Tag Archives: religion

God And Country, Redux

In 2007, I wrote a book titled God and Country: America in Red and Blue. It explored a question that had preoccupied me for years: how do religiously inculcated world-views affect our political behaviors? I was–and remain–convinced that a number of ostensibly secular policy positions are (consciously or unconsciously) rooted in religious ways of seeing the world.

In order to examine the religious roots of America’s cultural and policy divisions, I needed to do a lot of research. I was–and am– far from well-versed about my own tradition, which is Judaism, and I knew little or nothing of the 2000-plus Christian denominations in the U.S., or how religious beliefs affect socialization. Writing the book required a “deep dive,” and I remain very grateful to Christian friends–including a couple of clergy members (you guys know who you are!)– who patiently read drafts and checked my conclusions.

Those conclusions are detailed in the book (which is still available) and it is not my intent to recite them here. I share the fact of that rather extensive research because it is the background with which I approached a recent column by John Pavlovitz and a New York Times guest essay about America’s rapidly growing secularism.

Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from North Carolina, and a favorite among my Facebook friends, who share his posts rather frequently. He’s what I consider a “real” Christian (granted, deciding who is “real” is pretty arrogant coming from a non-Christian…). This column was titled “How You Know if You Have the Wrong Religion,” and what struck me was that his message–with which I entirely agreed– addressed the longstanding divide between faith and works. (Traditional Christian denominations are typically concerned with belief; Judaism prioritizes works.)

Growing up and later ministering in the Church, the elemental heart of spiritual community was the stated or implicit sense that we alone had cracked the God code; that we’d figured out what every other faith tradition (and many communities within our tradition) had not. Evangelism was less about sharing God’s love with the world around us but about getting the world to be as enlightened as we were by completely agreeing with us.

Believing the right thing was everything. The world was sharply divided between the saved and the damned and the greatest imaginable sin was to reject that idea. And it wasn’t enough to believe in God, you had to believe in the correct God, adopt the correct doctrine, and pray the correct prayers—or else your sincerity or judgment (not to mention, your eternal destination) were questioned.

Pavlovitz isn’t the only critic of those ostentatiously pious believers whose faith never quite translates into good works or even loving-kindness. There’s significant research suggesting that the growing exodus from churches and organized religion is a reaction to precisely that form of religiosity.

And that brings me to a New York Times guest essay by a Baptist pastor who is also a college professor. After charting the steady decline in American religiosity since 1988, he reports

Today, scholars are finding that by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, over 40 percent of the youngest Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend religious services weekly or more.

The partisan implication of that statistic, which he duly notes, is a reduction of support for the Republican Party, which is heavily dependent upon religiously observant Christians, including but not limited to Evangelicals. As he also points out,  however, Democrats will have to balance policy priorities “between the concerns of the politically liberal Nones and the more traditional social positions espoused by groups like Black and mainline Protestants.” 

Whatever the partisan consequences, Christians like Pavlovitz are offering a way forward that would significantly reduce  today’s religious tribalism–and ultimately, redefine what counts as genuinely religious.

If you claim to be a “God and Country “Bible-believing Evangelical,” great. But if you have contempt for immigrants or bristle at white privilege or oppose safeguards in a pandemic, your Christianity is ineffectual at best and at worst, it’s toxic. You might want to rethink something.

If you believe because you prayed a magic prayer to accept Jesus at summer camp when you were 13,  that you can inflict any kind of adult damage to the people and the world around you and you’ll still be golden, while gentle, loving, benevolent atheists and Muslims go to hell—you’re doing religion wrong.

So many of America’s problems stem from “doing religion wrong”…

 

Fundamentalism

A couple of years ago, I came across a fascinating article in a legal journal comparing constitutional and biblical cherry-picking. I no longer recall the journal, the title or the authors, so no link, but I do recall the thesis: certain personality types have a need for bright lines and a profound discomfort with ambiguity, leading to the use of selected passages from religious and legal texts to confirm their pre-existing biases.

When evangelical Christian denominations embraced Trump–some pastors insisting he’d been chosen by God– it was tempting to describe religion in general as a big con. Like most generalizations, that characterization is both under and over-inclusive. The problem is not religion per se, but fundamentalisms of all sorts. As the referenced article made clear, religious dogma isn’t the primary problem (although some certainly is very problematic), it is fundamentalists’ insistence on its inerrancy.

In other words, there’s a great deal of similarity between Second Amendment absolutists and fundamentalists of all religious persuasion–and I do mean all religions. American Jews provide just one example. Pew recently published a study of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs. Unsurprisingly,  the study found that a majority of Jewish Americans lean politically liberal and currently favor the Democratic Party. However, Orthodox Jews (our fundamentalists), were “a notable exception.”

The survey, which was conducted in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, finds that 71% of Jewish adults (including 80% of Reform Jews) are Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party. But among Orthodox Jews, three-quarters say they are Republican or lean that way. And that percentage has been trending up: In 2013, 57% of Orthodox Jews were Republicans or Republican leaners.

There is further evidence that the content of belief is less troublesome than the intensity of that belief.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an essay asking whether politics has become the new religion. The article featured examples of Americans for whom politics has become an identity and a quasi-religion–suggesting that the waning of traditional  faith commitments isn’t leading to a reduction of conflict, as many of us had fondly supposed; rather, those for whom lines must be bright and beliefs should brook no dissent have simply transferred their fundamentalist passions elsewhere.

The United States has long been known for what some sociologists call “civil religion” – a shared, nonsectarian faith centered on the flag, the nation’s founding documents, and God. But the God factor is waning, as so-called nones – atheists, agnostics, and those who self-identify as “nothing in particular” – have risen to one-third of the U.S. population, according to a major 2020 survey out of Harvard University. 

From MAGA devotees on the right to social justice warriors on the “woke left,” political activism that can feel “absolute” in a quasi-religious way is rampant. At the same time, American membership in houses of worship has plummeted to below 50% for the first time in eight decades of Gallup polling – from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

The article points out that Americans have been moving away from organized religion for several years–and notes that–rather than easing intergroup tensions– the shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics. For personalities that need certainty about “righteousness,” political ideology provides a sense of “devotion, belonging, and moral certitude” they might once have found in a religious congregation.

The problem isn’t Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other theology. It’s the certitude motivating adherents’ intransigence and unwillingness to live and let live.

 

As Long As We’re Defining Terms….

One of the biggest problems Americans face in our (diminishing) attempts to debate policy in a civil and productive manner is that Americans often use the same words to mean different things–that is, when we aren’t simply using them as insulting labels devoid of discernible content (“libs” “socialists” “Nazis,” etc.)

Sunday, I considered the definition of infrastructure. Today, I’d really like to “poke a bear” and broaden the definition of what should count as religion.

As a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe recently noted, true believers are everywhere. They certainly aren’t confined to churches, synagogues and mosques; 
increasingly, the passions of faith are being expressed through politics and culture wars.

A Gallup poll last month  reported church membership at 47 percent. “For the first time ever, only a minority of American adults are affiliated with a church.” Jeff Jacoby, the columnist penning the cited column, bemoaned this statistic. He expressed his concern that the continuing disappearance of religion from American life is a negative occurrence.

I’m not so sure. Although there is, as Jacoby notes, a positive correlation between church attendance (note, attendance–not membership or religious belief) and physical, mental, and social health, more careful research studies attribute that correlation to the social support that comes from such gatherings of generally kindred folks–and many people get similar socialization from other, more secular groups.

Where Jacoby is right, however, is in the worrisome transfer of “religious” passion to politics.

A very different effect of religion’s disappearance is already all too visible: The unwavering faith and passion of true belief is increasingly being channeled not into religious observance but into identity politics and the culture wars.
“Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations,” remarks Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in The Atlantic. “This is what religion without religion looks like.”

On issue after issue, Americans increasingly treat political disagreement as blasphemy and dissenters as apostates. From climate change to immigration, from face masks to guns, debates take on the fervor of crusades, and true believers portray the stakes as all-or-nothing — a choice between salvation or damnation.
At its most extreme, this “religion without religion” is giving rise to dangerous political cults.

Jacoby says that “Religion without religion” is aggressive, intolerant, and scary. What he fails to acknowledge is that the same can be said for fundamentalist religions and their true believers.

Perhaps what we need is recognition that any belief system that is intransigent, intolerant and determined to impose itself on those holding differing values and beliefs merits being described as a religion.

To be fair, there is a truth buried in the hysteria of today’s culture warriors. In order for inhabitants of a country to function as at least a semi-coherent polity, a majority of citizens need to  share what sociologists call a “civic religion.” In the increasingly diverse United States, the only workable content of such a civic religion would seem to be devotion to the principles and aspirations of the country’s constituent documents: the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

 Of course, the same folks who “cherry pick” their biblical readings are also noticeably selective in their reading of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

And it would help if more Americans actually knew what was in those documents.

 

Trust Me

One of the approximately ten zillion critical tasks facing President Biden is the need to restore Americans’ trust in the integrity of their government. Biden is well-equipped to begin that restoration–he is a thoroughly decent and trustworthy man–but it won’t be easy.

Time Magazine recently began an article with some very concerning data:

After an unprecedented year of global pain, loss and uncertainty, a new report finds that 2020 marked “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, a study published annually by global communications firm Edelman, unveiled its findings on Wednesday after conducting more than 33,000 online surveys in 28 countries between October and November 2020. The firm found that public trust had eroded even further in social institutions—which Edelman defines as government, business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media—from 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global outcry against racial injustice and growing mistrust of what political leaders say and journalists report.

The research found that most people trust businesses– especially their own employers– over government and media. Trust in journalists is split along party lines. Among the consequences of this pervasive distrust is a particularly worrisome one:  only 1 in 3 people are “ready to take the [COVID-19] vaccine as soon as possible.”

Social trust is an essential and irreplaceable basis of a democratic society. Social capital–the bonding and bridging connections to others that make a society work–is defined as a combination of trust and reciprocity.

Social scientists warn that erosion of interpersonal trust has very negative implications for democratic self-government. When I was researching my 2009 book Distrust, American Style, that erosion was already visible. Some scholars suggested that the country’s growing diversity had led to a loss of the cohesion achievable in more homogeneous societies; my research suggested a different culprit. I became absolutely convinced that generalized social trust requires reliably trustworthy social and governing institutions.

In other words, fish rot from the head.

As I argued in that book, the nature of the trust we need is justifiable confidence in the integrity of government and civil society writ large. That confidence was being steadily undermined–not just by what seemed to be daily scandals in business (Enron, Worldcom, et al), sports (doping, dog fighting), religion (revelations about the Catholic Church’s inadequate response to child molestation), and the George W. Bush government (duplicities which seem almost innocent in contrast to the past four years)–but especially  by the Internet.

Suddenly, Americans were marinating in information. Publicity about each scandal and details about a seemingly pervasive lack of trustworthiness was impossible to avoid.

It has gotten considerably worse since 2009. Now we are swimming in a vast sea of information, disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories–and as a consequence, trust has continued its sharp decline.

The problem is, without widespread social trust, societies are impossible to maintain.

Think about our daily lives: we deposit our paychecks and trust that the amount will be reflected on our next bank statement. We put a deposit down with the local electric utility and trust that service will be forthcoming. We call the fire department and anticipate their speedy arrival. We drop our clothing off at the cleaners and trust it will be there, cleaned, to pick up. We buy goods online and trust they’ll arrive. We buy meat at the grocery and trust that it has been inspected and is fit to eat. We board an airplane and trust that it has passed a safety inspection and will travel in its assigned air lane..

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. And that picture is much broader–and social trust much more critical– than most of us realize.

An article in The Week had a relevant factoid: evidently, Twitter’s permanent ban of Trump has already made a huge difference. “One research firm found the amount of misinformation online dropped 73 percent in the week after the president and 70,000 QAnon aficionados were shut down by the platform.”

So–the solution to our trust deficit is obvious and simple (cough, cough); we just have to make government visibly trustworthy again, enforce regulations on the businesses and other institutions that are flouting rules with impunity, and figure out how to get online platforms to disallow misinformation and propaganda, without doing violence to the First Amendment.

Piece of cake!

I think I’m going to go pour myself a very stiff drink….

 

 

The Equality Act

Those of us who follow such things remember that Joe Biden endorsed same-sex marriage before Barack Obama did. (It is highly likely that Obama held that pro-equality position well before he was ready to publicly announce it, but his public position was undoubtedly  accelerated by Biden’s pronouncement.)

Now, Biden is reassuring the LGBTQ community that he will move swiftly to protect gay equality.

As president-elect, Biden is making sweeping promises to LGBTQ activists, proposing to carry out virtually every major proposal on their wish lists. Among them: Lifting the Trump administration’s near-total ban on military service for transgender people, barring federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ job discrimination, and creating high-level LGBTQ-rights positions at the State Department, the National Security Council and other federal agencies.

It’s impossible to disagree with Biden’s observation that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence “have given hate against LGBTQ+ individuals safe harbor and rolled back critical protections.” (Let’s be candid: the Trump/Pence administration has encouraged hatred against all people who are “other”–defined as not white Christian straight male.)

There is, of course, a limit to what can be done through executive action, and Biden has said that his top legislative priority for LGBTQ issues is the Equality Act.

The Equality Act was passed by the House of Representatives last year, but–surprise! not— stalled in the Senate. It would nationalize the comprehensive anti-bias protections already in place in 21, mostly Democratic-governed states, protecting against anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing, public accommodations and public services.

According to the AP report at the link,

Biden says he wants the act to become law within 100 days of taking office, but its future remains uncertain. Assuming the bill passes again in the House, it would need support from several Republicans in the Senate, even if the Democrats gain control by winning two runoff races in Georgia. For now, Susan Collins of Maine is the only GOP co-sponsor in the Senate.

The Equality Act is opposed by the usual suspects, who are screaming that equal rights for gay people are “special rights” and an intrusion on their “religious liberty.”

These defenders of discrimination based upon the religious beliefs of some–certainly not all–denominations remind me of a long-ago committee hearing I attended in the Indiana legislature. That body was “considering” (note quotes) a bill that that would extend some measure of civil rights to gay Hoosiers. If my memory is correct, that bill was offered every session for several years by then-State Senator Louis Mahern, and just as routinely defeated. (Louie is a friend of ours, and once shared  a letter he’d received from a Hoosier “Christian” pastor, informing him that as a result of that advocacy, the pastor’s congregation was praying for Mahern’s painful death…)

In the hearing I attended, another Indianapolis pastor, now deceased–Greg Dixon, of the Indianapolis Baptist Temple–testified. He informed the committee that his bible commanded him to stone gay people (“sodomites”), and that any effort to prevent him from following that biblical command was an unconstitutional invasion of his religious liberty.

So there!

Every time the government proposes to eliminate discrimination against marginalized populations, we hear the same refrain from religious fundamentalists. The 1964 Civil Rights bill was opposed by people who claimed that God wanted black and white people separated and women subordinated.

The benefit of separating personal and civic behaviors–giving government and religion separate jurisdictions–is that we can allow these unpleasant people to discriminate in their personal lives, but forbid their efforts to make their hatreds the law of the land.

There should be no religious privilege to behave in ways that we collectively deem destructive to our social health.

As I like to say, if you don’t like gay people–or Black people or Muslims or Jews–then you don’t have to invite them to dinner. Thanks to separation of Church and State, however, you can’t tell landlords they need not rent to them or restaurant owners that they need not serve them.

America has just voted overwhelmingly to elect a mensch. Let’s hope he can get the Equality Act passed.