Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Church and State

            Like many Americans I have followed the controversy over the federal government’s requiring Roman Catholic institutions like hospitals and schools to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives for their employees.  Roman Catholic bishops and many supporters from the Evangelical camp expressed outrage at their being required to provide a product they considered immoral.  The controversy was cast as a challenge to religious liberty and, perhaps ironically, the separation of church and state.  Now I don’t want to minimize the serious questions raised by the government’s actions.  But these are complex issues.  All of us, whether people of religious faith or more secular convictions find ourselves paying for things we would rather not support.  Many of us would rather have not seen our tax money go to the Iraq war or nuclear weapons.  I suspect that many atheists would rather not pay for military chaplains or vegans contribute to the salaries of meat inspectors.  

            Be that as it may, I had another problem.  I was concerned that the Roman Catholic Bishops and my (mostly) brothers in the Evangelical world were angling for a kind of de facto state church.  Certain parties within the Evangelical world have been pushing this agenda for a long time.  These are the folks who try to rewrite American history to make it seem that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actually graduated from Moody Bible Institute.  The Roman Catholic Church well into the 20th century was nervous about Democracy and generally in favor of freedom of religion only where the church was a threatened minority.  While that is certainly less true these days, I suspect there are many corners of the Vatican as there are in Colorado Springs that would prefer a kind of Christian monarch and the enforcement of one brand or the other of Christian morality.

            I am writing, however, to praise the secular state.  I have been convinced by Stanley Hauerwas on the one hand and Rodney Stark on the other that coziness with the state leads to the enervation of the church.  Hauerwas insists that when the church asks the state to do its work it suffers a fatal compromise.  Stark argues that privileged state churches become intellectually and spiritually flabby.  The church, he argues, requires vigorous competition from other faiths and philosophies to sustain its strength and promote its message.  The relative strength of the church in the United States is the result of such competition and pressure.  Even if Christians in the United States could agree on what constitutes “Christian morality” it would be disastrous for the task of enforcing that morality to be handed to the state.  The secular state, in other words, is good for the church.

            Besides all this like many, if not most Americans, I am deeply suspicious of hierarchical structures loudly telling me what I should or should not do and should or should not think.  Whether that hierarchy is in Washington, D. C., Vatican City, Colorado Springs, or Chicago I bristle when the voices from on high tell me how a Christian should think, vote, and believe.  I bristle not because I think there is no Christian way to think, vote, and believe but because I believe in the local church and what the Baptists call “soul competency.”  I am, after all, a Protestant.  Critical issues, I believe, are discerned together with brothers and sisters around the word of God and in service of the people of God.  They are discerned in humility and communicated with grace.  God’s people do not enforce, they persuade, they love, the bear witness.  So to the folks in Vatican City, Colorado Springs and Chicago—thanks but no thanks.  I’m doing OK with the Bible, the font and table, and my brothers and sisters at Resurrection Covenant Church.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


What do I do with my anger?
My beloved country is stained with cruel words, fractured by
jeering division and awash with impious posturing.
How do I love those who so eagerly hate?
How do I sustain those who so easily sneer?
How do I weep with those so indifferent to suffering and laugh with those so
ignorant of pain?
Do I gently point out latent racism?
Do I carefully question overt sexism?
Do I thoughtfully rebuke cursing of leaders?
Do I arch my eyebrows when the comfortably moneyed complain of taxes?

Do I remain silent for the sake of peace and smile for purposes of goodwill?
Do I silently curse their blindness and quietly rail at their ignorance?
Do I simply love that silent anger?
Do I fear to listen?
Am I cruel in my hiding and ugly in that silence?

How do I love them?  (These enemies who are not my enemies, but beloved of God.)
Do I seek love in hating?
Do I seek peace in cursing?
Do I seek hope in sneering?
Do I hang on them the horns of the scapegoat?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fair Game?

Recently I have taken to sending emails to sports writers and political pundits.  I take the Chicago Tribune, a once proud newspaper fallen, like most other newspapers, on hard times.  Political columnists and sports writers are paid for their opinions.  And like most people I love to read the people I already agree with!  Now, having confessed my sins, I have been known to read people I frequently disagree with.  In the Tribune this is John Kass.  Sometimes I like what Kass has to say.  Sometimes he drives me crazy.  What troubles me about Kass and his brethren in the sports page, however, is not their opinions, but the way those opinions are frequently expressed.  I began emailing when I noticed that it was not enough to criticize the policy of a politician or the play of an athlete; the hapless individuals targeted by Kass et. al. were subject to degrading humiliation.  The attacks were frequently cruelly personal.  It was as if public figures by virtue of the fact that they held public office or started for the Chicago Bears were fair game for mockery and abuse.  Their failures, it seems, were not simply because they faced a recalcitrant economy or a good defense, but because they were bad people.

I have emailed Kass and at least three sports writers asking about this.  Is it really necessary to mock and humiliate your opponents?  Isn’t it enough to point out your disagreements and note their failures without sneering at them?  I have, of course, never received a reply.  I know that writers like Kass and his brethren on cable television are “entertainers.”  People on the left love to hear Colbert take down a bewildered conservative.  People on the right love to hear Glenn Beck mock a hapless liberal.  And so sportswriters and columnists are almost compelled to resort to nastiness to get and hold an audience.  I get that.  But there is something profoundly troubling about it all.  In spite of the fact that Kass is Greek Orthodox, Colbert is Roman Catholic and Beck a Mormon, they seem to have little regard for the words of the man they claim to follow: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43).  It is hard for me to see how you can love your enemies and mock and humiliate them.  It is hard for me to see how you can love your enemies and distort what they say. 

I have determined during this election cycle that I will not join in the mockery and abuse.  I am going to pray for both candidates—even if I can’t stand the positions of one of them (as is likely to be the case).  I will feel free to criticize positions and raise questions about decisions.  But I will not join in the hurling of abuse, lies, and distortions.  While I am at it, I would suggest that the church world could stand to call a moratorium on this as well.  The left needs to stop sneering at the “fundamentalists.”  The right needs to stop excoriating the “liberals.”  Raise questions about theology and practice, but stop denigrating and insulting each other.  We can do this without the personal abuse and cruel assertions that come far too quickly to our lips.  I have written and said a lot of things over the years.  I have not always been charitable or kind and I regret that.  It behooves all of us who write or speak to consider more carefully how our words, when they become intimate and personal, wound individuals and persons who love them.  How can we use our words to challenge and encourage?  How can we use our words to love?

 John E. Phelan, Jr.