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Christian progressives fight for their faith

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY MARK POUTENIS
  • Illustration by Mark Poutenis

When backers of ballot initiatives that would ban same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships drew up battle plans, they knew they could rely on an army of Christian soldiers.

"It's a natural constituency," says Jon Paul, executive director of Coloradans for Marriage. The group supports Amendment 43, which would modify the state constitution to reiterate the statutory definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Some 450 churches, including Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and non-denominational evangelical congregations, worked to gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this fall, according to Paul.

"A few [churches] out there oppose what we're doing, churches that are the fringe element of the Christian movement in this state," he says. "But that's like finding a needle in a haystack and saying the haystack is made of needles."

Backers of Initiative 109, which aimed to forbid the state from recognizing a legal status similar to marriage, fell short of making the ballot.

But they, too, looked to Christians to embrace their cause. State coordinators Dick and Sue Rehg reminded signature-gatherers that "we are at war for the very heart and soul of our great nation" and encouraged them to keep the faith by remembering "He who is the General of our army." Rep. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, asked volunteers to pray for God's "special blessing" while looking forward to "successes God will grant us."

Nationwide, same-sex marriage rhetoric from conservative Republicans presumes the same moral authority. Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey has declared that God "has spoken very clearly" for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Marriage between a man and woman is "part of God's plan," agrees Texas Rep. John Carter.

"We best not be messing with His plan," warns Colorado's own Bob Beauprez.

But in this election season, Christians who have claimed Calvary as right-wing real estate face an increasingly powerful opponent that originates outside any "gay agenda" to destroy the traditional nuclear family and with it in the view of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson Western civilization.

This "enemy" comes from within. It's another Christian army, one whose vision of Jesus Christ and biblical truth could scarcely be more different than that of the religious right.

'Make-believe' Christians

"There is a movement that was begun in the distress that many people felt after Nov. 3, 2004, when a lot of conscientious people of faith, particularly Christians, woke up to say, "What's going on?'" says the Rev. Peter Laarman, an evangelical Christian and executive director of California-based Progressive Christians Uniting. "The words "Christian' and "conservative' seemed to have become oddly joined in the public discourse."

Like religious progressives nationwide, local pastor Nori Rost experienced President George W. Bush's re-election as an "outrage."

"It was, in some ways, like hearing the verdict in the Rodney King trial after we had seen the videotape of the cops beating him: Of course they were going to be convicted," she says. "And they weren't."

The day after the election, Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor Robin Meyers, of Oklahoma City, delivered a fiery speech that excoriated Bush for claiming the Christian faith while acting contrary to its tenets. As examples, Meyers cited a litany of "immoral" behaviors, including prosecuting an unjustified war, giving tax breaks to the wealthy, dismantling environmental protections and using hatred of homosexuals as a wedge issue to turn out evangelical voters.

Bush and his ilk, Meyers told the peace rally, are "make-believe Christians."

"I have watched as the faith I love has been taken over by fundamentalists who claim to speak for Jesus, but whose actions are anything but Christian," he said. "I'm a great believer in moral values, but we need to have a discussion in this country about what constitutes a moral value. ...

"I'm tired of people thinking that, because I'm a Christian, I must be a supporter of President Bush, or that because I favor civil rights and gay rights, I must not be a person of faith."

Meyers' speech, which was widely disseminated over the Internet, became the basis of Why the Christian Right is Wrong: A Minister's Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future, published in May.

In Colorado Springs, New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard says the clash between believers is nothing new.

"In the body of Christ, there has always been a discussion of how faith impacts culture ... and where it's appropriate to legislate a faith position," says Haggard, president of the 30-million member National Association of Evangelicals.

"Any group can say, "They've co-opted my Jesus, they've co-opted my Bible, and they don't represent me.' That is the fundamental nature of Protestantism: It's so incredibly diverse."

Still, there's an undeniable edginess to the current conflict. Meyers' book joins a burgeoning list of volumes that sharply advocate a socially progressive spirituality. Other recent titles include The Hijacking of Jesus by Dan Wakefield, Thy Kingdom Come by Randall Balmer and Getting on Message: Challenging the Religious Right from the Heart of the Gospel, edited by Laarman.

Jim Wallis, a veteran of the evangelical left who in 1971 founded the social-justice ministry Sojourners, penned one of the best-known works. God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, embodies the movement's refusal to align with partisan ideology.

Wallis criticizes the right for defining "moral values" in terms of homosexuality and abortion, to the detriment of concerns over poverty, the environment, criminal justice and war. And he criticizes the left for an elitism that alienates many people of faith.

"I think people who are religious or, say, even spiritual, have not felt like there's much of a home on the left," Wallis told Mother Jones magazine. "Even those who aren't religious need to respect people of faith. The connection the world's waiting for is to connect the hunger for spirituality with passion for social change."

A group of Democratic leaders, including Tennessee Sen. Roy Herron, just this week tried to make a connection by launching FaithfulDemocrats.com. The mission of the "online Christian community" is to help readers "put their faith to work for the common good, holding our nation and the Democratic Party to their highest ideals."

Then there's the recently formed Network of Spiritual Progressives, whose statement of purpose challenges "the misuse of religion, God and spirit by the religious right." A committed faith, the group says, should manifest itself not in moral rigidity, but in activism aimed at bringing about peace and social justice, alleviating poverty and protecting the environment.

At the same time, the statement opposes "the many anti-religious and anti-spiritual assumptions and behaviors that have increasingly become part of the liberal culture."

click to enlarge Ted Haggard welcomes political discussion at New Life - Church. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Ted Haggard welcomes political discussion at New Life Church.

"We will educate people in social-change movements to carefully distinguish between their legitimate critiques of the religious right and their illegitimate generalizing of those criticisms to all religions or spiritual beliefs or practices," the group pledges.

NSP's executive chair is the Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of the recently published The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. The book includes a "spiritual covenant with America" that, among other things, supports the full inclusion of same-sex couples and their children in its vision of the American family.

The witness of Scripture

Such views are anathema to Christian conservatives.

Focus on the Family spokesman Tom Minnery, who often speaks for Dobson, declined to be interviewed for this story. But his boss whose media ministry defines evangelical Christianity for millions of followers is well-known for an arch-conservative morality that condemns homosexuality and has implied that same-sex relationships belong in the same category as polygamy, incest and bestiality.

Dobson has little patience with Christians who don't share his views. In 2004, he told the Daily Oklahoman that Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Catholic, "hates God's people" because he stands opposed to conservative Christian values.

Colorado Initiative 109 coordinators Dick and Sue Rehg were likewise impatient with dissenting believers during the summer petition drive. They reminded signature-gatherers that "the enemy" has many weapons among them "timid pastors who are unwilling to stand firm on Biblical Truth and some Christians who have forgotten the command to be "salt and light' and believe their only biblical responsibility is to bring others into the kingdom and look toward heaven praying for Christ's return."

While they could hardly be described as timid, retired local First Congregational Church pastor Jim White and his successor, Ben Broadbent, have been similarly condemned. Conservative anti-gay Christian Rep. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, once dismissed both men as "pseudo clergy" and their church as "a splinter group of Christians." Broadbent has a divinity degree from Harvard; White's is from Yale.

White became an icon among local religious progressives when he started performing same-sex unions at First Congregational in the mid-'90s 10 years before the United Church of Christ formally endorsed such weddings. The decision fractured White's congregation, but ultimately, more were drawn to the church than left.

Today, the retired minister has a succinct explanation of the schism between conservative and liberal Christians.

"One group reads the Bible, and one group doesn't," he says. White points to some 2,000 biblical references to relieving poverty, compared to a handful about homosexual acts and nothing about sexual orientation as understood today.

He likens the current conflict over homosexuality to divergent views of slavery 150 years ago.

"People who were against slavery were folks who took a broad view of the Scriptures namely that the witness of Scripture is for freedom, for the release of the captives, for the rights and dignities of people, and love extended to all," White says. "Other people, especially those in the South, read the Bible more literally, and there, the plain sense of the Bible was that slavery is acceptable to God ...

"So I can say, "Yes, there are these texts which look like they condemn same-sex behavior.' But the greater, larger, stronger witness in Scripture is always on behalf of the oppressed, the outcast, the marginalized. If you want to be faithful to the basic intent of the Scriptures, you've got to be identified with the outsider, and not the power."

Yet it's more comfortable, he notes, to be allied against an outsider than to look within.

"The religious right has always been moralistic," White says. "Usually, they've focused on genital sins, but there have been times when other issues dominated like alcohol, Sunday store closings, divorce. ...

"But people on the religious right like to shop in Wal-Mart on Sunday, and they like their beer when they watch football, and they get divorced at higher rates than atheists do. So you can't condemn that; it won't sell.

"You can sell something that people are not. You can say, "The problem is outside; it's other than me.' Terrorists, communists, homosexuals, liberals whatever it may be. But it's someone who's not me."

God and family

Some liberal Christians interpret the current rift among believers as the result of radically different responses to the anxieties of modern life.

"The religious right responds to modernity as a threat, and the best response is to look back to a time that seemed to be, at least in collective memory, idyllic and safe," Broadbent says.

That time was just after WWII, when America was an international hero, when the domestic economy prospered, when modern neighborhoods flourished and the traditional nuclear family became enshrined as "the acme of what reality and human relationships can and should be."

"That's why now, on the part of conservative Christians, you find these values that are pre-1960, pre-women's liberation," Broadbent says.

"A lot of this has to do with gender and sexuality: "If we can get back to that set ordering of gender roles, then we'll save marriage, and thereby save civilization.'"

The nostalgic appeal of a simpler time is seductive to countless anxious Americans; additionally, many find relief from the modern malaise of social isolation in the embrace of an evangelical megachurch. (A Harper's Magazine article last year described Haggard's New Life, with an estimated 14,000 members, as "America's most powerful megachurch.")

"People are facing tremendous stress in their personal lives over work and the stagnation of income," Laarman says. "Regular households are kind of under siege. Conservative Christianity is not only their answer for everything, but the megachurch environment is very comforting. It provides a whole welcoming social system."

There's no equivalent on the left.

"The response on the religious left to modernity is, "OK, this is the inevitable evolution of culture, history and humanity, and we're going to go with it, and put out in front of us this sense of something better,'" Broadbent says.

It's a vision grounded in idealism rather than nostalgia, and as such is neither as knowable nor as comforting as what the right promotes.

"The right is able to articulate this very clear view of a romantic past that can be reached merely by jettisoning everything that is incompatible with that past," Broadbent says, "while we're sharing an ideal that has not been realized."

Faith, politics and diversity

click to enlarge Oklahoma pastor Robin Meyers has condemned George - W. Bush. - COURTESY OF ROBIN MEYERS
  • Courtesy of Robin Meyers
  • Oklahoma pastor Robin Meyers has condemned George W. Bush.

Yet some religious conservatives are breaking ranks when it comes to political activism.

The New York Times recently reported on an evangelical Minnesota pastor who weary of being asked to throw his faith behind conservative causes and American jingoism preached against politicization of the pulpit.

"When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses," the Rev. Gregory Boyd told his congregation two years ago. "When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross."

Boyd's sermons which came in the middle of a $7 million fundraising campaign prompted 1,000 of his church's 5,000 members to leave. The fund drive fell $3 million short, forcing the layoff of seven church staff; 20 Sunday school volunteers also left.

But Boyd told the Times he didn't regret speaking out. "It was a defining moment for us," he said. "We let go of something we were never called to be."

Conversely, NAE president Haggard embraces the nexus of faith and politics. "I believe in freedom of speech, and the free deliberation of ideas," he says. "And one of the great places that can go on in a wholesome environment is local churches."

Yet Haggard worries about the power of evangelical media ministers to project a seemingly monolithic political view.

"Don't buy into the idea that just because Jim Dobson or Jerry Falwell uses the media, they represent evangelicalism," he says. "They don't.

"The issue of representing the gospel ... is distorted by virtue of media ministers using the force of their personality and a bombastic presentation of current events in order to increase the size of their mailing lists, or who claim the sky is falling in order to raise money. That distorts the public view of where evangelicalism stands."

Haggard, for instance, has called on fellow evangelicals to protect the environment, and to work against poverty and racism priorities that scarcely make a blip on James Dobson's radar screen.

Dobson and Haggard also part ways over same-sex marriage. Focus on the Family strongly opposes any legal recognition of gay couples.

While Haggard supports federal and state constitutional amendments that limit marriage to a man and a woman, he's more measured in his view of domestic partnerships.

"If the state wants to provide people who are in a different type of relationship the same benefits as marriage, that's up to the community," he says. "As a Christian, I would be hesitant to do anything that would deny people medical insurance or the ability to visit their partner in a hospital."

Haggard agrees with Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-sodomy laws and, unlike Dobson, is generally cautious about codifying religious teaching in law.

"We believe within the church that sexuality should be only between a married man and a woman," Haggard says. "But there are many things that I teach in the church that I would never want integrated into civil law."

The 'rational' religious

To moderates, such diversity presents the hope that the distance between believers can be bridged. Locally, Vanguard Church pastor Kelly Williams is attempting to do just that.

"We're not trying to create an environment of tolerance," Williams says. "God didn't call us to tolerate each other; God called us to love each other. We're trying to say that we can find some common ground, that we can demonstrate respect and be in relation to one another. It's possible to hold opposing views and live out the values Christ taught us."

In April 2005, the church hosted a panel discussion on homosexuality that included participants from the local gay community, Focus on the Family and First Congregational Church. The evening was a huge success 1,200 people attended and hundreds more had to be turned away but Williams acknowledges that deep rifts remain.

"What's sad to me is the extreme bitterness and maybe some of it is legitimate," he says. "But to me, the moral issues are secondary to building relationships with other people. Unfortunately, there's very little of that, and more the dos and don'ts."

Christian progressives are similarly focused on relationship-building, as they craft coalitions with those who share their social priorities, if not their theology.

"We're not going to do this litmus-testing thing," Laarman says. "There has to be room for people who understand Jesus in different ways."

He concedes that many secular progressives remain "phobic" about religion; they don't trust that faith mixed with politics can be a good thing.

"They need to be reminded there are religious people who are entirely rational," he says. "So the coalition [between religious and secular progressives] hasn't yet come together. I'm not saying it won't, but we're still in the baby steps. When you think about the infrastructure the religious right has built up it's vast, wealthy, deep. There's nothing like that [on the left]."

Nori Rost has undertaken a similar mission locally. Rost left her largely gay Metropolitan Community Church congregation last year to start Just Spirit, an initiative to help progressives "reclaim the spiritual language of justice."

"We have refused to engage the religious right in spiritual values, and we've done that from a very good heart," Rost says. "Because we're progressives, we don't want to offend anybody, and we don't think we have the one right answer. ...We can't tell people, "If this legislation gets passed, then our country is going to hell in a handbasket, literally.' We can't say that, because we don't believe it."

But progressives can reframe the dialogue using the language and priorities of Jesus, Rost says. "Never once did He say, "Follow these laws or you're going to hell.' He always used the spiritual language of love and inclusion. ... He wanted people to feed the hungry, house the homeless, take care of the oppressed."

Even Christians who believe homosexuality is sinful have to recognize those imperatives, Rost says.

"If for some reason, the blood of Jesus were not enough to accomplish salvation, I don't think compulsive heterosexuality would be the addition. Maybe the blood of Jesus and feeding the hungry, or the blood of Jesus and housing the homeless. But it wouldn't be the blood of Jesus and heterosexuality that gets you into heaven."

For Christians, that's the heart of it, Broadbent says " the teachings of Jesus.

"The New Testament is our test of truth, and not only that, but Jesus, and not only that, but going even farther down to Jesus' sermon on the mount, which is a distillation of his teachings," he says.

"And it's all about a world turned upside-down ... He's saying that, while society will always elevate the rich and those who take care of themselves, God's spirit most closely dwells with those who are weakest, who are left out, who are summarily denied the rights that society gives.

"That's the essence of the gospel: that God is not an angry, strict father God, but a loving God."

newsroom@csindy.com

  • Christian progressives fight for their faith

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