Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thankful for This Passionate Advocate for Children

During this Thanksgiving week, I am thankful for many things and for many people—such Marian Wright Edelman, a passionate advocate for children over the last 40 years.
Marian Wright was born in South Carolina in 1939. Her father, a Baptist minister, died when she was 14. His last words were, “Don’t let anything get in the way of your education.” She didn’t.
Marian went on to earn a law degree at Yale and then in 1964 became the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. That year she was very active in civil rights activities in Mississippi, leading in what came to be known as Freedom Summer.
In 1968 Marian married Peter Edelman, a lawyer from Minnesota. They made an interesting couple: she a black Baptist, he a white Jew.
The Edelmans have three grown sons, including Jonah (b. 1970), their second son, who has a Ph.D. from Oxford and is the co-founder and CEO of Stand for Children, an education reform organization.
 Ms. Edelman started the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, and it has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. Here is CDF’s mission statement:
The Children’s Defense Fund Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Hillary Rodham was one of the first staff lawyers for CDF, and then after she married Bill Clinton in 1975 she was the Chair of its Board of Directors from 1986-92.
Ms. Edelman was one of the featured speakers at the 2008 New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta. I heard that talk and was much impressed by her—and have been on CDF’s mailing list ever since.
I also enjoyed reading some of her latest book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation (2008).
One of CDF’s ongoing activities has been sponsoring summertime Freedom Schools across the country. Since 1995, more than 100,000 K-12 children have had a CDF Freedom Schools experience. (Here is the link to CDF’s website.)
The church June and I are members of has sponsored a Freedom School for six weeks each summer for several years now. It is a considerable expense and takes a lot of work, but it is a wonderful ministry to the children in the church’s neighborhood, the majority of whom are Hispanic and African-American.
This year for the first time I read a story to the nearly 100 children enrolled in our Freedom School, and I was impressed by the children’s attention and to the way the leaders were teaching/leading them.
The first Freedom Schools were held in Mississippi as part of the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights activities mentioned above. So this was the 50th anniversary year—as you can see from the picture I took the morning I was at our church’s school in July.

This year a scholarly book honoring Ms. Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund was published under the title “Improving the Odds for America’s Children.” On the back cover are these words by Hillary Clinton:
In the past forty years, the Children’s Defense Fund has tirelessly worked to improve the lives of children in America. There are dozens of laws on the books protecting children and supporting families that simply wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the Children’s Defense Fund.
Please join me in giving thanks for Marian Wright Edelman and her indefatigable advocacy for the nation’s children.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Remembering Isaac Backus

The New England Puritan Isaac Backus was born in 1724 and died 208 years ago today, on November 20, 1806. As an outstanding advocate of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, he is well worth remembering, and honoring, on this anniversary of his death.

Backus was the most influential Baptist in British North America after Roger Williams (1603-83), founder of the first Baptist church in the “new world” in 1638.

He became a Christian as a teenager in 1741. Five years later he became a preacher and at the age of 24 was ordained as a Congregationalist minister. In 1748, however, he was baptized by immersion and became a Baptist.

In 1756, Backus started a Baptist church in Middleborough, Mass., where he served as pastor until his death fifty years later.

Backus joined with others in 1764 to found the first Baptist institution of higher learning in the Colonies, the school now known as Brown University. It was the third college in New England and the first Ivy League school to accept students from all religious affiliations.

As a Baptist pastor, Backus became involved in the lengthy battle for separation of church and state in Massachusetts, opposing the “ecclesiastical tax” that had been imposed upon all citizens of that state to support the Congregational churches.

Even those who opposed the beliefs of those churches were required to pay the tax, and those who refused to do so had their personal property seized. Many people were even imprisoned because of failure to pay the tax, including several members of Backus’s own family.

Backus’s strong advocacy for the freedom of religion is best articulated in his published sermon of 1773, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day.”

Religious liberty is always a problem for minority groups—such as the Baptists in New England during Backus’s lifetime and religious groups in the U.S. now, such as American Muslims.

Thus, being an advocate of religious liberty today means supporting the freedom of Muslims and all other minority groups. That liberty includes freedom from the heavy-handedness of the religious majority.

Those in the majority usually don’t easily give up their position of privilege. Massachusetts didn’t amend the state constitution to give religious freedom to all people until 1833, some 27 years after Backus’s death.

At present, some religious conservatives, or traditionalists like those in 18th century Massachusetts, generally don’t like social change when that means giving up their privileged position. Thus, we hear clamor for upholding the religious convictions of the nation’s founders.

Without question, the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed in 1630 was based on Puritan religious convictions. In a sermon even before landing, John Winthrop, the colonists’ spiritual leader, proclaimed a vision of a Christian society that was to be an exceptional “city on the hill.”

Such a society, however, could not tolerate even the dissident Puritan minister Roger Williams, who was banished in 1636. Nor could it tolerate the outstanding, but unusual, Puritan religious leader Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from Boston in 1638.

But it was the freedom of religion and separation of church and state established in Rhode Island by Williams and then bravely backed by Backus over 135 years later that became a part of the U.S. Bill of Rights ratified in 1791.

I am grateful for Baptists like Backus and their emphasis on religious liberty for all.

Let freedom ring for all religious groups in the U.S. today!

Some of the material in the above article is similar to that found on pp. 167-8 of my book “Fed Up with Fundamentalism” (2007).

Remembering Stanley Grenz
In doing research for the above article I used Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz’s “Isaac Backus—Puritan and Baptist: His Place in History, His Thought, and Their Implications for Modern Baptist Theology” (1983). This work was originally Grenz’s doctoral dissertation that was written under the supervision of Wolfhart Pannenberg and submitted in 1978 to the University of Munich.
So this article was also written in memory of Grenz (b. 1950) as well as Backus.
In April 2004, mostly through my efforts, the Department of Theology of Seinan Gakuin University hosted Dr. Grenz for special lectures. I found him to be “a prince of a fellow,” and I told him that in a year or two I would like to visit him in Vancouver, Canada, where he lived and taught at Regent College.
It was a shock and a great grief when I learned that Grenz had suddenly passed away in March 2005. He was a fine man and a good scholar; his passing was a great loss to Baptists and the theological world.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Four Concerns about the New Congress

In early January 2015 the 114th U.S. Congress will convene for the first time. As a result of the Nov. 4 election, both chambers will be controlled by Republicans.
Senators in the 114th Congress
Some of the new senators, such as Joni Ernst of Iowa and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, are quite conservative. Consequently, I have four serious concerns about the new Congress.
Personally, I will likely be impacted little by the new Congress. In fact, my modest portfolio might grow even more than it has in the past two years. So my concerns are not personal.
But my Christian faith compels me to love all people, especially the weakest and most vulnerable people in our country, as well as to care for the earth God has placed us on. So from this perspective here are four of my greatest concerns about what the new Congress and the new Missouri legislature will, or will not, do.
(1) My first and biggest concern is for the poor people across the nation, the people (and especially the children) who do not have enough to eat, who do not have adequate housing, and who do not have sufficient health care.
Conservative, Tea Party type legislators seem to be primarily interested in reducing the size of government and lowering taxes. Cuts in welfare, or the so-called safety net, are common proposals for those with this mentality.
But, for the well-being of a sizable percentage of people in poverty, in addition to sustaining their welfare provisions there needs to be an expansion of Medicaid eligibility.
Missouri is one of many states where the latter is badly needed. But with the new General Assembly, that likely won’t be done.
And while their efforts will not be successful, the U.S. Senate will possibly try to repeal “Obamacare,” removing millions from healthcare insurance.
(2) I am also concerned about the new Congress exercising adequate care for the environment. Republican congresspeople, such my Missouri Sixth District Representative Sam Graves, repeatedly criticize regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose purpose is to protect the earth for the coming generations.
And it is quite likely that Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a global warming denier, will be the next chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Heaven help us!
(3) Concern for the children of “illegal immigrants.” Immigration reform has long been a major desire of the President and many legislators.
The Senate passed a comprehensive bill last year, but the House never even took it up. I am very concerned that this needed legislation will not be passed and that the President will take executive action leading to turmoil and even greater dysfunction in Washington.
(4) Concern for women and gays/lesbians as there is the likelihood of further anti-abortion laws and rejection of LGBT rights.
One does not have to agree with women who seek an abortion or of gays/lesbians who want to have legal marriages in order to uphold their civil rights.
If the new U.S. Congress passes legislation necessary to help the poor of the country to survive and to raise what is often a wretched standard of living, passes legislation that will protect the environment for the sake of our grandchildren, passes legislation that will give dignity and stability to the past and future immigrants into this country, and if they pass legislation that respects the freedom and dignity of women and LGBT people, then perhaps the election results were all right.
But until I see all the above happening, I will continue to have grave concerns about the election outcome on November 4.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Victory for the Christian Right

Last Tuesday’s mid-term elections, as everyone knows, resulted in the Republican Party taking decisive control of the U.S. Senate.
There is not just one reason for this shift in political power. Nevertheless, a major factor has been the relentless six-year campaign against President Obama by religious conservatives.
From the day of his inauguration in 2009 the President (and the Democratic Party) has been the target of unending criticism and unceasing attacks by the Christian Right, which overwhelmingly supports the Republican Party.
One of the most active organizations on the Christian Right is the Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC), of which I have written previously; e.g., here and here.
In a Nov. 5 article on their blog, the FFC announced, “Evangelical Vote Played Decisive Role in GOP Wave in 2014 According to Post-Election Survey.”
Their second headline gloated, “Self-Identified Conservative Christians Comprised Record Share of the Electorate, Backed GOP Candidates by 8 to 1 Margin.”
The FFC was gloating because they had worked so hard for a Republican victory. Ralph Reed, Chairman of the FFC, reported that the Coalition “distributed over 20 million voter guides in over 117,000 churches nationwide” prior to the Nov. election.”
They also “made over 10 million ‘get out to vote’ phone calls, knocked on 400,000 doors, mailed over 6 million voter guides, and emailed or texted over 4.6 million additional voters.”
My good friend Charlie Broomfield recently completed a Master’s degree at UMKC, writing his dissertation on the Christian Right and its political power.
Over the last few months, I have said that I thought the Christian Right was losing power and that they weren’t going to have as much political clout this year as in the past few elections.
Charlie disagreed with me—and it turned out that he was right, about this election, at least.
One of the most disheartening results of last week’s election was Thom Tillis’s election as the new U.S. Senator from North Carolina.
According to data supplied by Sarah Posner, 40% of voters in that state identified as white evangelical or born again—and 78% of them voted for Tillis. Only 16% of them voted for incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan.
Mark Sandlin is a progressive Christian whose articles are posted on Patheos.com from time to time. His Nov. 5 article was titled, “A Minister From Thom Tillis’ State Tells Us What To Expect After The Election Results.”
Sandlin avers, “With the GOP taking over all of Congress, particularly with Tea Party lackeys like Tillis among the crowd, we will see legislative moves that aid the ever-growing separation of classes, which is defined by the continued shrinking of the middle class.”
He continues,Corporations will continue to have more rights than people and those rights will trump the rights of individuals. Woman can expect to have more of their rights (particularly reproductive rights) challenged.”
But Tillis, partly, or maybe mainly, because of his outspoken anti-abortion stance was one of the three candidates for the Senate most strongly supported by the FFC.
The other senatorial candidates most ardently supported by the FFC were Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado, who both, like Tillis, are adamantly against abortion and same-sex marriage.
They, like Tillis and most of the other new Republican senators, also have said they are for repealing “Obamacare.”
Yes, last Tuesday was a victory for the Christian Right. But it was a sad loss for a sizable majority of the citizens of this country, many of whom, regrettably, didn’t even bother to vote.