Conference time for us United Methodists, it is just as common a refrain as "Happy Holidays" around November/December. I don't need anyone to point out the passages that "clearly" say that God is against homosexuals. First, because those passages are only slightly less reprinted everywhere than John 3:16 during football season. And second, if those passages were so clearly understandable, then we wouldn't have trees by the thousands being killed to "explain" them.

 

At the risk of being treated to the same effort to "explain" my use of scriptures, I want to present my (and I don't think I'm alone on this) biblical understanding for how I treat gays and anyone else that so many in churches consider undesirable.

 

1. Let's start with the Sermon on the Mountain (Matthew 5-7). I am kind of simple when it comes to some things. When the Bible says that Jesus said these things, I believe that a craftsman born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and impelled by God's Spirit said these things to a crowd of people a little less than 2,000 years ago. And because I'm so simple, I think he meant what he said. And because, maybe I am too simple, these words are preserved, then I am supposed to take his words and try my best to be an example of them in my life today.

 

There are those quaint phrases that Jesus begins with that many of us call the Beattitudes. When I read them, I hear Jesus saying that the people who suffer the most, God is on their side. And in this age and in this nation, there are people who are suffering. We may want to sweep them aside with simple platitudes. We may want to give them some "charity" and forget them. But God wants something to be done for them. The prophets of the Old Testament called upon God's people to DO something about those who suffer, not BELIEVE something or DEFEND those beliefs. 

 

The next paragraph after those quaint sayings tells the people that they are salt to flavor the world and light for all to see. And the way that we flavor the world and shine light for others to see is through the good works that we do. Who do you suppose would benefit the most from our good works? If the prophets were faithful to God's message, then I see that those who suffer receive the benefit of what we do.

 

Or what about what Jesus says about reconciling ourselves to others before we worship? Or about not taking into account the harm (perceived or real) done to us by others? Or the impossible thing Jesus says about loving people who would seek to do us harm? Then Chapter 6 has Jesus telling us that we are not to do good things just to be noticed. The things that we do as a devotion to God are their own reward. Finally Jesus gets to the heart of this message for the current subject: stop judging others.

 

I know what some of you are thinking. "Oh, he's a liberal." Let me ask you to stop and think for one minute about that. The fundamentalist argument is that liberals don't take scripture literally. I represented quite literally what was in Matthew 5-7. I stated that I believe a real, living Jesus of Nazareth said those things. And I hope I made it clear that I believe that Jesus meant it then and it means something now. If that makes me a liberal, then you have chosen to say "Jesus really didn't say those things."

 

2. Did you know that Jesus didn't follow his own teaching? Going back to the Sermon on the Mountain, I want to prove that point in a couple of ways. Jesus condemns the act of adultery in 5:27-30. Jesus even goes so far as to expand it from adultery to lusting. And the judgment for those that do so: cut off the offending member. Then in 7:6, Jesus uses the phrase, "don't give the sacred to dogs." Both of these are clear. Neither of these can be misunderstood. But Jesus does.

 

In John chapter 4 and chapter 8, Jesus encounters a couple of women who, we may judge her as, have loose morals. One has bounced from husband to husband to husband to husband to something less than husband. The other was caught in adultery. Jesus has clearly condemned both lifestyles. But what is his reaction? He receives the woman the well in grace and teaches her. To the woman on the ground deserving of condemnation he says I do not either.

 

Then in Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus is entreated to heal the daughter of a woman that was not of Jesus' own people. As she gets pushy, Jesus responds to her begging by saying, "It isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs." That is clearly an echo of the saying regarding the sacred from the sermon. And it is clear that Jesus intends that statement to be the end of this interaction. But Jesus does not leave the woman with nothing. Instead he uses his power and glory to restore the daughter to health.

 

In all three of these cases, there is clear justification to say that Jesus could have chosen to cut those women off. He would have been completely right in ignoring the woman at the well, in allowing the woman to be stoned, or keeping his healing power for the people of God. But he chose not to. 

 

3. The Golden Rule. nuff said.

 

4. When Jesus gets into a conversation about the most important commandment, he follows in a very Jewish custom of summarizing the covenant given to Israel by Moses. His summation, I summarize as, "Love the Lord your God with everything you are." But Jesus pushed it just a little beyond just summing up the second part of the covenant. He filled it with greater meaning. "Love your neighbor as you would show that love to yourself." This is a clear statement. There is no confusing what he means here. If we would use our resources or our energy to show love to ourselves over something, then we are commanded by God to show that SAME love to others.

 

The way I teach the concept of who we are commanded to love follows this pattern:
We are to love those we join together with in faith community (one another).
We are to love those who are like us and share points of common traits (our neighbor).
We are to love those who are not like us; people of different race, religion, language, traditions, and sexual orientation (read the Good Samaritan story again).
We are to love those who would actively do harm to us either in word or action (our enemies).

 

Did I forget anyone?

 

Finally, for anyone who says that we are supposed to help convict sinners of their errors and get them saved, you are wrong in so many ways.

 

First - we are not equipped, nor called, to be judge and jury of another persons sins. There is only one who can judge the hearts and minds of humanity. And his court will not be in session until some day later when ALL will stand before his judgment seat and give an account for what they have done in this life. And the way I read Jesus' words, if we aren't doing the stuff above, then we better get used to wearing a goat hair coat for a very long time in a very bad place.

 

Second - it is only after someone gets to know Jesus that convincing and convicting of sin happens. The Holy Spirit works in their life to bring them to a point where they are convinced that something is wrong and there is only once source of healing for that. The Holy Spirit then works with them to bring them to Jesus Christ. We only act as the bailiff in the courtroom, so to speak. If the Judge and the Counselor want the "convicted" to know something or do something, it is our task to lead them there. But it isn't our job to step into those other roles.

 

Third - the only people we have a right to question their choices are people of faith with whom we have a relationship. I have no right to tell my Baptist clergy they should let women be preachers. I may disagree with that prohibition. But I do not have a right to "correct" their behavior because I disagree with it. If we follow the principle of "I don't agree with your choices therefore I won't support your action" then kiss the ministerial alliances of our communities goodbye. Because my Baptist brothers can declare that just as resolutely about us God-forsaken Methodist who ordain women. 

 

When we are in a covenant relationship with someone (by merit of Baptism) and we are in voluntary fellowship with one another (by merit of membership vows), we have a duty to hold each other accountable. We have a responsibility to see that we grow and develop one another into more mature Christians. No where in the New Testament instructions to the Church do we see a clear mandate that a church is to abandon holding each other accountable to spiritual development while at the same time criticizing, condemning and chastising those outside of the fellowship.

 

Fourth - the Church does not have permission to speak into the lives of others anymore. It used to be that the Church had authority to speak into others lives. In a previous day, Christians could change the course of communities by declaring the authority of the Church. But that day is over. The authority of the Church is diminished. We do not have the right to claim a right or wrong way in a secular world. And part of the reason for that lies at the feet of those who have made a mockery of the Church. People who have spoken loud in judgment against the "evils" of this world and then were found to be just as much a participant as those who were railed against.

 

Fifth  and finally - your perceived religious "rights" do not include your business. There is nothing Christian about capitalism and the free market system. If you choose to do business in the marketplace, then you have to accept that your business is open to people of all kinds of things you may not like. If you don't want to serve a certain kind of people, then close the store front and make yourself a ministry. Give your service only to those whom you feel comfortable doing business with. Keep your activity among only those who are worthy of your gifts and talents. 

 

Or better yet, consider yourself in ministry where you are, with your shop open. Consider that Jesus went to people who weren't like him and didn't like him and what he stood for. He healed the sick Jews and Romans. He touched the lepers and the children. Consider that maybe God has blessed you with a small (or big) business in order that you can be a witness of the grace and mercy that was shown to you (a sinner). 



Tomorrow I plunge headlong into disaster.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Culture Wars....and the politicians and media.

 Here is part one of this series: Religious Freedom In the Midst of the Culture Wars


The first people I would call to account for their behavior in this kerfuffle would be the politicians and the media. The current concept of culture war is being churned (as is the way with actual war) by the politicians jockeying for power and position. The media feeds the beast.

Politicians have a way of being most sincere about the lines they are drawing. They make it appear that there is something to fear. They can find all of the concerns that constituents possess and them amplify them to terrors that must be stopped. In Pat Buchanan's day, it was the Religious Right or Christian Coalition or Moral Majority. The politicians of those confederations identified all of the anxieties where the moral fabric of the nation was coming to pieces. They proclaimed loud and proud how the enemies of traditional family values or moral propriety were leading this nation away from its once proud heritage.

In our current political climate, the Religious Right is countered by the Anti-religious Secular movement. The Christian Coalition is at even pace with Secular Humanists. The Moral Majority isn't so major anymore. But as these countering voices have come to prominence, they have used all of the same tactics as the previous champions of political opinion.

Our current political climate is more one of sniping and barraging their opponents. They want to do anything and everything to lay waste to the resources that their opponent may be able to take advantage of. But neither side stops to consider for one moment that the only resource they or their opponent has are people. Who is in the crossfire? Who are the acceptable losses? Who are the collateral damage? It is not other politicians. It is not lobbyists. It will be the hearts and souls of the proletariat and average Joe.

And don't count corporate business into that lot. They are insulated. For all of the bluster that one party looks out for big business, both sides realize that they cannot function unless that cater to the economic role that large corporations play. The sides talk a really good game to energize the voting populous. But macroeconomics demands that, at this stage of our national existence, big business needs the favor of politicians and politicians need their influence.

The politicians who seized on the lawsuits that were growing out of the contention over same-sex marriage rushed to play on the emotional energy present. When everyone is clamoring that the law needs to be tweaked, that signatures will not be provided unless rewritten, that the law has to be clarified at every turn should tell us that the politician who brought it forward did not do their job. Their job is to represent all of the people of their constituency. If they are writing unclear legislation that represents only a portion of their ENTIRE district, then they have failed to show themselves capable of doing the job.

The RFRA legislation that needs a companion piece of legislation is a waste of time and money. It is a failure to understand the basic principles of what a representative government does. And it shows a fundamental lack of logical and critical thinking. Maybe I have just been too brainwashed to get this, but shouldn't the people we elect into offices of authority have the basic ability to critically think about the legislation they write? Shouldn't they be able to see the potential weaknesses and pitfalls? Or lets put it back into the cultural war analogy - shouldn't they have a strategist that helps them see the ambushes and the strong-points of the enemies defenses?

RFRA legislation (as well as any other bill) that is poorly written and does not represent the people who have entrusted politicians with the task of writing is a waste of the tax payers trust and votes.

And now the media.

I am sitting here, writing on the internet - media.
I can turn on television news at any hour of the day - media.
I have satellite radio and can listen to talk radio at any point, any where I am - media.
I don't buy newspapers or news magazines, but I hear they are still being printed - media.

The thing that all of them have in common is that they are driven by content. The internet needs people contributing new material in order to make it viable. We have networks (does anyone remember when CNN was the only 24 hour news service on t.v.?) that have to fill 24 hours with something so they can pay people and keep broadcasting. Radio chatter boxes fill the airwaves with what seems like endless streams of opinion. And what used to be the leading news source for people, is struggling to prove itself to a digital generation.

At one point, information was the primary content of these media sources. But if you haven't noticed it, try and step back from media. Information has been replaced with opinion. Newspapers would have a "letters to the editor" column. Then syndicated editorials filled the page. CNN provided news from around the world. Now we have CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and numerous other channels that have a block of time for news. The rest is commentary on news from experts. Radio chatter boxes are still opinionated voices. Instead of reporters or correspondents on the ground, the internet turns to bloggers (hi there!).

Media has found that news and information does not sell. But they can sell opinions. They can sell opinions because those stir emotions. So the more opinions they can shovel out, the more emotional response they engender in the consumers. And that is what we are - consumers. We feed off of the media.

The reality is that media that works in this way drives the culture wars. How do we know who to hate? How do we know what opinions are wrong? How do we decide what course we are going to follow? We have someone telling us what side we need to be on. And the side we agree the most with is the side we jump to.

The great thing about people is that, given a level playing field, everyone can get along. I have noticed that families and churches and schools and communities tend to have less strife on a person to person level. When we are confronted with a person, most of us are decent enough to accept them. But when we have a third party telling us that this person did "such-and-such" or they are "that kind" of person, then strife begins and we aren't decent to each other.

The lines drawn by the media, the sides of the culture wars, are all about what the other side does wrong or how bad they are or what kind of people they are. We, good people, are better than that.

So, shame on politicians who play on fear and emotion to bolster their position.
Shame on politicians who waste our trust and precious votes because they don't have the critical ability to do their job.
Shame on the media for giving up on the task of informing the people.
Shame on the media for driving wedges between good people who are better off without it.

Tomorrow I'm talking to my people - the church.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Religious freedom in the midst of the Culture Wars

The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of point-counterpoint over the subject of RFRA's. If you don't follow the news media in any way, a RFRA is a bill passed by a governmental body (federal or state) that has as its subject religious freedoms. That sounds fairly governmental, right?

The problem is that the current crop of RFRA's are being described in the media (print, television, talk radio, and internet) as the latest front in the culture wars. The language is intentionally battle related. Siege, offensive/defensive, campaign. You get the picture?

What is a culture war? That is an interesting subject. It has roots in the 19th century. It was grounded in the effort of Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck of Germany to distance the influence of the Roman Catholic Church over the Prussian portion of the German Empire. The kulturkampf, or culture struggle, represented laws that were enacted that were biased against German Catholics.

In the 20th century, the shifting emphasis from agricultural/rural based lifestyle to industrial/urban based lifestyle could be described as another culture struggle. But during the 1960's, there was an even more dramatic defining of cultural "sides". The '60's have become famous for a "loosening" of the moral norms that had become predominant in American society.

The concept of "cultural war" was given a wider perspective in the 1990's. In 1991, a sociologist published a book that observed that American politics and culture was becoming polarized on certain issues. That book may have played into a speech delivered by Pat Buchanan. In that speech at the Republican Convention, he stated:
My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so, we have to come home, and stand beside him.
You younger readers, the Cold War was a season of fear for many Americans. For Buchanan to compare the contemporary political and cultural climate of that speech to the Cold War would have brought people, to some degree, to the fear and anxiety of the previous generation. Instead of an enemy of military might, this new war was settled into the "soul of America" around political issues.

If you read that speech, you find that Buchanan's words may still be heard, echoing in conservative/traditionalist voices: liberalism, abortion, homosexuality, public state-run education, radical feminism, anti-traditional marriage, environmentalism, gay marriage. Those sentiments of the struggle for America's soul are still being addressed in the media. How Buchanan ended that speech sealed the image of the cultural war he believed we were facing. In describing the "tragedy" that residents of Koreatown experienced during the LA riots in 1992, Buchanan ends his speech by sharing the story of National Guardsmen.
They had come into LA late on the 2nd day, and they walked up a dark street, where the mob had looted and burned every building but one, a convalescent home for the aged. The mob was heading in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women. When the troopers arrived, M-16s at the ready, the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated. It had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, backed by courage.
Greater love than this hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.
The speech writers had a very clear picture they wanted the audience to form. The picture is, if the Republican party was going to win and save the soul of America, it would take a war.

Over the course of the 22 years since that speech, cultural war has been used to describe many struggles between traditionalist and progressivist movements. But what does that have to do with RFRA's?

Over the last few weeks, states have been enacting Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the federal RFRA. Under that law:
(a) In general
Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section.
(b) Exception
Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—
(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
(c) Judicial relief
A person whose religious exercise has been burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government. Standing to assert a claim or defense under this section shall be governed by the general rules of standing under article III of the Constitution.
These acts, that are intended to restrict government from burdening an individual's exercise of religion, are the current frontline of the cultural battleground. Individual businesses across the United States have run headlong into unintended legal fights. In most cases, the business owners have denied services to persons desiring to employ those services in the context of a same-sex wedding. The petitioners are seeking to fulfill their right to marriage under newly solidified state laws. The business owners are denying service based on religious grounds.

Let me say that none of this current crop of legal skirmishes have to do with the federal RFRA. All of the current issues are at the state level. It is state law allowing marriage vs. state law protecting exercise of religion, or in some cases, speech. All of them have to do with the cultural shift that is occurring across the United States. And all of them have to do with the inability of case law to keep up with the speed of cultural shift. And they have to do with perceived civil rights. And they have to do with personal expression of lifestyle.

But they don't have anything to do with actual civil rights.
And they don't have anything to do with practice of religion.
And they don't have anything to do with destroying the soul of America.

Well that isn't quite right. They do have everything to do with destroying the soul of America, but it isn't the laws or the politics or the businesses. It isn't same-sex weddings or religious convictions.

In the coming writings, I am going to lay out some "shame on" to what is really destroying the soul of America.

Yes, I am going to express my opinion. I will state it clearly so that there will be no doubt where I am coming from. I will engage in conversation but here are the rules I will engage within:

1.) I will respect anyone's opinion, even if we disagree.
2.) I will respond with as much civility as possible in this medium that is 80% deficient in communicating.
3.) I will not delete comments that are different or that some may find offensive. Freedom of speech is part of civil discourse.
4.) If you wish to personally attack me, or my opinions, that is your right. I will do everything in my limited human ability not to take personal offense.
5.) If you feel that I am being attacked in a dialogue, do not feel you have to defend me. I am responsible for this mess and claim responsibility for putting myself out in this highly charged conversation.
6.) Feel free to share this post. But give credit. It isn't that I have a set of original ideas. It is just a selfish desire to get my name out there. (Hey, I'm just as narcissistic as the next blogger!)