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Progressives Should Use Protestant Churches as an Organizational Infrastructure
With a history of protest, the primary Protestant churches and pastors can be partners for social and political change today all over the country.
By Ed Knudson
Don Hazen at Alternet has introduced a significant debate between Bruce E. Levine, a psychotherapist practicing in Cincinnati, Ohio, who has written that the left is feeling abused and oppressed, and political activist Les Leopold who believes the real problem for progressives is lack of an adequate organizing infrastructure. I would like here to offer one possible solution which deals with both these issues, to reconnect progressives and Protestants. I believe progressives should realize that there are many, many churches and pastors in communities throughout the nation that are ready and waiting for a new energy and sense of mission. There are many things pastors can do to encourage such reconnection, but I am addressing these remarks to progressives who may not realize the degree to which many Protestant pastors and members share the concerns and world-view of progressives and represent concrete resources for organizing and community building.
Before offering specific actions it is possible for progressives to take in relation to the church, let me speak quickly first about our broken political system and then what kind of Protestants I am talking about.
There is a major structural flaw in American politics. We have a majority vote, two party system, not a parlimentary system. The latter encourages multiple political parties representing several different constituencies, the parties negotiate to form a government. This means the leaders of the parties are closer to their constituencies, more directly accountable to them, and communication occurs within each of the parties. The party is more important than the individual leader. In a majority vote system, however, the individual political leader, such as a president, is more important than the party, and the primary communication channel is between that leader and the people in general, via the media. This places the corporate media between the leader and the people and this presents immense opportunity for gross distortion of the content of political discourse. It does not foster the growth of political party itself as a significant factor in the political structure. When Barack Obama as an individual won the nomination he and his people took over the Democratic Party offices and resources, for example. Howard Dean as party chair had attempted to build a 50-state organizational infrastructure for the Democrats, but when Obama won he took over the party. Without a strong locally-based infrastructure a party is at the mercy of the single leader in a communication structure dominated by mass-based corporate media. Currently Obama has lost the initiative in creating a narrative for his policy proposals on both domestic and foreign policy and is allowing himself to be driven by the negative Republican rhetoric which easily is able to assert itself in the corporate media oriented to conflict and controversy. Obama is thus ready to sacrifice his own progressive constituency and is not accountable because the party structure itself is so weak. The same goes for congressional leaders, each functions more as an individual than as a party representative, the party lacks the capacity to engage in serious discipline, as is now being observed in the health care reform debate. The Republican Party is even worse off than the Democrats since it has no clear individual leader and is being torn apart by diverging political philosophies and negative populist media-driven movements. The structural flaw in American politics makes the question of a sustaining political organizational infrastructure a very serious matter, indeed.
Add to this a generational analysis and we are able to see why the Democratic Party, although in power, cannot adequately govern. As Obama took over the government he had to draw upon Democrats whose most recent experience at governing is under Bill Clinton. Clinton came out of a southern state. Southern states do not want to pay taxes for education and social services since they have large black populations, so Clinton had to appeal to business constituencies and not emphasize social or economic equality to get elected. So we had a whole political generation of candidates, consultants, and pundits develop with a political consciousness quite different from historic Democratic thinking in the Roosevelt era. These people believed the McGovern candidancy of 1972 was an example of what not to do to win elections. They can be called "Clinton Democrats" and it was this generation from which Obama had to choose as he put together his government. These are folks, like Rahm Immanuel, who are entirely willing to compromise with business interests and military advocates because he believes these are the only types of candidates which can be elected. Thus, Obama is not surrounded by people who believe it necessary to protect the American people from predatory corporate behavior or to promote genuine social equality, or "freedom" for all people. Corporate influence over government has increased so outrageously during the Bill Clinton and George Bush years that it would take only very courageous acts on Obama's part to counter it. There is no adequate political infrastructure expecting him to do so or able to hold him accountable to do so. He and the consultants around him believe he won the presidency as an individual, not the party.
Now, something about what I mean by "Protestant." The Karl Rove and George Bush strategy for getting elected was to make systematic use of religious constituencies, especially the Southern religious expressions such as the Southern Baptists and Pentecostalists. The evangelist Billy Graham is a Southern Baptist and it is in his wake that the "evangelical" movement began and flourished in this country from the 1950s on. In the 1980s the television preachers such as Jerry Falwell (Baptist) and Pat Robertson (Pentecostalist) became prominent and seriously entered into political debate. This whole religious movement is anchored in the Southern bible belt and its energy provided substantially from the backlash against the gains of blacks in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. This movement uses abortion as a handy emotional issue to claim moral legitimacy against Northern liberals who they feel forced them to change their ways of segregation. It is against freedom for women, against equal rights for gay persons, against "government" which they feel has forced them to change, especially the Supreme Court which has been at the center of debates over rights and religious expression. The Republican Party has been so successful at appealing to the religious right that it is often referred to as the "base" of the party, the foot soldiers who go out and ring the doorbells and pass out the leaflets to elect Republican candidates. Here is an infrastructure that is sustaining, it is around all the time, it is ready to act when the time is right. The fact that the Republican Party has not really delivered on the issues of the religious right has been a concern of some of its leaders, but this is because the real power in the Republican Party is not the social conservatives, but corporate leaders, the so-called economic conservatives. The religious right is made up of lower and middle income folks, but they are influenced by their religious leaders to vote for candidates who adopt policies against their interests and in the interest of the wealthy upper classes. This works in the South and parts of the rural midwest because racism continues to be a real factor in the consciousness of voters overcoming rational calculation of one's political interests.
The Republican Party has become a party of the South and the religion of the South. But it continues to dominate the rest of the nation to a much greater degree than is warranted either by the quality of political ideas or the percentage of people they represent in the nation. I think it is important for progressives to recognize this fact and make it a clear factor in their political consciousness. When progressives hear the word "Christian" or "Christianity" or "Protestant" they need to be more careful to consider exactly what is being referred to by these terms. To far too great a degree, when the media use the term "Christian" they are actually only referring to a religious expression which is Southern in origin, it is the religious right, it is not mainstream Christianity nor even the Protestantism that emerged from the Reformation.
This is not the place to review the history of Christianity in this country except to say that there was at the turn of the 20th century a large debate in the church about faith and science. Those opposed to science (and modernity in general) came to be known as fundamentalists, and that became an important but not mainstream focus for Protestantism. And that emphasis has degenerated to such a degree, and so-called Southern Protestantism has so disfigured the traditions of Reformation faith, that many are beginning to say that that form of religious expression cannot be any longer understood as Protestantism, at least the Protestantism that traces its heritage back to the Reformation period. The religious right has become so commercialized, Americanized, and politicized that it can no longer be understood as historic Protestant faith.
Progressives can help move the church in a positive Protestant direction. They can do so by reconnecting with the church in various ways. That is because the underlying political analysis of many progressives actually corresponds with ways of thought which have emerged among the primary Protestants, the Methodists and Presbyterians, Lutherans and congregationalists, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church. When Bruce Levine speaks about the abuse and oppression which people are feeling today it is a language that Protestant pastors understand, they tend to speak the same way, it speaks to their experience with people in their congregations. The authentic Protestant church is a "protesting" church, protesting against the kind of abuse and religious oppression which was occurring in the 16th century. The primary Protestants have affirmed the freedom movements of the last years, for civil rights for black folks, women, and gay persons. In fact, Martin Luther King is understood as a primary "saint" of the church these days, the example of how to live one's life on behalf of others, acting on behalf of those who are being oppressed by social and economic structures. This can be called a "liberation theology" and it is very widespread in the consciousness of local pastors and members as well as denominational leaders of the primary Protestants, whether or not a particular person will use such a term to characterize his or her theological position. It tends to be what seminaries are teaching these days in various forms such as feminist theology, where very interesting and exciting theological reflection has been occurring.
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