January 9, 2006
-- Martin E. Marty
Ask a friendly neighborhood liberal Protestant, if you can find one, who could be a poster-person for the religious left—someone who applies biblical prophecy to contemporary issues. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas is liberal. He attacks Christian liberals full-time, but, yes, he draws on the Bible. William Sloane Coffin? Yes, Bill, though now a lion in winter, is still a lion in this realm. Jim Wallis? He's an evangelical, living proof that not all evangelicals belong to the religious right.
They are the three "liberals" scourged by the Heritage Foundation's Joseph Loconte, whose op-ed in the New York Times spotted them ("Nearer, My God, to the G.O.P.," January 2, 2006). They were to illustrate his claim that liberals, now that they've seen the power of the religious right, are trying to play catch-up ball by citing the Bible. Old Bill? Catch-up ball? Loconte says, not admiringly, that liberal church claims are now "awash in scriptural references to justice, poverty and peace," and (Loconte's politics is showing here) liberals are using the Bible to inform debate on "global warming, debt relief and the United Nations Security Council." Loconte's column has some good points in it, but they are not the ones being picked up in discussion of the op-ed.
"See! Billy's doing it too!" the old playground tattle and taunt, is Loconte's theme. His first good point: Both sides, "the religious right" and "liberal churches," should play by the same rules when drawing upon biblical prophecy (or law -- Loconte points to "the fundamentalist impulse to cite the book of Leviticus to justify laws against homosexuality"). Let's agree to put up Howard Dean versus Pat Robertson to cancel each other out as mis-comprehenders of the Bible, and move on.
Loconte has some trouble with "some" and "all." Liberals get attacked with a broad brush, for expressing "misplaced outrage in the war against Islamic terrorism." He admits that "some" on the religious right had committed "misdeeds" (which the liberals are now matching). They "shamed themselves" with some claims, but their "nonsense," he says, was "echoed by liberals like the theologian Stanley Hauerwas," who "joins a chorus of left-wing clerics." Hauerwas, who doesn't join anything or anyone, can take care of himself.
Loconte rightfully praises not "the religious right" but "the Evangelicals," in company with others, for applause-worthy efforts to defend human dignity and rights. Why those urgent themes are seen to be biblically rooted while the thousands of biblical verses (by evangelical Tony Campolo's count) dealing with poverty, hunger, and the like are off limits because that chorus of liberals cites them is not made clear—except that Loconte dislikes the political use of scriptures by those he does not like.
One might wish Loconte would write and publish a second draft in which he would stick to the theme that both "sides," as he describes them, too readily apply discourse of "divine judgment" from ancient Israel, "a theocratic state," to democratic life. All "sides" in religiously pluralist America are struggling to find appropriate ways to connect faith with policy. When Loconte saves his politics for separate columns and provides clarity on this issue, he will advance the discourse of "prudence, reason, [and] compromise" that he professes to favor, and which a civil society manifestly needs.
Postscript: Televangelist Pat Robertson, mentioned above (as he almost never is in Sightings), dominated religious news last week, citing Joel 3:2 in defense of a unique Israel (against Ariel Sharon). Okay, then, prophet versus prophet—Robertson should read Amos 9:7 (Jerusalem Bible): "Are not you and the Cushites [Ethiopians] all the same to me, children of Israel? declares Yahweh. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Aramaeans from Kir?" All the nations are the same to God, in such verses.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.