Sunday, June 25, 2006
A funny thing happened on the way to Church today. Well actually it was at the bookstore last night. This article, "Heaven Can Wait," by Susan Jacoby, which appears in the Spring issue of Dissent magazine, leapt off the shelf, right into my hands (honest to god):
There is no such thing as generic religion or, for that matter, generic evangelical Protestantism, and most ecclesiastical leaders, whether evangelical or not, are interested in the welfare of all only insofar as welfare is defined in accordance with their particular faith. That is the fatal flaw in all proposals, whether from the left or the right, for a stronger religious voice in the public square. No one would deny that some religious spokesmen are capable of framing moral issues in transcendent fashion; the civil rights leadership provided by black churches is the prime twentieth-century example. But the voices of African American preachers spoke to a broader public morality precisely because they emanated from outside the government and the political establishment. Most southern white Protestant churches, by contrast—churches that helped spawn the present generation of Dixiecans who invoke the name of Martin Luther King in order to push the Republican faith-based political agenda—were closely allied with segregationist politics-as-usual and had no interest whatever in the welfare of blacks.
The absence of any common religious definition of welfare becomes evident in every political battle over “values issues.” Both supporters and opponents of ham-handed, faith-based attempts by the U.S. Congress to intervene in the case involving removal of the comatose Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, for example, would have said (and did say) that they were concerned about the welfare of Schiavo and those similarly situated. But the two groups defined welfare in irreconcilable ways, largely attributable to religious convictions about whether human beings have the right to “play God” with their own lives.
The limited, and often conflicting, definitions of welfare promulgated by various religions were very much on the minds of the framers of the Constitution when they deliberately omitted any mention of God from the document and instead ceded supreme authority to “We the People.”
The framers did not write, as they might have, “we the people under God”—a phrase that would have prevented angry debates in state ratifying conventions over the Constitution’s unprecedented failure to acknowledge a divinity as the source of governmental power. They did not, as a group of ministers would unsuccessfully propose to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, write a preamble that declared, “Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government....”
Americans have always been a predominantly Christian people (overwhelmingly so at the time the Constitution was written), but the founders established a secular central government. Today, religious conservatives are wreaking havoc with that glorious paradox, and they are aided by liberals intimidated by the vilification of secularists over the past twenty-five years. Still worse, many liberals have thrown in the towel and accepted the right-wing premise that there can be no morality, and no exposition of moral issues in the public square, without reference to religion.
I could not agree more ... that the left needs to present its case in unapologetically moral terms. But those moral terms should be grounded in reason, not in pandering to the supernatural beliefs of Americans. Indeed, American presidents in the past—and not only the distant past—have had great success in combining reason with moral passion. Perhaps the most outstanding example is John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 American University commencement speech, now regarded as the beginning of détente with the Soviet Union. Kennedy spoke of peace as “the necessary rational end of rational men” and declared, “Our problems are manmade—therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again.” Then Kennedy memorably observed that “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Could there be a more reasoned yet passionate statement of secular morality than the assertion that we owe our children a peaceful world not because we are immortal but because we are mortal?
Call me crazy, but I have a feeling that a great many Americans, including religious Americans, are sick of hypocritical politicians who pretend that their policies deserve support because they are the work of a Higher Being. The question is whether there are any political leaders left with the courage to appeal to voters as reasoning adults, with arguments based not on the promise of heaven but on the moral obligation of human beings to treat one another decently here on earth.
Digging though my own archives, I found this reference to Richard Bushman’s 1967 masterpiece From Puritan To Yankee in which the author describes how New England society threw off the shackles of Puritan influence. Remarkably, this transition away from Puritanism, and toward individual freedom, was largely accomplished by the 1760s, just in time (not coincidentally) for the American Revolution. Oscar Handlin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and renowned former Harvard professor, writes in the forward to the book:
No attempt to trace the history of liberty can deal with the detached individual in isolation. Freedom is a condition not of the single man alone but of man in relationship to a community. The group protects him against the misuse of the power of others and provides the setting within which he can advantageously exercise his own powers. Therefore, changes in the nature of the community, which necessarily either increase or restrain the capacity of the individual to act, affect his liberty.
Particularly significant in the analysis of the process by which the Puritans became Yankees is the light it throws on the relationship between society and individual personality. The description of the forces in the community that gave birth to the wish to be free, among men brought up in a closed order, illuminates an important, and neglected, facet of the history of liberty in the United States.
It is ironic that the demise of Puritan religious influence coincides with the emergence of the type of personal and secular liberty that was to become the foundation of America. Richard Bushman, the book's author, describes the process of elections in Puritan days, and how a government meshed with religion was opposed to the concept of Democracy.
Election of these officials, even the highest, did not diminish their authority or make them responsible to the people. Democracy, in the Puritan view, was non-government, or anarchy, and rulers had to constrain [themselves] not to obey a corrupt popular will. Election was a device for implementing divine intentions rather than for transmitting power from the people to their rulers.
Bushman provides a contemporaneous quote from John Bulkley's work The Necessity of Religion, published in Boston 1713, to illustrate the religion-based political thinking of the day:
In elective states, where persons are advanced by the suffrage of others to places of rule, and vested with Civil Power, the persons choosing give not the power, but GOD. They are but the instruments of conveyance.
So, as Bushman concludes, “rulers were obligated to God, not to the people.” I can think of two modern-day despots who follow this doctrine: George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, each of whom believes himself to be a divine instrument of good, and the other of evil.
A final passage from the book is both compelling and frightening. It speaks to the oppressive and coercive power that results when you mix religion with government, and mix both with other means of authority, such as the institution of family:
The combined force of so many institutions invested law and authority with immense power. In nearly every dimension of life – family, church, the social hierarchy, and religion – a [citizen] encountered unanimous reinforcement of governing authority. The total impact was immense, because each institution was an integral part of a monolithic whole. In each community the agencies of law and authority merged so that the individual felt himself confined within a unified governing structure. The preacher’s exhortation to submit to domestic government reinforced the father’s dominion in his family. Church discipline carried added terrors because censures were delivered before the neighbors and the town’s most prominent families, and the assignment of pews in the meetinghouse according to social rank reminded everyone of the distinctions among individuals and of the deference due superiors. The total environment enjoined obedience: the stately figure of minister or commissioner as he rode through town, the leading inhabitants’ imposing two-storied houses standing near the meetinghouse at its center, the austere graves of the dead in its shadow. As interpreted by the minister’s sermon, even the natural world – the storms, the wolves in the wilderness, and the catastrophes at sea – spoke of the war of good and evil and of God’s mighty government. Social institutions, conscience, and the forces of nature meshed in the communal experience to restrain rebellious dispositions.
After reading this, the parallels are clear that the current movement afoot in our society -- the movement to infuse religion into government -- is working against, and not for, the very same liberty upon which America was founded.
Remarkably, Bushman's book is still in print, more than forty years after it was written. You can find it in almost every library, or here from the original publisher, Harvard University Press. I found it for $3 at one of my favorite haunts, Half Price Books.
Susan Jacoby's book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism can be found in bookstores everywhere, or at your favorite on-line book dealer.
digby 6/25/2006 12:49:00 PM