Sunday, March 23, 2014

War Against Religion

“I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to Him, and not to the priests ... I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives … For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read.”
(Thomas Jefferson)

“Jesus – The ONLY way to God.”  Thusly said a large billboard high above the busy interstate highway.  Reading that sign, my immediate thought was, “Given this message of spiritual arrogance and separation, no wonder we have such tensions and fighting among ourselves in America today.”  Not that my thought was of any criticism of Jesus and his profound teachings.  Quite the contrary.  But it did have everything to do with what people do in their own use of those inspiring teachings.

There is a lot of talk from a segment of politicians, media commentators and clergy about a supposed “war on religion” going on in America.  That Americans are being denied the opportunity to practice their religion where and how they see fit; that their personal and religious values are being attacked and compromised.  Most all of these claims – often expressed quite angrily – come from some segments of Christian churches and their congregants.  And, not coincidentally, the leaders of this outcry are usually ones with their hands out asking for donations, or television ratings, or secular laws passed to mandate their religious causes.

In fact, there is good cause for such religious leaders and congregants to feel threatened.  But not because a big, evil government is threatening their religious beliefs.  Not because politicians with different views are advocating for different actions.  And not because other religions are trying to convert seekers to their cause.  The threat is not from without; it is from within.

Various opinion polls help shed light on what is happening in the spiritual landscape of America. Data from the respected Pew Research Foundation found that @75% of American adults declare themselves to be “Christians.”  That is a significant portion of the citizenry, but that significance falls apart when we acknowledge that not all Christians believe the same things and have highly irreconcilable practices.  When we subdivide the distribution among Catholics (@24%), and then Protestants across their myriad branches (26% Evangelical, 18% all the mainline churches combined together, 7% historically Black), none of these segments has a commanding hold on the American citizenry.

The differences among these various Christian groups are often quite profound.  Some Christian segments are “top-down” authoritarian in their decisions regarding religious dogma and organizational management, thereby requiring adherence to a shared set of beliefs.  Others are “local-control” organizations without a central governing authority, thereby more independent in creed and action.  More than half of American Catholics have said they do not follow established Catholic dogma and practice (e.g. birth control) in spite of the “infallible Pope” principle of their Church.  A worship service in a rural Southern Baptist Convention church in Alabama is apt to look and sound nothing like a Baptist church in a large Oregon city.  It took from 1788-1960 before Protestant America was willing to elect a Catholic as President, and only then by the thinnest of margins, due to centuries of distrust and discrimination.

Most Christian religions are deep in the throes of contentious disagreements regarding theological issues.  Ordination of women and/or gays/lesbians to full pastoral rights; gay/lesbian marriage; abortion; the role of the pulpit in politics; “modern” religious services versus “traditional” ritual; the church’s role in servicing the poor versus accumulating wealth.  These kinds of issues are breaking up the unity of many denominations, if not bordering on outright schism as some churches seek to secede and form new affiliations.

Many churches struggle with the “graying” of their congregations as pews go unfilled, older generations occupy most spaces, young adults are increasingly unseen.  Over 25% of adults have left the religion in which they were raised (44% if intra-Protestant changes are included).  This often reflects the gap in social / political / religious views today between the under-40 population and “their elders,” which is as great as the extreme divisions of the 1960s/1970s.  The increasing politicization of many religions is described as a major reason young people are rejecting the church.  The religions and the sermons of the 1950s simply are not meeting the needs of today’s young adults and their children.

The fastest-growing religious group had been the decentralized Evangelical Christians.  But this movement has also been hurt by its increasingly aggressive secular involvement in the politics of the country: the secular reigns over the spiritual.  Currently, one of the fastest-growing groups includes those describing themselves as “unaffiliated” or “spiritual but not religious” (16% among all adults; 25% for ages 18-29) – many highly serious about their own personal spirituality, but who do not find their religious home in organized churches or with a pre-occupation with some required orthodox dogma.

Yoga and Buddhist spiritual and meditation practices are engaging people of all faiths, and are also becoming part of mainstream medical and mental health practices.  Islam is scattered across the country, but is laying low due to the post-9/11 prejudice from some Americans.  Judaism remains religiously strong, its impact belying their smaller numbers.  Yet I do not know when we might see our first Jewish president.  Numerous other smaller, independent religious groups abound to offer alternatives to the mainstream religions.  Again, almost all of these religious groups also have their own subdivisions into differing, more specialized beliefs and practices.

All in all, “America’s religion” (singular) does not exist.  Our religions lie in near-chaos, being pushed, pulled and stretched all over the spiritual landscape.  And that is the great news – that America still stands, as it has since its beginning, for Freedom of Religion.  Religious diversity was what our Founders intended to protect, not religious hegemony.  That all religions are acceptable and protected in America, living side-by-side each other.  That no religion is preferred or mandated by the State.  That every American is free to seek out the religion that best services his/her spiritual seekings and aspirations.  That freedom FROM religion, or from any one religion, is as ensured as freedom TO any religion.  Our national religious issue today is an internal conflict among good people of good intent in each religion, each trying to find their own way.  Those who would seek to exploit these difficult divisions for their own personal gain should be shunned to the sidelines, cast out from involvement in this more serious spiritual contemplation.

In the end, we need to stop arguing about who is “right,” who is the “more spiritual,” and who are “the chosen ones.”  Instead, we should simply be respectful and supportive of each person’s individual quest to discover their own spirituality and how to best fulfill that potential of “self.”  Perhaps then our churches could better serve us by focusing more on how people carry their weekly Sabbath lesson into their other six days of the week.  If we feel we must judge the spiritual worth of another, let it be based upon the depth of his beliefs and the purity of her actions, not by the catechisms that they rotely recite.  For too many centuries, we have attached more importance to the label under which we dress our religious beliefs than we have to the content and practice of our personal religion.

“Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim fathers who Crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom of opinion have always proved themselves intolerant of the Spiritual liberty of others?”
(Robert E. Lee, General, Army of Northern Virginia)
© 2014   Randy Bell

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Marching Boldly Into ... The Past

In a number of state legislatures, there has been a strong effort to reverse previous years of social legislation.  We see this especially true in states like Arizona, Kansas, and increasingly North Carolina, along with a smattering of other southern/plains states on particular issues.  Certainly there are some longstanding ideas that may need to be reassessed, reset, or rethought.  But is a wholesale casting out of this legacy legislation really smart?

We see these reversal movements focusing on topics such as opposition to gay/lesbian rights and marriage; access to voting; the state’s role regarding women’s health; equal legal rights and pay for women in the workplace; and support programs for those in financial jeopardy.  In the push to undo many of the changes made over the last 60 years regarding these issues, one has a sense that the goal is a nostalgic return to an America of long ago.  Not quite “The Waltons,” but more of a “Leave-It-To-Beaver” America transported to the great rural farmlands of America.  But one has to wonder, did any of these legislators ever study American History in high school as my classmates and I did?  Because much of the reverse legislation being proposed does not quite jell with the post-World War II America I lived through.  It may come as a shock to some, but the Beaver’s world was not real.  Ever.  A simpler time – yes, in many ways.  But an idyllic and fair time – no, also in many ways.

It was a time when African-American demand for long-promised civil rights broke wide open, unable to be contained after 300 years of waiting.  In my hometown in western Arkansas, I remember Blacks being restricted to the back of the buses; sitting in their own “reserved” 2nd balcony at the movies; attending separate, inferior schools that never led to any college; consigned to living in the tiny, rickety-framed houses in the “Negro section” of town.  There were the “Whites Only” signs in public facilities and buildings that limited access; the polling places that were effectively closed to Blacks through a variety of deceptive ruses encoded in law.  A large Black population lived in our midst; yet the only two I knew personally were Charlotte, hired as a maid for our extended family, and Roy who did our yard work.  Young White children were taught that this was simply the way Life was; our normalcy.

The civil rights demonstrations grew, and so did White resistance to them, often with increasing violence – the murders, the bombings, the bus burnings, the fire hoses, the beatings, the federal troops required so that Black children could enter a “white” school.  I remember clearly the twisted, angry look I received from a White woman when I, by reflex, respectfully held the door open so that an elderly Black woman could enter the hospital ahead of me.  And the Black family sitting alone in the dead center of a restaurant, the surrounding tables conspicuously empty, with all of the White families blatantly seated in booths along the surrounding walls; not a word spoken.  This was after young Black men had been turned away from a public lunch counter because “calling them ‘equals’ and serving them as anyone else was [supposedly] contrary to one’s ‘religious views’ which prohibited intermixing the races” (not unlike the current misguided rationale of legislators in Arizona regarding gay couples).  It took a Supreme Court decision to end the laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

I remember as a teenager asking my mother why the family of a good friend, his father a business client of my father, did not belong to the town’s country club.  Her answer was apologetic but straight-forward: “They’re Jewish.”  I never went back to that country club again, except to attend my brother’s wedding reception.  (I pray that today that rule has now been eliminated.)  All public prayers in schools and public meetings ended with “In Jesus’ name we pray,” unconcerned about who might be the “we” actually in the audience.

In history class, the internment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens during World War II was never mentioned.  Regarding Native-Americans, our history lessons acknowledged the fact of the Cherokee’s “Trail of Tears” without any discussion as to its real meaning or impact; Custer’s “heroic” Last Stand was celebrated as an example of Indian savagery, never mentioning all the treaties broken by the White settlers and their governments.  The “melting pot” of European immigration gave noble purpose to America’s story; the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs and the Italian big-city ghettos did not make it into print.  Yet the noble cause of Southern secession was given full play, “Lest we forget.”  History was what the school boards told us it was.

In the 1950s, as a practical matter my mother had virtually no legal rights or status on her own without a father/husband’s endorsement.  Divorce was rare; domestic violence never talked about; “You made your bed, now sleep in it” was the prevailing social attitude.  After my first wife and I divorced, I had to sign a written document certifying that she had been an active partner in the use of our jointly-named credit; otherwise she would not be able to get any credit in her own single name.  (I still have a copy of that letter to remind me of its inanity.)  Yet it was only 10 years ago that my then-partner, when she was looking to buy a car, was told to “go home and come back with ‘your man’ and then we can talk.”  Needless to say, that salesman lost that commission.

Women’s career choices back then were minimal: e.g. nurse, teacher, office assistant, garment worker, phone operator, maybe real estate salesperson – if she was “allowed” to work at all.  A “woman cop” was actually only a parking meter collector.  They were, conveniently enough, all lower-paying jobs – even if she was able to get “a man’s work.”  Today’s women have virtually any career path open to them, but pay and advancement often still reflect that 1950’s mentality.

At least back then the State mercifully stayed out of prescribing women’s health and treatment.  Those decisions were left fully to the doctors (who back then were actually self-employed) and their patients.  Except that it took another Supreme Court decision to allow women to have access to “the pill” – a new form of birth control that started a sexual / economic / societal revolution.  One exception was abortion.  It was officially illegal in many states.  But, like the earlier attempted legal prohibition against alcoholic drink, it did not stop the practice, it just moved abortion underground into other jurisdictions or to back alley “fixers” whose work threatened women’s health and lives.  None of the women I have personally known who have had abortions did so thoughtlessly and casually.  Unwed motherhood was a serious stigma with major social consequences nearly unimaginable today.

These are merely selected examples from a long list of our true past realities.  Going back to “the good ol’ days?”  No thanks.  Not for me.  Been there, lived that.  A lot of good experiences in those times, but they are past.  A lot of regrettable experiences in those times, but we have thankfully made many corrections to take us forward.  Corrections not yet finished.  Corrections easily undone if we should slip back into old human habits.

We must always be on guard for humankind’s continual inclination to return to old distorted memories; it is the familiarity of the past versus the uncertain cloudiness of the future.  But there were significant reasons that changes were made in America 50 years ago.  We should not be tempted to believe that those reasons simply no longer exist.  We can fine tune our direction, make needed adjustments in our course.  But no U-turns are allowed on this road.  Too many have worked too hard to get us to here.  Our map is in the history books.

“It may be true that the law cannot change the heart.
But it can restrain the heartless.”
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)

©  2014   Randy Bell