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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ignorance on the Cafeteria Plan

Barack Obama's speech (#1) on race and racism in America and its drag on the progress of our country served more as the latest political Rorschach test on Americans at an individual level than a directional sign on where to go in the future. Read or watch the speech itself and you might see a well-crafted philosophical analysis of the particular issue of racism -- an issue of obvious political and social importance surrounded by lots of political correctness, noise and anger but very little enlightenment. Look elsewhere at what is going on the country with this dust-up at the edge of the frame and a different picture should emerge from your cognitive peripheral vision.

The legitimate questions from those on the right about the Wright sermon and Obama's reaction (or lack thereof) to it might be:

1) how can you focus so much anger on the damage others do to your community while ignoring the damage inflicted from within?
2) how can you, Barack, listen to such vitriol and flawed logic and not walk out?

The legitimate questions of those on the left might instead be:

1) how can you deny that a fixation on incarceration instead of development hasn't solved the drug problems of our society?
2) where is the dividing line between unprovoked religious terrorism and blowback from nearly a century of Western interference in foreign countries for the benefit of perceived American military and business interests?

All perfectly valid questions. Excellent questions, in fact. Obama addressed many aspects of these questions in his speech and did a pretty good job at it. However, as appropriate as all of these questions may be, they actually obscure a larger problem in the country by their specificity. The real problem with our country is what I would term "ignorance on the cafeteria plan".

Academics and writers who follow religious life in America have noted two dominant trends over the past twenty to thirty years. One involves the growing number of Americans who have switched Christian denominations or switched religions entirely. The other involves the large increase in the number of so-called mega-churches. For several reasons, the two trends are directly related. Americans have been essentially picking and choosing elements of religions that fit their evolving concepts of social justice and morality and provide a sense of tradition, community or reassurance. Even if members stick with the church in which they were raised, they often begin practicing selective theology by ignoring official doctrine with which they disagree, ranging from birth control, stem cell research to divorce.

The growth of mega-churches is simply the logical "macro-theological" outcome of the "micro-theological" choices made at the individual level. Pastors who pay attention to trends with family, work and society continually refine the unique blend of ideas in their ministry that are attractive to people in a particular geographic or demographic niche. It may not be conscious or intentional, but when a particular style of ministry fills the pews and collection tills, that combination will inevitably be reflected in the ministry of more congregations. Call it theological Darwinism, if that isn't too sacrilege.

Signs that more individuals are actively picking and choosing aspects of their beliefs like they choose health care benefits in their company's "cafeteria plan" benefit program might be a good sign that more people are taking the responsibility to consciously think about ALL of their beliefs rather than blindly accepting without thought what they learned as a child. However, one critique of this pick-and-choose approach to religion as product is that instead of yielding a consistent theology or guide to living, it produces something of a hodge-podge of inconsistent but convenient, unchallenging, feel-good platitudes. Think of it as the spiritual or moral equivalent of a product promoted as a dessert topping AND a floor wax. Or a Sunday TV evangelist.

In reality, this theology on the cafeteria plan may in the end wind up serving neither the shepherd nor the flock. If you're the minister dispensing the dessert topping / floor wax, it is easy to delude yourself that even if you know you're soft-pedaling some important concepts the flock really SHOULD hear for their own good, you're at least getting them into the tent so you can eventually get those concepts across. Right? If you have to sacrifice a few years of hard hitting truth as you build the flock, you can always come back and deliver the real message later. Right?

If you're part of the flock, attending a church that's "comfortable" and agrees with all of your preconceived notions about morality and justice isn't exactly the point, is it? Being "right" in the long term in terms of a spiritual salvation or leading a moral life is supposed to be the goal rather than being "comfortable" in the short term. Avoiding the uncomfortable and choosing the familiar doesn't require a careful analysis of your beliefs so how is that going to strengthen those beliefs if they are to provide any strength to withstand the shocks life inevitably sends your way?

So how do the trends in mainstream American religion differ from what's taking place in mainstream American politics? They don't. They are identical. Our politics are dominated by a false, two-dimensional continuum that is superimposed on every solution proposed for every problem. Within that false two-party dichotomy, the same "ignorance on the cafeteria" plan kicks in terms of both demographics and policy. Candidates for office from both parties refuse to speak the truth for fear of losing votes in the short term and the public refuses to listen to any candidate with an open mind who doesn’t already agree 100% with what they already "know" and believe or worse, TELLS THEM THE TRUTH.

Imagine for a moment you are an African-American candidate from a major metro area with a large African-American voter community. Imagine that overall, across the entire national population, you support policies and you have communication skills that make you a likely winning candidate, able to win 51% or more. Do you think you can win if a voter block you are expected to dominate, the African-American community, for some reason doesn't support you? What will the rest of the voting public think? If he or she cannot secure that base, why should I provide my support?

Imagine for a moment you are a conservative candidate from a region with solid financial conservative support. Imagine that overall, across the entire national population, you advocate policies on spending, regulation, etc. which are attractive to a large number of your party and independents, making it possible for you to win 51% or more. Do you think you can win if a voter block at the core of your party, religious evangelical conservatives, for some reason does not support you? If you can't nail down a super-majority of support within your party, why should I provide my support?

Barack Obama deserves to be faulted for failing to flat out state the spiritual and moral failure of his pastor's preaching. Regardless of whether you can find a grain of truth in Wright's divisive sermon after layers of analysis and decoding, the fact that a so-called religious leader cannot find a more constructive way to engage his flock in a dialogue that enlightens them rather than simply enrages them tells you his conduct was wrong. Obama failed to take the opportunity to make that point and thus failed to communicate a crucial lesson about improving the level of dialogue in the country. How important is that lesson to learn? The new pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Reverend Otis Moss III, took the time on Easter Sunday to characterize the debate over Wright's comments as a "lynching" and compared Wright to Christ. (#2). Really? THAT'S the best sermon you could come up with on Easter Sunday?

John McCain deserves to be faulted for his capitulation to the religious evangelical right for exactly the same reason. He rightly castigated the bigotry of the ultra right-wing evangelical wing of the party as embodied by Bob Jones and his "University" by criticizing Bush's appearance there in 2000 and sarcastically inviting the school to leave the 16th century behind and join the 21st. Of course, little has changed in the theology of Bob Jones and its ilk, yet McCain got farther in the campaign process in 2008 in part because he began backpedaling on his prior stance as early as 2006, refusing to rule out any appearance at the school.

All of our politicians engage in the same deluded dance with We the People as many ministers do with their congregation. If we expect every political candidate to storm out of their congregation in a huff at the first sign of something they hear that they or we don't agree with, we won't have a single candidate on the ballot at any level of government who attends church. Is a majority of Americans really willing to support an openly un-religious candidate for any office? I thought not. For that matter, is every American really stating that THEY agree with EVERY thought expressed in their own church, synagogue or mosque? I thought not. So list the three points together and think about what they say:

1) no American agrees 100% about everything with any other American
2) yet, we expect politicians to be 100% in agreement with any policy or statement of any party or parish to which they belong or we label them a hypocrite
3) yet, no politician who remains religiously or politically independent (and not a hypocrite) will be accepted for national office

Put these together and it says Americans demand to be lied to. Lied to about religion and practically everything else. Guess what? We have been lied to and will continue to be lied to, about many important issues, not just racism.

Obama's speech might have done wonders to make people re-think the flawed, dysfunctional debate about race issues within America. However, by fixating on racism, it failed to address the larger broken record of behavior that perpetuates not only racism but sexism, classism and every other "dumb-ism" that is preventing the United States from more effectively using all of the human capital at our disposal to improve the country and the larger world.


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#1) http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/03/18/obama.transcript/index.html

#2) http://elections.foxnews.com/2008/03/23/in-eastor-sermon-trinity-united-pastor-compares-rev-wright-to-jesus/