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Tuesday, Nov 13 2012 11:00 PM

TIM VIVIAN: Absolutism rears head in religion and inflexible 'patriotism'

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    Tim Vivian

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As a professor in the arts and humanities -- a pastor to the human spirit -- and an Episcopal priest -- a pastor to the soul taking flight -- I thought that at age 60-something, I was beyond being shocked. But in the waning weeks of the election campaign, I witnessed repeatedly what I at first believed was depraved indifference to both soul and spirit. Or it would have been had not these examples been calculated assaults and, therefore, efforts at first-degree murder.

Two weeks before the election, David L. Ricken, Roman Catholic bishop of Green Bay, listed five "non-negotiables" for his flock before they went to the polling booth: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and homosexual "marriage" (the quotation marks are the bishop's). These are, the bishop declares, "intrinsically evil"; furthermore, he categorically insists, they "cannot be supported by anyone who is a believer in God or the common good or the dignity of the human person."

I support marriage for LGBT people. Therefore, according to Ricken's logic, I (1) do not believe in God, (2) do not believe in the common good, and (3) do not believe in the dignity of the human person. What is most frightening here is the bishop's absolutism: anyone who disagrees with me, he declares, is an atheist, an anarchist and inhuman. What Ricken has done is try to turn me and thousands of others -- including the majority of Roman Catholic -- into "the other": a despoiler of the sanctuary, a barbarian at the gate.

Ricken's totalitarianism makes his episcopal letter a Christian fatwa. Fatwas are, at least in theory, formal legal opinions or religious decrees issued by Muslim scholars, but the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his novel "The Satanic Verses" and Osama bin Laden's fatwa against the West have debased the term into a violent attack, an instrument of murder, the unholy vehicle of "holy war." Bin Laden was neither a scholar nor, in his mangled interpretation of the Quran, a faithful Muslim. Similarly, nowhere in the teachings of Jesus can the bishop of Green Bay find warrant for ghettoizing and condemning those who disagree with him.

I was shocked by Ricken's declaration, just as I've been jolted by many other fatwas that were made during this past election season by American religious and political leaders -- not for academic reasons but because these assertions sucker-punched me both pastorally and personally.

My goddaughter and her (female) partner, who have been together longer than most heterosexual marriages last, have adopted three special-needs children. Yet my goddaughter's sacred union is, according to Ricken, intrinsically evil. This means -- again, according to the bishop's twisted logic -- that their children are being raised by Satanists, at least metaphorically.

Grace Episcopal Church, which I serve as vicar, is one of the very few churches in town that fully -- fully -- welcomes LGBT people. About 30 percent of our parish is LGBT folk. Most of my fellow parishioners are partnered, and most of these partners have children, many adopted. I baptize these children, bless them on their birthdays, and kneel down to give many of them Communion each Sunday.

But it is likely that Ricken would declare my ministry inherently evil. A Cal State Bakersfield student recently posted on Facebook that I "hate Catholics." No, I do not. I am strongly opposed to the Roman Catholic Church's use of natural law to declare both homosexuality and "artificial" birth control immoral and the specious biblicism it uses to deny ordained ministry to women. Apparently, more than 80 percent of Roman Catholics agree with me about birth control and more than 50 percent are in favor of same-sex marriage.

But dualists like Ricken and my Facebook absolutist see only in blacks and whites. When this student declared that I "hate Catholics," she shut down discussion, she obliterated all colors from the palette of public discourse. I stood, she thought, condemned: she had pigeon-holed -- or, more accurately, rat-holed -- me, and, to her way of thinking at least, sent me scurrying away into the outer darkness.

I wish Christian absolutism in this country were limited to one denomination but, sorrowfully, it isn't. Just before voting day, a robocall by Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, presidential candidate, and Southern Baptist minister, reminded Christians, correctly, that they "will have an opportunity to shape the future for our generation and generations to come." But, with the same language -- "non-negotiable" -- used by Ricken, the robocall quickly becomes a conservative Protestant fatwa against same-sex marriage: "Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined."

As if this weren't bad enough, though, the call then brings forth an inquisitor, burning instrument of torture in his hand: "Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity. Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?" In other words, vote the wrong way and you may be consigned to eternal hellfire. Huckabee surely knows that his evangelical Christian audience will get the point: those voting the wrong way (that is, for Democrats) are headed to "hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched" (Mark 9:48).

Too often during this past election, and too often all the time in America, religion and nationalism masked as patriotism work together as backstabbing allies. A robocall days before the election endorsed by Mitt Romney declared that "we can't underestimate the threat Barack Obama poses to our faith, our values, our freedom." Throughout this election many of Obama's foes have tried, like Romney, to turn the president into the "other," a threat to American faith, values, and freedom. Ricken and Huckabee do likewise against those who, they decree, oppose God's will.

Attacks like the ones I've detailed here grind bone on bone. But instead of causing bodily pain, they produce fear. Fear, especially fear of the other, all too often causes hatred. And hatred, fueled by ignorance, spawns assassinations, car bombs, wars on terror and pre-emptive war.

Ignited by fear and enflaming terror and hatred in others, absolutism, especially in the toxic brew of authoritarian religion and dictatorial patriotism, threatens, perhaps as never before, both our faiths and our nation.

Tim Vivian is professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield and vicar of Grace Episcopal Church.

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