Dif­fer­ent world­views – Dif­fer­ent futures

Imag­ine Amer­ica in 30 years when today’s chil­dren are rais­ing chil­dren. What kind of coun­try will Amer­ica be? What we believe, how we think and what we do now will make a difference. Imagine if we made the following choices:

Dif­fer­ent world­views - Dif­fer­ent futures 

We’re one human fam­ily liv­ing together on planet earth instead of Social Dar­win­ism
World cit­i­zen instead of Amer­i­can Excep­tion­al­ism
Diplo­macy instead of mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion
Sus­tain­abil­ity instead of envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion
Com­pas­sion and empa­thy instead of  fear and hate
Tol­er­ance and uni­veral human val­ues instead of reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism
Power by edu­cated, involved cit­i­zens instead of big money
Cre­ative, crit­i­cal, sys­tems think­ing instead of ide­ol­ogy, myth and toxic cer­ti­tude
Qual­ity pub­lic qual­ity edu­ca­tion for all instead of pri­va­tized edu­ca­tion for elite
Pol­i­tics of pur­pose and mean­ing instead of pur­suit of money and power
Democ­racy with oppor­tu­nity for all instead of plu­toc­racy or theoc­racy
Strong mid­dle class instead of obscene inequality

 * * * * * * * * 

Wel­come to an e-book in progress to help cit­i­zens gain an overview of the socio-political scene in Amer­ica before the 2012 elec­tions,  become aware of the extrem­ism of today’s con­ser­v­a­tives and under­stand why we must renew America’s pro­gres­sive val­ues for a rapidly chang­ing world. Phyl­lis Sten­er­son, edi­tor 

Pro­gres­sive val­ues are Amer­i­can val­ues reflect­ing the past, under­stand­ing the present and antic­i­pat­ing the future.

We aren’t mov­ing to the left or the right. We’re mov­ing forward.

 work in progress 7/13/12 Paideia LLC © 2012

Christianity Today

Why Are So Many Christians So Un-Christian?

The Distortion And Decline Of Christianity by Robert De Filippis TheBig Slice.org, February 27, 2013

5 Biblical Concepts Fundamentalists Just Don’t Understand By Sean McElwee, AlterNet, July 30, 2013 

Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues

The Bible is a Good Book, But God Didn’t Write It, Interview with Bishop John Shelby Spong By Candace Chellew-Hodge, Religion Dispatches, January 8, 2012 – Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong’s new book is Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World…Spong has been taking religious literalists to task for over 40 years…“I do not think for one moment that Bible is any literal sense the ‘Word of God.’
…the Bible [is] more than a manual for morality, but a living document….We’ve encouraged people to think about the Bible as this kind of book, a source of authority, the final word, not to be debated….
I think the Bible is a great book and I think if we can get people to look at it properly and not use it as a weapon to enforce their prejudices we’d be making a major step forward.
In this strange political climate we’re in, the Bible seems to be getting tossed around an awful lot… I think it’s sick….
Christianity is not about saving people from their sins. It’s about expanding the sense of what it means to be humanWhat Christianity does is lift us beyond the survival mentality into a kind of humanity that can give itself away in love. That’s what the Jesus story is all about.

New Theists: Knowers, Not Believers by Rev. Michael Dowd, Huff­in­g­ton Post, 6/15/2012

Christians in Denial Over Evolution of Faith By Katherine T. Phan, ChristianPost.com, January 27, 2011

The Tragic Story of Christianity: How a Pacifist Religion Was Hijacked by Rabid Warmongering Elites By Gary G. Kohls, Consortium News, posted on Alternet.org, January 30, 2012 – From time to time, I read about condemnations of religion coming from non-religious groups, especially concerning the all-too-common violence perpetrated in the name of religious gods. Indeed there is plenty to condemn…Obvious examples include those portions of the three major war-justifying religions of the world: fundamentalist Islam, fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Christianity. I use the term fundamentalist in the sense that the religious person, who ascribes to a fundamentalist point of view, believes, among other dogmatic belief, that their scriptures are inerrant and thus they can find passages in their holy books that justify homicidal violence against their perceived or fingered enemies, while simultaneously ignoring the numerous contradictory passages that forbid violence and homicide and instead prescribe love, hospitality, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. Behind the scenes, of course, there are hidden elites — amoral, politically and financially motivated operatives who are embedded in these religious organizations — who, through the strength of their political power, can easily manipulate the followers into clamoring for war, not against their enemies, but rather against the enemies of the ruling elites: the politicians, the financiers and the other exploiters of natural resources… critics of Christianity should start challenging the churches to go back to their roots where evil was not allowed to run rampant, but rather was aggressively and courageously resisted using the nonviolent methods of Jesus and his inspired disciples like Tolstoy, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, A. J. Muste, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers, John Dear, Kathy Kelly and a multitude of other courageous prophetic voices…Jesus was definitely NOT a punitive, pro-death penalty, pro-militarism conservative. His power came not from the sword but from the power of loveThat brand of Christianity definitely deserves condemnation… Church leaders need to repent of their support for (or their silence about) their nation’s state-sponsored terrorism and start acting ethically, as if the Sermon on the Mount mattered…

Why It’s Okay to Criticize Fundamentalist Evangelicals by Tom Eggebeen

Conservative Christianity’s Marketing Gimmick to Keep Its Old-Time, Heaven-and-Hell Religion Afloat By Valerie Tarico

Christianity in Crisis by Andrew Sullivan, Newsweek, April 2, 2012

Why Young People Are Fleeing Conservative Evangelicalism By Eleanor J. Bader, RH Reality Check, February 9, 2012

Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? By Ross Douthat, New York Times, July 14, 2012

Ross Douthat’s Rosy Old-Time Religion By Jerome E. Copulsky, Religion Dispatches, 2012

Does the Historical Jesus Matter? by Peter Laarman,  ReligionDispatches.com, October 14, 2010




The Bible is a Good Book, But God Didn’t Write It – Bishop John Shelby Spong

The Bible is a Good Book, But God Didn’t Write It – Bishop John Shelby Spong interviewed By Candace Chellew-Hodge, Religion Dispatches, January 8, 2012

Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World by John Shelby Spong, HarperOne , 2011 


Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong…has been taking religious literalists to task for over 40 years…Spong’s new book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

“I do not think for one moment that Bible is any literal sense the ‘Word of God.’

…the Bible [is] more than a manual for morality, but a living document….We’ve encouraged people to think about the Bible as this kind of book, a source of authority, the final word, not to be debated….

I think the Bible is a great book and I think if we can get people to look at it properly and not use it as a weapon to enforce their prejudices we’d be making a major step forward.

In this strange political climate we’re in, the Bible seems to be getting tossed around an awful lot… I think it’s sick….

Christianity is not about saving people from their sins. It’s about expanding the sense of what it means to be human…What Christianity does is lift us beyond the survival mentality into a kind of humanity that can give itself away in love. That’s what the Jesus story is all about. 

Full text

Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong is used to being a lightning rod for religious debate. Known affectionately as “Jack” to his friends, Spong has been taking religious literalists to task for over 40 years. 

The bishop made a big splash a couple of years ago when he issued a “Manifesto” in which he declared: “I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler responded that this was fine with him as “Bishop Spong rejects any claim that the Bible is the Word of God.” 

Mohler will find verification of his view in Spong’s new book Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. Right there, on page 15, Spong writes: “I do not think for one moment that Bible is any literal sense the ‘Word of God.’” This book is Spong’s way of putting the Bible back in its right perspective—as a collection of “tribal” stories that sprang from “the experience of human beings seeking to make sense out of the life they are living and the things they are experiencing.” 

Spong invites readers to consider the Bible more deeply. His approach opens up the Bible in a new way and invites us all to engage the texts, argue with them, and use it make new meaning for our own experiences and lives. This, Spong argues, makes the Bible more than a manual for morality, but a living document. 

Religion Dispatches had the chance to talk with Bishop Spong about his new book, as well as his take on how religion has been shaping—and misshaping—the political landscape.


RD: One of the things you are fighting against in this book is a literal reading of the Bible. Why do you believe people insist on reading the bible literally and not daring to ask, or even trying to form, the questions?


JS: We put an aura around the Bible that makes it very difficult to look at it any other way than as some mystical book that dropped from the sky. In some church processions, they walk in and somebody is holding the book on high as if it’s to be worshipped. We read from it and say “This is the word of the Lord” no matter what the lesson said. You do that often enough and people don’t think that’s a book to be read. It’s an untouchable.


Also, we publish the Bible in columns. No other book is published that way except encyclopedias, dictionaries, and telephone books. You don’t want to read those books, you go to them for authoritative answers and you don’t argue with the dictionary. If you’re playing Scrabble you go to the dictionary to settle the argument. We’ve encouraged people to think about the Bible as this kind of book, a source of authority, the final word, not to be debated. I think that helps people to think that it’s inappropriate to ask questions.


As a kid, our family Bible was on the coffee table in the living room. We never read it. We’d open it to put in somebody’s baptism or death. It was a family record book. I remember one day I put a Coca-Cola bottle down on top of it and I thought that the Lord would strike me dead.


I think the Bible is a great book and I think if we can get people to look at it properly and not use it as a weapon to enforce their prejudices we’d be making a major step forward.


In this strange political climate we’re in, the Bible seems to be getting tossed around an awful lot. Erstwhile candidate Michele Bachmann was even asked in one debate whether she believed the Bible required her to be “submissive” to her husband. Politicians are trying to enforce that aura around the Bible and competing to be seen as taking it the most literally. What do you make of that?


I think it’s sick, though I think there is less of it now than during the Bush years—we’re making progress, as strange as it sounds. The only one really talking this way now is Rick Perry. He keeps coming out against gays and in favor of being a Christian as if those are two things that go together.


I think it’s a reality show. I think it’s the strangest group of candidates I’ve ever watched run for office and I would be embarrassed at almost any one of them being the president of the United States. If the Democrats had any sense they’d run against the Ebeneezer Scrooge Republican Party because they keep running around saying, “Bah, humbug,” and anybody that’s poor ought to stay poor because they probably deserve to be poor and we’ll tax them a little more to be sure they remain poor. I don’t know why they think that’s a winning ticket.


The economy is so bad that I think Obama had a really slim chance to be elected, but I think the opposition has given him a good chance of being elected because it is so bizarre. Rick Perry who can’t remember anything, or Herman Cain—he was a comedy. Newt Gingrich? I’m too old, I remember too much about Newt Gingrich. Romney’s got the ability and I don’t think he’s an evil person but he’s been on every side of every issue so I’m not sure who the real Romney is. I don’t see a strong candidate in that crowd. Michele Bachman was comic relief!


I don’t want the Republican Party not to offer a strong alternative because democracy depends on both parties having competent people—one conservative, one liberal—and letting the people choose which direction it wants to take for the next four years. Anytime you play to the narrow, angry base of your party to get the nomination you jeopardize your chances of winning—and you should. This country is basically a center-right to center-left country and if we could rotate a competent center-right with a competent-center left person then I think we’d have a healthy country.


I think your book could help people make a critical assessment of how religion is being used in politics because if they understood the Bible then they would recognize when it’s being misused and abused.


 It seems to me that what the Christian faith says is that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called and empowered to be all that it can be. That’s not what you hear. Christianity has been a religion of victimization if you look at its history. We victimized Jews during the Crusades. We victimized Muslims in the 14th century. We victimized heretics. We victimized people of color. We victimized women. We victimized homosexuals. We victimized the environment. We’re currently victimizing immigrants. It’s all the same mentality.


What is it about Christianity that makes us constantly be a victimizer? I think it’s because we’ve adopted victimizing theology. We spend all our time in church talking about how sinful and evil human beings are. The only way you can tolerate listening to that is to pass it on. We have to pass on this hostility that we have. The idea that God killed Jesus because you were a sinner is a really strange idea. It makes God an ogre. It makes Jesus a sadomasochistic victim and it makes you and me guilt-laden.


Guilt never produces life. If guilt is your message, the best you can produce is a hidden righteousness. You repress your negative feelings in public and you pass this guilt on because it’s intolerable. I think what we’ve turned Christianity into is a sick religion and it comes out politically.


What do you think about the Occupy movement?


Finally, this negativity has been pushed to the extreme by the Tea Party that it fired up the other side. I think the majority is going to be on the Occupy side. That’s my hope. What they are doing is raising consciousness. I also think it’s dangerous.


America reminds me of France before the revolution in the 18th century. What you get is polarized politics with an increasingly right-wing mentality and then you get a left-wing reaction, the center disappears and that’s what leads to civil wars. We’re in a down economy, there’s a lot of anger. It was a depression that brought Adolph Hitler into power—and he had a victim he could denigrate. He united all the Germans against the Jews. It’s cheap politics, but we still have people who know how to do that. It doesn’t lead to anything but destruction.


How can reeducating ourselves about the Bible—and educating the non-religious about the Bible—help us regain the center?


One of my hopes for this book is that it will provide a textbook to talk about the Bible in a new way. A local pastor doesn’t have to actually say what I say in the book, but if he presents the book then he’s not alone.


I had a friend in Wyoming who used my book for a Lenten study and said he would preach against it and lambast it every Sunday. I asked him why he would do that and he said, “That’s the only way I can get them to read it.” I thought that was very clever. That opens the doors and I’m encouraged by that.


In your book you argue that there are universalist themes in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. How do you square that with the Christian exceptionalism we see today?


Exceptionalism is in every religious system. Religion is a human social invention to keep insecurity in check because being human is a very insecure thing to be. We’re self-conscious. We know we’re going to die and we have to relate to that. Animals don’t have to relate to that, they just live until they die. Human beings are the only animal that commits suicide or uses drugs. Religion is part of our defense system against the radical insecurity of life.


In order for religion to make you secure you have to make excessive claims. You have to say that, “We are the chosen people,” or “The Pope is infallible,” or “Our way is the only way,” or “the Bible is inerrant.” You have to make a claim that locks security up tightly. It doesn’t work, but it’s popular. There will always be fundamentalist churches. They will always promise things they can’t deliver and people will leave when a tragedy comes. Fundamentalist churches don’t tend to last past the charismatic pastor that got them started.


Christianity is not supposed to make you secure. Christianity is supposed to give you the courage to walk into an insecure world knowing that you’re not alone and to embrace the radical insecurity. If you’ve got to spend your time proving that you’re better than someone else—males are better than females, whites are better than blacks, heterosexuals are better than homosexuals—you’re always building yourself up by pushing somebody else down. But, you shouldn’t need to build yourself up unless you’re radically insecure. Religion feeds into that radical insecurity with triumphalism—ours is the only religious route you can take to get to God. That’s a really strange idea.


Religion is not about truth, it’s about security. The sort of thing I’m presenting is never going to be the majority view but it’s going to be the minority point of view for those who are bold enough to look at life as it really is and not to need a narcotic to get through it but as something that gives them the strength to embrace the radical insecurity of life, and I think that’s worth doing.


Christianity is not about saving people from their sins. It’s about expanding the sense of what it means to be human. That’s a very big difference. I’m tired of being saved from my sins. People say, “You don’t believe in sin.” But, that’s not true. I believe that human beings are incredibly capable of doing evil. We do that because we’re survival-oriented creatures. That means we can’t help but be self-centered—and that’s what the church called “original sin.” Christianity doesn’t rescue us from that aspect of our humanity. What Christianity does is lift us beyond the survival mentality into a kind of humanity that can give itself away in love. That’s what the Jesus story is all about. 

What do you see as the future of Christianity? 

I’m encouraged that the Bible says to me over and over again that the Christian movement is always going to be a minority movement. It’s not ever going to be a majority movement. We’re going to be the little bit of salt that gives flavor to the soup, the leaven that causes the bread to rise, or the tiny candle that shines in the midst of incredible darkness. When we get back to understanding our role is to leaven the lump then I think we’ll be effective.


Right now we believe we should be the majority. I don’t think that’s ever been the biblical image. The saving remnant was the powerful idea in the Hebrew Scriptures and I think that continues in the Christian tradition. But, we’ve gotten triumphal. We turned Christianity into Christendom and we rule the world. We’ve seated kings and unseated kings. We got drunk with that kind of power and we forgot how to be a Christian. I hope we can recover that and I hope my book will help people see that—because I think the message of the Bible is a pretty powerful one.

Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians and currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle United Church of Christ in Columbia, S.C. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008).



Ross Douthat’s Rosy Old-Time Religion By Jerome E. Copulsky – review of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

Religion Dispatches.com, 2012

Review of: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
by Ross Douthat, Free Press , 2012
On the eve of the Second World War, the poet and social critic T. S. Eliot delivered a series of lectures about the crisis of the West, subsequently published as a small booklet entitled “The Idea of a Christian Society.” In these talks, Eliot distinguished between the so-called “neutral society” of liberalism, the modern “pagan” (i.e. fascist and communist) societies, and the traditional Christian society. The neutral society of liberalism, Eliot alleged, was merely a negative culture: by “destroying traditional social habits of the people” and “dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents,” liberalism led to “the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.” On account of the privatization of religious belief and conduct, no agreement or unified cultural values are available to the society at large. It did not provide “a way of life for a people,” but left its citizens weak and exposed.

The only true alternative to modern paganism, which the liberal rightly abhorred, Eliot argued, was a return to a society based upon Christian faith. “I believe the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

“It is only in a society with a religious basis,” he proclaimed, “that you can get the proper harmony and tension, for the individual or for the community.” For Eliot, only such a culture could “match conviction with conviction” and ward off the threat and allure of paganism.

One may be reminded of Eliot’s essay while perusing Ross Douthat’s widely discussed new book, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics. While Douthat’s own hero-poet is W. H. Auden, the New York Times’ conservative Wunderkind also finds a nation in crisis. Douthat perceives in the financial crash of 2008 and its aftermath a more troubling symptom of American decline. And, like Eliot, he regards our manifold problems—political, social, economic—rooted in a deeper spiritual crisis: the slackening of Christian “orthodoxy” and the turning away from the virtues it had inculcated. For Douthat, “the eclipse of Christian belief has led, inevitably, to the eclipse of public morality and private virtue alike.”

“America,” he writes, “has indeed become less traditionally Christian across the last century, just as religious conservatives insist, with unhappy consequences for our national life.”

Unlike Eliot, however, Douthat is not concerned about the threats of pagan society or of the fragility of neutral secular liberalism. Douthat regards the weakening of orthodoxy as the result of self-inflicted wounds and the displacement of its august faith by what he considers contemporary Christian heresies. “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it,” Douthat claims. “It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (emphasis in original). Orthodoxy had provided both “a moral and theological center for Americans,” as well as “a means of necessary dissent.” Not unbelief, but the prevalence of heretical Christian beliefs, lies at the root of our nation’s decline. 

This is an interesting but unconvincing claim, buttressed by a rather tendentious reading of American history in which the 1950s represents “the lost world,” the high point of a convergence of “traditional” Christian forces.

Much has been written about Douthat’s nostalgic projection. In his brief, highly idealistic, and highly simplistic account, figures as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King Jr. came together in a consensus of Christian forces, whose “good religion” supported a halcyon age of good morality and apple pie.

“There was a deep and abiding confidence [in the ’50s],” Douthat writes. But then, of course, came the ’60s. Douthat blames the decline of the churches on increasing political polarization (beginning with the war in Vietnam, not the Civil Rights Movement), the passions let loose by the sexual revolution, the development of a “global perspective” which brought the non-Western religions to the attention of Americans (oddly, he does not mention the changes in American culture brought on by the immigration act of 1965), the growing wealth of Americans, and the waning of the East Coast WASP establishment. These factors, he claims, led to a weakening of Christian orthodoxy and its hold over the American spirit. The traditional churches responded by either capitulating to cultural trends or by exercising a culture warrior’s resistance.

Douthat’s Heretics Gallery: Scholars, Pulp Novelists, and Conspiracy Theorists

What did grow in this sterile soil? Such contemporary heresies like our putative fascination with lost Gnostic writings and Dan Brown novels, in the prosperity gospel proclaimed by the likes of Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar, and the ego-stroking self-affirmations of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and the vapidities of Oprahism. For Douthat, such heresy, not un- or anti-Christian, but a perverse misshaping of Christian faith, “actively encourages the sort of recklessness that produced our current economic meltdown, rather than serving as a break on materialism and a rebuke to avarice.” Such false teachings have replaced sin with permissiveness, made virtues of pride and self-love, have led to overreaching messianic policies (domestic and foreign), and stoked apocalyptic fears.

It’s difficult not to sympathize a bit with Douthat’s critique of contemporary American spirituality, even if he has a penchant for the low-hanging fruit. But this heretical American spiritual seeking is not really anything new, of course. For generations, Americans have been a religiously promiscuous people, attracted to all forms of non-orthodox beliefs and practices. What Douthat sees may be more of a hastening than a transformation.

Moreover, we should pay attention to the way in which Douthat frames his assault on modern heresy, which reveals, I believe, his deeper motivations and fears. Douthat introduces his conception of American heresy with a travesty of biblical scholarship in a chapter that runs from serious scholars of early Christianity, like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, to the popular novelist Dan Brown, to conspiracy-mongerer Glenn Beck. And how do we know that his intention is to connect such disparate figures?  Because Douthat says so, claiming that the academics “speak the language of the conspiratorial pamphlet, the paranoid chain e-mail—or the paperback thriller.”

In the end, Douthat suggests that biblical criticism is not only corrosive of orthodox faith (which it certainly may be) but also leads to a relativism that undergirds the American heretical project: “No account of Christian origins is more authoritative than any other, ‘cafeteria’ Christianity is more intellectually serious than the orthodox attempt to grapple with the entire New Testament buffet, and the only Jesus who really matters is the one you invent for yourself.” He also seems to suggest that scholars such as Pagels are apostles of some neo-gnosticism.

All of which is nonsense, revealing little more than Douthat’s poor understanding of the scholarly project. It does, however, underscore an important point about the author: his conviction that one should place their trust in traditional authorities rather that in those who would challenge them. I suspect that the real problem Douthat has with Pagels and Ehrman, scholars with impressive scholarly credentials, is that they make their research accessible to the broader public. That is, what really is at stake is who has the authority to interpret Scripture, or what Scripture is to begin with.

The “Good” Old Days?

Douthat hopes for another Great Awakening. But if wants us to join him in the pews, Bad Religion presents a weak brief. Douthat never really argues for the plausibility of orthodoxy, conceding that he relies instead on an instrumental case for its value in society. (Indeed, one might ask if social utility ought to be the measure of religious truth or value.) And what are we to make of Douthat’s conception of Christian orthodoxy: “Not the orthodoxy of any specific Christian church, whether Lutheran or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, but the shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church.” Douthat claims this was a consensus which included:

the basic dogmas of the faith: Christ’s incarnation and atonement, the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sins and the possibility of everlasting life. It includes a belief in the inspiration and authority of a particular set of sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments with no additional revelations added on and nothing papered over or rejected. It includes an adherence to the moral vision encoded in the Ten Commandments and expanded and deepened in the New Testament: a rejection of violence and cruelty, a deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, and a heavy stress on chastity. It includes a commitment to the creeds of the ancient world—Nicene, Apostolic, Athanasian—and to the idea that a church, however organized and governed, should guarantee and promulgate them. And it includes the idea of orthodoxy—the belief that there exists “a faith once delivered to the saints,” and that the core of Christianity is an inheritance from the first apostles, rather than being something that every believer can and should develop for himself.
I’ll leave it to professional theologians to parse this passage. Suffice it to say, however, that this conception of Christianity is more narrow and divisive than Douthat might think or like us to believe. (One suspects it is an argument for the primacy of Catholicism.) In fact, it’s questionable whether Douthat’s own religious champions from the ’50s would fit comfortably within this definition; Graham is a non-creedal evangelical, for example, and the Niebuhrs spoke of a “living tradition,” not the static form of orthodoxy described above.

Douthat seems blithely unaware of the real—and enduring—divisions over matters of doctrine and practice that kept different churches at each other’s throats (sometimes literally) over matters of doctrine. Nor does he consider the historical and political dimensions of these theological problems.

Douthat commends his orthodoxy’s “commitment to mystery and paradox,” in contrast to heretical positions whose “common desire [is] to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.” Indeed, in his celebration of paradox, Douthat sometimes sounds like a modern day Tertullian declaiming his belief in the absurd.

Yet, Douthat’s orthodoxy does not have a monopoly on paradox. (He might want to consider some of the great thinkers of the Christian past who have been marked as “heretics,” theologians such as Origen and Meister Eckhart. He might even benefit by auditing a course or two at one of those Ivy League Divinity schools he so disparages.) What is essential to note is that the paradoxes he endorses are the ones that are taught by the authority of the church. Moreover, what Douthat regards as spiritually engaging paradox can otherwise be regarded as “priestcraft” or intellectual obscurantism.

One might argue that orthodoxy’s paradoxes themselves emerged from an attempt to resolve contradictions; that is, the contradictions of the gospels and the tensions of Paul’s own attempts to describe the redemptive work of the Christ/Messiah. Douthat is right, however, to insist that orthodoxy “clearly was a project rather than a simple matter of reading the gospels and believing what they said.”

Douthat’s claims often outpace his knowledge. Only someone unschooled in the history of Christianity and ignorant of the intellectual trends in Judaism and Islam could so confidently proclaim that “the world’s most paradoxical religion [Christianity] has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than any of its rivals, making the Christian world safe for philosophy as well as fervor, for the study of nature as well as the contemplation of divinity.” Or that the proponents of the social gospel “subordinated their faith to a vulgar social Darwinism.”

But Bad Religion’s most glaring flaw is perhaps the most obvious: that the “good old days” were not as good as they seemed. Douthat calls his reading of the ’50s “an interpretation of an era, not a comprehensive history,” yet despite this hedge it is too cheery and one-sided a presentation to do the work he wants it to do; that is, to make us long for those (better) days. The consensus that he endorses was not nearly so strong or as real as he would like, and the American society was marred by ugly social tensions and hypocrisy.  

Likewise, Douthat gives no serious consideration to the Christian societies of the past: places such as medieval Europe, 16th-century Spain, and Puritan New England. A long and honest study of such societies might make Douthat rethink his instrumentalist defense of Christian orthodoxy and the virtues it supposable promulgates. He might have to face the problem of religious persecution and violence, of Inquisitions, torture, and hatred. He might see a past rife with the sin and brutality, enforced less by faith than by coercion. In doing so, he might, contra Eliot, begin to see the wisdom of Liberalism and the privatization of religion it endorses.

In short, while Douthat recommends a society grounded in Christian orthodoxy, his vision is based on an ignorance or forgetfulness of the past. It’s a nostalgic vision of a Christian society, but nostalgia, I’m told, is not a Christian virtue.

Jerome E. Copulsky is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College. His essays, stories, and reviews have appeared such places as the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon, Nextbook, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Religion, Zeek, and Azure.

Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? By Ross Douthat

New York Times, July 14, 2012

IN 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.

Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.

But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2005 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.

But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.

Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.

Christianity in Crisis by Andrew Sullivan

Newsweek, April 2, 2012 

Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him.

If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was 77 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” He removed what he felt were the “misconceptions” of Jesus’ followers, “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” And it wasn’t hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as “diamonds” in a “dunghill,” glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure. 

When we think of Jefferson as the great architect of the separation of church and state, this, perhaps, was what he meant by “church”: the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death. If Jefferson’s greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy. “I am a real Christian,” Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. “That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” 

What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them. 

Politicized Faith 

Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection—and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday—Jefferson’s point is crucially important. Because it was Jesus’ point. What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely. 

And more intensely relevant to our times. Jefferson’s vision of a simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity couldn’t be further from the 21st-century American reality. We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes. 

Organized Religion in Decline 

Meanwhile, organized religion itself is in trouble. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be—except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead, they obsess about others’ sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance. Inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government after 9/11: these issues attract far less of their public attention.

For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years. Evangelical Protestantism has stepped into the vacuum, but it has serious defects of its own. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explores in his unsparing new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old—something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue. And what group of Americans have pollsters found to be most supportive of torturing terror suspects? Evangelical Christians. Something has gone very wrong. These are impulses born of panic in the face of modernity, and fear before an amorphous “other.” This version of Christianity could not contrast more strongly with Jesus’ constant refrain: “Be not afraid.” It would make Jefferson shudder. 

It would also, one imagines, baffle Jesus of Nazareth. The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson’s or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant. 

The Crisis of Our Time 

All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been

That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep. 

Back to Jesus 

Where to start? Jefferson’s act of cutting out those parts of the Bible that offended his moral and scientific imagination is one approach. But another can be found in the life of a well-to-do son of a fabric trader in 12th-century Italy who went off to fight a war with a neighboring city, saw his friends killed in battle in front of him, lived a year as a prisoner of war, and then experienced a clarifying vision that changed the world. In Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Augustine Thompson cuts through the legends and apocryphal prayers to describe Saint Francis as he truly lived. Gone are the fashionable stories of an erstwhile hippie, communing with flowers and animals. Instead we have this typical young secular figure who suddenly found peace in service to those he previously shrank from: lepers, whose sores and lesions he tended to and whose company he sought—as much as for himself as for them. 

The religious order that goes by his name began quite simply with a couple of friends who were captured by the sheer spiritual intensity of how Francis lived. His inspiration was even purer than Jefferson’s. He did not cut out passages of the Gospels to render them more reasonable than they appear to the modern mind. He simply opened the Gospels at random—as was often the custom at the time—and found three passages. They told him to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” to “take nothing for your journey,” not even a second tunic, and to “deny himself” and follow the path of Jesus. That was it. So Francis renounced his inheritance, becoming homeless and earning food by manual labor. When that wouldn’t feed him, he begged, just for food—with the indignity of begging part of his spiritual humbling. 

Francis insisted on living utterly without power over others. As stories of his strangeness and holiness spread, more joined him and he faced a real dilemma: how to lead a group of men, and also some women, in an organization. Suddenly, faith met politics. And it tormented, wracked, and almost killed him. He had to be last, not first. He wanted to be always the “lesser brother,” not the founder of an order. And so he would often go on pilgrimages and ask others to run things. Or he would sit at the feet of his brothers at communal meetings and if an issue could not be resolved without his say-so, he would whisper in the leader’s ear. 

A Vision of Holiness 

As Jesus was without politics, so was Francis. As Jesus fled from crowds, so did Francis—often to bare shacks in woodlands, to pray and be with God and nature. It’s critical to recall that he did not do this in rebellion against orthodoxy or even church authority. He obeyed orders from bishops and even the pope himself. His main obsession wasn’t nature, which came to sublime fruition in his final “Canticle of the Sun,” but the cleanliness of the cloths, chalices, and ornaments surrounding the holy eucharist. 

His revulsion at even the hint of comfort or wealth could be extreme. As he lay dying and was offered a pillow to rest on, he slept through the night only to wake the next day in a rage, hitting the monk who had given him the pillow and recoiling in disgust at his own weakness in accepting its balm. One of his few commands was that his brothers never ride a horse; they had to walk or ride a donkey. What inspired his fellow Christians to rebuild and reform the church in his day was simply his own example of humility, service, and sanctity. 

A modern person would see such a man as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too. He sang sermons in the streets, sometimes just miming them. He suffered intense bouts of doubt, self-loathing, and depression. He had visions. You could have diagnosed his postwar conversion as an outgrowth of posttraumatic-stress disorder. Or you can simply observe what those around him testified to: something special, unique, mysterious, holy. To reduce one’s life to essentials, to ask merely for daily bread, forgiveness of others, and denial of self is, in many ways, a form of madness. It is also a form of liberation. It lets go of complexity and focuses on simplicity. Francis did not found an order designed to think or control. He insisted on the simplicity of manual labor, prayer, and the sacraments. That was enough for him. 

Learning How to Live 

It wouldn’t be enough for most of us. And yet, there can be wisdom in the acceptance of mystery. I’ve pondered the Incarnation my whole life. I’ve read theology and history. I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human—but I don’t think my understanding is any richer than my Irish grandmother’s. Barely literate, she would lose herself in the rosary at mass. In her simplicity, beneath her veil in front of a cascade of flickering candles, she seemed to know God more deeply than I, with all my education and privilege, ever will.

This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ to whom Jefferson, Francis, my grandmother, and countless generations of believers have selflessly devoted themselves. 

The saints, after all, became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles, or winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super PAC. They were saints purely and simply because of the way they lived. And this, of course, was Jefferson’s deeply American insight: “No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another. The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.” 

Jefferson feared that the alternative to a Christianity founded on “internal persuasion” was a revival of the brutal, bloody wars of religion that America was founded to escape. And what he grasped in his sacrilegious mutilation of a sacred text was the core simplicity of Jesus’ message of renunciation. He believed that stripped of the doctrines of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the various miracles, the message of Jesus was the deepest miracle. And that it was radically simple. It was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors—not theological doctrines of immense complexity. It was proven by his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution. The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God. Jesus, like Francis, was a homeless person, as were his closest followers. He possessed nothing—and thereby everything. 

Christianity Resurrected 

I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God. What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.


This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change. 

But the essence of this change has been with us, and defining our own civilization, for two millennia. And one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it will rise again. 




Universal Human Rights in Progressive Thought and Politics

Center for American Progress – Part Four of the Progressive Tradition Series  – By John Halpin, William F. Schulz, Sarah Dreier | October 8, 2010

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.  — Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

These two elegant sentences from the opening article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or UDHR, constitute a clear and compelling statement of progressive values and represent the culmination of centuries of philosophical thought about the rights and duties of humanity.

Although the primary ideas of freedom, equality, and solidarity expressed in this document arise from multiple sources and contexts, American progressives in the 20th century played a defining role in turning the concept of full and equal rights for all into a tangible expression of international opinion and concern. Leading progressives from Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt—who chaired the committee that drafted and passed the UDHR—built on the political thought of the nation’s founders and the activism of abolitionists, suffragists, and civil rights leaders throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. These activists led the charge to enshrine the core belief that all people, by virtue of their common humanity, are guaranteed certain rights, freedoms, and opportunities necessary to lead meaningful and secure lives.

The 30 articles of the UDHR, unanimously adopted by 48 countries in the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, spell out in concise detail the consensus foundations for all free and democratic nations. These principles— nonbinding goals rather than concrete laws—include explicit rights to life, liberty, and self-determination; fair and equal legal treatment under law; freedom of thought, expression, and movement; and a range of social and economic goods including employment, equal pay, food, housing, health care, and education.

The notion that all people enjoy inherent rights by virtue of being human beings may seem self-evident to most Americans today. But for the bulk of human history, and much of our own nation’s past, most people lacked guaranteed political, social, and economic rights. The great majority of human beings throughout time have been consigned to some form of slavery, serfdom, oppression or autocratic rule in practice, even with major religious and philosophical traditions defending the inherent dignity and worth of individuals. This remains true, unfortunately, for significant numbers of our fellow human beings living in authoritarian or unjust societies today.

Social movements across the world, including the progressive movement in the United States, rose up to help turn the ideals of human equality and guaranteed liberty into practice.

World opinion eventually shifted from a view that defended the priorities of the privileged above all others toward explicit guarantees of individual liberty under government with the rise of Enlightenment thinking about the rights and duties of man, and the revolutionary wars for independence successfully fought in America and France. Social movements across the world, including the progressive movement in the United States, rose up to help turn the ideals of human equality and guaranteed liberty into practice through efforts to eliminate slavery; to ensure civil rights for all regardless of gender, religion, or belief; to protect the vulnerable; and to establish the social and economic means for the least well off to fully enjoy these rights.

A new global consensus emerged after the world collapsed into chaos, aggression, and mass slaughter during World Wars I and II that lasting peace required the protection of individual rights and freedoms in all countries. The global community took strong steps to turn this consensus into institutional practice first by creating theLeague of Nations, which was mostly ineffective and eventually failed with the rise of German aggression and economic depression in the 1930s, and later the United Nations.

In the 50 years since its signing, the UDHR and subsequent treaties and covenants designed to implement its vision have been a guiding source for social and political movements seeking individual rights and emancipation from oppressive governments and mistreatment by other groups. One document obviously did not eliminate future crimes against humanity or eradicate political persecution, but it did set in motion a wave of political reforms that would ensure that such behavior would face the full collective scrutiny and combined action of free peoples across the globe.

The UDHR, effectively a list of enumerated rights and privileges accorded to all people equally as human beings, does not specify a set of concrete policy steps or political approaches to secure these ideals (see Appendix for all 30 articles in theUDHR). The preamble to the document, however, concludes by explicitly endorsing “progressive measures” and education to help secure these political, economic, and social rights:

Now therefore, the General Assembly, proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States and among the peoples of the territories under their jurisdiction.

Progressives have taken these challenges to heart in trying to design and implement a political order that meets the highest ideals ofAmericaand the global community. As Eleanor Roosevelt stated before the signing of the document, “This Universal Declaration of Human Rights may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere. … comparable to the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French people in 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the United States, and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries.” Although the work of securing true liberty and equality for all presents numerous diplomatic, humanitarian, and military difficulties, it remains the duty of progressives to defend these ideals and to help turn them into reality for people everywhere.

The rest of this paper will explore the origins of human rights principles in religious, philosophical, and political contexts; examine the ongoing challenges progressives face in turning this inspirational vision into reality; and finally, discuss some of the contemporary debates about human rights from a domestic and international perspective. Our goal is to provide a concise summary of the relationship between human rights and progressivism rather than a comprehensive explication or defense of a particular system of thought, as with other essays in the Progressive Tradition series. We have provided a list of key sources at the end of the paper for those interested in exploring these ideas in more detail.

Part one examines the philosophical and theoretical development of progressivism as a response to the rise of industrial capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Read part one »

Part two examines the politics of national progressivism from the agrarian populists to the Great Society. Read part two »

Part three examines the influence of social movements for equality and economic justice on the development of progressivism. Read part three »

Part four of the series examines the important role of human rights in the development of progressive thought and activism both domestically and globally. Read part four »

Part five examines the relationship between progressivism and America’s founding. Read part five »

Part six examines the religious roots of progressivism. Read part six »

Read the full report (pdf)



Dark Ages Redux: American Politics and the End of the Enlightenment  by John Atcheson. Com­mon Dreams, June 18, 2012

The Right’s Stupidity Spreads, Enabled by a Too-Polite Left by George Monbiot, The Guardian/UK, February 7, 2012 — …There are some very clever people in government, advising politicians, running think tanks and writing for newspapers, who have acquired power and influence by promoting rightwing ideologies…they now appeal to the basest, stupidest impulses…former Republican ideologues, David Frum warns that “conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics”. The result is a “shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology” which has “ominous real-world consequences for American society”… Confronted with mass discontent, the once-progressive major parties… triangulate and accommodate, hesitate and prevaricate… They fail to produce a coherent analysis of what has gone wrong and why, or to make an uncluttered case for social justice, redistribution and regulation. The conceptual stupidities of conservatism are matched by the strategic stupidities of liberalism. Yes, conservatism thrives on low intelligence and poor information. But the liberals in politics on both sides of the Atlantic continue to back off, yielding to the supremacy of the stupid…

The Will­ful Igno­rance That Has Dragged the US to the Brink by Sarah Church­well, The Independent/UK, August 2, 2011  - The Tea Party version of the American Revolution is not just fundamentalist. It is also Disneyfied, sentimentalized, and whitewashed..
In one sense, it is difficult to know what to say in response to the utter irrationality of the Tea Party’s self-destructive decision to sabotage the American political process – and thus its own country’s economy, and the global economy…
the Tea Party has never let facts get in the way of its belief system, and now that belief system is genuinely threatening the well-being of the nation they claim to love

In Ignorance We Trust


Why Our Elites Stink By David Brooks, New York Times, July 12, 2012

The Right’s Stu­pid­ity Spreads, Enabled by a Too-Polite Left by George Mon­biot, The Guardian/UK, Feb­ru­ary 7, 2012 Feb­ru­ary 7, 2012

Igno­rant Cer­tainty: On Apoc­a­lypse and Empire by Robert C. Koehler, May 26, 2011 by CommonDreams.org May 26, 2011

Why ‘Sci­en­tific Con­sen­sus’ Fails to Per­suade, The Jour­nal of Risk ResearchUS News.com, Sep­tem­ber 15, 2010

How Anti-Intellectualism Is Destroy­ing Amer­ica by Ter­rence McNally, Alter­Net,  August 15, 2008 August 15, 2008

Why do smart peo­ple do stu­pid things? Bran­don Keim, Wired.com, Sep­tem­ber 14, 2007

Cog­ni­tive illu­sions: Why smart peo­ple believe stu­pid things by Susan Perry, MinnPost.com, Decem­ber 7, 2010

When Facts Are Not Enough: Treat­ing Mass Psy­chosis by Ian I. Mitroff, Tikkun, March 2011  Tikkun



When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. We are heading for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.” Paul Gilding

For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves… The question is: What are people doing about it?It’s not because the population doesn’t want it…It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one…It’s not that there are no alternatives.  The alternatives just aren’t being taken. That’s dangerous.  So if you ask what the world is going to look like, it’s not a pretty picture.  Unless people do something about it.  We always can. Humanity Imperiled — The Path to Disaster by Noam Chomsky, Huffington Post, June 4, 2013

The World Grows More Complex

“The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other.”  Joanna Macy, Eco-philosopher

5 Crucial New Findings About Climate Change  

Deafness at Doomsday 

Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy  

Grand Old Planet 

Make climate change a priority  

How Climate Change Is an Historic Opportunity for Progressives

Climate and the Psychology of Loss

** A Turning-Point We Miss at Our Peril by Johann Hari, The Independent/UK, May 26, 2011 – …Sometimes, there are hinge-points in human history – moments when we have to choose between an exuberant descent into lunacy, and a still, sober voice offering us a sane way out. Usually, we can only see them when we look back from a distance.

** The Earth Is Full by Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, June 7, 2011 – You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century…and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?
“The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding… “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”
…we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future. Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths….That is what happens when one generation in one country lives at 150 percent of sustainable capacity….
…We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “…
“We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,” he says. “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”

** There’s Still Hope for the Planet By David Leonhardt, New York Times, July 21, 2012 

** Earth Facing Imminent Environmental ‘Tipping Point’ by Common Dreams staff, June 7, 2012

** A Warmer World and Weather Gone Wild: The Most Important Story of Our Lives by Bill McKibben, TomDispatch.com, May 3, 2012

** ‘Over-Consumption’ Threatening Earth by Common Dreams staff, May 15, 2012

** U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence By Clifford Kraus and Erick Lipton, New York Times, March 22, 2012

** ‘Perpetual Growth Myth’ Leading World to Meltdown by Common Dreams staff, Common Dreams, February 20, 2012

** The truth about global warming – editorial, Washington Post,  August 2, 2010

Healing or Stealing? Commencement Address by Paul Hawken

A Long Hot Summer by Bill McKibben, Common Dreams, July 19, 2012

The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic by Richard A. Muller

Crimes Against Nature by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

It’s Time to Fight the Status Quo by Bill McKibben, Solutions Time For Outrage On Behalf of the Planet, June 7, 2012

Human Nature

Us vs Them: A Simple Recipe to Prevent Strong Society from Forming By James Rohrer, AlterNet.org, July 27, 2012…We humans are by nature social creatures, even the most introverted of us, and we tend to trust and follow the thinking of the groups with which we identify…Our groups define “us” and exert powerful influence on how we think, even how we feel, and how we behave in society. By definition, of course, every group creates “Them”— they are all the ones who are not in our group…

The Social Animal by David Brooks, New York Times, September 12, 2008 [reference: “The Conscience of a Conservative” by Barry Goldwater] …Goldwater’s vision…celebrated a certain sort of person — the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. The problem is, this individualist description of human nature seems to be wrong. Over the past 30 years, there has been a tide of research in many fields, all underlining one old truth — that we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion…What emerges is not a picture of self-creating individuals gloriously free from one another, but of autonomous creatures deeply interconnected with one another…We’re living in an age of fast-changing economic, information and social networks, but Republicans are still impeded by Goldwater’s mental guard-rails.

The Moral Animal

Happiness Comes From Respect, Not Riches by Stacey Kennelly, August 5, 2012. Greater Good / YES! Magazine

How Humans Became Moral Beings By Megan Gambino, Smithsonian.com, May 04, 2012

The Fascinating Scientific Reason Why “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness” By David McRaney, Alternet.org, January 25, 2012

Who’s correct about human nature, the left or the right? by Ed Rooksby, Guardian UK, November 20, 2010

Five Lessons in Human Goodness From “The Hunger Games” By Jeremy Adam Smith   YES! Magazine, Posted on AlterNet.org, June 28, 2012

Evolution and Our Inner Conflict by Edward O. Wilson, New York Times, June 24, 2012

Global economic crisis also values crisis – Davos poll - by Tom Henegan, Religion Editor, New Frontiers  |  Davos – PARIS, Reuters, January 27, 2010