Barack Obama

Turning the Tables: Why Conservative Christianity Bears the Burden of Proof

By Derek Penwell

Word on the street has progressives engaged in a “war against religion,” or if not a war, then at least a Monty Python-esque call to “run away” from all that is good, Christian, and decent. A column by Russ Douthat in yesterday’s New York Times, as Diana Butler Bass points out in her wonderful response , rehearses the old trope that liberal mainline denominations are dying because they are liberal. Without naming it, Bass draws attention to the fallacy of the liberal-kills-churches meme, that is, the confusion of correlation with causation, by offering the reminder that conservative churches are also experiencing decline.

The tired charge that liberal mainline churches are dying is, ironically, itself difficult to kill off. This fact has caused liberal churches for at least forty years to find themselves always on the defensive. Underlying this indictment of liberal Christianity is the assumption that a progressive reading of scripture and its ethical conclusions are somehow an accommodation to a purely secular system of meaning, while conservative interpretation is self-evidently the gold standard of biblical faithfulness.

What I want to challenge is the persistent and difficult-to-kill assumption that conservatives occupy some kind of religious and ethical high ground, and that any deviation from a particular kind of conservative orthodoxy isn’t merely a matter of interpretation, but is tantamount to initiating hostilities against God, motherhood, and the flag—all of which, interestingly enough, are conflated in some people’s minds. But that’s another article.

The smug certainty with which some conservative religious and political types believe not just that they occupy the side of truth on every issue, but that they occupy the side of God’s truth is alarming—not because they believe these things of themselves so uncritically (self-righteousness is a time-honored religious and political posture on both sides of the ideological divide, after all), but because so many in the culture agree to cede them this authoritative land of milk and honey.[1]

In fact, I not only want to challenge certain popularly held assumptions about the rightful place of the Right at the center of theological discussion, I want to suggest that if a war on religion is being waged, it’s main combatants aren’t progressive Christianity, Barack Obama, or left-leaning political types at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. I want to set down a more radical charge:

The real war on religion is being waged by those on the Right who read the bible not as the story of God’s saving interaction with the world through the unfolding of God’s reign, but as foundational for a conservative politics of self-interest or as a blueprint for a post-Enlightenment cult of individual piety.

There. I said it. The greatest damage to Christianity comes at the hands of those who display their devoutness with such practiced conspicuousness.[2] Jesus spends the better part of the Gospels crossing rhetorical swords with those who have arrogated unto themselves the mantle of God’s special emissaries for a publicly muscular show of religious devotion.[3] Ironically, Jesus, when faced with an opportunity to cash in on his religious popularity, always seems to strike out in the opposite direction.

I am weary of playing defense against fundamentalism, as if it holds some sort of privileged theological position that requires a special deference, as well as the expectation of an explanation from those who would deviate.

It’s not that I resent having to come clean about my own hermeneutical presuppositions, to be required to set down the story I’m telling about how I interpret scripture. What makes me unutterably weary is the popular assumption that a fundamentalist reading of scripture is somehow the hermeneutical true north by which all interpretations are to be judged. The assertion that the bible is to be read in a common sense fashion, as close to literally as possible, is not only itself merely one interpretative strategy among other strategies, it’s also a fairly recent development in the history of interpretation.

If, for example, one holds that LGBTQ people should be embraced and welcomed as full participants into the life and ministry of the church, the popular assumption among some is that one makes such moves in spite of rather than because of one’s reading of scripture. I have been asked on more than one occasion why I don’t “just quit pretending to be be a Christian,” since I “obviously don’t believe the Bible.”

Apart from the general incivility of such dismissiveness, claiming that Christians who don’t read the bible in a “literal” or “common sense” way are cynically attempting to circumvent taking scripture seriously is captive to its own set of prejudices, which are most often transparent to the speaker. That form of biblical interpretation (viz., “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it”) is question-begging in its most basic sense.

My hunch is that much of what gets put forward as the practical policy implications of fundamentalism have at least as much to do with conservative economic systems as with biblical interpretation. If progressive Christians have merely uncritically baptized liberal ethical systems when it comes to issues like homosexuality—as is often suggested by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters—why is it not the case that the conservative embrace of tax breaks for the wealthy, the adoption of a do-it-yourself attitude toward healthcare, welfare, and unemployment benefits, and the enthusiastic correlation of patriotism and militarism are merely a baptism of conservative (or worse, libertarian) ethical systems?

So, here’s what I’d like to see: A turning of the tables (or perhaps better, a “turning over” of the tables)—a rebalancing of the burden of proof.

  • I’d like to see a fundamentalist defense from scripture of such policies as cutting taxes for people who already have enough for several lifetimes. How does one “literally” read the prophets or the Gospels and come away thinking that protecting the ability to purchase another yacht or vacation home at the expense of those just struggling to feed their children is something Christians ought to have any stake in?
  • I’d like to see someone defend from scripture fighting for a healthcare system, the chief motivation of which is to figure out ever more ingenious ways to deny coverage to those who can least afford it.
  • I’d like to see a scriptural justification for treating undocumented workers not with Christian hospitality—if not as potential friends and neighbors, then at least as fellow children of God—but as an insidious threat to “our way of life” (in which “our” refers to American and not Christian).
  • I’d like to see how scripture works as a legitimator of arms stockpiling in the service of military adventurism in other countries (see, in particular, Iraq).
  • I’d like to see how the bible comes to the aid of those who would stand idly by while LGBTQ kids endure the dehumanizing and often deadly effects of bullying.
  • I’d like to see how the bible can be put to use defending the belief that our ultimate loyalties to flag and faith are interchangeable, that to have invoked one is ipso facto to have named the other.

I don’t see these arguments being made in convincing ways; and my fear is that this is so because these arguments don’t need making in our culture, since everyone already knows that if Pat Robertson, or James Dobson, or Gary Bauer, or Ralph Reed, or John Piper, Albert Mohler, or Mark Driscoll say it the burden of proof is on anyone who would disagree with them.

If Jesus is any model, turning over tables in the temple is a necessary, if potentially perilous practice.

  1. Before you start emailing me, let me just say that I know, love, and am related to some fine people who read scripture differently from me. I regret, however, that the hard won devoutness of these folks is a moral commodity traded on by religious entrepreneurs and politicians hoping to plant the victor’s flag on the cultural landscape.  ↩
  2. I am using Christianity and religion interchangeably, not because I assume that Christianity is predominant or that other religions are merely placeholders for the “real” truth of Christianity, but because some Christians do assume something very nearly like this. Other religions, generally speaking, stand to lose considerably more than Christianity when a “war on religion” has been identified in the United States, since certain constituencies within Christianity tend to protect a form of Christian hegemony against all other religious comers—often with deadly enthusiasm.  ↩
  3. See, for example: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1); “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matt. 23:14); “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to sit at the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38–40). You get the point.  ↩

Election Lament

By Douglas C. Sloan

If only the United States of America was a Christian nation.

If only the USA would be a nation that rejects the ethos of the Roman Empire: war, conquest, piety, peace.

If only the USA would be a nation that rejects, scripturally and theologically, a capricious and wrathful patriarchal God who metes out eternal binary judgments based on an infinitesimal mortal existence.

If only the USA would be a nation that rejects a God who requires human sacrifice instead of righteous living. The story of Abraham and Isaac is not a story of faithfulness and not to be admired or respected. Instead, it is a lesson of how God does not want to be worshipped – that a human sacrifice to God for any reason by anyone is an eternally repulsive abomination.

If only the USA would be a nation that worships a God of no nationality and not of any religion. Worship a universally accessible, personal and persistent God of unrestrained love and unconditional grace – a God whose will, desire, and passion is that we have long healthy lives.

If only the USA would be a nation of people who do not see each other as sinners and who do search for new ways to see each other as sinners.

If only the USA would be a nation of people who hear the Good News as a divine calling to be part of a global community of justice and compassion.

If only the USA would be a nation where justice is not punishment, vengeance, and death – instead, justice would be about repair, rehabilitation, restoration, and – where possible – reconciliation.

If only the USA would be a nation whose sense of communal compassion would embrace the call of the Torah (best translated as “instruction”) where forgiveness is requested or offered 20 times. The Torah has 9 divine calls for justice to be offered to all people and for justice to be applied fairly – even to immigrants and aliens. In the Torah, 19 times we are told that the poor, the widows and orphans, and even strangers are to be treated justly and compassionately and they are not to be allowed to go hungry or naked. In the Torah, every time, for reasons of health or purity, that someone is removed from the community, there is always a way for them to return to the community and be restored to their place in the community.

If only the USA would be a nation of people who, without conditions or exceptions, would provide compassion that feeds, quenches, clothes, heals, visits, welcomes, opposes war and oppression, and opposes systemic injustice and poverty.

If only the USA would be a nation who sees and holds that the power and authority of the Torah is not in legalistic behavioral restrictions and ritual requirements, not in definitions of sin and cleanliness, and not in prescribed punishments and exclusions. The meaningful weight and central purpose and overarching goal of the Torah and all scripture is in how it points away from tribal justice and through and beyond nationalism and legalism and through and beyond ordinary human conventions and relationships. The Torah and all scripture are a path of resurrection and transformation that leads to all people living as the family of God in the Kingdom of God, living here and now as a godly community of justice and compassion. One of the universal lessons and binding threads that can be gleaned from the Torah and scripture is that we are to constantly strive and look for ways to grow in our understanding and practice and sharing and evoking of the unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God. God does not want our understanding to be static or stuck in one place. The Torah and scripture are constantly calling us and urging us to journey forward to a better and enlarging and enriching and more inclusive and more mature understanding of what God wants for us and for this planet. God is always calling us from Exodus to the Promised Land. God is always calling us from Exile to return home. The will and desire of God is that Life, at its best, is to be a journey of moral and spiritual and intellectual growth – and marked with moments of joy, both great and sublime.

If only the USA would be a nation of people who value scientific inquiry and scholarly study and increasing knowledge. If only the USA would be a nation of people who value education as a process that enhances the uniqueness of each student and develops the unique strengths, talents, creativity, and problem-solving skills of each student. If only the USA would be a nation of people who realize that education is not a rigid industrial process that treats each student as an identical widget. If only the USA would be a nation of people who understand that the purpose of education, unlike training, is not to have uniform results or constantly increasing aggregated test scores. If only the USA would be a nation of people who understand that the focus and purpose of education is only the individual student and not any future corporate work force.

If only the USA would be a nation of people who value the political supremacy of individual liberty and individual rights. If only the USA would be a nation who is not swayed by or even pays attention to the shrill voices of fundamentalist extremists who covet the power to define and control how we live our lives.

If only the USA would be a nation of people who hear and embrace and provoke the Good News as a message and a calling for here and now, for how we live together as one family – where, as individuals, we fearlessly live non-violent, non-vengeful lives of inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service to others.

If only the United States of America was a Christian nation.

This election – Tuesday, November 6, 2012 – I will vote.

I know that, like all of us, no candidate is perfect. So, this is how I will choose to cast my vote: I will not vote for any candidate whose values align more with the ethos of the Roman Empire, thus favoring the monetary greed of a few wealthy elite or the power greed of a few fundamentalist extremists. I will vote for candidates whose values align more with my political values of individual liberty and individual rights and my Christian values of justice and compassion.

(Here's a pdf of this article.)

Obama's Announcement and What It Means for "Liberal" Christians

This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others.

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But, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.

~Pres. Barack Obama

That President Obama’s announcement of his support of marriage equality for LGBTQI people was met with consternation by many in popular Christianity shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. That his “brand” of Christianity fails to be persuasive to a portion of the Christian world should surprise no one either. It is common to dismiss anyone who supports hospitality to those created LGBTQI by God as deluded (at best) and evil (at worst).

What I continue to find troubling, though, is the extent to which people who oppose marriage equality maintain that any support of it by those who call themselves Christian is some kind of hermeneutical dodge. The working assumption seems to be that if you fail to employ some form of traditionally conservative interpretive schema, you can’t reasonably expect to call yourself Christian. Because everybody knows that “liberals” don’t actually believe anything important about God or the Bible or following Jesus; they’re just trying to baptize their godless agenda and impose it upon the unsuspecting majority of real Christians.1 What many people apparently find too difficult to fathom, however, is that some people—among whom I take President Obama to be one—hold these “liberal” positions not in spite of but because of their commitment to following Jesus.

On a “liberal” reading of scripture, “loving one’s neighbor” isn’t a frothy placeholder for moral action nobody cares much more about than to feel it deeply in the heart; it is the very thing of which moral action is an embodiment. Put more simply, to progressive Christians “love” isn’t so much something you “feel” about God or another person, but a way of life that seeks to demonstrate its own authenticity by seeking justice and peace for those kicked to the margins by the powerful—which is to say, by seeking to love those whom God loves, but for whom love in this world is often illusory.

The greater (and more damning) criticism of “liberal” Christians is not that they don’t believe the Bible, but that they don’t live up to their claims about “justice” and “peace.” This is a real danger in progressive Christianity. Talking about justice and peace, without actually going to the trouble to see it realized rightfully leads to charges of hypocrisy—that is, failing to walk the walk.

In President Obama’s case, however, the criticism has for some time been reversed: His words about justice and peace for LGBTQI people weren’t matched by his deeds (e.g., refusing to uphold DOMA, doing away with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, etc.). His failure, according to his critics, was in not being willing to “talk the talk.” In other words, people from both ends of the spectrum were inveighing against him for failing to say in words what he was already doing in practice—a perhaps rarer, but no less damning criticism.

Since I don’t hear the you’ve-also-got-to-talk-the-talk line of argument very often, it got me to thinking about denominational officials, who privately will offer reassurances that they are in support of affirming the full inclusion of LGBTQI folk in the life of the church, but who publicly find it difficult to articulate that support. I understand why taking a stand publicly in support of a controversial issue presents all manner of political land mines, and it makes a certain amount of sense when politicians hesitate to do it. Even religious officials must weigh the political costs of taking, what we religious types call, a “prophetic stance.” But whereas in the case of our political leaders (to our shame, I would argue) we tend to expect political calculations to trump the integrity of personal convictions, one would hope that we haven’t yet reached that level of cynicism about our religious leaders.

Is it to be the case once again that the church can’t quite get its theology straight until the culture shows it the way? Because, let’s not fool ourselves, inclusion is the way things are inexorably headed.

The upshot of it all? If David Kinnaman is right, as Rachel Held Evans deftly points out, what our continued silence risks is the better part of a whole generation coming to the conclusion that they can find better ways to spend their time because they believe the church and its leadership to be “anti-homosexual”. And while I realize that speaking openly about support for our LGBTQI brothers and sisters carries its own risks, I think—like President Obama, it would appear—that silence is a risk no longer worth taking the.


  1. I know that description may sound like an exaggeration of a seriously held position, dear reader, but in my own defense, you haven’t read the kind of correspondence I receive. I do know that there are serious people who disagree with me about the issue of biblical interpretation, but they don’t seem to have maintained good relations with the gatekeepers of the interwebz—since their voices are routinely drowned out by that seemingly professional class of the perpetually aggrieved. ↩