The American Church That Might Have Been

January 28, 2013

COCUIt’s one thing to believe, as many people do, that the denominational system of church life in the United States no longer makes sense. When Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ churches are so much alike in what they believe and how they are positioned in the nation, why should they continue as competing religious organizations?

It is quite another thing, however, to figure out a constructive way to bring them together into a new American church that is based on classic theological principles and focused on how the Christian faith can be an effective participant in the ongoing struggles of the human community.

For near a century, the primary approach to fixing this increasingly dysfunctional system was to merge denominations. Several denominations today are the result of mergers that happened in the recent past.

The most comprehensive plan to restructure American Protestant denominations would have united nine denominations into one new church, which its uniting documents entitled “The Church of Christ Uniting.” It would have had approximately 25 million members and would have penetrated every nook and cranny of our far-flung nation.

This venture was called the Consultation on Church Union (COCU for short). It was initiated by a sermon delivered on December 4, 1960, by a nationally known Presbyterian clergyman in one of the nation’s most celebrated Episcopal churches before a congregation that included important leaders from most of America’s Protestant churches.

COCU closed its work in 2002, when it folded its life into a continuing enterprise, Churches Uniting in Christ, with a somewhat broader membership but a much more modest plan for the future.

During many of COCU’s active years, I was one of my church’s representatives. I understand the issues that were being debated and continue to believe that the goals were well stated and that the resulting new church would have represented significant progress for religion and life in our generation.

In recent years, I have devoted much of my working time to writing a history of the Consultation. I have completed most of my research and have written a first draft of a book. This manuscript would print out to a book of 200 pages or more, which is longer than I would like it to be.

I am ready to begin a serious revision, which is intended to bring out the narrative line more clearly, fill in some missing detail, and tighten the prose style. It’s also time to work on matters that could lead to publication. From time to time during the next few months I will post various research briefs and other matters that I have developed during this period of work.

The first of these postings is a detailed Table on Contents that is based on the first draft. I’m using it to shape the revision, with the full recognition that in the process of doing a new draft the outline of the book will change. In time a new and revised Table of Contents will develop. In the meantime, the provisional table of contents  and provide the foundation—and perhaps the stimulus—for discussion.

Comments, questions, and recommendations will be much appreciated.

Click here to read the Contents Detailed.


Endurance running, long-distance cycling, and a sustainable society

January 17, 2013

The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, by Ed Ayes (New York: The Experiment, 2012).

AyresLong distance cycling and ultramarathon running are body-intensive sports and therefore have much in common. Because of this basic similarity, cyclists will find much useful information and insight in The Longest Race, a book by Ed Ayres who has been running competitively for fifty-five years.

Although written a decade after the fact, this book recounts the 2001 running of the JFK Ultramarathon: Boonsboro, Maryland, portions of the Appalachian Trail and the C and O Canal Towpath, to Williamsport, Maryland.

Ayres had just turned 60, and he ran the course in 7:55, smashing the record for his age group.

He divides the book into fifteen chapters, each one keyed to a portion of the course. He describes the terrain from a runner’s perspective, paying special attention to how the course feels and how the body responds. More important to ultra athletes is the way that Ayres interprets the runners’ mind: what they think about during those long hours and how those thoughts affect bodily performance.

Along the way, Ayres provides a large body of informed opinion about the body’s use of oxygen, how to eat and drink in order to keep going hour after hour, and several other topics useful to ultra athletes, whether they be cyclists or runners.

A deeper plot runs through the book. Ayres believes that running is a key to understanding what makes human beings unique among the creatures of the world. Our bodies are made to run, not walk. In ancient times, all over the world, and in some places even yet, hominids like ourselves could outrun the animals and birds they used for food.

We can run because of distinctive features of the human body: bare skin, shoulders that can move independently from the head, the ability to keep the head steady while everything about the body is moving, and the size of the brain, to name some of them.

Ayres is persuaded by studies of ancient societies which indicate that in pre-agricultural times, people in hunter-gatherer societies lived  healthy lives and had significant portions of their time free for leisure activities. He deplores the way we live today in such pressured, hurried ways, separated from the source of our food.

It’s an easy step to a third plot that is interspersed throughout this book. Ayres is increasingly distressed over the way that our civilization is going: our pace is too fast, our use of resources profligate, our self-centered individualism a self-defeating way to live. The impact of his thirteen years as editorial director of the Worldwatch Institute shows through.

The JFK Ultramarathon was inspired by President Kennedy who feared that the nation’s armed services were losing their physical fitness. He called upon Marines to recover the ability to walk 50 miles in a day as they could do in Theodore Roosevelt’s time. The 50-mile run was one of the events that Kennedy’s challenge generated.

Ayres believes that it’s not just the armed services, but all of us who need to regain the secrets of fitness, balance, steady pace, and the modest use of resources that runners exemplify.

One of his lessons makes ever-greater sense as I find my physical capacities dwindling because of the natural effects of growing old. If you want to go as fast as you can, don’t rush. “It’s a genuine paradox,” he continues, “and on a basic, athletic level coaches explain it as pacing.”

Go too fast and you use up your body’s fuel supplies too quickly and metabolic wastes pile up in your tissues. Of course, you can go too slowly and finish with energy left over.

“Experienced athletes know not only to seek the physiological sweet spot but to seek the somewhat more elusive condition in which all systems are working in complete physical and emotional harmony—where everything feels right” (p. 82).

On my best long rides—half-centuries and longer—I sometimes slip into that zone. I want to learn how to do it more consistently. To do so, I need to learn more about how athletes breath, how their bodies use the energy sources their food provides, and most of all how to find the zone when everything works exactly right.

As this year moves from winter to spring, Ed Ayres will be my teacher.


Gun rights and gun laws: we can have them both!

January 14, 2013

Gun FightGun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, by Adam Winker (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

The first scene of Adam Winkler’s book Gun Fight begins on March 6, 2008, in front of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Two young men are preparing to camp from Sunday evening until Tuesday morning in order to be sure they would be admitted to hear arguments before the Court on a case entitled District of Columbia v. Heller.

The story ends 271 pages later, on June 26, 2008, the last day of the Court’s 2007-2008, session with the handing down of its decision concerning a law in the District of Columbia that since its passage in 1976 “banned handguns and required shotguns and rifles to be kept in an inoperable state, either disassembled or secured with a trigger lock” (p. 17).

What gave this case its national interest was a factor only incidentally related to the well-being of people in the nation’s capital. Rather, this case had become the vehicle by which the Court would be asked to “rule on a question that, incredibly, the Court had never before squarely addressed. Did the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantee individuals the right to own guns” (p. 4)?

Both the title Gun Fight and the way that the author plays out his story line give this historical account of “the battle over the right to bear arms in America” the feeling of a mystery novel. Even readers who already know what the Court decided are likely to find themselves drawn into the story, waiting in suspense for its denouement.

If there’s a hero, it’s Alan Gura, whom Winkler describes as “a Georgetown Law School graduate in his midthirties…He wasn’t a constitutional law expert…nor was he a partner at a big-name law firm” (p. 6). He practiced law “out of a small, one-person office…not far from his home.”

Organizations that favored freedom of gun ownership didn’t want the case to go to the Court and did everything they could to keep it from happening. When they saw that the case was going to go forward, they tried to put big-name, experienced lawyers in charge of the case, but Gura’s persistence and skill kept the case alive.

Organizations that favored control over the availability and use of guns brought their own resources, including highly competent legal counsel, in order to shape the arguments on which the justices would decide. All of this Winkler relates in dramatic fashion.

As this main story, District of Columbia v. Heller, unfolds, Winkler develops a series of subplots, each of which contributes to the meta-narrative, which is the history of the Second Amendment and its interpretation through the legislative and judicial processes of the federal government and the states. The chapter headings alert readers to these historical episodes.

Guns of Our Fathers: This chapter describes the process beginning in the 1960s to develop new understandings of the Second Amendment. Under the banner of “originalism,” conservative lawyers, including young University of Chicago law professor Antonin Scalia, urged that the courts should use the original intent of the framers of the Constitution to determine their decisions. The chapter then explores that intent.

Civil War: Winkler uses much of this chapter to flesh out his statement “that many of the most extreme gun control efforts in American history were intended to oppress blacks” (p. 131).

The Wild West: Winkler writes an important revisionist history of violence in the Old West.

Gangsters, Guns, and G-men: The title itself suggests the narrative

By Any Means Necessary: Here Winkler reports how guns entered into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, giving some of the leaders, especially Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the ability to transform the way that African Americans were treated. This black militancy led the State of California, under the leadership of Governor Ronald Reagan, to enact new laws to end the legality of openly carrying loaded weapons.

After reporting the Court’s decision, Winkler devotes approximately twenty pages to discussing the import of the decision. Despite the interpretation that the Second Amendment supported the use of guns for self defense, leading conservative leaders denounced the decision, for reasons that Winkler describes at some length.

Winkler writes that “paradoxically, by establishing a firmer foundation for gun rights, the Supreme Court could make it easier to identify and enact effective gun control laws…As the history of the right to bear arms and gun control shows, there is a middle ground in which gun rights and laws providing for public safety from gun violence can coexist…Americans don’t need to choose between two absolutes—between unfettered gun rights on the one hand and unfettered gun control on the other” (pp. 295, 296).

If there is one book on matters related to the Second Amendment that we all should read, that is if we want our ideas to be based on the nation’s actual legal and political history, Gun Fight by Adam Winkler is that one book.


Bicycles, guns, and obsessions

January 11, 2013

Bike Intensity

In a recent Facebook comment, a friend reported on his just finished winter bike ride: 32 miles, temperature about 37 degrees, snow and slush all around. “There is something masochistic in cyclists like me,” he wrote.

“Obsessive is a better word,” I responded.

Graeme Fife offers this word to characterize a friend (in his book The Beautiful Machine: A Life in Cycling).

“And saying that Richard is not a cyclist is no disparagement, simply that in his enjoyment of the bike there is no trace of obsession, and it is obsession, of whatever intensity, which defines us [italics added].

“Our life embraces the bike—the idea of it, the fact of it, the significance of it, the freedom it imparts, the joy, the pain, the inexhaustible delight—and without the bike the life would be, in an essential element, incomplete” (p. 332).

I recognize this quality in my own use of the bicycle. Years ago, I described it as a benign eccentricity, but that characterization fails to express the intensity of my interest and my unyielding determination to possess and use bicycles. Furthermore, I recognize obsession in some of the bike people I meet.

Despite my determination that cyclists should have use of most public thoroughfares and be accorded respect for their vigorous activity, I readily acknowledge two limiting factors.

  • The first is that obsessions, even of bicyclists, can lead to actions that are foolhardy, irrational, and potentially dangerous, both to the cyclist and to the general public.
  • Second, the public sector is charged with responsibilities to allow cyclists their proper place and to protect cyclists and everyone else from danger-inducing behavior.

Self-awareness about my own obsessiveness over bicycles helps me recognize similar obsessiveness in other people. The objects that fascinate and shape behavior differ widely—fancy cars, fountain pens, first edition books, rifles—but much the same quality is present.

Fife is right: for the obsessed person, there is an object, or perhaps an idea, that captures the imagination, focuses the attention, brings joy, a sense of completeness, inexhaustible delight. Without it, life can hardly be imagined.

As an obsessive cyclist, I have learned to live with the fact that most people do not share this obsession. I also know that there are a few crazy cyclists, whose behavior in traffic is potentially dangerous. Even so, for most cyclists, this obsession is, to use the adjective I mentioned above, essentially benign.

Not so, with the obsession over guns. Some gun owners I know are like Fife’s friend mentioned above. Their interest in guns is too casual to count in the current public debate.

But some of the people I meet are obsessive, including a neighbor when I lived in Arizona, some people I met at a community meeting about guns in an Indianapolis church, and three or four people I’ve talked with lately in Portland and Vancouver.

Their obsession is clear whenever guns come into the conversation: their faces harden, the tone of their conversation darkens, their manner becomes aggressively defensive. I can understand why elected officials and public safety officers back down when they encounter people displaying this obsession.

There’s nothing benign about it. The danger to friendship, even to civil relationships, is palpable.

What adjective would I use to describe this second kind of obsession? The first that comes to mind is vicious, but this word may reflect my own animosity toward guns rather than accurately describe the obsession. People with a gun-related obsession for the most part don’t mean any harm by their preoccupation with weaponry.

Dangerous is a better word. It leaves unquestioned the motivations of gun-obsessed people, while recognizing that firearms are hazardous and present serious challenges to the well-being of people everywhere.

My hope is that as our nation revises current legislation about fire arms and public safety, the same limitations that I think should pertain to the use of bicycles should also—yes, even more—be applied to the ownership and use of guns.

  • Gun-related obsessions easily lead to actions and that are foolhardy, irrational, and potentially dangerous, both to the gun owner and to the general public.
  • The public sector is charged with responsibilities to allow the ownership of guns its proper place and to protect gun owners and everyone else from danger-inducing behavior.

One more comment: obsessions, even the most benign, have a way of taking control of a person’s life. The more obsessed a person, the greater is the need for a keen sense of self-awareness and  a high degree of self control.

And for intelligent public policy rigorously enforced.

Note: Image is a detail from a poster by Marciej Urbaniec advertising the Prague-Warsaw-Berlin International Peace Race, 1966.


Roger Williams and personal freedom

January 7, 2013

BarryRoger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry (Viking, 2012)

In her book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books, 2008)Martha C. Nussbaum alerted me to the importance of Roger Williams to the American system. It was John M. Barry’s book on Roger Williams that deepened my understanding of Williams’s place in our history.

Williams was born in 1603, twenty-nine years before the philosopher John Locke and 140 years prior to Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the primary architects of the church-state relationship that is basic to the American system. A well-educated and well-placed Puritan theologian, Williams was a major player in one of the most tempestuous periods of English history.

He stood alone in political and philosophic history in his claim that individuals should be granted freedom of conscience in religious matters. Williams founded the North American colony that came to be known as Rhode Island, which was the first (and for a long time the only) place in the world where there was a clear separation of government and religion.

Williams pursued his ideas at great personal risk, both in England and the North American English colonies. Despite the strange name and convoluted character of his most extended book (The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, discussed in A Conference betweene Truth and Peace), Williams anticipated the principal ideas in John Locke’s A Letter on Toleration (1689) and laid the groundwork for the work that Jefferson and his contemporaries did to establish religious freedom in the new American nation.

Barry describes the way things were in English society (which was similar to the rest of the “civilized” world of the time). Four features marked that world.

  1. It was believed that the viability of the state required uniformity of religious belief and practice.
  2. The highest-ranking political ruler determined the religion that would be recognized and enforced throughout the realm.
  3. The stability of the political order required that the state enforce conformity and suppress dissent.
  4. This enforcement depended to a great extent upon harsh punishment, including: arbitrary imprisonment in life-threatening conditions, mutilation (cutting off ears, splitting noses, boring holes in or cutting off tongues), banishment (as in the case of Williams, when John Winthrop forced him out into the New England wilderness in the dead of winter, with death a strong possibility), and public execution by torture.

The social systems of England and the colonies were tightly intertwined and in full agreement on the four elements listed above. The primary difference was that the colonies were able, because of the ocean between them and England, to maintain their own Puritan version of this system.

Williams’s revolutionary contributions can also be summarized in a few points.

  1. He came to realize that religious belief is individualized and widely variant.
  2. Therefore, to require uniformity of belief and practice violates the basic structure of a person’s life.
  3. The intertwining of religion and politics corrupts both partners and leads to cruelty and violence throughout the society.
  4. The proper way to organize society is to allow freedom of religion, except when religious practice would threaten public order within respect to civil matters.

Barry frequently refers to sharply contrasting views of society, John Winthrop’s “City Set on a Hill,” that organized the state according to theocratic principles found in the Old Testament, and Williams’s view that called for “utter separation of church and state and individual rights” (p. 386).

In his early years, Williams learned about power, politics, and religion by working under Edward Coke, one of the central players in English politics. He observed closely and learned from Francis Bacon, one of Coke’s principal antagonists. He was closely associated with Henry Vane and Oliver Cromwell and with two generations of the Winthrop family.

Williams also devoted time to learning about the Indian tribes that surrounded and to some degree interpenetrated the New England colonies. He lived with them, learned their language, and established strong friendships with chiefs. In fact, it was this well-established friendship that enabled Williams to survive during the winter of his banishment.

Barry’s analysis of Williams’s life and times, and his exposition of the development of Williams’s ideas, acknowledge the gradual process by which his initial intuitions shaped his theology and political action. Williams remained an intense Puritan theologian to the very end, but in contrast to all of the others, he saw the difference between religious conviction and political systems.

More than any other, he was the one who developed a way of life that still is unique, often threatened, and much in need of constant protection and renewal. Political debate in America is confused enough these days, that a new Roger Williams would have much work to do!