30 September 2004

Shall the gay inherit the church?

The Revealer had a lovely piece a few days ago about gays and the church.

For those of us in the country’s secular minority, it seems intuitive that serious Christians and serious gays do not mix.

But that is simply not so: Christianity itself is changing as
homosexuality gains an ever more unapologetic place in our culture.
This is true even if some Christian denominations are not changing
outright so much as struggling to articulate a fair position on
homosexuality, and it is true even if some other denominations are
resisting a fair position (because even resistance betrays tension).
Since the 1960s, Christians have held meetings and issued proclamations
about their official views on homosexuality, and many have shifted
those views. This didn’t suddenly happen because of Will & Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy;
it happened slowly, in large part because of gay Christians in the 60s
who were not ashamed to admit their dual citizenship. And they still
exist, these religious puzzles wrapped in homosexual enigmas. They
exist in large numbers, insisting on their right to love Jesus and love
people of their own sex. We should pay attention to these
cross-cultural emissaries because, as two recent sociological studies
point out, the conflict over homosexuality within churches (and within
believers) is one of the most compelling, and telling, back rooms of
the debate.

The piece then goes on to discuss two new entries into the
sociology of religion, specifically dealing with how gays have been
received into particular congregations (participant observer
ethnography).  The writer of the piece singles out one of the
books for higher praise, because she thinks it points toward more

But she points out — in several statements — the crux of the matter for Christians.

People who might ordinarily regard each other as nothing
but bigots or buggers are forced to see each other as human beings
because, ultimately, they have to face each other every Sunday morning.

And, oh, the pretzels these humans twist themselves into! It turns out
that nothing threatens to undermine a millennia-old religion so much as
its own adherents giving voice to what they believe and why….

As Moon points out, the in-church debate over homosexuality is so
explosive because it threatens to undermine the illusion of unity that
each congregation requires to continue worshipping together. Not only
do members’ opinions differ, even when they basically agree, their
creative views on sexual morality reveal how imaginative, and
artifice-laced, the very phenomenon of faith is.
After spending nearly two years in two separate congregations, one
liberal, the other more conservative, Moon discovered that anti-gay
Christians felt they had a common foe — not your garden-variety pansy,
but politics….

The political exhaustion of such remarks is not unique to anti-gay
Christians; what’s unique to them is the perception that, for instance,
the church’s old struggle with civil rights is fundamentally different
from its current struggle with homosexuality. Indeed, Moon finds many
Christians who debate the niceties between embracing minorities and
endorsing homosexuality: Social justice is okay for ex-slaves, but gay
men and lesbians are trounced by six disputed passages in the Bible….

Moon argues that politics — that is, power struggles in their most
basic form — exist inside each congregation. To get to Jesus, you have
to go through the disciples, and even they were not free of schemers….

And, what’s more, only one force can remind Christians of their social-justice heritage — other Christians….

After all, when Moon makes crucial observations about pro-gay
Christians — they should stop endorsing homosexual suffering as a
reason for Christian tolerance, and stop air-brushing the physical
reality of sex between any permutation of genders, but rather answer
the “It’s not moral!” charge very directly with “It is moral!” — she
is offering useful information to ordinary people. If Christians are to
redress the injustice in their own faith, they need to recognize that
faith may be spiritual, but church is a social institution. Moon’s
research shows that many Christians are cultivating the cynicism with
which they view “merely human” (i.e., political) dialogue and change….

Many Christians believe that there exists some form of separation
between the spiritual and the material, between the church and the
society, between religion and politics, between the City of God and the
City of Man.  Which is a strange thought to hold in one’s mind
these days, as the supposition of a separated religious and social
sphere grows less and less.  (This is an observation, rather than
a judgment.)

Augustine wouldn’t agree.  The Reformers wouldn’t agree. 
Christ wouldn’t agree.  Central to the basic teachings of the
Christian religion is that God is present in all times and spaces in
the universe.  You can’t go anywhere without God, you can’t
separate God out from some activities, you can’t limit God.

But, as been said a number of times in this space and many others, the
Christian teachings at the heart of the religion prove radically
revolutionary and upsetting to all that we hold as ordered in the
social realm.

The Gospel passage this last Sunday was the story of “the rich man, poor Lazurus, and Father Abraham.”  Here it is in full.

“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the
latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor
man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep.
he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table.
His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.
“Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap
of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in
torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in
his lap.He
called out, “Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his
finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’
Abraham said, “Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good
things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s
consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these
matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from
us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to
“The rich man said, “Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’
“Abraham answered, “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’
know, Father Abraham,’ he said, “but they’re not listening. If someone
came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’
replied, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not
going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.'”

There’s a radical social upheaving going on
here.  Lazarus did not DO anything to merit getting the good after
he died.  The rich man may have been quite moral, even if
rich.  Each man’s moral status appears of no consequence to his
eventual fate.  Those who have already have their reward, and
those who don’t will see their lives turn around.  The poor, the
despised, the unjustly treated, the rejected — all these, the Gospel
seems to say, will be relieved.

And it’s something of this trend picked out in the two books that the
Revealer examines.  Gays hold the despised, tolerated, rejected
position in today’s rich-world church.  I think that the injustice
with which the Western-world parts of Christianity treat gays,
lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people demonstrates us not living up to
our own Gospel.  It’s a hard Gospel to live up to, and if we did
our wholel live would be turned over.

But we’re all pretty rich.  And if the story says anything, it
tells us that all of us — gays and all unjustly treated here — have a
lot to think about with regard to the poor all over the place. 

Politics is not the enemy, social justice is not the enemy, gays or
conservatives are not the enemy.  We ourselves are our own enemy.

As the Revealer points out, the only people who can remind Christians
of their obligations are the other Christians.  It’s precisely the
fact that they’ve all got to meet on Sunday mornings and that they’ve
all got to deal with the politics of that social institution that is
the contemporary church that offers the chance to work and change each
other.  Sure not all Christians do a very good job of following
Christ.  But one hopes there is enough yeast in the Christian
dough to work its way through and raise them up.

Posted in Rayleejun on 30 September 2004 at 7:34 pm by Nate
25 September 2004

Pirate Day

Talk like a Pirate Day has passed, but I ran across a piece of Pirate Mass.

My contribution:   The Pieces of the Lord be always with ye!
Arr!  And with ye, as well, scurvy mates.

And check out ye piratical sermon.

Posted in OnTheWeb on 25 September 2004 at 1:18 pm by Nate
22 September 2004

Why to ignore the polls

Robert explains it all for you:

…If you decide to trust all polling agencies equally, the thing to do is
to average weighted by the inverse of the square of the reported
standard error. This means that estimates of Bush’s lead in September
would be roughly halved by the ARG result ! From 3 – 5 % to 2 – 3%. If
you have decided to ignore Gallup, CBS and Time, you have to decide
whether to ignore ARG too.

Why did I say embarassingly low ?

I think pollsters use small samples only partly to save money, and also
to give themselves an excuse if their numbers are off. With a huge
sample, a difference between the poll and the election would imply a
more worrisome problem, either a biased sample, a faulty likely voter
filter or a psychological difference between talking to a pollster and
actually voting. It is clear that some or all sampling techniques give
biased samples, because the spread of polls is to large to explain with
sampling error alone. Polling agencies certainly don’t want to spend
money to prove that they are one of the agencies with a defective
sampling technique.

Posted in Politicks on 22 September 2004 at 9:10 pm by Nate
21 September 2004

More “hits”

More and more people frommy academic department are lurking on the
margins of my blog, as some of them tell me that they have discovered
it or that their friends have.

I haven’t decided whether this makes me nervous or excited.

Posted in Day2Day on 21 September 2004 at 6:11 pm by Nate

What may be wrong with American politics

From today’s Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam:

Assume there is a Supreme Being. Assume that She is all-powerful and
beneficent. But she is not indulgent. She will grant one, and only one,
of your two most fervent wishes: Either John Kerry will be inaugurated
as the 44th president of the United States.

Or the Boston Red Sox will win the World Series this fall.

What will it be?

I hung around Downtown Crossing yesterday for about an hour running
this question by 52 Bostonians. (If only Butch Hobson were still
managing the Sox, we could call this a true Hobson’s choice.) Many
respondents were torn, but ultimately the people spoke. Twenty people
felt it was more important for their junior senator to take over the
White House. Thirty-two implored the Deity to intervene and send World
Series rings to the Olde Towne Team. If there was a common theme, it
was skepticism that either event was likely to take place.

should point out that I don’t care about the Red Sox one whit. 
Well, only for the sake of marital harmony, but even then….  But
the Sox aren’t my team, and their supporters seem united as much by
their hatred of the Yankees as by their love of the Sox.

Posted in Politicks on 21 September 2004 at 10:04 am by Nate
20 September 2004

Democrats and the Devil

Over the weekend, the Boston Globe ran an article, written by BC professor Alan Wolfe, on the religion gap in American politics right now

But God’s not dead as a partisan player in American politics.  At least not in Minnesota
Or in many other fora.  I was brought up in a church where I was
told that you can’t be a Christian and be a Democrat, because all the
things that the Democratic party believe are contrary to the
Bible.  Well, that mindset may seem simplistic, but much of the
Republican campaigning this year has attempted to appeal to religious
believers and the fearful on just such a basis.  Dick Cheney’s
comment that voting for Kerry will increase the terror attacks (or at
least their chances) on the country is simply par for this
course.  But many of the believers in the church to which I belong
now almost seem to believe the opposite, that you can’t be a Republican
and be a Christian.

I’m willing to bet that God wouldn’t be more or less happy or upset
with either party, but with both in equal measure.  Just a hunch.

As to Wolfe’s article, I think that one of the strengths of it is that
it points out the religious war being played out in the Republican
party, even if he didn’t discuss that at length.  If the
socio-religious conservatives continue to hold sway in the party, I
think that the fragmentation of the party is a likely outcome; not in
the sense that the party will split up formally but that it will become
a rickety coalition, much like the Democrats present at the current
time. (All RNC speakers aside, the platform and the nominees are highly
conservative, and it’s in those two sites that the signal of power and
the power itself lie.)

The Democrats are working to acknowledge their religious roots, to show
“people of faith” that they are necessary to the party’s and
liberalism’s future.  Now sure, the Right dominates religious
discourse in this country right now, but that has seemed to me more a
matter of tactic and personality than of theological support for either
party’s particular positions.  But the religious believers provide
the party one of the appeals that it probably needs to win in electoral

Americans seem much more worried — at least in some political arenas
— about the place of morality in their politics.  That is,
Americans want certain moral appeals made by their politicians before
the voters will reward them with office.  (Whether or not that
action itself is a moral one is a good and, I think, highly contended
matter.)  Candidates who can convincingly speak a language of
ethics — even if it is one that the voter may not agree with — will
probably speak more convincingly to voters.  But to be convincing,
the candidate will have to have an actual grounding in some sort of
moral and ethical system.  Religious affiliation and profession
provide a signal, a cue, to the voters that the candidate may have such
a grounding. 

Somehow, for Democrats, this hasn’t worked out.  All the
successful Democrats of the last 30 years (all two of them) were men
steeped in being Southern Baptists.  But Clinton’s Christianity
was not perceived to have made a difference, and the same has proven
the case with John Kerry, so far.  Kerry, in fact, has suffered
somewhat for being seen not to be in lockstep with every one of the
teachings of his church (i.e., he doesn’t share the abortion position
with the bishops, but most of his others line up), while the same has
not proven true with Bush.  Bush has agreed with almost none of
the major social teachings of his church, the United Methodist Church,
but he hasn’t suffered for it.  I imagine it’s because he
professes the sort of militant 19th-century triumphal Christianity that
proves continuingly popular among evangelicals today.

In the end, however, the Democrats have a difficulty to overcome that
the Republicans do not.  Since 90 percent of American believe in a
deity of some sort, there’s only a few who don’t align with a religion,
and I’d wager that most of them are Democrats.  (If you’re an
atheist who votes Republican, there’s a good bet that — like gay
Republicans — you’ve had to make some sort of peace with the fact that
you are an oddly fitting minority in your choice of political
associates.)  The Democrats have a more diverse religious
underpinning than the Republicans (as I’d also wager that you’ll find a
wider range among the stances of religious believers in the Democratic
party), and so their median religious belief is likely more to the
middle, where the Republicans’ is further right.  As such, they
can make fewer pronouncements from the point of view of faith. 
Combined with a more uneasy stance toward authority, this all makes it
harder for the Democrats to make convincing an argument that when they
argue from faith that they really are doing so.  But some of the
most significant social changes in the history of this country have
come as a result of religion — as well as some of the most significant
opposition to those changes.

But, as I have noted earlier,
they are trying in this cycle.  And I think that whether Kerry
wins or not, the Democrats can continue to lay a foundation among faith
communities, reclaiming the idea that the Deity belongs to any of us or
all uf us.

Posted in Rayleejun on 20 September 2004 at 10:45 pm by Nate

Problems at my church

My church, one of the largest in the city, with a great big landmark
has recently lost one of our clergy.  This priest was
the only ethnic or sexual minority on the clerical staff of the
church.  He was also one of out best liturgists and homileticists
(sermon-giver).  We lost a lot of talent in the loss of him. 
Now, all of our people are straight, white, liberals.  I’m a bit
disappointed, to say the least.  What does it say to the minority
people in the pews (for we have lots of gay people, Nigerian people,
hispanic people, and so forth)?

We were recently profiled for our building project
in the Times.  Our building project has sort of developed a life
of its own, and sometimes the connection to our ministry is
unclear.  Sometimes we seem to forget that the building is a
National Landmark because we have used it to do the work of the church,
rather than the other way around.

I’m not sure that we’re on the right track right now, and it worries me a bit.

Posted in Rayleejun on 20 September 2004 at 10:38 pm by Nate

Miscellaneous at the beginning of the semester

It’s been quite busy this last week and weekend — more so than I thought it would be.

But here’s a variety of thoughts.

First, the new PBS series on Freud and C.S. Lewis.  The Revealer
points out that the Harvard academic running the course seems
predisposed to a bellicose and militant Jesus
.  Which isn’t very surprising, considering the ways Americans have viewed Jesus
over the years.  I was in a big bookstore in the downtown area
over the weekend, and C.S. Lewis books were on the table of books that
they were pushing.  No Freud, however, and I wonder if it’s
because he’s “too hard”, especially compared to Lewis.  I admit, I
like Lewis quite a bit, as he’s a very good intellectual, but much of
his popular writing — fiction and non-fiction — is not highly
rigorous.  (What’s funny, even in the anti-intellectual atmosphere
of the churches I grew up in, C.S. Lewis was highly regarded, and it
was reading him that led me to understand that Christians could have
intelligent thought about God.  Using one’s mind was not only good
but necessary.  Funnily enough, for the fact that American
evangelicals love Lewis, he remained a devoted Anglo-Catholic all his
life, a worship and theology that many latter-day American Protestants
would find great discomfort in.)  But I find it odd that the
popularity of the series and Nicholi’s course only lead one to Lewis,
because Lewis proves more accessible and less offensive to the majority
of Americans.  And ultimately, I think the course, the book, and
the show prove to be more evangelism than comparative theology or
philosophy.  And that strikes me as disingenuous.  Were these
thinkers selected specifically to favor Lewis?

Other news.  Classes start here this week.  Lots of advising,
and lots of other sorts of work to be done.  Our students ask some
strange questions, and some of them need to learn to relax a bit
more.  There’s no need to walk into the advising office on the
first day of one’s frosh year and decide that you need to be an
political science and economics major, especially when you haven’t
taken any poli sci or econ classes yet.

Posted in Rayleejun on 20 September 2004 at 2:55 pm by Nate
15 September 2004

Keeping an eye on the presidential race

FactCheck analyzes the political stump speeches for accuracy.

Unsurprisingly, neither guy demonstrates a tendency to keep his exaggeration in check.

Posted in OnTheWeb on 15 September 2004 at 8:02 pm by Nate
14 September 2004

Blogging vacation over

    So I took an unexpected bloggin vacation for the last couple of week,
but it’s time for it to be over.  I’ll be back soon, with some
more of your favorite blend of religion and politics.

    If it weren’t so late, I would harp greviously on David Brooks’ column from last Friday
This was perhaps one of the most asinine examples of social “analysis”
that I have ever seen come from Brooks’ pen.  And I generally like
him, as I find much of what he has to say thoughtful and interesting
and informed.  “Theories” such as the following, unless he’s being
so subtly sarcastic that he doesn’t mean it, aren’t even worthy of the
twisted anti-rational logic of a candidate’s stump speech.

Why have the class alignments shaken out as they have? There are a
couple of theories. First there is the intellectual affiliation theory.
Numerate people take comfort in the false clarity that numbers imply,
and so also admire Bush’s speaking style. Paragraph people, meanwhile,
relate to the postmodern, post-Cartesian, deconstructionist,
co-directional ambiguity of Kerry’s Iraq policy.

I subscribe,
however, to the mondo-neo-Marxist theory of information-age class
conflict. According to this view, people who majored in liberal arts
subjects like English and history naturally loathe people who majored
in econ, business and the other “hard” fields. This loathing turns
political in adult life and explains just about everything you need to
know about political conflict today.

    This column, dividing the world between
“spreadsheet” people and “paragraph” people fundamentally
misunderstands the nature of contemporary academia, business, and
politics.  There are simpler explanations than Brooks’, and even
just one of them provide more explanatory power than Brooks’ tortured

    We know from public opinion and cross-sectional
surveys that as people gain more education, they tend to become more
politically liberal.  You can argue about the reasons this is the
case, if you like, but the empirics remain the same.  So we’d
expect our most highly educated people (college professors) to be on
average, more liberal.  And so we do.  CEOs have less
education that professors, and we’d expect them to be less
liberal.  Lo, and behold, that’s what Brooks points out.  But
instead of some gobbledegook about spreadsheet and paragraph people, we
have a simpler explanation that explains more.  And we can do this
with every example in Brooks’ article.

    But Brooks’ explanation has more rhetorical zing
than the better explanations.  It’s sad to see David go for flash
over substance, especially when it’s a fault he’s quick and insightful
at pointing out in political life, but that’s exactly what he
does.  The sin of spin.

Posted in Day2Day on 14 September 2004 at 2:12 pm by Nate