Devil in a True Guess

By Don Rollins

Cecil Bothwell looks like your uncle — you know, the slightly wacky CPA: glasses, receding gray hair, frumpy suit coat and funky tie. Not exactly your average follower of the Prince of Darkness.

Bothwell ran for, and won last fall, a seat on the Asheville, N.C., City Council. But that was just the beginning. Turns out that Cecil’s an atheist, and that’s a problem in the Tar Heel State, where elected officeholders are required to confess their belief in God. Next thing you know, a local fellow took up the State’s cause, national media got wind of the story and somebody started talking about a lawsuit. All because a guy isn’t on speaking terms with the Almighty.

Collective, liberal sigh …

Weary pilgrim, you say you’ve had enough religion gunking up the works of the great American political machine? Tired of callous, over-the-hill evangelists blaming poor, earthquake-shaken nations for throwing off the yoke of Western imperialism? Had your fill of the Fair-and-Balanced pundits telling fallen golfers that Jesus is a better forgiver than Buddha? One more religiously punch-drunk abortion doc killer and you’re hopping the Amtrak to say, Mendocino County or the People’s Republic of Vermont — some place where Orwell’s ignorance isn’t strength, slavery isn’t freedom and war isn’t peace?

Well, friend, all I can say is get used to it: the Wall of Separation has been reduced to a pile of rubble, and there’s not a mason in sight. What bricks the well-funded and uber-organized theocrats could not dislodge, decades of tepid, distracted, neo-leftist politicians have. Changing metaphors, Brother Falwell and the Gipper would be proud to know that their snake oil elixir of bad theology and bad government has become the drink of choice in D.C. and beyond. Sadly, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that we live in a post-Jeffersonian, counterintuitive world of economic laze-faire and moral doctrinarism.

Fellow progressives, this church-state thing is what it is. No angels will spring us from our current circumstances. Nowadays, any purely secular, last-gasp calls for religion-free government sound shrill and, worse yet, yield diminishing returns. The days are gone when we could count on the Court to be vigilant in such matters; we can no longer trust Congress to keep in place legislation protecting us from wholesale, top-down piety; likewise, we can forget about the days when a presidential candidate’s faith was a footnote in her or his bio. Much the pity.

So, what does that leave us?

We need two things, folks. First off, we need a strategy. Here’s a first draft:

1. Accept that waters around you have grown. In a rational, modern democracy, separation between religion and government should be a no-brainer. But it ain’t. American religion is inextricably bound up with American politics and we have to get over it.

2. Go right to scriptural authority. It’s not about trading quotes from holy books in an effort to refute one position and defend another; it’s about the simple fact that complex, wholly human, ancient texts are being cited to justify all manner of prejudice and abuse of power. The Bible is not a credible authority for medicine or astronomy or history. Why get hung up over what Leviticus says about homosexuality, as though ancient scripture (Christian or otherwise) ought to be the last word for modern policymaking?

3. Become theologically sophisticated. We don’t have to go to seminary, but politically active liberals ought to be able to speak about religion in ways that are historically accurate and theologically relevant. If we’re serious about entering the fray, it’s imperative that we progressive types bring with us an understanding of how we came to this culture/religious war in the first place. We have to know our stuff.

4. Engage, 21st-century-style. Good citizenship, in this young century, does not require an oak stump and soaring oratorical skills. At the risk of oversimplification, modern citizenship needs but one thing: cyber access. Remember Howard Dean’s 2004, online (pre-scream) presidential campaign? That was the prototype the Obama people used to reach young adults, and, in the hands of the right people, it’s as useful for church-state relations as for presidential elections. So if you want to go all Mother Jones on this issue, just reach for your laptop. Or iPhone. Or BlackBerry. Or whatever the hell Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are pushing this time around.

Second, we need a sense of urgency. Cecil Bothwell’s tale is instructive; there really are people out there who are willing to slander and remove from office a duly elected official just because he has more questions than answers about a supernatural God. Our progressive publications, books, websites, network shows and blogs are rife with insightful slants on church-state tensions, but we’ve left it to the folks at the ACLU and Americans United for Separation for Separation of Church and State to do the grassroots — often, after the fact — grunt work. Where is the fire for a considered, liberal corrective to the neo-theocrats of 2010? If liberal talk radio has given up the ghost, a coherent Religious Left has yet to be born. What will it take?

Look it, religion/government stuff has always been a balancing act. That’s not the problem. The problem is that American liberalism has, for the majority of the nation’s existence, enjoyed relative dominance in the great church-state seesaw. Now, not so much. We need a strategy. We need the urgency to carry it out.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010

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