There is a Sam Cooke song that is a favorite of mine (A Change Is Gonna Come, track 29 on this album if you haven’t heard it before, and Wiki has a great history of the song as well), and it resonates with me this morning as I read through a number of articles on a shift that is going on in our country — in the fight for the soul of religion and faith and the treatment of "the least of these" in this country.
The WaPo has an article today that tells us that the "religious left is back." I’m here to tell you that it hasn’t left at all — it just hasn’t gotten the press that the strident voices on the religious right has gotten. For quite a while, the religious left has operated on a "Jesus doesn’t need a press secretary" level of operation which, while that may be true, didn’t do much to dispel the myth that the folks who hired one (along with political consultants and PAC hierarchies and everything else that has to do with grabbing power in the secular universe) are the only ones operating in the name of God.
To be honest, I am uncomfortable with the politicization of religion on the left — just as much as the politicization of faith by the right has disgusted me the past few years. Pragmatically, I understand the need to fight back publicly — to dispel the notion that the only issues which trouble people of faith in this country are abortion and homosexuality. (As if.) But faith, for me anyway, has always been in the realm of personal, of private, of actions speaking louder than any hired publicist could. And that has been true for a lot of the folks that I know who are members of one faith or another — Catholic, protestant, Jewish, and so on and so on through the litany of religious beliefs.
But one thing that I have noticed, both in and out of blogdom, is that religious intolerance runs both ways — from the folks on the right, who proclaim that their view of God is the only view and any dissenters be damned (literally) and from the scorn on the left of people of faith who are, all too often, lumped in with the Pat Robertsons and the Jerry Fallwells, even when nothing could be further from their beliefs.
We have a very good shot at taking back both houses of Congress this Fall. But to do so, we all have to start pulling on the ropes together. All of us, in concert, in accordance with those issues that move us — in our hearts and at the ballot box. To get there, we have to start listening to each other, and not just tuning out those things that make some of us uncomfortable or ever-so-slightly angry.
Van Jones had a great article on this subject back in July of 2005, talking about how his faith growing up as an African-American, has been both a source of comfort in his life and of discomfort in his political life.
I literally have had liberals laugh in my face when I told them I was a Christian. For awhile, I felt self-conscious about telling other activists that I preferred not to meet on Sunday mornings, because I wanted to go to church.
It is still commonplace to hear so-called radicals stereotyping all religious people as stupid dupes — and spitting out the word "Christian" as if it were an insult or the name of a disease. I thought progressives were supposed to be the standard-bearers of tolerance and inclusion.
I certainly know the monstrous crimes that have been committed through the ages in the name of religion, or with the blessings of religious people. But I know a few other things about religion, too.
I grew up in the Black churches of the rural south, listening to the stories of my elders. As children, we heard about the good, brave people who had poured their blood out upon the ground so that we could be free. We learned how police officers had clubbed and jailed them. We learned how Klansmen had shot and lynched them. And how the G-men from Washington had just stood by and doodled in their notepads.
We learned of marches and mayhem, freedom songs and funerals. We saw images of billy-clubbed Black women on their hands and knees, searching for their teeth on Mississippi sidewalks — crawling while still clutching their little American flags. We felt pity for the children who spent long nights in frigid jail cells, wearing clothing soaked by fire-hoses, while their bones — broken and untended — began to mend at odd angles.
We saw pictures of Black men, like our fathers, hanging by their necks — their faces twisted, their bodies rigid, their clothes burned off — along with their skin. And we saw photos of carefree killers, sauntering home out of Alabama courtrooms — their faces white and sneering and proud.
We learned how the very best of humanity had faced off with the very worst of humanity — each circling the other under the same summer sun. That epic struggle had elevated southern back roads and backwaters onto the Great World Stage. And the fate of a people — along with the destiny of a nation — hung in the balance, for all to see.
In the end, we children cheered, for the righteous did prevail. More than that, they performed one of the great miracles in human history: They transformed American apartheid into a fledgling democracy, tender and delicate and new.
All progressives today proudly celebrate that achievement — and rightly so. But one key fact seems to escape the notice of today’s activist crowd. The champions of the civil rights struggle didn’t come marching out of shopping centers in South. Or libraries. Or high school gymnasiums.
To face the attack dogs, to face the fire-hoses, to face the billy-clubs, these heroes and she-roes came marching boldly out of church-houses. And they were singing church songs. They set an example of courage and sacrifice that will endure for the ages. And as they did it, they prayed on wooden pews in the name of a Nazarene carpenter named Jesus.
The implications are clear for those who seek today to rescue and redeem U.S. society. The facts are simple and profound: The last time U.S progressives captured the national debate and transformed politics, people of faith were at the center of the movement, not stuck in its closet.
I hope that Mr. Jones will not mind my reproducing such a big quote from his article, but the words flowed so well, and the soul of it spoke so deeply, that to cut any of it out seemed a sin to me. Our nation is, indeed, in need of rescue — and we need every hand on deck to bail before our ship of state sinks, mired in a mess of its own political making.
And the truth of those words rings out at this time of moral crisis in America: faith is not simply a means of achieving poltical victory, to be cynically harnessed for votes and power.
Faith is something that you do, every day, and it is not the property of any single group who claims the flag of Jesus (or whichever diety you want to substitute there). Faith, in my heart at least, is that core of strength that allows you to get up, face the day, and do something good for your fellow man, for the "least of these" who truly need the assistance — the folks who have not, not the folks who have.
I have struggled since the 2004 election to find some reason, any reason, that the poor, rural Americans around me here in WV voted so clearly against their self-interest in such high numbers for George Bush over John Kerry. And time and time again, I come back to the words that a friend of mine who worked by my side on the Kerry campaign said about political activity in her church. She told me that just going to church on Sunday had become difficult — because the Bush supporters, who cloaked themselves in religious righteousness, loudly proclaimed theirs was the only true interpretation of faith. And the folks who disagreed, my friend included, either remained silent or, like my friend, talked themselves hoarse, with the silent folks never coming to their aid in terms of the "values" that she believed were just as important as abortion and homosexuality: care for the poor and the sick; peace over war; honesty; integrity; and so on.
Rabbi Michael Lerner speaks to this subject in an article on BeliefNet, that is well worth the read:
Sure, they will admit that they have material needs, and that they worry about adequate health care, stability in employment, and enough money to give their kids a college education. But even more deeply they want their lives to have meaning–and they respond to candidates who seem to care about values and some sense of transcendent purpose.
Many of these voters have found a "politics of meaning" in the political Right. In the Right wing churches and synagogues these voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their "meaning needs." Most of these churches and synagogues demonstrate a high level of caring for their members, even if the flip side is a willingness to demean those on the outside. Yet what members experience directly is a level of mutual caring that they rarely find in the rest of the society. And a sense of community that is offered them nowhere else, a community that has as its central theme that life has value because it is connected to some higher meaning than one’s success in the marketplace.
It’s easy to see how this hunger gets manipulated in ways that liberals find offensive and contradictory. The frantic attempts to preserve family by denying gays the right to get married, the talk about being conservatives while meanwhile supporting Bush policies that accelerate the destruction of the environment and do nothing to encourage respect for God’s creation or an ethos of awe and wonder to replace the ethos of turning nature into a commodity, the intense focus on preserving the powerless fetus and a culture of life without a concomitant commitment to medical research (stem cell research/HIV-AIDS), gun control and health-care reform, the claim to care about others and then deny them a living wage and an ecologically sustainable environment-all this is rightly perceived by liberals as a level of inconsistency that makes them dismiss as hypocrites the voters who have been moving to the Right.
Yet liberals, trapped in a long-standing disdain for religion and tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the Right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue. Rightly angry at the way that some religious communities have been mired in authoritarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia, the liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has both marginalized those many people on the Left who actually do have spiritual yearnings and simultaneously refused to acknowledge that many who move to the Right have legitimate complaints about the ethos of selfishness in American life.
I’ve argued until I am exhausted that voters need something to vote for — as much as they need something to vote against. Yesterday, Ned Lamont proved to be a perfect example of just that: voting against Joe Lieberman is too easy a reason for Lamont to have gained the necessary votes to force a primary out of the state democratic convention in Connecticut — Ned is moving things forward, because he is a man in whom the citizens of Connecticut can believe on issues as broad ranging as personal responsibility and integrity, peace, and a model of giving back to a community that has given to you. Not just taking for granted that the community owes you because you did something for it once upon a time, but being willing to earn that respect and that trust every single day by living your values every single day.
Blue collar voters aren’t stupid. Neither are religious voters. And taking a condescending tone with either of them only leads to a reinforcement of the "ivory tower liberal" stereotype which I also think is really so much idiocy. What we need is language that speaks to the hearts of these voters — to the things they hold dear, which, coincidentally, are also the things we hold dear: family, children, safety, pride, our own lives and pursuit of happiness and respect and decency.
But I am leary of politicizing religion even further — I think that most people of faith who have been put off by the machinations of the opportunistic, manipulative power-hungry voices of the far right (see, e.g., Ralph Reed) would be even more disgusted if such a misuse of faith were to emerge from the far left.
What I do see, however, is an oppotunity for the Democratic party to speak to the values that people of faith have always held to be important and sacred duties: peace, respect for all of humankind, lifting up those who need a helping hand, nurturing those who have little or nothing, giving hope where there is currently none, shining a light in the dark places.
This was the Democratic party in which I was raised — perhaps it was a naive view of the world, but it was a wonderful lesson in the might of our souls and the ability to triumph over the darkness of selfishness and meanness. When I am low, when everything seems lost, when I walk through the valley of doubt, I pick up the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the speeches of John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy (heroes in WV still — you can go to a lot of homes of older Democrats in this state and see a picture of JFK on the wall of the home), the speeches of all those American heroes (and she-roes) that call out for action that speaks to my soul, not just to my intellect.
Words that lift you up and carry you forward, cradling you in the promise of what may be, what is still yet to come — words which give you hope for your future and for your children, and which speak to the heart and soul of what our nation could be, ought to be, can be if we only work a little harder. If we only square up our shoulders to fight the good fight for freedom and equality and liberty, as was promised to all of us in our Declaration of Independence so long ago.
I still have a dream for this nation, and I know a lot of you do as well. Let us work together — instead of picking each other apart — and wherever that well of faith comes from that propels you forward, let’s harness that strength instead of squabbling amongst ourselves and trying to marginalize one faction or another. In order to right this severely listing ship of state, we have to all pull on the oars together — one nation, one people, one faith in our ability to do better and to do right by all.
It’s been a long time coming, but I feel it. A change is gonna come. I have faith in all of our strength to make it happen. Can you feel it? A change is gonna come.
(This photo, by Dorothea Lange in 1936, is such a picture of determination. The mother is a migrant worker, and you can just see that core of strength that her babies are going to have a better life than she has, and the look of gritty determination as a choice over despair as she peers off into the distance away from the camera lens. Lange’s photographs are among my favorites — if you do a search on her work, you’ll be changed forever as you page through each and every print. And if you think this sort of despair disappeared with the Depression, you haven’t spent any time in Appalachia recently.)
PS — Huge thanks to the volunteers who have signed up to help with the Roots Crashing the Gate project. If you are interested in helping with deliveries on the 23rd (or in helping affix the bookplates earlier), contact jay AT ackroyd DOT org. The level of commitment that everyone has shown to making this nation a better place is truly inspirational. Well done, all of you.