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Is the religious left right?



In the beginning was a word, and then more words, and finally, enough words that everyone fit neatly into a category: conservative, liberal, left, right, moderate, progressive. Even for Christians who worship an ostensibly unifying “Word,” the categories apply. It’s seldom been more obvious than in the 2010 election.

Much has been written about the Nov. 2 bloodletting, a not-so-surprising re-calibration of federal and state politics, but the Pew Forum has released a preliminary report about how faith factored into voting. Catholic voters, who had favored Democrats by more than a 10 percent margin in the previous two Congressional elections, flipped their vote entirely from 2008. The double-digit margin favored the Republicans this year.

The blending of religion and politics is woven into the fabric of Oklahoma discourse. James Lankford, a Republican, Baptist camp director and political newcomer, was elected to a U.S. congressional seat. At the state level, Rep. Kris Steele, a Methodist minister, will be the new speaker, leading the Republican majority in the Oklahoma House. State Rep. Sally Kern, a Baptist minister’s wife and outspoken opponent of homosexuality, was re-elected in her race against transgender candidate Brittany Novotny.

A handful of ministers in Oklahoma feels called to a different version of the Gospel message. Label them the “Christian left,” although the term is more slippery than “Christian right,” and some even eschew the term, as it hopelessly confuses theological liberalism with political liberalism. Whatever we call them, their message is radically different than that of the Christian right, and in their minds, sounds much more like Jesus.

In a post-election sermon titled “Oklahoma’s Race to the Bottom,” Robin Meyers, senior minister for Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ, told his congregation: “As for Oklahoma, we are now someplace that we’ve never been before. Not only is there nothing to stop the flood of extremist and routinely embarrassing legislation from passing, there is now no one to veto it.”

Meyers’ Nov. 7 take directly countered some of his colleagues now in government. “We are now using the referendum process to pass judgment on others, and we’re doing it needlessly,” he said. “We’re passing laws to wage the culture war, not to put people back to work or educate our kids.”

Meyers, a former Oklahoma Gazette commentary writer, has been a progressive voice in Oklahoma religion for decades. With Jeff Hamilton, the two form the foundation of the old guard. Hamilton, the president of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma and an associate minister at Oklahoma City First Christian Church, dislikes the “Christian left” label.

“The term is ambiguous,” he said. “The Interfaith Alliance is reluctant to use it because it suggests radicalism. We see ourselves as moderates who are interested in seeing religion as a positive influence on society.”

Among the items on IFA’s agenda, according to Hamilton, are LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, mental health care and religious liberty. The difference between Hamilton and some of his colleagues on the Christian right is that he’s in favor of the first two, doesn’t think taxes should be cut if it affects the third, and believes the Christian right doesn’t understand the latter.

“It seems clear that their agenda is an attack on civil liberties,” he said. “They are hypercritical of same-sex marriage, gays in general and LGBT rights.”

The LGBT topic has been the primary issue to divide right from left in Christian circles, theologically at least. It’s important to differentiate the theological left from the political left. While abortion separates left from right rather neatly in politics, it’s not as effective an indicator in theological categories.

Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, is an expert in the field of religion and American culture. He thinks the religious left is a viable movement, but sees a split largely based on generational differences.

“There is a definite generation gap between left and right,” he said. “The viability of the movement can be clearly seen in the 2008 election, if not 2010. That’s at least partly due to young voters staying home this year. The Christian right, as exemplified by James Dobson, Al Mohler and Tony Perkins, sees only two salient issues: abortion and gay marriage. Younger Christians saw other issues as important: torture, environment and social justice.”

Balmer said he thinks the Christian left can have an impact on the church overall and on American politics.

“As with environmental issues, the left can help the right move closer to the center,” he said. “That’s a good thing. Cynically, I might say that the right has embraced environmental issues for reasons other than conviction, but if it helps people take care of the planet, it’s a good thing.”

The generation gap is clear in Oklahoma City. If Meyers and Hamilton represent the old guard, the new guard is represented by a female Methodist minister and a male Nazarene minister, both under 40. They are working for progressive causes in denominations that have historically been evangelical.

Lance Schmitz, the senior minister at Capitol Hill Church of the Nazarene, has been involved with social justice issues since his undergraduate years at Southern Nazarene University. He doesn’t see his role in the current political climate changing very much.

“The elections weren’t nearly as world ending as everyone seems to think,” he said. “It’s politics, not apocalypse. Political returns don’t affect how I do ministry. I’m still going to feed the homeless, work for justice and defend the marginalized.”

Amy Venable, senior minister at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Norman, agrees.

“The task remains the same in any political context,” she said. “‘Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.’ That’s the prophet Micah. We still are expected to follow Christ, tolerate everyone and enter into relationship with everyone.”

Venable’s church is open to and affirming of all sexual orientations, a commitment that certainly puts her partly on the Christian left. She said she’s had no hostility from Methodist colleagues or the denomination.

“I often find that Methodist colleagues will direct people to our church,” she said.

Venable, Schmitz and Hamilton are unshaken about the results of the election, but some in the old guard are tired of the fight. One retired local minister, who asked not to be identified for fear of financial retribution, sent a letter to the Gazette. In it, he discusses his frustration with attempting to do ministry while surrounded by a “brand of crazy Christianity.”

“Over the last several years, I have become so disillusioned about what is being pandered about as ‘Christian values,’ that I actually retired early,” he wrote, “because I did not think my congregation and others that I knew about were open to actually hear the ‘Christian message’ or even information about ‘basic human rights.’”

To make sure he “wasn’t going off the deep end,” the former minister said he re-read the prophets and the Old Testament.

“Their writings are seldom prophesies about the future,” he wrote. “Over and over, they use harsh language for the leaders and the wealthy because of their neglect of the poor, the widows, the orphans, the strangers.”

The retired pastor said the election pushed him “over the edge” this year.

“Millions in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands of people in Oklahoma have no health insurance, and the ‘Christian’ politicians brag about going to Washington to destroy the measly little progress which was made on health care this year,” he wrote.

Balmer said one of the weaknesses of the Christian left has been their small numbers and disorganization. Those things can lead to the kind of burnout experienced by the retired minister.

“I don’t think the left is a good counterpart to the right,” Balmer said. “The Christian right is very organized; the left is not. One could always make the argument that the elections would have been worse without the input of the left, I suppose.”

Venable said she believes the Christian left is doing what it can.

“We intend to move forward, living out our faith in a climate of love, not fear,” she said.

Schmitz said the message of Jesus was more radical and life-giving than a system of moralistic nitpicking.

“This reign of God was about no less than the redemption of the entire cosmos, and we get to be a part of this conspiracy of cooperating with the God of the cosmos to heal this world,” he said. “That is a compelling message that people can get behind, more so than a tattletale sort of moralistic referring of others’ behavior.”

Islamic law and the Ten Commandments
The approval of State Question 755 made international news: “Sharia Law Banned: Oklahoma to become the first U.S. state to veto use of Islamic code,” read the headline from the Daily Mail, a British newspaper. 

Depending on your perspective, Oklahoma was a bulwark against a not-so-imminent threat or a laughingstock, and at least one law professor believed it eliminated the right of courts to use the Ten Commandments.

University of Oklahoma law professor Rick Tepker told CNN: “I would like to see Oklahoma politicians explain if this means that the courts can no longer consider the Ten Commandments. Isn’t that a precept of another culture and another nation?”

On Nov. 29, U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange ruled in favor of plaintiff Muneer Awad, who had sought an injunction against the certification of the results. Awad contended that Oklahoma courts would have to consider Shariah when probating his last will and testament, as it contains references to Islamic traditions. He also contended that Shariah was the only custom or precept mentioned in the state question, meaning it was unfairly singled out.

In her 15-page ruling, Miles-LaGrange wrote: “The Court finds that plaintiff has made a strong showing that the amendment will foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. Because, as set forth above, Sharia Law is not ‘law’ but is religious traditions that differ among Muslims … Oklahoma courts will be faced with determining the content of Sharia Law, and, thus, the content of plaintiff’s religious doctrines.”

The preliminary injunction will be in effect until the court rules on the merit’s of Awad’s case. —Greg Horton

photo Lance Schmitz. Photo/Shannon Cornman

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