Tag Archives: religion

The Good News

There isn’t much good news right now, nationally or globally. But there are indications of a worldwide swing toward sanity–if we can hang on long enough to allow a younger generation to take charge.

One clear trend that is immensely hopeful is the decline in religious fervor and declining trust in religious leaders, both here and abroad (although in the Arab world, increasing secularization is accompanied by increasing anger at the U.S.)

My characterization of growing secularization as “good news” will undoubtedly offend some readers, so let me be clear about the nature of the “religion” to which I’m referring.

I like my youngest son’s distinction: A “good” religion helps you ask–and wrestle with–the questions; a “bad” religion provides you with The Answers.

Folks who are certain they know what their god wants, and who want to use the power of the state to make the rest of us live in accordance with that certainty, make social peace impossible. We need more Reverend William Barbers, and fewer Mike Pences, more moral courage and less pious hypocrisy.

One reason young people are increasingly rejecting religion is the Evangelical embrace of Donald Trump. A recent article in The Atlantic explored the extent to which that embrace has triggered a crisis of faith.

Last week, Ralph Reed, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s founder and chairman, told the group, “There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”

 Reed is partially right; for many evangelical Christians, there is no political figure whom they have loved more than Donald Trump.

Trump’s approval rating among white evangelical Protestants is 25 points higher than the national average. Pew Research reports that, during the period from July 2018 to January 2019, 70 percent of white evangelicals who attended church at least once a week approved of Trump. (That raises the question: what on earth are they hearing from the pulpits of those churches?)

Evangelicals’ rabid support for a man who embodies everything they have long claimed to abhor has operated to de-legitimize Evangelical Protestantism in the eyes of non-adherents. For genuinely religious Christians, this has been hurtful. Peter Wehner, who authored the Atlantic article, writes

What is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness. Nonchalantly jettisoning the ethic of Jesus in favor of a political leader who embraces the ethic of Thrasymachus and Nietzsche—might makes right, the strong should rule over the weak, justice has no intrinsic worth, moral values are socially constructed and subjective—is troubling enough.

But there is also the undeniable hypocrisy of people who once made moral character, and especially sexual fidelity, central to their political calculus and who are now embracing a man of boundless corruptions.

Americans have traditionally purported to respect “religion.” We’ve been unwilling (at least in public) to suggest that some theologies undercut social cohesion and undermine the common good, that some “believers” support white Christian dominance more devoutly than spiritual growth, and that many have created a God in their own image.

A recent article in Forbes, of all places, illustrates the point.The author writes that it wasn’t Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that turned the racist south Republican; it was pastors.

Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.

Are there religious people exhibiting humility and loving-kindness, who define morality as an imperative to treat others as they would be treated? Certainly.

A group of 17 Christan church leaders under the banner of ‘Christians Against Christian Nationalism’ have issued an official statement. It condemns the Christian Right’s constant attacks on other faiths and their efforts to bring about a Christian fundamentalist theocracy in the United States.

Their warning is clear: “Christian nationalism provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.” Adding that it goes hand in hand with white nationalism.

The group points out that the Constitution — the foundation of American law (the only one that counts) — makes it clear that: “Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution.”

Equality under the Constitution, of course, does not translate into “equally meritorious.”

Before pundits decry the accelerating “loss of religion,” it would behoove us to determine just which versions of “religion” we’re losing.

Some versions need to be lost.

 

 

Religion And Moral Authority

Americans face daily reports of truly outrageous (and often previously unimaginable) things this administration is doing. In our name. To our shame.

Nothing we have seen thus far, however–not the disregard for poor Americans, the efforts to ensure that healthcare will continue to be a privilege rather than a right, the dismantling of environmental protections, the attacks on public education and the rule of law– not even the greed and stupidity of the looters who currently rule us–has been as morally repugnant as the Trump Administration’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border.

The pictures of screaming children being torn from the arms of their parents are enough to rip your heart out.

In a column for the Guardian, Marilynne Robinson asks a reasonable question: in the face of this assault on decency and humanity, where the hell are all those “family values” Christians?

She begins by explaining what is happening

As a matter of recent policy, agents of the American government take children from their parents’ arms at our southern border. They are kept at separate facilities for indeterminate periods of time. The parents are jailed and the children are put in the care of non-governmental agencies, sometimes in other states. It is hard to imagine that the higher rate of incarceration and the new system of calculated injury to children would not soon overwhelm existing arrangements no matter how many shelters and beds are provided for a frightened, heartbroken population of the very young, whose miseries are intended as a disincentive to future potential border-crossers.

The only nod to shared humanity in this policy is an obvious understanding that a child’s grief is a particularly wrenching experience for a parent, powerful enough – so the designers of the policy clearly believe – to weigh against the threats to that same child’s safety and health and prospects for a better life that bring parents and children to the American border. This effect would be much heightened by any parent’s knowing that the one sufficient comfort for any child in almost all circumstances, and especially one like this, is to be taken into his mother’s or his father’s arms.

Robinson notes the hardening of American partisanship and the not irrelevant fact that what is left of the GOP is mostly an amalgam of gun owners, people “who claim to be religious,” and people who resent immigration. (What she doesn’t say, but should have acknowledged, is that “resentment of immigration” is more often than not a euphemism for deep-seated and virulent racism.) As she does acknowledge, there are profound differences of worldview between those who fall into those categories and the rest of America–these are fearful people, and Trump has continually stoked their fears of the “other” with his anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric.

Behind much of this is a spurious Christianity that has spread through the culture on the strength of the old American habit of church-going, and which propounds a stark vision, the embattled faction of “the saved” surrounded by continuous threats to their souls – otherwise known as the American population at large.

Obama was impolitic, but not wrong, when he suggested that frightened people cling to their guns and their bibles. Robinson points to the irony of self-described “patriots” who hate the country, and self-identified “Christians” who insult and deprive the poor and the stranger.

Those “Christians” (note quotes) are Trump’s base and enablers. Their overwhelming hypocrisy is the reason  so many Americans, especially young Americans, are rejecting religion. After all, the only justification for organized religion–at least, the only justification that makes sense to reasonable people–is that it is capable of prompting moral behavior.

Of course, history teaches us that religion is also quite capable of excusing atrocities.

When clear-eyed people see religious dogma being used to support adherents’ delusions of superiority, when they see it used to justify and excuse behaviors that all good people condemn as immoral, is it any wonder they see it as a cynical prop to tribalism rather than an appeal to the “better angels” of our humanity?

“Religious” folks who are conspicuously silent when children are ripped from the arms of parents who are seeking sanctuary–who show no compassion for people fleeing intolerable situations in an effort to give those children a better life–aren’t worshipping any God worthy of the name.

 

 

Why Religion Gets A Bad Name…

Polls suggest that the younger generation is far less religious than its predecessors, and it isn’t hard to see why. Religious double-standards are hard to miss; every day, I come across articles with titles like “Why Evangelicals Still Support Trump” and “Is Evangelical Christianity becoming a Cult?”

In all fairness, the (entirely appropriate) accusations of hypocrisy contained in these articles don’t apply to all Evangelicals, or to adherents of other religions, but the mismatch between what these “Christians” preach and what they practice is so obvious, so “in your face,” that it manages to besmirch the entire religious enterprise.

Case in point: Scott Pruitt. As Ed Brayton writes at Dispatches from the Culture Wars,

So far, 2018 hasn’t been a great year for Scott Pruitt, considering that the EPA Administrator has been lurching from one scandal to the next. Pruitt had already distinguished himself with his preference for opulent, non-secure hotels while on official travel; with his predilection for first-class flights on taxpayers’ dime; with his insistence that he receive a 24-hour security detail fit for a king, comprising up to 20 bodyguards; and with the plush DC condominium he’s reportedly been renting, for a veryattractive $50 a night, from the wife of a Beltway oil and gas lobbyist.

The embattled Donald Trump appointee is currently the subject of at least two ethics investigations.

Today’s Pruitt controversy concerns a commemorative coin that the wanted the EPA to order.

Pruitt’s preferred design would delete the logo of the EPA he is trying to dismantle, and would instead feature some combination of symbols “more reflective of himself and the Trump administration.” ( I will ignore my impulse to suggest that a jackass might serve as such a symbol…) Among his suggestions were a buffalo, to represent  Pruitt’s state of Oklahoma, and an unspecified Bible verse to “reflect his faith.”

Perhaps the verse that reads “Thou shalt allow thy donors to pollute the air and water”?

I am not religious, but I have several friends who are members of the clergy. Their approach to their various theologies have a number of common elements.  My Christian friends believe they should love their neighbors as themselves; my Jewish friends are obliged to refrain from treating others as they would not wish to be treated. Other traditions teach variations of this Golden Rule.

There is an old adage along the lines of “show me how you treat other people and I’ll judge the value of your religion.” To which I would add, “show me your moral code, and how closely you follow it, and I’ll evaluate the sincerity of your professed beliefs.”

There has long been a clash in America between the “live and let live” morality embedded in the Bill of Rights–the Enlightenment belief that government power must not be used to impose obedience to religious commandments–and the Puritans’ insistence that everyone needs to live by their particular interpretation of their particular holy book, that “religious liberty” means “freedom to do the right thing, and government must insist you live in accordance with what (our religion says) the right thing is.”

The Puritans may originally have tried to live in accordance with the rules they were trying to impose on everyone else, but these days, they don’t bother. Today, they just want to be the ones making the rules. What began as theology has morphed into a fight for political dominance.

For these theocrats and posturers, “love thy neighbor” doesn’t require respect for the rights of others, or for the planet. It requires fealty.

No wonder the kids are turned off.

And Now A Word From the Fantasy-Based Community

I read Dispatches from the Culture Wars regularly. Ed Brayton is a witty and perceptive commentator with an excellent grasp of America’s constitutional foundations–but his greatest appeal (for me) comes from the fact that he monitors behaviors that I wouldn’t have the stomach to follow. He keeps tabs on the kooks of the far, far right (and sometimes the far, far left)–the “celebrities” of the wacko fringes.

Most of the time, when reading about the pronouncements and delusions of these characters, I take comfort in reminding myself of the limited appeal of whatever brand of crazy a particular figure is peddling.

But this was truly appalling.

Earlier this month, the city of San Antonio (Texas) held a mayoral forum in which candidates talked about the impact of and challenges for non-profit groups in the community.

At one point, current Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked about the “deepest systemic cause of generational poverty.” There’s no simple answer to that, of course, but Taylor’s response wasn’t even close.

“Not even close” is an understatement. Here’s the Mayor’s response.

To me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their Creator, and therefore, not being in good relationship with their families and their communities, and not being productive members of society. I think that’s the ultimate answer.

As Ed points out, that not only isn’t the “ultimate answer,” it’s an answer that betrays vast ignorance of American economic realities and that displays the sort of breathtakingly smug religious arrogance that you encounter from time to time from people who give religion a very bad name. As Brayton puts it,

Poor people aren’t all poor because they’re “broken” or atheists or in need of a better relationship with their families. (While we’re at it, they’re also not poor because they’re lazy and addicted to welfare checks.)

People are poor, in many cases, because they don’t have opportunities to put their skills to work, they never had access to a quality education, and they live in areas where upward mobility is hard to come by. In some cases, they can work multiple jobs with little sleep and still have a hard time getting out of whatever debt they’re already in. Poverty is tough to overcome. Generational poverty, even tougher.

The vast majority of poor Americans work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that don’t pay a living wage. (Not that it is relevant, but a sizable majority of them identify as Christian, and profess a “relationship” with a “Creator.” Atheists in the U.S. actually tend to be well-educated and financially comfortable–when you aren’t constantly struggling to put food on the table, you have the time and resources to ponder theological questions and consider counter-majoritarian conclusions…But I digress.)

I’ve written before about the United Way of Indiana’s description of ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and the huge gap between what those families need simply in order to survive and the pitifully inadequate public and private resources available to them.

There are a lot of things policymakers could do to decrease poverty: raise the minimum wage, reinstitute Reagan-era tax brackets, strengthen unions, eliminate the ACA in favor of “Medicare for All”…and jettison a self-satisfied ideology that blames poverty on a lack of productivity and an inadequate “relationship with the Creator.”

The fact that Americans elect people who mouth such inanities (beginning with Donald Trump and definitely including Mayor Ivy Taylor) is evidence of a different kind of poverty.

 

 

 

Walking in that Other Guy’s Shoes

Martin Marty is an eminent religious scholar at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He also issues a weekly newsletter, called Sightings because it “sights” public reports with religious or spiritual dimensions. His most recent reflection was thought-provoking, to say the least:

What if the Sioux Nation decided to build a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery? This question from Faith Spotted Eagle—who lacks a Ph.D. in comparative religion and who would never be employed to teach the phenomenology of burial ritual—got at the heart of at least one of the three main issues in the prolonged debate over the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

The other two issues, of course, were environmental degradation and the behavior of Big Oil, and those issues certainly generate a significant percentage of the opposition to the pipeline. Marty’s focus, however, was on the religious importance of the site to the Sioux–and the lack of appreciation of its sanctity by Americans who would have been horrified by a similar proposed desecration of their holy sites.

Why the comparison to a sacred place like Arlington Cemetery? Or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or key monuments at Gettysburg? What makes this Sioux site sacred, inviolable in the eyes of those for whom this place in North Dakota has drawn so much national attention? The environmental concerns alone would have been ominous enough to agitate the Native Americans on the scene. But the Cannonball River, which flows nearby, and the complex of tributaries connected to the Missouri River, are not merely sources of water. No, Spotted Eagle has said, water is “the best medicine,” the sustainer of life from a mother’s womb until its issue, years later, breathes no longer. Water is necessary for the sweat lodge, so important in Sioux worship, and it serves as a purifier and calmer in sacred ceremonies. And much more.

What motivates her and her fellow worshippers, above all, is concern that the pipeline will profane the burial sites over and around and through which it will flow. All of the governmental action is thus, in the eyes of the Native Americans, a profanation.

Sightings spends so many lines on this one out of many contested revered sites in the “flyover country” of the Great Plains—my homeland—in the interest of giving attention to the rites of some of the peoples who have been plundered, exploited, silenced, and murdered for more than 500 years by us newcomers, who now make the rules, establish the rituals, and bring the edicts and the guns to enforce them. Weekly, if not daily, we hear and read of the ins and outs, the ups and downs, of this most recent conflict. We observe how readily disdained the protesters are. But we are moved by the fact that leaders and sympathizers of many religious bodies, including Jews and Muslims, Catholics at the highest level, mainline Protestants, and some Evangelicals, have publicly sided with the Sioux.

There may be perfectly valid, even persuasive arguments for building the pipeline and for  its chosen route. I don’t know enough to evaluate those arguments. Ultimately, however, those arguments are irrelevant to the injustice being perpetrated here.

The undeniable fact is that a pipeline routed through a site designated as holy by a more privileged, more powerful, more “established” religious constituency would have received far different–and far less dismissive– treatment. At the very least, the claims of such a constituency would have met with more official respect.

It has been–and remains– difficult to ensure the constitutionally-required equal protection and application of the laws. I wonder if we will ever achieve–or even approach– equal civic respect for the rights of people who don’t look or worship like us.