Designer Religion

American religion pollster George Barna ‘s  new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks trends in the religious attitudes of Americans from 1991 through 2011. A main finding is reported in the 14 September 2011  USA TODAY article More Americans Tailoring Religion to fit Their Needs .

Barna notes that more Americans now count themselves among the unchurched than did in 1991 – 37% today vs. 24% then.   The trend is not that fewer Americans consider themselves Christian, it’s that they no longer consider church membership essential to being a Christian.    To some extent it is Americans living out their extreme individualistic attitudes.

 “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education,” he says. Now it’s our religion.

Buddy Jesus

I commented on this same idea in Which Christ do We Believe In? referring to the movie Talladega Nights, in which every character has their own personal Jesus.  No longer are we Christ’s disciples conforming ourselves to His teachings, now we shape Jesus into whatever we want or need Him to be.  Christianity is not a revealed truth but a putty whose plasticity we shape to fit our personal opinions.   For a growing number of Americans Christianity maybe informational but certainly is not formational.    In fact now the attitude is we are to form Christianity into whatever we want it to be.   No longer is there the Lordship of Christ, what remains is how we exert our lordship over Christ to make Him conform to what we need from Him and His Church.  Barna reports:

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.

Barna laments, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'”

Of course this trend isn’t something totally new.  To some extent the very reason the American revolutionaries hung together was that following the ideals of the Enlightenment, they placed denominational differences as unimportant as versus the cause of a united American front against England.  The particular beliefs of each denomination were made relative and unimportant.  People could accept a general notion that they were all Americans, believers, even Christians as the bond which held them together as long as what they actually believed (their theology) was marginalized.   It is a great compromise that Americans made in order for America to emerge.  It is similar to the compromise the founding fathers made regarding slavery – ignore it because the issue was potentially too divisive.

It may be that the very partisanship which now paralyzes politics in America is the same issue:   all the compromises, looking askance, winking and nodding, knowing smiles, avoidance and all other ways we used to pretend we were a united people  no longer work as the glue to hold us together.   The differences are emerging and we realize we are not such a united people after all.  There are huge theological differences and diversities within the family of beliefs known as Christianity.

And since the differences are real, and since we have not created any open forums in which theological or philosophical differences can be discussed, people personalize religion and create their own.  This of course is not going to help keep the nation united.  It may for some mean the issue cannot be discussed since there is no point of agreement, but underneath the fissures in basic assumptions by Americans are widening.  (In American politics we never seem to have an exchange of ideas, just mutual hurling of false accusations against each other in negative ad campaigns).

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote:

“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he says. And all this rampant individualism also fosters “hostility toward organized groups — government, industry, even organized religion.”

When any one church makes its appeal to be “we are different” from all the rest and that all the rest are wrong and we alone are right, it actually feeds the problem.  For that church begins to attract those people whose “designer religion” ideas say I want a church just like that.  It is the individual which now affirms the “truthiness” of the church.   The church appeals to the most individualistic thinkers who are happy to discover a church which conforms to their beliefs.  It is the heart of sectarianism and the mind of cults.

The countervailing need is for Christians/ Christianity/ the Church to understand the cosmic nature of its truth.   “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) – not just individuals, believers, the super-righteous, Christians, or Americans.  The Christian message is for the entire cosmos.  The Christian message is universal, a message for every single human being on the planet.  The Christian message is meant to help us engage the world, not flee from it.   Our task is to be a light to the world, not the fire that destroys everything in its path.  It is in this universal as versus individualistic understanding that Christianity invites people to become part of the Body of Christ – become part of something greater than one’s self.  Become part of something whose unifying bond is love, not alienating individualism.

None of this means people are to mindlessly believe and live a life of warm fuzzies.  All of it demands great intellectual exploration and discovery.  Are the claims of Christianity true?  How are we to live if they are?  What does it say about what it means to be human?   What is the human role in and responsibility for the world?  For one another?  How do we deal with our differences – in perspective, in theology, in ethics, in science?

The test of love and faith is whether we can in fact discuss our theological differences and can overcome them in Christ. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said (Mark 8:34).   The embrace of extreme individualistic thinking is in many ways a rejection of the love which Christ lived and was the very basis of His willingness to die on the Cross.  The opposite of the (self sacrificing) love of Christ is the self love of individualism.

The Americanization of America

I finished reading Gordon Wood’s THE AMERICANIZATION OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN.   An excellent biography of Franklin as well as a good American history book.  I had commented in a previous blog (Ben Franklin and the Americanization of Freedom ) about the opening chapters of the book in which Franklin was a loyal British citizen trying to preserve the unity of the British Empire.

The book traces the changes in Franklin’s thinking through time resulting in his becoming an American.  There is a parallel reality that America simultaneously was becoming American as well.  In many ways Franklin’s transformation happens as America itself is being born and transformed into an independent nation.

I want to offer a few quotes from the book  which were significant to me.  First, a quote about Britain, the nation Franklin loved but became totally disenchanted with.   Franklin criticized Britain for being blinded by

“… her Fondness for Conquest as a Warlike Nation, her Lust of Dominion as an Ambitious one, and her Thirst for a gainful Monopoly as a Commercial one.”  (p 166)

I have to wonder what he would have said about the USA today with our pride in being the greatest military power on earth and our constant willingness to make the military our main form of foreign policy.  Franklin saw in Britain what Eisenhower warned about in America – the military industrial complex.

The second quote deals with Franklin’s own self evaluation.

“… as Franklin disarmingly admitted, he  never had much success ‘in acquiring the Reality” of the virtue of humility, but he ‘had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.’  Humility, he said, had not been on his original list of virtues; he had added it only because a friend had told him that he was too proud.  Franklin was well aware of his pride and its near relation, vanity.  He had begun his Autobiography by admitting the overwhelming power of vanity.  ‘Most people,’ he had written in 1771, ‘dislike Vanity in others whatever Share they have of it themselves.’  But Franklin knew better.  ‘I give it fair Quarter whenever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of Good to the Possessor and to others that are within his Sphere of Action.’  … Pride, he conceded, was the hardest passion to subdue.  ‘Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.’  ‘Even if he could completely overcome his pride, he would probably then be proud of his humility.’”  (p 207)

Wood points out in his book that interestingly America’s image and evaluation of Franklin through our history has changed as America changed.  As American attitudes toward agriculture, economy and capitalism morphed so did American ideas of who Franklin was and what he accomplished.  The notion of working hard to attain success amazingly enough was an American invention.  In Europe the rich did not work at all while the majority of people, the laborers, struggled to survive not to get ahead.

“… Franklin’s Autobiography had an inordinate influence on America’s understanding of itself.  Out of these repeated messages of striving and success not only did ordinary northern white men acquire a heightened appreciation of their work and their worth; they were also able to construct an enduring sense of American nationhood – a sense of America as the land of enterprise and opportunity, as the place where anybody who works hard can make it, as the nation of free and scrambling money-making individuals pursuing happiness.  This myth of American identity created during the several decades following the Revolution became so powerful that succeeding generations were scarcely able to question it.

Among the peoples of the world only Americans of the early republic, as their great observer Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, celebrated work as ‘the necessary, natural, and honest condition of all men.’  What most astonished Tocqueville was that Americans thought not only that work itself was ‘honorable,’ but that ‘work specifically to gain money’ was ‘honorable.’” (p 243-244)

We no longer even have a sense of how radical an idea these notions of work for profit were to the 18th Century.  And it explains how “profit” became a virtue in America, perhaps the greatest and most important  virtue in American mythology.  Something which no one would have listed as a virtue prior to 19th Century America became central to the American value system.   Whereas prior to the Revolution Franklin with many other wealthy people believed it was only poverty and hunger which caused the working class to work (thus poverty was a positive motivating factor for the poor!), America changed the attitude of and toward the working class.  For it came to pass that working for profit became so highly valued in America.

“…said Tocqueville, ‘all see quite clearly that it is profit which, if not wholly then at least partially, prompts them to work.’”

Making profit a virtue is from an American point of view, America’s success.   It is the reinterpretation of Benjamin Franklin as an American that helped spur this development along.

Romans 12: Challenging Christian and Atheist America

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

St. Paul Preaching Christ Crucified

Christianity often is a challenge to Christians.  Just consider the words above from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:14).   For those who claim religion is a crutch, try supporting yourself on those words.  See if they make life easier in some way.

How many blessings have American Christians composed for their current enemies?

How many Christian politicians would dare compose such blessings?

How many Christians would vote for those who did?

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;

for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

(Romans 12:17-19)

What was St. Paul thinking when he wrote the words above?  Are we to allow ourselves to be persecuted?  What does it mean to treat with nobility those who do evil to us?

Are we to let Hitlers and Stalins and bin Ladens run rampant on the earth?   Murdering millions including children?

Certainly these teachings are not crutches for the weak.  They are rather hurdles and traps that give us little comfort in our decisions.  They do not support ideas of humans demanding retribution or revenge.

Christians will have to look elsewhere for that morality.  St. Paul allows for Christian martyrdom – the imitation of Christ, voluntary suffering – not Islamic fundamentalist “martrydom” which murders innocents and children.  There is no justice based on “an eye for an eye” here.  No just war theory.  No “holy” war.   There is an ethic here and a logic which is not a human demand for justice.  It is based in the logic of the Cross and of the Crucified God.

St. Paul sees in Christ God’s love which is unfathomable deep.   This is not human justice, but divine love.

Can we trust God to exact justice and retribution on enemies?  Are we willing to hand such justice over to Him and accept whatever He chooses to do?

No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them;

if they are thirsty, give them something to drink;

for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

(Romans 12:20-21)

Christ taught us to give food and drink to the least of His brothers and sisters.  St. Paul says we should do the same to our enemies.

This is no crutch for believers to lean on.   It is a challenge to the very ground on which we stand.  We are not to heap fiery coals upon the heads of our enemies, but rather food and drink.  Or reversing the thought we are to heap food and drink on them.  Such love according to St. Paul will be experienced by them as being burned alive.

Replace armies with generous foreign aid to repay our enemies?   Will believers believe this will really work?

St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:14-21 do not make believers comfortable, do not make life more palatable for Christians, do not prop us up by making life easier.

They no doubt for some place burning coals on our own heads.   How many biblical literalists want these words of St. Paul posted in every courthouse or read by military chaplains to the troops or pronounced by our presidents in response to terrorist attacks?

Scriptures often do comfort the afflicted, but they also afflict the comfortable.

If we take St. Paul’s words in Romans 12 to heart, who are the sinners and who are the righteous?  Agreeing to be a Christian, taking up the cross of Christ is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with weak knees, nor for the spineless.

Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,

nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;  

but his delight is in the law of the LORD,

and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water,

that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.

In all that he does, he prospers.

The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away.  

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;  

for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

(My note:  normally, 3 mornings each week I do Matins during which we read the Scripture assigned for the day according to the Orthodox lectionary.   Following the reading of the Scripture, we have a few minutes of silent meditation.   Romans 12 was the Epistle for today, and what I wrote above is the meditation I had while contemplating the words of St. Paul.) 

American Pride and Freedom in the Light of Christ

The Jews said to Jesus: “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” (John 8:33)

Each Sunday, Christians celebrate the Day of the Lord – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  It is a day on which we joyously celebrate being liberated from bondage and slavery to sin and death.  In this celebration we also acknowledge that we were slaves – not just our ancestors, but we ourselves were slaves to our own passions, to sin, to death itself.   God freed us from this bondage through Jesus Christ just as He led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

American Christians no doubt feel like the Jews in John 8 – we have never been in bondage to anyone, how can Jesus say he makes us free?

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?”  Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.   (John8:31-36) 

Fundamental to being a Christian is the realistic assessment of ourselves that we are in fact slaves to passion, sin and death, and that we need the intervention from God to be liberated from this slavery.  Jesus Christ has in fact already liberated us from enslavement. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharistic (Thanksgiving) Liturgy of the Church. It is the celebration of our willingness to be slaves of God rather than of ourselves.

For Americans, we should be able to relate to the connection between Christ and freedom.  And not just because of our historical fight for independence, but because slavery was a huge part of our own history.   Here is a story from the life of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who truly understood what deliverance from slavery meant.  (Taken from the NY TIMES “Mose’s Last Exit” by Adam Goodheart):

“Tubman was back in Auburn by Christmas Day, 1860, having conveyed the Ennals family safely to Canada. (Abolitionists often noted the irony of Americans fleeing the “land of liberty” to seek freedom under Queen Victoria’s sheltering scepter.) Her secret missions ended with the approach of war.

But one night in the midst of the secession crisis, while staying at the house of another black leader, a vision came to Tubman in a dream that all of America’s slaves were soon to be liberated – a vision so powerful that she rose from bed singing. Her host tried in vain to quiet her; perhaps their grandchildren would live to see the day of jubilee, he said, but they themselves surely would not. “I tell you, sir, you’ll see it, and you’ll see it soon,” she retorted, and sang again: ‘My people are free! My people are free.’”

The Israelites moved from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, which in turn is the prototype for the Christian understanding of Christ leading us from death to life and earth to heaven.  American slaves had to escape “the land of the free” to get to Canada which was under the Queen of England’s rule in order to be free of slavery!

Christmas is a great celebration for us because on this day we celebrate the birth of the great liberator of humankind.  We now can live as free men and women – exercising self control, self denial, fasting, asceticism, and love for others.  No longer do we have to live in subjugation to our passions and cravings and self centeredness.  We are free to be full human beings capable of loving, forgiving, sharing,  practicing altruism rather than merely being products of or controlled by passions, reactions, genes, emotions, instincts, survival, self preservation or evolution.

At Christmas we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ – so it should be a day of rejoicing and celebration.  And we should use the day to help lift others from enslavement to poverty, suffering and need, just as Christ in His love freed us from our own impoverishment and slavery.

The American Myth and Its God

Stanley Fish, university professor and NY TIMES editorial columnist in his 3 May 2009 piece, Think Again, offers comment on British critic Terry Eagleton’s new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution.”    While Fish and Eagleton offer much food for thought, I want to draw attention to and comment on one of Fish’s paragraphs:

…  “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”

Oxford and Washington are metaphors for academia (the infallible brainchild and savior of the Enlightenment ideology) and modern political power (for Washington and the U.S. are the progeny of  Enlightenment values).  Eagleton has Oxford and Washington both thralls of “the false idols of wealth, power and progress.”  

That is worth pausing to think about.   For we might ask what is wrong with wealth, power and progress?  Aren’t these in fact the greatest, most virtuous goods which modern Western and particularly American society have spawned?

Eagleton sees them as being false idols and superstitions.  

Just think about the recent world wide economic collapse.    The world’s economy was growing at this unprecedented pace, and the world’s financiers and American politicians were so awed by the growth that they could see it as nothing but human  progress and the triumph of American values.  It was our god/idol which was worshipped by all the powers that be, but who were blind to the fact that it all was a bubble, not founded upon anything solid or real but based in the economics of capitalist psychology.   It felt so good, who cared if it was a delusion?  

It was indeed an intoxicating vision which caused many to become drunk on its seemingly endless powers.  It did turn out to be a false god who could not deliver on its promises.  Read Revelations 18 about Babylon where merchants grew rich on the wealth of her wantonness but whose wealth was lost in one hour as no one buys her cargo anymore.  How quickly we forget when we ignore the Scriptures.  We have been warned but just can’t believe it  would be us and our generation who would be decieved by wealth!   Shouldn’t our much vaunted human progress have saved us from self deception?

It could not resist false Idol of  limitless and infinite wealth expanding and growing throughout the universe.  It was unbridled human progress – trickle down economic wealth was finally dripping down to the lowest levels of society from the ever expanding but vacuous balloon.   Wealth. Power. Progress.  The Trinitarian gods of American idealism and ideologues.

SerpentEdenBut it was a false god, an idol which had forgotten the Genesis mythology of the Fall of humanity, Eden’s clever but deceiving serpent, and the existence of evil in the world.  It was an American paradise, retelling the Genesis story by exorising any mention of a serpent and totally trusting in American ingenuity to complete what Adam and Eve failed to do:  fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it.

Genesis – that great myth telling us about why life on earth is not paradise – turns out to be a truth about America and Americans as well.   Who’d have guessed?

(In the Lucas Cranach painting that is not John Chapman offering us a tempting but delicious apple!  America’s mythology about itself as paradise excludes the serpent, but in so doing proves the truthfulness of Genesis 3).   America very much belongs to the same earth as the rest of the nations of the world.

Just the Facts – or at Least some Statistics

I happened across a few statistics regarding religion and America which I will pass along.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released in February of 2008 the details of its study based upon the answers of over 35,000 Americans surveyed.  Orthodox Christianity which represents a tiny minority of Americans did show up in the survey.   According to the Pew research about .6% of Americans identify themselves as Orthodox Christians.   This translates into approximately 1,800,000 people in the U.S. who call themselves Orthodox Christian.  Approximately as many people in the U.S. identify themselves as Muslim as identify themselves as Orthodox Christian.  There are fewer Orthodox Christians in America than Jehovah Witnesses or Buddhists according to this study.  There are about 3 times more Jews or Mormons in the U.S. than Orthodox Christians.   Compared to the national average of all religious traditions covered in the Pew research, the Orthodox tend to be better educated and wealthier than the average church attendee in America.

There also is a great amount of movement of people from one religious tradition to another.  About 28% of those surveyed say they have left the faith they grew up with and now embrace different religious ideas (this does not include those who have switched from one Protestant denomination to another – if that number is included about 4 in 10 American adults belong to a different religious tradition than they grew up with).   Among the Orthodox in the study, about the same number of people joined Orthodoxy as defected from the Church.     

A little over 16% of those surveyed consider themselves independent of any religious tradition.

Last November’s Presidential election was heralded by some as a major shift in thinking among American Christians – supposedly demonstrated by the election of Democrat Barack Obama.  But in a 26 January 2009 NEWSWEEK article the statistics do not bear out this major change in how religion is affecting political affiliation – or as the article, “Faith Beyond His Father’s”, notes the picture is much more complicated than simplistic analysis indicates.  Among Evangelicals ages 18-29, about 33% voted for Obama while in the previous election only 16% of this demographic group voted for Kerry.  But the study showed that among older Evangelicals only 25% voted for Obama while in 2004 nearly 33% voted for Kerry.  The overall totals showed 24% of Evangelicals voting with Obama in 2008, while 21% voted for Kerry in 2004, which is considered a statistically insignificant shift in voting pattern.  This change in voting might have nothing to do with changes in thinking among Evangelicals, it could very well be that Evangelicals felt more negative toward the unpopular President Bush, not changing their basic political beliefs, but voting against the status quo.  Approximately the same percentage of young Evangelicals as their elders oppose abortion – 70%, so age does not seem to be a factor on that issue.  However on the issue of gay marriage, among Evangelicals over age 30, only 9% support gay marriage, while 26% of white Evangelicals ages 18-29 give a favorable nod to allowing gay marriage.  That does represent a statistically significant difference in attitude among the younger Evangelicals.

To Believe or To Not Believe: For Americans Is there a Question?

Believers often take comfort in numbers, especially in America where people like to identify with winners.   And so the 23 June 2008 released Pew Forum poll on religion in America will be heartening to those believers especially those who suffer anxiety about holding a minority viewpoint when it comes to thinking about God.  And it does seem that many American believers find strength only in numbers or that somehow majority numbers prove the truthfulness of a proposition.   Is this the result of having even their religious thinking dominated by “democratic majority rules” ideas or is it some kind of “might is right” thinking?   One wonders how these Christians would have survived in the Roman Empire, under Islamic domination, or in the atheist Soviet Union, where Christians made up a distinct minority.     Do Americans really find strength in their faith or in God, or do they really rely on the majority opinion to determine what they believe?   Perhaps some of this explains why some American Christians find their “faith” so threatened by science, cosmology or evolution.

Ninety Two (92%) percent of Americans claim to believe in God or a universal spirit.  Strangely enough 21% of those claiming to be atheist also say they believe in a God or universal spirit.  That reminds me of the statistics I’ve seen in Russia where more Russians claim to be Orthodox Christians than claim to believe in God; or as one priest stated it, not all Russians who claim to be Orthodox  believe in God.   It all may only show how difficult it is to do a reliable poll on religious belief, especially when each person is self defining the terms he/she uses. 

Despite the obvious problems polling on religious topics may have, they do offer us some type of portrait of American beliefs.   The Pew fellows tend to emphasize American tolerance and flexibility in their beliefs as a good point.  A majority of those who actively pray tend to be more conservative in their values such as on issues of abortion and homosexuality. Interestingly 60% of those polled “want the government to do more to help the needy and support stronger environmental laws.”  All of these points I would think show that the religious faith of Americans do affect the moral values by which they live and engage the world.   There is a close connection between theological belief and personal morality.  Because of this connection and because of the number of people claiming a belief in God, religious discussion does have a proper role in our elections despite what some claim to the contrary.  And despite how some politicians and religious lobbies distort this proper role in public debate.

 And in this presidential election year, candidates might note that a majority of believers want the U.S. to concentrate more on domestic issues and think the U.S. is too focused on foreign issues. 

To see what the Pew Poll had to say about Orthodoxy see my Bilingual Orthodoxy

Freedom of Religion or a Religionless Campaign?

Each year just before or about the time of American Independence Day I try to read a book on American history.   This year I have been reading Steven Waldman’s FOUNDING FAITH: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America which is a good read and offers insight into the debates surrounding freedom of religion in early America.   Waldman offers a thesis that the modern American debates about freedom of and freedom from religion can find plenty of fodder among our founding fathers but often the modern debates do not quote the framers of the constitution within the context of THEIR debates and concerns.  Consequently people find quotes to support all kinds of positions which the founding fathers would have found baffling.   He says the real issue of religion in the colonies was trying to weld together a coalition of 13 independent states each of which had a strong sectarian bent.   What the American founders worked out was the union could be formed as long as this national body politic had no power to interfere with the religious practices of each state.   What they realized was needed for the states to unite was a statement that granted religious tolerance to whatever each state did so that no one state and no one religion could take advantage of the union to force their religious views on the rest of the states.  It was the basis for the American idea of religious toleration, though individually all of the founding fathers had strong religious preferences and prejudices.  They were actually protecting each state from interference from the national government and later in history the religious freedom would be interpreted more in terms of rights granted to individuals. 

The modern American take on politics and religion has taken its own turn and some long for a mythical age in which politicians debated policies and not religion.   Take for example the 11 June 2008 New York Times Opinion piece by Timothy Egan, “Godless.”       Mr. Egan thinks religious themes have become way too predominate in American political campaigns and he hopes the candidates will “go Godless for the rest of the campaign.”   It is an opinion piece and so he is entitled to his opinion:  “Over the last 30 years, church and state have become far more entangled than any of our fair-minded founders and their better successors – including some chiseled on Mount Rushmore – envisioned.”

The trouble is his opinion doesn’t match well with history, or at least not the history offered by Mr. Waldman.  The founding fathers openly debated and discussed issues of religion, and beginning with the election of 1800 between President John Adams and Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, there was a tremendous amount of religious bantering, slandering and mudslinging between these two founding fathers.  The Federalist backing Christian Unitarian Adams portrayed Jefferson as a godless man, who didn’t attend church, and whose election would lead to rampant immorality.   The Republicans backing the Philosopher Christian Jefferson (as a man of the Enlightenment he did not believe in any of the New Testament miracles but saw Jesus as an Enlightened teacher) warned that re-electing Adams would bring an end to religious liberty and the rights of conscience. 

Historians claim that although the leading families in 1800 America did see church attendance as part of their civic duty (and vice versa – their civic duty included church attendance), only about 20% of all the peoples in the nascent United States were actually regular church attendees.  But in that year Jefferson won the election to some degree because independent minded evangelicals feared Adams might work to establish a state church and so they joined together with the irreligious to elect the free thinking philosopher.

Americans as the 18th Century came to a close really did vote for the candidate who most pushed the theme of the separation of church and state.   But that wasn’t achieved by the candidates avoiding the issue of religion, but rather by the candidates making known their own visions as to what role religion played in their personal lives and what role they thought religion should play in the life of the nation.   Both presidential candidates in 1800 were men of faith, but the faith of each was different, and the voters had to decide between how these men’s faith would play out in history were they to be elected president.  

What was needed then and now is not religionless campaigning, but a deeper understanding of how each candidate’s faith has impacted their approach to issues and crises, their decision making, and their perspective on the world.   Unfortunately what we will be given is sound bytes and polarized analyzes of the candidate all filtered through the mass media’s take on religion.

See Also my  The First Amendment:  Everything is Prohibited