Tuesday, June 26, 2012

God and America: Our Nation's Uneasy Relationship with Religion

[A version of this article originally appeared in the June/July edition of Unity Magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.]

In November, Americans will head to the polls to choose the next president.  Whether it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, one thing’s certain: At the inauguration in January, the victor will place his hand on a Bible and make a stirring speech invoking the name of God and imploring Him to guide and bless our great nation.
            Religion has always been at the heart of the American experience, from the first pilgrim to tomorrow’s opening prayer in the House of Representatives.  Leaders from all points on the political spectrum scatter religious references like cherry blossoms on the Washington mall.  The Promised Land, the new Israel, the land of milk and honey – it’s as if a divine mandate were written across her purple mountains majesty and her amber waves of grain.  Still a nagging question remains; whose religion?  In a land founded on the principles of freedom, particularly the freedom to think and believe as one sees fit, America has always had a tempestuous relationship with religion.  When the two conflict, to whom do we owe allegiance, our nation or our faith?
            Like the pharaohs of Egypt, the emperors of Rome and the kings of medieval Europe, political leaders have long claimed a special relationship with the divine.  Yet in the creation of the American political system, the Founders made a conscious break with the concept of the divine right of kings.  In its place, many of them envisioned an empire of Reason, a republic founded on the inherent human capacity to steer a course through the vicissitudes of life with the rudder of rational discourse.
Was the United States founded by and for Christians, as some claim?  The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) reminds us that when we go searching for origins what we usually find is our own prejudice.  Looking back, Christian revisionists see the Founding Fathers as devout Christians building a theocracy while atheist revisionists see Freethinkers erecting a secular state beyond the crippling reach of old world superstitions.  In other words, no simplistic, reductionist and self-serving portrait can ever do justice to the rich diversity of thought present in early America.  Like contemporary America, colonial life was characterized by a plurality of positions on all questions, especially those regarding religion.  Simple platitudes like “America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles” are not borne out by the evidence.

Faith and the Founding Fathers
Many leading figures in Colonial America were Deists, espousing a deep and lingering animosity toward organized religion.  Deists also hold the view that God created the world as a distant engineer, and is not involved in the day to day affairs of humanity.  Our only salvation, Deists argue, lies in the proper application of our God-given capacity to reason.  Deists also deny many traditional Christian doctrines like the trinity and the divinity of Christ.  Yet Deists like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson believed that God imbued his creation with Natural Law and that it was our primary duty, both as individuals and as a whole, to discover, expand and perfect that Natural Law by envisioning and creating a just society.  And one of the hallmarks of a just and free society was, in Jefferson’s words, a “separation between church and state.”   
“In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty,” Jefferson wrote in a letter to Horatio Spafford on March 17, 1814.  Like his friend John Adams, Jefferson had little but contempt for organized religion and what he derisively called “the churchmen.”  Yet in his extensive study of classical literature and philosophy no figure enjoyed greater esteem in Jefferson’s mind than Jesus whom he regarded as the most important ethical philosopher of all time.  So keen was Jefferson’s conviction of Jesus’ importance that he took a knife to the Bible in order to free Jesus from “the errors of his biographers.”  Using two copies of the Bible and a pen knife, Jefferson carefully cut out all of the best sayings of Jesus and pasted them in a new volume, now known as the Jefferson Bible, separating, as he put it, the “diamonds” from the “dunghills.”  No virgin birth, no miracles, no resurrection and indeed no unique or divine status.  The Jesus of the Jefferson Bible is a Deist, a humanist and a philanthropist who has absolutely nothing to do with the institutional Church that calcified around his name.  “The religion-builders,” Jefferson reasoned, “have distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus.”  In a letter to Charles Thompson in 1816, Jefferson said of his deeply redacted Bible, “it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian [his emphasis], that is to say, a disciple of the true doctrines of Jesus.”
Our true salvation, according to Jefferson, Franklin, Paine and Adams, lay in our capacity to reason.  Only through a vigorous and vigilant application of our God-given minds could we gradually realize a human society aligned with the ideals of Natural Law.  For Adams, a Unitarian, “the question before the human race is, whether the God of Nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether the priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles.”  The God of Deism is available to everyone without priestly or institutional mediation in the hallowed light of our own higher minds.  “The Infinite Father expects or requires no worship or praise from us,” wrote Franklin in his Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion.  And in a letter to Peter Carr dated August 10, 1787, Jefferson calls us to “question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
Christian apologists often point to George Washington as the counter-example of the prevailing Deism of his time.  They cite his mention of Jesus in several early writings and his talk of God’s providence in the American project.  While it is true that Washington observed Christianity and attended church regularly, he refused to kneel in prayer as was his congregation’s custom, and he always slipped out of his pew before the communion sacrament, much to the chagrin of his wife and family.  Abraham Lincoln was even worse, described by his long time friend and law partner as a true-blood infidel who “had no faith in the Christian sense of the term.”  Things sure have changed.  Presidential candidates who exhibit the open disregard of mainstream Christianity that Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln did would today be utterly unelectable.

“In God We Trust”
The turmoil inherent in any open and free society often results in strange and deeply imbalanced eruptions of power.  Out of the fearful spasms of the McCarthy era grew a campaign to change the Pledge of Allegiance to include the phrase “under God.”  Originally penned in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, the pledge read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  As a socialist Bellamy wanted to include the word “equality” as in “with liberty, equality and justice for all,” but knew that it would never stand given the dire plight of African-Americans and women in his time.  Despite his restraint, the socialist themes of his sermons got him defrocked by the Baptists.  Sixty years later, in the long shadow of World War II with its specter of nuclear proliferation and the global expansion of communism, conservative religious forces campaigned for the inclusion of the words “under God”.  Thanks to vigorous activism by the Knights of Columbus, congress passed a law in 1952 giving us the pledge as it exists today.  Conservative anti-abortion activists continue to campaign for one last change – adding the phrase “born and unborn” to the end of “with liberty and justice for all,” while those on the left want to honor Bellamy’s original impulse by adding the word “equality” alongside “liberty” and “justice.”  Once again, the human tendency to project one’s own private convictions onto the whole pushes against the inherently decentralized nature of a pluralistic society.
A few years later in 1956 the phrase “In God We Trust” began appearing on paper money and officially replaced E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) as the national motto.  The long reach of religious authority, specifically Christian authority, was gradually replacing the free-thinking secularism of an earlier age.

Religious Diversity in the White House
When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, his Catholicism raised a lot of eyebrows.  American presidents had always been Protestants of one form or another.  Anti-Catholic voices grew bolder in the months leading up to the election, wondering aloud whether or not Kennedy would be taking orders from the Vatican.  John Adams expressed a similar concern in a letter to Thomas Jefferson when he asked, “Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic Church?” 
Questioning the religious beliefs of a presidential candidate seems at once an invasion of privacy and terribly salient – all the evidence you need of a mixed mind at the heart of the American experience.  But in the end does it really matter?  Nixon was raised as a Quaker.  Did the deeply pacifist convictions he learned as a boy shape his Vietnam War policy?
Today both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face similar scrutiny.  Because Obama’s father was a Kenyan Muslim, because his middle name is Hussein, and because he lived in Indonesia for a time as a boy and attended a Muslim school, his Christianity will forever be seen by some as little more than manipulative political theater designed to render him electable. 
Even more remarkable is Romney’s successful campaign to become the Republican nominee, given the fact that his family’s faith, Mormonism, is widely regarded by mainstream evangelical Christians as the fourth Abrahamic faith and not a form of Christianity at all – Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Mormonism – a claim Mormons strenuously reject.  Yet clearly, mainstream Christians are willing to overlook this as well as some of Mormonism’s more curious deviations from traditional doctrine in the name of party unity.  Perhaps they are digging deeper.  Perhaps they are going back to a time when the promise of America was the vision of a pluralistic, multicultural and authentically free society, where on the big religious and philosophical questions we are left to the privacy of our own conscience. 
In spite of Obama’s embodiment of racial, ethnic and religious diversity and regardless of Romney’s outsider status as a Mormon, no matter who becomes president in November and stands on the Capitol steps to take the oath of office next January, the idea of God will hang ever-present over the proceedings.  The idea of God and the idea of America are forever joined.  But the question of whose God and what sort of God will always draw us into a vigorous and vitalizing dialogue that compels us to speak and listen respectfully, compassionately and humbly, knowing that the voices of the many really are united in a common enterprise that ennobles and affirms us in our ultimate unity.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Dad

My ninety year old dad is in hospice. He stopped eating. He says he doesn’t remember how to chew. The IV drip administers hydration, nutrition, and morphine for his chronic pain. No one knows how long he has. No one knows how long any of us has. It’s just that with him the problem is a little more apparent.

My dad no longer bothers with the distinction between the dreaming and waking state. He often describes incidents that could have only happened in dreams. Actual events in his immediate surroundings no longer interest him. He’s slipping into a spirit world. Who my father was is mostly gone. Alzheimer’s took care of that.

Whoever we are, whatever a human being is – bits and pieces of consciousness and a few pounds of flesh – is never just one thing. We are a gathering of light, a swarm of bees, a cloud of vapor. Gradually the light fades, the bees fly away one by one and the vapor vanishes leaving only a dry and empty clarity as silent as a windless day in the desert. Left behind are the traces of a thousand moments – and never once in the middle of any of them did we recognize their significance – moments that drew us together in communion. For an instant we shared one pair of eyes, one pair of ears, one mind. These are the marks we bear and carry forward with us until the end of our days. These are the stones of our gratitude with which we build our lives.

I’m grateful I had a father who loved me, and who was kind, and who worked hard day in and day out, year after year, and who showed by his constancy and presence that he loved, honored and respected each of us. To grow up in a family knowing that you are all loved, honored and respected – that is all a child needs to thrive. He gave us that.

I’m grateful I had a father who was simple in his needs. He never wanted or needed a lot of things. He liked simple food. He took pleasure in the everyday world, as it came to him, through the grace of God and through the endless creativity of his loving wife and the home she made for all of us with her hands and with her heart.

I’m grateful that I had a father who loved the road. We three boys were forever shaped by his love of open spaces, of forests and deserts and distant places. Visiting national parks and camping out under the stars and swimming in rivers and hearing the wind through the pines and campfires and cold mountain mornings and the promise of the next bend in the road – these were the memories he gave us.

I’m grateful that I had a father who loved music. He showed us that music wasn’t something fancy, it is just something every day and normal. The way he sat down at the piano and let the fun and joy bubble out of his fingers and fill the house with song. He could read music, but rarely bothered, preferring to bang it out by ear. He hated rock and roll, yet unwittingly personified it. He showed us that music was just another way to give of yourself, to share love without words, to be present with family and loved ones, and to bring the inner world into alignment with the outer world by bringing beauty to life in the here and now.

I’m grateful that I had a father who loved books and ideas. I loved the way he always thought things through, and let there be time for reflection and contemplation. His curiosity about everything made him a life-long learner. Without effort, out of the depths of his own nature, he modeled for us the philosophic life, the love of wisdom, and the willingness to live inside questions and let answers come in their own time.

I’m grateful that I had a father for whom the line between spirituality and everyday life was blurred. I’m grateful that he never imposed his views on us and instead allowed truth to well up through the cracks of our own lives. He honored our individuality and authenticity by letting us follow paths and voices he could not see or hear. Underneath it all, he trusted that truth finds everyone in their own terms, because it is in everyone, and takes the shape of their own yearnings and realizations. This lesson shapes me and my work to this day perhaps more than any other.

I’m grateful that I had a father who understood the power of silence. His gentle temperament and quiet spirit is a powerful presence in my life to this day, and for all the days of my life. And I’m getting older. My dad has lived long enough to see all of his sons grow old, even me, his baby boy. That is a great blessing. And beneath the confusion and sadness of these long, last years, I still see in his eyes a quiet knowing that no matter what is happening, it’s alright, it’s o.k., and a gracious acceptance is the last gift we give to ourselves in the face of great loss.

I’m grateful that I had a father who was courageous enough to leave war-torn Europe and come to America. I have no parallels in my own life of the tremendous willingness, faith and decisiveness that my mom and dad exhibited by leaving behind family, home and homeland to sail across the ocean and start over in a new world. It is of course one of the watershed moments in our family story, and we three boys are Americans because of it. His courage, faith and willingness will always inspire me.

And I’m grateful for the way he showed me how to make peace with the sadness of the world. He never talked about it, but when depression fell on him like coastal fog he simply picked up and kept moving, keeping his promises, finding solace in the actions of daily life, and staying present in the simplicity of the moment. I will always see him standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes after every meal, everyday, without fail, even though he will never again stand at that kitchen sink. I still see him standing in the garage at the workbench repairing a lamp or framing a picture, even though he will never again stand at that workbench. I still see him raking leaves out on the lawn under a soft Ventura sun, even though someone else is raking those leaves now. And I still see him sitting on the patio typing long letters home to Holland on his red portable Olivetti typewriter, even though the keys have fallen silent.

Beneath all of the heartache there is a quiet stillness, a sacred presence, an eternal flame, a light that never wavers no matter how fleeting these frail and fragile lives are. We all arise and we all fade, leaving the world to a new wave of younger people who will never really know us, or see the things we saw. They will see the world through their own eyes and in their own terms, a world that we no longer recognize. And when they finally grow old they too will realize that none of us owns any of this – it is all borrowed. Everything we touch will be taken away from us. Even the people we loved were never ours to possess. It is all a gift, a glorious gift, and the only sane response is profound joy and gratitude that we ever got to touch any of it. That is how I feel in the emptiness between the waves of sadness – a profound joy and gratitude that this deeply humble and beautiful man was my dad.