Monday, March 13, 2006

Institute on Religion and Democracy: "Democracy" not so important

With a name like Institute on Religion and Democracy, you would think that, as an advocacy group, they would be committed to both. In fact, as their mission statement suggests, it's a bit more complicated:
The Institute on Religion and Democracy is an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their churches’ social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad.
First comes Christian renewal, then comes social renewal and democracy. They go on:
The IRD believes that the Christian tradition has great resources for the building of a just society. Among the basic teachings with profound political implications are these: God alone is sovereign and worthy of worship. All persons are created in the image of God. Endowed with inalienable rights, persons have the responsibility to love their neighbors. A church that faithfully proclaims and demonstrates these teachings will do much to sustain and spread democracy.

The IRD makes a further judgment that Western representative democracy is, on balance, a good worthy of advancing. Among political systems of our time, democracy holds the most promise for a relatively just ordering of society. It best provides the freedom for the Church to carry out its mission. We are convinced that the Church best serves democracy by simply being the Church, true to its own calling in Christ.
Thus, the IRD advances two goals: the proliferation of sound Christian teachings in the hopes of advancing democracy, and the advancement of democracy as the safest haven for Christianity. In other words, "we promote democracy to advances Christianity, and vice versa" (my paraphrase).

On that basis, one might think that the IRD is at all times vigilant in the protection of basic civil rights -- it stands to reason that wherever speech is protected, Christianity should thrive unfettered. Indeed, the IRD's Religious Liberty program, directed by Faith McDonnell, had this to say about one of their overseas missions:
Christians are treated as second-class citizens in Pakistan. They are poor and powerless, have little opportunity for education and jobs, and are excluded from politics by a system of "separate electorates" -- a religious apartheid. According to Pakistan's "Blasphemy Law," anyone who defiles the name of Mohammed must be punished by death. This gives unscrupulous people a great opportunity to cause trouble for Christians. Many believers have been falsely accused and, even if acquitted, some have been killed by Muslim extremists and live under constant fear of death threats. Now Islamic Law has become the supreme law of the land in Pakistan.

Pakistani Christians had renewed hope for an end to their unjust situation with the takeover of General Pervaiz Musharraf in October 1999. President Musharraf had taken some admirable first steps towards amending the infamous Blasphemy Law, and other laws that oppress religious minorities, and in recent months he had announced plans to abolish the separate electoral system that marginalizes Christians and other minorities in Pakistan, but he has been under intense pressure and even threats from powerful Islamic factions. Christians continue to be arrested on trumped-up Blasphemy charges. And since the war against terrorism began, Christians in Pakistan have been especially vulnerable to radical groups.
Aside from the religio-xenophobia of Christians v. Muslims, this is all very noble. But how easily those high-minded principles are discarded!

Over the weekend, Faith McDonnell, the director of the Religious Liberties Program, published a letter on the IRD website that defended the IRD from the criticisms of Bishop Chane's recent Washington Post Op-Ed. (Please read both the Op-Ed and the letter by McDonnell again, if you haven't looked recently at either.) As a reminder, Chane criticized conservative elements with the American Anglican Communion for their association by proxy with a very un-democratic piece of legislation before the federal assembly in Nigeria that would bar gay marriage, with penalties of up to 5 years' imprisonment. I've written about this extensively on this blog.

The stated purpose of the legislaiton is clearly at odds with its obvious inevitable effect. Homosexual sex is already illegal in Nigeria and punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment. The new legislation would bar gay marriage, but what's the point of banning gay marriage if the sex is already illegal? In fact, the only novel prohibition in the new legislation is its ban on any form of speech in support of gay marriage or homosexuality. The Nigerian people, through their elected representatives, are about to pass a law that would limit the speech of a minority of Nigerians on an issue that is of great importance to them. Speech, press, assembly, even freedom of religion would all be affected.

The Anglican Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, recently lent his support to the legislation, saying, "The Church commends the law-makers for their prompt reaction to outlaw same-sex relationships in Nigeria and calls for the bill to be passed since the idea expressed in the bill is the moral position of Nigerians regarding human sexuality."

Is the "moral position" of Nigerians to limit free speech, assembly, press, and religious practice and belief? Faith McDonnell seems to think so, but indirectly. She wants to have it both ways: either the Nigerian Christians are under threat from Islamic extremists, and they should be allowed to do whatever they want to protect themselves from Islam, or the legislation, as proposed, is "onerous to us". Here's what she said:
The "Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act" before the Nigerian Federal Assembly would instead charge violators with penalties of up to five years in prison. The proposed federal legislation is onerous to us. But our society is not yet living in constant fear of the rule of Islamism.

Islamists often accuse Christians in the Islamic world of supporting Western immorality. The policies of liberal-led churches in the West, such as the U.S. Episcopal Church, often feed this accusation. Christians who live under or along-side Islam face the duel challenge of rebutting the charge while also opposing the imposition of shari'a. Archbishop Akinola and others walk a tightrope.
I see, the ban on gay marriage is Islam's fault, not to mention the fault of ECUSA. That's right. In some countries Islam must be countered with democracy to promote Christianity, while in others the threat of Islam can only be countered by limiting the democratic process.

This stance by the IRD reflects two rather ignoble predispositions on their part: (1) they aren't really committed to democracy in and of itself, but only insofar as it assists the spread or protection of Christianity; and (2) they want to argue that a ban on gay marriage is necessary to PROTECT us from the demands of Islamic extremists.

The former indicates that they are not serious players in the arena of transformative democracy, while the latter indicates something truly dangerous. Does the IRD really mean to say that it is because of our FEAR of Islamic terror that we should change the way we live our lives? Isn't this exactly backwards? Yechhh. (That was the sound of wretching.)

What makes this particularly bad, as I've said before, is that homosexual sex is already illegal in Nigeria. Whatever you feel about that, it means that this legislation is not about gay marriage at all, but about its other provisions, which limit a variety of civil liberties if exercised with the aim of defending homosexuality. In other words, despite the Nigerian Muslim community's support of the legislation, this can't really be about appeasing Muslims. In fact, I've begun to think that this is more about limiting the growth of pro-gay religious movements within Nigeria than about anything else.

(Note: Faith McDonnell says she and her colleagues have seen Chane's opinion piece republished only in markets where prominent Network bishops reside -- I would like to add the following markets to their list: Decatur, Salt Lake City, and Pakistan.)


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

As they said in Franco's Spain about the

Ministerio de Información y Turismo

- turismo sí, información menos ;=)

Matt said...

Tienes razón.

Daniel said...

Anyone who believes the IRD is just about advancing Christianity and Democracy is uninformed or extremely naïve. The IRD is about advancing only their fundamentalist view of Christianity. I am not liberal, I am a moderate who has traditionally voted Republican and I consider myself a devout Christian, and I find the deceitful, underhanded, back-parlor tactics of the IRD’s efforts to under-mine any Christian church or organization they decide is not fundamentalist enough to be disgusting and decidedly un-Christian.

They’re not about the New Testament of Jesus, the “Love thy Neighbor” Christianity, they’re about the Old Testament “fear of a jealous, vengeful God” Christianity. They are the modern day equivalent of the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time.

They’re a slick, polished political-style machine, using the same Machiavellian back-alley tactics political machines have been using for centuries. But they are slick.

I personally don’t think anyone claiming the aim of advancing Christianity should be spending money to destabilize Christian churches ( because they are viewed as too liberal), but rather should be working more to advance Christianity as a whole. I believe there is a place for everyone, liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, etc. in God’s church, but the IRD is of the bent that there is only room in God’s church for people who think like they do – ultra-conservative fundamentalists.