Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The continuing need for religious balance in America

Religion in America seems to be pulled in two different directions these days.  The Right, fearing a total loss of morality and upright living, makes one set of forceful arguments in its own defense, intending to preserve religion’s role in daily life.  The Left seeks increasing pluralism while at the same time being challenged to not water down belief to mushy irrelevancy.  Beyond the self-serving bluster, hyperbole and anxieties, there is some merit to both perspectives and also plenty of room for criticism on all sides.

In the upcoming 2012 Presidential Election, religion will again play a large part.  Evangelical Christians might well have to decide whether or not to vote for a Mormon, a member of a faith group that many view as either a cult or an eccentric sect.  Religious liberals will most likely cast their ballots for an incumbent candidate who has often soft-pedaled his own professed Christianity.

Each Presidential hopeful will make great strides to strike the optimum balance.  Much thought will be given to distinguish public displays of faith from more private expression when the cameras are switched off.  It is this dichotomy, among many others, that demonstrates the wide gap both separating and linking ideology and religion.

Americans still have much work to do to fulfill the idealistic notion of religious tolerance upon which we were founded.  We may have softened the physical punishment of heresy, but our words are as vitriolic as ever.   Refusing to resort to overt violence either though physical force or in language alone is only one step in the process.  We must challenge ourselves to honestly respect the faith of others, even though doing so provides many theological difficulties.

Instead of a truly peaceful coexistence, our attempts towards unanimity often take a half-hearted, reluctant form.  We must cast aside the very human tendency to use our enemy as a means to build strength and cohesion within ourselves.

We love our enemy, but often for the wrong reason.  We love that they exist.  We love the feeling of immediate security present as we point out the foolishness of someone else’s argument.  At the heart of the problem is a reduction of complex theological concepts into a single, simple-to-understand code of acceptable worship.  Many Fundamentalist Christian churches and movements claim that their own specific interpretation is the only valid one.

In reality, the philosophy they espouse cherry picks different combinations of verses and concepts from the Old and New Testament.  What is produced may be novel and unique, but is hardly unusual in the grand historical scheme.  

What remains is a belief system that uses rationalization and argument to disguise what logic might otherwise expose.  Beyond conservative theology, this if we are to be totally truthful, every Christian group which uses Scripture as a means of discernment takes bits and pieces of the text, lining them up in its own chosen order.

Denominations and religious groups are apt to pronounce their alignment as the most correct, either by direct statement or implication.  Still, if we take matters literally in their true sense, what we are left with often boils down to petty bickering over semantics.

Many of these differences in scriptural perception are taken by other faith groups as doctrinally harmless and a simple matter of preference.  However, some of them still produce significant friction and will for a while longer.  For some, the role of women in the church is still a matter under debate.  Gay marriage, to cite another example, has created significant recent schisms within Christian denominations and individual churches.

The only way these conflicts can be resolved is by fair debate that does not talk over its opposition, nor scandalize it for gain.  And even if cooler heads prevail, the only feasible, tenable conclusion might be an agreement to disagree.  What the Bible actually says is often much less important than what specific believers think it says.  
In August of 2011, Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum expressed a similar fallacy of argument.  Speaking in response to criticism that he held prejudicial attitudes towards homosexuality, Santorum rather energetically cited several particularly commonplace conservative talking points.  Specifically, the former Pennsylvania Senator referenced the Roman Catholic Church’s long-time position that homosexuality only becomes sinful should someone decide to directly act on it.  

“Because I believe what the Bible teaches, 2,000 years of teaching and moral theology is now bigoted? This has profound consequences to the entire moral ecology of America.   It will undermine the family; it will destroy faith in America!”

Conservative people of faith will point back here to a passage by St. Paul in the New Testament book of Romans.  Their liberal counterparts will choose to ignore it or interpret its intent differently.  What neither group readily admits is that they are both guilty, in other similarly contentious matters, of totally disregarding problematic verses or resorting to rationalizations to justify their decision.

Sometimes, there is even room for multiple interpretations, each one no more or no less justified than the other.  This fact further emphasizes how densely packed, complex, and nuanced a work is the Bible.

The challenge for progressive people of faith, by contrast, is to avoid the excesses and failings of theological liberalism.  There can be a regrettable tendency to jettison specific religious traditions under the guise of utmost respect and observance for other faiths.  Human wisdom and righteousness is often subordinate to the essential characteristics and leadership of a Higher Power.

However, religious liberals should not see those who reject what can be an excessively pluralist model as automatically against them. Criticism is not necessarily destructive in nature.  Often it serves as a needed corrective.  

In his most recent book, published last year, The Bible Made Impossible:  Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Christian Smith discusses the main failings of liberal Christianity.  “The theological liberal program lacks internal resources to help expose idolatry and so recurrently falls prey to the latest cultural movements and political fashions.”

Smith uses as an example the liberal Christian church in Germany, which endorsed the cause of Kaiser Wilhelm in World War I and Adolf Hitler a few years prior to the start of World War II.  Without a solid grounding in God, liberal Christianity can drift into very dangerous territory.  Over the past few decades, religious liberalism has concerned itself with global warming, social activism, and progressive politics.  Neither of these is intrinsically irreligious, but they have often taken precedent, only feeding fears on the Right.

In the meantime, people still feel strongly pulled to religious observance.  Our cultural focus on consumerism and individuality has resulted in a multitude of faith groups from which to choose.  We are likely to be a part of whichever one best serves our sensibilities, and should it be Christian, certain passages and combinations of verses will establish the distinctions.  Beyond religion, we are drawn to other people whose beliefs and values systems resemble our own.

Should we be willing to keep in mind where, how, and why we find commonality, the possibility of compromise is possible.  But should we instead fall in love with our differences, we will always be at odds with each other.      

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