[Mb-civic] Bishop Spong: Understanding The Christian Roots of My Political Depression

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Wed Sep 15 10:08:29 PDT 2004

Understanding The Christian Roots of My Political Depression
By retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong

The Republican Convention in New York City forced me to face the fact that my 
feelings about the Bush Administration have reached a visceral negativity, 
the intensity of which surprises even me. So I decided to search introspectively 
to identify its source. Is it simply runaway partisanship? That is certainly 
how it sounds to many who make that charge publicly, but that has not been my 
history. I did not react this way to other Republican presidents like 
Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford or Reagan. My feelings are quite specifically Bush related.

I first became aware of them in 1988 when George H. W. Bush's campaign 
employed the Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis. This dirty trick was 
successful and the insinuation entered the body politic that to be the governor of a 
multi-racial state where all were treated fairly meant that you favored freeing 
black criminals to commit murder. Lee Atwater, mentor of Karl Rove, devised 
that campaign. The Willie Horton episode said to me that these people believed 
that no dishonest tactic was to be avoided if it helped your candidate to 

The next manifestation of this mentality came in the South Carolina primary 
in George W. Bush's campaign in 2000, when the patriotism of John McCain was 
viciously attacked. It appeared that five years as a prisoner of war in North 
Vietnam was not sufficient to prove one's loyalty to America. The third episode 
came when the operatives of this administration destroyed Georgia's Senator 
Max Cleland in 2002, by accusing him of being soft on national security, despite 
the fact that this veteran had lost three of his limbs in the service of his 
country. Each of these attacks brought defeat to its victims but they also 
brought defeat to truth and integrity.

In 2004 we have seen the pattern repeated. John Kerry, a veteran who served 
with honor and distinction in Vietnam was told in countless surrogate ads that 
his service was not worthy and that his three purple hearts and his Silver 
Star for heroism were cheaply won. For a candidate who ducked military service by 
securing a preferential appointment to the Texas National Guard, part of 
which was served in Alabama, this takes gall indeed.

Then Senator Zell Miller, his face contorted with anger, recited a litany of 
weapons systems that he said Senator Kerry had opposed. What he failed to say 
was that most of these military cuts were recommended by a Secretary of 
Defense named Richard Cheney in the first Bush Administration! The last time I 
looked, the Ten Commandments still included an injunction against bearing false 

Yes, other campaigns bend the truth but these tactics go beyond just bending, 
they assassinate character and suggest traitorous behavior. When that is 
combined with the fact that this party does this while proclaiming itself the 
party of religion, cultural values and faith-based initiatives is the final straw 
for me. I experience the religious right as a deeply racist enterprise that 
seeks to hide its intolerance under the rhetoric of super patriotism and "family 
values." For those who think that this is too strong a charge or too out of 
bounds politically, I invite you to look at the record.

It was George H. W. Bush who gave us Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, 
calling him "the most qualified person in America." Thomas replaced Thurgood 
Marshall, who had been the legal hero to black Americans during the struggle over 
segregation. Clarence Thomas, the opponent of every governmental program that 
made his own life possible, is today an embarrassment to blacks in America. 
To appoint a black man to do the racist work against black people is demonic. 
Consistent with that pattern, this administration entered an amicus brief 
against the University of Michigan's Law School because in the quest for a 
representative student body that Law School used race as one factor in determining 
admissions. The strange 'Orwellian' rhetoric again was deceiving. "We want 
America to be a nation where race is not counted for anything and all are to be 
judged on merit alone." Those are fair sounding words until one factors in 
centuries of slavery and segregation, or the quality of public education in urban 
America which just happens to be predominantly black. Next one cannot help 
noticing the concerted Republican effort to limit black suffrage in many states like 
Florida where it has been most overt, and to deny the power of the ballot to 
all the citizens of Washington, D.C. Does anyone doubt that the people of 
Washington have no vote for any other reason than that they are overwhelmingly 

Only when I touched these wells of resentment, did I discover how deeply 
personal my feelings are about the Bushes. I grew up in the southern, religious 
world they seek to exploit. I went to a church that combined piety with 
segregation, quoted the Bible to keep women in secondary positions, and encouraged me 
to hate both my enemies and other religions, especially Jews. It taught me 
that homosexual people choose their lifestyle because they are either mentally 
sick or morally depraved. I hear these same definitions echoed in the pious 
phrases of those who want to "defend marriage against the gay onslaught." Are the 
leaders of this party the only educated people who seem not to know that their 
attitudes about homosexuality are uninformed? People no more choose their 
sexual orientation than they choose to be left-handed! To play on both ignorance 
and fear for political gain is a page lifted right out of the racial struggle 
that shaped my region. Racism simply hides today under new pseudonyms.

I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, before Jerry Falwell rose to national 
prominence. He was a race baiting segregationist to his core. Liberty Baptist College 
began as a segregation academy. Super patriot Falwell condemned Nelson 
Mandela as a 'communist' and praised the apartheid regime in South Africa as a 
'bulwark for Christian civilization.' I have heard Pat Robertson attack the 
movement to give equality to women by referring to feminists as Lesbians who want to 
destroy the family, while quoting the Bible to defeat the Equal Rights 
Amendment. The homophobic rhetoric that spews so frequently out of the mouths of 
these "Jesus preaching" right-wingers has been mentioned time and again as factors 
that encourage hate crimes.

I am aware that the former Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama, famous for his 
attempt to place a three-ton monument of the Ten Commandments in his 
Montgomery courthouse to the delight of southern preachers, is on record as saying 
that "homosexuality is inherently evil."

I lived through the brutality that greeted the civil rights movement in the 
South during its early days. Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta can tell you 
what it means to be beaten into unconsciousness on a "freedom ride." I remember 
the names of Southerners who covered their hate-filled racism with the blanket 
of religion to enable them to win the governors' mansions in the deep South: 
John Patterson and George Wallace in Alabama, Ross Barnett in Mississippi, 
Orville Faubus in Arkansas, Mills Godwin in Virginia and Strom Thurmond in South 
Carolina. I know the religious dimensions of North Carolina that kept Jesse 
Helms in the Senate for five terms. Now we have learned that Strom Thurmond, who 
protected segregation in the Senate when he could not impose it by winning the 
presidency in 1948, also fathered a daughter by an underage black girl. I 
know that Congressman Robert Barr of Georgia, who introduced the Defense of 
Marriage Act in 1988, has been married three times. I know that Pat Robertson's 
Congressman in Norfolk, Ed Schrock, courted religious votes while condemning 
homosexual people until he was outed as a gay man and was forced to resign his 

I know that the bulk of the voters from the Religious Right today are the 
George Wallace voters of yesterday, who simply transformed their racial 
prejudices and called them "family values." That mentality is now present in this 
administration. It starts with the President, embraces the Attorney General John 
Ashcroft and spreads out in every direction.

I have known Southern mobs that have acted in violence against black people 
while couching that violence in the sweetness of Evangelical Christianity. I 
abhor that kind of religion. I resent more than I can express the fact that my 
Christ has been employed in the service of this mentality. My Christ, who 
refused to condemn the woman taken in the act of adultery; my Christ who embraced 
the lepers, the most feared social outcasts of his day; my Christ who implored 
us to see the face of God in the faces of "the least of these our brothers and 
sisters;" my Christ who opposed the prejudice being expressed against the 
racially impure Samaritans, is today being used politically to dehumanize others 
by those who play on base instincts. 

David Halberstam, in his book on the Civil Rights movement entitled The 
Children, quotes Lyndon Johnson talking with Bill Moyers right after the Voting 
Rights Act of 1965 had passed by large margins in the Congress of the United 
States. This positive vote followed the arousing of the public's consciousness by 
the Abu Ghraib-like use of dogs and fire hoses on black citizens in Alabama. 
Klan groups, under the direct protection of Southern State Troopers and local 
police, had also attacked blacks with baseball bats and lead pipes in public 
places, which had been seen on national television. Moyers expected to find 
President Johnson jubilant over this legislative victory. Instead he found the 
President strangely silent. When Moyers enquired as to the reason, Johnson said 
rather prophetically, "Bill, I've just handed the South to the Republicans for 
fifty years, certainly for the rest of our life times."

That is surely correct. Bush's polls popped after his convention. It is now 
his election to lose. The combination of super patriotism with piety, used in 
the service of fear to elicit votes while suppressing equality works, but it is 
lethal for America and lethal for Christianity. It may be a winning formula 
but it has no integrity and it feels dreadful to this particular Christian.

-- John Shelby Spong
September 8, 2004
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