Like Ron McRae, Lou Kavar is from Somerset, Pennsylvania. Like Ron McRae, Lou Kavar is a man of God, one who'd like to see government policy reflect Judeo-Christian values.
But unlike McRae, who is charitably referred to as a "street evangelist," Kavar has an actual congregation. (True, the Allegheny Open Arms United Church of Christ currently meets in a North Side funeral home -- but still, parishioners do have a roof over their heads.) And unlike McRae, Lou Kavar isn't given to bashing gays: He is, in fact, "To my knowledge, the only openly gay pastor of a mainline faith in Pittsburgh." Kavar also isn't given to bizarre public pronouncements...like McRae's widely publicized assertion that the 9/11 memorial planned for Somerset County's Flight 93 crash site somehow glorifies terrorism.
So which of these two men do you think gets the most headlines?
It's no surprise that McRae's ramblings command our attention. One of the most worrisome trends in America today is the rise of allegedly "Christian" intolerance -- of gays, of science, of secular freedom. But equally troubling is the way in which religious leaders who are tolerant often get ignored. In too many political discussions today, leftists of faith are being, well, left behind.
As Jim Wallis, a politically progressive minister and author of God's Politics, puts it in his book, "The religious and political Right gets the public meaning of religion mostly wrong -- preferring to focus only on sexual and cultural issues while ignoring the weightier matters of justice." The Left, meanwhile, simply "doesn't get the meaning and promise of faith for politics" at all.
It wasn't always this way, especially not in Pittsburgh. As Kavar says, "When I left Pittsburgh about 15 years ago, things were much more progressive here. When the mills were closing, there were lots of religious demonstrations, and within the Roman Catholic church, there was a lot sparking in terms of social justice."
Kavar returned to the region a few months ago from stints preaching in Arizona and Florida, and he hopes to restore that local tradition. One of his first efforts is a Tuesday night reading group that will discuss Wallis' book, and try to challenge Christian conservatives on their own ground. Why are fundamentalists so intent on the anti-gay passages in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, Kavar asks, but ignore its prohibitions against wearing clothes of blended fabrics? Why are they so unconcerned with the anti-poverty scriptures of Old Testament prophets like Amos?
Indeed, what's most troubling about modern Christian fundamentalists may be the fundamentals they're willing to ignore -- how fundamentally uninterested they seem in all but a few pages of the Bible. The problem is that the Christians who raise these questions, who demand a broader interpretation of the faith, are frequently ignored as well.
For the next several weeks, for example, Pennsylvania will be the focus of international media scrutiny as lawyers argue in a state court about the teaching of "intelligent design" in York County science classrooms. Once again, the debate will be an easily scripted bout between the secular Left and the Religious Right, for whom "intelligent design" is a way of undermining support for, and understanding of, the principles of Darwinian evolution.
By contrast, not a single reporter -- not even from local media outlets -- attended a Sept. 16 gathering in Pittsburgh's City Council chambers to discuss the Judeo-Christian case for protecting Social Security from would-be Republican "reformers" like Santorum. Arguably, the stakes are not as high as what is shaping up to the York County proceeding, which could end up being a Scopes Monkey re-trial. Still, the Social Security event drew some notable attendees: representatives from the Steelworkers union, the AARP, Congressman Mike Doyle (D-Swissvale), the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and Wallis' own national organization, Sojourners. And despite setbacks for the Bush administration, Social Security is still relevant: Just two days after the forum, Santorum himself was quoted by local media outlets repeating his calls to alter the program.
In the face of such indifference, leftists have at least one thing going for them: These shepherds know their flock. Kavar's Wallis reading group, for example, is meeting every Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Lawrenceville's Church Brew Works brewpub. And as Kavar puts it, "There's a dollar off drafts" for participants.
Let the healing begin.