Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

Substance of Faith

Every once in a very great while, faith is rewarded. I’m not talking about the faith that is bound up in black leather, inaccessible to realists who struggle daily to keep going. No, this particular faith is human based, based on my fellow citizens who saw it necessary to do the right thing. Although I have to rise before 4 a.m. to get to work, I tossed all night wondering what was happening at the polls. Obama’s reelection meant more to me than I guess I even realized. You see, I look at elections symbolically. Not as overtly black and white as Dark Vader and Luke Skywalker (neither candidate is pure good or evil), but I see that candidates stand for something. I don’t care what religion a president claims, but I do watch closely for what they value. Money, to my way of thinking, is not the way to build a society. Once in a while the rich need to be reminded that no, money can’t buy you everything.

Politics went off the rails when conservative religious issues were mingled with unfettered entrepreneurial aspirations during my formative years. God, I hope those days are over! People often vote with their emotions and studies have repeatedly shown that even conservative religionists like George W. Bush did not deliver a more productive, biblically literate nation after eight years of fumbling in the dark. The legacy was a national debt that should have been an embarrassment and a deeply polarized society. I was glad for the GOP nomination of Mitt Romney—it was a chance to test if the privilege of wealth had a chance of winning without the evangelical interests who see Mormonism as a “cult.” My faith in the American people paid off.

No, Obama’s first term was not a picnic, but every time I peeked, it sure looked like hard work was being done. Prolonged vacations to the ranch seemed to be a thing of the past. Difficult thinking was given a place in the nation’s capital again. If we want the one percenters to get the message, we must shout loudly. They live far, far above the rest of us in sound-insulated penthouses and never have to wait in line four hours just to buy gasoline. There is work to be done, and it has to start at the street level, if not below. This is faith. Quoting the Bible while bombing your enemies and protecting the wealthy elite is disingenuous in anybody’s ethical playbook. Thank you America for showing that giving in is not the only option. Tonight I will be able to sleep.

Endorsement

Since a blog is a variety of media, and since media endorse their candidates, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World endorses Barack Obama for President of the United States. I endorse Obama for the working class, for those who think clearly, and for those whom society doesn’t give a chance.

Working class credentials are at a premium these days among politicians who want to appear to be just like the most of us. Often it is, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Some of us, many of us, maybe most of us, have grown up in the working class. We are fed a theologically conservative line by our clergy and sometimes they make efforts to wrap it loosely around political conservatism as well. I don’t buy it. I grew up working class and that mentality has never changed. This is something Obama understands. He may not be perfect, but in this working world, none of us are. Empathy is still currency.

Bemusement would be my reaction to the factual gaffs made by not only Mitt Romney but also most presidential candidates from the GOP over the last two decades, were they not so serious. They show a loss of touch not only with the average person, but with reality itself. In their world of corporate-level wealth and extreme privilege they don’t even have to obey the laws of climate change as long as their obsequious sycophants are willing to change the facts for them. I am amazed at how easily the wool is pulled over the eyes of the American public. Does anybody really listen to what these guys are saying? Does anybody bother to try to add it all up? No, not even a slide rule will help.

The economy was not fixed over night. Too many years of too much greed have dug us deep, deep in a rut. From their armored cars speeding along in the midst of motorcades maybe the politicians don’t see the homeless I walk past every day on my way to work in the richest city in the nation. Maybe they don’t see the utter lack of hope, the death of possibility in the eyes of those who, through no fault of their own, society deems useless. I’ve been unemployed, even though I played by the rules. I learned there are no rules, save one. Those with wealth will do whatever it takes to keep it.

I think Barack Obama understands all these points. As for the honorable opposition, I think his diamond-lens glasses may have grown too thick to read clearly what the tablets say. And those tablets, I’m told, are made of gold.

Burned Over

Western and central New York State, in any religious history of America, have acquired the nickname, “The Burned-Over District.”  This graphic metaphor arises from the constant evangelizing and, more importantly, the fertile soil for new religious movements left in its wake.  This region could claim to be the home of Seventh-Day Adventism, Spiritualism, the Oneida Society, and the Latter-Day Saints.  It was also an early home of the Shakers and the land chosen by the Publick Universal Friend for her new Jerusalem.  The sense of place is important to religions.  The Latter-Day Saints, however, grew restless in this region where Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and began a torturous trek that would land the Mormons in Utah.  Joseph Smith never made it that far.  Religious leaders being persecuted are nothing new; Smith had been tarred and feathered, was wanted on charges of fraud, and was eventually murdered for his beliefs.  He was also one of the most intensely creative individuals America has produced. His extraordinary creative venture is often overshadowed by the religion that grew out of it.

With Mitt Romeny’s campaign stoking up steam, many people find themselves wondering about Mormonism.  I first learned about the Latter-Day Saints from a rather biased World Religions course at Grove City College.  One aspect which was true in that course, however, was the great secrecy surrounding Mormon teachings. Of course, the Book of Mormon is in the public domain and is easily available to those who wish to read it.  Official Latter-Day Saint beliefs, on the other hand, are frequently inscrutable.  For all its problems (and they are sometimes significant), mainstream Christianity is very open (and often vocal) about its belief system.  The same holds true for Judaism (mostly) and Islam.  If you want to know what they believe, just ask.  Americans tend to be a little perplexed by the Latter-Day Saints because there is always a feeling that there is something they’re not telling you.  It goes all the way down to the underwear.  All religions are concerned with sex.  Some may not disclose the details in public, but they all deal with it somehow.  Latter-Day Saints have rules about underwear–I’m sure other religions do too.

If Americans are really, seriously curious about the religious heritage of a potential president, a great way to find out is to read a bit of our own history.  I learned about the Burned-Over District back in college and have periodically read about it several times since then.  It is no secret.  Our society is not likely to expend the energy needed to learn about its own heritage.  As several of my recent posts have intimated, even higher education has no time for the study of religion (or history, or anything that doesn’t make money–Romney surely does!). Instead we will charge fearlessly ahead into the dark.  And when we are in the dark we may start to wonder why we’re wearing this unusual underwear. Wondering about religion is far easier than supporting those who study it.

Have you seen this man?

Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.

Two Sparrows

Once I found a baby bird blown from its nest. Many future priests had walked by already that morning, not even noticing. At first I thought it was dead, but then it lifted its head weakly and opened its beak in a soundless cry for its mother. Afraid to touch it, I pulled on some gloves, took it home and called the local animal rescue center. With my daughter keeping the chick warm in the backseat, we drove down the country roads hoping the little thing would survive at least long enough to get professional help. When the trees leafed out and the air warmed up that summer, I received a call from Animals in Need. The bird had survived and was ready for release—would I like to let it go near where I found it? They had worked hard to prevent habituation, and I brought the bird home in a paper grocery bag that it occasionally tested to see if it could find its way out. With my daughter, I opened the bag in the woods and the bird was gone in a flash. We barely saw it as it flew to freedom.

If I were a rich man, well, I guess I would run for president. Perhaps it was being overseas for a week, but the presidential race seemed to fall from the news with Santorum’s demise (if ever I believed in divine intervention, it was on the day he dropped out of the race). Of course, those in Britain who knew me wondered about the carnival characters running for the “most powerful man” job. So we’re now left with a very wealthy man who’s just like the rest of us. Ironically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible—an occupational hazard—and wondering when the ideal of Jesus’ teaching was forgotten in the haste to become the richest Christian on the block (or empire, as the case may be). The disconnect couldn’t be sharper between the man who said that if you wanted to please God you had to give all your material goods away and a man running for public servant has more money than the last eight presidents combined. And Reagan was no slouch on the financial end. Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

I can’t remember the last time I felt valued by a politician. At least the Democratic candidates attempt the lessen the suffering of the poor a little bit, but I still see people sleeping in the streets. The roller coaster that is the economy demonstrates its unfeeling course as some get rich then plunge to the depths only to soar out of them again into sunny spaces. According to the Gospels, Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it. Apparently that little bird I was privileged to rescue was part of the divine plan. That guy sleeping on the subway grate over there trying to keep warm? Well, the politicians apparently can’t see him, and I wonder if the God who watches the sparrows has noticed either.

Not a sparrow (golden pheasant)

Stuff and Nonsense

I don’t pretend to know much about politics. Beyond the required social studies classes through which I was channeled as a high school student and as an undergraduate I glimpsed the halls of power and they seemed pretty dirty to me. Not that studying religion was a much better choice, but then, enough Bible-dust in the eyes can obscure any vision. So I see some political pundits claiming that Santorum’s victories in the southern states demonstrate that his conservative platform resonates with the electorate. In their sense of surprise, I wonder why the elephant in the room is generally ignored. No matter how enlightened the modern political scientist may be, the fact is that Mormonism is held to be a “cult” by many evangelical churches. Religion specialists have long made the mistake of dismissing right-wing conservative Christian groups as an aberration, a mirage that will disappear when the coolness of evening settles the turbulent air over the pavement. The Republican primaries should shatter such illusions, but it won’t.

Just an ordinary guy, with his millions

While many of us have been trained to treat all religions as striving after the amorphous other, many others are raised to believe that Mormonism is a danger to society. Not that I agree, but I know from personal experience this is what they teach. I was raised on the tracts and texts that spelled it out in black-and-white claiming Mormonism to be a “cult.” The very word “cult” is eschewed by scholars of religion as a description for non-conventional theologies. As a term it is so 1980’s. Tell that to the electorate. The political pundits, it seems to me—and I may be wrong—underestimate how much people vote with their faith. Over the past twenty years, the Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated itself a champion of conservative causes. It has gone from pariah among the parishes to pontiff of the politicos. When evangelicals can’t stay in the race, it is difficult to distinguish Catholics from Pentecostals. Even scholars of religion should be scratching their heads.

The fact is we simply do not know enough about religion. Media treatment of the field is often dismissive or facile. Meanwhile, it is fueling the political engines that will lead to a showdown of worldviews in November. Maybe the Maya were correct after all. I don’t know much about politics. I’ve studied religion long enough to admit that I know little about it as well. I fear the experts with too many answers. If I turn out my pockets I find they are full of nothing but questions. (And lint.) Religion is what wins elections, yet our universities dismiss its study as juvenile and irrelevant. I read the headlines from the primaries—only a farce like this could make me miss Sarah Palin.