Christianity for the Rest of Us

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A poem to begin your Lenten observance from one of my favorite Anglican poets.  May you hunger and thirst this season for a closer connection with God and a deeper love of neighbor.  

“Lent” by Christina Rossetti (c. 1886)
It is good to be last not first,
   Pending the present distress;
It is good to hunger and thirst,
   So it be for righteousness.
It is good to spend and be spent,
   It is good to watch and to pray:
Life and Death make a goodly Lent
   So it leads us to Easter Day.

As the stand off between workers and Governor Scott Walker continues
in Wisconsin, religious leaders have weighed in on the dispute.  Roman Catholic bishops came out on the
side of the unions, urging the governor to protect worker’s rights.  Many mainline pastors, including
Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and
American Baptists have written letters, issued statements, and preached sermons
supporting labor, unions, and collective bargaining.  In Madison, interfaith prayers and proclamations have upheld
and encouraged the teachers, police, firefighters, and other public employees
in their resistance to the governor’s plan to break their union.

This is an impressive religious group by any
standards–particularly so in Wisconsin where traditional faith still plays an
important role in the life of a large number of its citizens.  Wisconsin is almost evenly split
between the three largest American religious groups: 29% are Roman Catholics;
24% are evangelical Protestants; and 23% are mainline Protestants.

Yet none of these prayers or sermons has swayed Scott
Walker.  He has steadfastly stayed
on his original course, unfazed by the full weight of Roman Catholic authority
or the mainline social justice tradition pressing upon him and urging him
toward compromise and change.

Scott Walker is neither Roman Catholic nor a mainline
churchgoer.  The son of a Baptist
pastor, born in Colorado Springs, the heartland of the Religious Right, Walker
is a member of Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, a non-denominational
evangelical church.  Meadowbrook’s statement
of faith, a fairly typical boilerplate of conservative evangelical theology,
includes beliefs in biblical inerrancy, sin, exclusive salvation through Christ,
and eternal damnation.

In other words, Scott Walker does not give a rip about
pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church, any Lutheran, Episcopal, or
Methodist bishop, or the Protestant social justice pastors.  These religious authorities, steeped in
centuries of theology and Christian ethics mean absolutely nothing in Scott
Walker’s world.  His spiritual
universe is that of 20th century fundamentalism, in its softer
evangelical form, a vision that emphasizes “me and Jesus” and personal

Before he was elected governor, Walker shared his testimony
with a group of Christian businessmen. 
In it, he said that his religious life was expressed in the words of an
old hymn, “Trust and Obey.”  From
childhood onward, Walker recounted how God specifically directed his life, how
he had learned to trust that direction, and how he sought to obey Christ in all
things and at all times.  He
related the biblical story of the apostle Peter in a boat, whom Jesus directed
to walk on the water.  At first,
Peter followed Jesus and did, indeed, walk upon water.  But Peter became fearful and sank.  According to Walker, this is a parable
of the whole Christian life.  If
you “fail to trust and obey,” Walker said, “You sink.”  Doubt is not allowed.  Only obedience.  

This is the same sort of evangelical spirituality that
shaped George W. Bush–and led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Once you
know God’s direction, no change is allowed.  Doubt opens the door to failure.  Obeying Christ’s plan is the only option.  In this theological universe,
hard-headedness is a virtue, compromise is the work of the Devil, and anything
that works to accomplish God’s plan is considered ethically justifiable. 

In other words, the Catholic bishops and mainline pastors–as
well as the Quakers, Jews, Buddhists, and others–who have been trying to convince
the governor to shift course are pretty well preaching in the wind.  Other than David Koch (fake or
otherwise), Walker is listening to One Person and One Person only: Jesus speaking
directly to him.  God, evidently,
has directed him on his current path. 
Scott’s just trusting and obeying. 
He bears no responsibility other than that.

Unlike the Roman Catholics and traditional Protestants who
have spoken on behalf of the laborers, Walker has no spiritual “check” on him,
no authority other than the ones he hears in his own head, and no moral
culpability in this situation. 
He’s the good Christian soldier, just following God’s lead. 

And this is why Scott Walker’s religion is actually
dangerous in the public square. 
Because it lacks the ability to compromise, it is profoundly
anti-democratic. Many faith traditions actually possess deep spiritual
resources that allow them to participate in pluralistic, democratic, and
creative political change.  But
those sort of traditions tend emphasize the love of God and neighbor over
strict obedience to an unyielding Father God.  Unlike the confident dictum of the old hymn, “Trust and
Obey” is not the best way to govern a state.

Glenn Beck met with Billy Graham on February 19.  

Beck is a Mormon, and a self-made
leader in the re-emergent Religious Right and Tea Party movements, and Graham
is a Baptist evangelist, long-time esteemed leader of American
evangelicalism.  An unlikely pair.  Yet, in the last Gallup poll for “most
admired man” Beck and Graham tied in the top 10, behind Barack Obama, George
W. Bush, and Nelson Mandela. For almost a year, Beck has tried to meet Graham,
who turned down the request.  But,
suddenly, this past weekend, Graham’s people arranged a meeting.

Beck broke news of the meeting on Twitter and followed up with a 25 minute report on his radio show on Tuesday. According to Beck, the scheduled sixty-minute meeting
extended to three hours during which time the two men prayed together and
discussed the current state of global affairs, politics, and faith.

Beck said that Graham is practically blind and is hard
of hearing.  Yet, according to
Beck, they spoke of the “darkness” in the world and more difficult times
ahead.  Beck claimed that he and
Graham shared concerns for being “prepared” morally, spiritually, and physically
for the coming tribulation.  Beck
implied that Graham agreed with his assessment that “the Left has given itself
over to Evil” by aligning itself with communists and dictators and “regular
Democratic voters.”  

Beck also implied that Billy Graham approved of his
leadership in the realm of religion and politics. Beck claimed that Graham said
that whoever “stands up” on the side of the “light” forms the righteous
community, and that all who resist the “darkness” are on the side of
truth.  Beck admitted that
theological differences separated the two, but further insisted that such
differences are miniscule against the threat of evil.  We need to “stand up” together, Beck insisted.  

Although such a report might seem benign, Beck’s meeting
with Graham and Beck’s description of it amounts to a sort of
theological dog-whistle for those in the conservative religious-political
community.  In his meandering way,
Glenn Beck implied that Billy Graham has given his blessing to Beck as his
heir, the One to lead the Troops of Light against the Demons of Darkness in the
upcoming tribulation.  According to
Beck, the Baptist Graham passed his mantle onto the Mormon Beck as the
spiritual and political leader of the next Great American Awakening.  Never mind that Graham has never been an
apocalyptic preacher, it is unimaginable that he said Democratic
voters have given into evil, and unlikely that he understands Mormonism as theological equal to evangelicalism.  Yet Beck
coyly implied that the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham gave his imprimatur to a union
between the old evangelical right and the new right-wing Mormon activism.  In the process, he by-passed a younger
generation of evangelical leaders, many of whom have become openly hostile to
the Religious Right in general and Beck in particular.  

Not being a conservative evangelical, I am not entirely sure
what evangelicals will make of this. 
There is, however, a very similar story in the Bible:

Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his
elder son Esau and said to him, ‘My son’; and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ He
said, ‘See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your
weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for
me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat,
so that I may bless you before I die.’

Esau prepared the meal for his father, his younger brother Jacob schemed to
usurp the blessing by disguising himself as Esau:

 So Jacob went in to his father, and said, ‘My father’; and
he said, ‘Here I am; who are you, my son?’ Jacob said to his father, ‘I am Esau
your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so
that you may bless me.’ But Isaac said to his son, ‘How is it that you have found
it so quickly, my son?’ He answered, ‘Because the Lord your God granted me
success.’ Then Isaac said to Jacob, ‘Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to
know whether you are really my son Esau or not.’ So Jacob went up to his father
Isaac, who felt him and said, ‘The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are
the hands of Esau.’ He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like
his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. He said, ‘Are you really my son
Esau?’ He answered, ‘I am.’ Then he said, ‘Bring it to me, that I may eat of my
son’s game and bless you.’ So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought
him wine, and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, ‘Come near and kiss
me, my son.’ So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his
garments, and blessed him, and said,?’Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell
of a field that the Lord has blessed. ?May God give you of the dew of heaven, and
of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. ?Let peoples serve
you, and nations bow down to you.? Be lord over your brothers, and may your
mother’s sons bow down to you.? Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed
be everyone who blesses you!

To Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the familiar Religious
Right leaders, you need to go check on Billy Graham.  Glenn Beck’s no patriarch of Israel, but I think he might just have made off with your