The first afternoon session was "Talking Tech," which I'm afraid didn't get my full attention; I was aggregating liveblogged posts for the con website and only kept one ear on the panel. My focus returned to front-and-center for the panel titled Faith and Politics: A Path to Engagement, led by Thurman Hart (XPatriated Texan), Mik Moore (JSpot) and Bruce Wilson (Talk 2 Action.)
"Your mama probably taught you, never talk about faith, politics, or sex," Thurman quipped. But today we're going to talk about the first two, anyway!
You often hear people say that in this country, we have separation of church and state. And then you'll hear someone else reply, "that's never been written in the Constitution." And they're both right. In the good old days a group of Baptists in Danbury, CT, wrote a letter to the President -- they were a religious minority in those days -- requesting a "wall of separation" between church and state...
Once upon a time, Thurman noted, American politicians talked a lot about their faith and how it impacted their lives. Lincoln, for instance, talked about God all the time. John F. Kennedy changed that trend; he had to go on public TV and assure people that if elected he would not let the Pope determine politics in the USA. So the Kennedy administration marks a turning point in the American political scene.
Thurman posited that the new Left doesn't want to hear much about religious stuff, and that's problematic. Kerry struggled to speak cogently about faith during the presidential election... "Politics is the use of collective power, where power is the ability to influence behavior," Thurman said. He continued:
Religion, to me, is the institutions of faith. If you belong to a certain denomination, your faith is your personal relationship to a spiritual universe, and that includes your specific moral and ethical integrity. Your faith is the number-one guideline that you use for making decisions. So for people to tell someone of faith 'I don't have a problem with your faith, but keep it out of politics,' they're telling you that you should take your views of power and social justice and ethics and morality and leave it out of how you interact with power. That's an outright invitation for tyranny, and it betrays a total ignorance of what politics is and what faith is.
Mik picked up here, talking about the recent speech that Barack Obama gave and the brouhaha it caused among both secular and religious folks. (That speech is Call to Renewal.) There's a lot of discussion within the Jewish community about the role of faith in public life, and that community includes a strong secular component as well as a progressive religious component.
He observed that responses to Obama's speech varied widely...Many religious folks feel like a minority within the progressive movement. And here aprominent elected official stood up and said, "it's time for the secular Left to stop telling us to keep our voices out of public life," and a lot of people found inspiration in that.
On the other hand, the secular folks also feel like they are a minority within the progressive movement! An atheist would have a hard time getting elected to public office here. There's overwhelming public sentiment that if you don't believe in God you don't belong in higher office, and people who are secular feel that acutely and feel that they are a minority in this so-called "Christian" nation. So there are two groups which are natural allies on a lot of issues -- worker rights, the environment, and so on -- but each of them feels that they are the minority, there's a lot of frustration there. We need to be careful that the frustration we feel in those roles doesn't undermine the ways that we can become allies.
Then Bruce chimed in. He talked about how the religious right is set against the religious left, and the secular left. Trouble is, the religious and secular left are also set against each other in a certain way. He talked about how problematic he finds the "language of demonization," and retold the story of the Jewish family in Delaware that was effectively hounded out of town because they objected to the promotion of Christianity in the Indian River school district. (Read about that story, if you haven't already, here.
So how can the religious left enter politics? If, for instance, the story of what happened at Indian River distresses us, what can we do? This relates to the issue of hatespeech going on in the American political realm; we perceive that it comes mostly from the Right, but it also can come from the Left. The language of demonization is a habit of thought and mind, and it's something to worry about.
"The size and scope of the Christian Right as a movement hasn't really been paid attention to," he noted. He pointed us to a lengthy and comprehensive list of Christian Right priorities and action items, The Big Picture, and we spent a while scanning that and talking about its implications.
Then the conversation moved into the broader room, and we talked about things like the "under God" line in the Pledge of Allegiance, the claiming of the language of persecution and victimization by the Religious Right (see the work of Elizabeth Castelli), how it's incumbent upon us to be clear what we mean when we use religious language ("what we talk about when we talk about God?")...
I didn't transcribe what everyone said; if you'd like a more complete writeup of the panel, keep an eye on the con blog, where the irc chat log will eventually be published. But here's a paraphrase of a remark from Reb Arthur, who mentioned that the last time that religious language and secular progressive language cohered was in the days of Martin Luther King. There was an upswelling, then, of the sense that secular/progressive and religious/progressive folks had the same priorities.
He argued too that we need to face that there is a reason why the religious left and the religious right feel victimized; they feel victimized by the culture. In the 60s, the left argued that some aspects of modernity were destructive to human potential, freedom, possibility. "Some pieces of modernity are God's next step!" Like the equality of women -- that's what God intends for us now. But he exhorted us to recognize that there's some validity to the sense of victimization, even though we don't want to go back three centuries to a former age. We, he said, have the harder task: discerning what in modernity is God's hope for us, and what in modernity is disaster. What in modernity is profane, and what in modernity is holy.
And I'll close with a point from Chris (Philocrites), who talked about liberal theology's ambiguous future, and about why his passion lies in revitalizing religious communities and not in fights between liberals and conservatives which don't bring anything new to the table. Good stuff all around.