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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

What really happened October 13

Making its way across the Blogosphere is Senator Danforth's hesitant suggestion that the Religious Right, and the Religious Left, are equally enemies of the American polis.

October 13, 2005, at the National Cathedral in Washington, Senator Danforth preached a brief homily about "reconciliation." Christians, he said, are called to "reconciliation." He made a few jokes, and answered a few questions, and then he left.

What the Episcopalian News Service did *not* convey in their much-quoted article was the firm the rebuttal that the Senator received. As a panelist at the table that replied, and as the organizer of the conference panel to which the Senator was invited, I am appalled by the Episcopal News Service's "tweaking" of the evening's story to its own ends.

So the panelists who replied to Danforth had to answer the question: what does the Christian do about poverty? Does the Christian lobby for political reconciliation at all costs? Does the Christian tell both Christian right and Christian left to sit down?

Richard Parker of the Kennedy School for Government at Harvard spoke first. Reconciliation, he argued, has been used to tell the liberals to pipe down. The Episcopalian church, he reminded us, has already passed numerous calls for justice towards the poor: when we call upon the church to take its own resolutions seriously, and when we call upon the nation to take human life seriously, we take the merest steps towards fulfilling our duty as Christians.

David Hollinger, head of the History Department at UC Berkeley, then argued that American Protestants have always believed in reconciliation: which has caused them to take strong, liberal-leaning political stands on behalf of affirmative action, inclusion for Jews and Catholics. He reminded us that for half a century, conservative policies of exclusion of the Other have flown in the face of Christian reconciliation. Christian liberals have to act in the public realm in order to bring about those very values of "reconciliation" with those excluded from our society.

I argued that theological reconciliation -- the duty of one Christian to speak to another, much neglected in these days of polarization -- differed greatly from political reconciliation. Christ called us to stand up "right now" for what we believe, and he made clear that defense of the poor and vulnerable was an area that called for our immediate intervention. The gospel requires us to take hard stands, in order to act on the values of the Kingdom of Heaven -- values of compassion and responsibility that are abandoned everywhere by contemporary government policies.

Michael Kazin of Georgetown and Amy Sullivan of the Washington Monthly then spoke on political change, the work of Christian progressives, and the necessity for political involvement in order to effect the changes in policy and the media that we want to see.

"Reconciliation" is a funny word, and a funny thing to tell the Christian progressives who had assembled at the Cathedral to call America to further action for the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast, and the vulnerable, whom this country has left behind. Danforth seemed uncomfortable that night. He had cut his speaking time from 90 minutes to thirty. He gave a plaintive plea for "reconciliation," and disappeared.

What had made the senator so uneasy? I think I can answer. Several weeks before the conference had sent out a press release: "Religious Leaders Condemn Bush Government for Abandonment of Duty Towards the Poor." I co-authored that press release with a monk friend. After Katrina, we argued, it'd be hard for America to still claim that it was being a Christian nation.

Such a claim made Senator Danforth understandably uneasy. He's always had an easy relationship with the Bush regime, and our political statement seemed to indicate that Danforth, by showing at the Cathedral, supported our challenge.

The Episcopal News Service has a duty towards the church to report conversations fairly. Certainly, on such a sensitive topic, it has the duty to progressive Christians who argue that the church should take a political stand on the side of poverty in accordance with Christ's message. Silencing the voice of dissent in the church is about as far from "reconciliation" as one can get.