The Southern Baptist Convention held its annual confab last week. The big headline, deservedly, was the election of the SBC's first black president. Back in the weeds, however, was a statistical presentation that shows that the denomination is slowly shrinking.
I am hugely suspicious of most religion membership stats because there's so much incentive for puffery. But even the Southern Baptists are admitting that they are like every major religious group in America: membership is dropping -- while the number of people who say they are of no particular faith is growing.
It's not a uniquely Baptist or even Christian phenomenon. But it reminds me of a quote, apparently apocryphal, attributed to Gandhi: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
So much of the religious public discourse these days is a snarl, a rejection of the other. Is it any wonder that people shrug and leave? A pretty good example of anti-evangelism having nothing to do with Baptists popped up recently in an exchange between a rabbi and a lay Catholic leader. Both are in the business of advocating for their side. Often, as this case, they seem satisfied to play to the cheers of people already in their own bleachers.
Our combatants are Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a political and religious liberal, and Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and on the far other side of the religious and political spectrum.
The exchange started with an item written by the rabbi a couple of weeks ago titled "Bishops Attack Religious Freedom; Vatican Attacks Nuns." He starts by offering the liberal side of the health care debate: the federal mandate for insurance coverage of contraceptive services, exempting only exclusively religious institutions, is all about guaranteeing proper health care for all women.
Then he takes the whack at Catholic polity that the headline sets up. He attacks the bishops and the Vatican for criticizing American nuns who, as the Catholic hierarchy sees it, offered insufficient enthusiasm in their support for doctrinal matters about sexuality while they served other religiously recognized needs.
"For these men, 'religion' happens only in the genitals -- not in a hungry belly, an inquiring mind, a cancerous throat, a troubled soul," Waskow wrote.
"Who is 'The Church'? Is it male priests, ruled by male bishops, appointed and controlled by a male Pope?
"Or does The Church include the whole community of Catholics -- including nuns who serve the poor, women who use the Pill, men who use condoms, men who ache to celebrate their love for a man through marriage, couples who find divorce less painful than a disordered marriage, adults who were raped by priests as children?"
And this is a fit topic for a rabbi why?
"But the answer affects us all -- for all of us are affected by the political power now being brought to bear by that 1% who now claim to be 'The Church.'"
Ahem. And this is rhetoric that the rabbi figures will gain him new allies? Disrespectful at best. How would the rabbi like to get into a discussion in the same tone with the bishops about "Who constitutes the Jewish People?"
Next we turn to Donohue. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is, far as I can ever tell, mostly Donohue and his donors. He's an oft-quoted watchdog for anything in the media that is, by his lights, anti-Catholic. As one might imagine, he took umbrage with Waskow. He sent the rabbi an email (later leaked) that included these nuggets:
"The issue is not contraception -- it is the right of a religious institution not to be forced to pay for services it deems immoral."
Fair game, sez I. That's the mirror framing from the right of the health care mandate.
"Moreover, since when is it the business of any religious leader to condemn the strictures of another religion? You are not only clueless about the situation concerning nuns, you have stuck your nose in where you don't belong."
I agree with the question. Every sport's commissioner has the right to set the rules for that sport. Ditto for religious leaders and their doctrine. Whether or not Waskow is "clueless" about the nuns is a matter of opinion. But does Donohue end with an unfortunate turn of phrase? Waskow thought so and, as Chef Emeril might have said, kicked it up a notch in his reply.
"Would you also suggest I keep my long Jewish nose out of some Catholic priests' rape of Catholic children and some Catholic bishops' protection of those priests from the law, because I'm not a Catholic? Perhaps you would."
Wait? What? Where did the Catholic predatory priest scandal come from? What the devil does that have to do with either the health care mandate or the nuns?
Donohue's reply takes his own wild swings:
"Since you are interested in the subject of rape, I hope you are following the unbelievable explosion of child rape in the Orthodox Jewish community and the intimidation -- by family members -- of victims. The pressure put on the D.A. to deep six these rapes is sickening. You need to do something about this epidemic right now. Suggestion: follow the reforms of the Catholic Church and you won't have these problems.
"Ed Koch, my friend, once said that Jews had better not make enemies of their Catholic friends since they have so few of them. Think about that the next time you feel compelled to attack my religion."
A couple of things here: attacking the famously progressive Waskow for what goes on in the ultra-conservative Orthodox Jewish community is as off-target as jumping the Catholic bishops for contretemps among, say, Unitarian Universalists. Wrong pew by several dozen rows.
Not that it makes any more sense for Donohue to introduce the topic of Jewish abuse than it did for Waskow to use the Catholic abuse example. (And suggesting the Catholic Church has become a model for how other faiths should approach sexual abuse cases seems like, hm, an overreach. As a criminal court in Philadelphia demonstrated just last week.)
And finally, there's that suggestion that Jews need to worry about being deserted by their Catholic friends, how rare they are, because of Waskow's attack. Ahem. Donohue's one-of-his-best friends Koch rejected and rebuked Donohue's "quote." And to suggest that American Jews in this era of widespread Evangelical Judophilia need to depend on Catholics for friends of a differing faith ignores reality.
Is Donohue dog-whistling a muted anti-Semitism with his "nose" comment and his implied threat? It's not outside the realm of possibility. Back in 2004, he was on MSNBC's Scarborough and Company and dropped this:
"Who really cares what Hollywood thinks? All these hacks come out there. Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It‘s not a secret, OK?... Hollywood likes anal sex. They like to see the public square without nativity scenes."
But I'm willing to think this current example was more tone-deafness than anything. And maybe more about anger when confronted by Waskow's escalating offensiveness. (And I'm sure Donohue will be thrilled by my willingness.)
Whatever the motivations of the two men, however, I'm looking at the language. Surely anybody who doesn't already agree with them will read their words and say "Yes, that's just the kind of person I want to associate with! There's the religion for me!"