|"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what
makes us important to the people around us."
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is
a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary
spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women,
a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East.
A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward),
a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of
Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary
spirituality in Erie.
|By Joan Chittister, OSB
Two issues consumed me this week: one an interview, the other a
conference. They are distinct events but, I am convinced, very deeply
connected, as well.
In the first event, an NPR interviewer out of Florida asked me a
question that began like this: We know that the last election was decided
on moral values ...
Correction, I interrupted her. The last election was
decided on some, on a few moral values. We ignored the rest of
The second event took place in Washington, D.C., May 17-20, the
Spiritual Activism Conference.
To be perfectly honest, I really didnt expect many people to come.
It opened with an early morning session. Whats more, it was a kind of
opening before the official opening of a three day event. At a jamboree like
that, nobody goes to every session, however committed they may be.
By the time I got there, 30 minutes before the session was to start, the
church was packed to the rafters; more than 1,100 people were registered and
walk-ins streamed in. It was a conference of Spiritual
Progressives, almost all of them officially representing an organization
rather than simply themselves.
If there is any single phenomenon going on in the world of politics
today, it is clearly the proliferation of small religiously inspired groups
intent on relating public issues to traditional moral principles.
The only difference between this situation and the national political
world of the 2004 election is that this time the groups have a leftist, a
liberal or a progressive bent -- depending on whatever euphemism appeals to
you. Once caught off-guard by the political sophistication of the religious
right -- the breadth and depth of its national organization and its
single-issue public agenda -- progressive groups this time are clearly intent
on providing another voice, a new accent to the language of religion on the
Many of the liberal groups are long-established supporters of a
traditional populist agenda: Tikkun, Sojourners, Pax Christi, the Fellowship of
Reconciliation. Many more are newcomers to the political scene, fresh and
intent but small and basically separate from one another in everything but
their common concerns about ecology, poverty, the social safety net, peace and
U.S. foreign policy.
The list of conference supporters itself was a clear reminder to those
who substitute demographic dominance for political philosophy that the United
States is not a Christian nation. It is a nation founded
under God which, for past historical reasons, is still a nation
whose religious majority is predominantly Christian, yes, but even those are
split into a myriad of creeds, liturgical rites and spiritual practices.
No surprise then that the list of conference sponsors and affiliates
included Buddhist groups, Humanists, the Progressive Muslim Union, the Shambala
Sun, Jewish organizations, New Dimensions, the Christian Alliance for Progress,
and Pace e Bene. Among a host of others.
Unlike the Rightists, these groups are largely independent of any single
or official church body. Translation: They are not being either spearheaded or
funded by any religious body.
Nor are they politically defined as either Republican or Democrat. Many,
in fact, have given up on both parties and are simply looking for candidates
who espouse a moral view of the world that is global in scope and universally
just in its intentions.
They are, therefore, largely lay organized but spiritually inspired. The
feeling seems to be that it was ministers, priests and bishops who got us the
present Administration. Now time has shown us that elections are too important
to be trusted to clerical groups. Anybodys clerical group.
This time, then, they are determined to bring lay theologians,
ethicists, activists and professionals to bear on the moral issues of the time
rather than trust the soul of the nation to any such single issue groups
The next election, the thinking is, has to be about all of the
commandments, not just one or two of them. Otherwise the globe, as well as the
country, may well be in very serious danger from the moral issues to which we
are now paying very little attention at all: peace, education, economic
devastation of the working class, the ecological destruction of the globe and
life issues of all ilk rather than simply a few.
But there is another strain to the thinking, as well. Republicans, the
argument contends, talked religion well during the last election. They
highlighted some very important issues -- family values and moral questions,
for instance -- which are a concern to everyone, left and right alike. But they
did not legislate for them. They legislated for the wealthy and the war
Democrats, on the other hand, the argument goes, have abandoned the
religious voice of the nation, simply do not speak the language at all, and so
religious people are abandoning them, as well.
But isnt there an underlying but unspoken question under such
concerns that is at least as important as the issues themselves?
From where I stand the question is: What is really the most religious
thing for a political party to do? In a nation that preserves the people from
an established religion in order to guarantee religious freedom for all the
people, is it really necessary, even acceptable, at all desirable, for a
political party to speak in any one religious voice? Or is its responsibility
to present the most universally ethical platform and ideals it can, in behalf
of a common, universal good, and let religion speak for itself?
Maybe, if we went back to doing that, we might all be able to judge
which religions are really most religious, most ethical of all, rather than
simply which religions, instead of which political party, won the election.
Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister,
c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.
To receive an e-mail alerting you to when Joan Chittister's latest column has been posted to NCRonline.org, visit
the following Web page and follow instructions: http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/fwis/signup.php
Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic
Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 1-816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280