The righteous role of church basements

Sam Smith

I’m a Seventh Day Agnostic and, as such, I don’t give a shit about what you believe, only what you do about it.

The Quakers have a nicer way of expressing it. For example, one of their meetings explains it this way: “Friends are people of strong religious views, but they are quite clear that these views must be tested by the way in which they are expressed in action… Friends are encouraged to seek for truth in all the opportunities that life presents to them. They are further encouraged to seek new light from whatever source it may arise. Their questing and open attitude to life has certainly contributed to the tolerance with which Friends try to approach people and problems of faith and conduct.”

I went to a Quaker high school and attended meetings every Thursday for six years. Only once can I recall a confrontation on theological matters, and that was quickly eased by a “weighty” Quaker elder who explained that a meeting was not the place for such debates.

Later, I was introduced to existentialism – the notion, it has been said, that “faith don’t pay the cable” and the view that “even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.” I came to realize that the Quakers had beat Jean Paul Sartre by several centuries in the realization that it is what one does and not what one believes that makes the real difference in life.

 So I was somewhat prepared for what I found as a journalist and community activist in 1960s DC: religious leaders who translated their varied beliefs into common action and left faith in the back pew.

I was, for example, pushed into starting a community newspaper in an ethnically mixed neighborhood east of the Capitol by a minister trained by Saul Alinsky. He even obtained  a grant from a local Lutheran Church to get me going. Neither the minister nor the church questioned my lack of religious faith because it was clear we shared values and goals.

By the time the 1960s were over, I had worked with about a dozen preachers, some of whom would seem strikingly odd today. None of these ministers ever questioned my faith or lectured me on theirs. They ranged from the head of the Revolutionary Church of What’s Happening Now to Catholic priests. I once stuffed $20 bucks into the pocket of a handcuffed Presbyterian minister arrested in a protest so he could use it for bail. And there was a black minister who was also a cab driver and wore his waist change maker while preaching. Meanwhile, in the larger capital, we had two Catholic priests in Congress, one as Assistant Secretary of Housing, and one elected to the DC school board.

Among the assets of some of these preachers were basement meeting rooms in their churches. During the scores of times I found myself in such rooms, we pressed anti-war protests, started the DC Statehood Party, began a bi-racial pre-school, and upped the ultimately successful battle against freeways in DC.  And no one made you recite a creed before the meetings began.

When I try to figure out why this seems a bit strange today, a number of things come to mind. One has been the huge influence of evangelical churches on our definition of religion, especially in the media. Until Pope Francis came along, think how rarely we’ve heard about non-evangelical activism in recent years. In more than a few ways, conventional Christians had let evangelicals define religion.

The other factor is what might be called the non-profit moat. As sources of funding for non-profits have become more complex and difficult, the caution of those seeking the funds has greatly increased. This has affected secular non-profits as well, but there is no doubt that churches are much more cautious than they were a few decades ago.

But there are a couple of other factors as well. One is that interest in religion is declining in America as demonstrated in recent Pew survey.

 And this is particularly true among the young.

Thus if religion doesn’t find new ways to reach out to other Americans, it may be in serious trouble.

Then there is the growth of what in Latin America is called a culture of impunity. As I have described it:

In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.

One of the aspects of such a culture is that the media becomes far more interested in the exercise of power rather than the values behind it. The greedsters win because of their power rather than because of logic or virtue.

Churches are among the few places where an alternative culture can still be built.  But they must move beyond the safety of declared theological virtue and faith and share their physical, moral and mental space with those of similar values and goals. They did this so well during the civil rights and anti-war movement and they can do it again. And a lot of it begins in the church basement.

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