This is the Time
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 10:25:19 PM EST
In the life of successful social and political movements, leaders, elections, and even institutions come and go, but the movement goes on. This has certainly been true of the religious right. The recent elections, for example, were a set back, and there is some shaking out going on:  but there is no evidence that the wider movement has peaked. But I have opened here with a disgression.  This post is not about the religious right. It is about us.

If you are reading this, odds are good that you oppose the agenda of the religious right. You may also have wondered why more people, including people you know who share your concerns, are not more animated and engaged. It is a good question -- for which there is no one simple answer. But beneath all of the complexity, I suggest that a simple moral clarity is possible, for those who choose it.

Here at Talk to Action, we have discussed some of the reasons why we have not been as effective in response to the religious right as we might have been, given the stakes. One reason has been the lack of urgency expressed by our leaders; their own lack of knowledge, and their acceptance of bad advice. One example of the latter, has been the dubious tactic of calling the religious right and its constituents nasty names as a substitute for developing a strategy based on gaining actual knowledge about the subject. Instead, we have had leaders for many years denounced, (among other things), "religious political extremists" as if that were appropriate; as if that were enough. History has shown that it didn't work. (Not that anyone would want to admit it, of course.) More recently, it has become fashionable to displace the substance of our concerns with scapegoating "secularists" -- as if these (always unnamed) people had somehow prevented mainstream and progressive "people of faith" from participating in public life and therefore allowed the religious right to seize the limelight. Funny, how no one has ever stepped-up to take any responsibility for failures of vision and leadership in response to the rise of the religious right. Finally, too many people simply dismiss the religious right as a serious problem. In my view, this is mostly born of ignorance and denial in the face of one of the most successful and signficant movements in American history.

I could go on, but I want to get to the point.

In fact, many people have sufficient knowledge about the religious right. They have read some of the basic books. They read The Public Eye or Church & State magazine. Maybe they have attended lectures and conferences or are members of The Interfaith Alliance, Americans United for Separation of Church and State or the ACLU. But at some point, in order for there to be change in our effectiveness in response to the religious right, we have to change ourselves.

Barry Lynn, in his must-read new book Piety & Politics: The Right Wing Assault on Religious Freedom, addresses this point.

Some years ago, after a particulary tough week, I taped John McLaughlin's One on One television show. On it as well was a Religious Right lawyer named Seamus Hasson. At the end of the taping, John said to me, "Barry, your side isn't as passionate as his side." I thought to myself, "That's true, and today even I had run out of it." I've never felt the same way since.

Passionate. We are described as passionate about things we care deeply about. But too often, our friends and family are "passionate" about say, college sports, but not passionate about the survival and advancement of constitutional democracy. People are often "passionate" about a certain television show, but not passionate about the meaning and protection of the first amendment, and its guarantee of the right to individual conscience and separation of church and state. People may be "passionate" about their car, or rock concerts, or certain celebrities, but are not passionate about the errosion of the rights of fellow citizens -- and ultimately their own -- and have no interest in participating in a movement of any power or meaning sufficient to counter the religious right.

We all make choices about what we get passionate about, and about how we allocate our time and committments and resources. Part of the process, of how we choose not to get passionate about doing something about the religious right, is that we screen out information that might disturb our status quo. We have made our choices and we would prefer not to rearrange our lives. This is a situation that is as typical of progressives and liberatrians as it is mainstreamers and non-religious right consevatives. It is also just as typical of religious people as it is non-religious people, in my experience. The problem is that if we acknowledged to ourselves the seriousness of the religious right, in terms of its agenda, its political power and its apparent staying power as a movement, then we probably would want to change our ways. And the more likely it is that we might want to do something, (or something different, or something extra), the more difficult it can be to take-in potentially disruptive information. We unconsciously and in some cases, consciously consider that if we sought to know more about the religious right; we might want to know what can be done; we might be more demanding of our political, religious and academic leaders, as well as the news media; we might change some aspects of who we are in relation to others. And few of us want to do that. We fear change. So do those around us.

Nevertheless, there comes a point when we choose whether we will take the things we are learning to heart, and get passionate. This point may come more than once. But each time we reject or supress our urge to act, the more defensive we may become about the choices we have made in the past. The passion we feel and that animates our life may come from any number of valid sources. It may also be a subtle and quiet kind of passion -- but no less significant than the passion of those who are louder and more demonstrative.

But the reality is that most of us choose not to allow ourselves to become passionate. We would rather not have to change what we read; what we think about; what we say about religion and politics. Most of us are pretty set in our ways and we find it comforting when someone comes along to say that the rise of the religious right and the ugly culture of religious supremacism it is fomenting, is someone else's fault, but not our own.

The good news is that over the past year or two, more and more people are coming to realizations like Barry Lynn's. Even among people who are already concerned and more than well-informed, I am seeing a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for effective action. I think as more such people emerge, it will be easier for more of us to choose to be passionate about our most deeply held values -- instead of choosing fear and complacency. I don't know how the critical mass might form, or when the tipping point might be. All I can do from where I sit, is to say that in order for us to be effective in response to the religious right, we need to become more passionate about the things we say we care deeply about. We need to connect our most deeply held values with our words and our actions. We need to be able to speak with the person-to-person persuasiveness that comes first from authentic feeling and convictions. We need to be able to speak knowledgably, and authoratatively and with far greater force than milquetoasty claims to support separation of church and state or reproductive choice or whatever. Then, we need to connect ourselves to efforts to figure out more effective concerted actions than we have generally seen. We will aggressively seek out examples of effective action and learn and apply the lessons. We will become an effective countervailing force. We will acknowledge and accept that this is a struggle for the long haul.

I will close with another short quote from Barry Lynn's book:

"Pat Buchanan... said in an infamous speech to the Republican National Convention in 1992, "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 bone day be as was the Cold War itself."

Buchanan's rhetoric was strident and his remedies unthinkable--but he was right about the existence of this "war." Our side did not start it, but it does exist. Efforts to act like this isn't a real "war" (as opposed to just one hyped on television) or that a get-along philosophy is the only appropriate approach from any side will increasingly prove disastrous. We'll end up whistling past the graveyard of our Bill of Rights and religious freedom if we take that road.

Lynn is right. War has been declared by the religious right against us and much that we hold dear. But like Lynn says, too many of us are pretending that we don't know that war has been declared against us. We dismiss the the language of warfare and the use of military metaphors by religious rightists at all levels as "extremist," and do not take it seriously. We kid ourselves into thinking that no one else could either. Only crazy people, perhaps. Acknowledging to ourselves, and to those we care about, that war has been declared -- is the necessary first step for us to be able to discuss the nature of this war and how best to engage in it.

If you have gotten this far, if you are not already passionate about engaging the religious right, this is the time to find the simple moral clarity and make the choice. It may not be the first time, and it may not be the last. But this is the time.

to Lou Reed's great song, There is no time -- extra points for you.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Dec 13, 2006 at 10:48:42 PM EST
Fred, I think you are right on about being passionate, that has been lacking on one side here in the "culture wars" as Buchanan put it.  I think part of it may be the fear of getting "hurt" - if we are passionate about something and it fails, then we do  hurt.  How many were depressed/hurt after the last Presidential election - even if they weren't passionate about the Democrat, (who I supported), they were passionate about getting the current administration out of there.  I can't say I've ever seen such widespread depression and feeling of defeat/hopelessness as I saw then after any other election.  Passion has risk.

But is also has reward. It brings energy, enthusiasm and meaning.  The caution is that it also has to be in dichotomy with reason - for passion unleashed can turn to hate, slander, and other attack styles.  The far-religious right has exhibited this.  The mainline has shown passion with reason and love before -the Civil Rights movement being one example.  Instead of employing the methods of the far-right, neo-conservative forces, we need to stop being milk-toast and become passionate with love and justice as our tools, and not mimic the fearmongering and demonizing of the past 2 decades by many of those who hold themselve out as "representing true Christianity".

So how do we ignite the passion without using fear or demonizing?  How do we do it with the love of Christ?
God's grace and peace, Deb K
by Pastordeb on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 01:14:31 AM EST

Passion is what sustains over the long time. False hopes and misplaced priorities are where people get hurt; not from awakening from their slumbers and finding the passion needed to live and engage in this moment in history.

But let'sremind ourselves that Buchanan emphasized that there is a "religous war" underway. He then modified it in terms of the "cultural war."  Let's not shy away from the implications of what he said and what he clearly meant. He is not the only one saying and believing and living his life according to this and closely-related ideas.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 03:55:20 AM EST

I made a long response to Frank Cocozzelli's piece today, On the Charge of Liberal "Moral Relativism." and it fits in here too :


Why not issue a public "statement of concern" that "creeping moral relativism" at Focus On The Family - or even among American Christian and evangelical leaders on the right -  is leading young people astray and undermining America's moral underpinings ?

There are a number of recent, egregious examples of this to cite, and the critique can be extended outward to American evangelical leaders who have recently joined together to condemn those atrocities and massacres in Darfour against Christian refugees, that some would characterize as a sort of religious warfare, but who seem strangely unwilling to condemn a mass marketed consumer product, released just prior to Christmas no less, that allows teenage children to act out totalistic religious warfare, in a videogame, against the inhabitants of a major American city.

The collective statement of American evangelical leaders against the killing in Darfour rings hollow to the extent they are willing to give tacit endorsement to a game that teaches religious warfare to Christian children and, in a wider public sphere, to tolerate rhetoric of religious warfare from many leaders on the Christian right.

When conservative moralist Bill Bennett can issue a call - at a prominent conference of American religious conservatives - for the nuclear immolation of entire Iraqi cities, a call that not only failed to provoke public moral censure but which actually was greeted by enthusiastic applause, I think we can rightly make the charge that creeping moral relativism has infected the minds of many evangelical and Christian leaders on the American right and that the authority of those evangelical leaders who have issued a statement condemning genocide in Darfour has been, sadly, degraded. We can say, I believe, that hypocritical declarations condemning religious warfare as practiced by Muslims while tacitly approving of religious warfare by Christians, will in the end do little or nothing to defuse world descent into of religious violence ; we can say that the refugees in Darfour, and American children, deserve better.

We all deserve better - in true moral guidance there is no East or West, there are no Muslims and Christians ; there is only human suffering to be condemned and humans needs to be addressed.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 11:50:26 AM EST
If the American left can't call out, and decisively shame, continuing rhetoric of religious war from ostensible moral leaders on the US right, the left's got a problem with passion and with moral clarity.

by Bruce Wilson on Sun Dec 17, 2006 at 11:57:14 AM EST

While they aren't pursuing the diminuation or downfall of liberals as enthusiastically as the right is, religious moderates are also attacking people more liberal than they are and are characterizing themselves as the 'cure'.

It's hard to be passionate about something when you have a knife in the back from people you thought were allies.

by Browsercat on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 10:17:37 AM EST

We do face the  tasks of
  1.  explaining to progressives and to people hurt by fundamentalist religion (eg, gays) that "not ALL Christians are like that" and presenting a welcoming face to them
  2. asserting to the world at large that we are indeed Christians, even if some other Christians say we aren't.
  3. asserting to the world at large that separation of church and state benefits both the state and the church, and that this opinion is widely shared among churchgoers as well as the unchurched (who of course may be religious or agnostic/atheist).
  4. pursuing our own ministries as we see fit (yup, that includes lay ministries as well).

One of our main obstacles is that the Religious Right have their own media empire, and have media-savvy spokesmen (they even have broadcast schools), while we have not-too-charismatic spokesmen and women who are more geared toward print interviews than TV and radio appearances. We don't make good "get" - mainstream broadcast media prefers known "performers" who can ramp up the controversy and have the trick of speaking in soundbites. The last person a show booker wants to "get" is a professorial type with thoughtful and shaded answers taking longer than 10 seconds apiece.

by NancyP on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 01:17:52 PM EST
the choice remains for those of us who are concerned, to tap into our own passion and damn torpedos, full speed ahead.

It is important to thoughtfully analyze our strengths and weaknesses in relation to the task at hand, but we must not allow our sense of the opposition's strengths and our weaknesses to obscure the opposition's weaknesses and our own strengths-- which are many.  

Making the choice to tap into our passions and make room in our lives to do the things that must be done, remains, in my view, the principal matter confronting us. Nothing else much matters until we have made the decision to do this.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 01:40:15 PM EST

Being FOR something is more attractive than being against something. That's our potential strength, and their ultimate weakness. The liberal dilemma is to see too many needs and spread themselves thin. The conservative religious seem to have focused on two issues, abolishing/ punishing gays and women's reproductive freedom. The hands-on volunteerism and the money tend to go to those issues, and not to human-needs ministries. (of course there are exceptions) That makes for great conservative group cohesion, but tends to turn off many people who have a wider view of Christian duty.

 A certain percentage of the Catholic laity is getting bored with the gays-and-abortion focus of the current hierarchy and the lack of attention to traditional acts of corporal mercy. Some are ignoring their bishop and just doing parish-based activities and charity. Some are leaving.

I daresay that small mainstream churches with small focused human-needs ministries might be wise to also tackle larger problems with city-wide denominational or interdenominational efforts, that incidentally might get some press if there are concrete results beneficial to the community as a whole. This might diversify the image of "who is a Christian".  This would also create some r

People want to be thought religious or respectful of religion, and will support the intolerant folks if that is the only choice seen, but might well prefer ecumenical folks with positive messages and charitable accomplishments, should those be in the public eye.

by NancyP on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 03:46:27 PM EST

Much of the noise generated by the religious right can be traced to a few well-funded organizations that take in large sums of money from their followers and then redirect as much of it as they wish to their political agenda.

It is not clear that their followers share the themes or the tactics of the organizations they contribute to (or are even aware of much of it).

In this society it is money that talks. It is money that is used to rouse the troops at election time, it is money that is used to get people to contribute to favored candidates, it is money that is used to buy politicians.

So, while passion may be a nice motivator,  if you want to see change then you need to counter money with money. This means contributing to organizations which are fighting for the separation of church and state. Two that have a fairly good track record are the ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. But are neutral about religion, but strong on the idea that government shouldn't try to control religious activities and vice versa.

If you want to see your rights to think and act as you wish in the religious sphere preserved then think of giving one of these organizations (or similar ones) some money. The religious group you save may be your own.

-- Policies not Politics
by rdf on Thu Dec 14, 2006 at 03:44:05 PM EST

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