HOUSE OF ROCK

Loyal readers may have noticed my latest way of compensating for my neglect of this blog is to search out hooks to link back to things I wrote in the days of not neglecting this blog. In that vein, check out the part of Obama’s speech today where Obama cites the Sermon on the Mount:

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

This strikes me as a good example of an appeal to a religious text on the basis of insight, rather than authority. About a million years ago I blogged about a debate between Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Americans United’s Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author’s inherent authority rather than to the author’s particular insight. In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don’t oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery). I thought at the time, and I still do, that Lynn was making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument. In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RISING OF THE WATERS?

Last night we learned from Mitt Romney that John McCain is going to make the sun stop rising in the east and start rising in the west. Good thing he’s not a messianic elitist like Barack Obama.

To be fair, God does make the sun stop so Joshua can beat up the Ammonites, so why shouldn’t John McCain expect the same assistance in taking out those dread journalists and community organizers?

YOU’RE SO VAIN, YOU PROBABLY THINK JESUS IS ABOUT YOU

David Brody, blogger for Pat Robertson’s CBN, weighs in on Barack Obama’s legitimacy:

He talks about Jesus and how Christ changed his life. But religious conservatives aren’t convinced at all and think he’s way too liberal to be considered legitimate with his faith talk. I expect the faith discussion about Obama’s Christianity to increase as time goes on. Is he genuine or not? If he is, then he’ll need to figure out a way to defend certain positions (abortion and marriage) that don’t jive with the Bible.

It takes a particular sort of arrogance to take every expression of personal faith by a political candidate as an audition for you and Pat Robertson. And it makes you wonder: How does David Brody know that Barack Obama doesn’t share the biblical position that if a man violently causes a woman to miscarriage, he should be held financially culpable? Nothing there that doesn’t jive with pro-choice doctrine.

This is a good example of why (though contra Rawls, I don’t want to force “public reason” on everyone) we should prefer political appeals to the persuasive power of your religious tradition over political appeals to its authority.

BIBLICALLY INCORRECT

Democracy for America just e-mailed to announce an on-line petition against Pat Robertson’s fatwa on Hugo Chavez reminding the pastor of the biblical commandment that “Thou shalt not kill.” I’d be all for spreading a little gospel to the everyone’s favorite venal, hateful, antisemitic (didn’t stop the ADL giving him an award for supporting the Israeli occupation) pastor, except for one problem: There is no biblical commandment that says “Thou shalt not kill.” There is a biblical commandment saying lo tirtzach. But that doesn’t mean “Do not kill” (not reason to dress it up in Old English). It means “Do not murder.” The Torah has lots of words for killing itself, but they don’t show up in the Ten Commandments – they show up at the various points where God affirmatively commands Israelites to kill particular people or peoples.

That’s not to say that opposition to violence itself doesn’t have support in Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s just to say that opposition to killing people across the board has no more grounding in the literal meaning (or p’shat) of the Torah than, say, opposition to aborting fetuses. What the Torah is clearly against is murder – killing unjustly. And the plentiful body of (inter alia) Jewish commentary on what counts as wrongful killing provides plentiful arguments for serious discretion in the use of lethal force. One cluster of examples would be the set of restrictions on the application of the death penalty which rendered it virtually impossible for human beings to carry it out (rules like the traditional prohibition on executing anyone based on a unanimous verdict, because a unanimous verdict suggests that the jury didn’t struggle with the issue hard enough). Needless to say, there are no lack of compelling religious arguments for why murdering a democratically-elected foreign leader in cold blood is something other than a good idea.

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.

Wednesday, I went from a conversation with an 1199 member at Yale – New Haven Hospital to a dinner at Yale’s Slifka Center for Jewish Life with Marvin Lender (that’s right – the one with all the bagels), prominent Jewish philanthropist and Chairman of the Board of the Hospital. The topic? Jewish tradition and business ethics.

I showed up with fifteen-some friends eager to discuss, in light of Jewish tradition: the Hospital’s three-year refusal to make a contract offer with across-the-board raises for its unionized food service workers, who’ve now twice gone on strike (although in a meeting with students a few months back, the Hospital’s Vice President for Public Relations claimed that they hadn’t, and he had to be corrected by the Vice President for Labor Relations); the paralyzing, and empirically justified, fear of the Hospital’s non-union workforce, who make significantly less than the Local 34 and 35 members who perform identical work beside them, that discussing organizing will cost them their jobs; and the Hospital’s failure, even after its latest reforms, to formulate a policy which ensures access to healthcare for New Haveners lacking full health insurance.

Lender’s response to the first few questions along these lines have two basic parts. First: He could serve on “any board I wanted to,” but “I chose Yale – New Haven Hospital” because of its work helping people. “My heart goes out” to “those poor people” who work there and “love their jobs” but “are being targeted by the unions.” The Hospital “is too busy helping people” to “get into a – excuse me – a pissing contest with the unions.” Second: Secular organizations, like Yale – New Haven Hospital, “aren’t like Jewish organizations,” in that there’s a rigid structure and so “my job isn’t to tell [Yale – New Haven Hospital President] Joe Zaccanino what to do.” The Board just “hires and fires” him. So “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific issues.”

When we questioned Lender’s categorization of a non-profit Hospital’s service to the poor and treatment of its workers as “day-to-day issues,” he became visibly more uncomfortable and markedly more curt. He was relieved to get a question from one of the couple people in the room not there to talk about the hospital, this one about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and spoke sympathetically and articulately about his responsibility, as a confidante and ally of leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations, to pressure them to commit to a two-state solution. So I expressed my agreement with his principle that those in positions of influence over powerful leaders who’ve gone astray have a moral obligation to speak out, cited some sources from Leviticus, Megillat Esther, and Pirkei Avot to that effect, and urged him to push Yale – New Haven Hospital into line with our shared ethical tradition. His response: “Are you trying to tell me that Esther or Mordechai with Chairman of a Board?”

Lender became increasingly rude as Jared Maslin, drawing on his experience at SHOUT helping the poor file applications for Yale – New Haven Hospital’s Free Bed Fund, tried to briefly describe the process to contextualize his question. “Are you going to ask me a question or not?” Lender asked, to which Jared replied that he wanted to make sure everyone in the room could understand the situation, prompting Lender to tell him that that was a waste of time. Jared, taken aback somewhat, suggested that he and Lender could talk about the issue after the dinner, to which Lender responded adamantly, “Now we won’t.” So Jared related that his experience suggests that the application system intentionally erects intimidating and often insurmountable beuracratic boundaries to dissuade those who need assistance from seeking it, and asked Lender what he would think of giving a third-party of some kind oversight over the process. Lender’s response: “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

Shaking his head in his hands during questions, Lender announced, in a supreme moment of irony, “I’d didn’t come here to talk about this. I didn’t come here to talk about the Hospital. I came here to talk about business ethics.” That just about said it all. He then accused us of being rude and insisted that he was being “respectful” anyway, and accused us of “wasting the time” of all the people there who didn’t care about the Hospital, a peculiar sentiment given that all but a few of us had come specifically to discuss with one of the most powerful leaders of the Hospital how it’s treatment of the New Haven community clashed with religious and ethical values and what he planned to do about it.

Towards the end, Lender insisted that those who wanted to talk about the Hospital should “send me a letter.” That sounds like an invitation to me.