Corrie ten Boom, Desmond Tutu, Diana Butler Bass, Dorothy Day, Florence Nightingale, John Newman, Scott Walker, William Wilberforce
When it comes to religion, some of us want to have it both ways: when deeply religious people do bad things, we are quick to say that their religious beliefs are to blame, but when deeply religious people do good things, we take little to no interest in their religious beliefs, as if those beliefs were irrelevant.
Example? The recent belief.net blog-post, “God in Wisconsin: Scott Walker’s Obedience” authored by the scholar of religion, Diana Butler Bass.
In her post, the politically-progressive Bass slams Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s brand of evangelical religion. For her, the most disturbing part of his conservative Christianity is his no-wiggle-room obedience to God’s commands. Bass points out that, for evangelicals like Walker, “Once you know God’s direction, no change is allowed. Doubt opens the door to failure. Obeying Christ’s plan is the only option. In this theological universe, hard-headedness is a virtue, compromise is the work of the Devil, and anything that works to accomplish God’s plan is considered ethically justifiable.”
This, she notes, is the same sort of evangelical religion that shaped George W. Bush–and led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is of the opinion that President Bush’s obedience to God’s commands was the cause of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In spite of the ugh-producing situation of turning to someone like Walker or Bush to shed light on our own thinking, progressives, please take a deep breath (you may even need to swallow hard) and then ask yourselves this question: is obedience really the problem here, or is the real problem the commands Walker or Bush claims to obey? Because if Walker were obeying a different set of commands—say, God’s command that Wisconsin increase its minimum wage, would Bass (or you) object? Or if Walker claimed to be obeying God’s command to work tirelessly on behalf of legislation to decrease the inequity between the richest and the poorest, would Bass (or you) object?
Most of us can name good people who have done good (defined here as progressive) things. Yet, tsk tsk tsk, we rarely acknowledge their religious motives for doing that good. Do we imagine that they were simply good people who would have done good things regardless of their religious beliefs? Or is it simply that, because they did good things, their religious beliefs raise no red flags and so warrant no scrutiny?
But by overlooking the religious beliefs that motivate our heroes, are we ignoring some fundamental part of who they are?
Corrie ten Boom, raised in the Dutch Reform tradition, once said, “Don’t bother to give God instructions; just report for duty.” For her, reporting for duty meant starting girls and boys’ clubs in her native Holland and eventually risking her life to hide Jewish refugees during WW II. The risks were real; she was arrested but managed to survive Ravensbruck concentration camp.
And did you know that Florence Nightingale was a Christian universalist who believed that God wanted her to be a nurse? In her journal, she wrote: “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation.”
Other religious do-gooders include Dorothy Day, John Newman, William Wilberforce, and Desmond Tutu.
Surely these report-to-God-for-duty folks would be troubled to learn that their religious commitment to serving others is being downplayed or ignored. Surely they would be dismayed to discover that the force of their relationship with God is being excised from their biographies.
Though we may see ourselves as too autonomous or too agnostic to follow commands from God, we can learn something from the doggedness and zeal of those who report to God for duty. Imagine for a moment that you believed, with as much conviction as a Scott Walker or a George W. Bush or a Corrie ten Boom or a Florence Nightingale that God commanded you to dedicate yourself to raising the average standard of living in the United States. What if you could proclaim: “Once I know God’s direction, no change is allowed. Doubt opens the door to failure. Obeying God’s plan is the only option.”
With a no-doubt, no-compromise, no-holds-barred, God-on-your-side-for-sure attitude, who knows what you might accomplish! Would any effort seem too big, any policy-change impossible?
Maybe. Maybe not. Still, the point remains that disapprovers of the Walker and Bush brand of conservative religion can’t have it both ways when it comes to linking religious belief with good or bad actions. Either religious conviction matters or it doesn’t.
If religion influences those with whom we disagree, then we have to allow that religion also influences those with whom we do agree. To which Corrie ten Boom, Florence Nightingale, Dorothy Day, John Newman, William Wilberforce, Desmond Tutu, and many others would say amen.