I was raised Presbyterian in South Carolina a half-century ago. The elders of the church quoted the Bible to justify segregation, sexism, poverty, war, and all manner of social injustice and pathology.
Later I discovered there was another side to the Bible — verses that were never quoted from the pulpit or in Sunday School at Unity Presbyterian Church. The only people you would find quoting Amos 5:24 ("But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.") were Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers. At my church you were much more likely to hear Ephesians 5:22 ("Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.")
I haven't had much truck with Christianity since, but Colin Kerr has forced me to take a new look at it.
You may have heard of Kerr. He is the director of Christian education at the downtown Second Presbyterian Church and leader of Talks on Tap (TalksonTap.com), an eclectic group of drinkers and talkers who meet at Andolini's Pizza downtown every second and fourth Tuesday to discuss politics, culture, religion, and everything in between.
Now Kerr has written a book in which he tries to set the record straight about which side God is on in the culture wars that have been raging in the country for the last 30 years. In the self-published A Heaven-Backed Rebellion: Uncovering the Political Vision of Christian Liberals, Kerr takes the position that the Bible has been hijacked by the religious right for political purposes, and it's time mainstream Christians take it back.
Even when he was a political conservative and a Republican activist, which was only five years ago as an undergraduate at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., he considered Christianity to be "a movement of rebellion against a dominant culture." It was the role of the Christian, he thought, to defend the weak and the dispossessed. He was shocked to discover that most of his fellow conservatives and Republicans did not share his view of the faith.
After much reading and thinking — and a trip to England, where he witnessed the work for social justice by modern English Christians — "a liberal powder keg" went of in Kerr's head," the author writes in Rebellion.
"The question I could not answer was this: Why were examples of English Christians practicing politics, the kind promoting personal freedom and social justice, not equally prevalent back in the States?" he wondered.
"Questions such as these dogged me from there on out. The answer to those questions would lead me to liberalism — a kind which rested on a concrete foundation of Scripture and reason, God's Word, and pragmatism."
With his eyes wide open, Kerr was able to see the Bible in a different light, and in his book he presents it as a startlingly radical social contract. He points out that there are actually several thousand verses that deal with social justice. He quotes liberal theologian Jim Wallis as saying that social justice is "the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures [Old Testament] ... One of every 16 verses in the New Testament is about the poor or the subject of money ..."
By contrast, the Bible contains only five verses that condemn homosexuality. So why have Christian conservatives become so obsessed with gay lifestyles, rights, and marriage in recent years? This is one of the questions Kerr asks his readers, and he does not leave Christian conservatives with an easy way out. He concludes that "at least in this important case, God's values are at odds with Republican values."
Yet, Kerr does not let liberals off without a good scolding. The "humanist left," as he calls it, has lost its way. "The moral authority of secular humanism has less common-man creditability than Osama bin Laden's Wahhabism. The Left and the politics of true progressivism are simply lost without the ethical compass of Christianity."
Of course, I beg to differ. Buddhism and other religions and philosophies offer strong ethical social contracts without relying on the mythology and authoritarian structure of Christianity. Why shouldn't secular humanism be able to do the same?
I also question Kerr's understanding of tax law and economics. In an interview last week at Kudu Coffee, he told me that he is a proponent of the Fair Tax. So is every billionaire I know!
He tried to explain that if the wealthy were left with more of their money, they would give more to charities and to churches — like Second Presbyterian. I told him that it doesn't quite work that way in the real world and strongly urged him to see Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.
That said, I can still recommend A Heaven-Backed Rebellion to all who believe that Christianity isn't just for Republicans.
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.