Thursday, October 16, 2008

Turns I Took On the Way To Becoming a Christian Liberal

John Kennedy and Richard Nixon battled for the Presidency in 1960, the year that I was in the tenth grade. I had tuned in to politics largely through the fact that my father had run for and been elected to local office two years before. The election took place during the height of the Cold War. Americans were jittery about the spread of communism throughout the world. Sputnik, launched in 1957, had triggered a frantic attempt on the part of American educators to stress science and mathematics, convinced that were my generation to fall even further behind the Soviets in technical capability, we would soon be hostages of superior Russian geopolitical power. At the same time, for the preceding six years, the South—at least a good percentage of Southern white people—were running scared in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, which quite clearly threatened “the values” that most all white Southerners held dear, enshrined in the institution of racial segregation. Our Senator even in those days was Strom Thurmond, whose name was about as hallowed in South Carolina as Roosevelt’s had been during the Depression. We argued that the chief issue was “States Rights,” the same constitutional ground on which our forebears had based their defense of slavery. With the same rhetoric, we proceeded to talk about without talking about the real bugbear, racial integration.

My parents had come of age in the 1930’s. They were half-way through Conway High School when the economy tanked in 1929, and lived through the early years of the Great Depression as they were graduated from high school, married, and started a family. Both of them, Daddy in particular, revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had been their hero. And since they were Southerners and therefore Democrats, they were pleased to have been able to vote for a Democrat who not only represented economic salvation for them but one who was allied with the only party whom most white people in the South would even think of supporting. The taste of Reconstruction had by no means left the mouths of my parents; and certainly it had not left those of my grandparents, three of whom were born within a decade of the end of Republican-run Reconstruction in 1876. All that and the fact that Daddy had served in the Navy for his President and Country during World War II made him intensely loyal to the Democratic Party and fiercely inimical to anything that bore the name “Republican.” Some things he did not doubt, among them that Herbert Hoover had been responsible for the Depression. Other things he probably doubted but would not talk about, such as the fact that the National Democratic Party had cast in its lot with the oncoming struggle for Civil Rights for the Negro, which of course is what had occasioned Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat candidacy in 1948.

Somehow or other I came to see that it was the Republicans who truly were on the side of states’ rights, and who had the interests of the South at heart. I had already come to learn how despicable the word “liberal” was. Those of my teachers who talked politics quickly taught me that what one wanted to be in order to be respected and respectable was “conservative.” I put all this together in a fairly succinct creed. As a Southern white boy, I believed that the Republicans stood for states rights and against a dictatorial federal government that wanted to dismantle the structures of segregation; that the Republicans were the champions of limited government against the “creeping socialism” of the Democrats that would soon land us into the column of the communists; that the Republicans were on the side of right (after all, weren’t they called “the right wing” as opposed to the sinister, liberal left?); and that the Republicans were the only way to unlock South Carolina and the rest of the South from the grip of one-party government which even then seemed to me to be grossly unhealthy.

Daddy and I argued. I pushed his every button. The fact that I was for Nixon drove him crazy. And the fact that he would “argue” with me by putting me down only increased my distrust and anger at everything labeled “Democratic.” So there was something that got into the mix that had more to do with the perennial struggle of sons with fathers than it had to do with politics per se.

By the time I finished high school, Kennedy had been president for two years. There was a part of me that loved Kennedy, but it was a part that loved to imitate his Boston accent and make my peers roll in the floor laughing. He was never my hero. Rather, I chose as my mentor and idol a Republican: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was the homespun humorist, deeply spiritual, intellectually astute, courageous misfit that I myself wanted to be. I would sit and look at photographs of him for what seemed like hours. And I read everything I could about Lincoln. I was to pursue that interest when I went to Randolph-Macon, writing a major paper my freshman year on Lincoln’s religious beliefs, which I presumptuously and pretentiously entitled, “Through a Glass Darkly.” Meanwhile, my political mentor became Barry Goldwater.

But something else was stirring in me. Let’s call it a religious sensibility. Ever the earnest kid, I devoured much of what I could get my hands on that The Methodist Church said and was doing. I found myself passionately excited about being a Methodist, yet troubled by what seemed to me to be the liberal positions that The Methodist Church was taking. I remember going to a great assembly one summer at Lake Junaluska, that gigantic Methodist watering hole in the Southeast. Sitting through a sermon in the great auditorium, I found myself enchanted by the preacher. Then, when he fully had my attention, he stung me with the revelation that what he was driving at was “this whole matter of race relations.” I had never heard such a thing from a preacher or a pulpit. I squirmed, puzzled and vexed.

Such incidents and the uncomfortable thoughts they churned up sent me scurrying to my pastor, Mr. Shumaker, to whom I confessed that I had problems reconciling my political views with some of the teachings of the Church. I don’t remember anything that he said, but somehow I left him about as troubled as I came. Something was shaking loose in me. I was beginning to be aware that folks who had thought much about issues sometimes came out with positions very different from mine. Then something else jarred me. I took a job at the Ocean Forest Hotel, then the only convention facility at Myrtle Beach. Though only about twenty miles away from home, it was in some sense my first experience out from under my parents’ roof. I lived all summer in a dormitory which housed most of the hotel employees, many of whom were college students. One resident there was the wife of the sous-chef. From Savannah, Anastasia de Guillou was a devout Roman Catholic and an equally committed Democrat. She loved Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, perhaps the latter a bit more than the former, really. I spent hours with her listening to her explanations of the Rosary, the mass, devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “Darling,” she would say to me, “If you are planning to be a Methodist minister, you can’t afford to be narrow-minded.” She had me take her to the Roman Catholic church for Sunday mass, then still in Latin. And to demonstrate her broad-mindedness, she went with me to the Methodist church one Sunday. Suddenly, I was conversant with something that had lain outside my frame of reference. And I saw that someone of deep faith and intelligence could in fact be a Democrat.

In college I roomed with an ardent Democrat, a fervent Methodist, an adorer of John F. Kennedy. George Marshall and I would stay up all hours of the night talking about everything, including politics and religion. One day he told me that his espousal of liberal politics he traced to his dawning awareness of the dictates of the gospel. I blew up. I pulled out every curse, every epithet, every obscenity that I had ever heard and let fly at him with an unspeakable vitriol. Worse, I had little idea of where all my anger was coming from or even an inkling that my behavior was downright bizarre. I mocked his adulation of JFK. I lampooned his political philosophy as stupid and bigoted. And I carried on for days, bringing to my side and defense a person whose name you probably have heard: Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the conservative sometime Chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, still, as I understand it, under investigation for the misappropriation of federal funds. Ken was our dorm counselor, or residence advisor, and a convinced conservative, which he has remained to this day. I would get out of the way and let him rank on George, whom he would chide mercilessly in a Galax, Virginia, accent, all the while puffing on a cigar.

My sub-sophomoric tantrum at George was, as is transparently obvious, a classic case of projection. I had begun to see the cracks in my political philosophy. I had begun to be aware that the values promulgated in the Christian faith somehow did not square with racial segregation. That the love of Jesus had nothing to do with states’ rights more and more seemed frighteningly plausible. Meanwhile, I found myself continually pushed at Randolph-Macon to think, to test my suppositions, to investigate, to question. I could hardly wait to join the debate team, which I imagined would be all about public speaking, for which I had some aptitude. Instead, I found that collegiate debating was about investigating a proposition (my first year it was “Resolved that the federal government should guarantee the opportunity for higher education to all qualified high school graduates”) and debating both the affirmative and negative positions. More than any other single thing, inter-scholastic debating totally ruined my naïve belief that any one position could be valid beyond question.

Then a strange thing happened. Daddy was running for re-election to the magistrate’s office in the summer of 1964. I came home from college to find that the whole family was astir in the toughest battle he had ever faced. A critical precinct which he had always carried was “The Hill,” in Conway, practically 100% black. Totally outside the regular Democratic party stump speaking circuit, the leaders of the black community would invite the candidates for political office to come and address them. It was crucially important for Daddy to do so. On the night he would have gone, he had a conflict of some major proportions. He asked me if I would go and speak on his behalf. I enthusiastically agreed. I made a speech that invoked Abraham Lincoln, talked about freedom and liberation, and the importance of participating in the democratic process. I came down off the dais. A fellow congratulated me and introduced himself. “Sunday, June the 21st, is Father’s Day. At Salem African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bucksport, South Carolina, we’re having a service in the afternoon in honor of all fathers. We’d like for you to come and give us such a sermon as you gave here tonight.” Well, I’d be happy to come, and honored as well, I told him.

Word got around. Daddy’s political enemies somehow found out within days of my going to Bucksport that I had gone and preached in a “damn nigger church.” My family and I got threatening phone calls. I began to taste what it was like to be disparaged for even so mild a thing as associating with blacks. One of the most obstreperous voices was that of Harry Martin, a fellow member of First Methodist Church. He was later to get up and stride out of church when I was delivering a sermon on youth Sunday. Such happens, I discovered, when a southern white boy crosses the line drawn by southern white racists. To their credit, Mama and Daddy were supportive, affirming the value of sticking up for what I believed. That virtue—if it is a virtue—I now heard differently from what I had previous taken it mean (being committed to one’s opinions at all costs). Daddy won the election by two votes, a margin that after a fiercely contested recount rose to something like eight or ten.

I finished Randolph-Macon, by which time I had ceased thinking of myself as a Republican. Debating combined with a deepening understanding of biblical faith called into question my facile adolescent assumptions. I had begun to see that there was strong strand of social justice that ran through the Hebrew scriptures and a non-negotiable communal imperative in The New Testament. In my sophomore biblical literature class I had been stunned to learn that the theology of the Old Testament, adumbrated by the pre-exilic prophets as well as the Torah, made unmistakably clear that God championed the cause of the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the stranger.

By the time 1968 rolled around I was 23 years old and ready to vote. My seminary roommate at Princeton was a conservative from California, as devout a Republican as George Marshall had been a Democrat. He admired Ronald Reagan. We argued theology. We argued politics. When he pressed me as to why I would vote “for the man with three first names—Hubert—Horatio—Humphrey” I told him that we absolutely had to care about the decaying hovels that people lived in in neighborhoods a few miles down the road in Trenton. When he asked what made me believe that, I replied that my understanding of the gospel led me to believe that it was a moral obligation to care about the poor. He laughed and voted for Nixon.

That was the year that the Republicans launched their “Southern Strategy,” somewhat undercut by George C. Wallace’s candidacy. Lyndon Johnson had presciently told Bill Moyers, his press secretary, that in signing the Civil Rights Act he had given the South to the Republican Party for the next hundred years. That is exactly why, I am convinced, the map of Dixie is to this day a stretch of red states. At bottom, the old arguments have changed little. People talk about small government and fiscal responsibility and strong national defense. But the issue that reddens the South still is race.

The end of the 1960’s heightened the fever of anti-war sentiment on campuses. Princeton was rife with sit-ins and takeovers. Students, their futures threatened by the draft and a war that increasingly sent bagged bodies home, took on “the establishment” in ways strange to their American elders. It all got mixed up with various liberation movements. Woodstock. Stonewall. Gloria Steinem. Angela Davis. Black Panthers. A generation of young people, certainly not without exception, came to accuse American society of harboring murderous intent. Reports on the evening news from places like Da Nang and Mi Lai corroborated their accusations. Seminary friends and university students often demonstrated at places like Fort Dix. Some were arrested. I sat it out. I could never bring myself to become an activist. The old debate still went on inside me. There were two sides to every question. One day I would answer a question affirmatively. The next I would debate on the negative side. But like many of my peers, I had a growing sense of the untenability of official United States policy. The war was clearly a moral catastrophe. Nixon, Agnew, and all its other rationalizers spouted stuff that was every bit as dubious as anything Lyndon Johnson ever said. Viet Nam did not make a radical student out of me. Viet Nam taught me that the society I lived in was capable of justifying anything it found expedient.

Why had I even gone to Princeton Theological Seminary? I graduated from college in June, 1967 and struck out for Colorado where a job awaited me with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. In addition to offering services twice on Sunday at an amphitheatre in the park, I worked for the Mesa Verde Company, the park concessioners, running a recreation hall for the park company employees, a good majority of whom were Navajos, the first Native Americans I had ever known. Warren Ost, the director of the National Council of Churches' program, came through Mesa Verde on two separate occasions, met me on the first of those, and on the second trip took up and accelerated his argument that I ought to go to seminary. Vulnerable to my local draft board, with whom I had been haggling all summer in an effort to get a deferment to go to graduate school, I heard myself in response to one of Warren's insistent questions blurting out, "OK, dammit, I'll go!" When I spoke that, I felt a piece of me fall into place which had for some time lodged in a space of resistance and denial. Off to Princeton, Warren's seminary, I went, stunning my girl friend, my parents, and a handful of friends who thought that I had been on a trajectory of becoming a college professor.

I had no idea of ever being ordained. All I wanted to do was to avoid the draft long enough to plug a few holes in my academic résumé, so that with luck I could get into a classy graduate school after seminary. By then, I reasoned, the war would be over or at least the draft would not be breathing down my back. Consequently, my first year I opted not to do any field education in a local parish, there being nothing compelling me to do so. I spent Sundays jockeying around from church to church, or at least that was my plan. The second week I landed in the Episcopal church across the street from campus. That stopped my peregrination. Somewhat later it would launch me on another journey, one towards ordination. Meanwhile, I fell in love with Anglican liturgy and began to notice that there existed a strange compatibility between ancient Tudor language and social conscience. The sermons at Trinity Church made that much clear.

I could not avoid field education more than one year, however, if I wanted a degree. So I began to shop for possible placements at the end of my first year. The Reverend William H. Gray III, a masters degree student at the seminary, was barely older than I. He had recently assumed the pastorate of a black Baptist congregation in Montclair, New Jersey, where he would serve for several years before returning to his native Philadelphia to assume the leadership of the congregation his father and grandfather had pastored. For reasons best known to himself, Bill Gray hired me to be his seminarian, despite the fact that I was very white, very southern, and this was the fall of 1968, just a few months after Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and all hell had broken loose in the black communities of the nation's cities. For an academic year, I trekked up to Montclair on Friday nights and returned to Princeton on Sunday nights. I spent weekends in the homes of parishioners. I learned a few things. I learned how very white the world was in the day before black faces turned up on cereal boxes or in magazines in the homes of people whose walls displayed photos of people conspicuously non-white. I learned how generous and open black people could be, inviting me into their lives not caring who I was or where I came from. I learned what it was like to be honored and loved, and above all, fed.

Hardly any of this surprised me. But one thing that clearly did stun me was experiencing what it felt like to be a minority. As I bonded more and more strongly with the kids in the youth group, with adults who welcomed and mentored me, with Bill Gray whose intellect and leadership I came to respect, I marveled at how little I had known in my native South about people who lived less than a mile from my front door. Shame rose in my throat when I thought of how I had underestimated the plight of Lunelle Hunt, the maid who had kept house and children for Mama while she worked. After I had been at Union Baptist Church for a couple of weeks, I was with Jimmy, one of the guys in the youth group, chatting one Friday night during an after-game party at the Soul Sanction, the dance hall housed in a storefront to which Bill Gray had assigned me to chaperone. "So what was the reaction in the youth group when Reverend Gray hired a white guy to work with you?" I asked.

"You're kidding." Jimmy's face furrowed. "When did he do that?"

"A couple of weeks ago," I responded, puzzled.



His eyes widened. "You are white?"

"Well, yes, what did you think I was?"

"I thought you were just light skinned." He patted my frizzy hair. "Wait till I tell the kids about this."

I came back to campus unable to wait to tell this to Louis Favors, a fellow student who was black.

"You see, Frank," Louis said, shaking his head. "That's what I've been telling you. All this race stuff is a bunch of bullshit."

I left Union Baptist in the spring of that year, forever changed by the weekends I had spent there. I cherish memories of hanging out with the youth group at Lelia Fant's house on Sunday afternoons. The Sunday dinners which Bill Gray and I enjoyed at the invitation of cooks like Fannie Julius and Mrs. Rice, the wife of the Pastor Emeritus, are to this day my standards for elegant hospitality. I carry somewhere in my body the memory of a youth retreat when some kids I did not know very well took me to task for not understanding anything at all about them because I was white and therefore never could understand, or be trusted for that matter. I recall being comforted and affirmed by kids I did know well, gathering around to let me know that I was OK, and that my complexion mattered not a whit to them. I have never since Union Baptist stopped believing that the quintessential American political issue is and always has been the matter of race. Which was and is and ever shall be, in Calvin Louis Favors' words, bullshit.

By 1972 and the candidacy of George McGovern, we had lived through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X. The country was badly divided, drawn and quartered down age and race lines. We woke up one day to find that something else had been the victim of an assassination attempt: the American political system, and with it the illusion that we actually operated according to rules of fairness and honesty. From that time on, with the possible exception of 1976, I have seen every single Presidential election sullied by the forces of dishonesty and deception. It is interesting to ponder what might have happened had the Watergate burglary not been discovered. But in fact it was. And everybody acted surprised. Before it was over with, the nation had the opportunity to see just what a paranoid gang ran the government. Riding to a clergy meeting with a number of colleagues during the Watergate crisis, someone made the comment that the trouble with Richard Nixon is that he had no doctrine of original sin. That set me back on my heels. I thought about it. What is "original sin" but a way of stating the truth about the corruptibility of human nature, even when its ostensible desires are noblest?

Nixon and his buddies, appealing to Americans who were mad at hippies, mad at communists, furious that Viet Nam had proven such a disaster, angry with their own children who defied them by growing long hair (in the case of boys), wearing granny gowns (in the case of girls), and living with their lovers outside of marriage (in the case of both) found the phrase that worked like a charm: "Silent Majority." The majority were neither silent nor a majority, in all probability. But at least at that point, conservatives took a giant leap forward. They invented a narrative that was to become highly successful and as stubbornly vibrant as kudzu. That was the notion that they were, even when a majority, nonetheless persecuted. Spiro Agnew nearly forty years ago quipped about the "liberal elite" that they were the "nattering nabobs of negativism." Conservatives, specifically Republicans, began to spin a tale that the media was a liberal hegemony, mocking the values and beliefs of Middle America. Women, blacks, and other minorities had somehow gained ascendancy at the expense of good, law-abiding white people, who took it lying down. In other words, the Silent Majority were the really oppressed ones.

A few years later, the evangelical movement having burgeoned into a political phalanx, Jerry Falwell spun "Silent Majority" into "Moral Majority." By that time, Anita Bryant and others had begun to single out homosexuals to bear a particularly virulent strain of contempt, and people in droves decided to join sides in what would soon become known as the "culture wars." Ronald Reagan rode the wave of increasing dissatisfaction with the attacks of left-wing radicals against the "Majority's" social structure. I saw taking place a marriage of conservative politics (which I had espoused in high school) and evangelical Christianity (with which I was certainly familiar). Suddenly to be "liberal" was not to be a true Christian. In religious matters, the old liberal establishment (which was not, by the way, a fantasy, but indeed a reality) was sidelined by upcoming conservatives.

One important strand in the cultural rope of the early '80's was a heightened awareness of the charismatic movement. To look backwards momentarily, I can recall a benchmark moment for me that dates the rise of the charismatics. I had become acquainted with the term and the movement in the summer of 1965 when working in Altavista, Virginia. When I returned to the Randolph-Macon campus the following fall, I mentioned the phenomenon of charismatic renewal to a Bible professor of mine who registered a complete blank. He knew nothing about it. In fewer than six years, TIME magazine carried a cover story about the charismatic movement, a branch of which was the "Jesus Movement," popular among youth. By the early eighties, charismatic Christianity had become a force to be reckoned with in all mainline churches.

The charismatic revival in the churches might have been incidental to American politics for the most part had not it stressed a new earnestness about the Bible. Those of us who had grown up in mainline Protestantism, and certainly we who had gone to mainline seminaries, had largely espoused a religious viewpoint strongly colored by modern biblical scholarship. Folks in the pews, such as my parents and their friends, were hardly conversant with the giants of twentieth century theology--Nieburh, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Barth, Bultmann--but continued to read the Bible more or less under the tutelage of ministers who were. Charismatics stressed not only the necessity of taking the Bible quite seriously, but a particular interpretation of scripture emphasizing the activity of God in the present moment. That idea gave me no indigestion, since I had grown up believing in, indeed seeing, the activity of God in the workaday world. What drove me nuts was the fact that no questions I ever asked charismatics led to any kind of reflection and probing, only to answers that were doctrinaire. Charismatics always had something to teach me, and usually, it seemed, it was some deficiency I had. But what I learned eventually from my contacts with "born-again" Christians was that they, with few exceptions, experienced God as having a set of definite ideas about how the world ought to be run and furthermore would be quite irate if somehow human beings got it wrong. A bumper sticker summed it up: "Jesus is coming back, and boy is he pissed!" Biblical literalism, often confusingly conflated with "fundamentalism," came to be the default position of many people who through the various renewal movements in the Church came to a fresh appreciation of the Bible as a living book. If you talked with such people about plural interpretations of texts, or about the relative merits of context of passages? Nothing doing. There was a "plain sense" of the text, which they saw and understood even if you didn't, and that was that.

This way of understanding the Bible has driven and still drives the quarrels about cultural issues. The sexuality issues illustrate it well. Give the literalists the point: the Bible is "against homosexuality." Don't argue about the meaning of the word, just concede the point. But then ask, "So what?" What if the Bible prohibits all homosexual activity? Why should we, churches or society, be concerned about that? Then comes the answer: "The Bible is the Word of God. That is how we know God's will." Then ask, "So what happens if we misread the Bible, or otherwise mess up and get God's will wrong? What then?" I have yet to hear a biblical literalist say, "Well, if you mess up, God will forgive you." Instead, I hear about hell and how those who don't get it are going there. So why should society actually care about, say, the unrepentant homosexual who gets it wrong and goes to hell? The only answer I can detect from the literalists is that God would be equally irate with those who provided the homosexual with the opportunity to get it wrong and go to hell. In other words, everybody who colluded in making it possible for a person to sin and go to hell would be equally guilty.

Otherwise, it seems to me, the tremendous steam that literalist Christians emit over such issues is impossible to understand, short of some facile quip such as "homophobic." If you push the apparatus behind the phobia only a bit, you come to the point of seeing that it really is a terrible fear of what God is going to do to anyone who gets it wrong or who complies with a system that allows anybody else to get it wrong. I think that that fear is far more basic than, say, the fear of "the other" or the fear on the part of men that the might be perceived as feminine, or God forbid, an actual woman. Why are those things in our unconscious anyway? In large part, I think, it is because a religious system of inculcating those fears has been terribly effective. And it rests on a simplistic, uncritical way of reading sacred texts.

A scarier example of the way all this works is the conservative Christian view of foreign policy in the Middle East. Reading--I would say seriously misreading--Old Testament prophecies and the Book of Revelation, conservative Christians avidly support Israel, not because they care a fig for the Jews, even arguing that no Jew is "going to heaven" because only believing in the Lord Jesus Christ can possibly land you there. But to them Israel is a key fulfillment of a biblical prophecy that is absolutely integral to their apocalyptic view of the end time. Thus, when during the run-up to the Iraq war I contacted a number of people encouraging them to sign a petition to the government to back off, to give the inspections (for weapons of mass destruction) a chance to work, a conservative Christian friend of mine wrote back and said that he was not the least bit interested in doing anything to forestall war, since the sooner the Middle East became embroiled in war, the sooner the chances that Armaggeddon would come about, an event necessary for the Second Coming of Christ. People like that are not only advocating in our departments of State and Defense; in some cases they are in power. That fact does not bother the right wing. Far from it! It is just other evidence that muddle-headed liberals who stick up for peace and forbearance are ignorantly getting in the way of God's will.

The more energy that the Reagan-led conservative movement generated, the harder set the cement bonding conservative ideology and religious--specifically Christian--more specifically right-wing Christian--views. In people like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, Republicans found operatives who would do and justify the meanest and dirtiest of political tricks. The people that raved on about personal conscience had no pangs of conscience whatever when it came to smearing a Michael Dukakis or a Max Cleland. No, the end (keeping the Republicans in power) justified the means (lying, smearing, distorting, and above all fear-mongering). I am not naively suggesting that Democrats have not done some, many, or all of those same things. But there has been at least one principle difference. And that is, to my knowledge, there has been no wedding of Democratic Party political philosophy and religious ideology that has even once justified political chicanery on theological grounds. The reverse has been true of Republicans. Smearing John Kerry by the infamous "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" was justified, as was mocking his war record by handing out purple heart band aids at the Republican National Convention in 2004, because a vote for Bush (and against Kerry) was a vote for God.

If the Civil Rights Act redrew the political map for years to come, surely the redrawn map solidified with the decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. When religious groups, notably the Roman Catholic Church, threw their weight on the side of opposing abortion rights, enormous numbers of people signed on to the conservative cause. Or, to put it another way, espousing the "pro-life" position made the Republicans the party for great numbers of people who opposed abortion rights. In the 1970's, The Episcopal Church passed a resolution in General Convention which said, among other things, that abortion was not an acceptable form of birth control. It also held that there were situations when abortion was an acceptable choice. Nothing, the resolution held, should be a reason to abridge the right of a woman to choose, under the pastoral guidance of the Church. This position accorded with my own belief. But conservatives would not even recognize this position as valid, let alone as a defensible Christian one, so convinced are they that there is only one biblically congruent position on "pro-life" matters. As dubious as I am about the wisdom of abortions generally--certainly as a form of post facto birth control, I find deeply troubling the notion that the Bible is a two-dimensional book that provides clear-cut, self-authenticating answers and solutions to a range of questions.

Anyone who has studied the Bible even superficially will notice that it is full of contradictions, which, more often than not, reflect the multiple traditions, texts, and theologies of its authors. The Bible itself is full of revisionism. The Book of Job, for example, debates the prevailing theology of the Deuteronomist. No better example of revisionism exists than Jesus. One can make an argument that the reason he was condemned and crucified was precisely that he was perceived as a dangerous revisionist, teaching a hermeneutic and an ethic that ran afoul of the governing interpretations of his day. Plucking grain and healing on the sabbath are acts far more radical than the modern conservative Christian would be able to stomach. By the same token, his call to a stricter morality in the case of divorce (which also departed from current orthodoxy) denotes Jesus' seriousness of ethical purpose that undercuts any attempt to make him the darling of permissiveness.

Well before I had reached the age of 30, I was on the same trajectory that I still follow. I have changed my mind about many things over the years. At one point, for example, I argued vehemently against the proposal to ordain women. A short year or so later, I was solidly in the camp of those who saw women's ordination as being just and right. In the early 1980's, I argued on the basis of scripture, tradition, and reason that there was no ground for sanctioning homosexual behavior. Two decades later I struggled to articulate what had been clear from my adolescence: that I was myself a gay man who had chosen to tackle my own sexuality by doing all the things, including marriage, confession, and remaining closeted, that any right-winger would have prescribed, only to see my life kneaded into a more and more unpalatable loaf of neurosis. What remains constant for me is the measure of all things by what I perceive the Truth to be. I find that Truth best approached by two things. One is my commitment to a philosophy of dispassionate inquiry which holds unabashedly to the awareness that I could be wrong and often am. The other is a religious tradition which holds lightly the non-essentials of its faith while pursuing firmly the core of that faith, namely the belief that the entire project of salvation is a matter of reconciling humans with other humans, humans with all creation, and all creation with the Creator. To that end my whole life has been moving, and if I have to bet on it, that is the way it will keep moving till the end.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2008


Unknown said...

Good article. Will let this one settle in for a while as there are so many elements that I want to think about before commenting on. Nice to know there are other Southerners out there who followed similar paths....

NoVA Dad said...

You wrote: "I confessed that I had problems reconciling my political views with some of the teachings of the Church." This is exactly the same predicament in which I have found myself the past few years. I have tried - stubbornly, at some points - to remain rooted in my conservative Republican beliefs. However, as more time has passed, the more I have experienced a situation where my political side (my head) and my faith side (my heart) are in conflict.

You and I have certainly had our good-natured debates on legislation, but some of that - in hindsight - may be my trying to cling to where I have been, instead of allowing myself to go where I am being led (sometimes feeling like being pushed!). Certainly, many of my views on social issues are moving me into a position opposite that of some of my more conservative friends.

Thanks so much for sharing the link to this great post!!