Friday, December 19, 2008

Obama and Lincoln: Rick Warren and the Price of Leadership

As the Civil War approached, a majority of Americans believed that the scriptures support slavery. The abolitionist movement represented a minority of Christians—a prophetic minority who read the scriptures to support the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God. This prophetic minority challenged the presuppositions of the majority of American Christians who pointed out that Christianity had historically always approved of slavery, because the bible endorses slavery. Slavery represented the ancient practice of Christians for centuries, taken for granted as both “natural” and biblically mandated.

As the Civil War neared, many Americans began to change their mind about the practice of slavery, not primarily because of religious opposition to the practice, but because of political and economic objections to the extension of this practice westward across the continent. The alliance of the prophetic minority of people of faith opposing slavery and the majority of those who opposed the institution on pragmatic grounds led to a war to end this practice.

For the prophetic minority of abolitionist Christians who opposed what had been the longstanding dominant interpretation of the bible in support of slavery, and who challenged the cultural assumption that the bible was in favor of slavery, it was essential that churches and the culture at large begin reading the bible in a new way. This way of reading scripture would depart from literal readings that inevitably supported slavery, since the institution was taken for granted and endorsed by the bible.

This way of reading scripture would call for people of faith to recognize that the weight of scripture, beyond verses here and there taken literally, was on the side of a love that regarded all people as equal in the eyes of God, and that could not be harmonized with the subjugation of other human beings into slavery. This reading of the bible contested both the longstanding literal reading of the scripture, which easily lent support to slavery, and the assumption of the majority of Americans that, because the bible upholds slavery and because it had been practiced for millennia around the world, slavery was a morally acceptable practice.

Today, a large number of Americans, including American people of faith, believe that the bible is clear in condemning homosexuality. This widely held cultural and religious consensus argues that Christians and other religious groups have always condemned homosexuality, and that what has always been widely held and appears to enjoy biblical support should continue to obtain in our land.

A prophetic minority of people of faith departs from this longstanding reading of the scriptures and the cultural consensus that reading reflects. This prophetic minority sees the weight of scripture as endorsing love rather than hate, as respecting the worth of every individual in the eyes of God, regardless of the innate sexual orientation of the individual.

This minority of people of faith is increasingly supported by many people in the culture at large who, for philosophical and other reasons, have come to regard oppression of gay human beings as morally insupportable. For many of us today, we are at a tipping point in our culture and religious development precisely parallel to that facing Americans of the 1860s.

Just as slavery presented Americans and American churches with hard choices about where truth and right and wrong lie—and how either to go on living with slavery or to abolish it once and for all—the battle over human rights for gay and lesbian persons presents Americans and American churches with the same challenge today.

At the tipping point of the 1860s, a presidential leader came on the scene who refused to compromise or to engage in pragmatic games regarding slavery. Abraham Lincoln decided that, once and for all, the nation must do what is right and abolish slavery.

As he came to power, an influential Southern religious leader, Rev. James H. Thornwell, composed a statement on the churches, the bible, and slavery. Rev. Thornwell wrote the following words in defense of slavery in 1861. They were then adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America as the Presbyterian communion, like several other major American churches, divided over the issue of slavery:

We [supporters of slavery] stand exactly where the Church of God has always stood—from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Christ, from Christ to the Reformers, and from the Reformers to ourselves. We stand upon the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being the Chief corner stone. Shall we be excluded from the fellowship of our brethren in other lands, because we dare not depart from the charter of our faith? Shall we be branded with the stigma of reproach, because we cannot consent to corrupt the word of God to suit the intuitions of an infidel philosophy? Shall our names be cast out as evil, and the finger of scorn pointed at us, because we utterly refuse to break our communion with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with Moses, David and Isaiah, with Apostles, Prophets and Martyrs, with all the noble army of confessors who have gone to glory from slave-holding countries and from a slave-holding Church, and without ever having dreamed that they were living in mortal sin, by conniving at slavery in the midst of them? If so we shall take consolation in the cheering consciousness that the Master has accepted us (“Address on Slavery,” in The Role of Religion in American Life: An Interpretive Historical Anthology, ed., Robert R. Mathisen [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1982], p. 106.

Rev. James H. Thornwell read the bible re: slavery in 1861 precisely as Rev. Rick Warren reads the bible re: gay human beings today. As did Rev. Thornwell, Rev. Warren claims to “stand exactly where the Church of God has always stood.” As Rev. Thornwell did in 1861, Rev. Rick Warren points today to the “noble army of confessors” who have “gone to glory” from Christian cultures condemning gay people over the centuries.

In defending his choice of Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, Barack Obama states, “. . . [D]ialogue I think is part of what my campaign's been all about, that we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."

Question: Does disagreeing without being disagreeable permit us to dispense from making moral and political judgments about right and wrong when principles of human rights are at stake?

Question: Should Abraham Lincoln have invited Rev. James H. Thornwell to give the invocation at his inauguration? You know, to build consensus and draw together those with differing ideas and various ways of interpreting scripture? To heal the nation and keep it united?

The image is from the Atlantic website, Sept. 1999 (