Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Response to Atrios (Moral Polemic in 4 Easy Steps)

Dear Duncan:


The other day, you asked us to show you how to turn progressive issues into moral ones. If you have a minute, I'd like to take you up on your offer.


A couple of preliminaries before we begin: first of all, despite my handle, I don't lead a congregation, other than the "congregation" on Daily Kos. So I'm not going to talk very much about educating the people in the pews, since I can't actually, er, practice what I preach on that score.


Second: I'm going to use this situation in Ohio as a case study. I'm assuming you've heard about it, but for the folks who are too lazy to follow the link, a conservative group is trying to politicize evangelical congregations, apparently to help Republicans generally and Ken Blackwell specifically. To my untrained eye, they're not breaking any laws, but they're sure bending the heck out of them.


Okay, so let's get down to it.


Start with the obvious: if you're going to make this a moral issue, you have to identify some kind of principle at stake. This is an area where being partisan won't cut it. "My team got screwed" is not a moral issue. Nobody with a brain in their head will hear it as a moral issue. This is dead as a moral issue. We need another angle.


The angle needs to give voice to a value that most or all Americans could agree with. That means it has to be oversimplified, to give it the broadest possible appeal. We're laying the groundwork here, and a lot of sophistimicated columbojumbo won't cut it. So "we keep politics and religion separate in this country" is good. But here's one that's even better: "it's not fair to use churches for politics. It hurts our politics, but more important, it hurts the people in our churches."


Now, before the secular crowd jumps on me for this one, let me explain why this works. It's true, for one thing: the separation clause is for everyone's benefit. But by framing it in those terms, we can tap into an even more deeply-rooted American value: it's not fair to screw the little guy. For better or worse, Americans think of politics and politicians as Fat Cats, and churches and church people as Regular Folks. That's not always the case these days, but it's the society's perception, and it'll win out over the facts. We might as well use it to our advantage.


So what's our moral issue? "It's not fair to use churches for politics. It damages the roots of our government, and it corrupts our faith. People come together to church, to the synagogue, to the temple, to worship in unity, not to be divided by partisan politics." (Notice how I'm working in the bit about division as well.)


Now, the right-wingers have thought this far ahead, and they have a response ready: "Oh, we're not doing partisan politics. We're just trying to live out our values. Why do you hate our values?" At this point, you may be tempted to slash one of them with a samurai sword while leaving the other in the hands of an angry, shotgun-wielding Ving Rhames. You must resist this temptation, as it does not help build a moral case.


Instead, you will need to apply the abstract principle to the specific details. If you've chosen your principle carefully, this shouldn't be too difficult. And in fact, if you look at the Ohio Restoration Project's examples of "Spiritual Warfare", you should be able to do this pretty quickly:

  • Teaching creation in our public schools has become a federal lawsuit.

  • Biblical definitions of marriage are being tragically altered by some judges who think they are smarter than God and begin to legislate secular dogma from the bench.

  • American universities have become the arteries of spiritual toxic waste.

  • "Homosexual marriages" are being paraded in 50 states

  • In some cities, abortions nearly outnumber births

  • HIV and sexually transmitted diseases will kill more Americans than every war this country has ever fought.

  • Secularists have hijacked our culture--one year at a time.

  • Denominational bigotry, division within the Body of Christ, and apostasy have weakened the voice of Biblical reason.

  • Around the globe, ministers of the Gospel are being threatened with "hate crimes" legislation.


Notice the same thing I do? Of nine bullet points, seven are connected to government activity in one form or another. Not one of them even attempts to discern what God is calling people to do. Not one cites a Biblical text. Nor is it difficult to discern which political party most closely represents these "values." This is less a list of values than it is the Republican party platform, coded negatively to fit the format. So if people disagree with these principles--which is to say, if they disagree with Republican social policy--then they are going to be told that they are not "really Christian." We've already seen it happen once; what's to say it's not going to happen again and again in Ohio? It's not nice to bully people in the pews with politics, and when you force them to take sides on government policy, that's exactly what you're doing.


Next, you need to throw in something about where you're coming from in particular. This is almost a paradox: in order to defend a universal principle, you have to talk about how you see it from anything but a universal perspective. But at the same time, you can't give it too individualistic a twist, because then you're just bloviating. What people want to hear is that you have the best interests of a particular group at heart.


For me, that's pretty easy. As a Christian pastor, I'm comfortable with reminding these folks of the lesson of the Hebrew prophets: that God's will may indeed be expressed through political faction or alliance, but that when it is, it always comes in the form of a concern for the poor, the powerless, and the vulnerable in society. And I see nothing in the list above that makes the life of the widow or the orphan any easier. Until they can come up with something that does that, I'm going to see this as nothing more than partisanship infiltrating the church.


For you, as a secular kind of guy, this might be a bit more difficult in that the angle isn't quite as obvious. But you can do it. Just keep in mind that whatever you say, it needs to be a.)true and b.)heartfelt. Don't pull any punches; do try to say something that helps build a bridge between you and your listener.


Because the last thing you're going to do is lay out an alternative vision. This is what makes Martin Luther King's rhetoric so captivating; he understood the need to give his listeners something positive to hold on to, after he made one of his withering critiques of the situation at hand. A moral issue is more than just a bitch session. In fact, that's one of the great shortcomings of Conservative Christianity these days: it's too focused on what other people are doing wrong, not enough on building a better world for everyone. So you've got to tell folks that you've got a better idea.


"I'd like to see all these preachers go jump in the lake" is a fine idea, and one I've heard many times before. Hell, I've even agreed with it sometimes. A better one might be "I'd like to see a country where churchgoers didn't feel like they had to toe the Republican party line to be people of faith." (I'm using that last phrase deliberately, as a way of recapturing the vocabulary.) Even better: "Ohio would be much better off if politicians would stop trying to corrupt churches to win votes." Or, if you want to throw another little twist in there: "Ohio would be much better off...win votes...Because elections aren't about values. They're about money, and those damn politicians will do anything to cover that up."


Let's put it all together:

It's not fair to use churches for politics. It hurts our political system, and it hurts the people in the pews. People come together to worship, not to be divided by politics, and that's exactly what happens when you force them to take sides on government policy. And as a pastor, I have to ask: where's the concern for the poor? For the powerless? For the vulnerable, for the widow and the orphan? It's not there. That's not faithful, not in the Christian tradition I know. So I have to say, I think this is a bad idea. I think Ohio would do a whole lot better if their politicians stopped trying to corrupt churches to win votes, and started trying to take care of people who have nothing to their names, and deserve a little help. Because isn't that what it's all about?


Well, someone can probably say it more eloquently than I can, but you get the idea. That's how you turn a progressive issue into a moral issue.


Hope that helps,

pastordan

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