Ultimately, Jimmy proved to be too good for either the White House or his beloved Southern Baptist Convention. But he was never too good; just a little better than the rest of us. He was of our tribe.
By Alan Bean
The Sandy Hook tragedy has sparked deep reflection nationwide. President Obama served as Pastor in Chief when he prefaced his remarks in Newtown with a quotation from 2 Corinthians 4:
. . . do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away . . . inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
The president knew he couldn’t fix what happened last Friday, and he didn’t try. But he spoke the words of comfort that were his to speak. That is all any of us can do.
And then there are all those other guys.
If this was just about the latest outrage from the twisted souls at Westboro Baptist Church (must they call themselves Baptists?) I would let it slide. By now, we are agonizingly familiar with their shtick. “God hates fags and everybody who doesn’t hate fags as much as he does.” Yeah, we get it. The church has decided to picket the funerals in Newtown . . . a new low, I suppose, but not by much.
But it isn’t just folks on the fringe who feel honor-bound to make nasty at such a time as this.
Governor Mike Huckabee, preacher, Fox News celebrity and perennial presidential hopeful, just opined that God declined to stay the hand of Adam Lanza because “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools.”
Not to be outdone, James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, gave us his take on “what’s going on.” America has been complicit in the murder of 54 million babies since Roe v. Wade, and “the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition”, “so I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”
Huckabee, Dobson et al aren’t sure exactly what pushed God’s buttons. It might have been gay marriage. It might have been abortion. Or maybe it was the 1963 Supreme Court decision making school prayer was unconstitutional. Most likely it was a combination of all three–the trifecta of evil. But at some point God decided to punish America by ordering the slaying of twenty innocent first-graders.
Really, guys! That’s the God you worship. Herod the Great slaughters innocents; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ weeps for them. Jesus doesn’t have much to say about hell except when he’s talking about those who mess with his “little ones.”
Of course, these guys aren’t saying that God was directly responsible for the death of school children. It’s just that he could have stopped it and declined to do so. The Creator could be charged with being an accessory after the fact, but not with murder.
That’s comforting. God tells the lost soul with the assault weapon, “Normally I’d put a stop to this, but these people need a wake up call, so, do your worst.”
That is precisely what the preachers are alleging. So let’s get one thing straight: That is not God. God is not that. In the First John we learn that God is love . . . full stop. Or, if we wish to quibble, “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
The God of Huckabee and Dobson would be familiar to Darth Vader and his legions. The preachers appear to have slipped over to The Dark Side.
How do we explain such strange talk from esteemed holy men? The Apostles of the Religious Right have so consistently equated gay bashing, opposition to abortion, and school prayer with holiness that God has been subsumed under these headings. For four decades, the culture war has reshaped American evangelicalism so successfully that abortion, gay bashing and school prayer have consumed all other concerns.
Don’t get me wrong. The Sandy Hook tragedy should provoke serious moral reflection. Violence works for the entertainment industry just like culture war wedge issues work for the Religious Right. In both cases, an ugly product is hawked in the market place because it sells. We have been raised on a steady diet of violence. We love the stuff. It shapes our culture, our national identity, and all too often our foreign policy. We’ve got a problem. We need help. Badly.
But God is not responsible, directly or indirectly, for the slaughter of innocents. That’s on us. God is Love. God is Light and in him there is no darkness at all. None, whatsoever!
By Alan Bean
HBO’s new Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom has conservative bloggers beside themselves. In the clip below, fictional news anchor Bill McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, launches into an extended rant in which he compares the Tea Party to the Taliban. Both groups, McAvoy suggests, trade in “Ideological purity, compromise as weakness, a fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism, denying science, unmoved by facts, undeterred by new information, a hostile fear of progress.”
Here’s the entire clip:
No thanks. The Tea Party is a mishmash of often contradictory complaints and enthusiasms. Many, perhaps most, Tea Party folk merely tolerate the brand of fundamentalist obscurantism The Newsroom excoriates. A lot of Americans enlist in the Tea Party because they are pro-business but anti-Wall Street. The bailout of the financial “industry” had more to do with growing the Tea Party than religion fanaticism. In fact, if Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party people were ever able to sit down for a beer they would agree on a lot of things.
I see Sorkin’s screed as an attempt to define a sensible political middle occupied by moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats. In the middle of McAvoy’s rant, this middle ground is identified as true Republicanism, but the speech has generally been denounced by Republicans and hailed by Democrats. According to McAvoy, real Republicans believe in “a prohibitive military” and “common sense government”. They believe there are “social programs enacted in the last half century that work, but there are way too many costing way too much that don’t.”
Moreover, real Republicans believe in free market capitalism, and law and order.
In other words, we’re talking about Reagan Republicans shorn of the small government libertarians and evangelical theocrats . . . in short, the people known today as Democrats.
It is not accidental that most Democrats have no problem with Sorkin-McAvoy’s “real Republicanism” while the real real Republicans hate it. Reagan style Republicanism is the new political middle; the turf currently defended by politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Politicians to the right and the left of this safe middle ground, Sorkin implies, should be thrown under the bus. The real Republicans should come over to the blue side and the Tea Party and progressive Democrats can just go to hell.
Yet it is precisely this combination of global military imperialism and unrestricted free market bubble building that has brought our economy to its knees.
Ron Paul libertarians say we can’t afford to be the world’s policeman, and they are dead right. We currently spend more on our military than all the other children of earth combined.
International corporations get fat shipping American manufacturing jobs to the Third World while feeding off one speculative bubble after another. The anti-Wall street wing of the Tea Party calls this madness, and they are right. Ross Perot said much the same thing back in the Bill Clinton era and, come to think of it, he was right too. You really can hear that “giant sucking sound”.
The “centrist” politics of Sorkin’s Will McAvoy is a creation of the Wall Street gamblers that drove us into a deep recession. These people feed American militarism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the demons of mass incarceration because they hope to grow fat off the private contracts associated with such ungodly madness. Over half the military personnel in Afghanistan at the moment are private contractors. The war on drugs and the war on migrants is fueling a private prison boom of spectacular proportions.
Here’s the sad truth. You can’t get elected to either the Senate or the US presidency (or survive in much of the academic and religious world) without kissing the ring of Wall Street and what Eisenhower, had he survived into the twenty-first century, would be calling the military-prison-industrial complex. The folks pulling the puppet strings are the real masters of America. Unrestrained militarism and capitalism abide genuine democracy. Sorkin’s “common sense government” exists at the pleasure of men (and a smattering of women) who control the wealth of America while producing little of value.
We get nowhere demonizing the radicals on the conservative and liberal fringes of American society. These people are confused about a lot of things, but most of them are honest. Fundamentalists have wandered into an intellectual cul de sac, but American evangelicalism, for all its weird excesses, remains the beating heart of American spirituality. Casting conservative religionists into the outer darkness isn’t American, it isn’t Christian, and it isn’t wise. We need these people and, though they scarcely realize it, they need us.
I am not suggesting, as frustrated radicals often do, that there is no real difference between Republicans and Democrats or that elections are meaningless. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will not pursue the same policy goals if elected. But whoever comes out on top in November (this year and in the foreseeable future) must convince Wall Street and the military establishment that they are dependable guarantors of the status quo. So long as this is the case, politicians cannot treat what ails us.
By Alan Bean
Lubbock County Judge Tom Head wasn’t looking for national publicity when he set up an interview with the local Fox affiliate. Head just wanted to plug a 1.7% tax increase that would fund an expansion of the sheriff’s department and put more money at the disposal of the DA’s office.
But Tom Head is now famous, for the moment at least. Perhaps the County Judge thought the voters needed a really good reason to open their wallets. How about this scenario. There’s a good chance that Barack Obama will get himself elected (God forbid), and if that happens we’re gonna have as an old time insurrection, right here in Lubbock County. And Obama, he’s not gonna like that so he’s just likely to call in UN troops, an army of foreign occupation, and force his will on the good people of Lubbock County at gunpoint. And if that happens, I’m gonna stand boldly in front of those UN personnel carriers and say, “You ain’t comin’ in here!
I am paraphrasing. You can find Mr. Head’s exact words here (and in several thousand other places). His paranoid screed went viral.
Lubbock attorney Rod Hobson (who helped shut down the ill-famed Tulia drug bust) was so impressed by the judge’s rhetoric that he hung a UN flag outside his office. “When I saw the story I thought, once again, Lubbock is going to be the laughingstock of the entire nation,” Hobson told a local TV station. “What makes it so sad is he is our elected county judge, who is in charge of a multimillion-dollar budget. That is scary. It’s like the light’s on, but no one is home. … I’d just like to think he’s off his meds.”
A few days ago, Fort Worth columnist Bud Kennedy expressed his relief that Missouri’s Todd Akin was deflecting attention from notorious Texas weirdos. This morning he admitted that the prurient interest of America has returned to the Lone Star State. To put things in perspective, Kennedy offers a little background on Mr. Head.
Folks, please understand. In Texas, we don’t choose our county judges or commissioners based on any qualifications besides who’s good at dominoes.
In the orchard of targets for TV joke writers, Texas county officials are low-hanging fruit.
Head, 63, is an administrator with only a psychology degree. He worked first in law enforcement as a Texas Tech University campus officer and city marshal, then as an elected county justice of the peace.
He moved up to county judge in 1999 and led his own mini-rebellion against Obama in 2009, posting literature and cartoons mocking him on a hallway bulletin board before commissioners removed them.
One of the posters showed jail book-in photos of nine arrestees in Obama T-shirts. Seven were African-American.
I cannot divorce my theology and my philosophy from my office. I’m pro-life, I’m pro-gun rights and if you’re gonna vote for me and if you’re not for gun rights, then you probably don’t want me in office.
In other words, this isn’t a story about a single Loony-Tunes (check out his tie in the picture above) judge in West Texas–the voters of Lubbock County like this guy.
But wait a minute here, what possible connection could there be between Mr. Head’s “theology” and his paranoid take on Obama and the United Nations?
The judge is likely referring to Agenda 21, an uncontroversial fluff-document signed by 178 world leaders, including President George H.W. Bush, in 1992. The idea was to encourage the efficient marshaling of scant natural resources in times of famine and natural disaster. Or that’s what we originally thought. Listen to Glenn Beck’s dispassionate take on Agenda 21:
Those pushing … government control on a global level have mastered the art of hiding it in plain sight, and then just dismissing it as a joke. Once [internationalists] put their fangs into our communities and suck all the blood out of it, we will not be able to survive.
Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center explains the paranoid perspective on Agenda 21 in remarkably restrained language:
Under Agenda 21, these activists argue, the expansive American way of life, in which everyone can aspire to the dream of owning a house with a big yard and two cars in the driveway, will be replaced by one in which increasing numbers are crammed into urbanized “pack ’em and stack ’em” apartment complexes, and forced to use mass transportation and live according to a collectivist ethos. Once the UN’s radical utopia is achieved, gun ownership will be forbidden and the UN will raise an army intent on terrorizing the populace in the name of social order and equality, sustainability and smart growth — all words that anti-Agenda 21 activists believe signal the true intent of the UN’s plan.
The tattered remnants of the John Birch Society are all over this stuff, which would be irrelevant were it not for the fact that Tim LaHaye, author of bestselling “Left Behind” series, is a proud JBS stalwart. LaHaye and co-author Jerry Jenkins sprinkled Agenda 21 paranoia throughout their end times thrillers. I distinctly recall sitting in a well-attended Sunday School class in Tulia, Texas (70 miles north of Lubbock) in which Mr. LaHaye’s eschatology was embraced as the gospel truth.
But this isn’t just about West Texas. Texas is riddled with Anti-UN nuttiness. Ted Cruz, the man expected to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison as Texas Senator, is mad as hell about the imminent UN destruction of American sovereignty. In the mind of Ted Cruz, the Antichrist is George Soros, but the general thrust mirror’s the views of Beck. Cruz recently printed this rant on his personal blog:
Agenda 21 attempts to abolish “unsustainable” environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads. It hopes to leave mother earth’s surface unscratched by mankind. Everyone wants clean water and clean air, but Agenda 21 dehumanizes individuals by removing the very thing that has defined Americans since the beginning—our freedom.
Cruz is particularly concerned that the UN plans to abolish the game of golf.
All of which explains how a simple-minded Texas judge could see opposition to a US president and an innocuous (and largely meaningless) UN document as theological issues. When the saints of God are raptured to heaven and the Antichrist (known as Nicolae Carpathia to Left Behind enthusiasts) comes to power, United Nations troops will spring to his assistance.
How do we explain this craziness? Or maybe it isn’t crazy. When the majority of people in a given locale (say, Lubbock, Texas) share a common delusion maybe it’s the unbelievers who are crazy. Who gets to define normal?
Tom Head’s fears about Barack Obama reflect the deep dread many Americans feel about the future. Where are we heading? What is happening to America? What’s it all about, Alfie?
How else do we explain the Tea Party’s undimmed enthusiasm for free market fundamentalism? After the financial industry lied and swindled the world to the brink of financial catastrophe, how can anyone believe in the natural goodness of unregulated markets?
Because it’s all we have. If the free market won’t save us, who will? If the free market won’t save us, the glory that was America disappears. It’s Ichabod time!
How do we explain why a great nation like the United States of America has a crumbling infrastructure and can’t pay its bills when the folks in collectivist dystopias like Canada, Norway and South Korea seem to be faring so much better?
We could blame the fact that we spend more on defense than all the other nations of earth combined. We could point to our bloated prison system. We could acknowledge that America is now a wholly owned subsidiary of a consortium of international corporations.
But that doesn’t sit right somehow.
How much better to believe that America has been hijacked by ultra-liberal socialist big-spenders like Barack Obama who give their true loyalty to Allah and/or a One World dictatorship. That way, we simply turn the reins over to pro-business folks like Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz and an unregulated market will gradually drag us back to prosperity.
If you’re Tom Head, it does.
By Alan Bean
Now that Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney’s choice for VP, you will be hearing a lot about Ayn Rand, probably not enough to impact the election, but a lot. Many will ask how a devout Catholic and family man can lionize a woman who despised God, rejected the “altruistic” teaching of Jesus, and called the family an artificial and unnecessary creation.
The easy answer is that Paul Ryan doesn’t really like Ayn Rand at all. In fact, he is now saying that he rejects her atheistic philosophy without reservation.
For the tiny handful of Christian conservatives who may have been concerned about a potential VP embracing the religion of Antichrist, that should suffice. There simply aren’t enough voters in our brave new America who know enough about Ayn Rand’s glorification of reason and selfishness, Roman Catholic ethics, or the teaching of Jesus to see a problem.
Ryan’s recent protestations of love for Rand’s economic philosophy were the stuff of romance. In 2005, Ryan told the Atlas Society:
There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works . . . I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff . . . The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.
It’s hard to disavow an endorsement like that. Either he was lying in 2005, or he is lying now. Fortunately for Ryan, it doesn’t matter.
By Alan Bean
The Christian Century has a fascinating interview with Berkeley Professor David Hollinger who argues that “ecumenical Protestants” (he intentionally avoids the word “liberal”) shifted American culture in positive directions because they were willing to go to the wall on issues like civil rights.
This view conflicts with Ross Douthat’s critique of liberal Christianity, expressed most recently in the New York Times’ Sunday Review that liberal denominations have declined numerically because they are “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
Hollinger disagrees. Ecumenical churches have suffered drastic numerical declines, to be sure, but for all the right reasons:
Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.
It could be that Douthat chooses to focus on the lame aspects of liberal Protestantism while Hollinger celebrates the heroic side of that tradition. Both are certainly part of the mix. The big difference is that Douthat describes Protestant Christians desperately trying to adapt to secular liberalism; Hollinger sees the ecumenical Protestant tradition establishing the foundations for secular liberalism on issues like civil rights, feminism, gay rights and a non-aggressive foreign policy.
Please read both articles and tell us what you think.
The Southern Baptist Convention is poised to elect its first African-American president. Is this a big deal, or a cynical ploy?
As this Morning Edition article makes clear, Fred Luter isn’t just a prominent African-American preacher; he’s a transformational figure who stuck with his New Orleans congregation when the sanctuary washed away with Hurricane Katrina. Luter is that rarest of preachers, a man who rose from the streets, understands poverty, and spikes his call to conversion with a strong dose of compassion.
In other words, the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just placing a token black man in an honorary position to deflect attention from the denomination’s racist past; Luter rose to prominence the hard way and deserves all the accolades he is receiving.
But there is another side to the story embodied in the passionate minority report filed by Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic is as theologically conservative as a Southern Baptist can be. He preaches against “the gay lifestyle” with notorious gusto, but he is even more passionate about racial injustice.
Fred Luter notwithstanding, Rev. McKissic sees little evidence that the moral fervor of the overwhelmingly white SBC “messengers” who will attend this year’s convention extends to civil rights.
This impression was reinforced in a particularly painful way when Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, launched into a racially tinged radio rant that made him sound like the reincarnation of George Wallace circa 1962.
Land lost his radio program over his diatribe (largely because his racist comments turned out to be an unacknowledged quote from an obscure right-wing zealot), but he kept his post with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land has apologized for dismissing prominent civil rights preachers as “race hustlers” and suggesting that Barack Obama only addressed the Trayvon Martin case in a desperate attempt to improve his standing with black voters.
Is Richard Land truly repentant? McKissic is hedging his bets. And for good reason.
As law professor Michelle Alexander points out, New Jim Crow racism differs markedly from Old Jim Crow bigotry. Richard Land has renounced his denomination’s support for Old Jim Crow segregation and the overt commitment to white supremacy that was part of that package. But when it comes to the New Jim Crow realities associated with mass incarceration and the creation of a black male undercaste, the high-profile Baptist preacher is essentially clueless.
As Michelle Alexander points out, you can’t understand the dynamics of the New Jim Crow unless you are willing to sympathize with the plight of poor young black men who are making all the mistakes Fred Luter made as a young man on the mean streets of New Orleans. Luter loves these guys, even as he laments key features of their lifestyle. So does Dwight McKissic. White Baptists like Richard Land has come to terms with a long-dead Martin Luther King Jr., but isn’t ready to acknowledge the full human dignity of the pre-conversion Fred Luter.
For savvy black Baptists in the SBC like Dwight McKissic, that’s a big problem.
June 19, 2012
The Southern Baptist Convention is expected to elect its first black president on Tuesday: Fred Luter, a former street preacher who turned a dying New Orleans church into a powerhouse. His election is a milestone for the 167-year-old denomination at a time when minorities make up a growing share of a shrinking membership.
Luter, who is running unopposed for president of the nation’s largest Protestant body, is a departure from his predecessors. He was the middle child of a divorced mother, and until a motorcycle accident landed him in the hospital at age 20, he had little interest in God.
Then God changed him, he told NPR earlier this year.
“I grew up in the ‘hood, and my mom worked two or three jobs. So I hung out with a lot of bad guys, did a lot of crazy things I should not have done,” Luter said. “And so, when I gave my life to the Lord and saw what God did in my life, then I wanted all those guys I ran the street with to experience what I was experiencing.”
Soon, Luter was preaching on the streets in New Orleans. In 1986, he was invited to take over Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. Under him, its congregation grew from a couple of dozen people to 7,000 — the largest Southern Baptist church in Louisiana. Then Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, destroying the sanctuary.
“It would have been easy for Fred Luter to have said, ‘I think God’s calling me elsewhere,’ ” says Russell Moore, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “And he could have gone to a very comfortable pastorate anywhere in the country.
“And yet, he stayed,” Moore says. “And he stood with the people of New Orleans and said, ‘We’ll be back, we’ll rebuild’ — and became a spiritual anchor.”
‘The Future Of The Country Is Urban’
Luter’s decision to stay, and his personal charisma, propelled him to national prominence in the Southern Baptist Convention, says pastor David Crosby.
Crosby leads First Baptist of New Orleans, which shared its space with Luter’s congregation while they rebuilt. He adds that Luter brings something else desperately needed to this denomination, which has seen its numbers drop: He understands how to reach the only growth area of religion.
“The future of the country is urban; the future of the Southern Baptist Convention is also urban,” Crosby says. “We’ve got to learn how to operate and do our mission and thrive in the urban environment. And Fred brings that. He knows it instinctively.”
The SBC has made some progress in that area. Two decades ago, the denomination was “as white as a tractor pull,” as one critic put it. Now it’s 20 percent minority. Richard Land, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says Luter’s election shows how far the Southern Baptists have come from the days when they supported slavery.
“It’s as historic a moment as Southern Baptists have had,” Land says, “because the president of SBC is not just an honorific — it is a position of real power.”
Maybe — and maybe not, says Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of the largely African-American Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
‘A Historic Moment’
“This is a great job, but it’s somewhat symbolic and ceremonial,” he says.
McKissic says the two-year presidency is a good first step. But he says African-Americans are absent from all the real positions of power.
Some say there’s a latent racism in the denomination. And many were troubled by a recent broadcast on Land’s radio program in which he said President Obama and black leaders were using the death of Trayvon Martin for political purposes.
“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election,” Land said on the air.
“It was like someone took a knife and stuck it in my heart,” McKissic says. “It validated suspicions that many black Baptists have had all along, that this is how a good number, if not the majority, of Southern Baptists felt.”
Land has apologized and asked for forgiveness.
“I don’t want anything I’ve said, or any mistakes I’ve made, to detract from — in any way — from what is going to be a truly historic moment — a historic moment in which I rejoice,” he says.
Luter has forgiven Land; he says it’s time to look forward. He notes that if he’s elected, it will be because white Baptists voted for him.
“It won’t be because of the handful of black folk that’s going to be there,” Luter says. “So, it will say something to the country and to the world — that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we’re actually walking this thing.”