Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Real History No Proxy for Real Faith

Could religion be the undoing of the United States?

And if so, which one?  Islam?  Mormonism?  Atheism?

How about Christianity?

Be careful not to immediately scoff at the suggestion that Christianity could be America's downfall.  After all, wasn't Christianity the faith that built our country into what it is today?  That's what we evangelicals, in particular, have been taught for generations.

But look around you.  Rampant consumerism.  Unquenchable hedonism.  Festering individualism.  Is today's America something for which you'd want to give Christianity credit?

Was it Real Faith, or Simply Religion?

If you're like many right-wing, conservative Americans, you're probably unaware of our country's checkered past with Christianity.  And you're probably unaware of this checkered past because, like many truths, historical facts can be terribly inconvenient.  Especially when it comes to religion.

The problem with religion is that it's incredibly easy for adherents of any religion to put their faith in theology.  And the problem with theology is that it doesn't need to be rooted in ultimate truth to sound convincing.  But if your faith isn't in the holy Trinity, comprising God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, then your brand of Christianity is as valid as the 9/11 hijacker's Islam.

In other words, if worshipping the God of Heaven and Earth isn't what motivates Americans, then aren't we fooling ourselves by considering America a "Christian" nation? 

Among many American conservatives, it has become fashionable - almost essential - to believe that America is a Christian nation.  This belief receives considerable affirmation from the many times the name "God" is referenced in the writings of our Founding Fathers.  And while "Christianity" as a distinct subset among world religions has undeniably played a role in America's development, the history of religion in the United States is hardly "Christian" in the Biblical sense of the word.

The Real Christianity in America's History

Take, for example, the experience of North America's first Europeans.

Most of us would probably say that North America's first Europeans were the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.  After all, that's what many of us were taught in what have become America's vilified public schools.  But America's public schools have become vilified more for sucking massive amounts of tax dollars from right-wingers' wallets than the fact that public schools, well... haven't been teaching the facts.

After all, the Pilgrims weren't the first Europeans to settle in North America.  They were the first British settlers, but the first Europeans were - gasp! - French Protestant Huguenots who established Fort Caroline in Florida.  In 1564.  The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.


Not that the French Protestants were able to survive for long in Florida.  In 1565, Spanish Catholics slaughtered the Huguenots, whom they considered heretics, setting a glorious precedent of religious persecution among - of all things - Christians here in fabled North America, the land of religious liberty.

Fast-forward about a century, and in the newly-established village of Boston, Massachusetts, Puritans hung at least four Quakers for being, well, Quakers.  Instead of Puritans.

Not only did you have to be Protestant to be considered a Christian, you had to be the right Protestant brand.

Catholics were simply persona-non-grata in the original Colonies, and Canada was the first country in North America to recognize the papist branch of Christianity, in 1774.  Indeed, even after the Revolutionary War, Catholics in Massachusetts and New York could not hold public office.  Massachusetts and South Carolina even kept their state churches, which were Episcopalian. 

Speaking of Episcopalians, Rhode Island had been founded in part by Baptists escaping religious persecution by Episcopalians in Massachusetts.  Up until the Revolutionary War, Virginia allowed the persecution of Baptists at the hands of Episcopalians, who considered them infidels because they refused to adopt infant baptism or pay taxes to the state church.

Which was... Episcopalian.

And it was James Madison, one of our Founding Fathers, who, along with Thomas Jefferson, advocated for religious neutrality in government.  In his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Madison argues:

"The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate... What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people... A just Government... will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another."

Not exactly what a lot of conservatives these days want to hear, is it?

Rick Santorum is No John Kennedy

Last week, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum lambasted the late President John F. Kennedy's speech on the separation of church and state, to the cheers of conservative Republicans across the country who consider Santorum a valid option to suspected liberal - and confirmed Mormon - Mitt Romney.  It's been an argument that has reared its ugly head during several presidential elections - this separation of church and state thing - because right-wingers refuse to acknowledge the history their public school educations have omitted from their textbooks.  Omitted probably because it didn't fit well into the patriotic narrative educators - and their political funders - consider essential to a civilized populace.

A lot of good that selective historical perspective has done our country!  We blame liberals for revising history, but we apparently simply ignore it.  Is that because we don't want to admit that even in America, religious tides turn?

What was started by Protestants in Florida was destroyed by Catholics.  What was started by Puritans in Massachusetts morphed into a Baptist-bashing band of Episcopalian thugs.  Who'd have thunk it?

And now, as Islam is sweeping across the globe as the the world's fastest-growing religion, self-righteous American evangelicals want to loosen the separation of church and state?  How long do they think conservative Christianity is going to linger in a country where 20% of female churchgoers reportedly have had an abortion?  Where the divorce rate is roughly equivalent between churchgoers and the unchurched?  And where less than twenty percent of church members tithe?

I don't like the thought of Islam invading America's political life any more than any right-wing evangelical does.  But how is clinging onto the fallacy denying separation-of-church-and-state a valid deterrent?

The extent to which our freedom of religious expression impacts politics should remain unrestrained as each individual voter casts their vote based on personal conscience.  Conscience as framed and shaped by the religious beliefs they hold.  And everyone holds religious beliefs, whether they're Episcopalian, Baptist, Catholic, or atheistic in nature.  But evangelicals have come to epitomize the distorted viewpoints that enshrine Christian legend and provincial patriotism - and contribute to the partisan political and legislative stalemate that threatens to prevent much-needed reforms from taking place.  We're staking claims on issues without full benefit of historical perspective and assuming that doing so equates to morally-sound theological integrity.  Mostly because we don't want to admit that not only is America not a "Christian" nation, but we want people to think that the Christianity our nation has experienced in its history is a good example of what we believe.

I would love for Americans to be motivated by the worship of our almighty Creator God.  But personal faith in Christ is essential for that to happen.  Not politics.  And certainly not religion.  Unfortunately, the low-quality brand of Christianity America has had in the past may be indicative of the faith possessed by many evangelicals today.

To the extent that America's evangelical voters want reform in our country, perhaps a better place to start than the ballot box would be our hearts.

By God's grace, tides can turn there, too.

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