Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Dr. Bond, hats off

A couple of us would always chuckle every time Prof. Gilbert Bond mentioned the Civil Rights Movement in his Theology of Reconciliation class, because it was impossible for him to not also name the Holy Spirit in the same sentence. He wanted to excise from our heads the history textbook idea that the CRM was just another progressive reform movement or even a precursor to the radical politics of the late '60s. He got us to exegete MLK and the forms of collective action the CRM used--all in order to confront us with one controversial fact: the Civil Rights Movement was above all a movement of the Holy Spirit through the Black Churches--a fact completely ignored or inconceiveable in our secularized myths. For this reason, CRM cannot be included in that hallowed category of "The Sixties," for it was not ultimately about "rights" at all, but about the raising up of our human nature which had been so thoroughly disfigured by racisim and sin; it was primally about Christian reconciliation. The gay marriage advocates today when they try to enlist former leaders of the CRM demonstrate how poorly they understand what the CRM was all about. And it has heartened me to see that some of those old leaders have publicly expressed discomfort over the cooptation of their legacy.

David Brooks (via reading David Chappell) in the NY Times wonders about what that legacy has to say to us as we debate over the "under God" clause in the Pledge:
If you believe that the separation of church and state means that people should not bring their religious values into politics, then, if Chappell is right, you have to say goodbye to the civil rights movement. It would not have succeeded as a secular force.

But the more interesting phenomenon limned in Chappell's book is this: King had a more accurate view of political realities than his more secular liberal allies because he could draw on biblical wisdom about human nature. Religion didn't just make civil rights leaders stronger -- it made them smarter.

Whether you believe in God or not, the Bible and commentaries on the Bible can be read as instructions about what human beings are like and how they are likely to behave. Moreover, this biblical wisdom is deeper and more accurate than the wisdom offered by the secular social sciences, which often treat human beings as soulless utility-maximizers, or as members of this or that demographic group or class.

Whether the topic is welfare, education, the regulation of biotechnology or even the war on terrorism, biblical wisdom may offer something that secular thinking does not -- not pat answers, but a way to think about things.

For example, it's been painful to watch thoroughly secularized Europeans try to grapple with Al Qaeda. The bombers declare, "You want life, and we want death" -- a (fanatical) religious statement par excellence. But thoroughly secularized listeners lack the mental equipment to even begin to understand that statement. They struggle desperately to convert Al Qaeda into a political phenomenon: the bombers must be expressing some grievance. This is the path to permanent bewilderment.

The lesson I draw from all this is that prayer should not be permitted in public schools, but maybe theology should be mandatory. Students should be introduced to the prophets, to the Old and New Testaments, to the Koran, to a few of the commentators who argue about these texts.

From this perspective, what gets recited in the pledge is the least important issue before us. Understanding what the phrase "one nation under God" might mean — that's the important thing. That's not proselytizing; it's citizenship.