We Interrupt this Culture War to Report …

A church burns in India

I don’t know if Mitt Romney really believes that 47 percent of all Americans will never have a sense of personal responsibility, will never “care for their lives.” How can anyone think such a thing let alone speechify about it? I also don’t know if he truly believes that one man in America is amassing the power of government to persecute its citizens just because they’re religious. But in an ad last month, the GOP nominee renewed this line of attack on Barack Obama. He and his surrogates have continued to argue, with a wary eye toward the administration’s birth-control mandate, that the president is waging a “war on religion.”

There’s certainly a culture war over religion, and it has apparently come to my quiet neighborhood in Andover, Mass. Walking back from town the other day, I noticed a blue and white sign on a front-porch railing that read: “Stand Up for Religious Freedom.” It’s part of a national campaign targeting this alleged jihad against people and institutions of faith.

I’ve known my neighbors to get up in arms about pressing matters such as parking restrictions and overgrown trees, but this was a bit of a surprise for me. The debate over religious freedom in America has been one of the oddly unexpected features of the 2012 elections. If it were a reality show, I’d be grateful to see a news bulletin break in: We interrupt this broadcast to report that there are people in the world who are actually suffering religious persecution, and not one of them lives in Andover, Mass., or any place like it.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter provided such a public service during a forum at Boston College this past April, titled “Is Religious Freedom Under Threat in America?” As the forum’s moderator, he interrupted the panel discussion—entirely about the domestic squabble—to point out that an estimated 150,000 Christians die each year in religious violence in places like Egypt, Nigeria, and India. “In the past hour, 17 Christians have been killed on this planet,” Allen reported, extrapolating from the average toll.

Allen committed the faux pas of talking about actual religious persecution abroad, when he and others on the panel were supposed to be speaking seriously about dubious religious persecution at home (and they did speak seriously and thoughtfully on the subject, from different perspectives).

I hesitate to add that I wrote an article about that forum for Boston College Magazine, and my paragraph on Allen’s intervention was edited out—for perfectly sound editorial reasons, I’m absolutely sure. But it’s just another indication of how the issue of religious freedom has been domesticated. In some hands it has become a political football.

More about this in a month—when thousands are expected to take personal responsibility and turn up in Washington for an October 20 “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally. Undoubtedly there will be some 47 percenters among them. …read more

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

Penitence and Politics

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998

Some recent political volleys invite another go at the much-parodied line from Love Story that love means never having to say you’re sorry. The 2012 take might be that loving the United States of America means never saying we’re sorry for its misdeeds. Thus we have Mitt Romney’s campaign book No Apology: Believe in America, and the accusation by him and others that President Obama has flown off on “apology tours,” which is by and large a fantasy but involves a few instances in which Obama—like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him—has tendered apologies to people abroad for things done in America’s name. In February Rick Santorum chided the president for apologizing after the U.S. military inadvertently burned Qurans in Afghanistan. Weeks later, Santorum popped up on the apology circuit himself, telling interviewers that America owed one to the families of 16 Afghan civilians massacred by a U.S. soldier.

Contrition can be as dishonorable from a certain patriotic view as it is desirable from a theological perspective. But as the Christian season of Lent draws to a close, it’s worth noting the times when a spirit of penitence has helped transform relationships at various levels of fractious societies.

The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which fashioned a peace there in 1998, was built in part on myriad acts of apology. Catholic and Protestant religious leaders helped set the tone by exchanging mutual apologies for atrocities committed historically by their communities. Paramilitary leaders on both sides followed with their own gestures of repentance, some more heartfelt than others.

In a number of strife-ridden countries, apology and its near twin, acknowledgment, have lighted paths to justice and social healing. In South Africa, those who committed human rights crimes during decades of white minority rule were given a choice: tell the truth for all to hear or face prosecution. In Rwanda, repentance became the signature piece of national reconciliation efforts following the tribal genocide in 1994.

Ritualized Lamentation

At times theological resources have helped bring crucial acknowledgments to the surface. In one of the longest-running efforts at post-conflict reconciliation, people who took warring sides in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s have come together for ecumenical and interfaith seminars in church basements. These are mostly laypeople from the Croatian Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and ethnic Albanian Muslim communities. With the help of third-party facilitators, they have dug deeply into the tradition of laments, the communal expressions of grief and distress in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Rev. David Steele, a United Church of Christ minister and an American conflict-resolution expert, led many of the original seminars in the wake of brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Balkans. He explained to me recently that the purpose of ritualized lamentation in ancient Israel was to “offer up to God all injury and hurt so that God could heal the pain and bring justice.” Steele’s own purpose is not simply to help people voice their grievances against other communities. He also brings them to the verge of acknowledging wrongdoing by their own groups. This too is part of the lament motif. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, identifies the suffering of the Jews but also asks his people to critically examine themselves and their society.

In another conversation I had with Steele almost a decade ago, he related that during one Serb-Croat seminar, it was time for the Croats to acknowledge how they as a community have afflicted the Serbs. One Croat man reversed the dynamic, however. He began recalling a horrible atrocity committed by Serbs during the war, in which soldiers dragged patients out of a hospital in eastern Croatia and executed them en masse in a field nearby.

As he was talking about it, he was getting more and more agitated, more angry. Finally, one Serb who had been a soldier during the war, a layperson, simply spoke up and said: “That happened. I know it happened. And it was wrong.” And there was silence at that point. And what happened was, even though this Croat was turning the whole thing around, attacking the other group rather than his own group, this Serb man was sensitive and courageous enough to recognize that this needed an acknowledgment that it was a terrible crime. And that was enough, at least at that moment, to satisfy this Croat.

The process can be volatile, whether in a post-conflict setting or in the election-year partisan crossfire. Different groups may have drastically different perceptions of the reality surrounding their conflicts. And there’s always a chance of miscalculation: in the Balkans, people were constantly worried that a confession of terrible deeds done to their enemies would only serve to justify retaliation.

Still, a contrite word has often given people what they seem to need the most—not vengeance, not even procedural justice, but a painfully honest telling of injuries they have suffered. And that’s worth acknowledging. …read more

When So Little is at Stake

Recalling those who had reasons to resent, and didn't.

There’s no doubt that the cultural and ideological fissures in American politics have become more apparent in recent years with the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the pushback from Occupy Wall Street. Still, it’s tempting at times to look at our political leaders and say what is often said of academia—that the battles are so vicious because so little is at stake.

The Florida primary showcased a particularly nasty fight between two politicians who have little that separates them in policy substance: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. They resent and resemble each other. For instance, both men supported health insurance mandates before they didn’t. And both of course have serious gripes with Obama (who, incidentally, adopted the originally Republican idea of insurance mandates as part of his healthcare reform package).

When aiming at Obama, the Romney-Gingrich fusillades can seem strangely out of proportion even to their obvious differences with him.

Take Romney’s claim that Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” while he, Romney, would “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.” The choice in November, if Romney finally carries the GOP flag, would actually be between two politicians who desperately want to position themselves as “reasonable centrists” in the general election, as John Harwood of the New York Times has pointed out. Put another way, the election would pit a Republican in favor of keeping the Bush tax cuts against a Democrat who would return to Clinton-era tax rates. That adds up to a difference of roughly four percentage points in the top marginal rate. It’s not what separates a socialist strongman from a friend of the free.

Gingrich’s clashes with Obama might be more profound ideologically. But could these possibly justify his assertion that he, Gingrich, honors the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while Obama supports neither? As Speaker of the House during the ’90s, Gingrich did more than any other political figure to envenom the public discourse. He helped make it safe for politicians to habitually attack the decency and good faith of their adversaries.

No small amount of that incendiary rhetoric has rubbed off on the left. Many liberals have lapsed into the habit of condemning Republican “lies.” Very often, these alleged prevarications are really just matters of opinion, like the GOP claim that the rich already pay too much in taxes. To call them lies is itself a distortion.

When Things were Rotten

Plainly, there’s a lot to fight over in 2012. But there was far more at stake a half-century ago when Martin Luther King and the civil rights marchers, walkers, and sitters showed another way of relating to the opposition. You might say they had some serious differences with the segregationists. They were living in what was, for African Americans, a state of terror in the Deep South. But they steered a way to mutual understanding even as they took to the streets.

During the movement’s early years, King went to such lengths as to answer his hate mail respectfully—thanking his correspondents for writing, and proceeding to reasonably state his differences with these unreasonable points of view. (There was less time for that as the freedom campaigns intensified and the hate writers became more prolific.) During the few times he lost his cool with a segregationist or, some years later, with a supporter of the Vietnam War, King would reproach himself for hours, as his biographers (including Stephen Oates) have described. And then he’d pick up a phone and apologize.

Unlike today when political dialogue is often clogged with conversation stoppers like “lies” and “dishonesty,” King and his supporters found ways to keep the conversation going. They engaged in rational argument, as King did in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (in which he asked his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth,” and begged God to forgive him if he had understated the truth). He tried to open channels of discussion because of his belief that hearts could change, but also because, as a trained theologian, he could “see that some truth, however minuscule … may exist in quite opposite ideas and viewpoints,” as the social ethicist Rufus Burrow Jr. has noted.

In other words, everyone has a piece of the truth—not the most likely message of a Super PAC ad.

Yes, King denounced and confronted: history told him that oppressed people seldom gain their freedom by dropping hints. But he and his fellow campaigners made it clear enough that the prize they eyed was not just their own freedom. It was friendship and community with white America, what King often referred to, in rich theological tones, as “the beloved community.”

During this Black History Month, it’s worth recalling how civil rights activists often spoke large-heartedly about people who set off bombs in their churches or tacitly condoned the terror. It shouldn’t be too hard to practice a similar forbearance today with political rivals who would like to raise (or lower) taxes by a few percentage points. …read more

The Mormon Difference, and Romney’s Other Church

Thomas Jefferson once vowed that he would never “bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.” During this election season, pollsters have repeatedly inquired into the religious opinions of voters, especially evangelical ones, to find out just how many of them are genuflecting specifically at the altar of intolerance toward Mormons, who include in their fold the Republican presidential frontrunner. The polling and analyses could use a little redemption.

The pivotal question in those surveys is whether Mormons should be considered Christians. And the casual assumption, among too many pollsters and pundits, has been that people who say “no” are probably disposed against Mormonism as well as a former Mormon bishop named Mitt Romney. (In the Mormon Church, a bishop is the leader of a local congregation.)

The approach undoubtedly ferrets out some bigots, but it’s a crude device. I’m not sure what I’d say if I were rung up for such a survey. In my mind I’d probably start enumerating the breaking points between Mormon and Christian theologies. But my answer would be off the subject of who I think is qualified to lead the United States.

This question of whether Mormonism is Christian or a different religion really needs to be spun off from the question of religious intolerance.

Bill Tammeus, in his always perceptive Faith Matters blog, spoke wisely when he wrote last week, referring to the Mormon/Christian matter: “I suspect there will always be this kind of divide about Mormonism in America. What there should not be is fear of and prejudice against Mormons because of their religious beliefs—even if a majority of Americans would describe some of those beliefs as unbelievable.”

Tammeus was commenting on the latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that one-third of all American adults don’t look upon their Mormon neighbors as Christians, and another 17 percent aren’t sure if they’re Christians. My guess is that the ranks of the religiously intolerant are thinner than that. And, as other polls have indicated, scarcely few of those adults would be so theologically vigilant as to slight the Mormon Romney in a matchup with the Protestant Christian Barack Obama.

The Theological Divide

One theological perspective often described as a deal-breaker between Mormonism and Christianity has to do with God and Jesus. Mormons do not consider Jesus to partake in the same being as God; Jesus is seen as physically separate from the Godhead. In other words, Mormonism doesn’t really uphold the Christian Trinity, the “Three in One.”

As a Christian who would prefer to see a tad more daylight between God and Christ, in popular faith discourse if not theological commentaries, I wouldn’t be inclined to enlist in a jihad against Mormonism on this point of difference. Still, it is an essential difference that could lead someone without a bigoted bone in his body to conclude that Mormonism isn’t Christian.

Then there’s the lesser cosmic distance that Mormons place between God and humans. According to authoritative accounts of the Mormon faith, the divine and the human are of the same species. God is himself a flesh-and-blood man with a wife in heaven. (Jesus was his literal son.) Many Christian scholars, liberal and conservative, cannot square this doctrine with their sense of the chasm between the Creator and the creature.

True, the Mormon view could make it harder to contemplate the utter transcendence of God, the One who is beyond our ken, beyond human grasp. Then again, a lot of Christians, too, don’t seem to fully appreciate the Otherness and ineffability of God. I’m thinking, for example, of Christians who speak as though they know with certainty what God thinks about Obama-care, and what God had for lunch today. They and others would appear to be worshiping the Most Effable One.

What does all this say about Mormons as citizens and contributors to the general good? Nothing I could think of. In a Jeffersonian spirit, I’d wish the questions about Mormon theology weren’t even surfacing in the public square (or, to be specific, in the context of one candidate’s qualifications). But they are. See the New York Times article this past Sunday, “The Theological Differences Behind Evangelical Unease With Romney.”

In the past few days, with the South Carolina primary upon us, attention has turned from Romney’s Mormon faith to another church in which he is an active communicant. It is the Church of the One Percent, which holds, among its many influential doctrines, that fabulously wealthy people like him deserve to pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries.

Now that is a belief worthy of intense theological inquiry in the public square. …read more

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