Who owns faith and values?


I’ve received a promo from Jim Wallis of Sojourners that reads in part:

“There are very few moments when we have the opportunity to turn the eyes of the nation away from the three-ring circus that our electoral process resembles and onto the concerns of those whom Jesus called the ‘least of these.’ Tonight is one of those moments, as Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama join us for a conversation about faith, values and poverty broadcast live on CNN.

“And in hundreds of churches and homes across the country, people of faith like you will be gathering to watch the candidates and help us issue a prophetic challenge to put poverty at the top of the political agenda. . . We’re calling the event ‘Faith Guiding Our Votes,’ because it will be a unique forum to ask questions not just about issues, but about values. Not just what policies the candidates propose, but why. Not just whether they believe privately, but about how they live out their faith in public life.”

I understand what Wallis is up to; he is attempting to seize the faith and values brand from the right. This would be a worthy goal were it not for the fact that it just makes liberal faith-mongers like Wallis look as hypocritical and unctuous as the people they oppose. Anyone who goes to a politician for faith and values is a damn fool – not unlike taking part in a mud wrestling match to wash your face.

While politicians have always abused religion, it has reached epic proportions even as they have become demonstratively deficient in both faith and values. The decline of American civilization and official sanctimony have had a direct inverse relationship.

But beyond the absurdity of talking to a Clinton or Obama about such matters is another problem: the assumption by politicians, the media and religion that the latter owns faith and values.

While it is not likely that we can cure either pols or theocrats of this illusion, the media should be more than a little embarrassed by its participation in the faith fraud. Over and over again, the press projects religious faith and values as a higher existence even as these values threaten the future of the globe as never before. This is not only non-objective, it is outright evangelism parading as news.

In fact, one can find useful faith and values outside of religion as easily as you can find it inside. To say otherwise is hypocrisy. Whether religion is a good place to look for faith and values seems to vary over time. For example, in the 1960s, ministers were among the most valuable voices of change because they found the best parts of the Bible and acted on it. Now, even in the milder sects, clergy is so busy keeping their budget up and vestry happy that you hardly see a white collar at a demonstration any more. When America finally decides to ditch the disastrous faith and values of the neo-colonial, neo-corporate, neo-corrupt Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years, I suspect that the preachers will return to help lead America’s revival, but at present religion collectively is a predominantly evil force in the world and until a lot more religionists become embarrassed about this, it will stay that way.

As for politicians, I can’t think of many who directly used their religion’s values for the better of the rest of us. Gene McCarthy and Father Drinan come to mind, the latter ironically having to leave Congress because of a papal ban on religious faith and values being directly involved in politics. For most of the rest, faith and values were mainly good for a nice Monday morning news shot of them leaving church on Sunday.

Where we have far more commonly found useful faith and values in politics is among those who come out of cultures such as secular Judaism, the Irish community, the progressive upper Mid West and New England. To be sure, religion was an element but the values mainly came from the community and not the pulpit.

As a recovering Episcopalian, quasi-Quaker seventh day agnostic who signs his mail, “Keep the faith” I take more than a little umbrage at the pretences of contemporary religion and its advocates in the media. To be sure, my sign-off comes from a minister, but a rather different one – the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, a sinner who got more good legislation passed in less time than any member of Congress in history and whose farewell was, “Keep the faith, baby.” Jim Wallis would never had dared to have had him on his show.

One of the things I learned from people like Powell was that faith and values come in many different forms, from many different places and can appear and disappear on the same day. The key is what one values and in what one places the faith. This is an empirical and not a theological matter, based on witness and not clever branding.

I also learned to watch out for the sanctimonious prigs, those who constantly talk about faith, values and hope – as though it was one more yellow ribbon pasted on their butts – but are no shows when the going gets rough.

I’ve been keeping a faith based on a number of values for a good many years, only darkening the church doors in the latino tradition of navi pasqua – Christmas and Easter – and drawing on patron saints of a diverse and unsanctified nature such as the Three Initials – EB White, HL Mencken and AJ Leibling – whose works form as fine a triptych as you will find in any cathedral.

I get along fine with many people of religious faith, but I do so in part because I admire their witness, rather than their public declarations. They seem to regard me in much the same manner. Once you do away with pronouncements, pretense and proselytizing, it all gets a lot easier.

So, I’m sorry, Jim Wallis, but I’m not going to play your little game. In fact, I’m annoyed you’re adding your voice to the overflow crowd of those using the once useful terms – faith and values – for such crude and hypocritical purposes – keeping them under lock and key in a church rather than out on the streets where they belong.

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