Monday, January 22, 2007

Serious Political Commentary for Serious Times

Many liberal political commentators have noted the ability of the conservative movement to raise questions of authenticity about liberal candidates. No one is more hip to this than Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler, which is repetitive and tiresome and absolutely correct. Grounded in his experience in the 2000 Gore campaign, Somerby details how political coverage is converted into a simple narrative (he calls it novelized), in which candidates are reduced to a few personality traits which are repeated ad infinitum. Invariably, the personal traits of liberal candidates that are identified with liberals are inauthenticity, dishonesty, hypocrisy, shrill moralism and overbearingness. Republicans are given the personality attributes of authenticity, manliness, honesty, directness, and sincerity. By the end of the campaign, Democrats are seen as icky. It explains why Democratic candidates who lose, even those who win like Al Gore, as seen as contemptible and ridiculous, and an embarassment after the election.

What does this have to do with ministry?

Ministers frequently feel under the obligation to be non-partisan in many of their political comments, especially as they move out of their more private conversations into those which are more public. Now, there are three sorts of non-partisan stances. One is that you never say anything about politics. Second is that you say only good things about all parties and all candidates and all potential candidates. The third is that you adopt a cynical critical view that disparages all candidates and parties enough to deflect any criticism that you are an open advocate of one or the other. This is most ministers' strategy, I think.

So the commentary goes like this: "Boy that Bush is a War Criminal, isn't he? But how about that Hillary? What a cold fish, calculating opportunist? She's like John Kerry -- first she was for the war and now she's against it. And I am so glad the Republicans lost the majority on the House, but if I see Nancy Pelosi in an Armani suit and pearls talking about raising the minimum wage, I just gotta laugh out loud." Republicans are sincere, but wrong, and Democrats are just laughable losers. This type of non-serious discourse is acceptable under the prevailing rules of the game, but it completely reinforces a partisan frame, a Republican frame. In a world where policy differences are not always easy to discern and judge, many people choose to vote on the basis of sincerity, honesty and authenticity.

Democrats have better senses of humor than Republicans. I have no empirical evidence of that, but I believe it to be true. We are able to absorb a joke made about one of the foibles of a liberal candidate than Republican is about a conservative. We will laugh when Jon Stewart or Jay Leno makes fun of a Democrat, especially if they point out an insincerity. That is not a two-way street, and maybe it is a sign of mental health, but it is doing the work of the conservatives. Does Rush Limbaugh make fun of John McCain?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Soulless exurbs and Evangelical Megachurches

Check out this story by Chris Hedges which makes some interesting connections between social conditions and their consequences in terms of church.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Antiwar Demonstration

OK, so I go to the Antiwar demonstration at the Boston Common, as I said I would in a previous post.

You have to understand that I have very mixed feelings about the Left, and am generally allergic to it, even though my opinions are quite liberal by anyone's standards.

Fausto has a good report on it, complete with pictures of our prophetic witness.

He asks the questions of why antiwar demonstration are so small and feeble when so many people are opposed to the escalation of the war.

Why should they be big?

The antiwar demonstrations are the political tactics of the extra-parliamentary left, or the non-electoral or third party left. The reason why the antiwar demonstrations of the Vietnam were so strong was because there were active and organized Socialist and communist organizations that were instrumental in organizing the demonstrations and were being fed by those demonstrations. The roles of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party were crucial during the Vietnam era. Now, those parties are small and in disarray and there is not the organizational muscle to sustain them.

(I think that one of the odd things about church life is that because of our understanding of tax laws, churches and ministers are forced toward the extra-parliamentary movements. They appear to be non-partisan, when they are actually the main tactic of another set of political parties.)

Almost all of the speakers who spoke yesterday eventually fell to this refrain: "We cannot rely on the Democrats to end this war." Well, in fact, we are, either through Congress, or in 2008 by electing a Democratic president. Do antiwar demonstrations further that strategy?

The critical political question of the next year is this: Can the Democratic members of the House and Senate trust the antiwar sentiment of the American people? Any move to cut off the funds for the war will be criticized as "endangering the troops." And you can be sure that there will be heart-rending television stories to match that meme. Will general public opinion be persuaded by that critique, or have people become sophisticated enough to see through that as partisan manipulation?

If it is not political suicide to use the power of the purse to force an end to an active war, then the balance of power between the President and the Congress will have been altered, and restored. The Imperial Presidency rests on the twin pillars that the President has the power to commit troops without a declaration of war (now with an authorization resolution that is sold to Congress as a necessary step to make diplomacy work) and that the Congress will too afraid to cut off funds when troops are in harm's way.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Boston Common 4 PM

I hear that it is where one can register one's disagreement with the President regarding Iraq. I think that I will drop by.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A World Trade Tower Toll per Week

Estimates are now that approximately, conservatively, 3000 Iraqis are dying per week in the Iraqi Civil War, a sectarian conflict unleashed when the United States overthrew Saddam Hussien. While only a small proportion of those deaths are caused directly by American forces, it appears that the vast majority of Iraqis hold the US to be ultimately responsible for those deaths.
Two questions:

  1. Could we be so naive as to think that this violence will not come back to this country?
  2. If a terrorist attack on US soil killed a large number of people, would it be believable, in the world that we now live in, to say that it was an "unprovoked attack on innocent people." I cannot imagine that another attack on US soil would be seen as the 9.11 attacks were seen.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Great DemoCRAT Party

John Boehner in his oh-so-gracious comments before he handed over the gavel to Nancy Pelosi could not resist referring to the "Democrat Party."

Nicknaming is an attempt to assert dominance over the other, and so this is why the minions of the Hoover-Nixon-Bush party prefer this name for Democrats. It is done simply because it is irritating.

It is "dog whistle" politics. The ordinary person does not hear it, but for activists on both sides of the aisle, the petty dominance game is clearly audible. It invites an indignant response, which only serves to confirm their dominant position. "How can anyone be upset about such a minor matter?" And in that exchange, which they invite, they remind everyone of how "some people are just too sensitive" -- which is code for racial politics, and political correctness.

Let them clown. After all, he was giving up the gavel.

I don't think that they realize how wide and how broad the repudiation of the Hoover-Nixon-Bush Party is going to turn out to be. They think that if they go back to the tactics and rhetorical styles that they used as they rode into power, that they will reverse their current fortunes. I don't think that is going to happen.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Provocative Statement for 2007

A friend of mine notes the following statement as passing before her eyes:

"Liberal religion is dying. Kids either secular or interested in orthodoxy"


She wonders if it is true. It's a good enough question to drag me out of my cave and write something here, so thanks.

On the one hand, the question doesn't make any sense. It imagines that "liberal religion", secularity and orthodoxy are all equivalent and mutually exclusive choices. What is the orthodoxy against which "liberal religion" stands? Greek Orthodoxy, Christian orthodoxy, Muslim orthodoxy, Buddhist orthodoxy? Is our commentator saying that there is no one will occupy a space between secularism and orthodox christianity? Or is he saying that globally, there is no choice between secularity and fundamentalism of all types?

People who make statements like this are usually trying to force a choice. The Communists said all through the 30's and 40's that there was no middle ground between fascism and socialism. The choice that they denied even existed -- namely the continuation of international capitalism without open fascism -- was the what was happening right before their eyes, and their greatest fear.

Despite the second statement (kids either are secular or orthodox), for which the empirical claim is absent, isn't the most obvious religious and cultural trend around right now widespread interest in non-orthodox, non-exclusivist spirituality? Especially among "the kids." Is our commentator saying that all those folks who say "I am spiritual, but not religious" really just secularists? His statement is true only if you are allow him to define everything that is not orthodox as secular.

Reminds me of that quiz question: If you say that the tail is a leg, how many legs does a dog have? The correct answer is four, because you cannot truthfully call a tail a leg.

Here is what I do believe about the future of liberal religion, orthodoxy and secularism.

Liberal Christianity and Orthodox or Fundamentalist Christianity have meaning only in relationship to each other. They are competing strategies for resolving the differences between historic teachings of the church (dogma) and all the stuff of the modern world: science, global cultural relativism, etc. etc.

I do not believe that there will continue to be a need for a specifically Liberal Christian dogmatic position. This is partially true because I do not think that the "orthodox" dogmatic position has any real definition anymore. There is no one to define it, no one to defend it, and no danger in defying it, anymore. As Christianity become divorced from state power around the world, orthodoxy is what exactly? There are the historic teachings of the church, and there is this vast intellectual tradition, and every word that we in the Western traditions use to talk about anything that matters is tool formed in the workshop of church. The form and the content of all our theological conversations will take the form of relating the historic teachings of the church to the world as we find it.

Liberal Christianity as a set of dogmatic assertions -- unitarian understandings of Jesus, universalist understandings of salvation etc. -- will die, I think, or to be more accurate, will become dated objects of historic interest.

Where we are going, I think, is this: in a world which is increasingly secular, global, culturally relativistic, and egalitarian, religious identity will become personal and non-systematic. Religious institutions and traditions will be resources to individuals as they grapple with questions of ultimate meaning. Religious organizations (churches, congregations, academies, schools, voluntary communities) will exist, of course, but people will not belong to them forever as a single part of of a larger community. Christianity will be Christianity, and largely representing what we now call Orthodox Christianity to the world. But specific religious communities will be incredibly diverse and take all sorts of relationships to that orthodoxy. There will always be Christian communities which take a generous, tolerant, liberal approach to matters of the faith, just as there will always be Christian communities which are take a harder line. And there will be religious communities that blur the lines between Christianity and other religions as well.

To sum up, the world in the future is going to be like the world is now, except more so. Yes, part of the way that the world is now is that the organizing power of religion over the whole of society continues to dwindle, and that people are intensely interested at certain stages of their lives in the systematic explanation of all reality under one philosophical approach. but it is also very very very true that all the trends that give rise to liberal approaches to religion will continue to gain greater currency: the desire for personal autonomy, the need to respect the diversity of humanity, the voluntary nature of each person's loyalties and commitments.