How did I end up agreeing with the Christian right?

A few years ago in Louisville, during a battle over a state constitutional amendment to ban marriage between people of the same gender, a church got involved. I actually imagine a lot of churches were involved, but this one church was large and loud, a far-right congregation, spiritual home of the moneyed, suburban, business class. It dominated the conversation with billboards, put a lot of money into “traditional marriage” defense, and made these awful bumper stickers of stick figures and arithmetic. The congregation empowered and amplified the voices of other like-minded churches, and together they owned the issue. The amendment passed, not surprisingly. Maybe it would have anyway, but it wasn’t even close.

The perennial criticism – then and now – is that churches should stay out of politics. It is a common cry for those on the left, who are less likely to be coalesced around a faith agenda. “Separation of church and state!” they/we would cry. And then bemoan the theocracy we perceive to be arising in plain view.

This past week, still reeling from an inauguration that threatens to undo America, I’ve been thinking.

The rise of Trump was fueled in part by Christian fundamentalists, who have, for decades, railed against any sin of a Democrat but given pass after pass after pass to its own beloved champions. (Remember Newt’s multiple marriages? Henry Hyde’s “youthful indiscretion”? We all can recite the litany of hypocrisy.)

Religion, say those who don’t claim one, is a devotion of convenience or personal taste, and ought to be left out of civic discussions. Instead, we have just experienced an inauguration bloated with Christian prayers, Christian scripture, calls to follow Jesus, and announcements of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) blessing the god-anointed Mr Trump.

I paced in my house this week and considered the ways I’d like the religious right to keep out of it – the critiques I have of them for pushing their abhorrent faith into public policy. I hate the way they use scripture to make their case: to justify their xenophobia; to justify stealing people’s lands; to repress women, oppress immigrants, justify racial disparities; to outlaw LGBT humans, murder those convicted of something, keep poor people poor. I hate it, whatever religion they are fundamentally adhering to (or co-opting). The Christians are just more in my face these days.

But, then I thought to myself, I do the same. It is my faith that drives my vision of the common good. Oh yeah, I read those bible stories through vastly different eyes, take away wildly different lessons. But it is surely scripture that undergirds my public participation.

So, there are some things I have in common with the religious right (she said, begrudgingly). Not religion-based inaugurations; I think state ceremonies ought to be prayer free, though I am certain that people of faith can and should gather in their own houses of worship to pray for the nation and beg for a righteous vision. I just don’t think state events should be religious events. It’s not fair to our American electorate – a people of many faiths or no expressed faith at all. We are a nation, not a congregation. Thus it should be.

But the cries to keep faith out of public life should perhaps extend no farther than the officialdom of the January 20 barricades on the National Mall. Here’s why: we all believe something. We all have some foundation for what we hold to be true and just. For our nation, we have the constitution, the declaration of independence; but we – all. of. us. – interpret and augment those national tenets with other, more personal or partisan, manifestos. Statements of faith. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Barmen Declaration; the Communist Manifesto; Dr. King’s speeches; FDR’s 3rd Inaugural Address or Reagan’s first; the Geneva Conventions; the Kyoto Protocols; the Paris Accords; BillBoard Top 40, or what my grandmother always used to say, or the Kama Sutra; whatever. We all have, we all rightfully get to have, our own inspirations, the movements or documents or traditions that define for us what a just and good world should look like.

So here is where the Christian right and I begin to converge. We have the bible.

For the religious right (of whatever religion), their vision is from their sacred books; so is mine. For the religious right, their faith informs their politics; so does mine. For them, quoting scripture is authoritative; it is for me, too. I unapologetically hate their vision of the world. My own theological angst is, in part, that such a vision could be gleaned from sacred scripture in the first place.

So, the divergence, then, comes quickly: we choose different sacred texts (or different parts of the same bible) and rely on an altogether different way of reading.

There is a battle going on for the heart of America, with ripples that lap every shore around the world. In so many ways, people of faith are driving the conversation. But the answer is not to try to keep faith quiet; the answer is for people of a more open faith to be as prominent and insistent as the ones who claim exclusive blessing and act out their awful faith-based tyranny. We must empower and amplify the voices of the left.

Our fallacy is in believing that the faith-basis of our love of diversity and inclusion should be excised from our political imagination. It cannot; it should not. There are more liberals than faith-based fundamentalists in America. In the ranks of people of faith around the world, there are more of us – people of faith willing to share the world and ensure that it works for all its inhabitants. But if the right seems to be the side that’s growing, perhaps it is because we aren’t as good at sharing our stories and describing what’s at stake.

When we keep our faith silent, even out of a desire to be “tolerant,” we let the impression stand that the choice is between the religious right and the heathen left. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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stray marks

I’ve just finished watching the inaugural, with its delusions and dog whistles, plus blatant calls for a right-wing-jesus kind of country. We are wading into something deep, the gravity of which we may not yet fully realize. The ramp up to this moment has been challenging for many, many of us.

In my office, there is a print of a painting done by Stephanie Bell Burke, an artist from North Carolina. Stephanie and I grew up in the same church in South Carolina, and have known each other about all our lives.

The painting is Einstein, the creative genius. I like it for a number of reasons. One, because I like creative geniuses. Also because in the painting, Einstein’s skin looks a little less white than usual, so this particular Einstein becomes a reminder that genius isn’t the bailiwick of just one bunch of folks. Third, because it is a little abstract, it engages me just a little differently each time I look at it; sure, in part it depends on my mood, but it also is about light and color and season and who knows what else.

einstein-by-burke-smToday, as we feel the sense of heaviness, a pall blanketing so much of our nation, here’s what I notice about the painting today: it is in many ways just a bunch of stray marks.

The field is the paper itself, which, in Stephanie’s artistry, becomes part of the image. It means all the other stuff gives shape and meaning to what’s really going on underneath. Art is as much about the “space between” as it is about the colors and images we add; then, the images we add do something to the field. I can draw squiggles; I’ve done that since I was a small child. But putting the squiggles together in a way that communicates something, in a way that changes what is true, that is the work of artists and poets.

It is also the work of activists, world-changers. Stray marks add up to something. Something Genius.

The word on a lot of minds this week is “resistance.” As our nation moves into a new chapter, with perhaps less confidence and stability than in previous transitions, we fear the promises this president has made, we fear the precedents he is setting, we fear the no-holds-barred approach the 117th Congress is adopting. Resistance is the order of the day for people of faith – resistance to those people and policies that would denigrate women, immigrants and refugees, gay and transgender men and women, people of color, people who are not Christian, people of lesser economic means. Resistance to the escalation of capitalism and corporatocracy, which are already eating us alive, and which are so inconsistent with biblical commands. Resistance is the word.

But if resistance is the call, then “how?” is the question. We are people of varied skills and gifts and ideas and interests; getting us all on the same page is tricky. Plus, we might say, we are a small church, or we just live in Flint, not at all near the seats of power, or we have little time. How are we to work together, or feel like our contributions matter?

And I look at Stephanie’s Einstein. A bunch of stray marks that come together to form powerful art. And even the background itself that becomes part of the image, not merely a canvas but part of the portrait.

This week, I’m taking my highest hope from the idea that we are the stray marks. What we do adds up to something, even if it seems small or remote. We have power to become the promising vision that the prophets told. We, together, are the artistry of the Creator. Genius.

(This essay is adapted mildly from my church newsletter this week. Stephanie Bell Burke’s work is hers alone, and I am thankful for permission to republish her image here. You can find more of her work available for purchase at http://www.artandsoul.pro.)