It's been a bad few weeks for Psalms in the news. Some perfectly good verses got dropped from a 35-year airline promotion, and a disturbing verse that some fringe characters have been employing for years to call for President Barak Obama's death achieved a new prominence, gleefully forwarded to colleagues by a high official in Kansas. I see both as part of the same melancholy trend: the death of civil religion.
First, Psalms on a Plane. Last Wednesday Alaska Airlines decided to stop placing cards with Psalm verses on first-class passengers' meal trays. The carrier favored mild passages like Psalm 107:1, "Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; his love endures forever" superimposed on glorious Alaskan landscapes. The note to frequent fliers announcing the discontinuation called it "difficult" and noted that, "While some passengers appreciated the prayers, we've heard from many of you who believe religion is inappropriate on an airplane, and some are offended when we hand out the cards."
Other Psalm news featured Mike O'Neil, Speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, who recommended Psalm 109, verse 8, to fellow Republicans. The verse reads, "Let his days be few and brief; and may others step forward to replace him."
"At last," O'Neil e-mailed, "I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our President! ... look it up -- it is word for word!" Those who did look it up noticed that the Psalm's next line is, "May his children be orphans and his wife a widow." Responding to petitions for his resignation, O'Neil said his e-mail "contained a single verse and was only intended as election commentary regarding the President's days in office. I have apologized and I am sincerely sorry." This ignores the fact that he recommended reading the rest of the poem, and that the Psalm in its entirety has been making the rounds among Obama-haters for some time. O'Neill is merely the highest-ranking politician on the bandwagon.
It seems to me that both items are part of the same phenomenon: the erosion of what sociologist Robert Bellah once dubbed "American Civil Religion." The phrase describes the melding of patriotism with a kind of non-denominational white-bread deism: it encompasses both explicit religiosity in public life (the references to God in our founding documents) and less well-defined but still-powerful expressions, such as the idea that the 9/11 dead are martyrs.
Civil religion dates back to the Revolution or earlier, but my childhood was a high water mark. I'm a Boomer, and it was one of the glues that sustained (until Vietnam) the national unity forged in the war. Every Christmas I visited a Nativity scene on what I assume was town property, and every day I said the Lord's Prayer in school and, of course, recited the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (inserted by the Eisenhower administration two years before my birth). I was a Jew and an agnostic, but these things were just part of the drill. Without being able to cite specifics (anybody?), I suspect it was also common in the consumer sector. Salon reported that Alaska Airlines adopted the Psalm cards in imitation of another carrier in the mid-1970s, which means that there were two airlines doing it.
But by the '70s the forces that would dismantle civil religion were already in play. In 1963 the Supreme Court eliminated school prayer, in a case joined by a prominent atheist and argued by the ACLU. Partially in response, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority and with it the religious right. In addition to taking up more concrete tasks, the right's cultural wing turned our founding documents into a political football, with groups like WallBuilders dubiously claiming the founders as evangelicals and some civil libertarians arguing that they were strict separationists. Municipal creches barely survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1984; at some point the one in Tenafly disappeared anyway.
I can't say that I regretted the vanishing. Big hunks of civil religion probably can't stand strict scrutiny, especially as the country has embraced a growing number of citizens who can't and shouldn't be asked to identify with that soothing hyphenate "Judeo-Christianity." But my point is, we used to live in a culture where not everything was submitted to strict scrutiny. I regret the transformation of civil religion into a divider, the plowshare melted back down into swords in the furnace of the culture wars.
The Psalm anecdotes fit into this. There are people who would prefer that their airline not slip them Scripture in any case (a friend observed, "I don't want to know the pilot is relying on prayer for anything."). But the Alaska Airlines verses are pretty tame, acceptable to religious Christians, Jews and probably Muslims. An unofficial online poll by MSNBC suggested 80 percent of 20,000 respondents would not be offended. The airline is not the government, so there was no legal issue. Yet, in our polarized climate, the Psalms got thrown under the jet.
Meanwhile, that same climate is a hothouse for far one of the most disturbing Psalms. Psalm 109 continues: "Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places. Let the extortioner catch all that he hath and let the strangers spoil his labor." It is famously one of the most troubling poems in the Psalter, giving conniptions to theologians, who ransack the life of David for an enemy vile enough to deserve a song so hard to hear as God's inspired word. Secular anthropologists find a pagan influence, reading the formulaic invective as a counters-spell by someone who thinks he is bewitched by sorcerers who "have compassed me about with words of hatred."
Is this truly where we live? It's dismaying to think about. I'd like to think that next month's Psalm news will report someone quoting Psalm 133:1: "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live in peace together." That's the kind of civil religion I could really get behind. I'm not holding my breath, though.