Religion Archives

May 15, 2007


I see from the Washington Post that Jerry Falwell has died.

I disagreed with the man on many issues.

But I find myself saddened at his passing.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:47 PM | TrackBack

April 12, 2006

A Working Definition of Tradition

Elder son, 3 1/2 years old, came up with the best working definition of tradition that I have seen in a long time.

"Why do we eat only Matzah on this night?"

"Because we do."

I really like the notion that tradition is the things that we do because, well, because we do.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:46 PM | TrackBack

April 08, 2006

Highly successful heresy

Via Kevin Drum, I see that Professor Bainbridge has a blog post up wondering why National Geographic is dusting off the Gnostic heresy and presenting it as alternative Gospel. Might it be greed related to the forthcoming movie about the Da Vinci code? It might.

But in his whole-hearted condemnation of the gnostic heresy, Bainbridge appears to forget the Christianity itself is nothing but a very successful Jewish heresy. Heretic means new or different, not wrong.

I wonder if the Gnostics might not be a compelling variation for our current tendency to emphasize spirituality over doctrine?

Posted by Red Ted at 12:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 03, 2005

Christmas question

Here is a random question that came up while doing some holiday planning.

Christmas is a Christian holiday that has become a shopping saturnalia.

Is the modern Santa Claus a figure of Christian religion or of civil religion?

I say the latter, while J is not sure if Santa should give the boys presents underneath their grandparents' Christmas tree.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:57 PM | TrackBack

June 02, 2005

Tennessee 1796

Seeing as how much of the recent History Carnival was about the use and abuse of civil religion in the 1790s, I decided to post another dissertation outtake. Having spent several hours trying to figure out how to get the following paragraphs into the narrative, I will replace them with a single sentence and move on.

I hate it when that happens. But we cut the ones we love.

Tennessee 1796 below the fold, footnotes removed. And yes, Tennessee still has both a religious test and a disavowal of all religious tests.

Tennessee wrote the most striking constitution [between 1790 and 1815], affirming the rights of conscience, denying any religious test for state office, and requiring office holders to affirm the existence of God and of future rewards and punishments. The Tennessee Constitutional Convention met in Knoxville on January 11, 1796, after the French Revolution had turned anti-American but before the Illuminatti crisis. Immediately after choosing officers and setting procedures they agreed to write a declaration of rights and then a Constitution, and proceeded to transform themselves into a committee of the whole to discuss the matter. After about a week of debate they agreed on their Bill of Rights, including an outright ban on religious tests for state office and the statement that "men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences." They then went on to meet in committee of the whole again while they wrote a frame of government. Finally, they met as a convention to ratify and modify their committee work. On February 2, during this final approval, George Doherty from Jefferson county proposed that "No person who publicly denies the being of a God, and future rewards and punishments, or the divine authority of the old and new testament, shall hold any office in the civil department in this state." Doherty's proposal passed by acclamation. Landon Carter of Washington County, who had been a floor manager during the revision process, then moved that the reference to the Testaments be struck out. This proposal led to a roll call, which Carter won 27 to 25. The convention immediately adjourned, several hours ahead of schedule, as was common after votes involving religion and the state. Later that week the test and a couple of other added statements were bundled into a new article, miscellaneous provisions, and the convention proceeded to wrap up affairs.

To the modern eye, the actions of the convention in January and February are completely antithetical. They agreed "That no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this State" with no debate. A month later, they approved a test that would have restricted office holding to Christians, a test very like the one that North Carolina maintained until the middle of the nineteenth century. The Journals of the convention are scanty, but they do suggest that most of the men in Knoxville saw no initial conflict between their February test and their January rights. The earlier liberty of conscience was a statement of inalienable rights, the later test a matter of civil religion. Carter's amendment, then, was a debate about what beliefs are necessary for good government, what gives civic faith its compelling power. Doherty looked to scripture, with the implication that revelation led to moral behavior and that the state could press the contents of the Bible into service as required. Carter moved a Deist civil religious test: even Tom Paine agreed in the being of a God and in future rewards and punishments. Carter and a bare majority of the delegates argued that the God of nature was sufficient to compel good behavior, in effect stating that the idea of a divine being was more important than the details, words, or promises made by that divine being.

Religion and government overlapped in the Tennessee Constitution, with government putting religion to work to ensure good behavior from office holders. The easy acceptance of Doherty's proposal suggests that the men in the room came from homogenous religious backgrounds. Most if not all were Protestants, at least in formal affiliation, all read the Bible as scripture. Anyone who accepted "the divine authority of the old and new testaments" must accept the common tenets of morality and must therefore be a good republican. In addition, by turning to the Bible alone Doherty attempted to avoid all denominational conflict over what teachings were best suited to teach moral behavior. His civil religion would have required the Bible, and would have trusted that the Bible would be enough. What Doherty's proposal did not address was the extent to which religious men of good will, each reading the same scriptures, could come to radically different conclusions about the best way to organize republican government. And, more to the point, men who agreed on the basic premises of republican government could accuse other Christians of holding opinions that would subvert the state.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:52 AM | TrackBack

May 17, 2005

Franklin Pierce

I have spent much of the evening trying to make sense of Franklin Pierce.

I know that I am not alone, and that many of us spend our time trying to figure the guy out. Most of the blogosphere is well aware that Frank was the 14th president of the U.S., that he came from New Hampshire, that he was a dark horse candidate elected on a late ballot as a pro-Southern Democrat from New Hampshire, that he was widely derided during the campaign as being the "hero of many a well fought bottle" because of his disastrous experience as a Brigadier during the Mexican-American War, and that he is widely considered one of the worst American Presidents.

He is confusing to me because of his religious beliefs. A New England Episcopalian, he chose to affirm rather than swear his oath of office. Unusually for Democrats (and political hacks, he qualified as both) his public pronouncements show a complicated sense of civil religion and national providence. Unlike the simple-minded triumphalism of James K. Polk et al, and unlike the civic Providence of Jackson, Harrison, and Taylor (so long as we hold to the Constitution, then the nation will prosper and be blessed), he called forward a sense of national frailty and contingency, a national providence that might not be granted for the future. His term as high priest of American Civil Religion thus looked far more like James Madison and John Quincy Adams than like his contemporaries. The closest similarity is Abraham Lincoln, and yet the two men's Gods, biographies, and backgrounds are mightily different. About the only thing they had in common was a sense of humor.

Then again, humor is tied to an awareness of pain, so perhaps it is not so surprising that the two mid-century advocates of contingent Providence were also much funnier than Buchanan, Fillmore, Polk, or the rest of the crew. For that matter, I have trouble imagining Andrew Jackson teasing his friends the way that Pierce teased Benjamin Brown Finch after the accident with the rum and the lemonade.

Pierce's public pronouncements are more explicitly and conventionally religious than most of his contemporaries. He emphasizes the power of God's Providence. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, he ties Providential blessings to the proper performance of national duties. The nation is not entitled to good times, but must act properly in order to prosper. He phrases these national duties in one of those sentences that make undergraduates stop reading (see below the break), but he phrases them as a compact grounded in a national obligation to act morally.

Thanks - blogging this helped me make enough sense out of Pierce and the later guys that I should be able to go write up the actual focus of this subsection, James Madison and the Providential meaning of the War of 1812.

EDIT - Dr Curmudgeon helps clear up my confusion about Pierce's religious affiliation. The secondary source with the scanned texts of the annual addresses had him marked as an Episcopalian, so I went with that. I wonder if Carwardine Evangelicals and Politics or Holt Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party mention Pierce's religious affiliation.

Franklin Pierce, 4th2nd Annual Address (State of the Union), December 4, 1854, penultimate paragraph.

We have to maintain inviolate the great doctrine of the inherent right of popular self-government; to reconcile the largest liberty of the individual citizen with complete security of the public order; to render cheerful obedience to the laws of the land, to unite in enforcing their execution, and to frown indignantly on all combinations to resist these; to harmonize a sincere and ardent devotion to the institutions of religious faith with the most universal religious toleration; to preserve the rights of all by causing each to respect those of the other; to carry forward every social improvement to the uttermost limit of human perfectibility, by the free action of mind upon mind, not by the obtrusive intervention of misapplied force; to uphold the integrity and guard the limitations of our organic law; to preserve sacred from all touch of usurpation, as the very palladium of our political salvation, the reserved rights and powers of the several States and of the people; to cherish with loyal fealty and devoted affection this Union, as the only sure foundation on which the hopes of civil liberty rest; to administer government with vigilant integrity and rigid economy; to cultivate peace and friendship with foreign nations, and to demand and exact equal justice from all, but to do wrong to none; to eschew intermeddling with the national policy and the domestic repose of other governments, and to repel it from our own; never to shrink from war when the rights and the honor of :he country call us to arms, but to cultivate in preference the arts of peace, seek enlargement of the rights of neutrality, and elevate and liberalize the intercourse of nations; and by such just and honorable means, and such only! whilst exalting the condition of the Republic, to assure to it the legitimate influence and the benign authority of a great example amongst all the powers of Christendom.
This is, of course, a HUGE difference from Lincoln's sense of contingency, "with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." Not only was Lincoln a much better writer, his civil religion also emphasized that we all believe that we are right, and all that we can do is hope that we are indeed correct in this belief as we continue to do the best we can, knowing that no prayer will be answered fully.

EDIT - correct the ordinal on the annual address.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:53 PM | TrackBack

April 16, 2005

Prince George's Petition

I checked, and according to Google this one is not yet on line. Since I wanted to type it in for my own reference, and since it is trival to cut-and-paste from Wordperfect to the blog, I give you the most signed and most distributed petition during the 1785 debate (scroll down to VA) over the Virginia General Assessment (failed) and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (passed.)

Petition copied from Thomas Curry, The End of Christendom, pp 123-4

NOTE - this was written before they invented spelling. I kept the 18th-century spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.

Prince George County Petition, November 28, 1785
Petitions can be found in Religious Petitions Presented to the General Assembly of Virginia, 1774-1802 (Virginia State Library, microfilm, 3 vols)

To the Honourable, the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates The petition of the Inhabitants of Prince George County Humbly Sheweth That whereas it hath pleased your Honourable House to publish a Bill obligeing the Inhabitants of this Common Wealth to pay the Teachers of the christian Religion, and have requested their opinion concerning it; Your petitioners therefore do most earnestly declare against it: believing it to be Contrary to the Spirit of the Gospel, & the Bill [of] Rights. Certain it is, that The Blessed author of our Religion supported & maintained his Gospel in the world for Several hundred years, not only without the aid of civil power, but against all the powers of the Earth. The Excellent purity of its' precepts, & the unblamable Behaviour of its Ministers (with the devine Blessing) made its Way thru all opposition: nor was it better for the church when Constantine first established Christianity by human Law, tho, there was Rest from persecution. But how soon Was the church overrun with Error, Superstition and Immorality. How little were Ministers then like what they were before either in principle or purity? but it is said that Religion is taking it's flight, & that Deism, with it's bainfull Influence is spreading over the State; If so, it must be owing to other causes and Not for want of Religious Establishment. Let your laws punish the Vices and Immoralities of the times, and let there not be wanting such men placed in authority who by their pious Examples shall recommend Religion: & by their Faithfullness shall scurge the Growing Vices of the age: Let Ministers manifest to the World that they are Inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon them that office: that they seek the Good of mankind, and not worldly Interest: let Their Doctrine be scriptural & their Lives upright; then shall Religion (if Departed) speedily return, and Deism be put to open shame & it's dreaded Consequencies speedily removed.
But what valuable purpose would such assessment answer? would it Introduce any More useful and faithful Men into the Ministry? Surely not, those whome devine Grace hath called to that work, will esteem it their highest Honour to do his pleasure: on the contrary, it Might call in many Hirelings whose cheif Motive would be temporal Interest. that religious Establishment & Government are Linked together and that the latter cannot stand without he former is soemthing new: Witness the State of pennsylvanie wherein no such Establishment hath ever taken place: Their Government stands firm, & which of the neighbouring States hath better Members, of brighter Morrals & more upright Characters.
That it is against our bill of Rights, which sayes all men by nature are born equally free, so that no person in this Commonwealth shall enjoy exclusive privileges or emoluments, except for services rendered to the state, shall not those then who are not professors of the christian Religion, who are in the state at the passing of this Bill, and others who have been Invited since by the benefit held out, when they shall be obliged to support the Christian Religion, think That such an obligation is a Departure from the Spirit and meaning of it.
Finally, if such Tax is against the Spirit of the Gospel, if Christ for Several Hundred years, not only without the aid of civil power, but against all the powers of Earth and Hell supported it; if Establishment has never been a Means of prospering the Gospel: if no more faithful Men would be introduced into the Ministry by it: if it would not revive decay'd Religion and stop the Growth of Deism: or Serve the purpose of Government: and if against the bill of Rights: which your petitioners believe: they trust the wisdom and uprightness of your Honourable House will leave them Intirely free in Matters of Religion and the manner of supporting its Ministers: and they shall ever pray . . .

Posted by Red Ted at 12:28 PM | TrackBack

October 29, 2004

Faith Based Parks?

Via Wonkette, I see that there is a group of National Park Service employees who are a mite cranky that the Bush Administration is revamping the informational materials available at our national parks to reflect a creationist understanding of geological processes.

The most recent flap - the Grand Canyon is handing out books saying the canyon was created by Noah's flood and when the Bush adminstration promised to look into the books, they did not and kept them active.

The whole business about "reality-based worldviews" was getting to be a tedious meme, but then I keep hitting things like this that remind me that it sort of fits. Despite its name, creation science is not science.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:29 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 20, 2004


On the recent exam I asked my kids what John Winthrop would think about the U.S. Constitution. In other contexts I sometimes as What Would Jonathan Edwards Do? I was reminded of that latter question by Amy Sullivan's recent piece at The Washington Monthly.

Amy points to Ron Suskind's piece on Bush's thought process but focuses on Ayelish McGarvey's recent piece suggesting that Bush is not really a Christian at all. She does not go as far as McGarvey, but she does point out that Bush's Christianity boils down to the claim that he is a Christian, powerful words about Christianity that were probably penned by his speech writer, and policy positions that emphasize anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell and anti-homosexuality but that ignore the rest of Christian teachings.

Rather than dive into the 300-plus comments there, I want to ramble on about this at length here.

The skinny:

Some Christians think of faith and salvation as things that are created through good works. Some Christians think that salvation comes from faith alone, and that works are not necessary. Jonathan Edwards, together with most of Christian tradition, think that while salvation is a matter of faith, the test of that faith is what sort of live a person lives. Works are not cause but consequence of a true faith, and if they are lacking then the faith probably is as well.

Lets start by asking what is a "real Christian"? My theological background is heavy on 19th-century Presbyterians and so I tend to break that question down into three sub-questions or three gradations of Christian.

The first is the self-labeled Christian. This is the largest possible tent and it includes anyone who wants to place themselves in it - so Unitarians are in, so are Mormons and George W. Bush, but Jews for Jesus don't want this label so they don't count. Whether a person belongs in this group or not is a question that can only be answered by that person, and the only criteria for using this label is that a person wants it. So, by this largest of all possible tents, George W. Bush is as Christian as Thomas Jefferson.

The second is what the 19th century guys called a historic faith: publicly proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, accepting that the New Testament is scripture (by whatever definition you want to use for scripture), and attempting to follow the commandments in that book. Jews for Jesus fit in this group, so too do almost all Christian Churches and almost all self-labeled Christians. Jefferson is out, as are Unitarians, but even bigoted anti-Catholics like James Henley Thornwell agreed that the Roman Catholic Church possessed a historic faith. By this standard both Kerry and Bush are real Christians, with Kerry being more traditional in his formulations and creeds (as expected from a Catholic) and Bush being vague and fuzzy (as expected from a self-help therapeutic Christian).

The third and hardest to evaluate is what Thornwell called a real Christian, what Evangelicals call born again, and what Jonathan Edwards accepted as a full member of his church in Northampton. This would be a person with some emotional attachment to the divine, that attachment expressed through the Christian language of sin, redemption, and joy, and that attachment proved by a change in life, habits or morals. Lets call this a heart Christian, although many people have different terms for the same folks.

McGarvey and several of Sullivan's commenters argue that Bush does not have this sort of faith, that his faith is a simple therapeutic faith that he credits for moral certainty and calm, and that the only fruits of this faith are a turn away from (most) alcohol - he still drinks near-beer like O'Douls - and a turn towards exercise. But drink and exercise alone do not make a life of faith. Sullivan is less sure, but she too looks to works as the test of faith. Kerry did the same when comparing his more social gospel with Bush's vocal gospel.

And this, finally, gets me to the question in the header - What would Jonathan Edwards do? The distinction between faith and works is old. The modern Arguments about faith and works date back to the Reformation, with precursors to that debate going back to Augustine. There are three common interpretations, each of which can be abused and turned into a vicious form of hypocrisy and heresy, each of which can drive people to live noble lives marked by caring for others - love as benevolence.

The first interpretation of faith and works is that we are justified by works. That is, our salvation and our ability to overcome original sin will come because we do good works. These works, taken on hopefully and humbly, will bring us from sin into salvation. For many Baptism is a saving or cleansing ordinance - it wipes away part of original sin and lets one make moral decisions. For some Communion is a saving sacrament - each time you participate you move closer to salvation. While this is traditional Catholic doctrine, it is not limited to Catholics: Jonathan Edwards' grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, held the Puritan version of this belief. These works include deeds done for others. Medieval social services were provided by confraternities, groups of people who banded together to do good deeds and thus earn salvation. Some, including Ben Franklin the notorious skeptic, argue that it is by doing good deeds and acting like a good person that one, actually, becomes a better person.

This, I should add, is close to modern American Judaism - we are commanded to perform mitzvot - good deeds - some of these are mitzvot to God, like prayer, others are mitzvot to those around us - caring for the sick, and so on. Jews have their own extensive discussions about what is a good deed, how do we adapt the commandments written in ancient Judah to the modern world, and so on, but the underlying premise is that you do good things because God told you to.

There is extensive discussion in the Gospel about the importance of doing good deeds for the sake of others and not for the public honor of appearing to do good. That is the gaping pit in this approach to salvation - it encourages the hypocrisy of doing good deeds purely for fire insurance or notoriety, of following the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit. Every church has these people. It is always tempting to proclaim how moral or generous or kind one is.

The second interpretation of faith and works is built on St. Augustine and Martin Luther. This argues that we are saved by faith alone. Luther looked at indulgences - gifts to charity extorted from people by promises of clemency in the afterlife in exchange for cash on the barrelhead today - and concluded that salvation through works was a confidence game. Instead he argued that we are saved by faith alone, that we get that faith directly from God, and that we need to read the scripture to figure out how to talk with God and get that faith. He cut back on the instruments of mediation and instead urged a clear strong faith. It worked - it gave us the Protestant Reformation - but it also created its own crop of bad citizens.

The danger in this understanding is that you will have people who are so convinced that faith is what matters that they will ignore the needs of this world in order to rejoice in their own faith or bring that faith to others. Whether it is the "Jesus loves me, but he hates you" of the failed Puritan or the pre-millennial temptation to ignore doing good deeds in exchange for proselytizing, because the world will end soon and only those with faith will survive the transition, or the 19th century social worker who told poor, hungry, working class people that they were poor, and dirty, and ignorant, and trapped in their situation, because they had not yet accepted Jesus, and that if they got religion then they would surely rise out of this miser, the focus on faith gives us a temptation to ignore our duties to the physical needs of this world.

And here, with the third interpretation of faith and works, is where Jonathan Edwards, Mr. Protestant for the 18th century, comes into his own. Edwards helped kick off the Great Awakening, a series of emotional religious revivals that revitalized Protestantism in the Atlantic Basin, split churches into new lights and old lights, and argued that the only real religion was emotional, not historic. He was challenged on this last point and asked why people were claiming to be saved by faith alone, why they were claiming that faith without hot emotion was not really religion at all, and how he could tell this sort of faith from temptations and snares produced by the devil?

Edwards' answer was works: not works done to gain salvation, but works as the test of salvation. This is the point that Amy Sullivan was referring to way up at the top of this post, but I thought it worthwhile to do a little religious history while getting here.

As Edwards put it in his sermon cycle The Religious Affections we are saved by faith alone. We generally become aware of that faith through our emotions. But emotions can lie. So we must test that faith. The test of faith is that it leads us to do good deeds: if someone has a moment of faith and then acts as they always did, then it was a false conversion; if someone has a moment of faith and then acts with benevolence towards mankind in general, then it was probably a true conversion.

So, if we are going to ask ourselves if Bush and Kerry have a self-labeled faith, a historic faith, and a heart faith, we have to ask ourselves what are their public professions? What are their works of benevolence? To what extent did their works of benevolence change as they matured in their faith?

Both have a self-labeled faith.

Both appear to have a historic faith. Kerry, like many New Englanders, does not feel comfortable witnessing his faith in public. He does, however, regularly attend services. Bush tends to refer to his faith before TV cameras, witness to his faith before gatherings of other faithful, and avoid all organized religious services. He is a prayer-group Christian. Still, there is no one true church organization.

The big question is what is the relationship between their faith and their works? Do their works provide a passing grade as a test of their faith?

Kerry is easier to measure. He claims to have taken up public office as an act of service to others, to have taken on particular causes as part of building a better world, and his generally liberal voting record matches with his professed social gospel understanding of the demands of faith. If we use Edwards' test of benevolence towards mankind in general, Kerry passes. The exception that someone will certainly make here is abortion and stem-cell policy. But there, it seems clear to me, Kerry places the lives and welfare of the people currently living above the lives and welfare of people not yet born, and especially above those not yet viable. Consider the moral dilemma of a childbirth gone wrong. Posit that you can save either the fetus or the mother, but not both. Who do you save? Bush would save the fetus, Kerry the mother; neither is an easy choice.

Bush is trickier. He has taken up strong positions on abortion and stem-cell research, in all cases taking the point that there is no moral difference between killing a set of cells and killing a cute little babbling baby - both are fully human, and we have a strong moral and evolutionary incentive to protect the young at the expense of the old. Where he falls down is on almost everything else.

I happen to believe that his policies towards gays and lesbians is as inappropriate as forbidding civil rights to people because of their handedness. Marriage is both a civil and a religious sacrament. If people want to stand up before the divine and their community and declare themselves married, then they have a religious marriage. The only details are procedural, not functional. If they want the civil consequences of that marriage - visitation rights, child custody, intergenerational transfer of property, breaks on their taxes, automatic access to the spouse's health coverage, etc. - then they have to fulfill a set of conditions imposed by the state - marriage license, not too closely related, and so on. It is possible to get many of the benefits of marriage by filing a raft of separate legal documents, but it is a hassle and it carries the stigma of being a second class citizen. Imagine, for example, that Bush wanted to give right-handed people a drivers license that let them drive any vehicle of the appropriate size class while left-handed people had to get a separate license and documentation for EVERY INDIVIDUAL CAR they want to drive. We would find that an imposition, an imposition made without any justification other than prejudice and that prejudice sanctified by selective citation of bits of scripture and some fuzzy-headed appeals to nature.

Sullivan was thinking more about environmental policy, corporate welfare policy, cuts in social services, and of course the war in Iraq. Here again it is clear that Bush's policies are generally in favor of a sort of corporate capitalism that enriches the rich while justifying its actions under rhetoric of equal opportunity and self help. His pre-emptive invasion of Iraq was rushed, and it was not justified under traditional doctrines of just war. There too Bush falls short.

My sourcing from this last point is weak - I read it on a conservative weblog somewhere - but worth making. The one place where Bush does appear to be acting out some of his works is his charitable contributions, which appear to be a substantial part of his income. And, to his credit, he does not brag about them.

Finally, how have their works changed over their years? Is there a relationship between their professions of faith and the works that serve to test that relationship?

Kerry, like most Catholics, does not claim to have had a moment of sudden salvation. Instead I get the sense that his faith has matured slowly, that his experiences in Vietnam and then afterwards in the anti-war protests helped him articulate that faith, and that he continues to work on it regularly. There is a quote in Gone Upriver about what the war reminded him about daily life. To paraphrase, every day is gift, it always is, but after experiencing that river, you are aware of the importance of that gift, every single day. He punches that last phrase, and it sticks in the ear. This is a man who thinks he was saved from peril through luck or Providence, and who now has the duty to make the most of the extra time he has been given. My favorite verse of scripture is the psalm "this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it" and I get the sense that Kerry has taken the spirit of that verse and turned it into a daily mantra. Again, he is quiet about his faith, but that is my reading.

Bush also had a slow transition from his drinking days to his current faith. It took him about four years from his first conversation with Billy Graham to his mid-40s therapeutic faith. Evangelical conversions stereotypically come quickly, but more often come as a moment of breakthrough after a long period of contemplation and crisis. His faith does appear to be more therapeutic than evangelical: faith gives him certainty and calm; faith helped him wrestle with his personal demon of drink; faith guides him as he makes moral decisions. What his faith does not appear to do, or what he does not publicly admit to at least, is provide humility. Jimmy Carter lusted in his heart. Most of us do. Carter was willing to admit it, although he did not expect to see that admission in Playboy. I don't know if Bush would admit to it, for that would appear to be a mistake or it would appear to be an opening to sin. He seems to deny the existence of any evil within, to project that evil onto outsiders or others, and then to find certainty in his wars against those outside evils. That bothers me. That is the action of Thomas Jefferson at his least attractive. That is certainly not Lincoln's faith, or even that of Adams and Hamilton.

As others have pointed out, Bush's faith seems to be fairly immature. He got to the therapeutic certainty point, and then stopped. He lives in a world where others do not contradict him even when he is wrong, and where he appears to absolutely believe whatever he is saying at the moment (except when he goes into blinking surrender-monkey mode, as he did during the first debate.)

What does this say about faith and works?

It is entirely possible that Bush himself really does believe that his coal pollution and mercury policies constitute taking good stewardship of the earth. It is entirely possible that Bush thinks that Iraq was a just war undertaken at the last possible moment. It is entirely possible that Bush thinks that the best way to improve the lives and well-being of the poor is to give tax cuts to the rich and encourage a society where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening. It is entirely possible that Bush thinks that promotion is the best reward for incompetence. It is entirely possible, in short, that Bush is both sincere in his faith and a terrible decision maker.

The alternative is that he is one of the several varieties of hypocrite and is very good at making short term decisions that reward his base at the expense of the nation and the world.

I doubt that we will figure it out in the next two weeks. Perhaps he will reveal the answer in his memoirs. Let us give him the chance to start writing them early.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:56 PM | TrackBack

August 26, 2004

Whither Christendom?

I am digging back into chapter one, my discussion of state sovereignty and religious establishments. Last night, while I was thinking about how exactly I wanted to frame my argument about the relationship between religious belief, state formation, and inalienable rights, I stumbled on Allen Brill's explanation of the Darla Wynne Case in Great Falls, South Carolina.

Allen links to the decision by the 4th circuit, one of the more conservative circuit courts, and also to a narrative of the events that led to the case by Darla Wynne.

Ms Wynne had a perfectly reasonable request to make at her town council meeting; she wanted extra law enforcement at a stop sign where crack dealers were harassing motorists. When she arrived at the meeting the commissioners noticed that she had Wiccan bumper stickers. Things went downhill from there: when she stood to speak they asked about her religion and did not let her make her point; they have always started meetings with a prayer, those meetings always mention Jesus Christ, and when she stopped bowing her head during those prayers (after going to five or six meetings without getting a chance to deliver her petition) they began to harass her further. I just skimmed her account, but it appears that her property has been repeatedly vandalized - 20 to 50 tires slashed, pet animals killed, etc - the town officials and police have made a policy to deny her all permits and condemn her at all inspections, she is being harassed, intimidated, and yelled at. All because she has Wiccan bumper stickers and asked the town council to either use a generic theism in their prayers "giving thanks to the almighty" rather than "giving thanks to Jesus Christ" or at least ask members of other faith traditions to rotate in giving the prayers. In short, because she has unusual religious beliefs she has been denied her rights as a citizen, denied the protection of the law, and become a target of government rather than a member of society.

So, she sued the town for its policy of using its opening Christian prayer to intimidate and coerce. The 4th court opinion above is very solid and very straight-forward. It repeats the court consensus on ceremonial religion, as laid down in Marsh and Allegheny, namely that while legislative meetings may open with prayer and government may provide funds for civic ceremonies that include religious elements, official prayers and displays can not provide any sectarian preference and can not systematically exclude or drive away people because of their religious belief. i.e. You can have a chaplain or open with prayer, but those chaplains should not all be from the same sect and that prayer must be inclusive - a generic "God" is OK but Jesus, the Mother, and Adonai are all sectarian phrasings that should be avoided.

The 4th circuit is repeating the legal consensus, a consensus that many commentators attack for being internally inconsistent but that I argue is close to the founders' intentions: they did not want to see sectarian preference, did not want religious-political conflict for control of government, but did think that religious belief led to better magistrates and better society -- especially a belief in some future reward and punishment.

Ceremonial deism has been attacked because it turns the divine from an Awesome spectacle to a banal recitation, but there is a long acceptance of ceremonial deism as a workable compromise between free conscience and civil religion. Newdow's argument in the Pledge was an attack on that consensus, arguing that belief in the divine is itself a sectarian belief that should not be allowed. His arguments convinced Justice Thomas, who mentioned in passing that if the court had accepted the case and if it had followed its precedents involving the 14th amendment, then he would have agreed with Newdow. They did not convince those who try to argue that atheism is itself a firmly held belief about divinity, and that the state should remain agnostic about belief, supportive of citizens who wish to practice faith.

I bring Newdow in because Wynne's experience turns on the same questions: What, exactly, is religion in general? What, exactly, is sectarian religion?

Several members of the Great Falls council tried to argue that they were expressing "just plain religion" or religion in general: God is Jesus, so when we pray to Jesus we are praying to God and she should pray with us because there is only one God. (paraphrase) In that locality, before Darla Wynne moved to town, they could reasonably believe that they lived within a religious consensus. They almost certainly did not, but Wynne's experience shows why none before her had publicly challenged the local assumption of consensus and uniformity, and so they could tell themselves that everyone agreed.

We like to tell ourselves that the United States has always been a land of movers and mixers; everyone comes from somewhere else. Certainly colonists moved around, Jacksonians moved around, the antebellum South was a constant hive of relocations and resettlements. And with that mixture of place came a mixture of experience, one of the most common comments made by people who moved to Ohio, Kansas, or California was that people came from all over, and mixed, and saw how each other thought, spoke, and worshiped.

At some point we lost that mobility, or we lost it in pockets. There are now towns in the South and the Midwest where everyone who lives there was born there; people move out but they don't move in. It is not merely a rural condition, think of all the neighborhoods in Philadelphia and the other cities where people spend their lives within blocks of where their parents or grandparents lived. We put down roots as a nation sometime between the Civil War and the Great Depression, or rather, despite the massive waves of migration that started then and still continue, there are and always will be little eddies in the stream where people live like peas in a pod, all alike.

I titled this rambling rant Whither Christendom for a reason. Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, replacing pagan gods and emperor worship. The Romans had long held that the only thing that tied their empire together was that all worshiped the same gods - you did not have to believe, but you had to partake in the civil rituals, and to do otherwise led to things like the Judean revolt. Constantine took this imperial policy and combined it with the new and successful Jewish heresy. Now the empire was Christian, Christianity was no longer a subversive religion but the bulwark of the state, and the state would only be secure so long as all belonged (or at least publicly attended) the new faith.

The tie between church and state continued, and through the Reformation we continued to define the boundaries of the state by the boundaries of the church; if you owed allegiance to a prince you also attended whatever church he chose, and Anglicans and Englishmen were the same thing. Even with the changes of the enlightenment, some of that thought continued and some of that thought shaped early American definitions of their states. South Carolina was one of many to include a formal establishment of religion; they dropped their state establishment by the 1790s but retain a strong sense of homogeneity as a source of social strength. (An aside, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, founded as a colony for religious freedom, explicitly restricts office holding to people who acknowledge "the being of a God, and a future state of rewards and punishments.")

However, the new nation defined its religious establishments and religious tests in broad, theistic terms. Pennsylvania makes a good example - "the being of a God" (emphasis added). What matters on the state level is that people believe in something, not that they all believe in the same thing.

And so, the 4th circuit is absolutely right to overturn Great Falls, and the town is absolutely wrong to continue to appeal. But, seeing social strength in outward consensus just like Constantine did, and defining themselves around the God rather than a God, they will continue to appeal, they will continue to lose, and the scare mongers on the religious right will probably moan about religion being forced out of the public square.

Religion still defines the borders of a state, that is part of what the conflict with Al Quaeda and the islamofascists is all about. The difference is that we define our state around the dual notion that religion is a good thing, and religion need not be uniform, while they are pursuing their own version of Christendom (Islamdom?), with one sect imposing its version of religion on all of society just as the town fathers of Great Falls are trying to pressure Darla Wynne into either converting or moving out.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:22 AM | TrackBack