Thursday, April 27, 2006

Jangled Nerves

A friend sent me a Roger Rosenblatt essay the other day on the subject of religion in America. Rosenblatt’s drift was that we don’t make sense as a religious nation, that we get all upset about religion on the one hand, and cling so tenaciously to it on the other. It was a very muddled piece of thinking and I wonder what he’d have to say about the developments since he wrote the essay five years ago.

We pledge allegiance under God. In God we trust. We go to court, so help us God. We go to war with God on our side. When a President becomes a President, God is at hand.

“With all that,” he says, “the national nerves get jangled every time religion is spoken of publicly,” suggesting that somehow our inbuilt all-purpose religiosity is inconsistent with our reservations about public religiosity. He’s missing two very important and obvious facts about Americans and their religion. First off, saying we are conflicted simply means some of us think one way and others another. Hardly a world-shattering observation. Secondly, he’s missing the point that there is no inconsistency between “trusting” in God (for those who do) and not wanting religion to be used against us.

Separation of church and state was originally intended to protect religious expression, not the state. Those with the jangled nerves understand that hasn’t changed. Too much public religion, since religions disagree, sometimes violently, with one another, can only lead to squabbles and backlashes, and those who really want to hold on to their freedom to speak out and gather together and worship unhindered are trying to head off religious tyranny as well as the possibility of a “pox on all your houses” attitude among the non-religious.

“(T)he country is sort of a religion itself,” Roger Rosenblatt says. Now there’s a problem. Any country which is a religion unto itself (Saudi Arabia? Israel? Japan?) is playing not so much with religion as with nationalism. We forget that religion is a word with an enormous semantic range, and without clarity about what we are referring to when we speak of religion we risk stumbling over meaning, saying one thing and meaning another.

“Religion,” as we use the word in the Judeo-Christian world, has many faces. We can be referring to doctrine, to ritual ceremony or behavior (with or without doctrine), an emotional or mystical relationship with the unknown, myth, legend or other narrative, a code of ethics, legal and other social traditions, cultural attitudes, material creations of art, architecture, music and dance, institutions and hierarchies and power structures of authority.

In the current Culture Wars in America, religion is doubly deceptive as a concept, having evolved from traditional dichotomies such as Jewish vs. Christian, Protestant vs. Catholic into a much more complex division into groups who listen for the still small voice of God and those who storm about convinced they have listened long enough and it’s time to tell! We say “religion” and think Protestant or Catholic, Christian or Jewish, but we ought rather to be thinking of the split between open/ecumenical and closed/authoritarian.

In our current age of politicized religion, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which declares you only enter heaven through the good offices of the Roman Catholic pyramid, has more in common with the born-agains and their insistence you “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” or burn in hell, than either of these groups does with others within their organizations. Both are umbrella organizations which include not only the smugly righteous, but people for whom religion is more about being awed by the unknown, and about sharing the quest for good and the knowledge of things unseen. The authority-oriented, let’s call them, among both Catholics and Evangelicals agree on the “traditional, conservative” side of complex modern issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, gay liberation and change in general. These things are bad and must be stopped. Those more open to question and less bound to authority are more ecumenical and ready to embrace progressive approaches to modern questions. Rabbi Michael Lerner can get together with Cornel West and produce a dialogue on Jews and (Christian) Blacks, Protestants can teach in Catholic Universities and traditional theological seminaries can open their doors to Muslims. All of these look for and find common ground.

“Why do gays hate Christians so much?” an evangelical asked me recently. She was unfamiliar with Christian Exodus, a group that believes so strongly that separation of church and state is wicked that they want to take over South Carolina and secede from the Union. And she failed to see that when gays see Christians coming at them with affirmations that they “hate the sin but love the sinner” they see zombie-like eyeballs out of some horror movie. It often feels like a hopeless waste of time to explain that it’s not all Christians; it’s only the ones with the (real or imagined) pitchforks and Bibles-as-hammers that they’re afraid of.

Roger Rosenblatt speaks in warm and fuzzy terms about how religion is so much in the marrow of American bones that we literally embody religion, and fails to see it’s not religion in general that “jangles our nerves,” but what progressives refer to as “toxic religion.” We worry about laws that could break up homes and take adopted foster children away from their gay parents because the official Roman Catholic position is that gay parenting is “violence against children.” And we’re uncomfortable about the fact that America’s best-known and most influential Pentecostalist (one of the two or three biggest Protestant denominations and significant chunk of our president’s “base”) is Pat Robertson, who believes God placed Ariel Sharon is in a coma for withdrawing Israeli troops from Palestinian territories. Robertson preaches from his television pulpit the wisdom of supporting a full takeover of Palestinian lands because it is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

Don’t give me no more fuzzy stuff, Roger. We’re talking bad news religion here! And if your nerves haven’t jangled since you wrote that piece, (hell, Robertson and Dobson and Falwell and LaHaye were all around when you did!) you haven’t been paying attention!

April 27, 2006

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