One of the constant struggles for faith communities is whether -- and in what way -- to take positions on public issues.
Should this church adopt a resolution in favor of a nuclear treaty with Iran? Should that synagogue not just favor of marriage equality but have that position clearly stated on its website? And on and on.
The reality is that throughout American history, faith communities often have been leaders, for good or ill, in getting their members to adopt various positions on public issues. Slavery is an obvious example, with some Christian churches finding biblical justification for this inhuman institution and some churches working publicly and hard to abolish the practice.
Another area of religious involvement that I hadn't thought much about until now is work place conditions and organized labor. Today, of course, we're seeing some faith communities getting behind the growing movement to make sure that largely unskilled workers earn a wage that can support them and their families.
But what about the ways in which faith communities got involved in the efforts to unionize workers?
It turns out that two West Virginia University teachers have studied that very question and have co-authored a new book exploring ways in which evangelical Protestants in the South worked either for or against unionization. It's called Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South: White Evangelical Protestants and Operation Dixie.
I haven't had a chance to read it, but the school's press release about the research notes this:
"Union representatives often tried to convince ministers and congregations that social gospels and Jesus preached brotherhood and a message of caring for one another — what unions claimed to represent. Conversely, business and industry officials stressed that social Christianity would lead to Soviet-style Union intrusions on freedom and control of everyday life."
In some ways, similar arguments continue today, though among all the public policy matters that faith communities are dealing with today, I would judge the question of unionization to be a cool-button issue.
As the authors of this new work found, sometimes churches took positions not based on what was right or wrong but because of what was expedient or convenient. No doubt that happens still with various public issues. But the role of leaders in congregations -- whether lay or clergy -- is to make sure that their decisions about public issues are made on the basis of theology and morality and not on the basis of what is simply expedient or of self-interest.
And, in a perfect world, that's what happens. Which makes me wish, more than ever, for a perfect world.
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EDUCATING RELIGIOUS ILLITERATES
Religious literacy among Americans is, quite simply, appalling. In this piece, a Texas professor suggests ways to help fix that. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is good, but, as he points out, there are many other reasons to understand religions and religious ideas.
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P.S.: Saturday is National Columnists Day. How did my friend Dave Lieber and I work to create this fabulous occasion? Read this and you'll know.