Twenty years ago the founding pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., preached a sermon called "The Dangers of Religion" that got national publicity, including a version reprinted in The New York Times.
In that sermon, Robert Meneilly argued that moderate, rational, mainstream people of faith were neglecting their political duties and allowing rigid religious ideologues to capture the political process. It was a call for folks in the broad middle to enter the public square and be heard, while respecting the historic separation between church and state, and it resulted in the formation in Johnson County, Kansas, of the Mainstream Coalition, which bills itself as offering rational voices for an irrational time.
A couple of evenings ago, hundreds of people gathered at Village to honor Meneilly, now retired from Village, and to hear the current Village pastor, Tom Are, talk about how things stand 20 years later and what must be done. After Are's keynote address, a panel responded.
In light of the fact of the partial shutdown of the federal government and the way ideologues have taken control of the national Republican Party and the state government of Kansas, I thought Tom Are had some helpful things to say, and I want to share a few of those comments with you today.
* "No matter how you articulate separation of church and state, a clean wall of separation is neither possible nor healthy." True. The separation wall was meant to keep government out of religion, not religious people out of politics.
* "The nation is actually served when people of faith, people of conscience are engaged in the political process." Later, panelist Rabbi Mark Levin pointed to himself and the audience and declared that "we" are the problem because the ideologues are well organized and deeply committed to making changes through the political process while those who may oppose their positions aren't well organized or are too apathetic or too busy to get engaged. So we get the government we deserve.
* "The fundamental issue in our day is not weakened political process but bad religion. . .Whenever I hear someone saying they have found God's will expressed in a political policy I am instantly aware that this person has reduced God to something smaller than is worth any worship. But this is exactly what we witness day after day. . .The problem is we are awash in bad religion." Later some of the panelists suggested that rather than call it bad religion it might be called unhealthy religion or destructive religion. I like those terms better than bad religion.
* Tom Are described how fundamentalism has infected many religions. He described it as "a theological position that claims, 'I am in the light and all who aren't standing with me are enemies of all that is good and holy.' And it is well to remember that fundamentalism is not the sole possession of the right. I know progressives who can tolerate almost anyone except a conservative." Indeed, I have spoken to Mainstream Coalition gatherings in the past and have said there that if they really want to understand and engage people whom they consider on the right (and, thus, wrong) edge of the political spectrum they need to sit down with them and have eyeball to eyeball conversations, though I have noted that, in the end, you can't reason with irrationality.
* In the past century, Americans have transitioned from being citizens to being consumers: "Consumers is not as simple as consuming goods. We all do that and we always have done that." Rather, a consumer is one "who believes that meaning in life can be purchased. . .Citizens, on the other hand. . .are part of a community. . .They take responsibility for each other." In other words, citizens are concerned with the common good.
The U.S. needs two good, strong, principled political parties. There still are people in both parties who can be considered building blocks of such parties, but I fear for our political future, especially in light of the way a small group of zealots has become the tail wagging the GOP dog, leading to a partial shutdown of the government.
Reasonableness is not compromise of principle. But that information seems not to have reached some folks in office. In many ways, people of faith, guided by the values taught by the great religions, need to be part of the solution. And sooner rather than later.
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A WOUNDED GOP?
The partial shutdown of the federal government may be causing young Christians to abandon the Republican Party, it's reported. I suspect the GOP will find eventually that it has dealt itself a long-lasting and serious blow because of the actions and rhetoric of Tea Party members and the unwillingness of others in the party to stand up to them.
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P.S.: I most recently wrote about The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging here. This week Bob Hentzen, the president and co-founder of that non-profit agency, died in Guatemala at age 77. You can read about that here.