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Resisting Condemnation to Save America

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From supporters of President Obama to Tea Party activists Americans agree that we live in a time of deeply polarized politics. There are numerous explanations but I suspect it comes down to bad theology. I should know. I was my evangelist father's (Francis Schaeffer) sidekick on the religious/political circuit in the 1970s and 80s. We did our bit to launch the religious right. Then I changed my mind and fled.

One thing didn't change when I changed sides: My slash and burn fundamentalist style of attacking those with whom I disagree. This combative "style" lands me on cable news shows because these days even us "progressives" direct derisive exclusionary condemnation at our enemies. So I've been both a perpetrator and victim of retributive exclusion.

Now I'm questioning the wisdom of being a practitioner of dudgeon for hire, even for good causes. That brings me to three new projects: a movie, book and festival that got me thinking.

Last year a young Canadian movie director asked me if I would be interviewed for a documentary called Hellbound? Was I really interested in speculating on camera about "eternal damnation" when I don't believe in hell? Notwithstanding my reservations, Kevin Miller (who happens to be a moderate evangelical) interviewed me.

This summer at the Wild Goose Festival -- an interfaith religious gathering holding its second annual event -- I watched the movie. It's a terrific film and Hellbound? has political implications far beyond theology. The documentary's point of departure is the attacks of 9/11. But the film veers sharply from the usual exploration of these crimes and presents a non-retributive alternative view of God and judgment to our kneejerk ideas evil, punishment and "justified" revenge.

At that festival, I also heard Chris Stedman speak. He's the Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. Steadman gave me a copy of his soon to be published book Faitheist--How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.

It's no coincidence I saw Hellbound? and met Steadman at the same festival. Wild Goose is on the cutting edge of a too often media-ignored movement that caters to a younger religious set who affirm their evangelical faith while also having tolerant views on gay marriage and other divisive issues. So it was par for the course that a gay atheist writer was speaking alongside an evangelical filmmaker.

Hellbound? will open this September in New York City and then in theaters across the United States and Canada. Fundamentalists will hate the movie and secular folks may be tempted to ignore it. But if you believe in a literal hell, you need to face the tough questions the movie asks about the logic of your beliefs. And if you scoff at the "religious nuts" who believe in hell chances are you've been infected by their kind of absolutist "saved" or "lost" vengeful thinking. For instance, maybe you believe global warming deniers aren't just mistaken but evil and deserve whatever befalls them.

Forgotten in our exclusionary debates is the fact that there is another gentler tradition that runs throughout religion and secular philosophy. For instance, 18th century atheist David Hume declared "that personal merit consists entirely in the... agreeableness of the person... to others." And in the Christian tradition, inclusive concepts of universal salvation go back to some of the earliest fathers. For instance, the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus says that God is, was, and always will be free from wrath, and that imitation of God consists in caring for those weaker than oneself and rejecting revenge.

All three projects make this point: When we demonize the "other," even in the name of reason, we open the door to a world of zero sum redemption where one person's gain is another person's humiliating loss. We have allowed condemnation to rule our minds, and so it rules our political life. Strange as it may seem, I believe that one bold new movie, a new interfaith festival and a soon to be published book by a young gay atheist point the way to a better future.

As for me I'm burnt out on rhetorically burning others. I'm going to try Hume's agreeableness for a bit. Instead of damning each other, maybe we can learn to show mercy to those with whom we disagree, taking our cue from a teacher who said that love of enemy -- not correct theology or politics -- is all that can make us whole.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and his forthcoming novel Baptism By Sand.