comments powered by Disqus
Chautauqua Hosts Religious LeftBarton GingerichAugust 4, 2011
In early July, the Religious Left found a welcome home at famed Chautauqua in New York, a center of intellectual discourse for over a century. Around the Fourth of July, speakers there critiqued America with almost self-loathing tone
These sermons’ worst aspect was not dousing patriotic celebration but their banal platitudes aimed to arouse national and spiritual malaise. Chautauqua has a grand history of hosting thoughtful lectures often rooted in Christianity. But under the leadership of former National Council of Churches chief Joan Brown Campbell, it has crystalized as a forum for conventional liberalism. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Jeffers Schori, famously gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, and liberal Baptist Tony Campolo echoed personified the new focus.
Schori and Robinson both represent the extreme left in old-line Protestant circles, touting sexual liberation and political correctness. Campolo has a more dynamic history. Based on “Red-Letter” Christianity, which derives political liberalism from the Sermon on the Mount, he has been a faithful ally of Democratic politicians. Of late Campolo has aligned strongly with the post-modern and usually theologically vague Emergent Church movement.
Bishop Schori preached at Chautauqua on July 3 on the timely subject of Christians, citizenship, and the role of governments. “Much of the government’s appropriate work is about defending the defenseless and limiting the ability of the powerful to exploit the weak,” she declared. “Government is meant to serve the governed,” she posited, “Justice is love at work in the public square.” Schori cited the Sermon on the Mount for Christian interaction with politics. “Care for the least of these” takes precedence politically. The government also needs to be “correcting unjust relationships.”
Attaching a Messianic role to government, Schori intoned: “[T]he divine dream of shalom or the reign of God is about people having enough to eat and enough for a feast. It’s about shelter and meaningful work, a place for community and access to healing and the ability to live in peace.” She considers the Garden of Eden to be the “Garden of Even.” And she mourned that military spending exceeds government spending on food for the needy. “[Our economic problems] cannot be solved by starving the hungry,” she surmised, without naming politicians who believe otherwise. Her Kingdom of God resembles state-mandated socialism. Schori ignored the possibility of distinction between a particular called-out community of believers and a civil government that presides over believers and non-believers.
Outspokenly gay Bishop Robinson’s July 4 sermon echoed Schori. He juxtaposed the irony of support our troops yellow ribbons on gas-guzzling SUVs when (evidently) oil pulled U.S. troops into the Middle East. Robinson’s “introspection” resembled national self-loathing. He questioned “God bless America…do we really think God takes sides in nation-states? Do we mean God please America more than you bless other nations? How many lives have been sacrificed on the altar of God is on our side? Who would want to serve such a biased God?” He imagined a nation full of bigots. Obviously all nations have sins which a true patriot must recognize, but most Christians praying “God bless America” probably do not assume their homeland is morally inculpable. Robinson suggested we “celebrate the idea of America” rather than the actual reality of America.
Getting more specific, Robinson warned: “Let us not be like former President George W. Bush…[who] couldn’t imagine why anyone would hate the United States.” Instead, the church should “practice hospitality” and “refuse to demonize other humans.” What does this look like? Robinson harangued the listeners in the climax of his address: “It means pushing for legislation that offers immigrants documented and undocumented a future in our America. It means not demonizing those on public assistance as welfare queens. Not relegating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people to 2nd class citizenship. Not telling poor people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when the system hasn’t even given them shoes in the first place.” Essentially Robinson translated Christlikeness into a collection of state policies.
Campolo was less shrill and more postmodern than the old style liberal Episcopalians. Although now in his 70’s, he represents the newer Religious Left—the deconstructionist Emergents overcoming the old sclerotic progressivisms of dying old-line Protestantism. Campolo portrayed shrinking old-line Protestant numbers as a result of little evangelism and, more “nobly,” taking sides in divisive issues such as feminism and homosexuality. His manifesto for Emerging/Red Letter Christians is: “We’re going to take the words of Jesus seriously.”
According to Campolo, “We are steeped into Pauline theology” at the expense of the more authentic Gospels. He described “a different feel if you come to Jesus through the eyes of Paul instead of Paul through the eyes of Jesus.” Christianity is not as much about justification by faith but rather what Christians are supposed to say and do. Campolo was careful to reaffirm the traditional doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, but wished to shift the historically Protestant focus on theological correctness to right living. This alteration is becoming increasingly popular with disaffected evangelicals. “They grew up in Calvinistic rationalism,” Campolo recounted, “They want something more than that. They want to feel Jesus. They want the Spirit to flow through every nerve and sinew.” No doubt Calvinists probably have something to say about such a generalization. Nevertheless, Campolo and Emergents see the breakdown of the Enlightened modern age and want to remold American Christianity according to the dictates of deconstructionism without a commitment to past orthodoxy.
Enlightenment rationalism should concern orthodox Christians. But what Campolo and Emergents propose is a hollow substitute. They politically harp on military spending while blessing government entitlements. Whether liberalizing immigration reform or denouncing capital punishment, Campolo rejected the views of most conservative Protestants. Red-Letter Christianity requires liberal political activism.
Orthodox Christians realize neither Republicans nor Democrats own the Church’s voice. Scriptural teachings defy stark political lines, and the Church has always witnessed a great breadth of political opinion within its ranks. But Schori, Robinson, and Campolo equate a very narrow set of political principles with a pious Christian life. Chautauqua was a receptive forum for their claims.
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136