Saturday, October 09, 2004

the religious left

I have it on good authority that I am going to hell when I die.

Amazingly, this isn't because I watched "The Last Temptation of Christ" back when I was in college. It's not because I drive too slowly in the fast lane, and it's not even because I think a footlong ponytail looks good on a 34-year-old man.

No, I'm going to hell because I have the audacity to call myself a Christian and a liberal at the same time. I'm a member of the Religious Left.

Despite the seeming oxymoron in a term such as Religious Left, the truth is that religion and liberalism actually have a long, shared history in this country, going back at least to abolitionism, when socially liberal religious groups such as the Society of Friends formed the backbone of the Underground Railroad, risking arrest, fines and harassment by rescuing blacks from slavery in the South and smuggling them north to freedom in Canada.

In the years since, the Religious Left has been at the forefront of issues such as women's suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. Susan B. Anthony? She was a Quaker. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? That should be obvious. Many who added their voices to his in calling for an end to segregation, did so because they shared his convictions, based in the teachings and example of Jesus, that racial segregation has no place in a civilized society.

Not surprisingly, religious liberals have strong feelings about war. While the establishment has pounded the drums for war, religious liberals have manned humanitarian efforts in the middle of battle zones to make sure that the wounded innocents are cared for, since the time of the Civil War on. Others have fought hard to maintain or restore the peace, remembering as Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

In Dallas, the Trinity Foundation has challenged churches and synagogues to meet the needs of the homeless head on, by providing them with a place to stay and helping them find jobs. The Trinity Foundation also keeps tabs on hucksters who use religion as means to make themselves wealthy at the expense of the vulnerable.

In Chicago, when the city administration decided to gentrify an area, the Jesus People -- a religious commune on the wrong side of the tracks -- fought to protect the people who depend on the low-income housing that had been targeted for redevelopment. They called the exploitation and willfull disregard for the poor what it was, and saved the homes of hundreds of immigrants.

And while President Bush during the 2000 presidential primaries was incredulous when an interviewer asked him about hunger in Texas, former President Carter -- like Bush, a professed born-again Christian -- is a major figure in Habitat for Humanity, an organization that has made tremendous strides in providing affordable housing for the poor.

Equal rights for women, civil rights for minorities, support of hate-crime legislation, affordable housing, food and clothing for the homeless, civil unions for same-sex couples, education for those in prison, an end to capital punishment -- these are all liberal causes, and they're all causes I support as a Christian.

During the last 20-odd years, the Religious Right has been the dominant voice from Christian groups, as it has claimed a monopoly on truth, and its interpretation and application. Depending on whom you listen to, any deviation from the party line -- which increasingly has meant the Republican Party line -- is unpardonable. You can't disagree and still be a "real" Christian.

Contrary to what many on the Right, both religious and not, would have us believe, liberalism isn't a cancer eating away at the core of an otherwise healthy society. It isn't about undermining traditional family values, about eroding the foundations of our nation, hating America, or giving people a free ride at the expense of the public.

Liberalism is the simple belief that everybody deserves the same basic opportunities and respect as everybody else, regardless of the social, economic, religious or racial position they were born with.

That's it. If it means some people will take advantage of the system, so be it. In the long run, I'd rather be taken advantage of than to throw a family out on the street because they couldn't pay the mortgage in a sour economy. I'd rather have less money in my own pocket than leave employees struggling to get the health care they need. I'd rather face disappointed shareholders than reward years of company loyalty with job outsourcing.

"Whatever you do to the least of these," Jesus says, "you do to me."

I'm religious, and I'm a liberal. Let my heart bleed.

Copyright © 2004 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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