Header Else

Sunday at the Square: Two-fer


This morning, after the introduction of a church elder returning to visit, he was asked to say a word. Here it is:

“It’s better to be seen that viewed.”

Photo credit.

“Let a thousand flowers of religion bloom, they will not hurt us.”

founding-fathers-handsFrom Bob Edwards Weekend, interview with historian Simon Schama, on his recent book The American Future: A History:

The bet that America’s founding fathers made about religion in the 1st amendment when they passed the provision that Congress shall make no establishment with respect to religion and when Jefferson and Madison got through one of the most amazing documents in all American history the “Statute of Religious Toleration” the bet was made was that religion would flourish, that it would prosper, that it would bloom on the strictest possible condition: That you never made heterodoxy, someone else’s religion, a crime. You couldn’t prosecute someone for infringing on what other people took to be religious orthodoxy, you couldn’t lock them up. And from that moment, the founding fathers who were mixed in their degrees of devotion. (Jefferson didn’t think that Jesus was the son of God (but he believed he was a great moral teacher, others were more conventional.) But from that moment on, America flew a flag in my view of very great moral grandeur. It committed itself to toleration as a source of civil union. Let a thousand flowers of religion bloom, they will not hurt us. As Jefferson said very movingly, another person’s religious beliefs “neither break my leg or pick my pocket.” That was a majestically brave thing to say. And the first amendment stands. I wish that our wars in places where they rub up against theocracies like with the Taliban weren’t simply viewed as a matter of pragmatic national security. I’m all for charging the ramparts waving on Jefferson’s statute on religious toleration. We should take comfort and a sense of moral decency from that.

Sunday at the Square: A lighthouse and a crossroads

notre-dameAmid the swirl of debate surrounding his visit, President Obama delivered his Notre Dame commencement speech today. He invoked Father Ted Hesburgh, President of University of Notre Dame for over 3 decades:

Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. A lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, while the crossroads is where “differences of culture and religion and conviction can coexist with friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.”

Obama ended his speech recalling Father Hedsburgh and an inside story of the Civil Rights Commisison:

There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land OLakes, Wisconsin — where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.

And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history.

Sunday at the Square: Freedom and responsibility

purple-state-of-mind.jpgCraig Detweiler writes about the need for the dueling worldviews of the 50’s and the 60’s to come together, to value the lessons of responsibility from the 50’s and the benefits of freedom from the 60’s. “A purple state of mind borrows from both, combining freedom and responsibility.”

From a secular perspective, this is a repetition of the Village Square lesson that we – as a society – are not really whole unless we can engage with people who don’t see it our way. Out of that engagement comes an understanding of our blindspots and hopefully – eventually – better ideas.

From a Christian perspective, he writes in his book Purple State of Mind: Finding Middle Ground in a Divided Culture:

Our desperate need for freedom and responsibility rests in the seemingly contradictory letters of the apostle Paul. He applied his godly advice in a unique way for the audience he was addressing. To Corinthian Christians navigating a libertine culture, he preached caution. Yet to the uptight church in Galatia, Paul preaches freedom. Is Paul contradicting himself? In each letter, he concludes with an appeal to love. He preaches freedom to Galatia and responsibility to Corinth because they each need to apply the message in a unique way.

Unfortunately, we often fail to identify our particular blind spots. Legalistic churches will often reiterate the call to purity given to the Corinthians. Lax churches will return to Paul’s letter to the Galatians to justify more license. Those who need freedom cling to responsibility. Christians who need to learn responsibility insist upon the freedom Paul grants to Galatia. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Purple Epilogue: Atheists’ gift to the faithful

purple-state-of-mind.jpg To you, I’m an atheist. To God, I’m the loyal opposition.
–Woody Allen, Stardust Memories

From Craig Detweiler’s Purple State of Mind: Finding Middle Ground in a Divided Culture:

In listening to [John’s] hard questions, I am processing my own. German theologian Jurgen Moltmann asks the humbling question, “Is not every unbeliever who has a reason for his atheism and his decision not to believe a theologian too?”

Perhaps atheists offer Christians a great gift, some much-needed perspective. We can be strengthened and even encouraged by the loyal opposition…

Today’s atheists continue Nietzsche’s important idol-smashing work. They rightly expose toxic expressions of faith. They decry abuse of power and resistance to scientific progress, places where organized religion brought death rather than life. Just as ancient Israel needed correction, so the Christian community needs such critics. It is far too easy for us to get defensive.

Liz Joyner: The Darwin bicentennial and shades of gray

darwin-large On a recent London holiday (my mini-tribute to Mother England for her role in providing me so fine a vacation experience), my Westminster Abbey tour found me standing directly atop the grave of Charles Darwin right when our quirky bird “London Walks” tour guide first mentioned the notables buried there. It was actually a bit of a shock, seeing his name right at the tips of my tennies.

Quickly moving on to be wowed by the likes of Chaucer, Newton, and Churchill, I didn’t give a whole lot of vacation thought over to Darwin’s place of rest until I rested my own Yankee arse back at my computer sorting through the snaps (still tributing).

Then it finally dawned. (I am a quick study.) Ironic, isn’t it, that the scientist most thoroughly associated with the irreligious occupies such a high place of Christian burial.

As an enthusiastic lover of irony (I’d be a groupie if irony had groupies), I felt it my duty to investigate.

Turns out that most characterize Darwin (who was actually the Chaplain on board the HMS Beagle before being drawn, on the same voyage, to his signature naturalism) as having died an agnostic. He lost a lifelong mooring in his Christian faith not with his famed discoveries but when his daughter Annie died tragically at age ten. That he might has succumbed to doubt seems understandably human in reading his eulogy to Annie:

…the main feature in her disposition which at once rises before me is her buoyant joyousness. Her joyousness and animal spirits radiated from her whole countenance and rendered every movement elastic and full of life and vigor. It was delightful and cheerful to behold her. We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age.”

Apparently Darwin’s wife remained a woman of deep faith who he, as a consummate family man, was seriously disinclined to want to ever offend.

A memorial sermon on Darwin’s passing was preached in the Abbey on the Sunday following the funeral by the Bishop of Carlisle:

“I think that the interment of the remains of Mr. Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen; It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr. Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.”

Some one hundred and twenty-ish years after his death (and exactly 200 after his birth), we clearly haven’t sorted through that can of worms.

But with this bicentennial blurb, I wish to hereby serve notice that our subconsciously-drawn generalizations about people tend to be pretty half-baked, if baked at all.


Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

Liberty of Conscience: A fundamental American plumb line

From Noah Feldman’s Divided by God:

The revolutionary American idea that the people were sovereign profoundly disturbed the old model: How could the state establish the religion of the sovereign if the sovereign people belonged to many faiths? The framers rose to the occasion. For the first time in recorded history, they designed a government with no established religion at all.

… The early republic was religiously diverse in that it was inhabited by several different Protestant denominations. This “multiplicity of sects,” as James Madison brilliantly realized, ensured that no one denomination had the capacity to establish its own state religion at the national level.

… The dominant idea organizing church-state relations in the framers’ era was the liberty of conscience, understood to protect religious dissenters-representing the religious diversity of the time-against compelled taxation to support teachings with which they disagreed.

…In America, the establishment of religion by the government came to be seen as posing a fundamental danger to the liberty of conscience by threatening dissenters with the possibility of coercion. The constitutional guarantee of nonestablishment sought to protect conscience from coercion by guaranteeing a division between the institutional spheres of organized religion and government.

“The Village Square creates a place for civilized conversation”

By Sharon Kant-Rauch

When Pastor Rick Warren was invited to give the invocation at President-Elect Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration, gays and others on the left raised a loud and vociferous chorus of protest about Warren’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion.

Some on the right were also offended – they say Warren isn’t conservative enough and shouldn’t share the stage with someone who supports a woman’s right to choose.

It’s exactly that kind of political polarization that Liz Joyner and The Village Square, the group she helped found, hope to break. For more than a year, Joyner has brought Democrats and Republicans together every quarter for dinner and what she calls “civilized” conversation – no name-calling and yelling allowed, just thoughtful, engaged discussion.

At Tuesday’s dinner, a bipartisan panel will tackle a particularly thorny topic: Faith in the Public Square.

“We seem to be living in a time when we’ve stopped talking to people we disagree with . . . and we aren’t having good conversations about things that matter,” Joyner said. “I think we can do better than that.”

On Tuesday, Joyner said, she is going to tell the panelists to fight like the Founding Fathers.

“Have a real discussion, but do it with civility and grace.”

The relationship between the co-chairs of The Village Square – City Commissioner Allan Katz and Tallahassee Community College President Bill Law – provides one example of the possibilities for dialogue. Katz, a Democrat, and Law, a Republican, have different views on how to solve social problems, but during periodic jogs together and informal monthly get-togethers, they’ve learned to respect and trust one another’s judgment.

“We come from different places, but we realized that just sitting down together with our talking points wasn’t going to get us anywhere,” said Katz, who will act as moderator for Tuesday’s panel discussion. “We had to be willing to really listen to what the other one was saying.”

Lea Marshall, a Republican who has attended all of The Village Square dinners, said she goes to listen to the speakers she supports. But she often comes away with some truth from the other side.

During the last dinner, for example, which took place before the election, one speaker said that people who believe that only “their guy” could save the country were verging on idolatry.

“That made me look at the election differently,” Marshall said. “The take-home lesson didn’t come from the person I originally went to hear.”

Ken Connor, one of Tuesday’s panelists, said it was important to create a calm atmosphere where people have a chance to listen to the merits of an argument. Connor, an attorney, is the former president of Florida Right to Life and the author of “Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty.”

“If the volume is loud and the face is red, there is little opportunity to convince and persuade one another,” Connor said. “Sounds to me like what The Village Square is saying is ‘Look, we want people to have equal access to the marketplace of ideas.’ I think the outcome of that discussion will demonstrate that some ideas are better than others.”

Connor’s fellow panelists include:

W. Dexter Douglass, an attorney who has practiced Florida law for half a century, was the lead counsel for Al Gore in the infamous “Florida Recount” of 2000 and is a 16-year member of the board of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind.

The Rev. Allison DeFoor, who served as vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida from 2002 to 2006, is an Episcopal priest who works in prison ministries and an environmental consultant who has served as director of the Florida Audubon Society and president of the Florida Land Trust Association.

Leo Sandon, a professor emeritus of religion and American studies at FSU, longtime religion columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat and ordained Presbyterian minister.

Nonsectarian religion in our schools: a mini-history

I’m delighted to make persuasively argued edits to the following, if advanced with civility.

(Corollary: I don’t even care if you’re right if you’re rude…)

1. Framers of our Constitution had a wild and crazy idea (that was more likely than not to get them hung) about people being the bosses instead of kings. Not only would we run the whole dang country, but we’d make our own decisions about God. No one, really NO ONE had ever had the unmitigated gall to do this before. They were pretty dang sure that God looked favorably upon their endeavor because they succeeded against some ridiculously long odds.

2. Many of their ideas were firmly planted in Protestant soil, more or less the only religious game in town at the time. The idea of liberty of conscience (the basket the Framers put all their eggs in) was very mushed up together with the Protestant concept of a personal relationship with God, vis-a-vis direct study of the Bible, not mediated by the Catholic dudes in funny hats or even those bossy Brits in purple.

3. All those old guys in tights and wigs saw religion and talk of good behavior and the threat of a good eternal comeuppance as an important influence on the masses of people who might otherwise have been a bit prickly and hard to manage.

4. Sooner or later, they figured out that well-educated citizens would make better bosses, so – tada – they formed common schools. Religion and morality were fundamentally critical to that education.

5. But, hmmm, since this new country of theirs had a bunch of bosses with a bunch of different Protestant religions, exactly whose religion and morality would be taught? They decided to agree where they could and not get too fussy about doctrinal differences. Nonsectarian Protestant Christianity was officially the coin of the realm in schools.

6. A lot of Catholics died in Ireland during the Great Famine.

7. A lot of Catholics came to America because the word had gotten out about all these people who could be their own bosses in America. And when they got here they noticed that when they went to school they were taught things that the Pope didn’t exactly intend to teach them. So they asked if they could not come during the Bible reading part of the day, or if they could have their own schools paid for that the Pope liked better.

8. They were pretty much told “no” because of the republican ideas and Protestant ideas that were pretty mushed up together. (And, truth be told, because there were fewer of them to squawlk about it.) They learned to live with it and some of them paid to go to their own schools. (Some states even passed some laws making it so government wouldn’t ever pay for the Pope’s sort of schooling.) The Catholics did learn a lot about being American in these schools and pretty soon started to fit right in.

9. Then, because the word got out about this country that let people be their own bosses, Mormons came. And Jehovah’s Witnesses came. And eventually just about every stripe of religious people came. Even people who didn’t believe in God liked the idea of liberty of conscience. And they came too.

10. Darn it if there weren’t just so many different sorts of beliefs that they had a really hard time agreeing about what they agreed about.

11. Eventually some of these people started speaking up about their different ideas about God and the dudes in black robes agreed with them that they had liberty of conscience too and told the schools they couldn’t read the Bible anymore. The schools can teach the things that you need to know to be an American, but without the religion part of it that we can’t possibly agree on.

12. Many of the Protestants who had actually started this whole ball of a country rolling considered it so fundamental to the success of their country that morality be teamed with democracy that they were very worried indeed and also pretty seriously sore at the dudes in black robes.

13. Some of them even started to reconsider those laws that say government can’t pay for religious schooling, even the Pope’s kind.

14. They were in a bit of a pickle. But, then again, this country full of individuals had already learned a lot about working things out…

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Written by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is worth a read. At the time of its writing, the Church of England was Virginia’s official church and there had been a run of violence against Protestant dissenters. It was the hotbed of religious disagreement in the founders’ day. Here’s a clip:

…that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry…

Armstrong on “logos” made lethal

From Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God:

One of the worst atrocities had been perpetrated by Germans, who lived in one of the most cultivated societies in Europe. It was no longer possible to assume that a rational education would eliminate barbarism, since the Nazi Holocaust revealed that a concentration camp could exist in the same vicinity as a great university. The sheer scale of the Nazi genocide or the Soviet Gulag reveals their modern origins.

For decades, men and women had dreamed of a final apocalypse wrought by God; now, it appeared, human beings no longer needed a supernatural deity to end the world. They had used their prodigious skill and learning to find the means of doing this very efficiendy for themselves. As they contemplated these new facts of life, peofle became aware as never before of the limitations of the rationalistic ethos. Faced with catastrophe on such a scale, reason is silent; there is-literally-nothing that it can say…

The Holocaust was an example of scientific and rational planning, in which everything is subordinated to a single, limited, and clearly defined objective. Born of modern scientific racism, the Holocaust was the ultimate in social engineering in what has been called the “garden” culture of the twentieth century. Science itself was also deeply implicated in the death camps and the eugenic experiments carried out there. At the very least, the Holocaust showed that a secularist ideology could be just as lethal as religious crusade…

The death camp and the mushroom cloud are icons that we must contemplate and take to heart so that we do not become chauvinistic about the modern scientific culture that so many of us in the developed world enjoy.

Armstrong also writes that many Christian thinkers blamed Darwinism for the tragedy in Nazi Germany. If true, could this speak to the error of turning logos (Darwinian evolution*) into a mythos that powered a genocide?

*Yes, I know, some would disagree that evolution is logos

Liz Joyner: The Seesaw

tree-small.jpgNeither of my kids spent much time on the seesaw at the park in their younger days. If I had to guess why, it would be that it was a little too much work for a day at the park. It was rare when they got a seesaw partner who didn’t require serious weight and momentum adjustment—sliding forward or backward, pushing hard at the bottom to get your end back up in the air, or, as was more often the case with my slender little girls, perched suspended three feet up, pretty much unable to control a thing.

As my sixteen-year-old has grown into a young woman, she’s been exposed to many a political dinner table conversation from the perspective of my side of the political seesaw. But as much as she’s heard me yammer, I’ve only now just noticed that she’s suspended in mid air with her feet dangling, no where near solid ground. I’m afraid I’ve been responsible for providing her only half the argument in a country that requires citizens to understand the whole one.

Trying to give her a shove back down to terra firma, I’ve had a series of conversations with her about—ultimately—what I deeply believe. There’s been a bit of personal political archeology involved here, as, in the daily shuffle, there are times when I’m too immersed in the veneer to reach for the foundation. Here’s where I found my foundation: What lasts, what matters from all of our daily political struggles is what keeps America who we are. What matters is the two-party system that creates a tension of opposites, the left keeping the right from marching into fascism, the right keeping the left from slipping into communism. What lasts is the best ideas that rise to the top, the product of our endless, sometimes painfully difficult dialog. Were it not for the tension, the struggle, we wouldn’t be America.

When power concentrates on one side of this non-stop American seesaw, it’s time for the grown-ups to give it a firm shove on one side. I sense the American public is ready to give a firm parental shove right about now too. But there is risk in this weight adjustment when we’ve been so used to pushing hard and having nothing happen… we risk that we’ll send the other guy miles into the air. Okay, so I’ll admit it, right now that may not seem so bad, but pause for a moment to consider what happens after the other guy’s fanny lands back on the seesaw. I never took physics but I’m fairly sure that all that energy has to go someplace and it may not be pretty when it does.

So, here’s to keeping the big picture in mind as each “side” shoves to get more momentum… hoping there are enough grownups to keep the traffic on the seesaw well-behaved.


Liz Joyner is the cofounder of the Village Square. You can reach her at liz@tothevillagesquare.org.

**This post represents the genesis of the thinking that would ultimately become The Village Square. I first wrote “The Seesaw” in March of 2006, when the Democrats had no political power. Now they control both Congress and the presidency.

The seesaw works both ways, folks.

“Beware the terrible simplifiers.”

Bill Moyers commentary on the week of political goings-on with the Reverend Wright media blitz contained in it both a finger-wag at politics as usual (hard not to love that) and the daggone best quote I’ve ever heard. Moyers:

Politics often exposes us to the corroding acid of the politics of personal destruction, but I’ve never seen anything like this – this wrenching break between pastor and parishioner. Both men, no doubt, will carry the grief to their graves. All the rest of us should hang our heads in shame for letting it come to this in America, where the gluttony of the non-stop media grinder consumes us all and prevents an honest conversation on race. It is the price we’re paying for failing to heed the great historian Jacob Burkhardt who said: “Beware the terrible simplifiers.”