‘Amazing Grace’ from Both Sides Now

“Amazing Grace” has an amazing history. The 18th century hymn was the focus of a 1990 Bill Moyers documentary that examined its enduring power and wide appeal. It was recorded thousands of times during the 20th Century, and was even sung at the iconically counter-cultural Woodstock festival. Today, October 15, 2013, the history and lore of “Amazing Grace” grew a little stronger and stranger as it was deployed by both the architects and opponents of the government shutdown.

More than 70 clergy and other people of faith gathered at the Cannon House Office Building on Tuesday morning for an interfaith “Pilgrimage for Courage and the Common Good,” organized by Faith in Public Life. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, and a progressive religious folk hero for her Nuns on the Bus tour, gave the opening prayer. After a hymn, the group began working its way down the hallways to visit more than a dozen House offices, including those in leadership. At each office, a few religious leaders and low-wage workers affected by the shutdown spoke with staff. They left a letter from religious groups which said, “As people of faith and conscience, we urge you to place shared democratic values above short term political expediency, exercise the courage to fund our nation’s government,  raise the debt limit without preconditions and get back to work on a faithful budget that serves the common good.”

It was not surprising to hear “Amazing Grace” among the hymns sung as the group moved down the halls. It was a bit more surprising to find out via news reports that at about the same time progressive clergy were talking to representatives’ staff about the shutdown’s impact on vulnerable people, House Republicans sang Amazing Grace at a meeting in which they decided to dig in their heels against any compromise that did not extract concessions on the Affordable Care Act. Rep. Darrel Issa said that the hymn singing was a sign of the caucus’s solidarity in standing up to what Rep. Tim Huelskamp derisively called “the Senate Surrender Caucus.”

That opposition to compromise was also a theme of the Christian conservatives who gathered in Washington over the weekend for the Values Voter Summit, the annual political conference sponsored by the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, the Heritage Foundation, and other religious right legal and political groups. For example, Tim Chapman, chief operating officer for Heritage Action, told participants on Friday, “As we speak, Republican leaders are speaking to the White House and they are cutting a deal and I promise you the deal is going to be total garbage.”

Most Values Voter Summit participants would probably not have been very moved by the concerns of the progressive clergy. At the conference, government assistance was derided as a means of enslaving people in dependency. Star Parker essentially said that Americans should resent having their taxes used to pay for food, housing or healthcare for poor people.

At the progressive pilgrimage, Rev. Brian Adams, minister for economic justice at the Disciples Center for Public Witness, noted that the Bible repeatedly portrays disregard for the poor as a sin. To those who talk about America being a “Christian nation,” he says, “to me, if you’re going to be a Christian nation, the most important thing you’re going to need to do is be concerned for the poor and oppressed.”

A similar message was delivered to congressional offices in a petition with 32,000 signatures gathered by Faithful America, which reads in part: “As Christians and citizens, we are appalled that elected officials are pursuing an extreme ideological agenda at the expense of the working poor and vulnerable families…This failure of political leadership and responsible governance exposes our nation’s misplaced values.”

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