Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday is rather wonderful – click on the link and let this version play in the background. It’ll set the right mood. It’s lazy Sunday afternoon music, tinged with echoes of the gospel hymns from the morning service, but filled with the feel of relaxing in the afternoon, after Sunday dinner, when all is right with the world.
But of course, all is not right with the world. We seem to have an issue with religion in this country, with its place in public life, and with its place in public policy and the law. How does it fit into the system – and who is appropriately religious and thus qualified for high office? And should their faith be a key part of what qualifies anyone for high office? After all, the constitution explicitly bans any “religious test” for office (see Article VI).
But we have developed an informal test. You might have watched CNN’s April 13 Compassion Forum:
Good evening, everybody, to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Welcome to Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. I’m Campbell Brown.
Tonight, we bring you something different in this already extraordinary campaign year. We are calling it the Compassion Forum, an evening with the Democratic presidential candidates to focus on the issues of faith and compassion and how a president’s faith can affect us all.
They trotted out their qualifications. Each is deeply religious, just trying to do God’s work here on earth, humbly, and in a non-threatening mainstream way. Obama had to explain his comment on how some bitter people “cling” to their religion, and Clinton had to explain she’s not a mean dragon-lady, just a humble servant of God, and so on and so forth. They had to pass the test. They did, each is his or her way. One must jump through the hoops.
But things aren’t that easy. Obama has his Jeremiah Wright, and must deal with the persistent efforts by the worried to convince others that he’s really a Muslim. John McCain has his Reverend Hagee, the fellow who calls the Catholic Church “the Great Whore” and says Hurricane Katrina was God punishing New Orleans for scheduling a Gay Pride parade for the day the hurricane leveled the city. Another McCain supporter, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, famously blamed 9/11 on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays” and threatened that it could happen again if “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” McCain says he disagrees with all that sort of stuff, but his “spiritual guide,” Ron Parsley, keeps saying the United States was founded, really, to wipe out Islam (here’s the video clip). You may think this is all nonsense, but people do take this stuff seriously.
It has always been so – from the Scopes Trial to Bush’s government-funded Faith-Based Initiatives, with all the anger about prayer in public schools in between, we just cannot seem to work out the proper role for religion in government. Some of us persist in believing – given the documentation – that the United States was founded as something quite apart from religion – as a system of government by the consent of the people, no matter what anyone’s faith, or lack of faith, might be. The idea was that religion might be nice and all that, but the Founding Fathers were, so to speak, working on a completely different matter – how to structure a system where everyone gets the three basics things that they deserve, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and no one gets screwed.
Religion just wasn’t an issue, other than saying anyone could believe what they wished to believe – and that in and of itself is pretty much saying that, hey, we’re working on something else here. In the recent controversy over display of the Ten Commandments, one Supreme Court Justice, Scalia, disagrees – Ten Commandments displays and government recognition of God descends from tradition, and that trumps that silly constitution with its specific text. And so it goes.
It never ends. See this, Philip Wentworth’s 1932 article on how college destroyed his faith:
It is no accident… that the groups which are demanding ever more stringent laws to regulate our private lives are identical, almost to a man, with the religious groups in the population. It makes no difference whether they are Protestants clamoring for stricter enforcement of prohibition or Catholics agitating for stricter legislation regarding the dissemination of birth-control information. In both instances increasing pressure is being brought to bear upon government to take over the practical functions of religion – and for the obvious reason that religion, in its decay, is no longer able to do its work in the world.
That is via Andrew Sullivan, who offers it without comment. But it deserves a comment. Wentworth seems to be saying that religions, of course, can seem like a crock if they have to get the government to do their work for them – and maybe that is the problem. Our particular form of government wasn’t designed for that. You don’t drive to work in your toaster, or ask your cat for investment advice (maybe).
But there seems to be a big bloc of people who do want things to be as they think things should fundamentally be, and as God intended – and the government would be useful in making things as they should be. They have no doubt, and those that have different views, even slightly different views – those damned moral relativists – have not allowed themselves to see the Truth. On the other side, what you might call the secularists, you can easily fall into saying that because there may not be one Truth, well, there is no such thing as truth.
At the Pew Forum, Peter Berger – in a dialogue on “Relativism and Fundamentalism: Is There a Middle Ground?” – points out just how mad this all is:
Under modern conditions, where almost everyone lives in communities in which diversity has taken the place of consensus, certainty is much more difficult to come by. Relativism can be described as a world view that not only acknowledges but celebrates the absence of consensus. So-called post-modernist theorists like to speak of narratives; and, in principle, every narrative is as valued as any other. The moral end result of this world view can be captured by imagining a television interview with a cannibal. “You believe that people should be cooked and eaten. I certainly don’t want to be judgmental, but the audience will be interested. Tell us more.” (Laughter.) This is not all that fictitious.
Fundamentalists respond to the same situation of certainty-scarcity by seeking to regain absolute certainty about every aspect of their world view. No doubt is permitted. Whoever disagrees is an enemy to be converted, shunned or, in the extreme case, removed. The last two centuries of history have made it very clear that there are secular as well as religious fundamentalisms.
Both relativism and fundamentalism threaten the basic moral order without which no society, least of all a liberal democracy, can exist: relativism because it makes morality a capricious game, fundamentalism because it balkanizes society into mutually hostile camps that cannot communicate with each other.
And that doesn’t even address the role of government. But you know what’s coming next. See this Wall Street Journal item – conservative, fundamentalist churches, those which overly support the Republican Party and specific Republican candidates, and tell their parishioners that God wants them to vote in a very specific way, are challenging the IRS. They should be albe to keep their tax-exempt status:
A conservative legal-advocacy group is enlisting ministers to use their pulpits to preach about election candidates this September, defying a tax law that bars churches from engaging in politics.
Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz., nonprofit, is hoping at least one sermon will prompt the Internal Revenue Service to investigate, sparking a court battle that could get the tax provision declared unconstitutional. Alliance lawyers represent churches in disputes with the IRS over alleged partisan activity.
The action marks the latest attempt by a conservative organization to help clergy harness their congregations to sway elections. The protest is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 28, a little more than a month before the general election, in a year when religious concerns and preachers have been a regular part of the political debate.
Of course, by law, they are exempt from taxes as the government is willing to do without the tax revenue as long as churches do what they do, and let the government do what it does. These folks are saying that this is unfair – they should be able to act as agents of the Republican Party, and of specific Republican candidates, and still not pay taxes. The argument speaks to both free speech and freedom to practice religion as they see fit. And if they say God wants Republicans in office, and Jesus wants their parishioners to vote for John McCain, why should they lose their tax-exempt status? They’re just relaying what God wants, to their folks – no harm, no foul.
That’s an interesting argument – but it may be coming far too late. See this from CNN – Religious Right Leaning Toward Democrats?
For decades, evangelicals have been seen as solid supporters of the Republican Party. That could be changing.
The religious right, a cornerstone of the so-called Reagan revolution – the battle over abortion law, and gay marriage – wants a change.
At least some evangelicals do.
A group of influential Christian leaders are declaring they are tired of divisive politics, tired of watching fights over some issues trump all the good they could be doing.
Well, yes, leaders of the Religious Right recently signed this manifesto condemning Christians on the right and left for using faith to express political views without regard to the truth of the Bible. One Os Guinness (great name!) is really angered by all this, but some people are fed up. If George Bush is God’s chosen one, something is wrong with that chosen-one concept. Perhaps God is profoundly uninterested in American politics – there are far more important things.
This rebellion of sorts – a movement to get the absurdly irrelevant Republican Party out of God’s house – seems to be spreading. See this anecdote-filled item from the Seattle Times, fundamentalist Christians are leaving the Republican Party in droves – “I just keep thinking, if Jesus were alive now, he wouldn’t necessarily be voting Republican.”
The item notes no one is going over to the Democrats. It seems they’re walking away from the secular. The Founding Fathers are smiling – if you believe they went to heaven and for some odd reason still follow things down here.
And the ironies abound. See the New York Times on the wedding of the president’s daughter:
On Saturday afternoon, the Hager family hosted wedding guests at a barbecue in Salado. The wedding, which began at 7:30 p.m., took place on the Bush ranch, before a white limestone altar erected next to a man-made lake. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston officiated at the ceremony. Mr. Caldwell, a longtime religious adviser to Mr. Bush, has endorsed Senator Barack Obama.
Ah – one can keep the two worlds separate.
Of course there will always be issues, like that Tampa-area public school firing a substitute teacher for doing a magic trick for his students:
The telephone call that spelled the end of Jim Piculas’ career as a substitute teacher in Pasco County came on a January day about a week after he performed the disappearing-toothpick trick for a group of rapt middle school students.
Pat Sinclair, who oversees substitute teachers in the Pasco County School District, was on the phone. She told Piculas there had been a complaint about his performance at Rushe Middle School in Land O’ Lakes.
He asked what she meant. “She said, ‘You’ve been accused of wizardry,'” Piculas said.
Say what? Witches and Wizards – there’s a problem for Christians, or not:
Piculas said he replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He said he also told Sinclair, “It’s not black magic. It’s a toothpick.”
See Steve Benen:
Oh sure, it’s a toothpick today. But what about tomorrow? What will we tell parents when a substitute teacher starts trying to do spells? Or shows kids pictures of Willow from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? Or accidentally turns someone into a newt? Hmm?
As Piculas – who, as far as I know, is not a warlock – explained it, he got a call after doing his trick from the head of supervisor of substitute teachers. “He says, ‘Jim, we have a huge issue, you can’t take any more assignments you need to come in right away,'”
Benen has more detail – it’s all quite mad, or deadly serious, depending on your point of view. We may never get this business about religion and government straightened out.