Posts tagged with: religion

Here’s the text of a letter sent this morning to the editor at Woman’s Day magazine (don’t ask why I was reading Woman’s Day. I read whatever happens to be sitting in the rack next to our commode):

Paula Spencer’s commentary on the Pledge of Allegiance (“Pledging Allegiance,” September 1, 2007) sounds incredibly McCarthy-esque. Are we to now believe that having qualms about mandatory recitation of the Pledge constitutes an un-American activity?

Spencer dismisses the many reasons that one might object to the Pledge in the context of public schools. These schools are, after all, institutional arms of the government itself, and attendance is mandatory (unless one can afford private or parochial options). A cynic might suggest that when combined with an obligatory recitation of allegiance to the nation, such education runs the risk of becoming indoctrination for the purposes of social control. As to whether nationalism can be such “a bad thing,” consider Germany in the 1930s.

There are also religious reasons why a person might feel compelled to abstain from pledging to a physical object (the flag). For Christians, whose citizenship is finally in heaven and whose ultimate loyalty is due to God alone, concerns about idolatry might compel a person to conscientiously refrain from making such a pledge. Indeed, those two little words “under God” which have occasioned such controversy in recent days are perhaps the only elements of the Pledge that make it even permissible for Christians to profess allegiance to any particular nation.

Patriotism too often can morph into xenophobia and nationalism. Whatever your views of the Pledge, I would think that the educational potential contained in having a “conversation with your child about your family’s approach to the Pledge” would be the sort of engaged parenting that your publication ought to praise and endorse rather than disdain.

The free exercise of religion, not to mention the freedom of speech and independent thought, are thoroughly American. A coerced, perfunctory, and unreflective patriotism is no true patriotism at all.

Jordan J. Ballor
Associate Editor
Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “The nation will always claim a portion of man’s loyalties. Since it usually claims too large a portion, it is necessary that other communities compete with it.”

By my way of thinking, for Christians the Church ought to be that community of primary loyalty (for Niebuhr, it’s the class: “There is no reason why a class which is fated by its condition of life to aspire after an equalitarian society should not have a high moral claim upon the loyalty of its members”).

It seems to me that American churches have a particularly hard time separating out what elements of their worship and piety are merely the trappings of civil religion and which are the indispensable elements of catholicity.

At the recreation center where my wife plays softball, and which is explicitly supported by the denomination, players, coaches, and umpires only pause to pray after the national anthem has been played. In itself its a small thing, perhaps even unimportant, but when combined with all the other similar elements (American flags near the pulpit, for example), it raises in my mind the perennial questions about ultimate loyalties and the proclivity for Christian denominations, particularly Protestants, to align themselves along national boundaries.

See also: “Which of These is More Offensive?”

Speaking of the “priestly” voice of science,

Given all the atheist militancy raising a ruckus lately, I suppose it isn’t too surprising that I am stumbling upon more regular and more baldly dismissive declarations these days about the ineradicable incompatibility of science and religion among Science’s self-appointed Elite Champions online.

I’ve been a perfectly convinced and rather cheerfully nonjudgmental atheist for well over twenty years at this point, but I must say that I think it is arrant nonsense to claim that scientific and religious practices or scientific and religious beliefs are incompatible, given the overabundant evidence of people who weave them together in their lives every day so conspicuously. A little respect for the facts you claim so to cherish, people?

Check out the rest of “Priestly ‘Science’ and Democratic Politics” from Dale Carrico, Ph.D., a fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

On the way to the airport in Atlanta last week, I stumbled upon a radio debate between Michael Medved and Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ latest book – namely, whether or not religion poisons everything. It’s obvious that Hitchens is guilty of a vast overreach with that contention; at the very least, any fair minded person must acknowledge the great contributions of Jewish and Christian religious thought to the foundations of Western society, and one could spend a lot of time listing names of individuals and groups who – motivated by religious conviction – have changed the world for the better. And that doesn’t even begin to touch upon the major contributions religion has made to the world of art and culture.

That being said, one can’t dismiss Hitchens or the other atheist voices that have gained a following in our current cultural marketplace. And so it was refreshing to read this response to Hitchens and his allies by Peter Berkowitz in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Like philosophy, religion, rightly understood, has a beginning in wonder. The most wonderful of creatures are human beings themselves. Of all the Bible’s sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings–woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes–are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

That a teaching is sublime and sustaining does not make it true. But that, along with its service in laying the moral foundations in the Western world for the belief in the dignity of all men and women–a belief that our new new atheists take for granted and for which they provide no compelling alternative foundation–is reason enough to give the variety of religions a fair hearing. And it is reason enough to respect believers as decent human beings struggling to make sense of a mysterious world.

I ran across this review essay by J. Daniel Hammond responding to S.J. Peart and D. Levy’s The Vanity of the Philosopher: From Equality to Hierarchy in Postclassical Economics over at SSRN, “In the Shadows of Vanity: Religion and the Debate Over Hierarchy.”

In Hammond’s words, he wants to fill in a gap in Peart’s and Levy’s account: “The purpose of this paper is to make a start at casting light on the role of religion in the debate over race and hierarchy in 19th century England.”

One of the key turning points in Hammond’s argument is the following supposition: “Catholicism may have played a larger role in the debates over racial hierarchy than would be suggested by the Roman Catholic proportion of the English population and clergy.” Rehearsing the history and nature of the English reformation, Hammond, who is an economist at Wake Forest, writes that in the late nineteenth century, religious liberty for Catholics in Britain increased.

Here’s where Hammond’s analysis gets somewhat strange. He writes that “the brotherhood of the entire human race was a Catholic doctrine. This principle is repeated over and over in papal encyclicals, and having been forcibly removed from the Catholic Church by the English reformers under Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth, the English people were for 300 years outside the ambit of the Catholic magisterium.”

Hammond relates a litany of papal statements against slavery. His conclusion: “If Englishmen were to conclude that slavery was wrong, or that African Blacks and Irish were their brothers, this would be on grounds other than exhortation from the Catholic Church. Not being in communion with the Church of Rome, Anglicans were without doctrinal protection from the very human temptation to treat only those humans who are like us as our brothers.” This absence of Catholic influence on Britain apparently opened up the nation to increasing support for racism.

Although Anglicans and British Protestants were not influenced to any great extent by papal teachings, it does not follow that they “were without doctrinal protection” from racist social forces.

Let me give just one example. The Puritan Richard Baxter, writing in the late 17th century, articulates an argument for the essential similarity shared by all human beings.

He writes, “It’s well known, That the Natives in New England, the most barbarous Abassines, Gallanes, &c. in Ethiopia, have as good natural Capacities as the Europeans. So far are they from being but like Apes and Monkeys; if they be not Ideots or mad, they sometime shame learned men in their words and deeds.”

Indeed, given the appropriate occasions for the actualization of their capacities, these people have proven themselves capable of the equal intellectual feats. After all, says Baxter, “I have known those that have been so coursly clad, and so clownishly bred, even as to Speech, Looks, and Carriages, that Gentlemen and Scholars, at the first congress, have esteemed them much according to your description, when in Discourse they have proved more ingenious than they. And if improvement can bring them to Arts, the Faculty was there before.”

While the “brotherhood of the entire human race” is a Catholic doctrine, it is certainly not exclusively a Catholic doctrine, as cases like Baxter and William Wilberforce show. Hammond’s instinct to better integrate religious contexts into the historical account is laudable. The execution of this idea could be done in a much more nuanced and historically responsible way, however.

In today’s WaPo, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson opines on Senator Barack Obama’s recent address to a gathering of UCC faithful (HT).

In “The Gospel Of Obama,” Gerson writes, “By speaking at a gathering of the United Church of Christ — among the most excruciatingly progressive of Protestant denominations — he was preaching to the liberal choir. And he did not effectively reach out to an evangelical movement in transition.”

Gerson bases this judgment on the contention, citing a Pew Forum researcher, that the younger generations of evangelicals “tend to be more concerned about the environment than are their elders, more engaged in international issues such as HIV-AIDS, a little more open on homosexual rights and less attached to the religious right. This should provide an opening for Democrats. But there is evidence, according to Green, that young evangelicals are as conservative on abortion as their parents and grandparents, if not more so.” The apparent “liberalizing” of young evangelical interests is no doubt an expression of a broader cultural phenomenon.

In addressing the UCC gathering, it would seem that Senator Obama was simply taking a page out of Rev. Jim Wallis’ playbook. For Wallis, Democrats need to get comfortable talking about matters of faith. I’ll admit that I found this passage rather curious:

Yet what we also understand is that our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government. Because whether it’s poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.

I guess I would see the “perfect ten-point plan” more the realm of government, and the “moral problems” as the realm of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque rather than the other way around. It seems that from framing something as a “moral” issue it immediately follows that it is a political issue.

Gerson calls Obama’s speech, “a class in remedial religion,” and perhaps that’s all the Democratic party is ready for. But Gerson realizes that this “remedial religion” wasn’t presented to the Democratic faithful, but to a much more narrow slice of the liberal movement: religious progressives.

What really needs to be done, says Gerson, is a three-step process of recovering religious rhetoric effectively. “First,” says Gerson, “candidates should talk about their own faith and the importance of religion in public life, both of which Obama did well.” That’s in part what Wallis’ CNN forum on faith was intended to do…to give Democratic candidates a primer on speaking about religion in public.

But on two other fronts, Gerson finds Obama’s speech lacking: “Second, Democrats should emphasize common-ground issues that credit the moral concerns of religious conservatives while calming the waves of the culture wars — such as confronting the toxic excesses of popular culture, encouraging character and discipline in public schools, and promoting religious liberty abroad,” and “Third, leading Democrats could make real policy changes on abortion, by adopting a more moderate position than abortion on demand.” This last point is one that has been echoed by a number of others (although it’s not a prominent plank in Wallis’ platform for faithful Democrats).

I do wonder, however, how this third element would go over among the UCC mainstream, who themselves are not representative of this younger evangelical mindset. The UCC is a supporting member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and according to one source, the UCC “has strongly supported the legalization of abortion since 1971. The UCC supported FOCA and strongly opposed the PBA ban to the point of joining the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARRAL) in a statement affirming President Clinton’s veto of the PBA Ban Act in 1996. The UCC has also called for the church to support abortion in any national health care bill.” There’s a real disconnect at this point in Gerson’s piece, in that he seems to confuse the progressively mainline UCC with “young evangelicals.”

In the end, Gerson’s analysis seems to line up with what Tony Campolo wrote recently, “It is time for us to name the hypocrisy of the Left in complaining about how the Religious Right is violating the first amendment while turning a blind eye to their own candidates’ use of churches as places to campaign.”

Gerson observes in the same vein,

Obama’s criticism of the religious right for baptizing the agenda of economic conservatism — making tax cuts their highest legislative priority — had some justified sting. But then he proceeded, in the typical manner of the religious left, to give a variety of more liberal causes a similar kind of full-immersion baptism: passing a “universal health care bill,” withdrawing quickly from Iraq, approving comprehensive immigration reform. Agree with these proposals or not, none is a test of true religion.

And this points to the flaw, I think, in Wallis’ program for making the Democratic party religion-friendly: “Obama is clearly more fluent on religious issues than most in his party. But to appeal broadly to religious voters, he will need to be more than the candidate of the religious left.” Connecting the mainline churches to the Democratic party will not do much to attract young evangelicals, no matter how diverse their policy interests.

Joe Knippenberg criticizes Gerson for using “rights” language in describing the status of the poor and oppressed. Here’s the offending passage from Gerson:

The essential humanism of Christianity requires an active, political concern about human dignity and the rights of the poor and weak. But faith says little about the means to achieve those ideals. The justice of welfare reform or tax cuts or moving toward socialized medicine is measured by the outcome of these changes. And those debates cannot be short-circuited by the claim “Thus sayeth the Lord,” spoken by the Christian Coalition or the United Church of Christ.

It seems correct that we should judge policy not only by motive but also by outcome. That’s an important point, one that folks like Jim Wallis should consider more often.

Knippenberg writes that such an invocation of rights “tends to short-circuit prudence and the kind of balancing political judgment always requires. I can have a duty toward someone and he or she can have a claim on my attention and compassion without requiring me to take political action on his or her behalf. Stated another way, by emphasizing the political as opposed to the charitable element of the concern with widows and orphans, Gerson already begins to distort the debate.”

I think Knippenberg’s instinct is right to try to protect the realm of moral duty and obligation apart from political action itself. But in allowing “rights” to become a strictly political term, I think we’d be making the same mistake that some libertarians make with regard to conflating moral duty and political rights. That is, political rights should be understood as a sub-group or species of the broader category of human rights.

Gerson doesn’t make this distinction, but it’s not clear that he means to conflate political rights with all kinds of human rights either. Defining the necessary faith as both “active” and “political” makes that a valid conclusion. But it seems to me that “the means to achieve those ideals” may not be political at all, and that’s a big part of where the prudential argument should be at. The political element may enter in only by defending and upholding the liberty necessary for elements of civil society or individual action to respect those rights and fulfill those duties.

Update: Terry Mattingly at GetReligion weighs in on the Gerson piece. He writes of abortion, “There is room for political compromise here, but I have met very few young Christians who actually disagree with traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Would Democrats be willing to compromise and meet people in Middle-American pews in, well, the middle on this hot-button issue? Would the party’s leadership be able to convince its secular/religious liberal alliance to compromise?”

The confluence of two recent headline-making stories has the potential to impact the practice of free speech, political or otherwise, in this country.

First, let’s discuss the question of media bias that has surrounded the offer made by Rupert Murdoch to purchase the Wall Street Journal. The closure of the deal appears imminent, now that the formation of an independent board has been agreed upon.

NPR’s Morning Edition covered this story in detail yesterday, with a piece by David Folkenflik on the proposed merger, followed by an in-depth profile of Murdoch by Steve Inskeep. The Inskeep piece focused especially on concerns that Murdoch would influence the editorial stance of the journal.

Here’s how Inskeep finished the profile: Speaking of the WSJ, Inskeep intones that the paper “blends powerfully conservative editorials with powerfully balanced reporting.” According to a study of media bias published in 2005, however, Inskeep is only half right in that assessment.

In “A Measure of Media Bias,” appearing in The Quarterly Journal of Economics 120, no. 4 (November 2005): 1191-1237, authors Time Groseclose and Jeffrey Milvo determined that the WSJ was “the most liberal of all twenty news outlets” that they studied, a group including papers like the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, as well as numerous other cable TV, network, and news magazine outlets.

“We should first remind readers that this estimate (as well as all other newspaper estimates) refers only to the news of the Wall Street Journal. If we included data from the editorial page, surely it would appear more conservative,” write Groseclose and Milvo. Apparently Inskeep didn’t read this study or others like it. Or, perhaps even more importantly, it fit with his own editorial agenda to cast the WSJ news reporting in as centrist a light as possible, the better to highlight any possible rightward shift that might come under Murdoch’s ownership.

The second set of items revolves around the speculation that the Democratic majority in the Senate might be considering steps to re-install the media “fairness doctrine,” in substance if not in name.

Concerns that talk radio is unfairly unbalanced in favor of conservative politics fuels the ire of Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “I think there ought to be an opportunity to present the other side. And unfortunately, talk radio is overwhelmingly one way,” Feinstein said. “I do believe in fairness. I remember when there was a fairness doctrine, and I think there was much more serious, correct reporting to people.”

There’s a lot to dislike about the “fairness doctrine,” but perhaps what concerns me the most is the precedent that such policies make with regard to political speech.

How easy would it be to expand the scope of such a doctrine beyond overtly political “talk radio” to other sorts of programming? What about religious broadcasting, whose content may have a greater or lesser political relevance depending on the particular issue? Could the censorship of religious speech in the US begin under the auspices of a politically-motivated “fairness” doctrine?

Update: Looks like a “fairness doctrine” amendment has been defeated. See also this editorial cartoon over at Townhall.

Economic globalization has lifted millions out of dire poverty and is an unparalelled engine of wealth creation. But, like other economic systems, it needs the moral framework that the Church provides to guide it as a humane force for good. Brian Griffiths, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International, examines the role of faith in a rapidly globalizing world in this excerpt from his new Acton monograph.

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, May 31, 2007

Jim Wallis: “I’m believing more and more that politics alone cannot overcome poverty and our other great social problems.” (See also: Pentecost 2007, featuring Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama.)

But, since the Sojourners forum isn’t the pulpit, Tony Campolo should have no problem with it: “It is time for us to name the hypocrisy of the Left in complaining about how the Religious Right is violating the first amendment while turning a blind eye to their own candidates’ use of churches as places to campaign.”

And for just how different the social gospel is from the Christian gospel, see Joseph Loconte: “The Christian confession of faith, by itself, offers no guarantee that either individuals or societies will be transformed. But, for believers, not even the smallest steps forward can be taken without it.”

Speaking of Milton Friedman, here’s a link to a paper that looks interesting: “Transcendental Commitments of Economists: Friedman, Knight, and Nef” (HT: Organizations and Markets).

Acton president Robert A. Sirico’s reflection on Friedman’s legacy last year noted, “Friedman was a true Enlightenment disciple and feared that truth claims could lead to coercion.”

A contingent from Austria that attended last year’s Acton University produced a video on their experiences:


Want to learn more? Register for next month’s Acton University 2007 (June 12-15, 2007) today.

Applications are also open next month for the Toward a Free and Virtuous Society conference to be held in Sonntagberg, Austria, Sept. 20-23, 2007. Applications will be accepted June 1-July 1, 2007.