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Religious Values in our Election (2004)
Whether we’re conservative or liberal it’s ours to tell what values we hold, no matter what we’re told. Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and our own beloved rights-based democracy in America – all increasingly entrusted us with our free will. We sovereign citizens should know, share and vote our own free conscience, not what someone tells us.
Lately, we’re told certain religious values in the election prevailed and should prevail. We’re told that decent people in the heartland, feeling culturally ignored, voted against their pockets and for their conservative religious and family values. We’re advised to catch up to those values if we’re to have a say in our country’s direction.
Does no one see the pernicious irony of assuming conservative values have been excluded and that liberal ones unjustly dominate when exactly the opposite is the increasing and overwhelming case? If conservatives have felt marginalized and their values unwelcome, now that they own our media and control all branches of our government, will they utterly rule over those they define out? Does the U.S. include us, all of us? That some conservatives did not feel valued is a problem we should take seriously, for all communities in our republic should have worth, dignity, and participation. This is not just a liberal value – it is an American value. As I attempted to do in my earlier sermons on conservatives, I admit sympathy for them and appreciation for what they try to say, even if I conclude otherwise. Let’s briefly consider their values in a few key issues, but then let’s go on to see whether other values they also chose fit America’s character or not.
Considering Conservative Positions
Abortion is the taking of a life in the making, and the later the term, the more gruesome that reality. We conclude the mother whose cells it is should decide, but it is not so much her “freedom of choice,” as it is her “burden of choice.” I respect the right of the mother to her private difficult decision, but I also respect those alarmed at it. All the various values should be honored and considered in this minute but momentous decision.
I have sympathy also both for those who wish to define marriage as between a man and a woman and for gay unions. Some see marriage in traditional terms of a father and mother coming together to create and care for a child whose paternity is assuredly known. We should not assume this is also a homophobic stance. Many who favor the more traditional definition might also be sympathetic to the needs of same-sex couples for protected property and visitation rights, and want community sanction and inclusion for them. Again, gradual understanding through mutual engagement is needed. No one should feel excluded from that consideration.
Finally, some are aghast at someone taking her or his own life, even when it is when life is painfully ending and delay is both expensive and futile. They worry this is “playing God,” even when keeping them alive via extreme methods is also “playing God.” I favor the right for a person to make this most personal and irreversible choice, but I respect the concern of those who resist it and warn of the slippery slope into doing it too soon or easily.
In all of these issues I grant sincerity to religious conservatives and I wish liberals would be more understanding of their concerns and inclusive of their persons. No group holding sincere values should be denied, red or blue.
Including Liberal Positions
The essential conservative character draws its circle close to home, assumes we all have inherent wickedness balanced in a win/lose life, and easily defines out perceived “others.” Those “others” range from liberals here at home to foreigners in distant lands. Are the liberals living in those red heartland states or the blue great cities to be ignored and forgotten? Are they all immoral now and evangelicals and conservatives all good? Should half the country have no moral standing and nothing to say? A catch-all phrase sums up conservative religious values: family values. But consider the inherent bias: that liberals have no family values. George Lakoff has shown the core difference between conservatives and liberals is between the “strict father” type family and the “nurturing parent” model. Both have advantages and wisdom. Concluding one is religious and should prevail is preposterous beyond presumptuous. Yet, that is the story being foisted on us.
Too often, Religion Ruins
It is the nature of some people, especially many religious types, to try to boss and control everyone, but we don’t have to take what we’re told in dogmas or fatwas. Before we accept that religious values should prevail or that a bible-based America would be a good thing, let’s remember how silly and scary religious trends can become. Religions too often promote belligerence. Consider the Inquisition and Crusades. Religion ruins. The scriptures common to the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic canons are rife with self-serving stories of supposed divine sanction of invasion and genocide. Our evangelicals believe in a miraculous “rapture” of escape for believers from a worldly hell they foresee and could create. The fanatical fundamentalists of all three theistic religions are once again inflicting their irate certainties in the same way it never worked before, provoking wars.
A ploy of power is protected by piety, if we let it. We’re told to go to church only to learn there to forsake our inherent intelligence in favor of their fantasy formula of faith. Creation makes us free, smart, and able; Christianity makes us fallen, faithful, and gullible. The brave honesty and kind inclusiveness of Jesus is twisted into the duped acquiescence and mean stone throwing of Christianity. The early symbol of Christianity, the wheat and the fish, denoting unexpected abundance, has long-since been replaced by the cross, highlighting undeserved torture. The earlier decency inherent in Christianity appears hijacked by its whacko wing.
Parents are urged to be irate at the brief, distant, and blurred glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast for the “damage it did to their children,” not realizing the damage that reactionary stance creates. Is shame for sex the main ethical lesson? Instead, they take their tender children to see a movie where Jesus is torn to shreds for two hours, explaining it is “for their sins” that this happened. The ethics of unnecessarily creating guilt or unjustly killing anyone so horribly is not decried as wrong; having faith it was for a good and godly reason is substituted as the “real meaning.”
As faith has become the antithesis of ethics, so is it the ruin of reason. From Paul to Augustine in their day, to Jack Van Impe and James Kennedy on our Sunday morning TV’s, there runs an anti-reasoning attitude that uses ersatz reasoning in its stead. They claim God’s authority to themselves by waving the Bible and pretend the old confusion of picking one verse here, another there, all taken out of context and twisted into bizarre conclusions – is reasoning. They don’t allow for questions and can’t argue in their own words, but instead assume and impose God’s supposed will (in all humility, of course). To them, believing is reasoning. Intelligent skepticism and reasoned argumentation is anti-religious, to be resented and belittled, not welcomed and engaged. This feeds resentment for science and education, undermining the meaning and mechanisms of our modern social and technological civilization.
This inability or unwillingness to engage in critical thought and rational argumentation showed in our president being ticked off and befuddled in the debate even while hiding an answer box on his back, yet religious and media spokespersons successfully asserting he won because of his “strong principles.” Forget global warming; our president feels faith in his gut.
None of the three God-faiths fully honors God’s value on natural creation and our human abilities in it. As told in Genesis One, Elohim God generates a six stage evolutionary universe that is valued as “good.” From light to land, from plants through animals to humans (males and females) God values each as “good,” and all as “very good.” Instead, the three theistic religions play the role of subtle deceiver as shown in Genesis Two and Three, driving us into alienation from our own bodies and each other, dividing us from our garden and our God. They create the very sin they shame us with, then claim to have the fix, all the while alienating us from the inherent abilities and responsibilities Creation built into us.
Far from fixing our world’s modern problems, conservative religions (Christian, Jewish, and Islamic) are driving us all into deeper division, alienation, and ruin. Just as God’s goods (life, sex, intelligence) get twisted into evils (snakes, shame, gullibility), and Jesus’ virtues (honesty, healing, daring) get bent into vices (platitudes, hurting, obeisance), so do our roles as citizens (informed, communicative, participatory) grow servile (beguiled, isolated, cynically passive). By allowing this, we fail our birthright as freeborn, able citizens and as the incarnate earthlings who could and should care for our Creator’s creation.
Liberals and Patriotism
In this rush to embrace the values of pious conservative believers I would remind our country that liberals (labeled then as immoral non-believers) founded it. Thomas Paine was anti-Christian. Jefferson was denounced as a deist. Ben Franklin had multiple mistresses. Far from being a Christian country, America was founded in fear of religion taking over, and it has been kept balanced by the Mark Twain’s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s, and Robert Ingersol’s of our free-thinking, free-living citizens. Americans value the meeting and the mix of various beliefs – and of unbelief. You don’t have to bow your head in church to be a good person or a good American. Being a good American sometimes means standing up to pious posturing and prevailing assumptions. Our best citizens are those who are brave enough to be honest when it’s hardest to do so, but needed. Silencing the protestor or squelching the truth is never noble or wise. Honesty helps balance democracy.
Americans and their police should stand ready to protect free speech, not repress it. When President Bush visited Medford near the end of his campaign police forcibly ejected three women under threat of arrest for wearing tee shirts reading “Protect our Civil Liberties.” Later, in Jacksonville, police pushed protestors down into the street then shot them with pepper-ball guns in order to prevent their voices from being heard by their president. What do these say about our evolving values? Police states, whether communist or fascist, dominate dissent. Elements of the populace are ridiculed and excluded. Too much, citizens are warred on by our police and are frightened of each other. When conservatives hear of this mounting fear, do they care to remedy it, or are they approving?
We’re told on our media by our media that our media is too liberal even though our media generates a cross-country, conservative one-note song. No wonder the red states vote as they do when you hear what they hear, which is all that they can hear. Even NPR and PBS are increasingly occupied with corporate news and right wing think tanks. “Free Speech TV” and progressive radio are nearly totally missing from the ears and minds of American citizens. Since the dismantling of the 1937 checks and balances of our airwaves in 1996, we’ve gone from barely “fair and balanced” to networks that snidely are that in slogan only. The “No Spin Zone” is only spin. Freedom of the press, so essential to our ability to think as citizens, is increasingly owned by greedy forces airing narrow, irate voices.
A few decades ago conservatives felt their voices were not heard. They set about to get on school boards, create think tanks, and own the media. I don’t begrudge them for succeeding utterly, but in what direction do they take us? Paul Harvey was joined by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and various spin-offs. Each ups the anger act, making self-righteous ridicule a community sport. Rant radio “hosts” yell at their guests to “shut up.” They do not engage alternate ideas so much as belittle and marginalize callers, modeling a rude attitude of belligerent contempt, not inclusive dialog. Meanness mounts.
Liberals value freedom of thought, speech, the press, assembly and protest. Liberals by definition are inclusive, open-minded, and kindhearted. But Americans don’t hear that; they instead hear conservatives say that “liberal” is a bad word meaning high taxes and big government. Bush’s spin master, Karl Rove, brags they don’t have to deal with reality because they create it. By the time liberals begin to respond to the last audacious lie, they’re on to a new one. Like Goebbels, Rove knows that simple, repetitive lies become the public’s adamant truths. Let’s consider some others that they tell us.
We’re told taxes beset us. Taxes are the mechanism we use to fund our common needs fairly. It isn’t taxes that drain us so much as all we pay into private accounts of the banking, energy, utility, insurance, and medical industries – which then fund lobbyists to buy the sort of government that serves them and their investors. The military-industrial complex is only a part of the larger and more ubiquitous business-government complex. Who are you going to call for protection and remedy?
They tell us that big government is bad for us. Does no one see the irony of believing this – only to elect a government that gives us just that? Our government is the weakling barely able to check a greedy system serving vast domestic and international wealth, yet it gets further de-funded and dismantled by an organized onslaught of those same forces. The companies profiting from our society feel no obligation back to it, fashioning loopholes and off-shore accounts, exploiting and abandoning the society that supports them. We are being milked by our own sacred cows.
Republican president Ike Eisenhower warned against not just a “military industrial complex,” but a society and government, “…plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” He boldly told us the cost of war steals from our many other needs and hangs humanity on “a cross of iron.” What ever became of Republicans caring and brave enough to say these things? Look where we’ve gone since Eisenhower’s warnings: Schools flounder while prisons flourish.
We rush to waste a dwindling oil supply. Needless wars are launched with plans for more. Our Department of Defense is directed to be offensive, taunting the revenge that creates its own need. Defense and energy stocks are up, but so are bankruptcies and debt. We’re told by letting rich people be richer they’ll provide us with jobs. Desperate people clamor for jobs, any jobs, forgetting the function of most jobs is to make more money than they cost. Employees make a wage to make employers profits. They get paid minimally – and can lose their pensions to the Ken Lay’s and Enron’s of systematic injustice.
In our government’s protecting the ongoing corporate “persons,” real persons become expendable. Has greed indeed become virtuous? Is the value to abandon the widows and working poor in order to pamper our poor rich with even more money than they really don’t need? We are beguiled and bled by these oft-repeated lies.
The Moral Equivalent of War – and its Opposite
Religious values prevailed? Consider the religious values regarding energy and war inherent in the fall of Carter and the rise of Reagan and the Bushes. We were told Jimmy Carter lost because of the energy crisis and the economy. Carter did two things that irked the power elite. He organized the promising pragmatics of an efficient and ethical energy policy and he advocated we honor human rights in our foreign relations. He rightly called his energy policy “the moral equivalent of war.” By simply and sensibly insulating our houses better, increasing mileage standards, making use of the regular and free sources of sunlight and wind, he managed to begin to decrease our energy needs. Had we followed such appropriate technology we’d now be saving an amount of energy equal to what we import from the entire Middle East, saving half of our foreign deficit, lessening pollution, and decreasing our need for war! Instead, an early form of media-as-attack-dog took to snapping at Carter over the hostage crisis. Nightly, the news demandingly dwelled on which day of the “hostage crisis” it was – only to now regularly report hostage beheadings and daily deaths as ordinary news.
Consider how our concern for those fifty-two people has become our acceptance of over a thousand of our men and multi-thousands of others being killed so far. The whole sorry story started when Reagan took office, tearing the solar panels off the White House and eliminating the energy cabinet post. Secretly, illegally, and immorally, he had Oliver North send a private army to Central America. Whole villages were murdered, yet Americans either didn’t know or didn’t care. Our moral aversion to war after Vietnam began to fade as he jacked up the macho mentality in Grenada and Panama. Hundreds of hapless poor were killed in Panama in our rush to get the thug we had earlier created in order to hide him from ever telling what he knew.
The same dynamic we used on Noriega – we later used on Hussein. We invade, wasting the hapless many caught in the process, in order to secret away the thug we earlier created. Once caught, we never hear what they might know. Some of the same people who managed the mounting war in Central America now show up with Bush’s neo-cons, mounting even larger wars in Asia and on our media to sell it to us.
Instead of the “Moral Equivalent of War” we inflict the immoral results of dull stubbornness. We don’t lack energy in our country so much as we lack ethics, ingenuity, and will. Our ethical energy possibilities went with the un-utilized wind. We soon began to drive the biggest cars and SUV’s, endangering all smaller cars, blocking their views, polluting the atmosphere, but doing so with flags flapping. Apparently, the value is to waste gas here by wasting Iraqis there, but proudly.
Nor did Carter’s human rights stance stick. Central American death squads imposed our policy then like client states do our torture now. Our president’s smug contempt for law infects the behavior of all below him and increases the resentment of all against him. Murder is moral, we’re told. When news photographers filmed one of our soldiers shooting a defenseless wounded man on the floor, killing him, right-wing rant radio hosts claimed the man being shot was the terrorist! This projection borders on psychosis.
Projection is when we attribute to others the shadowy things we don’t admit about ourselves. We invaded Iraq with actual weapons, protecting ourselves from imaginary ones. We bragged about MOAB (the mother of all bombs), threatened tactical nuclear bombs, and used a massive array of bombs and bullets, leaving cancer-causing depleted uranium rounds by the thousands. We have killed an estimated one hundred thousand people, yet claim they’re the terrorists. We ban images of flag-draped coffins and mangled bodies because we don’t want to offend our sensibilities. Is it more offensive to admit atrocities than to commit them?
All this from a country priding itself on its religious values. I guess honoring the commandments “Thou shalt not bare false witness” and “Thou shalt not kill,” isn’t two of them. Worse, missing from the political campaigns was any mention of the Wolfowitz doctrine “Project for a New American Century.” Inherent in it was the cruel thinking of the book Shock and Awe (coincidentally the same name as the invasion of Iraq), which advises utter mayhem, breaking the will of the invaded with horrid cruelty. It isn’t new, really. Romans did the same to Christians once. The neo-cons wanted a “new Pearl Harbor” and had a plan to invade Iraq prior to 9-11. The plan is to get a new foothold in the Middle East in order to launch many wars, ostensibly to impose democracy, but actually to control the oil supply. Our earlier shows of support for the Shaw of Iran or the ruling families of Saudi Arabia didn’t create democracy there and finally results in a corrupt elite being ousted by irate commoners.
We start the new American century with the same empty excuses and the worst relations that led to the worldwide mayhem of the twentieth. This is not leadership; it is loss. In our pride we hide our guilt and grief. World War I was egged on by lofty slogans of “defending freedom” and “promoting democracy.” It was to be the war to end wars. Millions lost their lives. In the Second World War civilians were increasingly targeted as a tactic. From the rocketing of cities by the Nazis to the deliberate firebombing of European and Japanese cities by Americans, both sides showed their will to kill innocent civilians by the thousands. Even prior to the nuclear bombs we dropped on civilian targets in Japan, we had napalmed two thirds of their cities, incinerating hundreds of thousands of whoever happened to live there. (See the movie, The Fog of War.)
When we so willingly and forgetfully live by the sword, why are we so surprised when some manage to stab? And if it was wrong for Saudi fanatics to deliberately target innocents in our Trade Towers, how is it right for us to respond by attacking Iraqis (who weren’t even involved) mowing down thousands of the hapless caught in our willfully misled way? When the invaded fight back, defending their country, why are they called “insurgents?” If terrorism is feeble but hideous attempts at asserting power with meager weapons, is war is its organized and magnified counterpart? Are terrorists any who dare to resist our foreign policy agenda of empire? If so, there’ll be lots of terrorists, lots of wars.
All humans have the kill-rather-than-be-killed gene built in. Why provoke it, especially in a culture where they will not have honor until they extract revenge? Why has America grown so war-prone? Howard Dean motivated a huge anti-war Democratic base only to have it assumed and abandoned by pro-war Kerry. Thus, between Kerry and Bush, the rich rulers of both parties gave us our democratic choice: war or more war.
This is in the tradition of Bush’s earlier starting the unwise, unpopular, unprovoked war, explaining “we have no other choice,” and that we have to “hurry.” Neither was true. That followed on what once was the ethical and pragmatic caution we had about war after Vietnam. Hesitation at war, respecting human rights, opting for an efficient and ethical energy policy – all these were lost in the deplorable descent from Carter to Bush.
Posing as Pious while Practicing War
Given the choice between war and more war, Americans chose more war, but did so claiming to be voting their religious values. A smug sanctimony lauds itself on how religious values prevailed and should prevail. Jacqueline Rose, writing in Harper’s of Freud’s lament about war, reminds us the group mind reacts in extreme defensiveness when its self-love is threatened. Freeing itself from doubt, the nation that refuses to question its own motives places the world in peril. Do we impose democracy there to avoid admitting it has become a sham and a scam here? Would we urge the Ukraine revote there while ignoring a similar sort of intimidation, fraud, and black-box trickery that stole the election here? Would our presumed piety blind us to the fact that we’re more mirroring Islamic zealots than imitating the holy one who said, “love thine enemies,” and “in the least of these, there you will find me also.”
So, religious values have won the election and should prevail? We learn in the ministry, “when it feels like you have to tip-toe through the eggshells – stomp.” I have not stomped as soundly as blogger William Thomas did on his web site, “The Fire This Time”:
Good ol’ Bible-thumpers, mostly, made dangerously righteous by their murderous beliefs … neither know nor care what the rest of the world wants or thinks but instead find bliss in ignorance, and blessed comfort in a liar, thief and mass murderer – a “man of faith”. . . Here is a president they can trust to never ever bother them with any consideration requiring more than instant knee-jerk abdication of all morality and rational thought.
We’re Better than We’ve Become
I understand his contempt, but doubt all conservative Christians are due it. If I have been hard on conservatives and Christians here it’s not to deny them their dignity or drown out their voices and votes. Rather, it is to question their so-called religious values and to raise other values for consideration and inclusion. Inherent in the concerns about abortion, marriage, end-of-life care, and democracy are decency and noble ideals. But decency resides also in environmental sustainability, economic justice, fair and inclusive media, and abhorrence to war. America isn’t only puritanically judgmental and militantly vindictive and acquisitive. We also include many sorts in our pluralistic society who wish to live more kindly and justly in the larger world. I would hope our “family values” leads to valuing all families, American and foreign.
I wish I could tell Iraqis of my enthusiastic value in our free society. I wish I could share with them Emerson and Ingersol and hear from them of Hafiz and Rumi. I’d tell them of our music and movies and subcultures. I would tell them how ashamed I am of how belligerent we have become and I would apologize for our clumsy, cruel imposition of economic exploitation and military bases under the guise of democracy. I would admit some would sport bumper stickers saying “Bomb Iraq,” but reassure them there are many others who would rather “Bong Iraq.” I would try to tell them that many of us don’t divide the world into good and evil, dehumanizing those we barely know, but instead want to love Iraqis much as we love Americans.
Neither “not me” nor “only me” should prevail. Intimidated acquiescence fails democracy and overbearing arrogance violates it. Being ourselves fully in the ways that lets others also do that is the root of democracy. Thinking for ourselves and sharing that with each other brings the nourishment up. Doing this publicly and freely is the flower of democracy whose fragrance the world will want. Government – us, taking care or our selves, each other, and our lands – would be the nourishing fruit of our democracy.
Together, we could rescue our beloved America from acting towards others and its own citizens like a new “evil empire.” America shines more purely in its de-spirited liberals now than it does in its deluded rulers. Denied rights at home, demeaned allies abroad, and defeated innocents in distant lands does not make us noble or proud. Lord knows our hurting, precious world needs a better America than we’ve shown lately. I pray true conservatives and Christians will recognize and help remedy this confusion about values. We’re better than we’ve become.
Who Has the Mandate?
We don’t have an inclusive and representative democracy now. We have an oligarchy of wealth co-opting conservative mores in order to have power-over, not power-with. With nearly all the media and all branches of government firmly in their control, and no socialist world to balance them, we’ll see what they deliver. Will it be a flowering of free-market forces bringing consumer wonders to all the world in a just and ecological way? Will it creatively include all voices and lifestyles in a dynamic pluralistic society? I doubt both, but I’m willing to be wrong if they’ll put things right. The efforts of all our founders, from Jesus to Jefferson to the Roosevelts is in their Machiavellian hands. Should we simply adopt their values in order to let them have their way? Should we accept that a new King George has our mandate?
In Chinese myth, the “mandate of heaven” signals the time to depose a ruler grown too powerful and corrupt. When the rich forget the poor and hurricanes come, as four did in Florida, it is a sign. Do we need utter weather collapse to wake up to our time? Our president, claiming a “mandate,” immediately ordered an offensive that in one week killed a thousand people – who may have been terrorists, or were just living there. Lao Tzu advised the ruling victor, “Conduct your victory as a funeral.”
A Whole and Holy America
We need not have yet another version of a rising and falling empire. America has become an embarrassment in the world and a threat to it because we have not tapped the deeper values and higher ideals Americans actually have. We need decent conservatives and liberals to help make us whole again. We can’t cut the blue or red out of the flag and expect it to fly any more than we can expect an eagle to fly on one wing only. Power-hungry rulers will take over if they can. My despair is that their strident supporters have been sucked up into a photo-op show of only supporters, as if no others matter or deserve inclusion. My hope is not in our government, media, corporations, or churches. It is in the deeper American character, the essential justice and kindness inherent in our beings, our secular society, and our larger tradition of rights and participation.
The seed of a new time sprouts in the compost of an old. Though our politics, media, and religious institutions appear monolithic, we needn’t only gripe and grieve. All three need better leadership. We need to meet and master the needs of our time as our ancestors did theirs. We need each other to help us each to be brave, honest, creative, and caring. Our values are not to be forgotten or forsaken just because the masters of spin say so. Merely saying, “God bless America,” won’t make us holy, but living up to our own ideals so as to be a blessing for our whole world could.
We’re told, but it’s ours to tell what values to hold. We’re part of the long and noble tradition of the Enlightenment leading to a humanistic democracy that allows for religious faiths but is not ruled by them. When we include all our voices and values we’ll once again be a country to be proud of, the sort of country the world can stop fearing and resenting and have some hope in again. We owe this to our traditions, our selves, our human community, our natural world, and our Creator that values us and it all as “good, very good.”
The Reverend Byron Bradley Carrier
© January 18, 2005 Developed and delivered earlier in three Unitarian Universalist Fellowships: Bend and Grants Pass, Oregon, and Bayside, California
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