Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Faith Voters
distributed 10/26/12 - ©2012

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Jesus said, mixing up some metaphors, "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to [God]." (Matt. 5:14-16) Being a light to the world is a great calling, but it is hard to do.

I am deeply concerned that some expressions of Christianity in the US are invisible, and that other parts of the church are extremely visible with a far-too-narrow witness. This disparity comes to a head in the closing days of the nation's election season, but it is a long standing and deep seated problem. The balance between bold and balanced has strong implications for the faithful witness that Eco-Justice Ministries encourages in churches.

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Let me begin with a local example where I have been personally involved this month.

Ten days ago, the Denver Post ran a large front-page story, "Faith voters onboard for Mitt Romney". Political reporter Allison Sherry opens the story with a reference to "so-called faith voters", and then says that "evangelicals and Catholics are walking precincts, registering neighbors to vote and wedging Christian voter guides under windshield wipers in hopes of making President Barack Obama a one-term president."

Throughout the article, "faith voters" is used without condition to refer to the religious right. Nowhere in the story is there a mention of faith informing other voters. There is no mention of mainline protestants or other faith traditions. Only voices from the religious right are quoted.

As I emailed to a collection of friends and church leaders that morning, "I am horrified and offended that mainstream, progressive and left-leaning faith traditions can be ignored so thoroughly. Just because we are not claiming to be the only voice of faith does not mean that we are without faith in our political action."

A flurry of angry letters sent to the Denver Post over the next two days caught the paper's attention -- especially the letter coordinated by my friend David Conner with 37 prominent signatures. In large part because of our objections, Post's religion writer had two well-researched, objective and far more illuminating stories in last Sunday's paper. She corrected the bias of the first story with "Faith voters come in all denominations and parties" and "Catholics lean toward Dems, but 'moderates' could swing this election".

I was upset with the reporter and editors for the biased story, but I also have a much larger concern. Large segments of the Christian church -- those holding theologies and ethics that are moderate and liberal -- have failed at being "a city built on a hill that cannot be hidden" when a political reporter never acknowledges that such churches even exist. If we are so invisible on the political scene, then we are not being faithful.

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If churches from the theological center and left have been too timid, some voices from the theological right have been too bold. The evangelical and Catholic "faith voters" described by Ms. Sherry have been all too willing to speak as the only legitimate expression of Christian faith, and they have tended to address a very narrow range of issues -- especially matters related to sexuality, reproduction and gender.

In one dramatic example, highlighted in a protest petition by Faithful America, the Catholic bishop of North Dakota has just issued a pastoral letter taking sides in a close race for the US Senate, warning Catholics they can only vote for candidates who oppose marriage equality, abortion rights, and stem cell research. The bishop has put his light of public witness on a very high lampstand, but that bright light of instruction does not shine with the full spectrum of responsible ethics. I'm not alone in raising that critique.

Just a couple of weeks ago, an impressive collection of Roman Catholic theologians, academics and ministers released a statement calling for better balance from the leaders of their church. In On All of Our Shoulders: A Catholic Call to Protect the Endangered Common Good, they write "to hold up aspects of the Church's social doctrine that are profoundly relevant to the challenges our nation faces at this moment in history, yet are in danger of being ignored." They offer a lengthy, carefully phrased and clear-cut description of the full range of Catholic policy and teaching, and it is worthwhile reading by all people concerned about responsible public ethics.

On All of Our Shoulders describes "5 principles of Catholic social doctrine most in danger of being forgotten or distorted" which they believe must be affirmed along with any statements about the sanctity of human life. The document concludes with these two sentences: "Ours is a moment that demands the fullness of the Church's teachings as few others have. To be truly prophetic, the Church -- bishops, clergy and lay faithful -- must proclaim the fullness of its message to all parties, movements, and powers."

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I am worried about the churches that are too quiet, and I am worried about the churches that are too narrowly vocal. Being a faithful light to the world is a delicate balancing act.

Christians -- individually and within church organizations -- are called to be bold witnesses to the gospel in the world. We must seek to be relevant and effective when we speak and act on the basis of our faith. I wish that many more of the mainline churches (the denominations that are the primary constituency for Eco-Justice Ministries) would be engaged actively with the important issues of our society. I wish those "liberal" churches were providing a much more vibrant witness about the relationship between faith and matters of justice, community, sustainability and the common good.

But Christians are also called to be a bit humble and balanced in our witness. We may speak with great conviction about our own values and beliefs, but we should never claim to speak for all Christians or all faiths. We should be willing to focus our advocacy on specific issues, but we should never claim that a short list of topics represents the fullness of an ethical worldview. It may be OK to say that a certain issue is most important in shaping one's own choices, but it is not appropriate to say that all people must make that one set of issues central.

The theological notion of eco-justice provides a broad ethical perspective that encompasses a very wide range of political and social issues. I urge all of you -- all those who read Notes, your congregations and denominations -- to take on the challenge of being a light to the world. Be visible and vocal in witnessing to faith perspectives on many issues. Do not be invisible to the world. But do take care to acknowledge that Christian ethics will never be fully expressed by any one voice, or on any one issue.

As "faith voters" and faithful advocates, we are called to be both bold and balanced. Let us take on both sides of that challenge.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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