March 2, 2011

My Plea to the “Secular Left”—from a Christian.

What with all the turmoil around the plutocracy declaring all-out war on the middle class, I have been spending even more time than usual in the liberal blogosphere.

And for a Christian, it is a depressing place. Despite being one of a great many Christians who give generously of our time and money to progressive causes, I find we are caricatured, misrepresented, vilified, and dismissed at every turn. The “secular left” routinely zeros in on, at best, the most conservative elements of the Gospel faith, and at worst on repugnant outliers like Westboro Baptist.

So here, Secular Left, is my earnest plea to you in this time of testing for the American Experiment.

Please do not represent us all by drawing disproportionate attention to the worst among us. Let me offer an example.

There was a church near my home that was across the street from a high school, and ran a free daycare center in the basement so students with babies could finish high school. They got picketed by a bunch of “Christian” protesters with flyers saying  “Trinity Church Supports Unwed Motherhood.” It’s dishonest to focus on the flamboyant cretins to the exclusion of the more numerous people of good will, but because it supports your biased views, that is what you generally do.

Please stop that. It isn’t helping anybody.

I once pitched a story to a national liberal magazine about the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations, and its work to pressure banks into fair lending practices and chain stores into fair labor practices.  After much hemming and hawing the editor told me that a significant portion of their readership would “scream bloody murder if we ran anything positive about the church.”

Don’t do stuff like that.  It’s not okay when Fox Noise censors the news, and it’s not okay when you do it.

It’s disingenuous at best to point to Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Sarah Palin and Ralph Reed and say “Christian,” then point to Martin Luther King Jr, Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day and say “Liberal.”

That’s as dishonest as anything Faux News does.

Let me remind you that every single one of the great movements of social reform in America, including child labor laws, women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement (and yes, regrettably, prohibition) began in the churches. Yet you routinely portray all Christians as reactionary, and all progressives as secular. How can it possibly help matters to trash-talk people with whom it would be so easy to make common cause? Stop doing that.

You ought to know that there is a huge fault-line forming in the evangelical churches. An increasing number of young evangelicals are more gay-friendly, more concerned for the environment, and more in tune with Biblical imperatives about social justice than their elders are. Do you really want to drive them away, dividing the progressive movement when it most needs to be united?

Eighty-six evangelical leaders signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative in February of 2006.  Yes, the James Dobson crowd has been viciously attacking them ever since–but that, it seems to me, is all the more reason for you to rally to their side instead of throwing them under the bus.

You are tarring a very large and diverse group of people with the same brush–for Pete’s sake, between 60 and 70% of the students at the evangelical university I taught at voted for Obama!–and it calls into serious question your commitment to accuracy and fairness.  (This Christian university also offered exclusively fair-trade coffee in its café before any other coffee shop on Philadelphia’s Main Line, and has been run solely on wind power since 2006.)

As a person whose denomination is one of several that are regularly vilified by the right and which Fred Phelps is pleased to call “The Faggot Church,” I find your apparent refusal to bring any nuance into your characterization of the churches offensive. I would like to be on your side, but too often you are just plain rude. Why would you do that to people who are disposed to be your allies?

The biblical prophet Isaiah wrote these words as an indictment of the religious establishment of his day, and though they are still true enough to sting, a very great many of us, believe it or not, do take them very much to heart:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it?  Why have we humbled ourselves,  and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers…You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high…

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.

(Isaiah 58:3-9, ed.)

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