The pleasures of the Godbeat

Two posts on Salon today prove that the alt-daily website can cover religion just as well, although not nearly as often, as it covers the sacrament of sex. Freelance writer Benedicta Cipolla conducts a Q&A with Minna Proctor about her lapsed Catholic father who eventually felt called to a become a priest of the Episcopal Church. Proctor's mother is a secular Jew, and Proctor grew up in a faith-free environment, so her father's new vocation challenged her. Proctor coped by doing what journalists often do when facing a crisis: she wrote about it.

If the Salon interview is any indication, Proctor's book -- Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father -- is an example of how people can write intelligently and with empathy about a faith they have not embraced.

Cipolla is a great choice to conduct the interview, as her father made a vocational choice in the opposite direction. He was among Episcopal priests in the 1980s who found a more welcoming home in Roman Catholicism. Cipolla opens her article with a funny account of her brief rebellion against her father's going Catholic:

I was only 10 years old at the time, and I accepted his decision without much ado, save for a brief declaration that I would stay in the Episcopal Church so I could keep singing in the choir. When my parents acquiesced and told me they would ferry me there every Sunday, I realized my stand was not rocking the foundations of my family in quite the way I had anticipated. I immediately recanted and converted too.

The most rewarding paragraph is when Proctor addresses whether it was scary for her to cover the unfamiliar world of religion:

The biggest challenge was waking up in the morning and opening Kierkegaard and thinking, "Who the hell am I to think that I have anything to say about this, or that I can even understand what anybody's talking about?" On the other hand, I had to keep reminding myself that all I could do was be me, a secular person, exploring this topic. In a way that's one of the narrative conflicts of my book, that I'm not a religious scholar, but that I do believe that religion is not a subject that only religious people can engage in debate about. Religion has a growing role in political debate right now, and I think it's better if all of us were more informed and didn't think of religious people as fanatics. If you do that, then it becomes a debate about fanaticism instead of a debate about much more interesting and important ideas -- moral ideas, a sense of social responsibility. Even secular people can talk about and have opinions about religious topics, and we should.

Salon's other religion piece of the day -- the site's lead item of the day -- is Amy Sullivan's plea with the religious left to get its act together, already.

She draws a contrast between the religious left's past role as a conscience-shaper with its uncertain efforts to find its voice again:

Everyone knows about the religious right, a movement of conservative, mostly Christian, religious communities that has become increasingly involved in American politics over the last three decades. The idea that there could be a countervailing religious force, whether defined as religious progressives or simply everyone not part of the religious right, has long since been dismissed from public consciousness. Indeed, the religious left had almost forgotten about itself -- the community hadn't come together to protest a federal budget, one of the religious leaders told me, "since the early Reagan years."

And yet there was a time -- not so very long ago -- when the religious left was a powerful institution in American society and politics, when the term "religious" was not immediately assumed to connote "conservative." Moral giants with names like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. led intellectual and social justice movements. It's nearly impossible to page through American history without coming across political causes that were driven either partly or entirely by progressive people of faith -- abolition, women's suffrage, labor reforms of the progressive era, civil rights, and any number of antiwar movements. . . .

"If there is such a thing as the liberal church anymore," says the Rt. Rev. John Chane, Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, "it has become complacent. Complacency was always its biggest tragedy." While their conservative counterparts were setting aside differences to focus on a single mission, members of the religious left -- no longer following the guiding cause of civil rights -- lost their way, dispersing their attention over what seemed like 87 different policy issues and busying themselves with internal denominational battles over female ordination and other debates. Many well-intentioned members of the religious left, not wanting to be associated with the nascent Christian right, filtered religion out of their rhetoric and secularized some of their appeals. The more vocal groups like the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority became, the more religious liberals withdrew from public view.

It's amusing to read John Chane, one of the best-known liberal bishops in the mostly liberal Episcopal Church, wondering whether there's such a thing as a liberal church anymore. It's also amusing to read, in the same piece that begins by observing that mainline leaders are comparing the Bush administration to the rich man who scorned the suffering Lazarus, that "liberal religious spokesmen are loath to 'spin' their beliefs and positions, taking principled stands that nonetheless leave television producers underwhelmed and frustrated."

In any case, Sullivan is right to hope the religious left can regain the moral vision and leadership shown by Niebuhr, Day and King. If religious leaders across the spectrum will speak without embarrassment about what they believe their faith can bring to the public square, the political discussion is bound to be livelier and the decisions of Congress more informed.

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