Religious Freedom: Where did it come from?

Freedom of religion has been much in the news these days.  It might be worthwhile to explore a little of what it means.  Where did the idea of freedom of religion come from?  Two sources come to mind right away: the Pilgrims, and the First Amendment to the Constitution.  
Let’s take the Pilgrims first.  Fleeing to the New World from religious persecution in England, they landed at Plymouth Rock in the fall of 1620.  They were calvinist Puritans who rebelled against the papist tendencies of the Church of England, which, in turn, made their lives miserable.  They hoped to be free in their new home to practice their faith in their own way.  They weren’t interested in the freedom to worship for anyone else.  It was their way, punishment, banishment, or death.   
Why so puritanical?  Convinced that they knew the right way to worship God as reformed Protestants, they were equally convinced that other ways were corrupt, probably infected by the devil himself.  They had to be careful to keep their own community from becoming infected by the same.  The much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1628 not far away.  Although financed by mercantile interests, it was populated by other Puritans who followed the same strict adherence to religious practices that outlawed all others.  
It took a long time for anything like freedom of religion to take root in the New World.  Other Christian denominations set up their own colonies with their own rules outlawing other forms of worship.  Roger Williams, a Baptist who established Providence Plantations (Rhode Island) in 1636, was the first to talk about separation of church and state, and tolerated other forms of worship in his territory.  No one followed his lead.  Open minded as he was, he believed other ways of worship, especially in the Church of England, were hopelessly corrupt, including his Puritan neighbors to the north, but he tolerated them.   
Colonial freedom of religion meant freedom only for the established denomination in each colony.  All others were not free.  What about non Christians?  Apart from a few stray Jews, some form of Christianity was the only religion that came over from Europe.   Don’t be too hard on them.  They were people of their time trying to do what they thought was right within the constraints of what they were able to know and understand, and their times were very confusing.  Thanks to the Reformation, denominations were springing up right and left, each claiming to have the truth no one else had.  The new science of science, and the explosion of secular philosophy, rattled the foundations of long held beliefs.  It made a certain amount of sense to stake one’s claim on one way of believing safe in its own corner of New World.
It couldn’t last.  The colonies got too crowded for each to exist as if no others did.  People didn’t stay put.  Wherever they went, they brought their ways with them.  Economy driven politics led to a war of separation from England, and the unification of colonies as states forming a nation, which brings us to the First Amendment. 
The Constitution was adopted as the law of the land in 1789, after several years of floundering around under Articles of Confederation that never worked very well.  The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791.  The first one reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
There’s been a lot of recent talk about the legislative intent of its authors.  Examining what they wrote certainly offers insight and wisdom, but legislative intent is not law, and what the law means is what the court says it means.  The court, being presided over by humans, is constrained by what the justices are able to know and understand, just as the Pilgrims were.  Over the years, they have adjusted the meaning as new knowledge, new ways living, and new understandings of what is permissible have come along.  What they say it means today isn’t what will be said a century from now.  That’s the way it goes.
Among the new things for our time has been a much greater appreciation for what human rights are, and how they get expressed as civil rights.  A human right can be proclaimed, but only a civil right can be enforced.  It gets pretty basic.  Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the original Constitution.  They didn’t have the right to be a full human, or, as a practical matter, human at all.  Indians weren’t counted, so they didn’t exist.  The post Civil War 14th Amendment recognized former slaves as whole, free persons, but it wasn’t enforced fully until the mid 1960s.  Women were counted, but had no right to voice or vote.  They got it in 1919.  American Indians had to wait until 1924.  What is or isn’t a human right is always up for debate, and we haven’t figured it out yet.
Not that we haven’t tried.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.  It remains a set of unmet goals against which each nation’s civil rights are measured.  To be sure, the nations of the world have been making progress, and that’s a good thing.  But not to digress too far, it’s time to get back to freedom of religion in the U.S.A.
What is it?  About the time we think we know, it changes.  For Americans in the 21st century, it’s the assurance that government cannot establish a religion, nor do anything that gives preference to one form of religion over another.  Government can’t force religious practices or beliefs on anyone.  Government can restrict persons from forcing their religious practices on unwilling others.  Every person is free to worship, or not, as he or she pleases.  
There is a debate right now about whether a person holding religious beliefs can discriminate against others who don’t in the course of doing business in the public marketplace.  Generally speaking the answer is no.  If you own a store or run a business open to the public, then any member of the public who wants to buy from you must be allowed to do so.  You can’t be forced to sell something that’s against your religion, but whatever you do sell to the public must be available to all without discrimination.
It sounds simple but gets testy because religion is important.  Religious faith addresses the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human, what the world around us means, and what role God plays in it.  Even my atheist acquaintances are deeply concerned about how religion impacts their right to disbelieve.  The spiritual but not religious, and those who don’t give it much thought, live in communities defined in part by the religious heritage of the pioneers.  Religious practices touch our rawest nerves and most vulnerable parts of our souls.  In spite of our treasured separation of church and state, the religious faith of legislators and executives has always influenced their decisions.  It can’t be helped.

What can be helped is to engage in the discipline of respect for each other’s beliefs and practices, and to do what we can to see that they are not abridged or interfered with in any discriminatory way.  It’s not incompatible with proclaiming your religious faith to others, hoping they will be inspired to join you in worship.  They’re certainly free to do so, and so are you. 

White Hot Anger & Supporting Trump

I read a piece supposedly from a small city mayor about why he and others remain staunch Trump supporters.  It was a fascinating look into white hot anger at Obama, Clinton(s) and liberals in general.  Right wing myths and real incidents, some old, some more recent, were grotesquely distorted to portray crimes and misdemeanors that never happened.  It expressed outrage at liberals who hypocritically ignored them while being obsessed with Trump’s peccadilloes that are minor in comparison.  The accusations were bizarre reflections of almost everything Trump and associates have done proudly, with blatant exhibitionism, and on the record.  
It had the disturbing effect of proclaiming high moral standards for public officials while contemptuously ignoring their application to the current administration, doing so with the high dudgeon of unchallengeable self righteousness.  I have a local friend who does much the same, but with a smidgen of care about offending too many others with whom he wants to maintain good relations.
What the diatribe came down to, it seemed to me, was racist fear of everything the supposed writer believed was a danger to the way he believes society should be.  Combine white supremacy, fearful of its fragility, with demands that government get out of one’s life (except  that it’s OK for it to impose one’s values on the rest of society), and that pretty  much sums it up.  I’m not linking to it for two reasons.  First, it could have been a bot intended to incite violence.  Second, if legitimate it was too sick to give it more publicity than it already had.  
However, it is not to be dismissed.  Previous columns have described some of the dynamics that have made it possible for such attitudes to come out of the shadows, into the public arena as a legitimate mass movement.  It has some similarities to the America First movement of the late 1930s and early ‘40s, as if merged with the then popularity of the KKK throughout vast portions of the nation.  Cruel and ignorant though it may be, it’s based on deeply held beliefs, endorsed by some religious leaders, and abetted by others who recognize its usefulness as a tool to help gain political and economic power denied to them by the rule of law defining liberal democracy.  
Psychologists call it transference and projection when despicable behavior is attributed to others as a way to deny one’s own guilt.  I don’t know if sociologists have similar terms for how large segments of society can do the same thing.  René Girard certainly probed it as a philosopher.  So did Hannah Arendt before him from her political historian’s perspective.  At its simplest, it’s finding a suitable scapegoat on which to unload all blame for sins and injustices, expecting that the goat’s punishment will restore order and harmony.  However it’s described, creating conditions and providing information to counter it is hard to do. Those who hold such views cling to them with tenacity few throughout history have ever seen before (I borrowed some of those words from a well known stable genius). 
Who are today’s scapegoats?  We’ve got a herd of them.  Elite white liberals are always useful. The problem is, no one is exactly sure what liberal means or what a liberal looks like.  They’re all socialists of course, whatever socialism might be.  Pipe smoking professors in tweed jackets are rarely seen these days.  Hippies went out of style a long time ago.  The others are hard to spot.  Blaming liberals is too much like chasing after the wind.  
Unfair international trade is good for the moment, but suffers some of the same weaknesses.  Is the current trade environment really unfair?  Trump says it is, but what does he know?  What are current tariffs on what goods and services?  Are trade imbalances really bad?  In what way?  Anyway, negotiations were going along just fine.  Why were they shut down?  All of a sudden, blustering trade wars don’t seem so simple or easy to win.  
Federal overreach, excessive regulation, and bloated bureaucracies are always worthy targets, except when one’s favorite programs become the targets.  Battle cries to keep government out of our lives sounds hollow when yoked to rabid support for authoritarian leadership, and demands for government to force “traditional values” on an unwilling populace.  It causes unsettling cognitive dissonance when it runs afoul of libertarian convictions.  There have to be better alternatives.
Blacks used to be good ones, but with Black Lives Matter and all those kneeling football players, they’re not as malleable as they once were.  Consider that we twice elected a popular black president by large margins.  It’s safer just to take occasional pot shots than make them into scapegoat martyrs.  Same problem with women, especially with all the #MeToo fanatics running around.
Still, put them all together and you’ve got something to work with, not a scape goat, but a herd of scapegoats, each assigned their own portion of blame and threatened with their own measure of punishment.  If someone complains that one is being accused and punished for too much, you can always say, “Yea, but what about…”  Fortunately, the whole herd is led by a relatively new, easily identifiable goat, Hispanics, all of them, everyone of them, the more illegal the better.  And aren’t they all illegal one way or another?  On them can be blamed nearly everything: loss of jobs, gangs, drugs, crime of all sorts, loss of white demographic standing, you name it.  What Jews and Gypsies did for Europe, Hispanics can do for America.  Build a wall.  Zero tolerance.  Speak English or leave.
They’re all to blame.  Punish them all: liberals, trading partners, blacks, women, and especially Hispanics.  On them fall the sins of society, and when they’re dealt with, all will be well again.
It’s a horrible thought.  Few are willing to own it outright, but its odor lingers in conversation, political debate, and voting patterns.  A good friend, conservative, gentle and deeply concerned about the well being of future generations, would never agree to such an ideology.  But he does observe that local Hispanics are unwilling to become a part of the community, even though invited, so there is some validity to what more strident voices say.  What he means is that local Hispanics are unwilling to become white middle class Americans with Northern European roots.  They’re ready, willing and able to become full members of the community, but as Hispanics bringing their heritage with them, expecting it to receive the same respect that white Northern European based culture has, meshing with it so each is fed by the other.  It’s not an idea he’d be opposed to.  It’s just one he’s never thought of.  For him, “truth, justice, and the American way” have always been defined by the white middle class.  It’s not proprietary, it’s just normal.  A different normal is hard to imagine.  It seems so abnormal. 

Well, you’ve seen where this has gone.  We started with an angry, ignorant white bigot, and ended with a gentle, reasonable white conservative.  In between we’ve allowed room for a nascent authoritarian movement to take root.  Our democracy is at risk, going in harm’s way. 

Localism, David Brooks, & Big Government

David Brooks, a center-right conservative who harbors suspicion about big government, wrote an encouraging piece in the NYT (7/20/18) about what he called localism.  In the face of generalized unhappiness with the federal government, he wrote, it’s through local governments that real problems are addressed by real people who are known and can be held accountable.  They can respond more quickly with greater flexibility and creativity than the massive federal bureaucracy with its tendency to impose one size fits all solutions on problems that manifest themselves in unique ways at the local level.  It’s from there where he sees hope for America springing.  
All true, but it shouldn’t be romanticized.  Local communities are also strongholds of entrenched prejudice and power, the birth place of tea party politics.  They’re where old ways rumble over the stillborn new, and where tolerance of systemic injustice is abetted by blindness to it.  Local governments are also creatures of the state.  Even with home rule exceptions, they can do only what the state permits them to do.  Their ability to act quickly in imaginative new ways is limited.
Obviously local governments are not one or the other, but a complicated mix of both, deeply affected by tradition, historical circumstance, and demographic and economic change.  They’re not hilltop fortifications immune as possible from the outside world’s influence.  Transportation and communication systems broke down those walls a long time ago.  Issues may be experienced in locally unique ways, but few have respect for city limits or county lines.  Disease cannot be controlled in one place if it isn’t controlled in every place.  Homelessness can’t be solved in one place if it isn’t solved in every place.  The quality of air and water ignores government boundaries.  In our area, trading relationships and agricultural prices in other countries have a direct, immediate impact on the local economy.  Globalization is a reality.  No amount of hot tempered frustration will make it go away.
It means that we need a strong, efficiently run federal government to study and provide needed information about the condition of the natural and economic environment, adopt policies requiring all units of government at every level to address them in ways coordinated to meet national standards, but allowing each to do it in ways appropriate for them.  There’s no place in the contemporary world for a small, weak central government.  Its ability to raise and invest enormous sums of money to meet enormous needs cannot be delegated to lesser units of government.  Consider the part of the country where I live; local agriculture depends on water from the Snake and Columbia, inexpensive electricity generated by their dams, and river transportation to export terminals near the coast.  Curiously, the small government, conservative minded voters in the region appear to have collective amnesia about their dependency on massive federal investments in infrastructure, their taxes and fees making an infinitely small contribution to the cost.   
Given that, I agree with Brooks: emphasis on responsibility for addressing issues should be given to the lowest capable level of community, and that’s often municipal and county government.  They need to be given helpful guidelines, adequate funding, held accountable for results, but not constrained by uniform methods imposed on everyone.  Federal bureaucracies need to become more flexible, and their staffs must understand their more important role is customer service, not enforcement.  
A change in corporate culture is obviously needed, but it’s not an executive branch problem only.  Congress has a nasty habit of writing laws that tend toward micro management through language and legislative intent requiring the regulatory detailed inflexibility they rail against during campaigns.  They take umbrage at what they created.  It’s a wonder.
I know there’s a nostalgic desire among many for a small national government, with most governmental functions assumed by states and localities, and even those functions limited to the most basic.  It evokes images of a renewed society of hard working individuals taking care of themselves, and meeting the needs of the poor through charity.  Currier and Ives would live again.  It’s a desire not without value, but it has no foundation in reality.  There never was a time like that, nor can there be.  Its value lies in encouraging an American character of individual responsibility, charitable generosity, and civic engagement.  It’s a worthy value that need not be in conflict with the reality of what is required of our national government in the contemporary world.    

Religious Leadership & Political Conversation

Not long ago someone challenged me about the role of religious leaders in politics.  In today’s contentious political environment, it troubled her to hear religious leaders using the name of Jesus as they advocated political views.  Jesus, she said, was not political.  He was only about God.  A few months later I was confronted by an online piece claiming liberals, all of whom are socialists, have misused Jesus’ name because he was really a first century libertarian.  Jim Wallis and my own presiding bishop, Michael Curry, lead a politically oriented movement to reclaim the name of Jesus.  It’s not new.  For good or ill there is a long history of religious leaders having a lot to say in the political arena.  Preachers in the black community have long been vocal advocates for political reforms affecting civil rights.  Conservative white Protestants have not been shy about supporting conservative politicians, and Catholic clergy are all over the map but seldom reticent about having their political say.  All in the name of Jesus.
Well, there you go.  It’s difficult to understand in today’s environment of deeply partisan electoral politics that politics in the larger sense is the art of deciding among ourselves the kind of society we want to live in.  Partisanship has a legitimate role, but there’s more to it than just that.  Religious leaders have their role too, and as a Christian, it’s to their part in it that I write. 
Hans Küng offered a thought that may be helpful.  The name of Jesus, he said, signifies power, protection, and refuge.  It’s opposed to inhumanity, oppression, untruthfulness, and injustice.  It stands for humanity, freedom, justice, truth, and love (Küng: On Being A Christian, 547).  A little later on he suggests that Jesus is not what he called “an optimal model” to be copied in every detail, but a “basic model” to be realized in an infinite number of ways according to time, place and person.  That leaves a lot of wiggle room. 
Because of the wiggle room, it’s not helpful advice for anyone who wants Jesus to be an immovable rock, known in one definitive way, and that’s the right way.  But it is helpful advice for Christian libertarians, socialists, and those in between, who want to sit in conversation about how best to organize the society in which they live together so it can become better at how it demonstrates humanity toward all, assures personal freedom, protects from oppression, provides equal justice, rewards truthfulness, and expresses love toward one another.  
Among followers of Christ, there will be arguments about what it means to be humane, free, just, and loving.  There will certainly be arguments about how truth is to be understood.  As long as the argument remains committed to following Jesus wherever he leads, they will not go too far off course.  If, on the other hand, they move their own agendas ahead of Jesus, the conversation will fall off the cliff.  Keeping Jesus at the forefront is simple, and also hard.  The simple part is to measure everything against the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, Two Greatest Commandments, and the New Commandment.  The hard part is exercising the prayerful discipline to do it.
Having said that, a pious claim to follow Jesus can also be an excuse for doing little or nothing: ignoring obvious issues of inhumanity,  oppression, injustice, and untruthfulness in the interest of stability, predictability, and keeping peace.  After all, who can deny that every side is represented by good people of good intention?  This is where things get muddy, because there’s no promise of equivalency between differing views in an argument about humanity, freedom, justice, truth, and love.  If nothing else, it’s what King’s well known Letter from Birmingham Jail pointed out.  Broods of vipers are still broods of vipers no matter what their ecclesial rank or public acclaim.  Blind guides are still blind guides no matter how often they shout the name of Jesus.  And tepid followers who are neither hot nor cold are still worthy of being spit out.
Another way to keep a constructive Jesus led conversation from going anywhere is to claim the right to speak for Jesus because it’s Jesus’ own agenda for which one is speaking.  It helps to add that after a long night of prayer, God put it into one’s mind to say it.  “I speak for Jesus because it’s Jesus’ position, and God told me to do it.”  Who could argue with that? Jesus maybe?  Well, you never know, so put it in brackets and get back to the issue at hand.
Naming the issue is to name the sin.  To name the sin is to open the door to repentance, not to guilt, but to a new direction.  It gets complicated because we (or at least I) don’t like changing directions when we’re certain the one we’re on is the right one, and all others are wrong.  And we’re quick to name the sin of the other, with disbelief that they stubbornly stick to it, astounded at their temerity for throwing the sin hand-grenade right back at us. 
It all happens.  To keep from getting derailed, go back to the basics.  How does the conversation about the political issue at hand measure up to the Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount, Two Greatest Commandments, and the New Commandment?

Mom and Opioids

The opioid epidemic hits one of my nerves, partly because I believe it had a lot to do with my mother’s death.  It was more than a decade ago.  She was 86 and had underlying health problems, so her prospects for a longer life were limited anyway.  But I think her life over the previous fifteen years or so could have been more enjoyable and less anxiety riven if not for opioids.  
It’s hard to know when it started.  It may have been with some hairline fractures in her lower spine that caused a lot of pain, and for which she endured not altogether successful surgery.  Never one to tolerate physical pain easily, she was given opioids to “keep ahead of the pain.”  She never got off them.  It might not have been so bad had her physician monitored them, but she had several physicians, and they all got into the act.  It wasn’t just opioids.  Her pill box contained dozens of daily doses to treat all kinds of things – I have no idea what all the meds were for.  After dad died our visits became more regular, though she lived 2,000 miles away, and with each one my wife would try to get them organized to be taken in order as prescribed, but there were so many.  Mom would often forget if she had taken her pain pills on schedule, and she knew she had to “keep ahead of the pain,” so just to be certain would take another.  And was it half a pill, or a whole one, or one and half – it was all so confusing.  I have two sisters, one of whom lives not far away, and she recalls doing the same on her visits.
A few years before her death, she signed up with a local doctor who took over supervision of medication, and made house calls to see that all was in order.  It was not inexpensive, and it didn’t last.  He got a big offer from a large research hospital and was gone too soon.  There was no replacement.  In her last few weeks we had to evacuate her from hurricane threatened Florida, and get her into assisted living in our home state of Minnesota until the hurricanes had passed.  Getting ready for the trip I counted up all her opioid prescriptions and realized for the first time that her daily dose would probably kill me if I took them, but she had become accustomed to them, certainly not addicted, perish the thought, they were prescribed medicines.  
She hated assisted living.  The facility was brand new, the staff abundant and well trained, her youngest daughter and family near, but she hated it.  One thing she hated most was that they took her meds away, and brought her doses as prescribed.  It was an instant and dramatic reduction in her daily intake of opioids.  I believe the shock of unintended detox was too much for her 90 pound, 86 year old body because she died within a a few days of her “incarceration.”   
I got the call from the coroner’s office while driving to our oldest daughter’s wedding in NYC. 

Mom was not some addict cowering in a back alley trying to get high.  She wasn’t one of “those” people who live in “that” neighborhood.  She wasn’t an addict at all.  She was just a woman of means doing what the doctor told her to do, ignorant and innocent.  I wonder how many like her have a similar story.  I wonder how many without her means have a worse story.  I wonder how so many physicians trying to do the right thing could get it so wrong.  I wonder how one’s medical record could be so balkanized in uncoordinated folders.  I wonder why I was only vaguely aware of how dangerous opioids could be.  I mean, for Pete’s sake, I worked with addicts, the homeless, medics, and the coroner.  It’s not like I wasn’t there to see it happening to others.

How to build a Fascist movement, and who to build it with

A young friend took exception with a short piece I wrote, claiming it showed me as anti-gun.  Because, I suppose, if one does not genuflect at the name of the Second Amendment while reading from the gospel according to LaPierre, one must be anti gun, and therefore anti freedom and anti American.  Since Trump can be counted on as a high priest of the unlimited right to bear and use arms, my friend will stick with him.  All others can be no other than enemies of the truth.
I have a high regard for the Constitution, but low regard for its Second Amendment, which has been the go to excuse for the violence prone gun culture that has captured the soul of America.  It doesn’t make me anti gun.  Like most others my age who grew up in the Midwest, we had them, everyone did, but they weren’t objects of adoration, nor did we give them much thought as means to defend our freedoms. And we had reason to be concerned about our freedoms.  The Red Menace was a hot topic, fall out shelters were in abundance, and we knew about survivalists who had theirs stocked with food and weapons to keep others out.  Few took them seriously.  The point is, guns per se were never worth enough to get into an argument about them.  
It’s hard for me to understand how favoring licensing guns and gun owners in a way similar to how we license cars and drivers makes me anti gun, but apparently it does.  Therein lies a problem.  For adherents to certain sets of beliefs, failure to agree with them without question is all that’s needed to be labeled an enemy, a believer in whatever is the extreme opposite.  It’s also all that’s needed for them to pledge allegiance to political leaders who express public support, not for the Second Amendment, but for their assumptions about presumed enmity of all who hold alternative views.
Here’s another example.  Local pro life advocates appear unable to understand that pro choice advocates are not pro abortion.  Many of us have serious moral and religious problems with abortion, but strongly believe that the coercive power of the state is not to be forced on a decision that should be between a woman, her physician, and her God. It’s the most serious and tragic decision a woman can make.  But that nuance is not acceptable to anti abortion forces who would rather it be restored to criminal back alley operations where it will not offend their sense of righteousness.  They will happily support Trump, no matter what else he does or says, as long as he remains publicly committed to their intention to make abortion illegal.  
One supports him because he won’t use the power of the state to regulate guns, while the other supports him because he will use the power of the state to prohibit women from getting legally regulated abortions.  Each considers all dissenters to be the enemy.
I would like to say it hasn’t always been this way, but it has.  It isn’t about guns or abortion.  It’s about a certain way of inflexible thinking that creates opportunity for political manipulation dangerous to our treasured form of democracy.  Sometimes it looks like libertarianism, but it’s not because adherents of arguments like these favor a strong leader of a forceful government to impose their way of thinking on society as a whole.  They want freedom the way the Pilgrims wanted freedom of religion.  
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when the almost but not quite adult me was just entering the work force, hard core union members attacked any criticism as being anti union and anti working man, and they meant man.  They weren’t in competitive negotiation with management, they were at war with the enemy, and anyone else not on their side. Parenthetically, they lost the war, which is too bad because working people need unions.  
On another front, even in the liberal Minnesota of my youth, racism was blatant, and seldom challenged.  Those who dared were automatically the enemy of real Americans and the sanctity of God’s established social order.  Guns and abortion, unionism and racism: they were manifestations of a way of thinking that could accommodate only one position, had difficulty with abstractions, and were unwilling to consider a future beyond the next year or two, often less.  
Just to set the record straight, middle class racism in those days was veiled behind politeness and liberal good intentions proclaimed in public but reserved for the benefit of some unspecified future generation.  It was certainly not good manners to bring it up in conversation.  But I digress.  That’s not what this column is about.
Curiously those hard core adherents who would tolerate no questions and brook no deviation back in my Minnesota youth were the heart of the liberal Democratic party.  They were not shy about their socialist leanings, and proud of Hubert Humphrey’s rabble rousing liberalism, as long as he unconditionally backed the unions, and didn’t upset the local apple cart of social stability.  They didn’t have much choice.  Their political power was held in check by the political establishment of wealthier, better educated, more articulate leaders who understood how politics worked, and could be more pragmatically flexible in negotiating across the aisle.  
My local gun toting, abortion hating friends of today are not held in check that way.  They, and others, have defeated the establishment, and are free, they believe, to wield the political power needed to make their views the law of the land.  And Trump is the man to do it.
The establishment detests him.  The remnant of Republican leadership cowers before him.  Democrats are powerless.  He doesn’t need the legislature as long as the court will back him, and frankly, he doesn’t need the court either.  By his own words, “I alone can do it.”  He’s the leader they’ve longed for, and they’ll stick with him.
It began to change with the Vietnam and Civil Rights era controversies.  Without going into everything that happened since then, it wasn’t difficult to prey on people who hold certain highly prejudiced, inflexible attitudes to generate a tea party movement that has morphed into today’s trumpism with its supporting cast of sympathizers ranging from the cautiously hopeful to hardened opportunists.  Enticed by Reagan to vote the GOP ticket, freed from oversight by old time patriarchal Democratic leadership, manipulated by the NRA, underwritten by Koch related financing, and promised an unachievable future, they’ve become the core of a haphazard slide toward fascism – our own American brand of it.  It’s not the product of some well engineered master plan.  There’s no organized conspiracy to ferret out.  It’s the product of narrow mindedness, ignorance, and greedy opportunism working together in surprisingly successful ways I doubt any of them intended.  It’s an unstable triad and can’t last, but oh the damage it can do in the meantime.
The trumpians are right about one thing.  Their success is due partly to the self satisfied arrogance of old time political leaders who assumed they would always be the ones in ultimate control of national politics.  They might argue with each other, but when the argument was over, they would still be the ones in charge.  Obama’s double election proved that not to be true, and the forces of the far right understood the time was right to make their move.  Move they did, and those with long harbored inflexible agendas enthusiastically got on board.
The antidote, it seems to me, is  partly to rouse the majority of potential voters out of their political stupor in which they could not be bothered to know the issues or cast their votes because it didn’t matter anyway.  How to do that?  I don’t have a good answer.  Maybe Mueller does.

A closing note:  My young gun rights friend would angrily object to be cast in with fascists, and indeed, since I know him well, he is in his heart a true democrat.  His contribution to those with fascist intentions is invisible to him. He can’t see it.  I think that was probably true for a lot of folks who attended America First events in the late 1930s and early ‘40s.

Mark, Water and New Creation

What follows is not deep theology, nor is it original.  What it is are watery thoughts inspired by Mark’s gospel.  I’m often tempted to gloss over Mark because he’s not a great writer, jumps around too much, and tells the story too quickly, too simply.  So I’m always a bit surprised by how deep he dives into metaphor and allegory reflecting on God’s work of creation as recorded throughout the Hebrew scriptures.  He uses them to illustrate how God’s continuing work of creation is lived out in Jesus.  You know how the shorter ending of Mark leaves us wondering because there are no resurrection appearances.  All we are told is that his disciples are to go to Galilee where they will meet him, but we never find out if they did?  My friend Andrew Cooley says we are to go back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel to meet him all over again as the resurrected Christ.  I think he’s right about that.
For whatever reason, doing that makes me think of Mark’s use of water.  It might have something to do with where I’m writing; on a bluff overlooking Honolua Bay and the North Pacific.  There’s a lot of water out there.
For a long time the local Congregational Church was adorned with a large banner proclaiming that God is still speaking.  Which, reflecting on the opening words of Genesis, is the same as saying God is still creating.  Creation didn’t end on the sixth day, and it hasn’t ended yet.  It’s Mark’s central theme; it comes up elsewhere in the gospel records, but Mark was first, and he’s the most enigmatic as well.  Enigmatic because, I suppose, he figured his readers knew the Hebrew scriptures well enough that his use of their allegories and metaphors to give light to Jesus’ words and deeds would be easily recognized, and didn’t have to be explained.  I don’t know if it was true then.  It certainly isn’t now.
In the Genesis story, God’s word commanded nothingness to assume the order he ascribed for it, starting with light.  I don’t know why, but the writers used the image of deep waters to represent forces of unrestricted chaos from which God created the universe, and then commanded them to keep to their assigned places and purposes.  Ultimate authority belongs to God alone.  The watery deep cannot contend, but must submit to God.  On the other hand, the watery deep can contend with, and sometimes overwhelm, human beings: consider the story of Noah and the flood.  Confronting and subduing bodies of water in Hebrew scripture continued to be symbols of God’s authority and ongoing creation, most notably in crossing the Red Sea and Jordan River through which a new people and a new nation were created to be “the people of God.”
Mark picked up on the theme of water.  John’s Jordan River baptisms restored the rejected to full membership in the community of God’s people, and opened the door for the messiah’s entrance.  Something new had been created.  His baptism of Jesus announced another new creation, the Word of God made flesh.  When Jesus calmed the stormy sea he echoed the opening verses of Genesis, and it signified a new creation about to happen.  The healing of the demoniac restored order where chaos had prevailed, and heralded the beginning of new understanding of the people of God that would include all persons everywhere.  The return crossing promised further acts of new creation in which outcasts were given fullness of life, where God’s love would not exclude the powerful elite, and then a flash of insight demonstrating God’s authority over death that would give new life to all.  They were all signs of God’s continuing acts of creation through God’s word, the source of all creation – there is no other source.  
Whenever water is featured in Mark’s gospel, a new act of creation is about to happen.  Get out your bible and take a look for yourself.  Jesus called his disciples from their work on the water.  He called Levi from his tax collecting kiosk on the shore.  Twice he preached to beachside crowds from the deck of an offshore boa.  He walked on water.  Every time, some new moment of creation was about to happen.  What creation, you ask?  Think about it.  That’s what Mark wanted his readers to do, he assumed they were up to it, he assumed they were brighter than the first disciples, whom he portrayed as a bit thick.

When we proclaim that through Baptism we are a new creation in Christ Jesus we are entering into Mark’s story of Jesus’ own baptism, and all the uses of water that ushered in awareness of God’s continuing acts of creation .  Paul wrote (2 Cor. 5) that “…if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.”  Paul can be misleading in his enthusiasm.  It’s not abracadabra, alakazam, and poof, you are something entirely new and different.  It didn’t work that way for Paul, and it doesn’t work that way for us.  It took him to the end of his earthly life to live into the new creation he was becoming.  It’s the same with you and me.  God’s continuing work of creation has begun in us in a new way, which, oddly enough, we’re perfectly free to reject, or accept with modifications of our own invention.  It’s why we’re always a work in progress.  It’s not that we always have more to learn; we always have more to become.

Barrett, Supreme Court and Dogma

It has been reported that, should she become a Supreme Court justice, Amy Barrett’s apparent adherence to a particular Roman Catholic dogma would determine how she interprets the Constitution.  It raises an interesting question for those of us who are committed to a religious faith.  How much should one’s religious faith influence one’s politics?  Most of us are not in line to assume high public office where decisions affect the entire country, so how our religious faith, or lack of it, affects our politics is not often a matter for public debate.
Her faith has entered the public debate because she’s part of a small subset of Roman Catholics who submit themselves to obedience to a spiritual director, accept certain teachings about male superiority, and seek charismatic experiences such as speaking in tongues and being slain by the Spirit.  I think it would be safe to call it a fringe group within Catholicism.  Curiously, it’s standard fare for a wide swath of conservative evangelicalism whose members have enthusiastically elected agreeable candidates for every conceivable office without much ado.  So what makes this different?
For one thing, she’s an extremely intelligent and well educated woman who seems to have turned her back on all things remotely linked to feminism.  If she had been a man, someone like Scalia for instance, it would have raised a ruckus, but women would not have felt betrayed by one of their own.  For another, she’s been quite open about approaching the law from her religious convictions.  Others may do the same, but it’s not talked about, just assumed.  Then, few who are active in public life take vows of obedience that appear to preempt all other authority.  Finally, in our increasingly secular society there’s suspicion that openly religious people are a little whacky, not to be trusted with important matters.  It’s OK if they run their own colleges, give rousing revival speeches, and periodically predict the end of the world, but don’t let them be Supreme Court Judges.
As Country Parson I write a lot about politics.  Any regular reader knows how deeply my faith influences my understanding of what the Constitution means, and how legislation should be enacted and enforced.  In my working life I’ve written speeches for politicians, helped organize grass roots voices, and reported on public policy in ways intended to influence their outcome.  Sometimes overtly, but more often subconsciously, everything was shaped by my religious faith that was itself always in transition.  In recent conversations I’ve been exposed to hard core conservatives and liberals proclaiming that Christian faith demands this or that response to political issues.  “How dare you call yourself a priest,” said one person who was appalled at my criticism of Trump.  One way or another, religious faith and attitudes about religious faith play an enormous role in American politics.
Speaking for myself, Christ’s commandments to love God, love neighbor, and love others as he loves us have greater authority for me than any law, including the Constitution.  Yet I revere the Constitution, and the rule of law that cascades from it.  A law abiding citizenry is essential to the stability of any nation, and all the more so in our form of democracy where each of us can have a part in debating what the laws should be.  It creates a certain amount of tension when my understanding of Christ’s commandments come into conflict with secular law.  The tension is exacerbated when other Christians see it differently, other religions speak with other voices, and non religious persons have something else to say.
There have been attempts to resolve the conflict by asserting that private morality (religion) is only tangentially related to the law.  A half century ago I took a constitutional law course from Harold Chase who lectured that the Supreme Court had no business being concerned with whether a matter was just or unjust, moral or immoral, but only whether it was legal or illegal.  It was the legislature’s responsibility to take up questions of justice and morality, not the courts.  If that’s what he really said (fifty year old memories are not that reliable), it hasn’t worked out that way.
Judgeships are different from other high offices.  They alone determine what the law means, and how it is to be applied to individuals.  Trials by jury, case law and precedent, together with complicated appeals processes, put some limits on their authority for the good of us all, but the Supreme Court of nine justices not only decides the final and indisputable meaning of the Constitution, in so doing it creates additional elements of it.  Their decisions form a collective statement about what American justice and morality has been, now is, and is becoming.  It’s a statement far beyond mere legality or illegality.
Legislators, mayors, governors, and presidents are in a different league.  They have to negotiate with one another.  None has exclusive right to say what the law means, even as they write bills and sign them into law.  Issues of justice and morality have to be addressed within the context of what is workable, can it pass, how will it be paid for?  Presidents and governors are participants in that process, and our current president is furious at discovering he’s not the ruler of the country.  He can do the Rumpelstiltskin stomp all he wants, but it won’t give him the power he desires. 
Amy Barrett’s name on a list of potential nominees has created such an outcry not because she’s a Christian, but because her commitment to a particular form of Christianity is seen to undermine what other Christians believe are Jesus’ core teachings and commandments.  Secularists are fearful of having her brand of religion forced on them, liberals are concerned that she will beat a path back to 19th century political morality, and feminists feel betrayed.   If Harold Chase were alive today, he would be livid at the prospect of her nomination: leave religion out of it, the only questions are legal or illegal.

What’s Love Got To Do With It

A few weeks ago Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, gave a sermon at the royal wedding that captured the attention and imagination of millions across the globe.  It was all about the power of love.  The problem with attention and imagination is it evaporates like the morning mist.  The remaining echo is just so much blah, blah, blah, or, as Tina Turner sang, “What’s love got to do with it, what’s love but a second hand emotion?”
It’s a good question.  The answer, from a Christian point of view, is to leave emotion out of it.  The love bishop Curry preached about is not a second hand emotion, but the powerful word of God spreading out over the chaos of disorderly conditions of life, bringing them into the full abundance of life God intends for them.  As Christians, we’re to express that love by respecting the dignity of every human being, which is not a very emotional thing at all.  
Doing it takes disciplined effort.  It’s not something we’re inclined to do on our own.  Respecting the dignity of the ones we most dislike and distrust is hard to do.  Respecting the dignity of the homeless, addicted, corrupt, and ill informed seems like a hopeless task.  Jealousy of those who are better and have more displaces respect. Racism creeps in.  We’re likely to disrespect people who are not like us, who may replace us in the accepted social order.  Closer to home, the guy next door can really bug us.
But making the effort, deliberately working on respecting the dignity of every human being, or at least that human being over there whom you really don’t like, has an amazing effect.  It is, in some small way, your participation in the work of God’s powerful redeeming love.  It not only helps give new life to the other, the one you don’t like or want to be around, it gives new life to you also.  Of all the crazy things, it becomes an emotion of deep, overwhelming gratitude for all of creation and your place in it.  It isn’t a second hand emotion, it’s a primary emotion of sure and certain trust in God’s grace for you and for all.  What’s love got to do with it?  Everything!
Strange, this godly love, it refuses to be bound by our expectations and limitations.  Respecting others not because they deserve it, but because it’s in imitation of Christ, bursts all kinds of limitations we place around ourselves and others.  It opens us to new possibilities, but also to new vulnerabilities.  It’s scary, exciting, and curiously freeing.  If you’re reading this, and wonder if this love thing can be real, try it.  You might like it.  If you’re a professing Christian, you have no choice.  It’s Christ’s command that you love others as he loves you.  You’re certainly free to ignore the command, but there isn’t another one.  

By the way, how am I doing with godly love?  I’m a priest and pastor.  I should be a pro at this, right?  Wrong!  It’s a work in progress, slow going but I try to keep at it.  Let’s work together.


Dear Country Parson Readers,
The column titled What’s Love Got To Do With It has been corrected to include the proper content.  Somehow I posted a half written piece that may not even see the light of day.  Read it again and it will make more sense.  In addition, formatting codes seem to be fouled up again, and I don’t know how to fix them while working on my iPad while on Maui for a few weeks.  Sorry about that.
Country Parson