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Dodging the Mormon Bullet, or Politics Played Nice

I was in class this week when the news broke. I laughed. Shook my head. Laughed again. Announced to the class the folly of the GOP-friendly super PAC that intended to run "attack ads" about Jeremiah Wright and Obama's connection to him. They just stared at me. They didn't get it. Romney did, though.

On Thursday, the NYT ran a story about Republican strategists and financiers concocting a plan to run a series of ads—no doubt using Wright's "God damn America" sermon—to discredit Obama due to his relationship with a "radical" preacher. (If you've ever seen the "god damn America" lines in context, I suspect many of you would agree with Wright's assessment, but don't actually watch them; just believe the edited sound bites you see...) This, of course, made me slightly giddy. As a religion watcher, reporter, nerd, I find all these developments fascinating. I mean, we have a black Baptist running against a Mormon for the position of POTUS. At the risk of exciting the anger of Inigo Montoya, it's inconceivable.

Mormons in politics have been rightly reluctant to discuss theology, or "beliefs" as Romney characterized them during the GOP debates. They want to focus on actions, not beliefs. Once beliefs are on the table, it starts to get wacky. The very possibility that some GOP strategists would toss Obama's religious beliefs or relationships into the ring had me a little dizzy. I was running through all the possible angles that Democratic strategists could then use against Romney. There are thousands, and that's not even including the huge ones like the LDS's track record with race, Romney's responsibility to embrace all Mormon doctrine when serving as a ward bishop, and the dubious historicity of nearly everything Joseph Smith "saw" in his revelations. The Democratic strategists must have been high-fiving in the war rooms around the country. 

Romney helped the GOP get their heads out of their asses, though. Mere hours after the initial announcement, Romney "repudiated" the idea. In a Thursday press conference, Romney told reporters: "I want to make it very clear: I repudiate that effort. I think it's the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign. I hope that our campaigns can be respectively about the future and about issues and about vision for America." Joe Ricketts, the billionaire who funds the super PAC and founder of TD Ameritrade, said the "plan" was never more than a proposal. Of course. I'm sure that's the case.

This isn't over. As November gets closer, if the GOP is trailing, they'll try it. They sort of have to. If things keep improving, the GOP will be desperate to find some angle to discredit Obama, but surely they can do better than Breitbart.com and DRUDGE Report's "discovery" of a 30-year old, inaccurate biographical blurb of Obama that described him as born in Kenya. If that's what constitutes breaking news, the GOP is in deep trouble. As for the Wright stuff, I sincerely hope they try it. We desperately need a full and open discussion about the theological underpinnings of Mormonism in terms of the roles of congressman, senator, and president. We need to hear the "chosen nation" rhetoric and the "divinely inspired Constitution" doctrine fleshed out, and we need an opportunity to ask pointed questions that will actually be answered. This is not to say Mormons shouldn't be in office, but it is to say that their faith should be just as open to scrutiny as any other candidate for office. If a UFO conspiracy theorist from Roswell, NM, was running for the U.S. Senate, his beliefs about aliens might come up in a press conference. Shouldn't belief in an unknown planet, magic goggles, and a non-existent language also come up?

I supect that America, left and right, lacks the stomach for this. It would require too much reflection as to the similarities of theistic systems. Once you introduce the idea that a particular doctrine of another faith is nonsense, the same critical gaze must be directed at your own. I suspect that even if the GOP does go with a Wright ad, the issue will be race relations, not religion. The LDS church will continue to insist that this be about behavior, not beliefs, and while I agree with that idea almost every time I hear it, I do want answers to some specific questions about how particular beliefs shape behaviors. If journalists push the point, the LDS church and the GOP will cry "religious persecution" or litmus test or bigotry. Anyone who takes the time to listen to Wright's sermon will understand that it is firmly within the prophetic tradition of the historical Black Baptist churches. I'm happy to see it brought to the table and efficiently parsed. I think the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants should be open as well, including the amazing circumstances in 1978 wherein the LDS leadership received a "new revelation" that blacks could finally be admitted to the priesthood. A religious litmus test for office means that you can't be excluded from a political office based on your faith, but it doesn't mean voters shouldn't know how your faith plays out in practical terms, especially where more esoteric doctrines are in view.


Gay for God? A Primer on How to Talk to Christians About the Gay Debate

I am officially done with the Right and Left on this issue. Neither seem to understand the issue all that well, especially when the Bible is shoehorned into the conversation. First, let's be clear about one thing; it simply doesn't matter what the Bible says about this issue. It's a Constitutional issue, not a theological one. Our legislators aren't paid to parse Scripture and debate hermeneutics. They suck at English and ethics; we don't want them tampering with sacred texts. (In Oklahoma that's already led to a "no fetus burgers" bill and Sally Kern's ongoing efforts to redefine science.)

Until someone can give me a compelling reason—without citing Leviticus or Romans—that a class of American citizens are denied the same rights and privileges I enjoy, please just admit that the only real arguments you have are theological (i.e., god doesn't like it) or aesthetic (i.e., it's gross). Take away the Bible references, you got no argument save the one about old school conservatism and the wisdom of slow change. Yeah, Edmund Burke has been dead for a little more than 200 years, and he's the last guy that qualified to be called a real conservative. (And if you're still arguing "natural law," please join Sally and the creationists at the back of the class.) 

So, to the Bible, and for you non-Christians, this is important. There are a half dozen things you say that are just dumb and will not work with evangelicals (some of whom are opposed to same sex marriage) or fundamentalists (all of whom are opposed). Here they are in no particular order:

  • The Bible says "Don't judge..." No, it doesn't. The entire context of the passage is that we are to judge righteously, which is to say, with a fair standard that we also apply to ourselves. Stop saying it.
  • Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. No, he didn't. He didn't mention human trafficking or rape either. Arguing from silence is lame. Stop it.
  • The greatest commandment is love. Yes, it is, but you'll never convince a Bible-believing fundangelical that love is synonymous with encouraging another to sin willfully. It's utterly counter-intuitive.
  • We're all sinners, and no sin is greater in God's eyes. Um, there are actually at least three categories of sin, graded from menial to unforgivable. First is regular sin, which is like 99.4 percent of all sins. Paul designates another class called sexual sin, which is worse, because it involves another human and the "temple of the Spirit," which is my own body. The absolute worst is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus himself calls unforgivable. There are absolutely better and worse sins, and if fundangelicals are right about homosexuality (and I'm sure they are not), then gay marriage and its subsequent nuptial blisses would fall into the middle category, making it worse than punching a baby or stealing from a blind beggar.
  • The Bible is just a book written by men. Yes, it is, but I suspect you don't know the difference between plenary verbal inspiration, dictation, and limited inspiration, so best not try to explain to a Christian who might believe the voice of God is in that text why he's an idiot for believing so. You're wasting your time on this one.
  • When the Bible was written, the term homosexuality didn't exist. No, it didn't, but same sex acts between people did. This is one that liberal Christians like to use too, and it makes me a little crazy. Imagine that gay sex acts now equals punching babies. The Bible prohibits punching babies in Leviticus (it really doesn't, but we're pretending). 3000 years later, we learn there is a class of people who are born to punch babies, who actually enjoy punching babies. We call them pugilinfantos. They point out that when the Bible was written, the term didn't even exist; therefore, the Bible can't have their orientation in mind. You just want them to stop punching babies. I don't know what to say to this except that I agree that the Bible doesn't address an orientation, but that is a complete red herring here, as the Bible clearly addresses the acts. This one comes down to how much authority you grant the Bible. I give it zero. You won't get a fundangelical to agree to that percentage though.
  • Most importantly is the gross misunderstanding non-Christians have about the Old Testament/New Testament relationship. I'm abandoning the bullet points to treat this one.

The non-Christian will typically say something about shellfish, haircuts, and crops in the same field being prohibited in Leviticus, so why don't Christians follow all those too? This is a prime example of an outsider failing to understand basic theological grammar, or what C.S. Lewis used to call "looking at instead of looking along." (Sidenote: what I'm about to say doesn't apply to the non-instrumental Churches of Christ. They typically treat the OT as having been completely superseded by the New.) Christians don't believe they are obligated to keep all the laws in the OT (Jewish Tanakh). There have been splinter groups like the Worldwide Church of God and Seventh Day Adventists that have emphasized certain OT observances and commands more than others, but the overwhelming majority of fundangelicals fall into the category I'm about to describe.

Christians believe that most of those laws you reference were temporary, and they divide the Mosaic laws into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Only the moral is permanent. I'll grant you right up front that they have no good rubric for choosing which go where, but that isn't the point. They were raised to believe that the laws they believe are part of the moral law are part of the moral law. That's why it's no good to talk about crops. They'll simply understand that was part of the civil law, just as the high priest waving a bloody haunch of ox around was part of the ceremonial law. They don't practice that one anymore either. The contested issue is what constitutes a moral law, and not surprisingly, you're going to agree on a bunch: stealing, lying, rape, incest, bestiality, murder, etc. There is wide agreement. It's clear, to me at least, that an honest read of the OT yields the idea that homosexual acts were considered part of the moral prohibitions, as were all the sex acts listed. The question is whether or not you want Bronze Age people defining allowable sexual ethics.

That isn't even the biggest problem, though. The biggest problem is that the other weighty issue here is the one Marcus Borg highlights. Moral laws are typically brought forward into the New Testament, and same sex acts made it. What they mean in context is a matter of debate, but their very presence seems to assure fundangelicals that prohibitions about homosexuality can't be happily ignored. There is enough ambiguity in the Pauline corpus about words like arsenokoites and sodomite that liberal and evangelical scholars will continue to argue for decades. Again, the problem is that same sex issues made it into the NT; whether they are specifically about homosexual sex or economic exploitation or pederasty is one for the scholars. They don't agree on it.

When non-Christians start arguing about the Bible, they've already lost, as it takes the argument to the believers home court, and let's be honest, when it comes to knowing the Bible, most non-believers are straight C-teamers, which won't help much against believers, including most pastors, who tend to be B-teamers. Bible scholars and atheists typically form the starters, by the way. 

Cultural shifts in theology don't occur because important people are suddenly convinced of a new interpretation of Scripture. They come about when the majority of believers begin to ignore the Bible or read it differently for a variety of reasons. They began to ignore it about divorce because so many people were getting divorced. Those people then showed up at their churches. The question was, "What do we do with them?" Grace actually won in most churches. Slavery ended when abolitionists managed to bring the prophetic tradition to the pulpits of the U.S. It wasn't a new interpretation; it was the rediscovery of a tradition that had been lost with enculturation of Christian praxis along the economic, political, and cutlural preferences of the antebellum South.

Christians inside the movement must bring about the necessary changes, and they are winning. It's a war of attrition now, and the oldest generations are dying and taking homophobia with them. Those of us outside the church only need continue to ask hard questions and challenge the authority of a book that has brought as much harm as good, but gently, very gently. The most important task, though, is to move the discussion to the Constitution, not the Bible.


Billy Graham, John Shelby Spong, and the Politics of Sexuality

Billy Graham is opposed to gay marriage. Raise your hands if you're shocked. The man who did more to redefine "gospel" as an empty signifier is now 93, and not surprisingly, like most nonagenarians, he doesn't want gay people in North Carolina to be able to marry or have a civil union. He laments that we are having to define marriage when it's so clearly defined in the Bible (except that it's not). He encourages Christians to vote in favor of NC's anti-gay marriage amendment. He's not as bad as this guy (sorry, Baptist friends), but Graham probably still has enough influence left to influence the votes in his state. In reading through his comments and the comments following the story on some news sites, I was reminded of my recent conversation with retired Bishop John Shelby Spong.

For those of you who don't know, Spong is the former Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, NJ. He's been a longtime supporter of gay rights, as well as a prolific author. I interviewed him in conjunction with an appearance at a UCC church in Norman, OK, a few weeks ago. I'm going to type up my interview notes, focus on the issue of sexuality, and then comment at the end. 

"What do you consider your primary task as a speaker and a writer?

What I try to do all the time is help people get past the explanations of antiquity for what is an internal experience. The Bible uses first century language and concepts to explain the Jesus event. This is a people who also believed in demons, terracentrism, and knew nothing about how diseases were caused. I'm trying to help people separate the explanation from the experience, to translate the experience into the language of the 21st century.

How do you do this?

Education has created problems for people when it comes to the Bible. We can't literalize the text and explain it to people who are educated. They don't believe it. The text has to be explained outside of the model of the three-tiered universe. I'm sure people here in Oklahoma are used to a Sooner football player pointing upward to God after scoring against Texas. The idea is that God is up there. That doesn't work in a post-Copernican age. It also relies on a model of God, call it the manipulative God, that is very popular with people. We try to define God, which is very arrogant. I think we need to define our experience of God, not God, and that requires I admit I might be delusional. I don't know the experience is objectively real. I'm trying to understand the experience outside the context of the tribal deities of the past.

The God who sends plagues, stops the sun to allow his people to kill even more people, and who orders genocide cannot be identical with the god who said, "Love your enemy." In all fairness, it was the prophets of the Hebrew tradition who helped change the perspective on God. People have to be given a way to view the experience with an understanding that our perception causes us to view the world in different ways. We need to talk about God in terms of today's perception of reality.

How do we talk about it in those terms?

Even the language we speak causes us to frame the experience differently. Desmond Tutu pointed out that English assumes male and whiteness. It makes it very difficult to write inclusively, because, as Tutu said, as a black man, he can neve be "tickled pink." All god talk is highly subjective, and we have to admit that up front. It's hard to get people who believe there is an external, objective, revealed standard of ethics to listen, though. I've been to Oklahoma a few times. It's hard to find Christians there who aren't fundamentalist or influenced by fundamentalism. It's very difficult to talk to someone who begins with truth as this fixed, external reality.***

There is more, but I'll post is later. As you can see, most raw interviews rely on comments that are all over the place. When you got 10 minutes and a focused story, there is little time to fill in ancillary gaps. I asked him about the Catholic Church and the birth control/insurance debate that was raging at the time. A poll indicated that the overwhelming majority of American Catholics ignore the Church on this point of doctrine. His response: "I'm not surprised by the numbers. The disparity has been there for a long time. What strikes me is that the Roman Catholic Church is attempting to get the federal government to get their parishioners to follow the doctrines of the RCC."

That's money, folks. And now back to Graham and all the other people of faith (yeah, you Mormons, too) who are trying to do the exact same thing. It's insufficient for these folks to have their own faith-based beliefs about marriage and the freedom to marry as they choose. No, they need the government to help them codify into law their religious belief about marriage, denying fellow citizens the right to marry based on a religious assumption. The North Carolina bill is the worst yet, because it attacks the idea of civil unions, thereby revealing that this is not about religion at all. It's about political power, more specifically the desire of ideologues to shape the nation's politics in ways which comport with their preferences about what America should look like. If you don't believe their religious assumptions, these freedom-loving, American Christians will use the ballot box to enforce adherence, if not actual belief.


Savage Mockery, or How not to do Youth Ministry

Dan Savage, anti-bullying spokesman and founder of the "It Gets Better" campaign, offended Christian teens and adults at the National High School Journalism Conference by calling portions of the Bible "bullshit." In context, he said,

"We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people...the same way we learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bullshit in the Bible about all sorts of things. The Bible is a radically pro-slavery document...We ignore what the Bible says about slavery because the Bible got slavery wrong.

To that point I'd have to agree with him. Most in the crowd did, as there was raucous applause at a few key points, and there was particularly heavy laughter when he suggested the GOP might eventually have state constitutions amended to allow stoning non-virgin girls on their wedding nights. What he did next simply crossed the line. He referred to the "Bible guys" who had left the room, saying they could come back because "I'm done beating up on the Bible." To which he added: "It’s funny, as someone who’s on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back.”

Yeah, too far. You can't be anti-bullying and then call people names, even people who likely have been bullies themselves. Christian teens are no more immune to being the bullies than they are likely to abstain from sex, but that isn't the point. I understand that as a gay man Savage was probably the target of malicious teens repeatedly in his life, especially his school years, and he is right that the primary justification for anti-gay behavior and ideas in America is the Bible, but you can't become the bully, especially when loud applause is the reward, which he received. You've now crossed the line into othering and mocking young people. He should apologize for the pansy-ass comment. Period.

As for the teens who walked out while he was going through his issues with the Bible, they should have sat in their damn chairs and heard him out. It's what journalists do. You don't get to leave an interview because you're offended. You don't get to listen to just the parts you like. I've been writing professionally for 22 years, and before that I did my duty on a high school newspaper, learning the ethics and vocabulary, if not the real rigors of the job. At no point has an editor or teacher ever said, "As soon as he offends you, stop the interview and leave. That'll teach him." No, the entire point is to hear the person out, especially if you disagree.

Savage is right, and the teens need to hear it. I won't say he shouldn't have used profanity. It was very effective in the context, and quite frankly, when discussing the Bible's life lessons on slavery, virginity, women's equality, and sexuality, that word probably works best. He made valid points. Why should we take seriously a book that, as Savage put it, doesn't tell us not to own slaves, but how to own them? He cites Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation where Harris points out that the Bible gets wrong the easiest moral question in history: should people own people? If it can't get the easisest right, Savage asks, why would we trust it on something as complex as human sexuality? He's absolutely right. Why listen to a book with sexual ethics that were formed when women had no rights and married 30-year old men as soon as they menstruated? It's ludicrous, but Savage won't make his point to the Christians in the room by engaging in the kind of behavior he's worked so hard to eradicate. It was a shameful moment for him, moreso because you can see the pride in his demeanor as he accepts his applause. One thing the Bible can teach Savage is that you don't get to return evil for evil. It's not what the good guys do.