Ouch! Ouch!

The cold and flu season seems to have had an extended life this year, what with snow still falling in April and yet another week of cooler weather in the forecast. Although there’s no cure for the common cold, we do have the ability to prevent many maladies with a vaccine. Under eight years of Republican governance, New Jersey had become quite friendly to those who don’t want their kids vaccinated, despite being the most densely populated state in the union. The reason many objectors give? “It’s against my religion.” There was a massive outcry recently when a bill was approved that requires religious objectors to state what their religion is and what exact tenet of that religion vaccination actually violates. The statements of those opposed show that religion was largely being used as an excuse by those who didn’t want their children inoculated. Confirmation class has a purpose after all.

Social responsibility, of course, reaches beyond the home. In fact, it begins as soon as we open the door. Add to that the fact that most people can’t describe the basic beliefs of their own religion accurately and you have a real case for contagion. When you sign up to join a religion—what a capitalistic idea!—you generally go through training classes to let you know what you’re publicly proclaiming you believe. Given that religion deals with everlasting consequences, you might think most people would pay close attention, embedding the facts deeply. That, however, often isn’t the case. Beliefs are handed down like family heirlooms, or are gleaned from watching television (usually Fox). One’s religion is useful for making excuses, but people hate to be challenged on this point.

In the right’s continuing war on social responsibility, they’ve been pumping the media full of anti-vaccine fear. Vaccines, they’ll aver, use human embryos. Any other other form of conspiracy theory can be used to turn hoi polloi against them. Our society was built into what it is by as many people as possible agreeing that when it comes to the good of all, individual prejudices sometimes have to be overlooked. It’s natural enough for parents to be concerned for the wellbeing of their children. It’s sadly ironic when their “religion” tells them that the most basic protections are somehow evil. Who can help but to think of Abraham holding the knife above a bound Isaac on the altar? That is, if they happen to be of a certain religion, and if they paid attention during their version of confirmation class.

Good Newsists

In the interest of avoiding conflict thereof, I cannot yet give a review of Randall Balmer’s Evangelicalism in America. Since I’m writing a review of it for Reading Religion, I’ll use it as a springboard into a topic that should concern all who believe in religious freedom. One of the resounding themes of Balmer’s treatment is that Evangelicalism, after it wedded to the Religious Right, lost its soul. Those are my words, not his, but the sentiment’s about right. For anyone who wasn’t politically aware in the 1980s, it may seem a surprise that religion didn’t enter into politics before that decade. With the exception of the fear of the Catholic in the case of John F. Kennedy, religion wasn’t used as a political wedge until the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The Religious Right, unhappy with the born again Southern Baptist in the White House, moved to solidify the Evangelical bloc.

Evangelicals had been an underground movement for half a century. Many had no idea what being “born again” meant when Carter first claimed the sobriquet. Balmer points out that it was the threat of the withdrawal of tax-exempt status to discriminating Christian schools that led to political action. Bob Jones University, fearful of racial intermarriage, didn’t admit African American students. Leaders of the Religious Right saw the loss of tax-exempt status as a move against their sacred segregated culture and a push that required a shove. Coopting the abortion issue (historically Evangelicals had supported women’s rights, including the right to abortion in many cases), they nailed together a platform for political activism which put women “back in their place,” kept racial “purity,” and romanced a total aberration in Christianity—the “prosperity gospel.” All of this is well documented. And well hidden.

Looking at Evangelical politics today, abortion—the control of women—has become THE issue. It’s hard to believe, as Balmer amply illustrates, that Evangelicalism used to be allied with the Social Gospel. It was a religious view with a conscience and it supported issues that are now polarized as “liberal” and leftist. This shift came about gradually, but not accidentally. There were political players—Balmer names names—who had one goal in mind, and that goal wasn’t Jesus or what he’d do. It was the sweet prize of political power. Evangelicals, you see, are born followers. A leader with a strong voice can lead them just about anywhere. Many Evangelicals today would deny their more liberal history, but it is right there for anyone who’s willing to learn something about who they once were.

Unspoken Reality

In that impressive cultural marvel known as Facebook, a few gems amid the overburden occasionally appear. The post of a friend brought to my awareness a site known as everyday feminism, where, last year a post about religious privilege appeared. The brief piece entitled “30+ Examples of Christian Privilege” highlights one of the persistently overlooked aspects of religious liberty. No matter how much the founders of the United States valued freedom of religion, the colonials were, at least on the part of the non-slave side of the equation, Christians. Whether Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, or Guanahani, those Europeans who first set foot ashore did so under the banner of one variety of Christianity or another. (Such a case might be made for Vineland as well.) Religious liberty meant fleeing the oppressive practice of state religion—always Christianity—that kept shifting according to the whims of frequently unstable monarchs. For all its wide variety, Christianity is cut from a bolt of the same cloth. At least in the lining.

The Christian Privilege cited on everyday feminism is the most insipid kind brushed with the widest strokes. Still, it does reveal just how thoroughly Christian even the secular can be. Christianity, as I often told my students, pervades our culture. We live it, breathe it, ingest it. Often subconsciously. America was and wasn’t founded as a Christian nation. Intentionally, according to the wishes of the founders, no. Unintentionally, according to the dictates of privileged classes, yes. The problem here is not Christianity—it is privilege. Depending on whence you read the words of Jesus, his message seems to have been one of a general equality, or at least fairness. Those same words, however, can be distorted to support the monolith of the privileges granted those who follow the “one true faith.” The privilege to own slaves, for example. Or to oppress others born into less fortunate circumstances.

Ironically, among academics, I’m told, there is a push to hire those who are authentically unprivileged. Although I must, by my accidental Caucasianness, maleness, and inherited Christianity, be classified as privileged oppressor, I did grow up in economic privation. So much so that my wife feared to take our infant daughter to the unsafe house in which I was reared (which was, fortunately, condemned and demolished before that became an issue). It still shows in my natural, placating obsequiousness to supervisors and bosses—I was raised knowing my place. Yes, sir. As a first generation college student, I still find myself confused by why I was rejected by a higher education into which I poured all my youthful energy. Yes, in such circumstances, it is difficult at times to see the privileges. They are there, however, as anyone willing to walk across town with their eyes open may see.

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Austin City Limits

Maybe it’s just because Texas feels like the brass buckle of the Bible Belt, but I had moral qualms about landing in George Bush International Airport this afternoon. Texas has so many worthy heroes, but in the land of Rick Perry, recent Republican politics is king. Not queen. But king. It felt like a work of supererogation to drive to Austin after a three-and-a-half hour flight to Houston, but Texas reminded me of Illinois with palm trees. And cacti. Well, okay, and longhorns. One could get culture-lash flying here from New York. Before I embarked I had visions of my rental car being a huge Cadillac with real steer horns for a hood ornament. I just couldn’t picture myself in a ten-gallon hat.

I sometimes wonder how religion could’ve come to divide a nation such as the United States. Founded on the principles of religious liberty, lately one party has been claiming the right to legislate morality for all, deeply polarizing a populace that should be able to accept differing viewpoints. Still, there are issues on which human rights insist there can be no compromise: women have equal rights with men, and have the right to self-determination just like men. It truly amazes me that such common sense can even become a divisive issue. If we could agree on even that, we’d have to declare it progress over the objections of the Religious Right. My thoughts wander that way when I tarry in the south. It’s really a pity. The people are friendly here and the landscape has its own beauty. Are we really that different?

I’m not altogether convinced that this isn’t just a case of prejudice masking as religious sensibility. Religions can be all too gullible when they feel their honors might have been impugned. While I regularly express my opinion here, I do respect nearly every form of sincerely held religious belief. None of us has all the answers, and it seems the height of hypocrisy to insist that anyone is right all the time. Nevertheless, my sojourn beneath the Bible Belt has me wondering about the origins of various religious squabbles. Or maybe it was the just the long drive along the “presidential corridor” after touching down at an facility that most websites still refer to as simply, Houston International Airport. Travel broadens the mind—it is, in fact, an excellent form of education. Maybe if we got out more we would all get along better.

From here we all look the same.

From here we all look the same.

Religious Capital

Eric Weiner’s book, Man Seeks God, surely received a boost with an article in Sunday papers (originally written for the Los Angeles Times). In this piece, Weiner comments on the American fluidity of religion, how people pick and choose the spirituality that works for them. His observations are based on the results of a Pew Trust study that indicates about a third of Americans change their religion during their lifetimes. This is a departure from the age-old tradition of being born into a religion, something that still seems to apply to two-thirds of the American population. In his article Weiner suggests this is not entirely a bad thing, since people are consciously deciding on that to which they will commit themselves. I haven’t yet read Weiner’s book, but the situation described here has a potent underlying implication.

Religions tend to make claims based on certitudes and assertions of absolute truth. When religion becomes merely a matter of choice, has it not lost its very foundation? This may not be a bad thing, but it does change completely the essence of religion. No longer can religion be considered an inviolable truth handed down from on high if the truth is a matter of choice. Or, more troubling, perhaps we no longer seek truth. In a population based on personal satisfaction, religion becomes an extension of personal comfort. In a society where non-faith is suspect (most atheists still complain of being considered “evil” for their non-belief), people need to believe something—anything. We can’t test the truth in any empirical way, so we all have to admit to some guessing. When born into a religion, questioning is a sign of doubt. When shopping for a religion, questioning is a smart economics. Does this religion work for me? Is there one that suits me better? Is it worth the extra costs?

The center of focus has shifted from seeking the one, unwavering truth that is beyond us to seeking a belief that we can stomach. Religion is a commodity. Perhaps this development is inevitable in any society so dedicated to the free market that even common decency is labeled socialism. Is it possible for people who constantly think in terms of supply and demand to understand an absolute in one tiny sector of their lives? Choice becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Its pragmatism indicates its origins. When people can choose a religion without consequences, it should be obvious that this is a human construct. Instead, we want to believe that our religion is the right one because that’s the way we like it. Perhaps the question we should be asking is whether our lifestyle is authentic or simply a fabrication made to suit our wishes. Our treatment of religion as a product to purchase and use reveals more about what we believe than does any creed.

Zombie Walks

As October nears its creepy climax, signs of the macabre have become abundant. A trend that has reached new heights in recent years is the zombie walk. Various cities or regions host large groups of brainless, reanimated corpses in parade (rather like a Tea Party, I should imagine) to welcome in the darker half of the year. In a most unconventional display of cultural unity, groups of strangers meet for the purpose of sharing their fascination with the undead. Given the inherent potential for overly enthusiastic participation, these events are usually held during daylight hours and are becoming as accepted as trick-or-treating on Halloween.

Fear of death is sublimated in a conquest of the same with less definitiveness than traditional resurrection, but with a more gritty and graphic triumph of life. Organized religions have had difficulty maintaining numbers in much of the “developed world” while this new danse macabre has taken on a life of its own. Many find claims of divine authority in institutions that refuse to make clean breaks with sex scandals or threats of Quran burning somewhat disingenuous, while nobody questions the motives of zombies. They simply do what it takes to survive. An honest zombie stumbles toward eternal life.

Credibility is less easily commanded than it had been in former times. While many voices, such as Tea Partiers’, are claiming the need to erase the sixties and seventies and subsequent decades from the calendar so that the authoritarian Father can be returned to power, thinking people are asking what the plan might be. Is it time to break down that putative wall between church and state and declare America a plutocratic, evangelistic Republic? Never mind that inevitable conflicts will break out over who has the right to set doctrine and public policy – most citizens will be found out walking with their fellow zombies, welcoming in the darkening season.

Bibles and Freedom

Visiting the Red Mill in Clinton, New Jersey is always a worthwhile experience. Yesterday, a gloomy, gray September postcard, was perfect for such a visit. In addition to the many buildings on the museum grounds that retain an atmospheric feel year-round, the Mill is supposedly haunted and is frequented by a number of ghost hunting teams. With its long (for America) history and its picturesque beauty, the museum is a popular spot with tourists as well as ghost hunters.

One of the buildings on the grounds is an old one-room schoolhouse. As a family we have visited a number of these, although none of us qualify as having been actual pupils at one. A frequent blandishment at such institutions is the rules by which school teachers had to live in the nineteenth century, usually posted on the wall. Yesterday as we read the obligatory list, one “commandment” stuck out from the 1872 code of conduct: “After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or any other good books.” While many of the rules were condescending in their moralizations, this one carried a perfect example of how a nation, naively short-sighted, was already giving preferential treatment to one religion, Protestant Christianity.

As a nation founded as a haven for religious freedom, the colonists and settlers simply had narrow exposure to religions of the world. Freedom seemed an ideal worth dying for, but usually it meant freedom to be whatever (Protestant) denomination you wished to be. Catholicism was associated with the old powers of Europe, and the religions of the east were barely known. The Protestants were the ones who promoted Bible reading in those days, and while the rules allowed for other good books, there is an unstated superiority given to the Good Book in its pride of place. Once the colonials became nationals, it was still fair to taunt Quakers, Unitarians, and others who didn’t seem to fit the mold. We didn’t see any ghosts at the Red Mill yesterday, but it did seem that a haunting memory of true religious liberty hung about the place.

Clinton's Red Mill sews freedom