Guest Column: View from the co-opted center

I was raised and baptized in a Christian church. Everything about my formative years was positive, from Sunday school to church camp, from singing in the choir to playing on our basketball team, from Sunday morning services to Friday night potluck dinners. I even enjoyed cleaning the church each Saturday, washing the stairs that led up from the vestibule to the sanctuary, dusting pews and hymnals, scrubbing and waxing floors, and polishing the candelabra.

My participation in the teen youth group during my most impressionable years probably steered me away from unsavory influences on Chicago’s South Side. The group’s leader made a purposeful effort to give us an opportunity to experience other denominations and faiths through coordinated field trips in and out of our neighborhood, including Catholic parishes and Jewish synagogues.

Little did I know at the time that these explorations would influence me for a lifetime. Chances are my midlife interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Shinto religions was stimulated in some way by my early exposure to other faiths. All of this made it natural for me to take an interest in the activities of Rockford’s Interfaith Council.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I attended two of their leadership meetings. I thought I might join if I could contribute in some positive way. As strange as it seems, it took these gatherings for me to grasp the functional distinction between interfaith and interdenominational efforts. It’s not that I didn’t know the definitional difference. I just had not considered the practical difference until those meetings.

Now, as much as I still identify with the Council’s efforts, I am convinced the need in Rockford (and America) goes far beyond fostering interfaith understanding. The bigger problem in this country so far—knock on wood we don’t replicate Europe’s experience—is not the lack of dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims. The cancer that is devouring America’s vital organs is the near-total absence of open conversation and mutual respect among Christians, Christians and Christians… of the left, center and right variety.

We have journalists like Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post trying to outdo Ann Coulter in their ridicule of all ideas not in sync with Bush’s world vision. Coulter is author of such extreme right-wing diatribes as Slander and Treason, in which she fumes over “liberal lies and treachery.” No doubt, Coulter found motivation in her mirror image polemicist on the extreme left, Michael Moore and his attack book, Stupid White Men. Honest and moderate concerns about Bush’s view of Christianity, and the role he believes America should be playing in bringing “freedom and democracy” to all people—whether they accept his vision or not—tend to be drowned out by extreme invectives.

Consequently, we have well-meaning people like Michael Lerner feeling compelled to write a book titled The Left Hand of God, in “compassionate and hope-oriented” response to what he thinks is the “domination-oriented, Right-Hand-of-God tradition.” Thus, even soft-spoken attempts to bridge some sort of perceived gap start out by staking “us versus them” positions. True to my Comic-Tragic outlook these days, I’m writing a sorely-needed book titled Both Hands of God.

My thesis is that God loves all people who try to do what is right, and that a healthy society depends on the dynamic balance between conservatives’ desire for maximizing freedom, and liberals’ quest for maximizing equality. I remind the reader that our beloved Pledge of Allegiance concludes with the words, “…with freedom and justice for all.” Surely, however, God must weep over extremism and fanaticism in His name—be it Christian, Jewish or Muslim in origin. Surely, however, God must weep over extremism and fanaticism in His name—be it Christian, Jewish or Muslim in origin.

Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic, The True Believer, should be required reading for anyone trying to decipher today’s events. Until we find the will and a way to stop interdenominational Christian name-calling, how in God’s name can we hope to lead the world to anything but more disaster?

W. Harrison Goodenow, a long-time Rockford resident, is a retired quality engineer and educator.

From the Aug. 23-29, 2006, issue

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