I’ve been following the many articles in The Atlantic written by Robert P. Jones on the intersection of religion, particularly in its evangelical forms in America, and culture. He’s been at it for some time now, going back at least to 2014, banging the drum particularly on the ways black Christians differ from white Christians. The most recent edition of The Atlantic contains an article in which he sums up his views on this difference, and appeals to white Christians to get their act together and rid themselves of the white supremacy that has characterized the Christian denominations, catholic as well as protestant, since before the nation was founded. The article, “White Christian America Needs a Moral Awakening” is a short version of his latest book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.
What Jones has to say about religion fits hand-in-glove with my personal experience with religion, and that is that what we attribute to religion is far more often more aptly attributed to culture. When pushed to the wall about our religious faith, we come up with doctrinal explanations, virgin birth, resurrection, the need for forgiveness of sins and what have you, but in my view doctrine is rarely the best place to begin. We believe what we believe in large part because it’s what our parents and our neighbors believe.
And because I believe that’s the case, I see religion as arbitrary. Not true. Arbitrary. People who grow up in Peoria are not likely to be Hindus or Zoroastrians. They’re far more likely to tell you they know the Lord saved them, and the Lord has a name and it’s Jesus Christ. People who grow up in Bangladesh are quite likely to see things differently. Not because they’re stupid, or ignorant, but because their parents and neighbors inculcated in them at a young age ideas other than the fact that Christ walked on water.
I was raised in a Christian culture. I went to church every Sunday from an early age, both for the regular morning service and Sunday School classes as well. I started out in a Baptist Church, but when it got swallowed up by a Congregational Church, I began identifying as a “Pilgrim,” which was just a nicer sounding word to my young ears than “Calvinist.” My years in the Pilgrim Fellowship, which our youth group was called, were just the beginning of a lifelong journey through religion - and ultimately out of religion. The fact that that journey lasted most of my life became obvious to me when I discovered, well into my fifties, that I had steered my interest in religion directly into my professional life as a teacher of language and culture in Japan, almost without knowing it.
I had a wonderful experience teaching in Japan. I learned so much. Enough for me to fully embrace the notion that people go into teaching because they see learning as an activity that takes a life time. One teaches because one realizes one never stops needing to learn more. And what better way to get away with spending one’s serious hours on learning things than to declare one is a teacher. You do that and the world stops expecting you to focus on acquiring wealth, or selling things in a store, or running for political office. It allows you to get away with endless inquiry. I was still getting a formal education in my forties and the year I finally began teaching with a PhD in education and linguistics was the year I turned fifty.
University teaching in Japan follows the early German tradition of university as a study of universals. Professors actually get to profess; they get to teach pretty much what they want to teach and in many cases - not all, but many - they are free to expand beyond the fields they are hired to teach in. Because my focus was on the meaning of culture, I spent the better part of two decades simply defining culture. I went about it by attempting to pull the concept apart from other concepts it overlapped with - culture and civilization, culture and society, culture and power, culture and religion, and more. And when it came to culture and religion I found myself, yet again, digging through my own personal history of why it was that although I thought I had left religion behind, it was still nagging at me, demanding attention again and again each time new life experience gave me new perspectives on things.
Defining is essentially analysis. Defining religion is of necessity coming to see how the word is used essentially as a portmanteau to cover a huge number of distinct concepts: religion is doctrine, it is music and literature and architecture, it is cultural practice, it is psychology, sociology, politics.
Reflecting on the early days of my encounter with religion, I am now surprised at just how long it took before I began to admit to myself that I was no longer a believer, that I found the Christian message unappealing because it was so obviously arbitrary. That to accept Christianity one had to buy into historical "truths" that differ from the historical "truths" of non-Christian cultures. The reason I left the church initially was not because I stopped believing; it was because German Lutheranism differed so noticeably from the American Lutheranism I had come to know before I went to Munich in 1960. I grew up in a town where Roman Catholicism held sway; most of my friends, the closest ones, were Catholics, and I went to mass so often I had pretty much memorized the Latin rituals. I was interested in foreign languages even before high school, so it is no surprise that I should be drawn to the Catholic Church. They had something the Protestants didn't have - the use of Latin. It was a big draw. And from that came the focus on ritual, since they were intertwined. And the focus on ritual was esthetically attractive to me because it was associated with language so strongly, and at some real level, because I was too much entrenched in Protestantism on both grandparents' sides to find the courage to turn my back on it, I sought out a form of Protestantism that gave more weight to ritual than the virtually ritual-free Congregational Church I was growing up in.
My grandmother's Lutheran Church fit the bill. They had what I thought was a lovely ritual. Furthermore, I associated it with the German language, since I frequently went to the German service with my grandmother. And that led me to Luther's Small Catechism, both for language and for content. Congregationalism was boring as hell, being all about being "nice." I wanted some serious doctrine to sink my teeth into, and the Lutherans provided the certainties I was seeking. They had no doubt they had the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth.
The Lutherans I knew in America were fun-loving people. They loved to sing and dance and drink beer. The Lutherans I encountered in Munich were not fun. I had applied to live in a Lutheran dormitory, and it came with certain religious obligations. One of these was a weekend excursion where, as a foreigner, I quickly became the center of attention. How did I spend my time? By going to the Hofbräuhaus every Saturday night, of course, drinking beer by the liter and swaying to the oompah bands. How else would an American kid, still too young to drink legally in his home country, and away from home for the first time, spend his time?
My colleagues were horrified. Drinking? And too much, by the sound of it. Is that any way for a Christian to behave? Well, yes, I thought to myself. Of course it is. I’m a Lutheran, not a Congregationalist anymore. (And even the Congregationalists where I came from liked their beer). But this was Munich, and the Lutheran Church was aware of itself as a minority in still, in those days, very Catholic Bavaria, and tight-assed as hell. I became a pariah in the dormitory, and since I was being exposed not only to puritanical Lutheranism but the glories of one of the world’s most splendid cities for high culture - opera, operetta, as many museums as breweries (about 40 of each), and since I had a wonderful collection of American friends to keep company with, it wasn’t long before Lutheranism - the social culture of it - lost all its appeal. I was on my way out. It still took a while before I let go of the doctrine, but I was out.
This is the lens through which I read Robert P. Jones’ ruminations on the white supremacy of the Christian denominations in the United States. Of course Americans would ignore the Sermon on the Mount with its suggestion that the meek would inherit the earth. Of course we would equate intelligence with making money, of course we would mouth platitudes about giving to the poor while making sure they didn’t actually move into our neighborhoods. Religion wasn’t what the Bible said; it was how we behaved - culturally. It was a reflection of our values. Not our espoused values, but the ones we actually lived by.
I’d take this all a bit further. Jones is right to focus on how deeply embedded white supremacy is in American religion, but there’s another issue that I think is worth considering, while we transition into this era of new awakenings. One way of naming this new era is to call it the age of computers. We live by a brand-new reality, the fact that we no longer depend on experts to tell us what is happening in the world. We can seek out whatever we want to on our own. We can get access to our own truths, indulge ourselves endlessly with whatever piques our interest, whether that is pornography, or sports, or conspiracy theories or simply cute pictures of cats and dogs.
Mostly we can indulge our belief that we, as Americans, are born with rights. We have the right to define freedom for ourselves. And that means we can live where we want, travel where we want, carry guns if we want, watch the news if we want. Or not. And we can determine for ourselves what the truth is. I know some wit (was it Pat Moynihan?) insists that we have the right to our own opinions but not to our own facts. But we also know that we have the right not to listen to Pat Moynihan if we choose to.
Why are we so adamant about the right to our own truth? I think it is because America put such emphasis from the earliest days onward, on the freedom of religion. We have a right to believe whatever religious notions we want, and nobody - certainly no governmental organization - can tell us otherwise. And that right comes with no responsibility. We don’t have to answer for our choice of religion; we simply exercise the right. Period. Full stop.
It’s only a small step, once you get used to insisting on your right (without responsibility) to believe whatever you want in religion, to insisting on your right (without responsibility) to believe whatever truth suits your fancy. And this is how Donald Trump became president - because a critical mass of religious believers, people who knew their rights to believe whatever they chose to believe - got behind him when he said he was going to clear the swamp. And once you throw your weight behind a tribal leader, you’ve got a home, emotional security, an island of security in an insecure world.
It’s not only that we have a right to believe Americans are the good guys in the world, that when we have marched into all those foreign places, it was to bring democracy and freedom, and that our noble soldiers died for that freedom and don’t you forget it. It’s that historically we became - and will always be - the greatest country in the world. Slavery? Sure we had it. But that’s history, not the present. Genocide. Well, that’s a word we use for the Holocaust, and maybe for Armenia. Not for the American Indians.
I’m with Robert P. Jones. I’m with the folks who talk of becoming “woke.” Of getting ourselves (white folks, I mean) to recognize just how deep-seated white supremacy is marbled into American culture.
I’m bored with despair. Bored with people who talk about running to Canada. Go, if you must. Call Americans idiots, if you want. A great many of us are. But not all of us.
Some of us are having a great time with this new development, with recognizing how deep-seated our prejudices are, how very similar our task is to that of the new German generation to recognize that history is not a pretty picture at all, that it requires courage to look at, and effort to put right.
History is not static, but dynamic. Not a field of study, but, like science, a process to engage in. Part of the lifelong learning process. We’re never going to get it entirely right. But we can continue to pull out the weeds when they come to our attention.