Thursday, December 30, 2004

My Red Phase

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly . SPECIAL REPORT . Exploring Religious America . April 26, 2002 | PBS

For the most part, Americans are accepting and tolerant of people who have religious beliefs that are different than theirs. They think all religions have elements of truth, and a large majority does not think of their own religion as the only true religion... Christians see themselves as very tolerant of people of other faiths, with 81% of Christians saying that Christians in the United States are "very" or "somewhat" tolerant of people of other faiths. People who are not Christians agree with this view for the most part, but not nearly as many of them are fully convinced of Christian tolerance. Only 54% of non-Christians see Christians as being tolerant.

Most of the pundits I read are secularists who appear to believe that Christians are grossly intolerant and, if not a standing menace to civil society, so exotic that it would take an expedition to Red Country and a full-scale anthropological study to figure out what they were up to. As a Christian I find this, to say the least, irritating: it's easy enough to find out what Christians are up to if you just go to church.

I spent most of the past decade "involved" at St. John's Episcopal Church. Our kids went to the parish day school; I sang in the choir, served on vestry and took my turn reading the lessons. Located in Chula Vista, an unfashionable suburb of San Diego which has been charitably described as "a trailer park without the trailers," St. John's was heavily lower middle class and almost solidly Red. About half the members were military--active duty, retired and families.

The people I met at St. John's were, as a group, the best people I have ever known. They were decent, committed, charitable and tolerant. When St. Martha's Guild divvied up it's take for the year, without prompting from Blue clergy, members chose to give a substantial contribution to a charity that cared for gay AIDS victims. The congregation was as "diverse" as you could please and inter-racial families were pillars of the church.

But their world was not my world and coping with their customs and folkways was more than I could handle. There were rules for small talk that had to be followed and topics that were taboo. Serious argument was taboo and any conversation that could be construed as pretentious was unacceptable. There were elaborate rules for appropriate sex role behavior: women could paint but could not dig; women cooked indoors but men barbequed. There were restrictions on the weight of items women could move or lift. There was a dress code that I only circumvented by singing in choir, in cassock and cotta. There was a whole code of social conduct that demanded constant thought, effort and acting--and I couldn't cut it.

On the other side, I couldn't stand much of what the place was all about. I resented the fussiness and busywork: conjuring up exact change for kids' school pizza day and girl scout meetings, bringing cookies, sandwiches and casseroles, sitting through endless discussions of the minutiae of planning and catering social events. I hated the clip art in the parish newsletter, the sentimental pieties and cliches. The church's mission statement, a string of pious platitudes and trite vagueries, set my teeth on edge. And, once the novelty wore off, talking to most church members at any length was painfully boring as well as stressful.

That is what church-going Red Americans are like--decent, honest, charitable, tolerant, unpretentious, anti-intellectual, dull, sentimental, unreflective, uncritical and utterly, utterly conventional. They aren't on jihad, they aren't out to ban abortion, persecute gays or establish a theocracy, but they also aren't receptive to argument or amenable to reason. I do not know how people like this could be persuaded to come back to the Democratic party however a first step might be to recognize that they aren't either monsters or bigots, exotic specimens or an oppressed proletariat ripe for revolution, but dull, ignorant people who want a safe, clean world, where people play appropriate roles and everything looks right.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Bah Humbug

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: When the Right Is Right

Liberals traditionally were the bleeding hearts, while conservatives regarded foreign aid, in the words of Jesse Helms, as "money down a rat hole." That's changing. "One cannot understand international relations today without comprehending the new faith-based movement," Allen Hertzke writes in "Freeing God's Children," a book about evangelicals leaping into human rights causes.

When my husband was in library school at the University of Alabama I got a delivery job at Chanelos Pizza Parlor in town. I liked the job but delivering to the frat houses was a pain. Pizza delivery drivers were sport for the good ole boys.

Once, after a particularly humiliating experience, as I was driving away my VW got hopelessly stuck in the mud. After pulling every trick I could--high gear, low gear, rocking and turning--I went back into the frat house where the boys and their girlfriends who had had a high old time setting me up as a figure of fun were lolling around and asked them if they could give me a push.

The boys immediately became Southern Gentlemen, all chivalry and gentelesse, and sprung into action. We went out into the night and half a dozen of the beefiest lads shoved while I steered the bug loose. They cheered and wished me well.

I appreciated their efforts and think of them, retrospectively, as good kids though they're my age now, gone their various ways. But I've always been bugged by the program: decency, sympathy and the will to help only kick in when people are in obvious distress--and only then. We contribute canned goods to food pantries, distribute sandwiches to bums on grates, raise money finance medical care for sick children and now, at Christmastime, give generously to the 100 Neediest Cases. But we will not do a thing until the sympathy mechanism kicks in and then only what it takes to to meet the immediate need--gruel for the starving refugees, medicine for the AIDS victims in Africa, a turkey with all the trimmings for poor families at Thanksgiving and a push for a pizza deliverywoman in distress.

That's the American Way, and I'm not impressed. We're stingy on prevention but generous with bail-outs--and that is an expensive strategy that yields minimal benefits at high costs.