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.

Don’t Know Much

Pennsylvania does not come immediately to mind when “big states” are mentioned. When you have to drive the breadth of the state, however, you start to get a sense of the beast. Despite its abundant natural beauty, Interstate 80 manages to keep it to a minimum, so driving home yesterday we listened to the first disc of Kenneth C. Davis’s A Nation Rising in audio-book format. Mostly known for his Don’t Know Much About — books, Davis is a popular historian with a sense of what makes the past interesting. I can’t speak for the entire book yet, but the unabridged reading of A Nation Rising certainly was an educational experience for the first hour or so I’ve heard. The book focuses on the initial fifty years of the nineteenth century (1801-1850) in the United States. Of particular interest to me is the religious angle. In the introduction Davis states that it will become clear how the concept of America as a Christian nation is a myth. Other than my usual objection to “myth” being equated with falsity, this premise does look very interesting.

Stepping back before the nineteenth century, Davis spends several minutes (which I assume translates to several pages) describing the ancestry of Aaron Burr, one of America’s bad-boy politicians of the period. Burr was a grandson of the reformed minister Jonathan Edwards and this circumstance leads Davis to recount a bit about the Great Awakening. The first major religious revival on American soil, the Great Awakening spread throughout the States in the 1730s and ‘40s, setting the reputation of the young nation as a bastion of Reformed Christianity. Although many denominations became involved in the show, the origin and orientation of the Great Awakening was Calvinistic. Reacting against enforced Catholicism in much of Europe, many colonials flocked to America to practice their stripped down, Bible-based, generally intolerant religion in the New World. Particularly interesting in Davis’s rendition is George Whitefield. Viewing the preacher from hindsight that includes a distorted religious view of American history, Davis notes that Whitefield was as much performer as preacher.

Trying to figure out the next hot trend

Whitefield was an Anglican priest who helped set the mold for John Wesley’s success in bringing what would become the Methodist Church to America. “Whitefield pioneered the development of multiplatform marketing strategies,” using the media and staged events to draw attention to his evangelistic efforts, according to Davis. Whitefield knew that religion alone could not sway the masses. They had to be entertained. Davis notes that even the Tea Party has corollaries in early American history. What the mainstream has been slow—perhaps too slow—to realize is that entertainment works. In casting the die for American spirituality, preachers like Edwards and Whitefield knew the value of the gripping sermon vividly illustrated. The antics of many Tea Partiers reveal that they learned the lesson well. Showboating will garner more votes than substance any day. How else can we explain Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura, and Arnold Schwarzenegger? This is America’s truest legacy: entertaining with religious faith will take you where intellectual depth just can’t go.

I will have to wait for another car trip to hear more of Davis’s interesting perspective on American history, but in the meantime I wonder how long it will take intelligent Americans to catch on. Don’t Know Much About History is a frighteningly prescient title for those who continue to ignore religion as a political force.

Livin’ On a Prayer

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that Neo-Con politicians are naïve enough to believe that prayer will solve all our problems? Where was God during the Bush years, for crying out loud? And yet headline after headline speculates about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer-fest scheduled for Saturday. What is more disturbing than the lack of imagination on the part of would-be candidates is the sheep-like following on the part of a large segment of the electorate. If God is going to step in and take charge, he had a great chance back on May 21 and refused to pick up the option. If God was behind politics, why did George W. Bush fail to find Osama Bin Laden? If God is running things, why are so many unemployed? Ah, but the religious pundits have a pat answer: America is a sinful nation. What it takes is religion, Texas-style.

In the many years I spent at Nashotah House, the majority of our students hailed from Texas. They represented the conservative hard-line and doctrinal strappadoes that caused much suffering but still somehow didn’t placate an angry God. That, of course, says more about Nashotah House than it does about Texas. Perhaps it is the logical evolution of a country that began with prominent ministers gleefully describing sinners in the hands of an angry God. Nearly three centuries later and we are being told God is still angry. Thou shalt not hold a grudge, eh? The problem seems less about sinful folks just trying to get by (a la Bon Jovi) than about politicians using their religion to get elected. Centuries down the road it will be the topic of some new series of History’s Mysteries that an affluent, educated, and generally forward-looking nation cluttered its governing bodies with politicians who believed the answer to complex problems is to bow their heads and tell God how to fix it. Are we really half-way there, or have we spread our arms to embrace Jonathan Edwards once again?

In MSNBC’s article on Rick Perry’s prayer day, it is noted that the book of Joel is cited as an inspiration for the event. For such a brief book, Joel has been at the forefront of a ton of damage wrought by prooftexters. Joel wrote three brief chapters about a locust infestation for which the suggested response was prayer. One wonders if Rick Perry simply prays when the termites begin to gnaw on his expensive home, or does he call Ortho instead? Joel was truly old school. The locusts in his day meant literal mass-starvation. No chemical romance to solve the problem there. Unfortunately we don’t know how that one turned out—Joel doesn’t say. I’m just glad that Governor Perry hadn’t been reading Psalm 137 when inspiration struck, and can I get an amen from the pro-lifers on that?

Ricky used to work on the docks?

P.S. Matthew 6.5.

Cheating God

Anyone engaged in education long enough will eventually encounter cheating in one form or another. Social psychologists have suggested that whether one believes in God or not has little bearing on moral behavior. A recent report in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion demonstrates that belief in God does not effect cheating by undergraduates. Among those that believe in God, however, those that believe in an angry, punishing God cheat less than those who believe in a loving, forgiving God. An explanation of the study may be found at

Someone's watching you

Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” it seems, is the bane of cheaters. The Great Awakening chased along the heels of a wrathful deity baying “believe or else!” Those believing in a nicer God are more apt to take liberties. The interesting corollary of this finding is that it does not divide believers along denominational lines but rather along personal outlooks on God’s kindliness. Nobel pagans and fearful believers share a strong moral center.

An informative follow-up would be a study to determine how many believe in a loving versus a wrathful God. From such data we might be able to extrapolate who is more likely to cheat on taxes, spouses, or any other big-ticket items in the economy of our society. Given the number of high profile spouse-cheatings among televangelists and Christian politicians, one thing seems clear: belief in a friendly God willing to look the other way is in no danger of extinction any time soon. Oh, and please keep your eyes on your own paper.

Evil Echinoderms

Ever since I can remember, I have longed for the ocean. Not a good swimmer, and not one to eat the myriad creatures that fill its immense waters, I find myself nonetheless drawn to its endless pounding surf and salt spray. Even before I’d read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, discovered the eternal fascination of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or had even heard of H. P. Lovecraft, I knew that I belonged to the ocean. It need not compete for my affection. It had already won. With family visiting this weekend and with an unseasonably warm March weather-system, we went down to the Jersey Shore yesterday to visit my old friend. Sandy Hook is a peninsula that juts up from New Jersey toward New York City, a sandbar of undeveloped free ocean access administered by the National Park Service. During the summer it can be intensely lined with fishermen and sun-worshipers, but in March it was a reasonable place to be. Sea creatures are abundant when left alone, and we saw our first harbor seal of the season, along with a galaxy of sea stars. These echinoderms had eluded me thus far; we’ve been to the shore several times during our Jersey days and had never discovered any. One large sea star had been stranded in an evaporated tide pool. Compassion overcame me and I carried it down to the surf to offer it a chance for continued survival.

Miserable sinner?

Recently I reread Jonathan Edwards’ horrific yet classic sermonic masterpiece, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Vividly depicting a furious deity barely capable of restraining his repressed wrath directed toward wicked human beings, but for an uncommon dose of misplaced compassion, Edwards suggests we all deserve ghastly destruction. Edwards underscores one of my recurrent observations about religion – it is a means of control. The great Puritan divinity only accepts penitent Puritans, all others go directly to Hell, not passing Go, not collecting their two-hundred dollars.

As I held that helpless sea star, destined for the cruel, drying rays of an unclouded sun, I did not think of its multiple transgressions. Murderous predators, sea stars consume other sea creatures, including their own kind, in the constant struggle for survival. This one had obviously had a successful run and had grown to an impressive size. I felt no rage, no desire to destroy this killer. Instead, I saw a radiant example of a being evolved to live in an environment that I can not even comprehend, just doing what it needs to get along in its undersea world. And I recognized the wrath of God for what it really is – one man’s unfulfilled plan to decide the destiny of his fellow creatures.