When the United Methodist Church held its national convention here a few weeks ago, church elders wrestled with the plight of a long-suffering minority. Their faith demanded they take a stand on the fate of society's outcasts, unfortunates who have suffered endless persecution, their existence an open secret many of us can barely acknowledge.
And no, they weren't gays or lesbians.
That debate -- in which the church reaffirmed its ban on homosexual marriages and clergy -- consumed most of the media attention. But in all the uproar, few people noticed that the Methodists spoke in favor of another persecuted group, by endorsing a church-wide boycott against Taco Bell.
The fast-food chain allegedly purchases tomatoes from Florida suppliers notorious for mistreating their workers. Conditions for fruit pickers are so bad that a half-dozen growers have been prosecuted for slavery -- slavery! -- in recent years. The workers, often illegal immigrants with no legal protection, are subjected to bad wages as well as horrible working and living conditions. Those who complain report being threatened with deportation, beatings, and even death.
Unless you saw a lone Post-Gazette story about the issue, you probably didn't know about the boycott. You probably also didn't hear that Methodists called for an end to the U.S.'s long-standing economic sanctions against Cuba. Or that church leaders held a May 4 press conference at which Bishop McKinley Young wryly noted that President Bush is "not the only one who hears from God." While Bush has said he consulted a "higher Father" in deciding to go to war in Iraq, Young countered, "We did not elect him as the priest of the nation. We elected him as president."
Though Methodists have been critical of the war in Iraq, Young's remarks drew little attention locally or nationally. Which is odd, given that President Bush is a Methodist himself. How scary is it that his own church wants him to remember the separation of church and state?
Compare the flurry of media attention that Bush rival John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, received when a Catholic archbishop proclaimed that communion should be denied to politicians who support abortion rights. Journalists used the communion flap to investigate Kerry's religious credentials, a critique the President himself has been spared.
One reason issues like homosexuality and abortion get so much attention, of course, is because they are so controversial. But another reason is because liberals and conservatives are oddly in agreement: Both act as if our sexual and reproductive freedoms are the only public-policy issues that religion should speak to.
Almost every time the issue of homosexuality arises, for example, you can count on Christians citing a handful of Bible verses that decry homosexuality as an "abomination." Yet you rarely hear a fundamentalist Christian object to Bush's trickle-down economics by citing, say, Chapter 5 of the epistle of James:
"Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall be a witness against you....Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud â€¦; and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord."
Such citations are no longer in fashion, thanks to the rise of the Moral Majority and fundamentalist Christianity. That movement has been the fastest-growing wing of the Christian church, and as is often the case with fundamentalists, it emphasizes sex above all else: A 1991 study of religion's role in politics by James Guth and John Green, The Bible and the Ballot Box, found that the top three issues of moral concern for fundamentalist preachers were abortion, pornography and gay rights. (Presbyterian clergy, meanwhile, regarded poverty, civil rights and the plight of the environment as the most pressing crises.)
Despite the Bible's wariness about wealth, it isn't surprising that Republicans have embraced fundamentalist dogma: If you're a moneychanger (or a modern equivalent like a banker) you're always in danger of being tossed out of the temple. You find someone else to toss out instead, and gay couples will do nicely.
What is surprising, though, is that so many of the rest of us let them get away with it. When conservative Christians do things like pressure the Food and Drug Administration to ban the "morning after" contraceptive pill, their opponents often fall back on the First Amendment, or -- in especially bitter cases, Marx's old saw that religion is the opiate of the masses.
Given the current political landscape, though, maybe it's time to start fighting hellfire with hellfire. Instead of griping about the nefarious political influence of fundamentalists, maybe we ought to challenge them on which parts of the Bible they regard as fundamental.
Jesus instructed us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; why aren't fundamentalists demanding the government outlaw offshore tax shelters for the wealthy? Jesus taught that the worker is worthy of his hire; why aren't fundamentalists pushing for a Constitutional amendment requiring a living wage? If they revere the Bible as the literal word of God, why do they seem to read it so selectively?
The Bible is the most influential book in western history, far too important to let the conservatives have it for themselves. And Pittsburgh offers considerable proof that we haven't always done so. The Homestead strikers of 1892 met in Father Adelbert Kazinscy's Braddock church; more recently labor activists have found allies in Father Charles Owen Rice and the Protestant members of the Denominational Ministry Strategy, which fought a quixotic battle to keep the Mon Valley's steel mills running in the 1980s. Similarly in 1917 the Pittsburgh Council of Churches of Christ (an umbrella group representing Methodists, Presbyterians and other mainline faiths) published a book titled The Challenge of Pittsburgh: In addition to railing at such dens of iniquity as dance halls and theaters, the book demanded "[a] living wage as a minimum in every industry." Unlike many conservatives today, the Christians of yesteryear didn't only insist that the poor had to reform; they demanded more of their employers, too.
Some are keeping the faith. In 2001, Pittsburgh-area churches campaigned for a county-wide living-wage bill, legislation that would require county contractors and those receiving tax subsidies to pay their workers more than $9 an hour. (Then again, when the measure came before county council, the decisive vote to kill it was cast by a Baptist minister, James Simms.)
Conservatives would just as soon we forget that legacy; they'd prefer we keep squabbling over a handful of Bible verses, rather than celebrate triumphs like the Methodist boycott. But if we do, when the promised New Jerusalem finally arrives, we may find it's a gated community.