By Dr. Joseph Chuman
The Evangelization of America
In 1962, when organized prayer was banned from the public schools, hordes of clergymen and politicians cursed out the Supreme Court for what has proven to be one of its most controversial decisions.
Then president, John Kennedy, kept a cooler head. In response to the Court’s decision, he said:
The Supreme Court has made its judgment and a good many people will disagree with it. Others will agree with it. But I think that it is important for us if we are going to maintain our constitutional principle that we support the Supreme Court decisions even when we may not agree with them.
In addition, we have in this case a very easy remedy and that is to pray ourselves. And I think it would be a welcome reminder to every American family that we can pray a good deal more at home, we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity, and we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of all our children. That power is very much open to us. And I would hope that as a result of this decision that all American parents will intensify their efforts at home, and the rest of us will support the Constitution and the responsibility of the Supreme Court in interpreting it, which is theirs, and given to them by the Constitution.
Kennedy was, of course, the first and only Catholic president. In the statement just quoted, he placed himself at odds with much of the American Catholic hierarchy, and in defense of Jefferson’s principle affirming a wall of separation between church and state.
Kennedy articulated his support for church-state separation in a different key several years earlier when he was on the campaign trail. As many of you may remember, when he was running for the presidency, Kennedy had to go out of his way as a Catholic to convince the electorate that, if he were successful, as president his highest loyalty would be to the Constitution of the United States and not to the Pope in Rome. In other words, Kennedy had to pledge that, to a certain extent at least, he would put his religion in his back pocket and play it down in order to serve as a government official. It is a stance which I think both you and I and Thomas Jefferson would applaud. And it is a stance totally in accord with the brilliant way in which our Constitution has organized the complex and nettlesome relationship between religion and the state.
But that act of restraint that Kennedy so admirably expressed, is not shared by broad cross sections of the American public today. And I would dare say, it is not shared by the man who occupies the White House now, 40 years later. Kennedy’s pledge of allegiance to the Constitution, and his defense of keeping organized prayer out of the public schools, in a certain sense were defining moments that have spurred a titanic backlash on the American political scene. Whereas I believe that restraining religion by keeping it out of government, serves both the interests of government, and enables religion to remain free of the taint of secular preoccupations, and to flourish in America as it does nowhere else in the Western world, there are broad sectors of the American religious public who feels that that mandated restraint is really an expression of anti-religion. For religious enthusiasts who wear their religion on their sleeves, and who are imbued by their evangelical spirit to spread the word as life’s highest priority, the restraint placed on them by the separation of church and state is felt by them, as religious people, to cast them in the role of second class citizens. And so they seek to destroy the wall of separation, and to create a marriage of government and religion, which for the most part, is their religion.
Many of these religious enthusiasts rally behind the argument that by keeping the government neutral and separate from religion, the government has in fact created and endorsed its own brand of religion, namely the “religion of secular humanism.” “But why this one?” they argue. “Why not the authentic brand of God-centered, God-fearing religion, which reflects the true religion of the American character and its history?” This strategy for converting the government’s stance of neutrality and “hands off” with regard to religion, into a new, competing, positive religious faith is spurious. But it has been a powerful tool in dismantling the wall of separation and replacing it with government support of religion.
In 1979, when Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority, he transformed the political landscape in America, and shifted the ground under political discourse far to the Right. What that movement and its successors have done is awaken the sleeping giant of Christian evangelicals and transform it into a powerful political force. Before the late 1970s, the evangelicals, who are estimated to comprise 46% of the American population, were prevailingly apolitical. Their understanding of Christianity was centered primarily on their personal faith and their commitment to salvation. Politics was considered worldly, corrupting and to be avoided. Falwell, earlier in his career, preached this position. That changed. How much was a reaction to the imposition of racial integration on the South coming from the federal government and Washington, is for political historians to assess. What is clear is that the politicization of southern evangelicals and the rise of the South as a political powerhouse has gone side by side. No presidential candidate can expect to win the White House without making large inroads in the South, a region that used to be a political backwater.
Enter Jimmy Carter. When Carter ran for president in the mid-70s, he paved the way for evangelicals to enter the political arena, for the simple reason that he is one. I recall, as a parochial northeasterner, how down right strange it was to have a political candidate for president who was a self-professed “born-again” Christian. He might as well have been an alien from outer space. Carter reflected a different culture, which was foreign to my ears, and I suspect to yours. But it is a culture which is as familiar and as warming as motherhood and apple pie, to those millions who comprise the regions of the rural South, mid-West and Rocky Mountain states, and who felt themselves to be marginalized by the liberal power centers extending from Boston to Washington, and comprising parts of the West Coast. What Carter’s emergence did was to demark a culture clash between the American political establishment and the political outbacks. It is something we in the suburbs of New York City were probably scarcely aware of. But for those silent millions, who felt themselves ruled by the economy of the East, the politics of Washington, the media of New York and Hollywood and a national educational curriculum which was not their own, they were quite aware.
The flood gates were opened, and ever since America has been driven by religious politics of a very conservative kind. It is highly financed, well organized, and exceedingly powerful. It has succeeded in placing the mainline and liberal politics most us are used to on the defensive. The politics of the Christian Right, which has allied itself with traditional foes, including conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews, is manifested by dozens of organizations – The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, the Eagle Forum –among the most powerful. It has allied itself with secular conservative forces. It pervades the grass roots and has allies and members throughout Congress, the Senate, the administration and, yes, in the White House. It ensures that politics is now prey to dark authoritarian forces, fueled by the ultra-conservative churches.
Its agenda is well known and compromises the central issues of political debate and struggle in contemporary America. Much of the agenda of the religious Right is driven by sexual anxiety. Rolling back a woman’s freedom to choose in the matter of abortion is the centerpiece of its political concerns. But it is also anti-gay, obsessed with sexual abstinence, and committed to a purity of the American family, which has never existed.
In my analysis, what greatly drives the politics of the religious right, is tremendous upset with the feminist movement, and the emergence of women out of their subordinate role tied to the domestic sphere, and their sole function as mothers and child rearers. In the cosmology of the conservative Christian Right God sits at top, as the supreme ruler, the husband below as the head of the household, and the wife and children below him. The empowerment of women upsets that hierarchy, and it is very disturbing to the deeply inculcated world-views of millions of religiously conservative Americans.
The agenda of the religious right reaches far beyond religious issues, that are then given, through a theological sleight of hand, a religious rationale – greater defense spending, tax-cuts, the stripping down of the federal government — welfare, education, social programming – in general, in favor of local control, privatization and the overall destruction of the public arena. Included on the agenda and lying near its center, is the destruction of the wall of separation between church and state.
In the thinking of the religious right, since the removal of organized prayer from the public schools, the public square has been rendered naked of positive moral values. Since then, American society has been slouching toward the Gomorrah of drug use, increased street crime, teenage pregnancy, divorce, the normalization of homosexuality, moral relativism, one worldism, and a growing list of social dislocations and depravity.
The remedy is clear. We need to restore morality to our public life by getting right with God, which entails merging religion with the state. And indeed, lamentably the juggernaut of the religious right seems to be getting what it asks for. But, I would argue, that in the final analysis, it will not get what it wants.
Hence we are seeing the time-honored wall that keeps religion out of government, and government out of religion steadily dismantled.
On the judicial level, the doctrine of separation is being replaced by the doctrine of “accommodationism”, or “non-preferentialism.” What this means is that rather than remaining neutral, and not favoring either religion or non-religion, it is acceptable for government to support religion as long as it does not prefer one religion over another. This doctrine has found much favor among Supreme Court justices Scalia, Rehnquist and Thomas, as well as growing roster of federal judges. It is aggressively supported by Joseph Lieberman, and many other figures in political life, both within and outside of government. The accommodationist approach promotes religious symbols on public lands, the voucher system, now sanctioned by the Supreme Court so that for the first time ever public tax monies support the teaching of religion, and it validates the so-called “faith-based initiatives” which seek to give federal funds directly to churches, including the building of church-wings for the purposes of dispensing religiously infused social services. Though I must say, that these “faith-based” initiatives coming out of the White House are experiencing resistance in Congress.
The marriage of religion to government is a very dangerous idea. For the past 200 years, the United, which has been rife with racist and ethnic violence, has been relatively free of inter-religious strife, primarily because the founding fathers had the brilliant foresight to keep church and state constitutionally separate.
One small episode reported in last Thursday’s Record illustrates the danger. The article titled “National Day of Prayer Divides Town in Indiana” is subtitled “Christian minister tells other faiths they can listen, but not contribute.” The article reports the following:
For the past decade, The Rev. William Keller has stood on the steps of City Hall (in Muncie Indiana) on the first Thursday in May – with city officials, local judges and a police chaplain at his side – to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.
He planned to mark the National Day of Prayer the same way this year: a welcome from the mayor, a fervent plea that God guide civic leaders to act wisely, an echoing choir of “Amen” from the crowd of several hundred gathered in the noon sun.
Then Keller was asked to share the microphone.
A Unitarian minister wanted to offer an ecumenical “meditation” on leadership. A leader of the small Muslim community here requested a chance to pray aloud to Allah. A Jewish rabbinical fellow said, he, too, would like to speak.
Keller turned them down. Anyone of any faith could come listen to him pray. But he would not listen to them. “I’m busy with my faith,” he said this week. “I don’t believe in other gods.”
The article goes on to say that the episode caused a local furor. The good people of Muncie were ashamed, saddened and angry. An alternative, inclusive service was held, but there remains a split over the issue, two thirds liking the ecumenical approach, but one third supporting Reverend Keller are holding their ground saying they are “one the one true path to salvation and are certain that their prayers, and theirs alone, will be heard.”
This small incident is significant in what it reveals. Among the realities it brings to light, is that not all religions are the same, and that religion as readily plays an exclusionary and divisive role in public life, as much as it promotes a spirit of brotherhood, love and inclusion. By inviting all religions to stand on the platform supported by government, society is entertaining the sophomoric, wishful illusion that all religions are alike in their promotion of all things good. Yet the religions are defined as much by how they differ from each other than by what they hold in common. By giving its official endorsement government is inviting this type of discord, which, I would argue, it is ill-equipped to mediate. What happens, for example, when demonstrably hateful, racist and anti-Semitic groups seek support by the State. Is the State, are the courts, equipped to make theological judgments? Do we want our town councils and our courts to say, “this is a bona-fide, officially recognized religion, but that is not?” Are the courts as secular bodies competent to make theological judgments, and do we want them to? What happens to religious freedom in that case? Ethical Culture, as a minority religion, should be especially sensitive to this issue.
What this episode in the Indiana bible belt also reveals is that government sanction of religion is really not about religious devotion at all. What it is about is religious power, and Rev. Keller illustrates this point so very well. When town hall recognizes religion, either through these governmentally sponsored prayer services, or by placing crèches and menorahs on public lands, what is really going is that such religious groups get to say “See America, we are the dominant religion” We are the real American religion.” Such displays have little to do with the spirit of religion at all.
Indeed many clergy who uphold the separation of church and state recognize this. They understand that separation is a marvelous boon to religious freedom. For they recognize that any religion that seeks and needs the support of town officials, public school principals, or even the president of the United States, is to that extent spiritually impoverished religion.
What the breakdown of separation has also done is to erode a customary, if not legal, propriety with how public officials in their public capacity talk about religion. Both the separation of church and state and Article Six of the Constitution that bars a religious test for public office, have created a convention of restraint as to how public officials inject their religious convictions and rhetoric directly into the performance of their public duties.
But this has changed.
Enter George W. Bush. For Bush, there is no restraint on his employment of religious rhetoric; rhetoric that more befits a Christian minister than the leader of a secular Republic. To be sure, all presidents have used the language and imagery of religion. As the sociologist, Robert Bellah, outlined decades ago, there exists in America alongside of the Christian, Jewish and other faiths, a distinctly American religion, the so-called “civil religion.” The civil religion affirms a non-denominational God, frequently invokes the notion that America has a special place in God’s providential plans, and is ceremoniously trotted out on Inauguration Day, the Fourth of July and other patriotic occasions.
But Bush’s use of religion is his own and it is different. It is more frequently invoked, and it reflects not a generic monotheism but his personal evangelical, born-again faith. In fact, our current president is the de facto leader of the Christian right in America. It is not Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, or Ralph Reed. It is George W. Bush. He is their man in the White House. They are the strongest members of his constituency, and he is one of them. Bush’s presidency is emblematic of this very marriage of religion and government. Ronald Reagan certainly was the political champion of the religious right, but as a man who seldom went to church and whose religious convictions were a mélange of astrology and California New Age, he didn’t wear quite the appropriate credentials.
Jimmy Carter, whom Reagan handily defeated, certainly did have the correct religious pedigree, but the evangelical constituency bitterly turned on him, demonstrating that religion is to a great extent used as a mask for, and a tool of , politics.
Bush’s religious language is omnipresent. It is often overt, and sometimes partially disguised in phrases that are familiar to the ears of evangelicals. He is constantly invoking the Almighty and appealing to the power of prayer, and says tha the relies of the prayers of the American people. Whether in his inaugural address, in speaking to Congress, addressing the cadets at West Point, in the state of union, in remembering the assault of 9/11, in eulogizing the lost Columbia astronauts, in proclaiming war, Bush continuously falls back on biblical phrases, verses drawn from hymns, or evangelical gospel songs. Perhaps most telling is that the White House is suffused with Bible study groups, and prayer groups. They are everywhere. They are, in principle, voluntary, but one can only imagine what “voluntary” means in those pressured corridors of power when a worker is invited to join by the president, his staffers, or Attorney General, John Ashcroft.
Those who have followed Bush’s religious rhetoric have noticed a shift. His now famous response during the debates, that Jesus is his favorite “political philosopher” endeared him to Christian evangelicals. As is well known, when he turned 40, Bush had a “born-again” experience after a stroll on the beach with Billy Graham in which he foreswore alcohol and began to repair his relationship with Laura, who found his excessive drinking fraying their marriage. Bush is a Methodist, though his spiritual transformation was of the type recognized by southern Baptists who comprise the mainstay of evangelical Christians.
Before 9/11, Bush presented his faith in a way that was consistent with the personal confessional type manifested by members of the Methodist Church. After the terrorist attack on America, Bush’s religious language has been striking a more Calvinist tone to the effect that America is God’s favorite, and we as a nation, and George Bush as our president are instruments of God’s special plan.
It is not only Bush’s lack of restraint in pushing religion that ought to concern us, though I would argue that that alone is disturbingly inappropriate, and alienating to those believers and non-believers who carry their faith differently. It is divisive.
We ought to be disturbed by its content. A few comparisons would be illustrative. Lincoln, who may well have been an agnostic, also employed religious language at high moments in deference to the civil religion. In his second inaugural address as he strove to bind up the wounds of the nation, Lincoln said of the Union and the Confederacy, that they both read from the same bible and prayed to the same God.
But the contrast with Carter is most instructive. Carter was also a man of deep religious faith, but it was far more private than Bush’s. If we look at the content, what do we see? According to a recent article in The Nation, historian of religion, Randall Balmer, notes that whereas Carter’s God, is the Jesus of the New Testament, the revolutionary who declared “blessed are the peacemakers”, Bush’s God is the God of vengeance and the Book of Revelation with its End-Time scenarios of Armageddon and the Final Judgment.
As Balmer notes, Carter’s…religious convictions about fairness and decency…compelled him to reconfigure the Panama Canal Treaty, and to lure Israel’s Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, ancient and implacable enemies, to the peace table. Bush’s understanding of the faith, on the other hand, tends toward a dualistic view of the world, the titanic and unambiguous struggle between the forces of righteousness allied against the “axis of evil.” Whereas Carter famously agonized about deploying military force in an attempt to rescue the hostages held at the American Embassy in Iran, Bush appears to have suffered little compunction about unleashing American troops and weapons of mass destruction against Iraq.
As Balmer notes, if our foreign policy were really based on Christian principles, then we would fight a war that was only truly defensive and exhaust all diplomatic means before launching an attack. But this point is assuredly lost on those evangelicals who call themselves Christian, and served as the largest constituency supporting the war against Iraq. It is also true that fewer Americans died in combat under Carter’s administration than under any other president in the 20th century, a datum I find instructive, but would be meaningless to those who happily make war in the service of their Christian piety.
But it is Bush’s dualistic thinking, spiced up with Armageddon like scenarios, and inspired by a confidence that he is an agent of God’s will, which many of us, I’m sure, find unsettling. The problem with dualistic thinking, with the “us and them” mentality and the demonization of the enemy, is that it inhibits reflection, self-examination, and the repentance, which are critical components of any mature religious faith. And as many Christian theologians would agree, the dichotomy of good and evil does not as much divide nations, but rather cuts through all human hearts. For Christians, it is a source of self-reflection and humility. It is this type of religious language that one does not hear from George W. Bush, but it would be reassuring if we did.
In closing, let me say, we do not need our president to be a “minister-in-chief.” The president is certainly entitled to his religious beliefs. But as president he is the secular leader of a secular republic. He is the president of all Americans, Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers. The decorum by which chief executives have held their religious faith private, has been in the best traditions of America, and has reflected the diversity of the American people, which is its defining characteristic. This president has abused that decorum, and we are within our rights to have it restored.
But the religious style of George W. Bush, as I have suggested, is emblematic of the far – reaching destruction of the boundaries which have wisely kept religion away from the state. It is the struggle for restoration of those boundaries that need inspire our energies and harness our activism. — for the sake of religious freedom and ultimately civil peace.
I want to end by quoting, with approval, from Jimmy Carter, a devout man whose religious beliefs I do not share, but who got it right. At a press conference given in Washington in 1979, Carter said, “The government ought to stay out of the prayer business.”
Dr. Joseph Chuman
4 May 2003