I’m wearing this impractical but elegant ceremonial robe to illustrate the longer and larger tradition of friendliness in American sectarian relations. Baptist deacon Norman Bennet liked what we did at the Red Hill Universalist Church in rural southeast North Carolina, a liberal Christian congregation going back some 150 years. Norm liked me so much he bought my graduation robe. He gave me it and a 12 gauge shotgun, which I also still have. Norman valued our liberal religious ways because they provide needed balance to conservative domination. Liberal religion is an important part of our American heritage, a part conservatives like Norman appreciate.
Times have changed. In Waynesboro, North Carolina, the Baptist preacher kicked those parishioners who wouldn’t vote for Bush out of his church. He imposed his will on his congregation by claiming George Bush represents God’s will.
I won’t impose my will here, pretending it to be God’s, nor kick you out if you don’t agree. Liberal ministers aren’t so presumptuous as to try. Liberal congregants aren’t so gullible as to take it. I use the example to show how power-crazed conservatives can get, offending both their church and country in the process. Both church and country need rescue from this.
It is ironic that the separation of church and state allowing the Baptists to flourish should be violated by them. The First Amendment secures freedom of religion and freedom from it. Baptists would have been excluded in many states prior to Jefferson and Madison’s firm founding of America as a secular society that allows for religions but prevents one sort from wielding power. Government may not prevent religion, nor may it promote it, especially not one sort over the others. Religions may and should comment on social issues, but may not endorse in the partisan fray. Yet, when conservative Catholics and Evangelicals did exactly that in the last election, pushing the vote to Bush, the IRS kept mute (contrary to how it treated black congregations prior to this). One sort of church endorses the state; the state funds and legislates for one sort of church. This is exactly what the founding fathers feared and it is why this un-wholly, unholy alliance is fundamentally un-American.
Lest you think I am only anti-conservative, see my earlier two sermons appreciating them. (Read “A Liberal Appreciation of Conservatives” and “America the Beautiful Because Of Liberals and Conservatives” at my web site Earthlyreligion.org.) This is the third in that series. Here I will criticize conservative religious and political philosophy.
In the height of their power – owning the media, Congress, Senate, Presidency, much of the Courts, and most transnational institutions and corporations (other than the UN) – conservatives are poised to demonstrate the widespread consequences of their views and policies. Ostensibly patriotic and moralistic, they use vapid sloganeering and show snide contempt for the wider culture and deeper traditions of America. Don’t look for a shining wonder of peace and progress. Look for more scarcity, strife, vindictiveness, imprisonment, and war.
These all flow out of their flawed view of our supposed flawed nature. Conservatives hold that most people are inherently flawed, fallen souls who will lie, steal, and kill if unconstrained. Then again, knowing only themselves well, we can see how they think that. They project their own worst natures on to others, and by so-doing, create conditions that call for the worst. Honesty, sharing, and peacefulness are not expected, rewarded, and encouraged, but are treated with suspicion and ridicule. For conservatives, God is mean and demanding and we are all wicked, so life is hard because it ought to be. If we will not believe in their puritan rules and fantasy formula of faith, exclusion and punishment is our due. As divine demands for obedience above, so goes stern law below in family, church, and nation.
This states conservative assumptions in extreme terms and does not nod to exception and variation, nor does it acknowledge my respect and affection for some conservatives. It also lumps religious, economic, and political philosophy as if similar outlooks born of a singular nature. Maybe it is. I generalize conservative, republican, fundamentalist, and reactionary in order to consider what, in the name of their ideologies, these types of persons are doing in our society and world. These types of persons are ruining religion and relations worldwide.
Possibly, philosophies are really just explanations for inner essential nature. Could it be that the decisive-to-judgmental mind tending to hard rules and harsh punishments is really a type of person? Do the Taliban and the Christian Fundamentalist share a kind of brain, a frequent flow of fright-fomenting-fight chemicals? Do we train and taunt this kind of thinking, prone in one sort of person, to dominance in the world? There will always be opinionated, bossy people; should we let them take over? We can’t ignore irate bullies, but dare we let them rule?
Beware sanctimony allied to power. Whenever the superego bypasses the ego to tell the id to do wicked things for the glory of God, watch out! As Islamic fanatics control their societies and attack ours, as Christian fanatics once tortured and warred for the glory of God, as Nazis piously exterminated whoever they hated, so do Christian Dominionists seek to seize our government in order to lay siege to our secular society. They seek to rule our country and earth with their narrow, angry version of God’s law. They advocate the death penalty for such moral crimes as apostasy, blasphemy, sodomy, and witchcraft. They view any opponents to this extremism as agents of Satan.
Dr. James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, adviser to and vote-getter for George Bush, likens proponents of gay marriage to Nazis. He hates the teaching of tolerance and diversity in our schools. This is curious. Christians accuse secularists of “attacking” them with tolerance and diversity while they seek to impose their stern absolutist agenda on everyone. Like the Islamic radicals, they use our openness to undermine it. They attack our society with defensiveness, humbly invoking God’s name to wage their attack.
A secular society includes various faiths and those of no particular faith in a circle of inclusion and protection; a Bible-based America sees such civility as demonic. Why won’t we let them institute their vision of a cowered, pain-ridden, suffering society befitting the spiritual lessons we should be learning about our Original Sin? Poverty for the many and riches for the elite reflects the divine plan of an inscrutable God who assigns hell for the many and heaven for the few (only in the earthly version, those below generate the bounty of those above). Just as He sent his Son to be tortured, so are we preordained for toil and trouble; it’s God’s plan. If we but blindly believe in this preposterous scenario we can be forgiven all the sins we do. We shouldn’t think; we should have faith. We don’t have to live with kindness or ethics; we’re endlessly indulged in gluttony, lying, stealing, and war. It is because we believe in absurdities that we can engage in atrocities. We’re “People of Faith.” We have the “Power of Pride,” or is it the pride of power?
Who dares risk being labeled an agent of Satan by insulting them with reasoned arguments? Throughout our country’s history of staving off religious impositions in our secular society the argument is often led astray by ignoring reasons and instead replying with slurs lumped together. “Atheistic, unpatriotic, and licentious” undid many rational arguments. Susan Jacoby’s important book, Freethinkers – A History of American Secularism, recounts this reactionary tactic. In 1776, as Washington prepared to cross the Delaware River to mount a surprise attack, he read aloud the words, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Thomas Paine, author of the influential pre-revolutionary war pamphlet Common Sense, had composed them on a drum head moments before. Hero though he was (taking no profits from his aid to the American cause) he came to be reviled by those who hadn’t even read his later The Rights of Man because it affirmed the foundation for those rights on Nature and Nature’s God. This deist theology led to a political philosophy crucial in the essence of our country: our rights are inherent and our government exists at our bidding to protect our rights. Though he wrote it to caution against the violence of the French Revolution while praising its philosophy, he was denounced as if promoting terror. He was accused of being an atheist, of visiting a brothel, of being a Judas. Conservative Federalists linked irreligion, infidelity, the Enlightenment, and terror as if all the same thing.
Similarly, Thomas Jefferson was attacked. His deist leanings were equated to atheism. Yet, there was such an acceptance of freethought in the new America, that when he took his scissors to the Bible in the White house, cutting out all except the words of Jesus from the New Testament, it was his own business. For he and Lincoln, doubt and unbelief were part of religious search, not a rejection of all religion. Religious belief wasn’t the answer imposed, but the question opened. Catholics, once considered non-Christian by Protestants and protected by the First Amendment, attempted to teach their religion in our public schools as early as 1842, denouncing secular education as the dispenser of “Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism – anything, everything, except religion and patriotism.” (Freethinkers, 258)
In my home town of Detroit, I vaguely remember the “father of hate talk radio,” Father Charles E. Coughlin, rant on with a pro-Nazi, anti-Communist, anti-New Deal, anti-Semitic tirade catered to the local Ku Klux Klan, largely to prevent birth control and to promote Catholic schools over public ones. The systematic criticism and undermining of our secular society is epitomized in efforts to de-fund and undo universal public education. Public schools teach evolution theory in science classes, and tolerance in civic classes. Understanding science and believing in democracy undercuts the literal belief in the Bible and the authority of those who wield it.
No greater problem besets our society than the uncritical adulation of any and every phrase from the Bible. Any whacko minister can weave together any assemblage of disparate phrases and passages from any book of the Bible and millions will believe its God’s Word. The teachings of Jesus are conveniently ignored as mean men find rationale for their bigotry and genocide in the ample store of such in the Old Testament especially. The mounting of WW III during the rise of global warming are rationalized away in favor of fantasies of Rapture. If students thought this real natural earth matters and could think for themselves about religious claims, they might doubt this direction. Does protecting science and education from religious attack make me a heretic? Fine. I am a heretic, religiously.
I left the Catholic Church over imposed dogmas and learned in the Unitarian Universalist religious tradition about thoughtful and caring heresy. The word heresy comes from a root meaning, “to chose.” I chose the goods in Genesis One over the confused goods and evils of Genesis Two/Three. I chose Jesus instead of the Pharisees and Mark the realist over Paul the dogmatist. I favor John Chrystom to Augustine and Francis David to Calvin. I love Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and Franklin and don’t agree with the Christians who opposed them then or now. I read and value Emerson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Robert Ingersol and am impatient with those who still can’t catch up to their soul-stirring calls to our whole humanity. I’ll take Eisenhower over Nixon and Steve Fritchman over Joe McCarthy any day. I think there’s more intelligence, patriotism, and ethics in secular humanism than there is the shallow sanctimony of Christian Dominionism. I liked Pope Pious the XXIII but I’m wary of this new one as a political plant. I get more sense from the comedians Jon Stewart, Al Franken, and Bill Maher than all the talking heads on Fox, CNN, and the networks put together. I don’t care if these heretical choices put me in a tradition fanatical Christians or Muslims don’t like, and in the United States of America I shouldn’t have to worry what they think. I don’t run scared because I’m not deceived by their insults and anger.
I’m proud to be a liberal! Along with conservatives, liberals help make America great. America is founded in liberal, humanistic values. If some Christians or conservatives can’t accept this, I suggest they go live in the holy land where they can have all the sectarian strife they want. Leave this good land, decent society, and worthy people to ourselves. You can be a religious nut here. I don’t mind. Just don’t assume you can lay your nuttiness on me by using your hold on our government.
America is a humanistic, secular society. It is humanistic in that we evolve towards increasing inclusion of people of equal worth (despite their differences in wealth and ability) who have the freedom to live their own lives secure in their human rights protected by a government we generate. It is secular in that no one has to be religious to be included, that all religions have the latitude to practice as they want (as long as that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others), and it is secular in that our government can’t impose any particular religion, or religion in general, on us. Our laws are not based on the Bible our government shouldn’t be run by the belligerent types who would impose it. Our truths are “self evident,” born of that which creates us – Nature and Nature’s God – and are unalienable, not to be bossed by the dogmas of popes or preachers.
Our society is a dynamic balance between conservative and liberal ways. It was liberals, not conservative Tories, who founded it, rebelling against the King George of their time. It was liberals who loved it along towards freeing the slaves, including them in the vote, including women, sharing the bounty, making room for the full expression of art, literature, and life styles. It is liberal to be open-minded, tolerant, inclusive, kind, and rational. America without these liberal traits is just not America.
Nor would America be whole without conservatives. Though I fear and resent conservatives for being as bad as they suspect others are, though I don’t much like being around stern, angry, judgmental, militaristic types hyped on sanctimony (while blind to projections), though I laugh at their unease with breasts on statues (as if sexual shame is a morality that substitutes for ethics), though I endure their endless, shallow ranting on most of our media, though I see cultural conservatives being used by the economic elite, though all this is true, I value conservative people and philosophy as part of our country. Caution and tradition have a role in our lives and society. (See my two other sermons.)
What I wonder now is whether their being in total power will lead to an inclusive, improved America, or not. What is their vision? Is it even more prisons? More poverty fueling extreme wealth for the few? More lies leading to more wars? And I wonder if Christianity will ever and only be defined by these Old Testament bombasts and blow-hards. When a soldier kills a prisoner writhing on the floor, and it’s excused because the shot, nearly dead Iraqi, “might have been a terrorist,” how does that square with Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek”?
Friends, citizens, these are again the “times that try our souls.” Our beloved America and the deeper tradition of loving kindness in Christianity have been seized by zealots out of balance with themselves and out of touch with their traditions. We are inundated with Orwellian doubletalk, corrupt power-mongers, and pervasive hatefulness. How dare they act sanctimonious while every decent aspect of our common society is undermined, endless wars are announced, and the health of our entire planet grows dire? We need to rescue our country and religion from these imposters and imposers lest they ruin all progress slowly and painfully earned over the last four centuries.
Americans and Christians will not finally be so gullible, so stupefied, so duped by Dubya. We are better people and have better traditions than where these temporary leaders are tricking and taking us. We need to rescue America and Christianity, and we need true conservatives to help us do it, lest they be long known for the lying thieves they’re becoming.
This robe and the man who gave it are Christian and American, and all things Christian and American under siege by those claiming to be conservatives, who, apparently, don’t love Christianity, America or Americans. Though I criticize conservatives here I also love and include the genuine ones as a vital part of the wisdom and wholeness of our society. I love America and Christianity because they could serve God’s good Natural Creation (which includes our freedom and fulfillment as part of it). I love my liberal tradition because it serves these the best.