Saints and Freedom

There’s a saying that all elections are local.  I suspect that’s true.  Location is important.  There are famous Americans not recognized in other parts of the world.  And there are, of course, local celebrities.  Having settled once again in Pennsylvania, I’ve taken an interest in local religions.  Although not part of the “Burnt-over District” of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, because of its early laws of religious liberty, has produced some noteworthy figures over the centuries.  And institutions.  When someone mentioned St. Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I was curious.  I’m not Catholic and even though I’d considered a monastic life, I really knew little about it.  St. Vincent is the largest Benedictine monastery in the western hemisphere, as well as the oldest in the United States.  

Image credit: Guerillero, via Wikimedia Commons (Copyleft Free Art License)

Latrobe isn’t far from Pittsburgh.  There is a strong Catholic presence in the area.  Like many Catholic institutions, it has a cluster.  St. Vincent College, also in Latrobe, must’ve sent me—in those days, print—a prospectus back when I was looking at schools.  I’ve known about it for a long time.  There’s also a seminary, also called St. Vincent.  Probably it’s largest claim to fame is that the Pittsburgh Steelers use the College (I suspect the seminary has no athletic program) for their training camp.  Monks and football players—they must have some interesting conversations.  I grew up thinking Catholicism was basically some other religion.  Fundamentalists, misunderstanding the basics of history, tend to claim that Catholics aren’t Christians.  Indeed, until the recent politicization of conservative Christianity, they wouldn’t have had much to say to each other.

Catholicism was frowned upon by the early colonists.  While seeking freedom of religion, what they really wanted was freedom of religion for themselves.  In good, charitable Christian fashion, many colonies tried to exclude those that believed differently.  Especially Papists.   Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, however, notably allowed freedom.  I’ve lived in Pennsylvania long enough to know that even legal freedom isn’t protection from those locals who’d rather not have Muslims or Hindus for neighbors.  And in all likelihood William Penn, a good Quaker, probably couldn’t imagine people of “exotic” religions wanting in.  Indeed, the majority of people in this hemisphere weren’t really even aware of “eastern religions” until the 1890s.  The religions here were forms mostly of Christianity and Judaism.  By 1846 the Benedictines could establish a college, monastery, seminary complex in western Pennsylvania.  And it would become the largest and oldest such establishment in a country that still doesn’t grasp true religious freedom.

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.


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


This week’s Time magazine has a rhetorical question on the cover: Is America Islamophobic? Not a word need be said. The real issue at stake, the one many Muslims feel the brunt of, is religious freedom. This founding concept of America has been eroding for decades. How many Americans have tried to imagine what it would be like if they were Muslims living in “the land of the free”? For that matter, how many have tried to imagine what it would be like to be Catholic, Protestant, or Unitarian? Certainly, it would seem, Jews know the value of religious freedom. Do we ever really try to feel their experience? It is much more cozy to be part of the religious majority and tell others to step in line.

With great roaring newts and Alaskan beauty queens telling them what to think, Americans are easily stoked to injustice. No, they have no right to worship here, they tell us. The truly frightening part is how easily manipulated the masses are. America a Christian nation? Who can adequately define “Christian”? Those who make such claims tend to be Neo-Cons who assume some fundamental form of Christianity is the default version. The only version. Their goals are not religious, but rather intensely selfish – the antithesis of Christianity. By their fruits you shall know them, a wise man once said. It is easy to forget who.

We live in a nation that since the Reagan years has attempted to privatize industries that had ensured fairer treatment because of government standards, no matter how faulty. Now private companies could run with the basic necessities of civilized existence and grow wealthy on them while those who were poor could be forced to pay more. This was done with the public image of a “Christian nation.” RR, the poster-child of the Religious Right. Laissez faire has come to mean “leggo my Eggo” – let me claim the one true religion and capitalize upon it. One size does fit all as long as the wealthy are left free to grow wealthier. Let’s call it religious freedom, but let’s prevent others from pursuing their religion freely. To me it feels like 1984. And that was decades earlier than 9/11.

Religious Democracy

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s paper raised some important issues concerning religion and the unfortunate fall of Mark Souder. The article, by E. J. Dionne, pointed out that Souder once said, “To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do.” This pointed affirmation of faith is precisely the dilemma of a democratic system that allows for freedom of religion. All religions (those that are serious attempts to deal with the supernatural, in any case) are defined by the conviction that their practices, their beliefs, their ethics, are correct. When a religious individual is elected, or even converted after election, in a democratic system their religion is given power. With their faith they vote on issues that cut across religious boundaries, binding those who do not agree to their personal faith stance by law.

Europe in the Middle Ages is perhaps the most obvious example of what might happen when one religious body (in that case, the Roman Catholic Church) gains excessive political power. Problem is, these days folks don’t agree on which is the right religion. America was not founded as a Christian nation, let alone an evangelical Neo-Con one. It has become, perhaps because of this fact, one of the most actively religious nations in the developed world. As befits a consumer mentality, religions are offered in a marketplace. Within Christianity alone there are aisles and aisles of churches from which to choose. When a public servant is elected and her or his religion dictates their votes, have we not just lost freedom of religion?

Teaching for many years in a seminary is a sure way of becoming aware of the limited training that religious leaders generally receive (if any). The short time they spend being educated does not equip them to think through all the implications of their convictions. They attain the pulpit and the congressional leaders who happen to be in their congregations receive an inchoate theology confused by their three years earning a “Master of Divinity” degree. Not all are equal to the task. Those religious leaders with promise, often because of internal church politics, end up in smaller venues, their voices effectively silenced. Those with the most strident voices reach larger congregations, often without the humility of admitting that the more you learn about theology they less you know. Their congregants, armed with faulty perceptions of their own religion, burst into their congressional chambers full of conviction based on problematic conceptions. It is a very serious dilemma.

Perhaps what is needed is an oath of office for politicians rather like the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Perhaps they should swear to put their own religious outlooks in check while considering social issues on which their constituents vary widely. Perhaps their integrity in truly representing the population they govern would lessen the impact of their inevitable personal foibles. And naturally, this oath would not be superstitiously sworn with a hand on the Bible.

Highway Homiletics

“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go,” is an assertion to be taken literally in my case. Crossing the Delaware River and trekking through the forests of Pennsylvania are the only means to reach my childhood home from New Jersey. Each time I make the trip I am amazed at how strident the highway preaching along the way has become. Signs on both the interstates and the backroads announce the truths of a certain vociferous brand of Christianity that maintains that everyone must think that way or spend an eternity in hell. Having experienced this kind of fear-driven faith firsthand, I can’t protest too much without being labeled a hypocrite, but some of what I observed over the river and through the woods leapt out at me anew this Thanksgiving.

Firstly it seems that Jesus saves big rocks. Several large, obtrusive boulders worthy of the land time forgot bear the message that Jesus Saves. Locally this form of homiletics can be as persistent as the Trust Jesus notes spray-painted on just about every interstate overpass between here and Illinois. A religiously aware lumber company in rural Pennsylvania hosts a sign declaring, “Read, Heed, Live & Obey the Bible!” When I think of lumber, I think of 2-by-4s and of their standard use of knocking sense into others who look at things differently. This sign said more than its owner might have intended. A few miles down the road I read, “Why not try Jesus? If you don’t like Him the Devil will always take you back.” The assumption, naturally, is that anyone reading the sign is already devil’s food.

One of the great things about freedom of religion and freedom of expression is that such messages declare their writers’ fervent beliefs, but they hold no force beyond the rhetorical. Having met many sincere believers in other faiths over the years, I do wonder what kind of good news such non-negotiable advertisements really send. Some of the writers, I believe, are railing against the godless world they see around them (although the number of churches along these backroads would seem to testify to religion a-plenty) while others can’t accept any form of any religion that differs from their own, even if it be a different flavor of Christianity. Perhaps it is time I put up a sign advocating a vegetarian version of Thanksgiving — no turkey need die for anyone’s sins. In some religions such a message is considered trustworthy indeed.

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!

Religion’s Double-Edged Sword

This podcast discusses a recent visit of Westboro Baptist Church’s “protesters” to Rutgers University. The issue is whether religious freedom includes the right to encourage hate crimes on the part of those not directly involved in the “protests.” Religious freedom is the phenomenon that allows such groups to develop in a democracy, but the end results of such groups is destructive to the democracy that engendered it. This is compared to the Scientology case that is simultaneously taking place in France and noting the differences between them.