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Defending my faith puts me in a mood
My father struggled with racism all his life. My mother, a devout Christian, was determined that her children would not.
“God loves everyone,” she told us, over and over. “No exceptions.” We were a white, working-class family in a neighborhood with lots of families who didn’t look like us, so we got plenty of practice with Mom’s directive.
This is my earliest memory of what it means to be a Christian. As a child of the ’60s in small-town Ohio, I didn’t know to call Mom a progressive Christian. I just knew both my mother and Jesus wanted me to be better than my worst instincts and to share whatever luck came my way. Another person’s misfortune was my burden to bear, particularly when it came to injustice.
Being a human forever in training, I have failed at this more than I have succeeded, but I keep trying. My faith continues to be a source of challenge and comfort, but I find myself defending it more these days when in the company of fellow progressives.
This is an understandable development in our country, perhaps, but sometimes it puts me in a mood.
On this July 4, I posted a photo on my public Facebook page of the sun peeking through the stripes of the American flag on our porch, along with this quote from the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin’s book, “Credo”: “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with all the world.”
Why throw in God? Why, indeed
I have shared this quote on prior Independence Days, but this is the first time it elicited significant criticism from fellow progressives. Many, including a number of self-avowed atheists, objected to the mention of God. Some viewed it as an unconstitutional attempt to mix religion and politics. Had I stopped at the “lover’s quarrel with their country,” some argued, it could have worked. Why did I have to throw God into it?
Well, Coffin was a minister. So, there’s that. I didn’t edit his words because I didn’t want to misrepresent his intentions. Also, I’m not the government. As a dear friend, the Rev. Kate Matthews, reminded me, I can quote a preacher without endangering the separation of church and state.
For all my years as a columnist, I’ve been on the receiving end of rightwingers wielding their brand of Christianity. I don’t recognize their version of God, who has an uncanny knack of hating the same people they do. Certainly, many of them have felt more empowered after four years of President Donald Trump, who broke numerous commandments but got a pass anyway.
Now that Joe Biden is president, a majority of U.S. Catholic bishops want to force a debate on whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be allowed to receive communion. The Vatican has warned against punishing support for a right, and Pope Francis recently preached that communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.”
I understand why many on the left object to mixing religion and politics. I share their disdain for right-wing extremism that results in policies that target America’s most vulnerable citizens. What worries me is a growing tendency to dismiss, and sometimes mock, progressive Christians – who, we should remember, include a swath of Black Democratic voters who helped to elect Biden.
More the point, perhaps: We are not creating the country we claim we want if it becomes perilous for progressive Christians to share their faith.
Quoting Coffin to ease my anguish
Coffin, an ordained Presbyterian minister, died in 2006. In his obituary for The New York Times, Marc D. Charney described how Coffin used his ministry at Riverside Church in New York "to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament. Courage, he preached over the years, was the first virtue, because ‘it makes all other virtues possible.’ ”
While a chaplain at Yale, Coffin was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and encouraged students to resist the draft. Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock and three others were convicted of conspiracy, but their convictions were overturned on appeal.
This is the William Sloane Coffin I will continue to quote.
I have my reasons.
For about 40 minutes during the Jan. 6 attack on our nation’s Capitol, I did not know whether my husband, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, was safe. I can’t seem to forget the anguish of that day, or to get over the sight of those angry Americans threatening the lives of everyone working in that building. Coffin helps me find the words.
“I am an American patriot who loves his country enough to address her flaws,” he wrote two years before he died. “Today these are many, and all preachers worth their salt need fearlessly to insist that ‘God ‘n’ country is not one word.”