Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Professor and the Patriot Pastor

The thing I most dislike about politics is the itch to demonize one's opponent. This is a time-honored tradition in the United States. It has been called "the paranoid style in American politics," and it plays off the fact that citizens tend to vote their fears more than their hopes. It also depends, in no small measure, on citizens being only half awake, so to speak, when it comes to public affairs. I suspect that many office holders and aspirants would like nothing better than to discuss with voters the issues of the day. But by and large, voters don't have that kind of attention span. Thus there's little percentage in getting into the specifics of one's policy prescriptions. Whatever you say is more likely to be distorted and turned against you by your opponent than to influence the electorate. American voters claim to loathe the prevalence of negative political ads. The fact is, however, that they have only themselves to blame. Ultimately, the health of a republic is always in the hands of its citizens. All too often, American citizens are tried in the balances and found wanting.

The itch to demonize is, if anything, even more repellent when indulged in by politically active Christians. Nowadays when one thinks of politically active Christians, one thinks mainly of the Religious Right: conservative evangelicals, particularly Fundamentalists. And sure enough, it is not at all uncommon to hear such people excoriate those who disagree with them, implying or stating outright that people of different views are willfully, morally wrong, destructive of all that is righteous, and pretty much the devil's henchmen. But as someone who labors in a more liberal vineyard, I can tell you that the same itch exists on our part as well. It is not really a phenomenon of the political left or right, but the artifact of a fallen humanity.

I figure that if others are vulnerable to that itch, then so am I. And without compromising for a moment my own convictions, I try as hard as possible to bear in mind that those on the Christian Right are animated by a sincere concern for this society, that they have the courage of their convictions, and that they are willing to organize and fight for the things in which they believe.

As a military historian, I am a student of the warrior ethos, and in nearly every culture in the world, the warrior ethos counsels respect for one's adversary. It goes beyond mere chivalry or good manners. It has psychological survival value. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who for years has treated veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, notes in a fine book entitled Achilles in Vietnam that often his clients begin to heal when they are able to honor the enemy they fought instead of continuing to think of them as subhuman "gooks," "rag heads," and so on. I think that by analogy this same dynamic applies to the so-called culture war. In many ways the metaphor of war is apt. The stakes are thought to be high, the possibility of compromise non-existent. One side or the other must prevail. Nevertheless, just as there are laws and customs of literal war, so too there ought to be laws and customs of this metaphorical culture war. And the foundation of these laws and customs must be a basic respect for one's adversary.

That is why in recent weeks I have twice visited Fairfield Christian Church, whose senior pastor is Russell Johnson, the driving force behind the Ohio Restoration Project and its "Patriot Pastor" movement. Individuals from my own church, North Congregational United Church of Christ, were the driving force behind the well known complaint to the Internal Revenue Service that the Ohio Restoration Project and another organization, Reformation Ohio, were engaging in partisan political activity prohibited under IRS rules for non profit organizations. Based on my reading of the evidence, I think the complaint is well founded. And in any event, enough of a case exists that it is reasonable to place the matter before the IRS for adjudication. But the fact that I think these organizations have overstepped the law, or that I find some of their tactics -- gay bashing, for instance -- reprehensible, does not give me license to forget that they are people, fellow citizens, not demons beyond the pale.

And I have found that they exhibit the same forbearance. This past Sunday I had to be in Lancaster to give a talk at the Sherman House Museum. Since Fairfield Christian Church is located in Lancaster, I decided to attend its morning worship service. One of the eighteen -- count 'em, eighteen -- pastors of this immense and vibrant church recognized me as a visitor. I explained that I was from Columbus and in town only for the day. He asked what church I attended, I told him, he instantly recognized the name. His demeanor didn't stiffen for an instant. Indeed, if anything he seemed even more pleased to have me as a visitor.

He invited me to stick around for lunch after church and if it had not been for my speaking engagement, I would have accepted. As it was, I thoroughly enjoyed the service, which had an authentic joy, and I admired Pastor Johnson's sermon, which was a well-crafted, intelligent exploration not of those awful secular humanists or whatever, but of the dynamics that typically injure a marriage and the skill set required to deal with the inevitable conflicts constructively. It was an impressive performance.

After the service, the associate pastor who had greeted me earlier made sure I was introduced to Pastor Johnson. Actually re-introduced: I met him once briefly last March. I often keep a small digital camera in a pocket of my sport coat. I handed it to the associate pastor and asked if he would take a picture of Pastor Johnson and myself.

Pastor Johnson requested, in a joking but serious way, that I digitally remove his fangs.


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