Schoolkids were traditionally taught—at least I was—that the United States was founded because the Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom, an escape from persecution. This incomplete and sanitized declaration dovetailed nicely into the development of formal American schooling and curricula in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It was part of our national creation myth, positioning the original ancestors as men who braved the dangerous ocean journey in order to worship their God in the way they saw fit in this wild, free new land. (Plus their wives and children, of course. Who would naturally be worshipping in the same fashion, and following the laws the men devised.)
Nary a mention of their rapacious commercial interests, let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.
Since the Pilgrims arrived—merely one group of colonizing settlers, albeit one that got lots of airtime in history class—waves of folks with different religious beliefs and heritage, born here/brought here/immigrated here, have shaped the trajectory and norms of livin’ in the U.S.A.
Educators and civic leaders have adapted to changing mores over more than a century, lurching along and stepping in deep controversy over religious practice—well, all the time. (Think: Scopes Trial.)
Arguing over religious beliefs is our real national heritage. And the separation of church and state is the tool we use to distinguish what is appropriate at home but not at school. The new SCOTUS ruling that permits private (Christian) prayer on public school occasions as long as it’s not required, is another chunk out of that wall of separation. And any veteran teacher will tell you that bringing personal religious beliefs into the classroom is a recipe for disaster.
Contrary to Fox News commentary, good educators are not part of a century-long conspiracy to brainwash little kids about the moral framework of life in community. In my 30+ years in the classroom, most everyone skirted around explicitly talking about religion for fear of violating The Wall of Separation. In some classrooms—the aforementioned history class, for example—discussion of religion is inevitable. Music class, as well. And literature. And science.
In fact, learning about religion and its impact, positive and negative, on the history of the only world we have, is one of the central reasons to offer public education. But learning about religion is entirely separate from practicing religion, or proselytizing.
The message always needs to be: Religions have existed forever. Religions and sanctified beliefs have caused wars and genocide. Religion has the capacity for both great good and bad—and a whole lot of judging about which is which, and spurious reasons for grabbing power. Nonetheless, wherever we find extended civilization, there are religious practices.
Lately, the Christians have seemed to be ascending, in terms of political power. It may have something to do with existential uncertainty of life during the pandemic, or the former President using certain Christians for his own purposes. Or the spate of SCOTUS decisions dragging the nation backwards against social progress, led by a Catholic majority.
Adam Serwer: Given the unholy alliance between conservative politics and conservative Christianity, it is no surprise that right-wing extremists on the Supreme Court prefer to read theConstitution the way evangelicals read the scriptures. That is, selectively, and with a preference for American mores and jurisprudence of the nineteenth century. When men were men and all others were second-class citizens, if not property.
As Garrison Keillor said: Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness.
I would add—‘and also having a sense of humor.’ I’ve seen a lot of social media talk smacking down Christians as a class, blaming them for cruel and regressive policy-making. I know Christianity’s failings better than many, but it seems like we have not outgrown the need for considered values, or the good that religious organizations, Christian and otherwise, have done, for centuries.
Freedom of religion, won at some cost in this nation, has allowed us to safely poke at literal and metaphorical sacred cows and speak freely about what we believe—and dismiss as foolishness. Respecting diverse religious beliefs is a very difficult thing, but if we can’t accept diversity of religious practices (or lack thereof), we are betraying the very story of our founding.
So maybe lighten up on the anti-Christian (or anti-any faith) talk? Or be careful whom you’re sweeping into the category of Harmful and Dangerous while letting other organized groups completely off the moral hook?
Robert Reich: G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.
In The Ministry for the Future, an awesome book about possible futures (Kim Stanley Robinson), the chair of the Ministry and her trusted associate discuss this question:
What would it take to get the entire planet to commit to necessary sacrifices that could, once and for all, turn climate change and equitable civilization around, practices that would save us all? Mutual assured survival, even mutual thriving?
A new religion, her aide says. A newly conceived religion, based on environmental equity, justice and peace, adopted globally.
My friend Fred Bartels put it this way: God is a personalization of community.
Food for thought. Or prayer. Take your pick.
What almost all who comment on the “religious” nature of most Americans seem to not understand is that the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (in historical order) demand that one gives up rational thought to believe in mythologies, absurd falsehoods, i.e., there is a God up in the sky for one, other millenia old Middle Eastern desert tribal stories. If you do not accept those faith beliefs you are not accepted into those communities. This sets children up to disregard their own thinking and blindly accept a bunch of nonsense.
And people wonder why the US is in the state it is when 75% of the people in the country believe on faith alone such absurdities.
Hmm. If, in fact, three-quarters of the nation believes in absurdities, I’d prefer that those ridiculous beliefs center around ancient rules for living rather than stolen elections and anti-Science ‘masks don’t work’ dogma. Religions *are* faith communities, of course–but most of them never ask what their congregants actually believe about the divine.
I once took part in a religious retreat (a bunch of liberal Christians) organized to explore racism. We were asked to describe salvation, in terms of who would be saved–who was deserving of life everlasting. As we went around the circle, it was clear that nobody believed in heaven/hell, or an old-man God in the sky, or a chosen people. People saw the Bible as ancient, interesting but totally fallible. Several people mentioned wanting to live out their beliefs about justice and peace, and found churches more willing than other social organizations to accomplish that. THAT–living a good, just life–was how to achieve ‘salvation’—not life eternal, but the satisfaction of knowing you did good things during your allotted years.
I agree that Evangelical Christians and self-righteous Catholics, and others, have given religions a bad name. And maybe that’s the end game of all religions–winning the upper hand in social interactions. But I hold out hope that the justice/peace folks might eventually be leaders in building a new world.
Nancy, you say “let alone the people who had already lived here for a thousand years.” No, it was 14,000 years minimum. It could be twice as long.
The trouble with religions is that they are exclusive, and turn other people into “Others,” alien beings. If we need a “new religion”, it has to be one taking all of humanity into account. Something like…Humanism?
Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Rebecca. The ‘thousand years’ remark was more rhetorical flourish than history lesson. I live in Michigan’s Leelanau County (the ‘little finger’ of the mitten). Last year, one of our county commissioners, discussing a treaty created in 1855 that ceded nearly all the county’s land to the Anishinaabe (and then was promptly ignored, as white settlers platted up the land and sold it anyway), asked ‘Who was here before the Indians? Maybe they’d like a say in who owns the land…’
She was not joking. She really did wonder who lived here before the tribes. There was a concerted effort to let her know that–as nearly as can be tracked by historians–the tribes used the land as summer hunting and fishing grounds for about 10,000 years. It made no difference of course–facts seldom do.
As far as religions being exclusive–not all of them are, doctrinally, or in congregation-by-congregation practice. I also once worked at a Unitarian Universalist church, a creedless religion that honors personal belief including atheism, where the majority of congregants identified as humanist, and they were probably the most judgmental and exclusive congregation (out of 7) I’ve worked for.
I am intrigued by the idea of a religion that actually does take all of humanity in account, in practice. Government hasn’t worked. Capitalism is horrible and communism even worse. If not a religion–what can save us from ourselves?
That’s really weird that they said they honored all personal beliefs and yet were so judgmental and exclusive. How could they be? They got upset at petty stuff? SMH.
Bernie Sanders was asked what his religious beliefs were, and he said religion to him meant “that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”
Bernie’s conception is as good as it gets. In fact, the Unitarian Universalists base their religious practice on seven principles, one of which is: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Similar, no?
Again, there are religious beliefs and principles–and there’s human nature. Churches or congregations are also social groups, and find it hard to live up to ideals. Kind of like political parties.
What I find is that progressives are the only group truly thinking about “What would Jesus do?”