April brought downpours of mail on two subjects: “Can the Left Get Right With God?” (April 24), articles on religion by Dan Wakefield, Frances Kissling and Michael Lerner; and Philip Weiss’s “My Name Is Rachel Corrie: Too Hot for New York” (April 3), about the cancellation, under pressure, of a play based on Corrie’s journals. Below are some of your letters. –The Editors
HELLO, GOD. IT’S ME, THE LEFT
Frances Kissling’s “Looking for Salvation in All the Wrong Places” was a perfect antidote to the articles surrounding it. Dan Wakefield, in “Taking Back the Faith,” is worried about “the religious right’s theft of the meaning and the message of Christianity” and would apparently be happy to have more elected officials with “a progressive faith perspective.” Michael Lerner, in “Bringing God Into It,” has discovered that “the left’s hostility to religion is one of the main reasons people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off.” Ergo, the left needs to embrace “a set of spiritual values with progressive content.” Kissling, a practicing Catholic, rejects the view that “progressive God-talk is the best way to express moral values.” For Kissling moral, including religious, values are “best protected by a deep ethical commitment to the secular state.” “Legislators need to be asking what the people want and not what God wants.” Amen.
Week after week I search The Nation for some reflection of myself. I found it in Dan Wakefield’s and Michael Lerner’s words. That I am an evangelical Christian is the great conversation stopper of my life, which need not be so. I don’t mind the protests, condescending though they often are, from “atheists,” “secularists,” etc., who in fact I count among my friends. The point is to keep the conversation going and not impoverish intellectual life by separating all public life from religion, which in fact spawned some of the greatest progressive movements our liberal democracy has ever witnessed.
As a committed secular leftist, I agree with Michael Lerner that we on the left should not be embarrassed to “acknowledge and articulate” our values. I am quite happy to acknowledge that my political views are grounded in a belief in the moral equality and dignity of human beings. But I don’t agree that I need to bring God into it–bringing God into it might even be dangerous. Secularism is based on rational standards that are by definition open to criticism and revision in light of new situations or facts. Religion, on the other hand, rests on the unassailable authority of the word of God, an authority that, unlike secular authority, does not admit rational criticism. For this reason, notwithstanding prominent examples to the contrary, religion has mostly been and can be counted on to continue being a force of reaction, not of progress.
New York City
I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, a devout religious conservative (I hold the Bible to be the literal word of God) and a devout political liberal. While I share many of the religious right’s moral concerns, I reject, on biblical as well as constitutional grounds, efforts to force their convictions on society through civil law. The same Bible that says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” also declares, in the words of Christ Himself, “My kingdom is not of this world,” a statement made to a Roman governor for whom theological abstractions meant nothing and political agendas meant everything. It forms, with other passages, a clear biblical basis for the separation of church and state.
KEVIN D. PAULSON
Jamaica Plain, Mass.
As a Jew who views himself as a secular, progressive humanist, I take issue with Michael Lerner’s premise that “scientism” has become “the religion of secular consciousness.” Lerner also suggests that secularists reject the concept that humans desire meaning and a purpose-driven life and that they wish to keep “all values out of the public sphere.” These are not the secularists I know; they would embrace every tenet of the New Bottom Line enunciated by Lerner. But their affirmation of those principles arises not from religious doctrine but from an ethic that flows from a ground-level appreciation of the common needs and yearnings of human beings and a sense of awe at the mystery of the universe that isn’t impelled to name it “God.” The secular progressive humanists I know champion Lerner’s values, including the “radical amazement at the grandeur of all that is,” without adopting the elements of religion that separate us from our fellow inhabitants of this planet.
Here in Chicago, community organizers are thrilled to enlist the local clergy; in many cases that organizer is the local clergy. Groups working on criminal justice reform or defending public housing include religious leaders and faith-based groups along with leftist organizations. (One of the nicest invocations I ever heard was by a Maoist asked to give the opening prayer at a public housing meeting.) Far-left groups work closely with religious pacifists in the antiwar movement, and religious leaders speak at every rally. (Note that the Communist Party has established a religious caucus.) In fact, I’d conclude that the real, active, on-the-ground left consists of a quarter to a half, maybe more, religious people.
Thank you for Dan Wakefield’s challenging article. On Easter Sunday I said to my congregation, “The Jesus who came preaching good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation to the oppressed…has been stolen by Christians who don’t seem to care about public policies to help the poor, the imprisoned or the sick; who preach a hate-filled message to gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered persons; and who embrace a gospel of prosperity for the affluent but remain indifferent to the impoverished and indebted of the developing world. This Jesus has been stolen by those who call you a saint when you feed the hungry but a communist when you ask why people are hungry. This Jesus has been stolen by those who call you a good Christian when you pray for the safety of the troops in Iraq but un-American when you question the wisdom of the war. This Jesus has been stolen by those who call you pastor when you do a wedding for a man and a woman but a false prophet when you suggest extending the same rights to same-sex couples.”
DAVID ENSIGN, pastor
Clarendon Presbyterian Church
“Taking Back the Faith” was a real encouragement to me, a 90-year-old retired Friends minister who thought the liberal wing of Christendom was dead. Thank you.
EARL J. PRIGNITZ
Pompano Beach, Fla.
Dan Wakefield’s article re-energized my decision to get to work while I still have time (I’ll be 86 in July). I’m a lifetime activist (double blacklist–McCarthy’s and, later, my own Jewish people’s) with scars to prove it. There’s much to do: Head off an incipient war (Iran this time) and a fascism that looks a lot like my experiences during the 1930s and ’40s. The American people are awakening, as their livelihoods are stolen from them. Young people worry about their future. They yearn for direction. Dan Wakefield, Frances Kissling, Rabbi Lerner are among many leading the way.
PLAY CALLED ON ACCOUNT OF PAIN
“Too Hot for New York” is too hot for this household and, I think, for most Jewish households in the United States. Please discontinue my subscription.
DAVID M. SILVERMAN
“Too Hot for New York” has convinced me to renew my lapsed subscription.
J. CARL REYNOLDS
What is so sacred about New York City? There are plenty of other US cities that would put on this play: Seattle (in Corrie’s home state), Portland, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, etc. Is there an obstacle to presenting it in another location?
Thank you for the excellent article on the New York Theatre Workshop’s withdrawal of its production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and congratulations to Philip Weiss and The Nation for your courage. As one of the many American Jews who oppose the Israeli occupation and support the right of both Palestinians and Jews to live in safety, I know about the power of the organized Jewish community and how it treats those who disagree with Israeli government policies. It is very important for Jews who support a just peace to make it clear that AIPAC, the ADL and other mainstream Jewish organizations do not speak for us on the Middle East.
Takoma Park, Md.
Philip Weiss’s honest and searing words made the controversy understandable to me–someone who has never seen a New York play and whose grasp of the complexities of the Middle East conflict is at the kindergarten level. But I can understand the ideal that sent Rachel Corrie to Palestine, her determination to make a difference in a place of great suffering. That, it appears, is what the play is really about. I’m learning that the courage to move beyond fear can be made synonymous with treason and hatred, until we do not dare even to speak of courage. The play, The Nation and Weiss all contributed to the battle to keep courage from being bulldozed by fear.
I was standing next to Grace Paley at the 1985 PEN Writers Conference while Meridel LeSeuer read out the names of American writers who, like herself, were blacklisted in the McCarthy years. Grace jabbed me with her elbow and whispered, “You can always outlive the bastards.” That still sounds like a good idea, but one unfortunately not available to Rachel Corrie, who had she lived might well have become a member of PEN and faced a lifetime of struggle against the censorship well-known to all political writers in this land. The bitter irony is that if Rachel Corrie had not been murdered by an Israeli bulldozer, her eloquent descriptions of life in Gaza under the occupation might have reached a tiny audience at best, through a small publication or an Off Off Broadway venue, if they reached any audience at all. Dead, Rachel Corrie becomes the title character in her own Antigone, a tragedy made unforgettable as much by the power of her prose as by the size of the military machine she stood alone against.