Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Connecting Communities for the Common Good

I was privileged yesterday to attend here in Dubuque, Iowa, at the Northeast Iowa Community College Town Clock Center "Connecting Communities for the Common Good" with representatives from President Obama's Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office. This was held in conjunction with Obama's Rural Economic Forum at NICC's Peosta campus just outside of Dubuque earlier in the day. What a privilege to be with these nine fine people in panel presentations and later for informal conversation at a reception at Loras College.

And what a change from the "Faith Based Initiatives" emphases of the Bush administration. J. David Kuo in the book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," some years ago went to Washington wanting to use his Christian faith to end abortion, strengthen marriage and help the poor. Kuo said he reached the heights of political power. But after three years of being second in command in the President’s Office of Faith Based And Community Initiatives he found himself helping to manipulate religious faith for political gain. (J. David Kuo, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, New York: Simon and Shuster, 2006.)

Yesterday was entirely different. In this administration we have an invitation to real partnerships in a religiously plural nation. Perhaps 150 to 200 people representing many faith communities and non-profit organizations were present. Dallas Tonsager, Under Secretary, USDA's Office of Rural Development said, "Thank you for your expressions of your faith." The mayor of Dubuque, Roy Buol and the interim president of NICC, Dr. Liang Wee, told of how the city and the college have grown to be places where diversity and collaboration for the common good are welcomed and appreciated.

Alexia Kelley, Deputy Director, and John Kelly, Senior Policy Advisor, for the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships set the tone. I added my voice and was thanked by many in saying that there are millions of Christians that do not have the cross and the flag all tangled up. We need to work together to create a trustworthy place for us to be different together.

So, why is it that the narrative that receives all the press is the one where presidential candidates blatantly profess this is and should be a "Christian" nation where capitalism rules and the poor are left behind? Ray Suarez in his book "The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America" makes clear that Christianity is not an American religion and that the American state is not necessarily Christian. The appropriation of American symbols by the conservative Christian right is a dangerous trend internally and certainly externally. When people in the Middle East hear this kind of talk it's no wonder they assume democratization means Christianization(Ray Suarez, The Holy Vote:The Politics of Faith in America. New York: Harper, 2007)

At the reception we talked about the need for a new narrative. Due to its beginnings under the Bush administration, "Faith-Based" to many means efforts of convert to Christianity under the auspices of the government. Lutherans and many Christian denominations have a much more healthy view of the relationship of church and state. In a pluralistic society we need to have institutional separation and functional interaction. See John R. Stumme and Robert W. Tuttle, Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003. It’s religious pluralism that makes us strong.

So, how do we do that? How do we connect people in our communities for conversation and work together for the common good? I strongly encourage leaders of faith communities to explore the website or phone 202-456-3394. There they will find connections to 13 centers. Faith-Based and Neighborhood representatives of some of these centers were with us yesterday: Max Finberg, Director, US Department of Agriculture Center; Mara Vanderslice Kelly, Acting Director, Department of Health and Human Services Center; Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Director, Department of Education Center; Jerry Flavin, Director, Small Business Administration Center, Terry Monrad, Executive Office, Department of Homeland Security Center. Also prsent were Doug O'Brien, Deputy UnderSecretary, USDA's Office of Rural Development, and Terry Sullivan, Small Business Development Center for Dubuque.

How do we make sure children in our communities are well nourished? How can churches and the government work together so that when school is out in the summer children do not go hungry? How can churches and the Small Business Administration work together in a small town to help people without jobs start a new business? How can leaders of faith communities, government and non-profits coordinate efforts in times of natural disaster? All of these partnerships are welcome and needed. As people of many faiths we can and need to work together. And we need to tell these stories. We need a new public narrative of what people of faiths (plural!) in America are doing together. Who will tell this story?