Religion, He Wrote

A friend recently sent me the New York Times obituary for Carol Serling, the wife of one of my heroes, Rod Serling.  Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but I often wonder about the religion of my favorite writers.  More often than not I discover that they’re affiliated with tolerant faiths, sometimes unattached to any specific tradition.  Rod Serling grew up Jewish but became a Unitarian-Universalist by marriage, and—it doesn’t stretch the imagination—remained one by conviction.  I’ve read a bit about the UU tradition, and it is based primarily on values rather than beliefs.  In fact, the idea that religion is a matter of what you believe is only one way of defining it.  Historically one’s religion was a matter of what one did, not necessarily what she or he believed.

Authors that I read often deal with religious issues.  It’s important to confess that I don’t select fiction based on its having religious themes.  Anyone who’s read more than one or two of my posts will know my reading is eclectic and many of the books represented here have shown up because of wildly different circumstances.  Reading challenges, friends’ recommendations, and preparations for educational presentations are often driving forces.  In the fictional realm I’m drawn to the speculative, but also often to the catch-all category called “literary.”  Stories that feel authentic in either category have an element of religion in them.  Life portrayed without it doesn’t seem believable.  I’ve been re-reading some Ray Bradbury.  There’s often suggestive material there.

Raised a Baptist, Bradbury is often also claimed as a Unitarian-Universalist.  Apparently he didn’t like the label, but his behavior was more a selection of tenets that he found compelling from various religions.  All of this may sound strange in a context where “religion” is increasingly a dirty word.  (To be honest, it has been doing much to earn such a reputation.)  Still, it is a very deep part of being human.  Rod Serling’s stories advocated fair treatment of all people and often his sense of justice landed him in trouble with advertisers for The Twilight Zone.  Religions comfortable with maintaining prejudice, or turning a blind eye to lawbreaking in the name of false virtue would certainly not understand refusing to take money from questionable sources.  I suppose there’s a reason I enjoy the stories from the days when America still had a conscience.  The legacies of such writers, it is to be hoped, will outlast what passes for religion these days. 

Any other gods before me…

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.


Three Degrees Below Zero

Rick Santorum has turned his attack on intelligence against American universities, according to a story in the Huffington Post. He claims the left uses colleges for indoctrination to keep themselves in power. Sounds like somebody’s been sipping a little too much communion wine. I know many people who might have a right to make such claims, but Santorum isn’t one of them. Santorum earned a Bachelor of Arts, with honors, from the wicked, indoctrinating Pennsylvania State University. He then succumbed again to the indoctrination when he, apparently accidentally, earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of Pittsburgh. Somehow he stumbled onto a J.D. with honors from Dickinson School of Law. A man this indoctrinated, I say, has no business being president.

During these senior moments (not to offend any seniors who might actually make that claim) Santorum seems to have missed that universities are among the most under-funded, crisis-ridden institutions on American soil. With rare exceptions, universities are cutting programs, canceling positions, and slashing budgets. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve vented a fair amount of criticism on our universities and I know, firsthand, that they aren’t perfect. I rage because I love. It seems that some children of privilege like to rage because it’s in fashion. If you’re going to take on those smarter than you, at least try to get the facts straight. Higher education is such a small segment of the American employment force that the only reason you’d go after them is that, well, you’re in a church. Baptist Catholic Santorum made his remarks while at a church in Florida, a state which, despite insidious power-mongering, boasts some of the finest universities in the country.

Taking stabs at Obama, Santorum claims the president wants all kids to go to college, and that’s a bad thing. You don’t want an educated electorate. It is harder to get educated people to march in goose-step with everybody else. Talk about indoctrination! Vote for me, because I will keep you safe from the horrors of an education of which I couldn’t stop my self from taking advantage. Don’t send your kids to law school. There can be real danger even in sending them to grammar school, for there they learn to spell. I wonder, if in the course of earning his three degrees, Mr. Santorum ever learned to spell the word “hypocrite.”

Just an average guy, hanging with his buds.

Silent Fright

Baylor University has begun to make quite a showing in the non-sectarian academic world of late. Knowing of the school’s Baptist heritage, I’d always been somewhat suspicious of any scholarship susceptible to doctrinal poisoning. I freely admit that my fear goes back to a hyper-evangelical college roommate. Even at the conservative bastion of Grove City College, John would lament the sorry religious state of the school and repeatedly thought of transferring to Baylor. (I need not fear that John will ever read this—he avoided liberal dribble like it was Planned Parenthood.) By association, Baylor became something in my mind that it apparently is not. When the administration recognized the direction the Southern Baptist Convention was going, they took steps to protect themselves from a takeover (something I’d witnessed at a much smaller school some distance north). The university press has been producing intriguing books, and the sociology department has been cranking out some fascinating studies of religion.

One of the more recent religion in America surveys from Baylor indicates that a correlation exists between the image of God presented by a version of Christianity and that contentedness of believers. More specifically, churches that promote a judgmental image of God (think Jonathan Edwards and his spiritual bedmates) tend to be anxiety-ridden and compulsive. Churches that teach a loving God have more balanced believers. Brimstone and hellfire, in other words, produce the expected results. What the Baylor study shows is not so much surprising as it is scientific. Well, softly scientific. As a social science, sociology relies on statistics and analysis to draw its conclusions. We now have a means of measuring religions outcomes.

Religion is, in many ways, self-fulfilling prophecy. By preparing believers for a literal Hell of a future, it cranks out automatons who’ll do anything to flee from the wrath to come. Herein lies its danger as well. Although some politicians may be naïve about the veracity of belief, many of them realize something their more liberal compatriots don’t—religion motivates. The religion of a loving God who has no Damoclesian sword hovering perilously over the heads of the faithful won’t get them to the polls. The god with believers on a skewer above the everlasting barbeque pit will. Baylor has shown us the data. If we ever hope to redress the damage constantly visited by politicians claiming God has told them to run for office, to invade Iraq, to commit war crimes in the name of the prince of peace, we must act on good information. If religion is a psychological anomaly, it pays to learn a little applied psychology. Otherwise the wrath of an angry god will consume us all.

Rhode Island Blue

Rhode Island is often overlooked as the smallest state, a place seldom happened upon by accident, somewhere that one has to intend to go. Drawn by family, I made a trip to Rhode Island and serendipitously learned the lesson of Roger Williams. Roger Williams was the founder of Rhode Island, and, for those only familiar with the Southern Baptist movement, a rather unbelievably liberal Baptist. The founder of the first Baptist church in the nation, Williams was also the advocate of a form of religious freedom that is still railed against today by conservative Christian factions that wish to make America a “Christian nation.”


Roger Williams' first Baptist church (in the country)

We are accustomed to religious propagandists today telling us that the “founding fathers” were Christians just like they are (simply not true), and that America should remain a “Christian country.” Roger Williams, although not often spoken of in the same tier as George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, classifies as one of our founders and he was an outspoken advocate of conscience as the guiding force behind religion, not state or federally mandated compliance. Rhode Island was offered as a “shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” It was a state where a mind was free to follow its lead.

I confess to overlooking Rhode Island often. But as a refuge for “Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks,” it is the Dreamland of religious liberty. Progressive to the point of welcoming Jewish believers and Muslims, Williams went as far as to declare, “none [should be] compelled from their own particular Prayer or Worship, if they practice any.” Even the unbeliever was welcome. How far the “religious right” has fallen from this original ideal of a humble Baptist who envisioned a homeland where residents were free to believe as their conscience dictated!