National Press Club Address - Religion in the Public Square

National Press Club Address - Religion in the Public Square

December 16, 2008

Well, is there anxiety in this town as the machinery of government shifts gears? I’ll warrant that there will continue to be a lot of anxiety until the new administration settles in, probably several months from now. Who’s going to sit in which seat at the table? Who’s going to be – or feel – excluded? What last-minute actions will the retiring administration make?


Perhaps the first role of religion in such times is to be a messenger, like each one of those biblical angels, who starts out by saying, “fear not.” Don’t be afraid, because this whole thing is bigger than you are. Yes, change is coming, and it will drive some people crazy, and at the same time not go far enough for others. In more secular language, we might say, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” And more of it is small stuff than you might expect. At the same time, the religious voice will remind you that how you deal with the small stuff doesn’t affect you alone – your actions may have consequences beyond your wildest imagining.


That brief introduction might be a helpful framework for what I’m going to assert is the proper role of religion in the public square: diagnosis, linked with both challenge and encouragement. Walter Brueggemann calls it “prophetic critique and energizing.” It grows out of a particular world view, a weltanschauung if you will, that has an idea or ideal of what the world is supposed to look like. That world view is rooted in divine revelation – both in a scriptural tradition and in later encounters with the divine. The prophetic role is to point out the discrepancy between that sacred vision and what the world around us actually looks like, and then go on to challenge the status quo and encourage movement toward that dream.


This is a framework that is probably most familiar in Judaeo-Christian terms, but it is by extension applicable to the third Abrahamic faith and to others of the world’s great religions traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Bahai. Not all variations of the great traditions put much emphasis on the prophetic strand, and may choose instead to develop a separatist or sectarian vision of the “holy real.” But every faith tradition has a vision of how the world is meant to be and a diagnosis of separation from that reality.


The psychic energy that underlies that vision is what might be said to distinguish a religious from a philosophical tradition. A religious tradition asserts that divine warrant and/or transcendent reality trumps any merely earthly philosophy. It’s the difference between saying that the dream of God is for a world where all live together in peace and harmony, with justice, and a philosophy that asserts that every person should seek to maximize his assets or resources.


We live in a nation that appeals to both. Our founders had some sense of a utopian dream and a desire to encourage “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet it was abundantly clear at the start that some had the full rights of citizens and others did not. It has taken several centuries, countless lives, and the prophetic witness of many, appealing to sacred tradition and a dream based in scripture, to open those rights to others, among them men who are not landowners, slaves, and women. A transcendent trajectory that continues to challenge the status quo comes from a religious foundation, and I would assert that that is the most essential role of religion in the public square.


In my tradition, that trajectory is based on the twin beliefs that every human being is a reflection of the divine, of ultimate worth in him or herself, and that human beings only reach their full meaning in relationship with others in community. That tension is not easily held in this land, particularly in its political system. It may lie at the root of our persistent affection for a two-party political system. Even though the basic platforms of those two parties have changed over the decades – sometimes radically – we haven’t let go of the dichotomy. We have a schizophrenic relationship with the caricatures of “America as a Christian Nation” and the “land of the free” – free to exploit and accumulate whatever we can.


The sacred voice continues to challenge both unfettered individualism and the idea that any present reality can be identified with the sacred ideal. That sacred ideal in the Abrahamic faiths looks like a peaceful society where no one is in dire want, where all have equal access to justice, and each is truly free to seek her or his highest purpose in this life.


The religious role in public life is to continue to challenge the larger society on behalf of all who don’t yet live in a world like that. And because there are some who don’t have access to that world, none of us can be assured of living in peace. The illusion of peace and comfort that some may have is just that – an illusion – because until all live in peace with justice, none of us will. The role of the religious voice is to advocate for the left-out, the voiceless, the marginalized, and all who do not yet have access to the goods of life. It includes a significant part of what government deals with: healthcare, poverty, homelessness, returning veterans, the mentally and physically disabled, access to decent education, and meaningful employment. It also has to do with our relationships with the rest of creation, for as the systems of this planet sicken and die, we surely shall become moribund as well – some already are.


That prophetic voice thinks in the long as well as the short-term, for it holds up a vision of what the ideal looks like and the discrepancy between that and what obtains in the present. It is willing to put limits on individual license for the benefit of the larger community. None of those stances is particularly popular in a system that lives from election to election or from lobbyist to lobbyist. But that religious voice lives in hope – eternal and sometimes foolish hope – that change toward that vision is possible. As M.L. King, Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice.


I would assert that the global interest in our election just past is based on that kind of hope for a different future. So much so that President-elect Obama is sometimes referenced with quasi-messianic epithets. He is not our ultimate deliverer, but his ability to gather the people of this nation and this government around a larger vision and longer-term future reinforces the hope for which people around the globe yearn, and in a real way makes that hope more effective. The religious vision, whether fully conscious or not, has helped the world to diagnose present social reality as sorely lacking in transcendent values. That hunger and yearning is binding people together in ways we haven’t seen for some time. That binding together with hope for a different future is the basic meaning of religion. The challenge for any government or administration is to do that in a way that does not pander to limited and sectarian interests – which lies at the root of the doctrine of separation of church and state.


I would argue that there are appropriate and inappropriate roles for religion in the public square, based on exactly that. When the religious voice argues only for a narrowly sectarian view, it belies its identity and its transcendent origin, and becomes no different from the dairy lobby or an earmark request for a new bridge. They may be important causes, and they may be concerned for some of the least and lost and left out, but they don’t challenge the whole society to a more transcendently compassionate future.


The proper role for religious diagnosis, challenge, and encouragement has something essential to do with offering a larger view of reality, with challenging a politics of the individual to consider and care for the needs and rights of other individuals and groups, or, in other words, understanding the well-being of the whole as having some higher call on public consideration than a narrowly individual concern. We’re talking about a public policy that pays attention to the well-being of the whole community.


Why is this important? Our national experience with terrorism has a great deal to do with social disruption in other parts of the world, with the lack of hope among young people, and the lack of equitable distribution of the world’s resources. Our immigration challenges have the same bases in reality. So do violence in our inner cities and the suicide rates on Native American reservations. Each of these immensely challenging realities needs responses that address the grim hopelessness underlying them, rather than bandaid responses to symptoms. The disease, not the symptom, needs healing. And neither this nation nor the world will find healing until we begin to address the interconnections between violence and hopelessness.


The blessing buried in our current economic crisis is connected to that reality. When one part of this nation or world suffers, we all do. We no longer live in a hermetically sealed nation or economic system – if we ever did. Protectionist and isolationist policies are not going to heal us. We are all going to be impacted by massive layoffs in the manufacturing sector, and in the financial sector. The same maxim applies to us in this country as is often quoted in the developing world, that “when the U.S. sneezes, Haiti or Honduras gets a cold.”


Our national policies have given Cuba something more like terminal pneumonia. The talents and gifts of both nations have something to offer each other, if we could get past el bloqueo. Our policy toward Israel-Palestine has not managed to achieve much in many years, despite the significant energy expended there by the outgoing Secretary of State. The world will be a much safer and saner place when all parts of the world have more open borders, when Cubans, Israelis, Palestinians, and ordinary Americans understand and experience their interconnectedness.


The same reality must inform how this nation begins to deal with ecological realities. We really can’t fool Mother Nature, and her ire keeps rising along with her temperature. We’re all in this together, and the sooner we acknowledge that reality and begin to live corporately, the sooner we will be able to address the ongoing damage. In spite of what Lynn White had to say in 1967 about the origins of ecological crisis in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there are other strands in that tradition that value the non-human creation for what it can show us of the divine. It is not just human beings who image God, and some of those who claim Genesis as sacred scripture can see that human beings are meant to tend this earthly garden, not destroy it. The religious community is increasingly mobilized to challenge the larger society to care for this earth and all its inhabitants, and you will continue to hear that prophetic voice in coming years.


The larger role for the religious voice will be to continue to remind us all of our interconnections. This is one serendipitous opportunity for religion and science to walk as partners – each form of wisdom or knowing teaches about interconnection, and the reality that an action in one place has consequences – often unforeseen – in other places and times. Science and religion can even use the same words: Reality is one, or Ultimate Reality is One, or Reality is ultimately One.


And that’s where I would like to leave you, members of the press and other media, with a challenge and an invitation. Your vocation is to tell the world what’s what and what reality looks like today. Keep looking for those interconnections, keep backing up to see a larger picture, show us how small actions have larger consequences.


I would also challenge you to consider the possibility of a prophetic role for the media. You know what investigative journalism can achieve – Watergate comes to mind, and so does the photo of a child alight with burning napalm that galvanized a nation in the midst of the Viet Nam war. Your ability to offer not just scandal, but real critique of unjust systems and policies, can change the world. You are pretty good at digging out corruption scandals, but how often do you look deeper at the network that permits and encourages selling the public legacy? The noble tradition of your profession would challenge you to keep digging – your work is a vocation of service to the larger society, not just to your advertisers.


Finally, I would remind you that the other side of prophetic critique is encouragement and hope. It says that a different world is possible, and it offers examples – those small and seemingly mundane stories of human courage in the face of adversity, of the power of the community in the face of greed, of lives transformed by the intervention of strangers. You have the ability to encourage a hurting and despairing world.


I offer a highly parochial example. On two occasions in the last few days, leaders in my own church have said to me that the church only makes the front page if it’s about schism or sex – and in the current era, preferably both. The reality experienced by most Episcopalians, and indeed most faithful people, is of their congregations gathering for weekly worship, saying their prayers, and serving their neighbors, nearby and far away. That service happens in remarkable and profound ways, building schools in Africa, clinics in Haiti, digging wells in the Philippines, as well as prodding our legislators to attend to issues of climate change, access to health care, and funding AIDS work in Africa. It is the rare few who are consumed with conflict, and they tend not to last, for intense and prolonged conflict is not life-giving. Help us tell the stories of transformation, of moving toward that hopeful future, for which the world hungers. Help us tell the world that fear is not the answer.

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