I’ve been invited to guestblog here at Casting Stones this week because I have a new book about faith and politics out, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. More about that later. I’ve decided to start by ruffling some feathers with a glib title for a post about one of the most thoughtful essays about religion and politics I’ve read in a long time, Garret Keizer’s “Turning Away From Jesus: Gay Rights and the Episcopal Church” in the latest issue of Harper’s. Keizer is a former “canon 9” Episcopal priest — a lay leader ordained to serve a church that lacks a formally trained priest — not especially interested in the looming threat of schism within the Anglican Communion over the question of gay rights. But, he writes,
while I was making the rounds of my parish, things were afoot in the larger church that were not dissimilar to the zealotry and self-delusion that would mesmerize our national politics and mire us in Iraq. In other words, what might strike you as an irrelevant story about a religious dispute is in some ways your story, whether you are religious or not, and whether you like it or not. The story invites us to ask if what we see happening to the institutions we love is not at least partly the result of our having loved them less attentively than we supposed.
There’s some irony in an Episcopalian informing us that the concerns of the Anglican Communion, which has in the past been the dominant church of an empire (Britain’s) and a rising power (America, before we became an empire, back when Episcopalians were even more overrepresented in Congress than they are today) should concern us all. But Keizer makes his case by directly addressing the relationship of religion to empire, of belief to power, of faith to responsibility, drawing us outwards from the particular of the Anglican Communion to the wider community of Christendom, to the broadest vista of the human condition and via that to round to the specifics of a sexual practice that has the bishops and priests Keizer speaks with up in arms. Loop-de-loop!
It would be misleading to imply that every knowledgeable member of the Anglican Communion interprets the newsworthy events of its recent past in terms of a crisis. For church scholar Ian Douglas, the situation in the Anglican Communion and beyond represents “a new Pentecost,” one in which marginalized countries and marginalized groups of people are both rising and converging, with plenty of friction in the process, but with an ultimate outcome in which “the Ian Douglases of the world: straight, white, male, clerical, overly educated, financially secure, English-speaking, well-pensioned, professionally established,” will move to the margins while people previously marginalized will come to the center. “So my salvation is caught up in the full voicing of those who have historically been marginalized. What we’re seeing in a lot of these church antics is an attempt at a reimposition of an old order.” Douglas is among those who see the rise of religious fundamentalism not as a reaction to modernity but as modernity’s “last vestiges,” the remains of a binary worldview of us and them, black and white, orthodox and heretic.
This all sounds compelling to me, though, as I tell Douglas, I remain an unreconstructed binary thinker, my view of the world being pretty much divided between people who have a pot to piss in and people who don’t. My tendency-perhaps my temptation-is to see the church crisis, at least in America, as I see most other political disputes between bourgeois conservatives and bourgeois liberals: as cosmetically differentiated versions of the same earnest quest for moral rectitude in the face of one’s collusion in an economic system of gross inequality. It goes without saying that by touting this stark binary, I, too, am seeking to establish my rectitude.
Still the question remains: How does a Christian population implicated in militarism, usury, sweatshop labor, and environmental rape find a way to sleep at night? Apparently, by making a very big deal out of not sleeping with Gene Robinson. Or, on the flip side, by making approval of Gene Robinson the litmus test of progressive integrity, a stance that I have good reason to believe would impress no one so little as Gene Robinson himself. Says he:
“I don’t believe there is any topic addressed more often and more deeply in Scripture than our treatment of the poor, the distribution of wealth, of resources, and the danger of wealth to our souls. One third of all the parables and one sixth of all the words Jesus is recorded to have uttered have to do with this topic, and yet we don’t hear the biblical literalists making arguments about that.”
If this is sodomy, sign me up.
At this point some Casting Stones readers are beginning to really resent the title of this post, since not only do they oppose homosexuality (and maybe they’re not even Episcopalians!), but they also read Keizer’s words above as temptation toward something even more insidious than sodomy: socialism! This is where I get to bring things around to me, and my book, and tie both to the vastly superior prose and thought of Keizer. Because one of the arguments that emerges from the story I tell in The Family is that sex and economics are as intimately linked in American religious life as are faith and politics. Keizer hints at that fact when he informs us that Martyn Minns, a former Mobil Oil executive who has become a leader of the traditionalist, anti-gay movement within the Anglican Communion, cites as one of his “favorite writers in the Anglican tradition” Thomas Friedman. Friedman is Jewish; what Minns finds gripping in his bestselling The World is Flat is Friedman’s embrace of the fatalist approach to globalization, a form of free market fundamentalism.
In The Family, I talk to another (now former) leader of anti-gay politics, Ted Haggard — the ultra-right mega-pastor who fell after his relationship with a male prostitute was revealed — who also read and assigned Friedman’s globalization theories as almost supplementary scripture. In a globalized market, Ted knew, his conservative brand of religion had a stronger appeal than in the U.S. alone. His beliefs on sexual sin and steel tariffs were as intimately bound as his propensity for mocking gay men with a feigned lisp and his own hidden desires.
How could restrictive moral views be connected to deregulated economic visions? I’ll save that for a later post. For now, we have our assignment: Read “Turning Away From Jesus: Gay Rights and the Episcopal Church.” Consider your wallet, your wages, the cost of oil. And ask yourself: Is there a connection? Or is Christianity simply for Sunday mornings and other people’s bedrooms?