Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dancing on the Ceiling

Someone at North Station in Boston has a sense of humor. I took this photograph looking up at the ceiling.

Friday, April 04, 2008

I Will Turn This Train Around

The boy and I were riding Amtrak on the North East Corridor one day. As the train was pulling out of Boston's South Station at the beginning of the journey the conductor's voice came over the public address system making the usual announcements and finishing his comments by proclaiming the rules of the quiet car, saying, "the last car of the train is the quiet car. Talking is allowed in the quiet car only in hushed tones. Using cell phones is not allowed in the quiet car and is punishable by death."

Several people in the car we were riding in chuckled. Later that morning, the conductor announced "I have received reports of talking in the quiet car. Don't make me come back there! I will turn this train around!"

As if that wasn't funny enough, a short-time later, somewhere in Connecticut, the train stopped between stations and two members of the train crew ran by us toward the back of the train. Then the train started backing-up.

My first thought, of course, was that the conductor was following through on his earlier threat about talking in the quiet car. The train ran in reverse for what seemed like twenty minutes, and while it was doing so he announced that the train had missed a signal and would need to clear the track for a north bound train. After sitting for what seemed like another twenty minutes we got on our way southbound again.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Victory for Faith-Based Organizing

The Washington Post reported this morning, in an artilcle headlined "400 of 'Most Vulnerable' Homeless to Get Apartments," D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's ambitious plans to create supportive housing for the chronically homeless in the city. Not mentioned in the article is the effort on the part of the Washington Interfaith Network that went into prompting the Mayor to make these plans and the reason for the timing of the announcement: Mayor Fenty will at an accountability action organized by WIN on Monday evening.

WIN is an association of around 50 congregations and other organizations in Washington, D.C., and is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation. WIN uses IAF's method for organizing and successfully working with public officials to improve quality of life in the city. The recipe for success is very simple, but requires persistence. WIN leaders negotiate with public officials in private meetings over what portions of the WIN agenda the official will commit to. Then an event is organized where the official makes a public commitment, including the commitment to appear at another public event to report on progress.

The success of an accountability action relies on turning-out a large audience. WIN congregations are asked to make commitments to turn-out a certain number of people. Each event begins with each congregation reporting their goal and the number they actually brought. The WIN events I have been to have all created standing-room only audiences in a large D.C. church. All of these audiences have been turned-out through organizing and without advertising or handing out flyers or posting announcements in public places.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Religion in America

For several years now the public discourse on religious life in America has been framed as "the country is divided between evangelical Christians and secularists."

At an otherwise excellent recent Take Back America conference, I attended a panel of self-proclaimed progressive evangelicals who shed some light on the diversity of values amongst Evangelical Christians, but who, nonetheless spoke within the evangelical/secular split frame.

This new spin on religious life in America story that many evangelicals' values include progreessive concerns such as for the environment and the poor has been getting a lot of play lately. Jim Wallis, who's been pushing for years that progressive values are Christian values, seems to be popping up everywhere lately. The Washington Post recently ran an opinion piece by David Kuo, the former head of President Bush's Offiice of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the piece, Kuo criticized Bush for using the program and his talk of "compassionite conservatism" soley to turn-out evangelical voters, while never really addressing the needs of the poor or other social problems.

I welcome social and political activism for the environment and the poor from Evangelicals. This is a refreshing change from what appeared to be an exclusive focus on abortion and same-sex marriage while turning a blind eye to tax-cuts for the wealthy and the torturing of children of God that seemed to define the movement as recently as 2006. Unfortunately, this new story of progressive activism by Evangelicals is still set in the frame "the country is divided between evangelical Christians and secularists."

America is a diverse religious society. Evangelicals are not even the largest group of Christians. One of the panelists mentioned that there are 35 millioin evangelicals in America. I don't know where that number came from. I checked the website of the National Association of Evangelicals and don't find any claim as to the number of people in the evangelical movement. The National Council of Churches claims that the numbers of members of the churches in their association is 45 million. I have seen estimates for the number of Catholics in America at around 50 million members in the US. That makes fewer evangelicals than either mainline protestants or Catholics. Of course, America's religious landscape is even more diverse than that with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others.

I recently read Stephen Prothero's very good book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, which makes the point that even if you aren't religious you need to know some basic things about the diversity of religions in America and their beliefs and practices to understand American society politics.

The frame of our public discourse on religion in America is wrong and inadequate for understanding, even discussing religion in our society.