Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama and the New Awakening

"Christianity is the more dangerous when it gives its attention to this life."
-- Lucy Newhall Coleman, Reminiscences,
H. L. Green: Buffalo N.Y. (1891)

Bad economic times are great for those who peddle magical thinking. Just last Sunday, the New York Times reported:
Nationwide, congregations large and small are presenting programs of practical advice for people in fiscal straits — from a homegrown series on “Financial Peace” at a Midtown Manhattan church called the Journey, to the “Good Sense” program developed at the 20,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., and now offered at churches all over the country. Many ministers have for the moment jettisoned standard sermons on marriage and the Beatitudes to preach instead about the theological meaning of the downturn.
* * *
Part of the evangelicals’ new excitement is rooted in a communal belief that the big Christian revivals of the 19th century, known as the second and third Great Awakenings, were touched off by economic panics.
We may be facing an economic Depression, but for evangelical preachers, self-proclaimed prophets, and other assorted mountebanks and charlatans, it's Boom Times again.

"It’s a wonderful time," one evangelical 'Christian' minister told the Times. "A great evangelistic opportunity for us.”

We think it probable that president-elect Obama's choice of the disreputable Rick Warren to give the invocation at his presidential inauguration manifests the president-elect's desire to be as inclusive as possible. It is unlikely to reflect a bias against women's reproductive rights or gay Americans.

As revealed many years ago in his autobiography, as well now in his cabinet and other administration selections, Obama really does aspire to serve all of the people, not just Democrats, or liberals, or people who are smart or well educated; and, certainly not just oil company executives and the wealthiest top one percent of America, as the current occupant of the White House has done.

Still, the choice of Warren for giving the opening invocation is proving very unpopular in some quarters. Many once-upon-a-time Obama supporters are pointing out --
This is the same Rick Warren who recently said that the relationships of his 'many gay friends' are no different from child rape, incest or polygamy. He also jumped on the paranoia bandwagon surrounding same-sex marriage by falsely claiming that Prop 8’s failure somehow would have overturned the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and religion.
Others see the decision to give Warren his 5 minutes in the sun as a divisive act of "wedge politics."

We don't buy it. Like it or not, evangelicals are part of the American people, too. They always have been, they are once again in great numbers, and they probably always will be with us to some extent or another.

Anyway, the very concept of an "invocation" for god's intercession is inescapably non-secular. By tradition, it is time reserved exclusively for make believe.

Even if you are convinced, as we are, that those who follow Rick Warren are fuzzy thinking sheep with child-like emotions who are intellectually stunted, they still are a part of the vast and colorful kaleidescope that makes our society who we are; just as much as gays are a part of it, and women who want control over their own bodies, and people who are infected with HIV, and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and even liberal rationalists.

If by his choice of the abominable Rick Warren, president-elect Obama is hoping to use the inescapably "religious" moment of the inauguration to reach out to evangelical America, we say more power to him. After all, Warren is being accorded only a few minutes' of show-biz sermonizing, not a cabinet post. If it makes Warren and his ilk feel good, so what?

There's little reason for those of us whom Warren would like to send straight to hell to be any more offended than if the religious invocation were delivered by a more mainstream figure who believes water turns into wine, or golden tablets dug up in New York were written by an angel, or god promised a perpetual deed in the desert to one people and not another.

If anything, whether he realizes it or not, the president- elect is following the same furrow plowed almost two centuries ago by others who aimed at transformational reform of the republic. The Second Awakening itself may have begun in its earliest stages as a unified charismatic movement with only vague reformist tendencies in reaction to a dramatically changing America. But it soon splintered. A large part of the movement animated reform and made common cause with anti-slavery abolitionists and early feminists who sought equality for women.

In the end, the Second Great Awakening did not impair reform, it advanced it. Solidarity among the reformers trumped their differing religious convictions; to the point where Amy Post could write in the 1891 preface to Lucy Newhall Coleman's autobiography:
Mrs. Colman and myself have in most things seen eye to eye but in the matter of Spiritualism we are widely apart. While to me the knowledge, for such it is to me, that my departed loved ones can and do come to me is a blessing so great that I cannot describe it, she has no faith in it whatever. What matter? Our friendship is too strong, too sweet to be disturbed by difference of opinion. I cheerfully recommend the work to all reformers of whatever name and grade.
To be sure, fundamentalist Christianity can be "more dangerous when it gives its attention to this life," as the estimable Lucy Newhall Coleman wrote. But the tasks ahead for Barack Obama are many and daunting. He will need the support of as many Americans as he can get. If some among them also are attracted from Rick Warren's flock, so much the better.

As the very different private views of Amy Post and Lucy Newhall Coleman testify, so long as religious conviction and its opposite are not allowed to intrude on public policy, solidarity can be achieved among all manner of people with differing personal beliefs to advance meaningful reform.


Unknown said...

My sentiments exactly. Very well said, old boy. __BL

Anonymous said...

Not only does a depression give evangelical opportunity to leaders of those types of Christian sects, there is some compelling economic evidence that shows that within each major religion, the more fundamental/orthodox the sect, the poorer the members. (see anthropologist/economist Larry Iannaccone)

At the same time, more people admit now to believing in an afterlife than ever before. The next 3 years will be important ones.

Feel free to join the discussion of these topics (and others), as they pertain to The Panhandle--and the south in general--at my blog,