Civil Rights

Americans willing to talk about politics, but few anxious to discuss religion

Americans willing to talk about politics, but few anxious to discuss religion

While it's hard to pinpoint the precise moment it happened, it's clear that most American discussions of religious liberty have turned into shouting matches about "religious liberty," a term now commonly framed in "scare quotes."

The recent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights "Peaceful Coexistence" report made this clear, claiming the First Amendment's defense of the free exercise of religion is not as important as some people think. Thus, "civil rights" now trump "religious liberty."

The commission stressed: "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights."

In a quote that went viral online, commission chair Martin Castro added: "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance."

This creates a major problem for Americans who are worried about civil public discourse or even the odds of having friendly conversations with friends, family and neighbors, noted Scott McConnell, head of LifeWay Research.

"What did our parents tell us when we were growing up? They warned us not to talk about politics, not to talk about religion and not to talk about sex," he said, reached by telephone.

"Well, it's hard to talk about anything that matters these days -- like religious liberty -- without talking about all three of those things and usually at the same time. ... No wonder people are tense."

Just how tense are Americans, when it comes to talking about religion?

Goodbye to a radical Baptist patriarch

The old Southern preacher had walked through many airport security gates using his cherry-wood cane and was surprised -- especially years before 9/11 -- when a guard ordered him to send it through the X-ray scanner. After that rite, the Rev. Will Campbell asked the guard to bring him the cane. The guard, somewhat miffed, asked if he could walk through the scanner without it. The preacher, somewhat vexed, said that was a question for his doctor.

Facing a nervous crowd, the guard ordered Campbell to walk through the gate. So the famous civil-rights activist -- the only white leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invited to the first Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting -- got down on the floor and crawled through. Then he retrieved his cane.

Campbell admitted, when telling this parable to Baptist progressives in 1994, that he then gave the cane a "sassy little twirl." His wife asked: "Why do you do things like that?"

"Because, I'm a Baptist! I come from a long line of hell-raisers," said Campbell. "I was taught that I wasn't a robot -- that I was a human being with a mind, capable of reason, entitled to read any book, including the Bible, and interpret it according to the ability of the mind I was given. That's why I do things like that."

The key, he said, is to ask what happened to all the Baptists who kept clashing with authority figures in the past. Where are the Baptists who were willing to be "tied on ladders and pushed into burning brush heaps because they believed in and practiced freedom of conscience," who "were so opposed to the death penalty they wouldn't serve on juries" and who "would not go to war, any war, for church or state? ... Where are they now?"

Campbell, he died last month at the age of 88, was a complex activist and writer who made lots of people mad for lots of reasons. Raised in rural Mississippi, he thrived at Yale Divinity School and failed as a small-town pastor. He accompanied the Freedom Riders in 1961 and marched in Birmingham in 1963. He tried to avoid reporters, but was tight with country-music rebels like Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He opposed both abortion and the death penalty and, late in life, backed gay rights.

The self-proclaimed "bootleg Baptist" spent his life preaching forgiveness and reconciliation, yet also called religious conservatives "ecclesiastical highwaymen" who were "espousing a course that is a rollercoaster to a fascist theocracy." Pushed to summarize his theology he stated: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."

"Will was fond of saying that if you are going to love one then you have to love everyone. ... This meant rednecks as well as radicals," wrote the Rev. Timothy George, for the conservative "First Things" journal. He is the dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a former member of Campbell's Committee of Southern Churchmen.

Campbell "infuriated many," George added, "when he befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan and even visited James Earl Ray in prison. Campbell wrote: 'I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his hostility, his frustration, his need for someone upon whom to lay blame and to punish. With the same love that we are commanded to shower upon the innocent victim, the church must love the racist.'

"The fact is Will Campbell was simply sui generis. He cannot be comfortably squeezed into anyone's box."

In the end, the only box Campbell accepted was a Baptist box that fit his own iconoclastic specifications -- rejecting all creeds, traditions and hierarchies.

"Institutions, by their very definition, are evil," he said, in that 1994 address. "Their raison-d'etre is always and inevitably self-survival. They, all of them, when they are threatened will go to any length, tell any lie, engage in any program to protect themselves. And justify it as being in defense of Almighty God."

For Baptists to be true Baptists, he said, it's crucial for them to teach that Jesus never "demanded of the people who wanted to follow him that they must first know this or that, this creed, or that catechism, the nature of the Trinity or the plan of salvation, or subscribe to an Abstract of Principles to the satisfaction of the Sanhedrin. He had not insisted on any systematic belief whatsoever."

The faithful soul of Jackie Robinson

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey knew that the first black player in major league baseball was going to go through hell. That's why the cigar-chomping, Bible-thumping Rickey set out to find a man who would keep believing -- when facing bitter, scathing racial hatred -- that the powers of heaven were on his side. As baseball writers have often noted, Rickey needed someone who could turn the other cheek, as well as turn a double play.

In writer-director Brian Helgeland's new epic, "42," Jackie Robinson states the challenge in blunt terms.

"You want a man," Robinson asks, "who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"

Rickey replies: "I want a man who has the guts NOT to fight back."

The fit was perfect. In Helgeland's script, Rickey offers this churchy equation: "Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong."

That's the stuff of movies, alright, but this kind of faith reference remains somewhat unusual in a Hollywood blockbuster, acknowledged Eric Metaxas, who is best known for writing the global bestseller "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." The problem, he said, is that "42" omitted many other details that would have demonstrated that faith was crucial to the whole story.

There's no doubt that Robinson was a remarkable man, argues Metaxas, in his new "Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness." But Robinson was also a remarkably courageous and truly devout Christian man. Thus, he included Robinson's story in a book that explores the faith commitments of George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Pope John Paul II, Chuck Colson and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In the classic "Chariots of Fire," which won the Oscar for best picture, the Olympic runner and future missionary Liddell is repeatedly shown preaching, parsing scripture and discussing the beliefs that led to his pivotal decision not to run in Sunday races at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. "Try to imagine that movie without those scenes," noted Metaxas, in a telephone interview.

The key "42" scene -- when Robinson meets Rickey on Aug. 28, 1945 -- could have depicted what actually happened at the time. Rickey pulled out a copy of a classic devotional work, "Life of Christ" by Giovanni Papini, and read aloud the passage in which the author discusses the Sermon on the Mount, including the reference that describes the "turn the other cheek" challenge as "the most stupefying" of the "revolutionary teachings" of Jesus.

It wouldn't have taken long to read the scripture that so inspired Rickey and Robinson, said Metaxas. The Gospel of St. Matthew states: "Ye have heard it hath been said, An eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

The reason, quite literally, that Rickey "choose Jackie Robinson was his strong moral character and his Christian faith," said Metaxas. "There were other great black players out there. But could they have taken the stand that Jackie took? ...

"That first meeting is the moment. That scene is the heart of this story and Jesus is right there in the middle of it."

It would have been wonderful if "42" had also noted the strong faith of Robinson's mother, Mallie. Then there was a crucial Methodist mentor named Karl Downs who taught the great ballplayer that obeying the command to "resist not evil" was not cowardly, but heroic, said Metaxas.

But movies are movies and, often, what matters the most are the visual images. Thus, it's crucial that Helgeland didn't include scenes in which Robinson is shown doing what he repeatedly said that he did day after day in those tense early years in major-league baseball -- getting down on his knees, praying for strength and patience.

"I'm not saying that this is a horrible movie," stressed Metaxas. "Yes, Robinson is shown closing his eyes for 0.87 seconds before he runs out onto the field and he's hit by the occasional inspirational ray of sunlight. ... But why are people afraid of showing a true American hero getting down on his knees and praying? What's so scary about that?

"It's like people think that prayer is a sign of weakness. Well, getting down on his knees didn't make Jackie Robinson weak. That's what helped make him strong."

Alveda King's old dream

Fox News star Glenn Beck staged the show at the Lincoln Memorial, and then fired up his flock by claiming, "Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God." Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin almost stole the show with a political shot at President Barack Obama, telling her fans, "You too know that we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor!"

But there was only one African-American preacher present whose last name was spelled K-I-N-G. There was only one orator who could infuriate pundits simply by standing with Beck on the 47th anniversary of her martyred uncle's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Tears of rage? Tears of joy? The Rev. Alveda King knew she would cause both by linking the Rev. Martin Luther King's classic cadences with the religious and cultural issues that loomed over what Beck insisted was a nonpolitical rally. Once a Democrat in the Georgia Legislature, the evangelical minister now leads African-American outreach programs for the Catholic group Priests For Life.

First, she reminded listeners that her "Uncle Martin" had compared America's promise of equal protection to a check marked "insufficient funds." But when, she asked, will "we know that the check Uncle Martin spoke of is good?"

"We will know when prayer is once again welcome in the public squares of America and in our schools. We will know when our children are no longer in mortal peril on our streets and in our classrooms, and in the wombs of our mothers," she said.

"We will know when righteousness rolls down like waters, and justice like a mighty stream. Yes, I too have a dream ... that America will repent of the sin of racism and return to honor. I have a dream that white privilege will become human privilege and that people of every ethnic blend will receive everyone as brothers and sisters in the love of God. I have a dream that America will pray, and God will forgive us our sins and revive our land."

Critics were not kind.

Chatting with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post dismissed Alveda King as a "convenient figurehead or puppet. ... She's a fundamentalist, very conservative Christian. ... She's estranged from the rest of the King family, and from the keepers of his legacy."

And in a Washington Post essay before the rally, Martin Luther King III anticipated the coming efforts to embrace the causes now identified with the first family of civil rights. His father's dream, he stressed, "rejected hateful rhetoric and all forms of bigotry or discrimination, whether directed at race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation or political beliefs. ... Throughout his life he advocated compassion for the poor, nonviolence, respect for the dignity of all people and peace for humanity."

For Alveda King, these debates are signs of painful divisions -- many of them theological -- inside the Civil Rights Movement, black churches and the extended King family. While the late Coretta Scott King supported abortion rights and gay rights, other members of the family have fiercely questioned whether the views of her husband would have evolved in that direction.

One debate, for example, focuses on the significance of the decision by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to accept the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood in 1966. Alveda King and other opponents of abortion note that this was six years before Roe v. Wade and only three years after a Planned Parenthood pamphlet warned that, "An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun."

America's ongoing battles over abortion, insisted Alveda King, are one of many symptoms that her uncle's work remains unfinished.

"Our material gains seem to be going the way of our moral losses," she said, in her Aug. 28 sermon. "We are still suffering from the great evil divide of racism. Our children are suffering in failing school systems. Our sons and daughters are being incarcerated at astronomical rates. Sickness, disease and poverty of the spirit, soul and body are plaguing our communities. The procreative foundation of marriage is being threatened, and the wombs of our mothers have become places where the blood of our children is shed in a 'womb war' that threatens the fabric of our society. ...

"Yet, we are not without hope. Faith, hope and love are not dead in America. Hallelujah."

Prayers in a minefield (civil religion II)

Phyllis Tickle tried to pay close attention to the prayers at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which isn't surprising since she has written a whole shelf of books on rites of public and private prayer. The problem was that she didn't hear much in the way of traditional prayer, in terms of clergy offering words of praise and petition to God. Instead, the prayers sounded like lectures or mini-sermons aimed at the masses on the National Mall.

"Did I think the official prayers were disasters? No," said Tickle, author of, among many relevant works, "Prayer Is a Place: America's Religious Landscape Observed."

"I just thought that they lacked the majesty of a psalm before the throne of God, substituting instead ... the mundane and plebian commentary of a human being to other human beings about an established lists of errors and of desirable aims, with a little advice to God thrown in. ... I'm not sure why preachers think they have to do that."

The clergy in the rites surrounding the inauguration, of course, faced the challenge of praying in a political minefield. On one side were the atheists and secularists whose lawsuits failed to keep religious language out of the proceedings. On the other side were religious activists -- liberals and conservatives -- poised to judge whether the prayers made the grade, politically and doctrinally.

Pity the poor shepherd who has to please his own flock, as well as the New York Times editorial page.

Most of the early analysis focused on the decision to invite the Rev. Rick Warren -- an evangelical leader who rejects Obama's support for abortion and gay rights -- to offer the invocation. Warren opened by blending a theme from his own bestseller, "The Purpose Driven Life," with snippets of Jewish and Muslim prayers.

"Almighty God, our Father, everything we see and everything we can't see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you. It all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory. History is your story," he said. "Scripture tells us, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.' And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made."

The prayer also included words of thanksgiving for the election of an African-American president, an appeal for economic justice and concern for the environment. The California megachurch pastor then dared to close with clear references to Jesus -- in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English -- and the Lord's Prayer.

The benediction was by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a strong voice from the Civil Rights Movement. He began with the poetic final lines of the "Negro National Anthem," the classic "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and then ended with an edgy poem based on the work of blues singer Big Bill Broonzy.

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning," he concluded, "we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say, 'Amen.' "

In between, Lowery offered sharp shots of political commentary, including a pronouncement that America has recently "sown the seeds of greed," blown by the "wind of greed and corruption" that have caused the nation to "reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption." Thus, he asked God to "help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance."

None of this, stressed Tickle, was all that unusual. Prayers written for use in these kinds of giant civic events are almost always "rather didactic" and "content driven." As a rule, they also tend to be long.

On this historic inauguration day, anyone seeking the most fervent expressions of faith, hope and love needed to hear the voices in the crowd, not the leaders in the pulpit.

"The real prayers were written by the people on that mall and across the nation, with their bodies, with their voices, with their cries and with their tears," said Tickle. "That was the religious experience that really mattered on that day."

The roots of King's dream

The telephone rang after midnight and sleep was not an option for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., after he answered it.

It was late 1956. Years later, King quoted that hellish voice: "Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren't out of this town in three days, we are going to blow your brains out and blow up your house."

King ended up in the kitchen, meditating on the mystery of evil and worrying about his family. He began praying out loud, voicing his feelings of weakness, frustration and fear. Soon, he fell into a waking dream in which God gave him comfort and courage. He glimpsed the future.

The next day, King told reporters: "I had a vision."

This became a touchstone event and shaped one of his signature themes. But the wording had changed by the time King reached the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.  By then the voice of the Civil Rights Movement was crying out: "I have a dream."

Four decades later, this speech may be the only exposure that millions of young Americans have ever had to King's preaching and writing, said Drew Hansen, author of "The Dream," a new book that offers an in-depth analysis of the history and content of the speech.

This is sadly limited view of a complex man and his times, said the 30-year-old Seattle lawyer. But many who watch or read this speech may be inspired to learn more. After all, that is what happened to Hansen during a Yale Law School class on civil rights. He dug deeper and what he found was both inspiring and sobering.

"It's easy to focus on this speech and King's victories and all those barriers that fell back in the days when things were so bad," said Hansen, an evangelical Christian who graduated from Harvard and also studied theology at Oxford University.

"Focusing on this speech alone is certainly a lot easier than meditating on all of the barriers that remain. ... But still, this is a wonderful place to start as we give King the homage that is his due as a preacher, public philosopher, field general and prophet."

It is crucial to grasp the context. Hansen noted that King traveled about 275,000 miles and delivered at least 350 speeches during the year of the March on Washington. Witnesses said he worked on the text up to the last minute, literally marking out passages and scribbling in others as he sat waiting to speak.

Hansen's book includes material from rough drafts prepared by aides as well as a side-by-side comparison of the text as King wrote it and then delivered it. This includes detailed descriptions of the preacher's vocal inflections and use of dramatic pauses and repeated sentence constructions that let his listeners to respond to his words like skilled jazz musicians.

"King knew how to read his audience," said Hansen. "That had been part of his training since he was a little boy in his daddy's church. This address was a case of a talented preacher getting caught up in a call-and-response experience, not just with the audience in front of him, but with the whole nation. "That's why these words touched people then and they touch people now."

It was supposed to have been a political speech. Yet nearly every significant metaphor in it can be traced to a biblical source, noted Hansen. Growing up in black Baptist churches, King had been baptized in the words, grammar and imagery of the King James Bible. This provided a solid foundation as he spoke to African Americans and, ironically, to white Protestants in the Deep South. King knew that the Bible had authority --authority to inspire and to judge.

This is what King turned to as he faced the nation. The entire "I have a dream" section of the speech was not in his written text.

"He wrote a political address," said Hansen. "It's not that other people wrote a political address for him. King's own draft was nothing like a sermon. But the speech he actually delivered was not dominated by that kind of political language. He left lots of that out and everything he added was rooted in biblical images and themes. That changed everything."