Presidents Sing Kum-Ba-Yah?

It’s newsworthy here because it involves a local college president and the president of the United States. And because my wife and a few good friends are graduates of the college.

The president of Elizabethtown College has been invited to the White House to receive accolades for initiatives engaging E-town students in the wider community by participation in various service projects. That’s nice–really. What makes this a bit different from other attempts to display the character of college kids as something more than self-absorbed party animals is that the program is intentionally built on a multi-faith platform, placing students of various religious commitments side-by-side in the projects to be completed. Apparently, the White House staffer who took note of this thinks it more worthy of attention when Wiccans and Muslims distribute food alongside Christians and Jews than when one of the other of these groups does it alone.

It is quite clear that it is not the doing of good things for struggling people that matters to President Obama. It is the multi-faith aspect that is being highlighted at the photo-ops which accompany the visit. Translating this, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president is making a statement of what religion in America ought to look like. So much for the myth of separation. The “unofficial” position is that religious faiths are to be noted for their willingness to forget about their distinctive beliefs and lauded for their charitable spirit–provided it is exercised in company with others who disagree about the matter of what is true. As long as we can sit around the campfire and hold hands, it’s all good.

Several thoughts run through my mind as I think about the issues raised in this event; not all of them can be easily distilled into a coherent conclusion. I’m very interested in responses to any of the thoughts below–again, noting that they may conflict with one another.

1. The president is really out to set the tone of religion in the nation, and it is to be affirming of religion in general, but not in the specific. The more one insists on a connection between his or her faith and the truth about the world, the less welcome that voice will be. And the same tone seems to be hummed by the college president, who is elated over the presence of all faiths among the student body at a Church of the Brethren school–not to convert them, but to encourage them in their present practice.

2. When it comes to accomplishing the relief of suffering, the immediate effect outweighs the particular motives of those involved in the providing of that relief. And maybe in the process, Christian participants will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the Hindus and Muslims the superior grounding of faith in Christ.

3. All good gifts are from the Father of Lights. They should be shared with any who need them, regardless of any faith at all. Keep all the discussion of those things out of the relief work entirely.

4. When all faiths are viewed as equals, what is really being affirmed is agnosticism, if not atheism. There are undeniably incompatible beliefs about the way the world works, the character of the divine, the nature and purpose of human life, and the direction (or lack thereof) in which the world is heading. To say that these do not matter is to take none of them seriously and so to adopt a practical, if not a theoretical atheism. When all faiths are believed to be saying the same things, none of them are really believed to be saying anything; so score one for the atheists.

This list barely scratches the surface. I’m anxious to read how anyone might respond to it and what might be added.

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9 thoughts on “Presidents Sing Kum-Ba-Yah?

  1. Hmm. Well point number one is definitely the trend I see all over now. Religion must be so relatable, that it becomes irrelevant. And if you can’t get along, get out of the way.

    Point two is the way I hope things can be..same for point three, I am uncomfortable with relief work that is clearly designed to convert. It is also ineffective long term. A starving man will convert to most any faith that is holding the bread.

    Point four is where we are headed I fear.

  2. I think the harder point is how to be the President of the United States. There are so many voices and they all want to be recognized as relevant and important. So to choose to highlight one over others is to show partisanship… can anyone do that in today’s political climate?

  3. BTW, glad you’re back. It’s been lonely out here in the blogoshpere without your posts. I’ve had to read Delay’s… ha ha

  4. I was about to respond with my bias opinion. That bias opinion is formed on a foundation, a solid one. My comment was going to be about the lack of a foundation, anywhere anymore, politics, religion,society in general etc. It would have gone on too long and said what we all already know to be true.

    But then these words “popped” into my head “What is intended for evil I will use for good”

    The Presidents reasoning at its core is anti-everything, but the opportunity it presents is rare. What is done with that opportunity is what ultimately will matter.

    • I don’t think there was any intention of evil. What I do believe is that many people have bought into the idea that all religions are saying the same thing–because it makes us feel good and, theoretically, provides a way us to all get along. A president, especially, has to be attracted to such a position (Warwick is right about that); but he’s hardly alone among the supposedly well educated who have been given this line. It is taught in comparative religion courses at universities, where the materials highlight the similarities and downplay the differences–in spite of the fact that it is the differences which lie at the heart of each particular faith, with the similarities often coming from the fringes. It’s all in how the tale is told. Deceived, probably; evil, Not somuch, other than to the extent of not looking more closely.

      • I was referring to the “influence” behind decisions like this. The opportunity I mentioned is, getting a chance to show those differences to the ones being taught none in a civil forum, which rarely presents itself today.

      • I guess I try to think about what I have in common with other people (including their religion) because I want to build a bridge, I want to establish a relationship with them, I want to bless them. If you smell like booze, cigarettes, and have tats, and rings through your eyelids i’m there… i like churches with big sand containers outside for cigarettes and crosses.

        There is something about this overall posting that makes me uncomfortable, maybe it is the (neo) ana-baptist in me. Of course i’m not going to take my lead from this hellish replacement for the church called the State and its aspirational leadership (thanks Milbank!). Of course they are going to say things that are beyond foolishness, Balam’sRide-inine stuff.

        What I fear is that we have nothing to good to say either, because our commitments are to nationalism, capitalism, democracy (liberal democracy in Europe), the Constitution and certainly the 2nd amendment. We’ll kill for that probably, but at lest die for that (so we say).

        Our commitments are mostly the same commitments to those we oppose who we believe “are not of My Kingdom”. Maybe we aren’t either.
        I have this frightening book on my table that I’m afraid to open: Las Casas, In search of the Poor of Jesus Christ by Guiterrez, i’m not interested in His poor i’m interested in the rich of America. Could you imagine having half of your facebook “friends” be the poor of Latin America, or researching diligently to acquire them?

  5. Many of today’s relief organizations were founded by caring Christians. I’m sure they all accept contibutions from people with many backgrounds and beliefs.
    Programs like the one you mention seem to be put in place for fanfare and motives other than helping people.
    Handing out Christmas gifts to ALL the children in a New York neighbor hood is a kind and wonderful thing.
    But what if the one handing out the gifts is a Kingpin in one of the city’s “crime families”.
    A man takes in a young homeless teenager, provides shelter, food, clothes. An act of compassion for sure,
    unless of course, the man is a pimp.
    Both examples of the role motives play in actions. Acts of kindness, when carried out to prove a point or to receive something in return,
    are really just that..an act. Beth is right; “A starving man will convert to most any faith that is holding the bread.”
    Being free to openly share or discuss your beliefs in this situation, I’m afraid would be grounds for your removal from the program/experiment.

  6. I see this as an amazing opportunity for The Kingdom of God to really shine through The Body. (The Church)….as no other “religion” can….so that people might be able to finally see what an amazingly wonderful and powerful God we worship.

    Anyone can serve soup….but only God can heal.

    I say let the interfaith gatherings grow…so that amidst them, The Name of Jesus can be glorified…

    unfortunately, many of the (Christians) people that are gathering in these interfaith soup kitchens and prayer gatherings aren’t the ones who realize and understand the very Power that they are fully capable of walking in…

    As a lover and follower of Jesus – go to any community organized gathering (National Night Out was a good one)…and pray to the Father to show who is on His Heart – He will show you and why. The risk you take is not praying for people….

    Jesus met, blessed, and healed people where ever they were gathered, regardless if it was a “religiously organized” group or not. He still does. :)

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