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The Eroding of “Religion” & the Search for Moral Freedom

The first link below is a wonderful article and video from CBS News broadcast first on Easter Saturday, April 7, 2012.  The participants discuss the premise of Andrew Sullivan’s article  in Newsweek and on “The Daily Beast” that Christianity is in grave crisis due to our divisive politics, compromised priests, and get rich and elitist evangelists.

Andrew Sullivan: Theres so much bad religion right now – CBS News. (article and video, “Andrew Sullivan: There’s so Much Bad Religion Right Now“).

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/04/01/andrew-sullivan-christianity-in-crisis.html (article in Newsweek and “The Daily Beast“)

Another recent web-post was http://www.tnr.com/blog/timothy-noah/102074/language-cop-christian#.T3KZdZtZBzU.facebook     (article in the New Republic, “Language Cop: Christian“).

I believe that Mr. Sullivan’s premise is sad but true.   Matter-of-fact,  this “crisis” has been a slowly  progressing attitude for around 40 years now.  It  coincides  with the growing gap in the “cultural divide” in our country.  As I have very often said on my facebook page, we need to keep politics out of religion and religion out of politics. Those who fear the progressive accomplishments of the past 40 years, want to use doctrine and dogma of institutionalized religion as bludgeons to demand social regression back to the 1950s; a trip “forward to the past.”

The extreme right has christened Austrian-laissez faire-economics another tenant of their fundamental “inerrant” evangelical beliefs.  The extreme right also forgets that there are other Christian churches, other religious movements, and non-believers that disagree with their hermeneutic.  Their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution is as literalist as their interpretation of Scripture. They want to dismiss “diversity” and embrace “absolutes,” absolutes for everybody, which then the government would impose on our lives.   They emphasize loyalty, respect, and especially purity far above the qualities of caring and fairness found in a more liberal morality.

There must be a definite separation, a “wall,” between church and state. People are looking  hard for a genuine faith, not one severely compromised by, dare I say it, worldly concerns such as extremist politics.  Faith is the altruistic search for the “truth” in an individual’s or a community’s faith.  It is not meant to be used as a weapon to demonize opponents or meant to be used as a control mechanism to maintain institutional power.   The “wall‘ between church and state is another separation of “powers” in our constitutional government.

And, indeed, the institutions of government and of church are powerful.  The “wall” between them protects both institutions from manipulation and corruption as well as guaranteeing that the terribly combustible combination of “church with state” will never happen.  President Thomas Jefferson was the first to define the “wall” between church and state:

Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves
and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

James Madison said:

The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.”

President Madison is referring to the horrendous and bloody religious wars and conflicts in Europe.  The violence of history teaches us that one of the weaknesses of human nature is that we seem to be scared silly of diversity and change.  We want those around us to be like us.  We want the comfort of agreement, the security of the familiar.  We love to embrace the security of easy and simple answers when faced with the profound but daunting mysteries of life.  But, it seems to me that God loves diversity.  S/He certainly made enough of it!

The created universe is so vast, so intricate in its diversity. It is infinitely fascinating.  Not one blade of grass is the same as another.  Not one snowflake is the same as another.  The biodiversity of our planet is awesome.  Think of the multiplicity of cultures and ethnic groups. Not one human being is the same as another.   Not even identical twins are exactly alike in everything. Think of the whirling variety of colors and the array of smells. Like Van Gogh, contemplate the swirling stars.  Ponder the relationship between the inner and the outer;  the microcosm and the macrocosm. The complexity of relationships can be overwhelming.  And God pronounced it all good.

I believe that the diversity of the world is a manifestation of the infinite love and creative nature of God.  God is part of us . . . “that of God” is in each and every one of us, but, God also, simultaneously, permeates the whole universe.  And, God’s love is an never-ending embrace of the diverse.   Human beings were created for the freedom to be creative and when they are creative they share intimately in the eternal creativity of God.

Churches like to institutionalize one person’s experience (i.e. a saint’s experience) and make it nominal for everyone.  Actually, I think our individual relationships with God are uniquely beautiful and eternal.  Political parties can do the same; institutionalize a few talking-points as dogma of the party.  This limits “agape” (Christian Love) and creativity on the church’s part, and, cooperation and creativity in the political process. The Spirit of Christ, of Love, is expansive and inclusive.  I often fear that more religiously conservative folk are afraid that spiritual freedom  precludes morality.  But, this freedom is freedom from sin as well as freedom to create because without conquering our flaws, we can’t live to the fullest of God’s expectations for us.  We can’t be fully creative; fully ourselves.

In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul, reflected deeply on the nature of Christian freedom; freedom from the Jewish Law in the Spirit of Christ.  The Law was the disciplinarian; our guard until the coming of Christ and through the Spirit of Christ we are created children of God through faith.  We have the freedom of the children of God.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3: 27-29).  Legal tenants and works do not save us, they enslave us.   We are called to freedom, but not freedom of selfishness.  It is the freedom to  love our neighbors as ourselves and embody the virtues of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Our freedom is an ethical and moral freedom. To love one another and share each others’ burdens.

In the political sphere, because of  the separation of church and state what has been called the “American Civil Religion” replaces the moral role of a state church.  Abraham Lincoln, our most famous advocate of the all-inclusive “Civil Religion” (which actually should be called the “Civil Morality” to avoid confusion), insisted that all political decisions were moral decisions.  We must lift ourselves out of the politics of warfare. We must think beyond  merely expedient or monetary choices.  Because the United States has never had a state religion and instead  experienced the proliferation of many churches and religious movements, what developed in its stead was a civil sense of a morality rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Moralists of the 19th century encouraged the growth of this Civil Religion/Morality, to which everyone could adhere no matter what was their religious orientation. To be able to do so, the American Civil Religion/Morality emphasizes ethical and moral behavior and not adherence to the specifics of a single church’s or religious movement’s doctrine , dogma, or creed.     The “Civil Morality” is inclusive, not exclusive.

Lincoln himself was not baptized.  He attended church on occasion but was not a full member of any church.  His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, clearly stated that her husband was not a conventional Christian.  I have always believed that this was intentional on Lincoln’s part because he knew the incendiary nature of the religion plus politics combination.  None-the-less, Lincoln is considered one of our most moral and religious presidents.  His speeches during his presidency became progressively more spiritual and profound.    Lincoln proclaimed that our highest civic moral standard twas found in the Declaration of Independence, that all persons are created equal, a self-evident truth.  That is our national moral beacon, our light shining out to the world.  No human-made doctrine or rules will be able to quench that light of equality.  On August 17, 1858 he beautifully described the Civic Religion/Morality:

[regarding the framers of the Declaration of Independence]: These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.

~~Speech at Lewistown,Illinoison August 17, 1858 (CWAL II:546)

The separation of church and state is not a separation of our moral lives from our political decision making or any other aspect of our civic lives.  All the other checks and balances in our government also protect our freedom of choice and action as well as our right to religious freedom.   The morality of our faith should pervade the layers of our lives and not merely be a list of rules and regulations we must grudgingly obey or must impose on others.  We are sons and daughters of God, not slaves.  No doctrines elevating the rich and powerful will ever eclipse or control our freedom to live our faith and morality as fully as we can for the benefit of the common good.

At the very least, the American Civil Religion/Morality gives us a safe space to evoke the name of God in the public arena without falling into doctrinal, dogmatic, or creedal conflict.    If you have ever said the Pledge of Allegiance, or have sung “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch at a baseball game, or applauded when the Preseident, at the end of a speech, says “And, may God bless America“, you have participated in the American Civil Religion/Morality.

America is “a shining city on a hill.”  We still are the model of democracy and freedom for the rest of the world. I do believe that America is exceptional, but it is an “exceptionalism” rooted in service to others and not domination of others.  It is rooted in our shared Civil Religion/Morality.  The Civil Religion/Morality should not be used as a bludgeon to make other people in the world conform to our will, but it should be used to inspire and model.


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