I'm always delighted by the opportunity to come and visit my dear friends at PSR but I'm a bit uneasy about what I have been asked to do at the outset of this important meeting. A meditation, by definition, is expected to be thoughtful and reflective; it should be a calm and dispassionate discourse that helps set the mood and atmosphere for whatever is to follow. I hope what follows is thoughtful but I have to forewarn you that it is neither calm nor dispassionate, for I am persuaded we face in our country a movement that is trying its best to hijack this nation in the name of a set of ideals and values it claims to be Christian but which, on examination, are the very antithesis of the Gospel that our Lord preached and by which we, as Jesus' disciples, are challenged to live our lives in the world. If this movement is successful--if it is not stopped in its tracks--it will transform the United States into a political and cultural nightmare that not only turns its back on two hundred years of American history, it will be also one that leaves this nation unrecognizable from all that we have been and all that we might aspire to be as a democratic society.
For me at least, this is the only way to interpret the current campaign by the religious right--an assault on the nation's courts and its judges, an assault on the Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, an attack on science and its place in the modern world, and an assault on the ideas of tolerance and pluralism in American life. Only a year ago, we thought we were confronting a movement fixated on the issues of abortion and homosexuality as litmus tests of whether one subscribed to moral values in our national life. These turn out to be only the hot-button topics that are used to rally the troops; what is at stake and where the battlelines are now being drawn today are over a wider set of issues and processes far more intrinsic to the way in which this nation conducts its business and makes its policy decisions. The not-so-subtle assault on the principle of the separation of church and state, for example, is an attempt to impose a notion of theocratic rule on this country that died with the Puritan colonists. The attack on the nation's judiciary that takes the form of a crude attempt to pack the courts with jurists who support the right-wing agenda seeks to wipe out any legal opposition to the decrees of state legislatures and a Congress that the religious right believes it has firmly under its sway. And when the president of the National Religious Broadcasters declares "Today, the calls for diversity and multiculturalism are nothing more than thinly-veiled attacks on anyone willing, desirous, or compelled to proclaim Christian truths," his is a thinly-veiled cry to return to a set of ideals and values that this nation demolished when the South lost the Civil War.
The current issue of Harper's magazine describes on its cover what it terms "The Christian Right's War on America." That may be hyperbolic for some but to the extent that it serves as a wake-up call to the rest of the Christian community, I find it wholly appropriate. Let me risk what some might find even greater exaggeration by a reference--not a comparison, mind you, but a reference--to what, for me, has always been the classic modern clash between Christianity and the modern state.
In the aftermath of World War I, the people of three European nations--Italy, Germany and Spain--turned to fascism as a political creed and proceeded to catapult into power governments which promoted fascistic ideals--that peculiar set of notions which manage to combine the interests of unfettered capitalism with excessive nationalism and a totalitarian view of the role of the state that can enforce its will on the populace. In all three countries but particularly in Germany which, unlike Italy and Spain, had more than a single religious tradition among its populace, the church found itself riven by two, diametrically opposed views. One view held that it was the duty of the church to support and uphold the policies of the state which, in turn, would be expected to advance the principles and beliefs of the church; the other that insisted the church owes its allegiance to a different and higher power--one that sits in judgment on the state and on any government that would presume to be a political manifestation of the Divine will.
Because of the cataclysmic devastation that the fascist government of Germany wrought on the world, our attention has tended--and rightly so--to focus on the twelve-year period that it was in power. During that period, James Luther Adams--one of the revered theologians of my generation who taught at Chicago and Harvard--went to Germany as was then the tradition among all newly-minted PhDs where he pursued post-doctoral studies. Adams saw the clash of the church with German fascism first-hand. A quarter-century ago, as he watched the emergence of the religious right in this country as a political force dedicated to "taking back the nation for God," Adams said to his students that they would find themselves having to fight "the Christian fascists" in this nation. He warned that the American fascists would not come wearing swastikas and brown shirts. The American variety, he said, would come carrying crosses and chanting the Pledge of Allegiance.
We should make no mistake about what is at stake in this battle with the religious right. It is not happenstance that it is a movement that draws its strength and finds its support principally in the so-called heartland of the nation and especially in its southern precincts. This is the portion of the United States that has never been comfortable with post-WWII America. The brief period of normalcy after the war was followed within a decade by a pent-up and long overdue racial revolution that overturned centuries of culture and tradition, especially in the South. The disillusionment, two decades later, with an unpopular war in southeast Asia shook the foundations of traditional/conventional patriotism in American life; it was followed in the next decade by a sexual revolution that upset deeply entrenched views among this portion of the American populace about the subordinate place of women in society and the non-place of gay and lesbian persons in American life. These political and social and cultural defeats have now erupted into a pitched battle to turn back the clock on the last half-century and return America to its pre-war purity. It is not without significance that teaching creationism in the schools, for example, is such a prominent part of the religious right agenda. That was a battle the right lost in the mid-1920s but it is not one that the right ever acknowledged losing--just as some die-hards have never acknowledged losing the Civil War. Consequently, the restoration the religious right seeks is one that would recapture a way of life that disappeared in this nation a half-century ago.
Were all this only a battle for the hearts and minds of the American people, we could wade into the conflict with a great deal less concern, confident that good sense and human decency would ultimately triumph over ignorance and bigotry. But this is a battle for power--it's about seizing the reins of government, manipulating the courts and judicial decisions, controlling the media, and making incursions into every possible corner of our private lives and relationships, so that what the religious right perceives as the will of God will reign in America.
Our discussion this afternoon and evening, as I understand it, is to determine how this school responds to this situation. It is a discussion that is, thank God, beginning to occur across the country but it is one which has a special compelling urgency for this school. There are at least two reasons for that urgency. In Germany, when the National Socialists came to power and the noise of fascism began to echo throughout the country, the response of the churches came mainly from the pulpits. Here and there, individual theologians spoke out, offering guidance to church councils and synods but by and large the theological faculties were silent, as were the voices of the professoriate in general. That's the first reason why it is important that the seminary be heard early and clearly in this struggle. What is needed is clear theological reflection, theological argumentation, theological challenges to what I believe are the false doctrines, in some instances, and the rank heresies, in others, of the religious right. Those reflections, arguments, and challenges can come best from the theological faculties who can help preachers, parsons and the laity in the mainline Christian community gird themselves for the struggle before us.
Second, this school has staked out for itself a special place in the effort to aid and encourage a religious understanding and embracement of gay and lesbian members in our society. It is, to my knowledge, the only theological institution that has taken up this special challenge and task. The importance of that task has taken on an heightened significance in this larger struggle that I've just tried to describe, and James Luther Adams offers us a poignant reminder of why this is so. Let me cite the last paragraphs of the Harper's article:
Adams had watched American intellectuals and industrialists flirt with fascism in the 1930s. Mussolini's "Corporatism," which created an unchecked industrial and business aristocracy, had appealed to many at the time as an effective counterweight to the New Deal. In 1934, Fortune magazine lavished praise on the Italian dictator for his defanging of labor unions and his empowerment of industrialists at the expense of workers. Then as now, Adams said, too many liberals failed to understand the power and allure of evil, and when the radical Christians came, these people would undoubtedly play by the old, polite rules of democracy long after those in power had begun to dismantle the democratic state. Adams had watched German academics fall silent or conform. He knew how desperately people want to believe the comfortable lies told by totalitarian movements, how easily those lies lull moderates into passivity.
Adams told us to watch closely the Christian right's persecution of homosexuals and lesbians. Hitler, he reminded us, promised to restore moral values not long after he took power in 1933, then imposed a ban on all homosexual and lesbian organizations and publications. Then came raids on the places where homosexuals gathered, culminating on May 6, 1933, with the ransacking of the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. Twelve thousand volumes from the institute's library were tossed into a public bonfire. Homosexuals and lesbians, Adams said, would be the first "deviants" singled out by the Christian right. We would be the next.