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Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way Hardcover – Bargain Price, March 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Two-term Maryland lieutenant governor Townsend makes a valid point: in America, faith is no longer about community. She longs for the Catholic Church of her youth, that "dealt with issues at the core of the Gospel—suffering, injustice, sickness, and poverty" rather than a Christianity influenced by a crop of preachers who seem to believe that "Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry and cared for the poor just so we don't have to." Addressing a broad range of issues including women, the religious right (and left), the GOP and her own political party, the Democrats, Townsend hopes to appeal to a wide audience, not just a Christian one. Personal anecdotes, including the text of a note from her father, Robert Kennedy, written to her on the morning of her uncle John F. Kennedy's funeral, make this a very personal discussion of faith, religious history and politics. Unfortunately, this doesn't always translate into a cohesive discussion, and the workmanlike style coupled with an doe-eyed earnestness leave the reader wanting. Townsend's call for the disillusioned to stay in church, meet with the priest or minister and help the community comes off more as a catechism than a battle cry. (Mar.)
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Instead of emphasizing the fact that we are all children of God, faith in America now divides communities." So charges Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy, who offers a faith-based platform for liberals.The right gets religion wrong, and the left doesn't get it at all, theologian Jim Wallis has observed. Townsend is proof to the contrary, a committed Catholic who despairs of the Church's political leanings and who counters with an ethic of service to the poor and powerless. In a neat but too-brief analysis, she contrasts her father's vision with that of Ronald Reagan, and by extension the liberal and conservative views of human nature. Asked by David Frost what people are put on earth for, RFK replied, "If you've made some contribution to someone else, to improve their life, and make their life a little more livable, a little more happy, I think that's what you should be doing." Reagan, by contrast, argued, "Each man must find his own salvation . . . every man to be what God intended him to be." Townsend dismisses the latter view as justification for "an entire multimillion-dollar industry that treats God as little more than a self-help guru who helps you be all you can be," and the notion of compassionate conservatism as "just another way to put the wolf in sheep's clothing." There is an appropriate role for religion and the religious in politics, Townsend argues, one that reconciles the liberating vision of the Founding Fathers with values born of faith, such as those contained in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum; the public, she reckons, is ready for just such a hybrid, even as rightist clergy and politicians have insisted that it's a war of each against all out there, undermining "the sense of national unity and collective responsibility that has mattered so much throughout American history."Watch for elements of Townsend's well-framed argument at the 2008 Democratic Convention. (Kirkus Reviews)
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What makes the book a good read, I think, is in the insight of the author from her personal experience of being raised within a very Catholic and very political family. Her thesis seems to be that prominent positions taken by Catholic and Protestant churches today are primarily in line with "wedge" issues of modern American politics, when they could/should "be the place to encourage, nurture and promote...moral action."
O.K., I think that most of us can agree with that. The problem is that the book is never convincing as to how to get Churches in that direction. At the end of this review, I'll give you what I think is the answer that she should have reached. Having been raised in a family of politicians, it would have been an obvious conclusion. But back to the book.
Townsend's journey in the Catholic Church is personal, of course, but it can also be seen as historic and significant. As the oldest child of Bobby Kennedy, she grew up in a world that was fully integrated with the Catholic Church. This perspective is what she says gives her ability to tell us that the Church of her childhood has moved away from classic social justice goals to those that reflect more immediate political goals, like on abortion and gay marriage. (And, in case we think that Catholic politicians who are taking heat for a pro-choice stance are a recent phenomenon, she tells us of her personal experience when her pastor "criticized me from the pulpit for my opinion on abortion when I was running for Congress in 1986." 1986! How's that for some historical insight! That was 22 years ago, and this stuff is still going on!)
She also grew up in a world of politics, liberal politics. And, in today's world, she says that the secular political world of social conservatives "has been a disaster for the poor, the immigrant, and other disempowered groups, abandoned by the very government that should be protecting them." Under this conservative political leadership, she says, "Living the moral life has come to mean something like: `Don't have too much sex, gay sex, extramarital sex, premarital sex; don't have abortions; don't look at porn; don't demean marriage."
And back to the Church, she adds, "My own Catholic Church has allowed its social agenda to be trumped by an all-consuming focus on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research - none of which are mentioned in the Gospels." And in a later section, she says, "My Church is building walls to keep the evil world out."
In between, she attempts to make the case that the Catholic Church of her childhood was better: "(It) dealt with issues at the core of the Gospel - suffering, injustice, sickness and poverty." But was it really? Or was that more of an internal perspective of a child growing up in an atmosphere that was also very political in the secular world?
In fact, she admits that most of the values that she learned from the Church she did not get from the Church, itself, but via the nuns at her schools and from her extremely devoted Catholic mother and grandmother. She tells us that the faith she learned taught her not to give comfort to the comfortable, but to make the world a better place.
But, as she grew older, more complex positions emerged, such as "that there were terrible people who did terrible things." And that "evil had been our enemy in World War II." And, later on, that, "Godless Communism" became an enemy. Then, in 1968, the Pope formalized the Church's position condemning birth control, with the implication that a host of enemies attacked the Church because of this doctrine. Citing her personal disagreement with the position, she concludes that her Church "cared more about its tradition than its flock."
But has the Catholic Church really ever been any better? Could it be that Townsend's views are based on naïve childhood perceptions? Because, in its defense, in the Catholic Church today, the Gospels are read to parishioners from the Ambo, week after week. These are the very words attributed to Jesus, such as in the Beatitudes, which are about as passionate for the poor and disempowered as it can get. In contrast, in the Catholic Church that Townsend grew up in, before Vatican II, the Mass was all in Latin, and Catholics, in general, did not read the Bible.
Today, in Catholic Churches everywhere, the message that she calls for - "service to others can be the path to satisfaction and salvation" - can be heard with regularity. But is it really promoted, or is it just given lip service within an organization that is really a business more than not? Can THAT be the issue?
Back to the book, she has several chapters on Protestant churches, telling us that these churches began to "retreat from their progressive traditions" after the divisive battles of the 1960's with civil rights and the women's movement. Later, she tells us that Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. President who spoke of his open relationship with Jesus. But she does not tell us much more about his Presidency.
To wrap this up, there is a wealth of information to be gained by reading the book for anyone interested in perceptions of and opinions on the American Catholic Church from a real insider. And how she gets to her negative positions on the current status of the Catholic Church are of note, for sure. But now what? What can she or anyone else really do about it? As she says, "In a lot of ways, the Church is no different from any other large institution. It can be slow to adapt to change. It's reluctant to admit its own errors. And the people within the hierarchy jealously guard their own power."
That is where she takes us, as we enter the last chapter that talks about hope and love and "a spiritual rebirth in America." In it, she says, "the power is in the hands of individual worshipers - who can and should try to reform their congregations and the larger institutions." But she tells us of earlier Catholic internal reform movements - Call to Action and the Voice of the Faithful - that we know have not made much of any impact on the direction of the Church. But she warns, "The stakes are high if the Church refuses to reform...." And ends with the plea, "We can join with others to reinvigorate our commitment to the common good....Such a new Great Awakening would require us to change the way we lead our private and public lives."
But this is where I beg to differ. What has the Catholic Church to lose by staying pat? As long as it has money and power what is at stake? And how in the world does one change an institution from the outside if it does not want to be reformed? It would be like telling the Ford Motor Company what kind of car we want them to build in an era when the company was making money and feeling like it was doing just fine.
No, this wise lady who comes from a political family and upbringing does not see the light within the tunnel: The only way that the Catholic Church is going to reform is to reform itself! And this simply needs to come from the inside. It simply needs to come from heroic Priests and Bishops who build political alliances that change the Church despite its resistance to do so. This can be done, and it can be done in our lifetimes.
But this is all for another book. The last page of "Failing America's Faithful" has been closed.
Again, I really like the book. I find it full of valuable insight from a real insider of the Catholic Church and the Kennedy family. I highly recommend it.
The author is to be commended for her forthright stand in interpreting problems in the 21st century that involve religious convictions particularly with women's concerns.