The Reverend James Forbes has chosen a different path from the one the Christian Coalition walks.
The Reverend James Forbes has chosen a different path from the one the Christian Coalition walks.
Courtesy of Riverside Church

Basic Truths

He took command, grabbing the pulpit, spinning away from it, making and remaking his points in the beautiful rolling tones that spoke to his fundamentalist heritage. His arms held high in exhortation, he twirled and whirled and then stopped to reflect and ponder. At times it seemed the voice of God filled the room.

On August 19, the Reverend James Forbes, senior minister of the 2,400-member Riverside Church of New York City, spoke at South Main Baptist Church in Houston. It was a tent revival without the tent. Air conditioning instead of smothering heat. Acknowledged as one of the most eloquent speakers alive, Forbes told of a better future, the Savior's love, the strength of faith. But the path he has drawn wouldn't be found on any road map owned by televangelist Pat Robertson.

"God is gathering an interfaith company of believers to proclaim a theology of divine righteousness which demands justice, respect, tolerance, compassion, inclusiveness and trust in the ultimate efficacy of divine zeal and the rigorous pursuit of peace although we live in the midst of competing interests and faith claims," Forbes intoned.

It was clear that whatever instructions Dr. Forbes had grown up with, they had been replaced by a new guidance system.

A call to action that recognizes that faith doesn't have to translate to anti-intellectualism, that devotion is not synonymous with dogma and that protection of personal beliefs doesn't have to result in mean-spiritedness and intolerance.

It was a time to consider September 11 in a different way -- to somehow unwrap the layers that got religion entangled in the American flag and patriotism and only one right way of bellicose thinking. All played to some country music tune that soared on the charts.

Titled "Fundamentalism's Threat to Democracy: Christians, Jews and Muslims Respond," and sponsored by the Texas Faith Network, the day featured speakers from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths who warned against religious fundamentalism of any kind. To make sure, Forbes said, that our antiterrorism efforts don't erode our rights.

Or as the reverend put it: "We need to make sure that our zeal doesn't get in the way of the zeal of the Lord."

Sometimes it seems the fundamentalist or very conservative side of Christianity is the only way to be a true Christian, sort of like believing that Orthodox Jews are the only real Jews and members of the Conservative and Reform branches are just going through the motions. Or that a Muslim woman not shrouded in black head to toe is not a real follower of Islam.

The Texas Faith Network is a group of ministers and laity from the liberal side of the church aisle, who formed to respond to the policies and influence of the Christian Coalition. While they say they're not here to fight, that's not exactly true. They differ with the Christian Coalition on about every article of faith, once past the basic shared premise that Christians should get involved in the political process.

Member Tarciscio Beal, a Ph.D. and professor of history, religious studies and languages at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, wrote in the San Antonio Express-News that the religious right "propagates a black-white world view that is exclusivist, self-righteous and contentious."

The worst of the religious right, he said, is Robertson's Christian Coalition, which "is loaded with single-issue groups (anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-liberal, anti-government, pro-school prayer, etc.) that see the trees but cannot see the forest of a pluralist society; that prize uniformity and loathe diversity."

The Texas Faith Network celebrates that diversity, not finding itself threatened by different approaches to the end time, but setting aside space for them all. What its members are calling for is recognition that a person can be devoutly religious and yet not feel the urge to compel everyone else to move in lockstep. A person can believe in the power of prayer and at the same time argue against forced public prayer in schools. A person can be a devout Christian and not be a member of the Republican Party.

The Reverend Mel White of Soulforce, who leads a most ironical life -- the gay activist used to write speeches for the Reverend Jerry Falwell -- was one of the leadoff speakers. Falwell, of course, rather famously apologized to the nation after saying gays and lesbians were partially responsible for the September 11 attacks because of their immorality.

Speaking alongside White were Warren Bass, a Jew who's a policy wonk on the Council on Foreign Relations, and Qamar-ul Huda, a Muslim who's an assistant professor of Islamic studies and comparative theology at Boston College. Bass and Huda spoke of the fundamentalists in their faiths -- those Jews inspired by the Six Day War in 1967 to settle on the West Bank and the Muslims' Wahhabism and its by-product the Taliban.

White said he is not nearly as afraid of fundamentalists as he is of liberals who refuse to take a stand, who don't risk anything to make sure that justice is done.

Forbes said that following 9/11 he experienced a spiritual crisis. "Some of the things I was seeing were not Christian."

Since 9/11, a lot of people have equated being a good American with being a good soldier, someone who doesn't question anything the government or its officials say or do. Removing the words "under God" in our pledge to the flag would bring down our country. If a few Muslim-American rights get trampled on, well, that's a small price for freedom. Eternal vigilance translates to unending distrust and suspicion.

We don't need militaristic Christian soldiers marching against the infidel. We don't need religious leaders on the Internet reaching out with their special breed of church-blessed hatred tearing apart the Koran and Muslims.

We do not need to listen to them. But more than that, we need to object to what they are saying. We need to say that the best of America is better than all of that. Or the terrorists will have won.

In their speeches, both White and Forbes spoke of Cyrus, written about in the Bible as the nonbeliever used as an instrument of God. Be careful who you're ready to exterminate; you could be knocking out one of God's messengers.

"God asks us to love his children," Forbes said. "You can't love them and dehumanize them.

"We are more alike, my friends, than we are not alike."


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