This country needs to take part in a religious debate

by Bob Parazin

Tri City (Wash.) Herald, 29 July 2006


An op-ed piece in the July 14 Herald commented on Sen. Obama’s speech to the Sojourners Convention. The senator’s address was a plea to the Democratic Party to rediscover its “religious soul,” declare its faith and join the religious debate. The trouble with Obama’s speech is that it missed the reality that there hasn’t been a real religious debate in this country.


It isn’t a problem with Democrats and their faith; it’s a problem with the way “religion” is defined in this country. It’s really “Christian religion,” as defined by evangelical, fundamentalist Christians, a religion in which all Jesus cares about is whether a woman can have a choice, gays can get married and whether or not we can have stem cell research.


But apparently their Jesus has no opinion on the genocide in Darfur, the 45 million people lacking health insurance; no opinion on children going to bed hungry in the richest country in the world; no opinion on the 60,000 to 75,000 Iraqis killed by our invasion-caused war; no opinion on the minimum wage and those living in poverty; no opinion on feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, visiting people in prison and healing the sick.


In the entire presidential debate about “values,” the real Christian message was missing. The real Jesus was missing.


It’s not a question of Democrats being comfortable with their faith. It’s a question of Democrats saying they will not tolerate religion defined so narrowly that you can cheat and steal from your neighbor on Monday and go to church on Sunday, or you can pursue material wealth and well-being at any cost without concern for your neighbor, or you make sure that gays can’t get married while you divorce one, two or three times.


If religious issues are to be debated in this mid-term election, then let’s talk about them. They are not about flag burning; they are not gay marriage or abortion. The religious issues in this country that are in crisis now are: How do we care for our parents as they grow older? How do we make sure that they get their prescription drugs? How do we make sure that children are born healthy? How do we make sure that women aren’t victims of domestic violence? How do we make sure that education is available to all qualified students irrespective of parental income? How do we stop spending $20,000 a year to keep a kid in jail and instead provide them the help to live and develop after they’re born.


If we want to have a religious debate in this country, we need to talk about the fact that 34 U.S. members of the World Council of Churches have declared the Iraq war is immoral. We need to talk about whether it’s immoral to make profits at the level these oil companies make. We need to talk about how the wealthiest country in the world has such pockets of grinding poverty.


Sen. Obama said, “Americans are a religious people: 90 percent believe in God, 70 percent are affiliated with organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians. So what have those 90 percent believers been doing?’


The fact is, the 90 percent are “cultural Christians.” Some go to church and some may even pray. But when it comes down to the tough decisions in real life, when it comes to loving your neighbor as yourself and caring for the least of your brethren, the vast majority of those 90 percent believers are nowhere to be found.


These cultural Christians haven’t internalized any of the real teachings of Jesus. They are the believers who want to make certain a baby gets born and then want nothing to do with the child for 18 years when they start spending money on its incarceration. They are the Christians who want to see the taxes cut on the rich, so programs for working poor families won’t have any money.


If that’s Obama’s thought and analysis of the last election, if it’s his response to advisers that say he needs to move to the center, which in translation means to be more “Christian,” then his potential as a Democratic candidate should come into question.


• Bob Parazin is a longtime Richland (Wash.) resident and active in his church.


(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Social ills our responsibility, not the government’s

by Maria St. Hilaire

Tri-City (Wash.) Herald, 19 August 2006


I am serious about my Christian faith, and my political beliefs don’t fall neatly within either of the major political parties. So I feel qualified to respond to the assertion that religion is being too narrowly defined in the political arena. (“This country needs to take part in a religious debate,” Herald, 29 July 2006)


The author makes an excellent point about the need for people to be changed by their own beliefs rather than remaining cultural couch potatoes. It is unfortunate that he fails to realize that our personal failings collected and totaled up create all the world's social ills. He seems to think that the sum of these personal failings can and should be fixed somehow by the government. Rather than addressing issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the author argues, the government should be trying to solve poverty, war, domestic violence and the cost of prescription drugs.


This view is in direct contradiction with the author’s earlier point that people must experience a conversion of heart before they will care about the least of their brethren. This view says we must instead cast all of our hopes upon a sprawling Leviathan of government social programs and legislation. The government, however; has the grace of a three-legged water buffalo in dealing with these issues, and that is because no government is competent to provide the charity that must come from individual hearts. No government can provide the love so piteously craved by the world. Those who do a much better job are the civic and religious organizations, composed of volunteers who have undergone that inner transformation of which the author speaks.


Of course, the fact is we aren’t all Mother Teresas


Doesn’t the government need to step in until we get there? With the exception of a safety net for emergency situations, the answer is actually “no.”


It is not the government’s duty to abolish suffering, because that isn’t within its ability, and government attempts to do so cause as much sickness as cure. (Witness the totalitarian thought experiments of Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.) There will be suffering on this Earth as long as there is free will; and yet without free will we cannot choose to love anymore than a puppet or a robot. Some of the main work of a. Christian, then, is to accept suffering gracefully. This doesn’t signify a happily pacific tolerance of evil; no, indeed, we are to struggle against it constantly.


But we ought never to be deluded into thinking a new set of schemes from the government will provide lasting solutions to the problems it was never meant to address.


The author goes on to condemn those who want the government to address abortion, gay marriage-and embryonic stem cell research, to the neglect of social issues. Government involvement in social issues, however, almost always means the establishment of yet another bureaucratic administration. Inevitably, these bureaucracies make many serious value judgments in which the public has no voice. Laws about abortion and gay marriage require serious value judgments, too, but we at least have the comfort of knowing that voters will get a direct say on them. Voters can easily follow these issues, decide on them, and make their opinions known in the elections. Yet voters have no power to stop practices they vehemently disagree with in our elephantine social bureaucracy.


The government, then, should stick to its particular sphere of competency, which I might add is rather small; and it should only be making laws that the public has the opportunity to review. The author is right to say we should be working harder on social problems. We should be. The government shouldn’t.


• Maria St. Hilaire lives in Kennewick (Wash.) and has a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.


(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)