Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Inclusive and Exclusive Religion

If churches and other houses of worship are to be meaningful in the 21st century, the question of who is included and who is excluded will be crucial for each community of faith to decide. One can observe various groups struggling with this issue every day in the news. Are women to be fully included? How about gay folk or those of differing religious views? These are tough questions for many groups.

Cal Thomas, in an opinion piece published July 24, argues passionately that exclusion is at the heart of Christianity and that inclusion is an abandonment of the true faith. He states, "Inclusivity has nothing to do with the foundational truths set forth in Scripture. The church, which belongs to no denomination, but to its Founding Father and His Son, is about exclusivity for those who deny the faith. The church is inclusive only for those who are adopted by faith into God's family." Thomas uses this line of thinking to ridicule the participation of gay folk in the Episcopal church and Jimmy Carter's concerns about the role of women in the Southern Baptist church.

This kind of tribal perspective is common in conservative Christianity, which has a long tradition of dividing us all into the sheep and the goats, along with dire threats for those who come out on the wrong side of the line. Indeed, this kind of exclusivist thinking, and the justification of it using religion, is a kind of unconscious mental habit in American culture.

Precisely the same question, namely who will be included and who will be excluded, lies at the center of the current health care debate. If exclusion is considered God's will, as Mr. Thomas and many others apparently believe, then universal health care would represent a major shift away from that kind of thinking. Let us pray that we can make that shift.

If religion is to be meaningful in the 21st century, it will need to move away from exclusion and shift increasingly toward inclusion. Exclusive religion will keep us from uniting in the crucial ways needed to resolve our deepest social problems, which demand global, interfaith and intercultural cooperation. Inclusive, welcoming religion has the potential to inspire many of us to work energetically for the common good.

"Inclusivity" may not be in the Bible, but love of neighbor certainly is. And who is our neighbor? Precisely the one we have difficulty accepting, like the despised Samaritan in the parable, who turns out to be a healer. When we can love and include those who are not like us, then we are truly on the way. Which way do you think religion is moving? Send me your thoughts.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite and the Interfaith Alliance

One of the most underreported dimensions of the life and work of Walter Cronkite is his long and dedicated involvement with the Interfaith Alliance. For some strange reason, this doesn't seem to be headline news.

The Interfaith Alliance was founded in 1994 with a mission to promote the positive role of religion as a healing and constructive force in public life. That was, and still is, a challenging goal. At the time of the founding of the Interfaith Alliance, America seemed to be increasingly mired in a one-dimensional view of religion. The one kind of religion that was constantly asserted in the public eye was the conservative Christianity of mostly white, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

The message of this movement, called the religious right, was that religion is about rigid moral rules, conservative politics, individual responsibility (which usually meant voting "no" on social programs) and a strangely unChristlike affirmation of American militarism. The religious right was cultivating a growing alliance with conservative politicians that would reach its zenith during the Bush years. Some of those politicians openly called for America to be a "Christian nation," a form of government known as theocracy.

The Interfaith Alliance was formed to provide an alternative to this flawed model of the role of religion in public life. Interfaith Alliance sought to remind the American people that America is diverse, mulitcolored and multiethnic, not monochrome and always crowding the right side of the political spectrum. The new organization wanted to promote tolerance, religious freedom, civility and respect in religious dialogue, and clear boundaries between church and state. It wanted to correct the mistaken idea that any political party represented God. It wanted America to remember that thoughtful and caring people can disagree on religion, politics and social policies, whether they are people of faith or not.

Beginning in 1997, Walter Cronkite became one of the most active and dedicated supporters of the Interfaith Alliance and remained so for the rest of his life. The group awards a prize each year in his name, and at the time of his death, he served as honorary chair of the board. Upon the occasion of Cronkite's first meeting with executive director Rev. Welton Gaddy, the most trusted person in America stated, "Nothing less is at stake in the work of the Interfaith Alliance than the existence of democracy as we know it."

In the last twelve years, the religious landscape has changed in America. The religious right no longer has the sole claim to be the voice of religion. There are many voices being heard in America, among them voices of Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists, pagans and many varieties of Christians. Walter Cronkite's dedication to opening up our American consciousness to the diverse voices already present among us is a major reason for the increased richness of our contemporary view. It is now our task to continue this work so that Americans of all faiths, and those of no faith, can live together peacefully, safely and in full freedom.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Maybe God Doesn't Want America to Have Universal Health Care

The hottest issue in American society is health care. Millions of Americans are intensely concerned about what will happen in the next few months as our government struggles to act. As almost everyone knows, the United States is the only industrialized democracy in the world that does not have universal health care. Every other major democratic state has figured out a way to solve this basic problem. Why should America alone be different?

Believe it or not, part of the answer has to do with religion. This may sound strange, but it's true. We Americans live in one of the most religious countries in the world. Despite our growing religious diversity, one of the strongest traditions in our heritage is still the Calvinism of the first pilgrims who settled New England. That old Calvinist tradition taught that God has divided the human race into the saved and the damned — those who are going to spend eternity in bliss and those who will spend it in eternal punishment. According to this Calvinist world view, there is no possibility of ever changing this harsh reality; there are cosmic winners and cosmic losers in life, and that is just the way it is. I contend that our social policies tend to follow this same pattern.

Although there are certainly many other religious points of view in our culture, and even within Christianity itself, this old myth of the ultimate division of the human family, expressed in many forms, runs very deep in the American psyche. Ours is a culture that has repeatedly divided people into the ins and the outs. Slavery and the near genocide of native Americans are obvious examples. Both of these tragedies were supported by Biblical arguments. We hear echoes of this old theology over and over again, even in the 21st century. We hear them whenever anyone proposes a program that tries to solve a social problem for all of us. Deep in our culture is a lingering belief that God does not see things in this universal way.

According to this old belief, God sees the human race as eternally divided into those destined for heaven and those destined for hell. If that is true, then trying to make life work for everyone can never succeed, because it goes against that great cosmic plan. Even to argue for universal solutions is maligned as socialism, a horror too great to imagine. Why? Because, according to this view, universal solutions go against the very will of God; it is inevitable that some will be blessed and others cursed.

In our current health care debate, we hear this argument coming repeatedly from the conservative side of the spectrum. Many Americans are strangely willing to accept 48 million people with no health insurance, and millions of others with inadequate insurance. Such a view, which accepts the suffering of millions of people as inevitable and insoluble, can legitimately be called Hellth Care.

Why would otherwise intelligent and decent people take such a harsh position? Because it fits with a religious world view, clearly linked with conservative politics, that teaches that the final destiny of humanity is separation, not reconciliation; division, not unity. This linkage between politics and religious dogma is not usually discussed openly, of course, and it may even be unconscious for many participants, but it is not that hard to connect the dots.

There are, fortunately, religious alternatives to the model of the saved and the damned, both Christian alternatives and alternatives in other faiths. My perception is that these alternatives are on the ascendancy. Countless thoughtful Christians have abandoned the threatening and divisive rhetoric of damnation and have chosen (wisely, I think) to anchor their faith in the transforming power of love that forms the core of Jesus' timeless message.

Outside of Christianity, there are Eastern, mystical, humanist, New Age, nature-centered and other traditions that emphasize the unity of all life, not its ultimate division into saved and unsaved. These paths teach interdependence, compassion for all, and communal salvation. They see us as all in the same boat together, not fighting against each other for the scarce life boats (or insurance policies) in which only the few will survive. These world views lead to social policies that are inclusive, not exclusive.

As the health care debate unfolds, we can hear these two different world views expressed over and over again. Some will talk of universal access; others will talk of why this will never work. Some will talk of compassion; others will talk of harsh realities. Some will talk of all Americans; others will appeal to those who deserve and those who don't. Underneath this discussion lies an unconscious world of religious myth and belief. In one world, the human family is eternally and painfully separated into heaven and hell; in the other view, all of humanity shares a common destiny, a future in which all of us share in the bounty of life.

It is my view that the old hell-dominated view, the myth of separation, has run its course and is currently falling apart. The health care debate serves as a powerful example of how American society is actually changing course, from a land where only some are entitled to the benefits of life to a land where, ever so gradually and with great difficulty, all of us (even women, GLBT folk, people of color, the poor and those of other faiths) will eventually reach the promised land. Do you find such a vision inspiring? Let me know your thoughts.