Monday, May 14, 2007

Bush, Constitutional Threats, and the Christian Right

That the Bush administration is disturbingly power hungry is amply documented in a recent article, "The Assault on the Constitution: Executive Power and the War on Terrorism," by Erwin Chemerinsky in the UC Davis Law Review. While some Christian Right leaders sleep tight in the secure knowledge that the brightly burning Bush has God's help in illuminating the shadows of terror; others fear it is the flames of a new witch hunt prophesizing ungodly dangers.

So some of us who work to defend and extend civil liberties in the United States find ourselves in coalitions with Christian Right staff and ideologues inside the beltway; and sometimes outside the beltway in that vast area between New York and Los Angeles often overlooked by DC policy wonks. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and some of us have struggled with the questions surrounding such coalition work. Where are the proper boundaries for even limited cooperation?

There is a real danger facing civil libertarians (and all of us!) under the Bush Administration. Chemerinsky, a Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law, warns that

"Throughout American history, the government's response to threats has been repression. The war on terrorism is now over four years old and shows no signs of abating. Authorities have imprisoned some individuals without due process for nearly that long and have given no indication about possible release. These detentions have lasted longer than either World War I or World War II. In addition, the loss of freedom to average citizens has been enormous and, most disturbingly, there is no reason to believe that the country has been made any safer by the loss of liberty."
Serendipity brought me the Chemerinsky article; my son is on the board of editors of the UC Davis Law Review and sent me a copy. As it happens, Chemerinsky and I are both on the board of advisors to the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DEFCON). We were bombarded with e-mails from supporters of Dr. James Dobson after DEFCON criticized Dobson's refusal to find a problem in his being used as a shill in a questionable lobbying campaign cooked up by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

At the same time, I was on the board of a group, now renamed the Defending Dissent Foundation, with a DC staff person who found herself at meetings with representatives of several Christian Right groups such as Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. This wing of the Christian Right was worried about civil liberties, executive power, and political repression.

As is often the case, Justice Louis D. Brandeis summarized the issue in elegant (if dated) language:

"Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."
--Justice Louis D. Brandeis, dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 479 (1928)

One reason to see the complexity in the various sectors of the Christian Right is that there are times when some of us find ourselves on the same side of an issue.

If our typical response to the Christian Right is to use alarmist and demonizing rhetoric, we miss opportunities for parallel tactical activities toward a common goal, even if we are reluctant (for good reason) to form long-term strategic coalitions.


Erwin Chemerinsky, "The Assault on the Constitution: Executive Power and the War on Terrorism," UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2006: pp. 3-20.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Real Christian Conscience and Commitment

On Sunday, April 29th hundreds of us gathered at the St. Paul United Church of Christ in Downers Grove, Illinois to celebrate the life and mourn the death of John Curtis Koehler. "Curt" was a high school teacher, journalist, printer, civil rights and labor activist, and fan of music and theater. Curt was born in 1950 and died April 7, 2007 after a mighty struggle against brain cancer. Curt's wife, the Rev. Denise Griebler, and their two children were there when a seizure robbed Curt of life.

Curt's sense of humor was indomitable. Being rolled into the operating theater for brain surgery, a nurse asked Curt what he wanted her to pray for. "Peace in the world," he replied.

We both shared a strange sense of humor when we first met over 40 years ago in junior high school in suburban northern New Jersey. We also attended the same Presbyterian Church where we became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In our youth group we read the essay by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Curt and I worked with another church youth group member, Sue Kaiser, along with several friends, to set up a church coffeehouse (it was in the sanctuary—our church had no basement). We traded entertainment with another church coffeehouse up the road. I went and read poetry at the "Escarole" coffeehouse, while our coffeehouse, the "Purple Kumquat," got the teenage singing duo Maggie and Terre Roche, who later were joined by their sister Suzzy and became the folk trio the Roches. (So as it turned out, it was not an even trade).

Along with another young woman from our area, Curt, Sue, and I were sent as youth delegates to a National Council of Churches conference on Church and Society in Detroit in 1967. I've forgotten the name of the other young woman, and it was not reported in our local papers at the time, since she was Black, and thus was excised from the photograph of the four of us who were delegates from our region.

In Detroit we had our complacent White suburban ideas challenged. We saw an amazing multimedia presentation put together by Harvey Cox and examining racism, war, poverty, and other issues. One night some of us went over to the local underground newspaper. We joined other youth delegates to stage a "love feast" in a nearby park where we fed the hungry and celebrated life along with some Diggers who were driving back to California after the attempt to levitate the Pentagon in an antiwar rally. Margaret Mead sent over a pomegranate, with a note saying that it was the fruit of love, and thus no proper "love feast" could be staged without it. I've always wondered who ended up with that collectable note?

When we arrived back in New Jersey, our pastor, the Rev. Robert Hugh Reed, sent us a clipping from the December 1967 issue of a conservative Baptist newspaper, the Crusader. "Extremists Prominent in US Conference on Church and Society" blared the headline.

"The group studying 'The Role of Violence in Social Change" sharply criticized the church for lack of action against what it calls the 'systemic' violence in our society—'practices which exact exorbitant interest rates from the poor, inadequate health systems…inadequate housing…police practices that result in death and injury….' It urged that non-violent efforts to get rid of systemic violence should move beyond marches and picketing to massive campaign[s] in civil disobedience, non-cooperation with the state, strike, and economic boycotts."
Precisely! Heavens…what are we waiting for? In King's Letter he observes: " We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed…. Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever."
The Crusader also griped about our religious services:

"Worship services at the conference were almost as revolutionary as the problems the conference dealt with: A young dancer in an electric blue leotard interpreted words of the fortieth Psalm; and excerpts from the morning newspapers were interjected into the traditional liturgy."
Heavens! Precisely! What's the problem? Oh, that's right, it is all "extremism." Well, King had something to say about that too:

" though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love … Amos an extremist for justice …Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel … Was Not Martin Luther an extremist … Abraham Lincoln … And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.…"
The Rev. Denise Griebler, is the pastor at St. Michaels United Church of Christ in Illinois. She is also a longstanding social justice activist. The UCC is the target of another campaign against so-called "extremism," this time funded by right-wing ideologues who claim the name of God to defend their unfair and disproportionate power, wealth and privilege. They have the audacity to use the name "Institute on Religion and Democracy," when what they are doing is undermining democracy. They claim the name "renewal" when what they are doing is deeply reactionary, repressive, and regressive.

On the website of St. Michaels United Church of Christ is the note:

IF... understand that faith is a matter of mind as well as heart, and that taking the Bible seriously means it cannot always be taken literally know that God's love embraces all persons equally, no matter their gender, race, or sexual identity believe that Christ calls us to be nothing less than global citizens, that social expression of love is justice, and that spiritual concerns are inseparable from commitment to the natural world've wished for a more open and embracing community of faith to nurture your spirit and raise your children


...we invite you to join us at St. Michael's UCC and explore all the ways that God is still speaking.

The Rev. Denise Griebler is one of the many Christian leaders throughout the world working for real democracy and renewal. I treasure the times that Curt and I celebrated communion together under the blessing of Denise and in the company of our friends. Curt will be remembered as one who walked the walk. We can do no less.

Post comments on this article at