When Liberals Feared Equality

This piece was posted earlier today at Tikkun Daily.

Late one evening in April 1963, Dick Gregory came crashing through the door of his Chicago apartment – drunk – and was informed by his wife that the president of the United States was looking for him. As Diane McWhorter related in her 2001 book, Carry Me Home, about the drive to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, the comedian returned the phone call to the White House and spoke with John F. Kennedy, who reportedly told him, “Please, don’t go to Birmingham. We’ve got it all solved. Dr. King is wrong, what he’s doing.” Gregory, a celebrity at 30 years old, replied – “Man, I will be there in the morning.”

Kennedy and his aides were hardly the only ones pleading for racial calm in that place, 50 years ago. Birmingham’s liberal white clergy and even its black newspaper had urged Martin Luther King Jr. (who died 45 years ago, on April 4) to jettison plans for a campaign of nonviolent direct action. They feared that an escalation of tactics would only make the segregationists angrier.

It’s not that the city’s men of the cloth were devoted to milder tactics. Christian pastors had looked upon civil rights not as a moral problem, which would rightly claim their attention, but as a political one, which would not; Jewish leaders, opting to sit out the battle of Birmingham, viewed segregation as a “Christian problem” between whites and Negroes, McWhorter notes. The campaign was foundering in early May when King, desperate, resorted to letting schoolchildren join in the civil disobedience (which essentially involved marching without permission).

A month later, Kennedy – who had said publicly that he was “sickened” by televised images of police dogs and fire hoses mowing down children – sent a civil rights bill to Congress. A year after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

That struggle for racial justice is often held up as an example of how change is possible. And its stories have helped teach many movements of nonviolent resistance, in countries ranging from the Philippines to Poland to South Africa. But how was change possible at that time?

These days the lack of progress in our politics is a given, and it is usually chalked up to fierce polarization, chiefly between Democrats and Republicans. As today, the national politics of 1963 (certainly on the domestic front) was deeply fractured along ideological lines between liberals and conservatives if not strictly between Democrats and Republicans. Still, change happened – and on the most flammable question, race.

How?

I’ll let that question float for now. And I’ll listen in on conversations this month surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham campaign. …read more

Sightings of Moral Life in the Deficit-Hawk Universe

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

Jeffrey Polet: An unlikely advocate of single-payer healthcare.

After Paul Ryan unveiled another one of his trademark balancing-the-budget-on-the-backs-of-the-poor plans, I found myself asking again, What’s the moral grounding for this fiscal sternness?

I raised that question in an item posted late last month. At the time I noted that while faith-based objections to draconian budget cuts are familiar enough, the moral and religious case in favor of such slashing is less clear. I promised to keep an eye out for real moral content in the arguments for balancing the government’s books.

In my search for such reasoning, I’ve scanned blogs, checked in on publications catering to fiscal conservatives, and broached the question with friends. I’ve also happily made the acquaintance of Jeff Polet, a scholar, writer, and not-so predictable conservative.

Polet is a political scientist at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and a senior editor of the conservative online journal Front Porch Republic. He provided some evidence for the existence of moral and theological thinking in the deficit-hawk universe. For example, many liberals who speak on budget matters invoke values such as compassion and solidarity. Polet was just as quick to cite other legitimate virtues—temperance and prudence, among them.

“We’re spending money we don’t have,” he told me by phone in an interview I did for Our Sunday Visitor. “The bottom line is that we want a full range of services and we don’t want to pay for them.” He continued, “It’s a combination of greed, intemperance and a kind of luxuriousness. In an older time it would have been called decadence.”

When I asked him who the greedy are, he pointed to “interest groups” that oppose any cuts in programs that affect their constituencies, and fingered the AARP. I’d find it hard to pinpoint the elderly as a glaring source of national greed, not in these plutocratic times, anyway. But let’s stay on this trail.

As I noted previously, perhaps the only well-known moral claim on the fiscal right is a generational one—that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. Polet, a Catholic convert, roots the generational concern more deeply and evocatively in Scriptures. He pointed to the familiar biblical motif of inheritance (as in Genesis — “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac”).

“There’s this idea that parents owe their children an inheritance. You don’t take your inheritance and squander it, to the disadvantage of your own progeny,” said Polet, who chairs the political science department at Hope, an ecumenical Christian institution with Calvinist roots. “And that’s what I see us doing,” he added. “We’ve taken the cultural, financial inheritance we’ve been given, and we’ve squandered it in a lot of ways. So the world that we’re giving our children doesn’t seem to be as well-ordered as the world we inherited, certainly not from a financial viewpoint.”

I asked Polet if there might be another way of looking at the moral question of intergenerational solidarity. Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Or does the “well-ordered world” also need to include good schools, a solid infrastructure and a clean environment — which would require public investment now?

All that is part of a balanced way of looking at fiscal obligations, Polet acknowledged. “But if the debt problem gets too out of control, it’s going to make all those other things impossible,” he argued, falling back on a much-debated policy point (that our debt is unsustainable).

The Real Surprise

This will do, as a moral and religious case for fiscal hawkishness (and of course Polet has much more to say in his own writings). I didn’t come across much of that elsewhere—even among theocons, conservative religious types. I was unimpressed, for instance, by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty’s “Principles for Budget Reform,” which barely even try to root policy assertions in moral or theological soil. The same goes for something called Christians for a Sustainable Economy, a largely evangelical ad hoc group that seems more ideological than biblical.

But Polet’s attention to moral and biblical foundations is not really what surprised me. I assumed that at some point I’d run into such thoughts among deficit foes. What I found intriguing were a few of his policy conclusions.

Here’s one: After arguing like many conservatives for scaling back Medicare, Polet added—“At this point, America would be better off going to a single-payer system.” The single payer, of course, would be the government, as national health insurer. He thinks this radical approach might be the only way to control healthcare costs in the future.

Needless to say, principled liberals have been making this particular case for quite some time. But I’ve never heard it from a conservative—maybe not even from a centrist. That gives me hope for a richer and less predictable dialogue on budgets and values. …read more

Read Thy Enemy

Ross Douth

I flipped through some of the expected commentary about what to read in the New Year, but one column that nudged me was Ross Douthat’s in the Times, “How to Read in 2013.” The conservative pundit issued a moderate challenge: “Consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share.” He made a point of using what he referred to as that fusty word, “subscription.” Reading all of a magazine, Douthat explained, is a better way of grappling with its ideas than plucking this or that item from its web site.

So, if you wait for National Review to arrive in your mailbox, or inbox, make sure you also get The Nation or The New Republic, Douthat suggested. Or, if The New Yorker is your blend of tea, think about subscribing also to The Weekly Standard.

“And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme,” he advised. “There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.”

The December 29 column has led me to take stock of my own reading. Like most members of our species, I am attracted to ideas and information that confirm my positions and worldview. There are names for that in the social sciences literature—“confirmation bias” and “pattern bias” come to mind.

Although I prefer the left-leaning MSNBC, I do go to the conservative channels. But for me, watching The O’Reilly Factor or some other Fox News productions is like eating a vegetable I don’t care much for—without the consolation that it’s good for me. I find more appetizing the (online) offerings of National Review and especially The American Conservative but tend to pick and choose among them. I usually pass up the antigovernment and free-market screeds. More palatable to me are pieces that tap into my culturally conservative sentiments, which I wear less on my sleeve than I used to.

Taking up the Douthat challenge, I’m not sure if I’ll actually take out a new subscription to a politically conservative journal this year (or a liberal one, for that matter). But I’ll add to my New Year’s resolutions an intention to regularly sit down in the periodical room of a Boston College library and read The Weekly Standard or The American Spectator cover to cover.

At the same time, I’ll make an effort to read books and articles outside the political-theological-philosophical complex. I’m already starting to crowd out that resolution, though, with items piling in my Amazon cart. I’m eagerly awaiting the February release of Jeffrey Frank’s Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, about Eisenhower and Nixon.

Douthat’s column has evidently touched a chord with many readers, and I’m glad for that. But is he putting his finger on the most glaring oversight in our politics today? Would that be the failure of liberals to read conservatives and vice versa? Or would it be that too few people in general are listening to the least of these, to the weak and vulnerable?

At one time—prior to Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America—the poor were invisible. Now they are simply inaudible. They’re seen waiting at bus stops and standing behind fast food counters, but seldom heard in our public debates. And I wouldn’t expect to hear their voices all that clearly in the pages of The Weekly Standard. But maybe I’ll be surprised. …read more

A Word About the Weather

As I write, I’m also packing my toothbrush and notebooks for a conference on Catholic social teaching and climate change, beginning tomorrow at Catholic University in Washington. The climate part needs little explanation, especially after the latest climatic disaster known as Hurricane Sandy. The part about Catholicism or religious faith in general is another matter.

Even TheoPol is not quite prepared to say that theological and moral perspectives are especially critical to discussions of climate change. One would think facts and science—the inconvenient truths, as far as we know them—should be uppermost in the public debate. But theology has a way of crashing parties, including the political ones.

For now, I’ll say there’s an important link between theological ethics and at least one aspect of global climate change: relationships between rich and poor nations. In their 2001 pastoral letter, Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, the U.S. bishops zeroed in on four points about equity in these relationships.

1) Rich and poor nations alike have a responsibility to address the climate threat;

2) Historically the advanced economies have generated the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions known to cause climate disruptions;

3) In addition, wealthy nations have a greater capacity to lessen the threat of climate change, while many impoverished nations “live in degrading and desperate situations” that lead them to adopt ecologically harmful practices;

4) Advanced economies should bear the heaviest responsibilities for solutions to climate change. “Developing countries have a right to economic development that can help lift people out of dire poverty,” the bishops noted. “Wealthier industrialized nations have the resources, know-how, and entrepreneurship to produce more efficient cars and cleaner industries,” and they should “share these emerging technologies with the less-developed countries….”

These too are inconvenient truths. Undergirding them are moral and theological principles, among them solidarity and the biblical “preferential option for the poor.” Of course, all this is tendentious drivel if you think global warming is a hoax. Which brings us back to science—until further word. …read more

Jihad on the D Train

Photo by REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

I’d like to say it’s been a quiet week in my hometown, as Garrison Keillor recites at the beginning of his monologues on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. But I’m never able to say that, because I’m not from Lake Wobegon. I’m a New Yorker by birth and by attitude, though not by residence over the past nearly three decades.

The commotion in recent days has been over an ad posted in subway stations that equates the Islamic principle of jihad with savagery. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man,” says the ad, sponsored by a pro-Israel citizens group. “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

Let’s skip over the part where I acknowledge that people have a right to express their opinions. And let’s skate over the place where I hold that civilized people try to build bridges of understanding between religious traditions. They don’t dynamite them.

What should be noted is that the ad is also theologically untrue. Maybe that’s beside the point, but it communicates that jihad is essentially a principle of bloodletting. That’s like saying the Trinity or the Chosen People are vile notions, because some fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Israeli settlers, respectively, are doing odious things in the name of those beliefs. I wouldn’t expect to look up and see that message on a cardboard poster while riding the D train into Brooklyn.

Jihad is usually taken to mean “holy war” in the West and, fair to say, in the violent precincts of Muslim extremism. But in the vast reaches of Islam, it refers primarily to a different kind of struggle—to improve our world and, first of all, ourselves.

Nearly a year after the atrocities of September 11, 2001, I had a conversation about this with University of Virginia religion scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina, who had just written a book titled The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism. He pointed out that Mohammed spoke of an “inner jihad,” a struggle against one’s baser instincts. In fact, Mohammed called this the “greater jihad,” as distinct from the “lesser jihad” of struggle against external enemies.

Turns out that for those Muslims who don’t point their guns randomly at infidels (in other words, nearly all of them), jihad may have less to do with war than with reconciliation. “The ability to forgive requires a jihad against one’s anger and resentment in order to restore one’s spiritual station by participating in the divine attribute of forgiveness,” Sachedina wrote in his book.

To me it sounds a lot like the Augustinian notion of the inner self as a battleground, a clash of wills between our lower and higher selves.

Try fitting that message onto a subway poster. But I take some assurance in the live-and-let-live philosophy of New Yorkers, one of whom was quoted in a Reuters dispatch. “It’s not right, but it’s freedom of speech. To put it on a poster is just not right,” said a 29-year-old man as he strode through the Times Square station. “But it caught my attention and I support freedom of speech, so you got to live with it.”

Reuters said most subway riders passed by the ad in a tunnel there without even noticing it. That’s a bit assuring, too, though I also saw, in another item, a photo of a young woman in traditional Muslim headdress, staring at the ad. I can only imagine what she was feeling at that moment. …read more

Calvinism 2.0

For some time now I’ve been waiting patiently for a cultural reassessment of John Calvin and his presumably dour theology. And, some of my friends would add teasingly, who hasn’t been? But if you’re a theo-geek like me, you’re going to have to wait a little longer for the Calvinist reboot.

Recent articles in The New Yorker and the New York Times are just the latest perpetuations of Calvin’s uptight, puritanical image. Writing in the July 30 New Yorker, Sarah Payne Stuart (“Pilgrim’s Progress: God and Real Estate in New England”) lays at the doorstep of Calvinism her observation that New England is still “an unforgiving place. Like a disapproving mother, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations.”

Matthew Hutson opines likewise in “Still Puritan After All These Years,” his Aug. 3 op-ed in the Times. The science writer plies the notion that Americans today exhibit attitudes and behavior traceable to “those austere English Protestants” who arrived on these shores in the early 17th century. Those were mostly Calvinists, followers of the cleric who, as Hutson recites, “viewed success as a sign of salvation.”

Hutson digs into a few psychological research studies of whether American work habits reflect the Protestant work ethic (as prone to caricature as Calvin himself).

“Calvin argued that socializing while on the job was a distraction from the assignment God gave you,” he purports. “The psychologist Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks has found that Protestants — but not Catholics — become less sensitive to others’ emotions when reminded of work, possibly indicating a tendency to judge fraternizing as unproductive and unprofessional. He and collaborators have also found that Americans have a culturally specific tendency to view family photos and other personal items as unprofessional presences in the office.”

I’m skeptical of whether religious affiliation would explain such a workplace hang-up, but let’s continue down the Reformation trail.

“Not all of the legacy of Puritanism suggests moral uprightness,” Hutson informs us. “Studies since the ’70s have also found that Americans who score high on a Protestant Ethic Scale (emphasizing self-reliance and self-discipline) or similar metric show marked prejudice against racial minorities and the poor; hostility toward social welfare efforts; and, among obese women, self-denigration.”

My guess is that the most avowedly self-reliant among us tend to be politically conservative. So it’s not shocking that these people would be more likely to frown upon “social welfare efforts” and the like. That aside, here we have, once again, the Calvin of popular assumption, served up with shibboleths about classical Protestant theology (I’m Catholic, by the way).

Rehabilitating Calvin

Some writers and scholars in recent years have offered a fresh reintroduction to the man from Geneva. My favorite among these revisers is the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Gilead. (Mark O’Connell looked at the Calvinist colors of her fiction in the May 30 online edition of The New Yorker, available here. And, a scholarly review of one of her Calvinist essays is here.)

In an illuminating PBS interview with my friend and collaborator Bob Abernethy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Robinson noted that Calvin spearheaded many social reforms in his city that were certainly progressive in his time. These included the establishment of public education for both boys and girls, and the requirement that men financially support the children they conceive out of wedlock. With Calvin’s encouragement, Europe’s first edition of the Qur’an was published in Geneva. (Calvin also saw concentrations of wealth as unbiblical, which I discussed in an article late last year for The Christian Century.)

Theologically speaking, Robinson said, relating a centerpiece of Calvinism:

We are given the world to enjoy. The signature of God in creation is beauty, as well as the expansion of understanding or the expansion of awareness, which is never complete precisely because it’s a manifestation of the presence of God. That life in the world is an enormous privilege, which is enhanced as privilege in the degree to which we are attentive to what is being given to us, not just as gift of prosperity or something, but what’s given us to understand, to allow us to reconceive.

True, Calvin was a tad obsessed with sin and human frailty. But this of a piece with his intellectual humility, urgently needed in our politics today.

According to Robinson, Calvinism presents “the idea that the world is continuously unfolding itself for your further understanding … [and] that whatever understanding you bring to this experience is incomplete, is too small.” Put another way, every act of seeing is partial. Every instance of human understanding is at least partly inaccurate. Tell that to the folks who claim to know with absolute certainty what God ate for lunch today!

It’s this awareness of human fallibility that led Calvin away from—not toward—the unforgiving and judgmental attitude that has been pasted historically all over him. Much of this theological sensibility derives from his understanding of Original Sin, which “makes it so that we can never see clearly or understand entirely. And this, of course, undermines the assumption that secure judgments can be made, that we actually know,” Robinson told Bob in the 2010 interview.

When Bob asked about a Calvinist ethic of forgiveness, she elaborated:

The assumption is that forgiveness is owed wherever God might want forgiveness to be given, and we don’t know. So you err on the side of forgiving. Or you don’t, or who knows what God’s ultimate intentions are, in any case? But you assume your fallibility and you also assume that anybody that you encounter is precious to God, or is God himself, which is sometimes how [Calvin] describes this when you are encountered by someone, even an enemy. And when Calvin talked about somebody who wanted to kill you, that was most of Europe at that point, from his point of view. But he says this is the image of God that has approached you. And the question is what does God want from this moment? And so there’s this absolute valuing of the other that comes under all circumstances and just leaves the idea of judgment as a meaningless idea.

 Judgment as a meaningless idea? Welcome to Calvinism 2.0—if it ever finds a market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Art of “Messing About”

G.K. Chesterton: "Leisure is being allowed to do nothing."

Americans have a fraught relationship with leisure, as might be gleaned from two stories that spilled through a news cycle recently. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the press reported that the Obamas have decided to spare us the annual debate over their summer excursion to well-heeled Martha’s Vineyard by skipping the trip this year. Meanwhile, the Romney clan spent a full week jet skiing and speed boating along the family’s sprawling compound in New Hampshire. The president’s politically calculated move was seen as prudent at a time of voter distress over the economy; the Romneys were chided for having a bit too much fun in the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.

We the people are ambivalent about leisure, and not just when it comes to our leaders decamping to privileged havens. Throughout our history we have often viewed leisure with suspicion, as a form of idleness or a flight from responsibility. Maybe that’s why there’s an unmistakable quality of busyness in our leisure, a feeling of urgency and determination.

As the writer and architect Witold Rybczynski noted in his landmark 1991 book, Waiting for the Weekend, people used to “play” tennis, but now they “work” on their backhands. He and many other commentators have noted that leisure has become unleisurely in this and many other respects. Or perhaps it was always so in a country molded (in some salutary ways) by the Protestant work ethic.

On this particular score, I’ll take G.K. Chesterton over Luther or Calvin. The English Catholic writer pointed out that leisure is not just the liberty to do something. More profoundly, he said (as cited by Rybczynski): “Leisure is being allowed to do nothing.” Chesterton also once quipped, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He was extolling the pointless pursuit of play.

Of course many people are leisure-deprived. Well before the economic crisis, average Americans were working longer hours just to stay afloat or hold their ground; couples were pressed into what has become the 90-hour family workweek. As for the jobless, they’re not exactly enjoying an extended vacation. That is, unless you agree with those wooly-headed economists who regard unemployment as voluntary and thus a form of leisure.

Still, even if everyone were blessed with livable wages and adequate free time, we’d still have a leisure problem, at least according to a noble tradition of ethical thought on this matter.

“The provision of … leisure is not enough; it can only be fruitful if … man himself is capable of leisure,” the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote in his 1952 classic, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. In other words, leisure isn’t just two weeks of paid vacation. It’s a state of mind—“a condition of the soul,” as Pieper phrased it. And part of that soul of leisure is effortlessness.

“Man seems to distrust everything that is effortless … he refuses to have anything as a gift,” Pieper wrote 60 years ago. Here, the philosopher was tapping a tradition that goes back to Aristotle and owes as well to St. Thomas Aquinas, who stressed that virtue resides in the good rather than the difficult. In that way of thinking, the truest and most restorative leisure is never something done as a means toward an end, like improving a backhand. It’s something we do purely for its own sake, for the sheer, goal-less joy of it.

Examples of such leisure are beside the point, because it’s not so much the activities as the spirit one brings to them. Chesterton’s pastimes were sketching and collecting weapons, but in spirit he was, as he put it, just “messing about.” …read more

Can You Hear Me Now, God?

T.M. Luhrmann, author of "When God Talks Back"

In my prayer life, which waxes and wanes, I’ve paid a bit of heed to the old psychiatry joke that when you talk to God, you’re praying, but when God talks to you, you’re nuts. It’s not that I brush off the idea of human beings conversing in a meaningful way with ultimate reality. It’s that the communication lines are more static-ridden than many would like to believe. At times they’re down completely, it seems.

Admittedly, I have tendentious thoughts when I hear people say that God sent them a sign—to pull up stakes and move to Alaska, or turn left at the corner where they found an exceptional parking space. I’m prone to assign such belief to an incredible category that includes George W. Bush supposedly claiming that God told him to invade Iraq. (Was God also wrong about the WMDs?) Somehow I leave out of this dubious category the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on a sleepless night in the winter of 1956, nervously clutching a cup of coffee at his kitchen table, gripped by fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At that moment (as he often recalled), he heard the voice of Jesus promising: “I will be with you” in the struggle.

But I do think this whole question warrants a serious and thoughtful handling. That’s what T. M. Luhrmann offers in her recently published and highly readable book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf).

A psychological anthropologist now at Stanford, Luhrmann spent two years attending services at an evangelical church in Chicago and interviewing members of that congregation. With admirable scholarly detachment, she tackles basic questions like how “sensible people” are able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being. One of her hypotheses is that some people are able to train their minds in such a way that they “learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness.”

Saw God

Surprisingly for a book about evangelicals, Ignatian spirituality comes up frequently. A number of the congregants interviewed by Luhrmann borrowed freely from the prayer and discernment practices of Jesuits, who, as these men like to say, seek to “find God in all things.” This past spring, while on assignment for Boston College Magazine, I was privileged to sit in on two small groups of undergraduate students as they reflected in this fashion on their lives and encounters with the divine.

The students belong to a campus faith-sharing network called Cura, which derives its name from the Jesuit expression cura personalis (Latin for “care of the person”). One of their favorite exercises is the “Highs and Lows,” which involves conversation about their ups and downs of recent days. Each member of the group also talks about where he or she “saw God.” For one young woman, it was in the warm and relieved smile of a driver who might have gestured differently after having to slam the brakes near Boston Common as the student jogged inattentively into the street, plugged into her iPod.

The Highs and Lows echo an Ignatian exercise called “the Examen” (from the Latin word for examination). It’s a spiritual self-review that involves prayerfully recollecting moments during the day and reflecting on how God was present at those times, followed by a decision to act in some way. “You’re asking God for light, and letting your mind roam over your day. And you’re looking forward to tomorrow, planting that seed,” Jesuit Father Michael Boughton, SJ, who directs Boston College’s Center for Ignatian Spirituality, told me. “Planting that seed” might mean deepening a friendship, reaching out to the poor, or strengthening one’s prayer life, the priest noted.

This is the mode of prayer that I most readily embrace. It has its roots not only in the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, but also in the spiritual practices of the ancient Stoics, according to a number of authorities. What I like about the five-step Examen is that it leads the pray-er to focus on segments of time (a day, preferably) and to recall how he or she felt during specific moments. Only then can people adequately reflect on the meaning of those experiences and perhaps what God (or the collective unconscious?) was communicating to them.

I also like one of the premises of the daily Examen, which is that such discernment requires continual reflection and reevaluation, because understanding the divine intent is an iffy business. You might get mixed signals or no signals at all. You could be just plain wrong about what God (or the Truth) is bidding you to do, but at least you’ll be engaged in a thoughtful spiritual exercise that is notably free of nuttiness. …read more

Playing the Birmingham Jail Card

Of all the claims made by U.S. Catholic bishops about their alleged victimization at the hands of Barack Obama, perhaps the most daring has to do with the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement. As they left church this past Sunday, Catholics nationwide were handed parish bulletins with inserts promoting the hierarchy’s “Fortnight for Freedom,” two weeks of public events and protests against purported attacks on religious liberty in America, leading up to the Fourth of July. The one-page message from the bishops was wrapped within the timeless story of African American struggles for racial justice.

The Catholic leaders called special attention to King’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he quoted St. Augustine—“An unjust law is no law at all.” They elaborated: “When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties.”

Their April 12 statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” started the bishops on this path toward calling for unspecified civil disobedience if that’s what it takes. At the time, the prelates announced their Fortnight for Freedom, hastening to add that it would coincide with the feast days of several Christian martyrs.

This 12-page exhortation was not penned in a squalid prison cell. It was probably drafted in the splendid headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in northeast Washington, D.C., or in a cardinal’s mansion. That aside, the bishops appear to be making an astonishing claim. They’re suggesting a sort of moral equivalence between their grievances under Obama and those of the Negro under segregation.

In the bulletin insert, the hierarchs did not even get around to talking about their campaign until halfway through the message, after mingling their gripes with the “dark history” of racial oppression.

The litany of complaints begins with the Obama administration’s ruling in January that employees of Catholic hospitals and universities must have access to contraception coverage through their healthcare plans. And it extends to other disputes including whether local Catholic Charities should receive government money for adoption services if they refuse to place children with gay couples. (This past spring I covered a refreshingly civil debate on these matters for Boston College Magazine, and the article is available here.)

Consider a few juxtapositions between the April 12 letter from a distressed hierarchy and the epistle from a Birmingham jail.

Lynching and Licenses

The bishops: “Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services—by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.”

King: “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity …”

The bishops: “New York City enacted a rule that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses. While this would not frequently affect Catholic parishes, which generally own their own buildings, it would be devastating to many smaller congregations. It is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.”

King: “ … when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) … when your wife and mother are never given the respect title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments … then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Just and Unjust Laws

The bishops: “An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought … Catholics in America must have the courage not to obey [unjust laws].” And, the bishops, quoting directly from King’s letter: “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

King: “Let us turn to a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.” (Note: By this standard, the contraception mandate is not unjust because it applies equally to everyone.)

There are fair contentions on both sides of the debate over whether government is going too far in one or more of the cases exhibited by the Catholic hierarchy. The matter of the bishops and Obama is not a simple one. But the question of their campaign and the historic struggle for civil rights is plain enough: there’s no comparison. The issue of segregation was black and white morally as well as racially, a simple matter of decency and justice. The fight that the bishops have engaged has little of that clarity.

The bishops would do us all a favor by positioning themselves as religious leaders who object to what they see as a debatable public policy, rather than as martyrs in the making with God and the GOP on their side. …read more

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