Friday, September 12, 2008

The Positives of Palin’s Pentecostalism

Among the new information Americans are having to process as they get to know Sarah Palin is that she is a Pentecostal. This, understandably, strikes fear into the heart of many a secularist and sends a nervous shudder up the spine of even her fellow Christians. Pentecostals are, after all, Holy Rollers, pew jumpers, empty headed followers of crafty Elmer Gantry’s and the surest evidence that religious excess survives in the modern world. This, of course, is the unflattering image most Americans have come to believe.

In fact, Pentecostalism has grown up while the world took little notice. Begun as a reaction to the modernism of the early 1900’s, Pentecostalism was revivalistic, retreatist and often legalistic. Women took care to show no ankle or wrist and children were threatened with hell if they so much as attended a Saturday afternoon matinee. Pentecostals exacted a high price for holiness. In time, though, they matured. Much of this was due to the leadership of Oral Roberts, who defied the Pentecostal fear of film by using movies to evangelize, defied the Pentecostal fear of education by starting a university, and defied the Pentecostal fear of other Christian denominations by calling all who believed in Jesus to swim in the waters of spiritual renewal. His ministry and university became a font of refreshing for religious movements as diverse as Charismatic Catholics, Renewal Episcopalians and the reactionary, hesitant Pentecostals of Roberts’ religious roots.

The Assembly of God denomination also matured during these years and became one of the great surviving movements of the Pentecostal era. Sarah Palin’s experience provides a prism for the neo-Pentecostal experience. Her family attended their beloved A.O.G. church and drew from its deep well of biblical teaching, passion to know God, and eagerness to lovingly change the world. Sarah would have known believers of a deeply mystical cast, those who spoke in tongues while praying and energetic worshippers who occasionally shouted their praise in church. There was an emphasis on sacrificial generosity, on Christian fellowship across economic and ethnic lines and, of course, on missionary outreach. Indeed, the event at which Palin spoke the words about God’s will in Iraq which have become so controversial was in fact a commissioning service for youth soon to be sent abroad. And it was this sense of social obligation that moved a young Sarah Palin to political service. This was far removed from Pentecostalism’s retreatist roots but very much in tune with the new brand of socially relevant Pentecostalism which has become the norm today.

Among the four candidates for executive office the nation is now considering, only two are versed in the street level religious experiences many Americans know. John McCain lived in a high-church, military brand of Episcopalianism most of his life. Joe Biden attended exclusive Catholic schools and has long been a lover of the rituals and liturgies that arise from his historic faith. But Obama and Palin have both sat in churches where poor and rich worshipped alike, where religious passions spilled out in sometimes uncouth ways and in which the call of Jesus to serve the hurting took practical form. We should be glad that this is so. It has made Obama the compassionate soul he has become. And Palin’s Pentecostalism has given her the common touch while also tethering her life and her politics to a sense of moral obligation to God. This should be a cause not of suspicion but of gratitude. American’s should honor Palin’s faith not only for the good it has done her but for the symbol she is of Pentecostalism stepping afresh on the global stage.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

In Search of the Great Soul

The verdict is in and Sarah Palin did well. Though a single speech does not a vice-president make, she brought the full force of her political life and intellect, not to mention her photogenic family, to bear on this the first of her defining moments before the national gaze.

She did well. And so did Giuliani. And Thompson and Lieberman the night before. In fact, Obama did well himself, and Biden, though less smooth, kept his end of the bargain too. All held our attention. All positioned themselves or their candidate as patriots fit for our moment in time. All took the strategic swipe at the other side. All sent the faithful away assured that truth lives on.

Yet, as we near the last night of the last convention, I find myself yearning not just for greater speech craft but for speeches by larger souls. I find myself longing for the poetry that surfaces in the life of passionate patriots, the love of fellow man and country that animates great leadership, and the tethering of all of this to a faith that elevates beyond the merely human. I’m not looking for a flutter in my heart and a mist in my eyes. I’m looking for a speech that is more principle than procedure from someone who is more statesman than symbol in words fashioned for mobilizing and not just marketing. In other words, I want to be assured that a great soul, tempered by grief but touched by compassion, is about to take the helm of the ship of state.

I don’t think I ask too much. I’ve been re-reading Ronald Reagan’s 1980 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Detroit. You should read it. Reagan spoke of the destiny of America and her genius for leadership. He led his listeners on a tour of American history that began with the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 and continued to the present. He trashed Jimmy Carter’s scolding ways, called for a new economic model and then explained that the need for a strong America was not for Americans alone, but for the world—for our European allies and for boat people from Cuba. America, he told us, has a rendezvous with destiny.

Then, questioning whether we can “doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely,” Reagan haltingly said, “I confess that I‘ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest—I’m more afraid not to—that we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer. God bless America.” And so it began.

I hold this up against the speeches we’ve heard and the souls we’ve had on parade in recent weeks. There is something missing. Or perhaps it is merely held in reserve, perhaps even unwittingly. Sarah Palin is a fine leader who will likely serve our country well. Oddly, though, there was no mention of faith in her speech last night, and this despite the fact that she is a strong Christian, a Pentecostal, in fact, who if elected will be the first Pentecostal to serve as vice-president. No mention of faith? No nod to God’s goodness in our history? No Reaganesque statement of reliance on providence to achieve our lofty goals? Hmm.

I found the same in Obama’s speech. At a Democratic Convention that was the most faith encased in history, Obama made none of the affirmations of faith for which he has become known. Nor did Biden, the devoted Catholic. Nor did other speakers for whom faith is native language.

Look, I have a church and I can read poetry for myself. I’m not looking for politicians to move me because I need the kind of motivational fix I get from watching Hoosiers or Rudy. But I will continue to insist that we elevate leaders who are more than just squabbling children in expensive suits. We need statesmanship. We need the artillery of words. We need souls so acquainted with suffering and grace that they can summon the soul of a nation.

Sarah Palin can probably do this. Her handlers should let her. McCain never has but he could if he leans to that greater side of himself. But whether they can do it or not, this is the quality of leadership for which we should pray and to which we should pledge our service.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Keeping Prophetic Distance

When I was in graduate school, I remember a professor of biblical studies speaking at length about something called “prophetic distance.” He was referring to the loving distance from society that a speaker of truth had to maintain to be effective. I remember he said that you cannot speak powerfully and objectively to a man if you desperately need something from him. You will bend your message to please him in order to obtain whatever you need from him—praise, money, acceptance, or access for example. To speak truth, particularly the truth of God, you must maintain prophetic distance. It is the price of the calling, the way you position yourself apart from society so you can speak effectively to society.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal this week as I ponder the reaction to McCain’s appointment of Sarah Palin.

As I have said here before, I like Governor Palin very much. She is the kind of smart, hard-hitting but principled woman I admire and largely because my wife—who is very much of the same tribe—has taught me what a gift this kind of woman can be. I think Gov. Palin, in time, will be just such a gift to America.

Yet what concerns me is not Sarah Palin but the quickness with which evangelicals newly embraced John McCain once she joined the ticket. As readers of this blog know, I consider abortion to be the seminal issue in this election. An abortion is the taking of a human life. However open I might be to varying approaches to the war, health care, immigration or social justice, I cannot be flexible on the issue of abortion. And this is what concerns me about John McCain and the evangelical rush to embrace him following the appointment of Sarah Palin. McCain says he is pro-life and that his will be a pro-life presidency. Yet until just hours before appointing Palin, McCain strongly preferred either Lieberman or Ridge as his running mate, both men strongly pro-abortion. What does this say about McCain’s commitment to pro-life policies and does the presence of Sarah Palin ameliorate these concerns? Could it be that Mr. McCain intended to buy off the pro-life right with the Palin appointment without seriously intending a pro-life presidency?

While working on my recent book, I had the opportunity to interview Jim Wallis of Sojourners. In the course of a rich interview, I asked Jim if he planned to endorse a candidate. He replied that he did not endorse candidates, he asked candidates to endorse him, or, more precisely, his social justice movement and the values upon which it is built. In other words, Wallis did not go fawning after political candidates, surrendering his soul in search of political power. He remained himself, confident and somewhat apart, and welcomed those in power to stand with him in his noble cause.

This is what my professor meant by “prophetic distance” and this is what I want to urge among my pro-life friends in both parties—and yes, my fellow conservatives, there are numerous pro-life Democrats. Don’t be fobbed off by symbols and showmanship. Don’t accept the empty gesture, the artifice of stagecraft. Hold on to the truth you believe and make your case and don’t stop making your case until the cause of the unborn is declared and won. Too often people of faith have been bought off with symbolic baubles rather than substantive action by our elected leaders. This is because we have too frequently sold our birthright for a bit of porridge—or a steak with the powerful at Morton’s.

I hope that Mr. McCain’s appointment of Sarah Palin is more than a show for the benefit of his pro-life base. This, we cannot control. What we can do is continue to speak truth to power and refuse to be satisfied with anything less than an administration that speaks in defense of the unborn. This is what John McCain has promised and we are right to hold him to it.

I’ll close this thought with the words of acclaimed Christian author Bennan Manning, who has called us to prophetic distance using different terms: “Uncritical acceptance of any party line is an idolatrous abdication of one's core identity as Abba's child. Neither liberal fairy dust nor conservative hardball addresses human dignity, which is often dressed in rags. Abba's children find a third option. They are guided by God's Word and by it alone. All religious and political systems, Right and Left alike, are the work of human beings. Abba's children will not sell their birthright for any mess of pottage, conservative or liberal. They hold fast to their freedom in Christ to live the gospel—uncontaminated by cultural dreck, political flotsam, and the filigreed hypocrisies of bullying religion.”

Friday, August 29, 2008

John McCain has chosen Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, as his vice-presidential running mate. I hope he knows what he's doing.

Let me say quickly, that I like Governor Palin. She is a principled conservative, unswervingly pro-life and proven as a tough reformer. I like that she is athletic, loves the outdoors and is married to a Yup'ik Eskimo. I'm also proud of her for choosing to have her fifth child when she knew in advance that he had Down Syndrome.

Yet two years ago she was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska: population 5,500. The entire state of Alaska does not have a population as large as my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Alaska is 670,000 or so. Nashville is 1.2 million.

I'm concerned that McCain's maverick, "I'll-do-it-my-way" style may have gone astray on this one. True, she might do brilliantly. But then again Biden may eat her alive in debates and she may pale on the national stage. Voters may fear that the aging McCain, already beset with cancer, cannot be well replaced by such inexperience should the worst case occur.

What is certain is that there were better choices. In an election largely about judgment, McCain may have just made another mis-step.

One last thought: If McCain wanted a politically experienced woman who is a principled conservative, articulate and good looking, he should have chosen Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

More soon.

DNC-Day 4

The Democratic National Convention is now concluded and the rehashing will continue at least until Monday, when the Republicans start up. The Democrats should be given their due, for they achieved some goals that seemed in doubt when the convention began—party unity, that risky outdoor closing event, seamlessly headlining the stars of politically liberal America. Though none of the speeches will live in history and though there were few symbolic or rhetorical moments to stir the blood, the convention did give the nation its first black presidential nominee. This is, perhaps, enough.

What was also historic was what was largely unseen, and this was the presence of religion and religion of a new kind for a Democratic convention. We must remember that it was once the conventional wisdom, as Howard Dean repeatedly told his campaign staff, to avoid discussing “God, gays and guns.” Indeed, Dean once famously said in an interview with Pat Robertson that the Democratic Party “had a lot in common” with Christians—as though there were no Christians in the Democratic Party, as though Christians lived on a difference planet from Democrats. These were, until recently, not uncommon attitudes on the left.

At the convention in Denver, though, religious gatherings abounded. An interfaith service opened the whole affair and religious meetings continued throughout the four days. There were even prayer breakfasts at which people actually prayed, a rarity in American politics. Each night was opened and closed with prayer as well and, though this is not unusual, some of those who prayed were evangelicals. In fact, the man who closed the last night was an evangelical, pro-life pastor from Florida.

I’m not suggesting that the Democratic Convention was secretly a religious revival. Nor will the Republican Convention be. Yet, it is clear that the political left in America is finding its religious voice and this is due, I believe, to three factors: a deep disgust with the Bush administration and its perceived manipulation of religion, a broadening of the moral concerns of politically active Christians in America, and, of course, the trumpet call of faith that Barack Obama has sounded. We will see all of this playing out in the next two months of the presidential campaign.

We will also see the influence of a new kind of evangelical. For nearly three decades, it has been the evangelical as defined by the Right Right which has played a role. This evangelical was largely concerned with school prayer, abortion and the homosexual agenda and he raged against a loss of Christian heritage in his country. Now, many of the leaders of that movement having passed from the scene—Falwell and Kennedy are dead, Haggard discredited, others tainted through folly or excess—there is a new evangelical on the rise, one who perceives religion and American public life more broadly.

This new evangelical certainly sees abortion and gay rights in biblical and moral terms, but he also realizes that the Bible speaks of the poor hundreds of times more than nearly any other public morality issue. There is, too, the command to deal kindly with the stranger, the instruction to tend the earth righteously and the summons, accompanied by fearful judgments for disobedience, to assure justice for the downtrodden. The new evangelical understands, perhaps, a more fully orbed biblical worldview than his predecessors and so also realizes that both political parties represent positions close to the heart of his God.

This new evangelical would wish for a difference type of leader, as well. Most evangelicals are impacted every day of their lives by the teaching of James Dobson. Yet many do not understand why this last of the lions of the Religious Right attacked Mr. McCain and Mr. Thompson in the primaries, harshly attacked Mr. Obama for a two year-old speech once he became the nominee, and yet worked to build or encourage nothing of value in this campaign season. Many evangelicals wish that James Dobson, who is known for his transforming teaching on righteous parenting, would have heard Barack Obama’s Father’s Day Sermon and said to him, “Mr. Obama, we disagree on many things, but if you want to encourage righteous fathering in America, particularly among African-Americans, I’m with you. Let’s build something of value together.”

This is the new sprit that the new evangelical seeks. And this, too, is why many evangelicals are “in play” in the 2008 campaigns. They have not abandoned their values. They have embraced a broader understanding of their values than before and now wait not to endorse a candidate, but rather for a candidate to endorse them, or, more precisely, to endorse what their God has taught them to believe.

It is a new attitude, for a new evangelical, in a new day of faith.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

DNC-Day 3

I have learned that time helps us measure the meaning of events. I often ask myself whether a song or a speech or a book will be remembered in ten years. It helps me know whether I’m dealing with something which, if not quite eternal in value, at least transcends the moment, and perhaps the immediate era.

It is easy to miss the lasting meaning of last night at the Democratic National Convention. Bill Clinton gave a fine speech and showed uncharacteristic humility, but we will not likely remember his words a decade from now. Nor will we recall the speech of Joe Biden, who seemed to wrestle with the text prepared for him but who gave the convention its best Freudian slip when he merged Bush and McCain into “George McCain.”

No, the significance of last night—and I hope we are all big hearted enough to acknowledge it—is that a black man became the nominee of his party for president of the United States. I lay this alongside the U.S. House of Representatives’ recent apology for slavery and I am grateful that one of our great national sins is being expunged through deed and not just sentiment.

It was in 1619, a year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, that twenty black men and women were offloaded at Jamestown, Virginia, in exchange for food and tobacco. They were supposed to be indentured servants but the recent decision at Jamestown to attempt economic salvation by tobacco changed all that. As I wrote in Then Darkness Fled, my brief life of Booker T. Washington:

So began the horrors that were American slavery. So began the kidnappings and betrayals and murders in Africa. So began the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic with its suffocating coffin-like confines, its disease and stench and madness and death. So began the screaming and the haunting clanking of chains and the sound of dead black bodies splashing into mid-ocean with such frequency that even the sharks learned to follow ships departing the coast of Africa. So began the markets and the humiliating inspections and the whippings. So began the dehumanizing of both black and white and the woven fabric of lies required to protect the illusion of Christian civilization.

What we now know, of course, is that the horrors of this practice spilled out into our land, ripped us asunder in the bloodiest war of our history, and left stains on the souls of generations yet unborn. Even half a century after this war of brothers, Americans heard a racist president, Woodrow Wilson, extol the virtues of a film glorifying the Ku Klux Klan—in the epic Birth of a Nation—and thus emboldened that Klan to march down the streets of our capitol en masse on more than one occasion.
It was only the beginning of a renewed season of demonic rage. There would be the thousands lynched in a South aflame and leaders assassinated by the most despicable conspiracies. And when civil rights were assured by our courts, we hoped that an even higher Court would assure a change in men’s heart. It has taken time and it is not yet complete, but perhaps a new day is now upon us.

I watched last night as Barack Obama was nominated. The camera of the network I was watching kept cutting to an older black woman, gray hair gracing her thick locks, who wept with near disbelief as a man of her race stepped unmolested toward the presidency of her country. I thought of what she might know that I did not. I wondered if she could name relatives killed by rage-blinded mobs or what she might have been denied in her life because of her color. And now a man of that color might rule her land. I shared her joy even if I could not fully share her understanding of the meaning of that moment.

Barack Obama is not my candidate and I do not share most of his political principles. But Barack Obama is my fellow countryman and I refuse to let politics keep me from pride and gratitude that a black man who grew up in a family often on food stamps has now graduated from some of the great universities in our land, served in the nation’s senate, and is a nominee for President of the United States. Hopefully, a bit more of our national curse is broken this day.

God, how I love this country.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DNC-Day 2

As the chattering classes ponder the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, let me join them for a moment by adding my thoughts. First, I’ll give a few bullet-pointed observations and then I’ll offer a more fully developed thought I think is of consequence in this race.

A Few Observations
It should be of more than passing interest that a Gallop poll shows McCain pulling ahead of Obama since Joe Biden was added to the ticket. Obama will get a bump in the polls from the convention, but given that he went in even with McCain and not ahead and given that the Republican Convention follows the Denver event, I doubt the bump will prove significant. I suggest this is a dynamic not lost of Democratic strategists and it will turn their language in the next few weeks toward the harsh and the scathing.

It will prove a mistake for Obama to have given two nights of the convention to the Clintons. He could easily have made the first night “Clinton Night,” honored them for their leadership and support, and then moved on in theme the next three nights. This is what the Republicans are doing. Both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney are speaking on Monday night—which is Labor Day, by the way, surely the least watched evening—and then the convention will shift focus from the past to the “McCain Era.” This was smart. Obama’s team has allowed this convention to be dominated largely by unknowns and his political enemies. By the time he mounts the podium Thursday night, only Michelle’s speech will have been on message among those by heavy-hitters and it will have receded into memory a bit. A better approach would have been Clinton Night, Michele headlining Tuesday, Biden Wednesday, and then Obama for the close. Oh well, they didn’t ask me first. Shocking.

The best speech of this convention so far was given last night by the Governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer. A folksy rancher who holds a Master of Science in agriculture, Schwietzer did what other speakers should have: speak for the man on the street, tout the glory of his values, wring smiles and laughter from the crowd, and have the entire convention on its feet shouting, “Yes, we can.” As you know, I’m not a Democrat, but I do know an effective speech when I see one. Schweitzer showed how much of a snore this convention has been so far. You’ll be hearing his name again.

Now, a Broader Thought
One of the most important statements during this convention was made away from the hall. Apparently a number of U.S. Catholic bishops are showing the strength of their convictions and challenging both Biden and Nancy Pelosi on their pro-abortion stand. A bishop in Denver even suggested that Biden ought not present himself for communion. This is, as you may recall from the Kerry campaign, the usual tug-of-war between Roman Catholic clergy and their “personally against abortion/politically pro-choice” parishioners.

Over the weekend, though, Nancy Pelosi went so far as to challenge the eminent theologians of the church by asserting on “Meet the Press” that “doctors of the church” have not been able to define when life begins. When the archbishops of Washington and Denver charged her with error, a spokesman for Pelosi said that she “fully appreciates the sanctity of family” but based her statement on the ``views of Saint Augustine, who said: '... the law does not provide that the act (abortion) pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation ...'''

I give Pelosi credit for basing her views on something more than popular convenience and whim, but she is wrong. Christian teaching through the centuries has seldom wavered from the view that the child in the womb, from conception, is a human being deserving of protection. I have on my desk as I write these words a volume of “Early Christian Writings” in which the Didache, dating from the middle of the First Century, forbids abortion and infanticide. The Bible speaks too clearly to the spiritual viability of the child in the womb and the Roman world insisted too certainly on the prerogatives of “patres familias” for the early church fathers not to have spoken forcefully to the issue. They did, as the church has ever since.

The larger issue is the political schizophrenia of Mrs. Pelosi and her tribe. A politician believing privately that a human being is being murdered in a process which, publicly, that politician defends is a monstrous evil.

My Democratic friends are beginning to understand that abortion is much of their trouble. Pro-life Democrats have been trying to awaken the party leadership to this reality for years. Presidential elections are won in America based on what a middle slice of the electorate—often called “Reagan Democrats”—does. Many of them, though, are pro-life Catholics and this is why pro-life presidents have won more elections in recent decades than pro-choice. Abortion is the issue, morally, spiritually, and politically in this country. The path that Obama, Biden and Pelosi have chosen—either “I’m personally opposed to abortion but publicly in favor” or “No one is sure when life begins”—is not going to work. The moral ambivalence is hurting Democrats before the nation, as we saw in an otherwise articulate Obama’s clumsy response to Rick Warren’s question on abortion that the issue was “Above my pay grade.” This was foolish and he knew it, but it is his own soul’s conflict on this issue that lands him in such an inarticulate state. So it is with his party as a whole.

More soon