Tag Archives: Barack Obama

The year in review: Liberal religion

The phrase “liberal religion” continues to provoke unbelieving stares from the many people who believe that religion is, by definition, conservative. And that sums up the state of liberal religion in 2010. Much of the U.S. population still believes that in order to be religious, you must doubt scientific knowledge, believe in things that are difficult to believe in, and at least pay lip service to an ethical system that is at odds with mainstream U.S. culture.

Most U.S. media (including news outlets, movies, television, etc.) continue to portray white Protestant evangelicals as normative when it comes to religion; Catholics, Jews, and Mormons are thrown in as amusingly eccentric variations on white Protestant evangelicalism (the Jews are practically Protestant in U.S. pop culture, except that they don’t believe in Christ). The Black church is rarely noticed, except in media offerings aimed squarely at the African American market; other ethnic Christians, including Hispanics and various Asian Christians, are mostly ignored by the media.

As for liberal Christians, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, and liberal Muslims — U.S. media and U.S. pop culture basically pretend they don’t exist, except when news outlets decide to run yet another story about how mainline Christian churches are declining in membership. Neopagans, many of whom are religious liberals, get even worse treatment by U.S. media — they are portrayed as if they are something out of a Stephen King horror novel. The only religious liberal group that gets some positive mention by U.S. media are liberal Buddhists, probably because the media like the saffron color of the Dalai Lama’s robes.

And Barack Obama is not helping increase understanding of religious liberalism. Continue reading

Coincidence? Or conspiracy?

At last night’s Sacred Harp singing, Hal told us that as of February 19, the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has officially recognized the name “copernicium” for chemical element number 112, an element which was first synthesized in 1996 at the Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany. The song numbered 112 in the 1991 Denson edition of The Scared Harp is a song titled “The Last Words of Copernicus.”

Coincidence, or conspiracy? For those of you who think this is mere coincidence, IUPAC made this new name official on February 19, which was the 537th birthday of Copernicus. Now take 537, divide it by the atomic weight of the synthesized atom of copernicium (Cn-277), and you come up with 1.94. This is extraordinarily close to 1.87, which is the height of Barack Obama in meters. The difference between 1.94 and 1.87 is 0.07, and there is no Sacred Harp song numbered 7! (And the half-life of 277Cn is 0.7 ms!) Clearly, IUPAC is telling us that Barack Obama is not American, but instead is a Polish citizen, like Copernicus! No wonder no one can find Obama’s birth certificate — it was “lost” when the Soviets ruled Poland, because Obama is really a Soviet!

Mere coincidence? Or part of a world-wide conspiracy of scientists and politicians who want to do away with our American Christian democratic lifestyle by cramming global warming and same-sex marriage down our throats? You wimpy liberals probably think this is coincidence, but if this blog disappears in the next few days, you’ll know it’s really a conspiracy!

2009 in review: Liberal religion in the news

In 2009, the mainline Christian denominations continued to be drawn into conflicts around wedge issues such as same-sex marriage and ordination of women. These conflicts over wedge issues may be exacerbated by religious conservative activists, including the misnamed “Institute on Religion and Democracy” (IRD), and overseas groups such as the conservative Anglican bishops in Africa who continue to intervene in the U.S. Episcopal Church. Indeed, according to some observers, groupslike the IRD use wedge issues to deliberately sabotage mainline and liberal Christian denominations.

2009 saw growing rifts in the Episcopal Church, and ongoing conflict in the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), etc. I was unable to determine if the United Church of Christ continued to face the problem of conservative individuals funded by outside groups taking over local congregations. Back in 2006, in an interview with Dan Wakefield, theologian Harvey Cox said, “The energy of mainline Protestant churches has been absorbed by the battles over abortion, and over gay rights and gay marriage that’s divided entire denominations in recent years. There’s nothing left over for the kind of battles that were fought in the past for peace and justice in the nation and the world.” (The Hijacking of Jesus, p. 102) Three years later, the situation has not changed.

Unitarian Universalism, closely related as we are theologically and historically to the mainline churches, has been affected in different ways by the continuing conflicts over wedge issues. Because we embrace same-sex marriage, women’s right to choice, and ordination of women, Unitarian Universalism has become marginal in U.S. political culture; it is difficult to believe that any Unitarian Universalist could become president of the United States. We Unitarian Universalists seem to have embraced our politically marginal status to the point where many Unitarian Universalists automatically stake out politically liberal positions — without ever determining if political liberalism and the Democratic party can be equated with religious liberalism. This peculiar politico-religious orthodoxy continued to hamper open conversations about, and honest critiques of: second-wave feminist theology; identity politics; and the way we are beholden to consumer capitalism. Yet second-wave feminism primarily benefits upper middle class white women; identity politics forces the kind of binary identity choices that we say we deplore in theology; and consumer capitalism directly contradicts several of those “seven principles” that we tout.

In another part of the region where liberal religion and politics intersect, the religious right has been doing a very good job or helping liberal Christians (and, to the extent they bother with us, helping Unitarian Universalists) stay on the margins. A very public example of this marginalization is Barack Obama. Religious conservatives forced Obama to repudiate his liberal Christian UCC church during the campaign, and since then the Obama family has not settled on a regular church to attend — I suspect that the Obamas can’t stand the theology of the politically acceptable churches, while Barack Obama can’t stand the political consequences of attending another UCC church, or any liberal Christian church for that matter. The situation has gotten bad enough that, to the best of my knowledge, the Obamas did not attend church on Christmas eve. (A BBC commentator has suggested that the Obamas would best fit in with Florida Street Friends Meeting [Quaker] in D.C., and I suspect he’s right — but such a church choice would be political suicide.) Obama is but one prominent example of the marginalization of liberal Christianity in U.S. political life.

As a religious educator, I can’t help adding that this is not good for the religious education of the Obama children. Their children need exposure to a living religious community in addition to whatever home-based religious education the Obamas may provide. Michelle, forget the political cost to Barack — take the kids to Florida Street Meeting!


One can only hope that in 2010 we religious liberals — especially we Unitarian Universalists — learn to start from liberal theology, rather than starting from liberal politics. Instead of toeing the politically liberal party line, let’s clearly articulate the religiously liberal party line: that individual salvation is not good enough because we have to save the whole world; that it’s most important to help those who are poor, those who are suffering, and those who have been pushed to the margins of society; that women are just as good as men; that consumer capitalism treats human beings as mere consumers, and falsely states that the highest good in life is buying more stuff. From a pragmatic point of view, maybe we’ll be doing many of the same things — but we’ll have religious, not political, reasons for doing them.

And if we can do that, we’ll really be newsworthy.

American Left with a sense of humor?

I’ve been reading The American Left in the Twentieth Century by the historian John P. Diggins. Published in 1973, the book covers the three main leftist movements in America from 1900 to 1973: the “Lyrical Left” of the teens, the “Old Left” of the thirties, and the “New Left” of the sixties. Each of these movements ended badly: the Lyrical Left was crushed upon America’s entry into the First World War; the Old Left began to die during the Second World War, and then was destroyed by the McCarthy witch-hunts of the late forties and fifties; and the New Left fell apart after 1968 due to internal factionalism and ineffectiveness, and external repression. Here’s a depressing thought: since there hasn’t been an American Left movement since 1968 (sorry, folks, but Barack Obama is Center-Right), you wouldn’t have to add much to make The American Left in the Twentieth Century cover the rest of the century.

My favorite American leftist movement has to be the Lyrical Left of the teens. They actually had a sense of humor. The only leftist movement that I knew personally was the remains of the New Left, and Lord knows they were mostly a humorless bunch. I guess that’s why I’ve always assumed that to be a Leftist, you had to be overly serious and inflexible, which would explain my extreme unwillingness to join any American Leftist organization, even though I’m a Leftist myself. But one of the primary publications of the Lyrical Left, a periodical called The Masses, said this on its masthead: “A magazine with a sense of humor and no respect for the respectable: frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for the true causes: a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found…” Historian Diggins writes, “Free from doctrinal strains, The Masses gave radicalism a well-needed lift of laughter.”

Like American religion, most American leftist politics is rigid and humorless. So imagine that, if you can: an American Left with an actual sense of humor. Those were the days.

Anti-intellectualism in the U.S.

In this blog post, Julius Lester articulates something I’ve been thinking about recently. Lester says:

There are many who wonder if a black man can be elected president. That is not my fear. I wonder if someone who as intelligent as he is can be elected president.
Emphasis mine.

The United States is an anti-intellectual country these days. Where the prejudice against intellectuals comes from I don’t know; but I know it’s there. I have many quarrels with Obama (especially his repudiation of his liberal church), but I acknowledge that he is a politician who does not feel compelled to break things down into 30 second sound bites devoid of all nuance. He does not pander to the lowest common denominator. He is willing to be intelligent in public. An intellectual politician? — this is almost inbelievable.

Julius Lester believes that Obama will get elected “if the young vote in unprecedented numbers”; otherwise, older voters who “resent his intelligence” could keep him from getting elected. Certainly, the young adults I know are more open to nuance than older generations. Certainly, United States generation who are just a little bit older than I have been notable since the 1960s for letting rigid ideology trump intelligence (as is true of George W. Bush), or worse yet for having no deeply-felt idealism to guide their intelligence (as seemed true of Bill Clinton).

But, cynic that I am, I doubt that the anti-intellectual climate of the United States is moderating in the younger generations. But what do you think? Do you sense more toleration for intellectuals in your part of the United States these days — or less?