American Religion Scorecard: 2017

It might be instructive in this moment of national crisis and instability to stop and think about the multiple religious impulses, investments, and intentions driving so much of the current madness.

First, the Christians.

A vast majority of white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics voted a man into office whose life and words and actions run exactly counter to the primary teachings of the founding figure of Christianity, Jesus Christ. Many of those same religious people also seemed to be comfortable with the racist and anti-Semitic statements swirling around the man.

Liberal Protestant and Catholics, heretofore impotent and fragmented as a viable and effective political movement are now energized beyond belief, challenging their Christian brothers and sisters about their alien theology and dangerous politics.

Even more violent and dangerous extremist Christians, mainly of the racist white Protestant variety, are no longer out on the margins and under the sheets, but are finding their place in mainstream politics and media. Extreme paranoia about the government, and theocratic totalitarian convictions, fuel these armed ideological militants.

So the Christians are a pretty complex bunch. And of course this isn’t even the half of it! Hard to characterize the “Christians” in any easy, simplistic, bullet point formulas when you spend a moment and think about that religion.

Next, how about Islam?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to take a moment and become educated, even slightly, about the same level of complexities found in “Islam” in contemporary culture as there is in “Christianity.” The media and mostly every level of government refuse to think about the religion as anything but a source of terrorism. All Muslims are the same, all want the same things, and all pose a threat to the United States. Period.

In this case, a global religion with billions of followers worldwide who, like Christianity, range from progressives on the left to fundamentalists on the right, is reduced to a one-dimensional stereotype, propagated by popular, media, and political cultures. For sure the question to ask is why are we doing this to Muslims? But another urgent question, I think, is why have Americans continually demonized non-Christians, and mostly non-white Protestants throughout its history? Let’s face it, non-Christian religions are not on an equal playing field here and, depending on the decade, can be easy scapegoats to allay fears and distract attention.

Do you know the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam? Is a Sikh the same as a Muslim? Do all Muslim women where the hijab? What exactly is jihad? It is clear that the effort to learn something about these distinctions and subtleties is not worth the time for far too many Americans who cannot break through the propaganda that is based both on American material interests (oil and political power) as well as Christian spiritual politics (this is a Christian crusade).

Third, American civil religion is dead, and “uncivil” religion rules now.

For those of you who don’t know, the sociologist Robert Bellah argued that beyond patriotism was a religious form of nationalism in America, rooted in sacred texts (Constitution, for example), sacred rituals (think of Memorial Day ceremonies), and sacred leaders (Presidents, at one time), and all authorized by the biblical God. Although this religious culture established commons bonds of national identity, Bellah himself and other scholars after realized its highly contested nature and how the ideals expressed via sacred texts and leaders can be a major source of conflict in real life.

The Civil Rights movement offered a different religious vision of the nation than the reality offered by whites; the Confederacy and its lingering, and strengthening, political culture has clear, unequivocal racial implications for national life. You get the picture.

The recent inauguration, immediate executive orders, and initial cabinet nominees all point to the truth about American civil religion: it should be called “uncivil” religion. Trump's actions and the political atmosphere emanating from Washington DC, are not unfamiliar in American history: desecration of so-called sacred principles found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in the name of fear and state power; profanation of America’s global standing as a so-called sacred “city on a hill” because of profound self-interests and xenophobia; and the desacralization of citizenship and service to the country coupled with the “let’s destroy the government” zeitgeist.

On the other hand, I understand that those very acts I deem a “desacralization,” or “profanation” can be understood completely the other way around: as sacred acts. But Trump and his goons make it crystal clear that uncivil religion is a political driver in American culture—nothing civil here, though the sacred abounds in the will to power, material greed, and the dreams of racial purity on display in this political machine.

The sacred in America is a moving target, so to speak; or, as Paul Simon once sang, when it comes to religion in America, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

What about the Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, and all the other “others” who are tiny, tiny segments of the American religious landscape?

Irrelevant, mostly, to the religious politics of the moment. No one in these halls of power will ever seek advice from a practicing Zen Buddhist, or the Dalai Lama for that matter. It is pretty safe to say that Mike Pence and Steve Bannon are not looking to encourage interfaith dialogue between Reform Jews and moderate Muslims, or Bahai’s and Mormons either.

More important to the religious future of politics in America are the movements and groups less easy to pin down and label as “religion.” The fastest growing segment of the religious pie are those claiming no affiliation with any specific religion but who are a complicated mix of atheists, agnostics, those who claim to be spiritual but not religious, those who have multiple religious identities and may be members of interfaith families, and so on. The politics of this group, and various motivations and practices that will no doubt shape their engagement with society, is an unknown but potentially explosive source of sacred engagement and action.

Social and protest movements, particularly Black Lives Matter and the actions at the Dakota Access Pipeline site in North Dakota, are also potential spiritual juggernauts. In both of these movements the lines between spiritual and political can be messy and hard to distinguish. Is everyone involved religious in the same way? Do some see religion as a distraction to the political endgame? Hard questions to answer, but there can be no doubt that for a significant number of participants ultimate values are at stake, and sacred matters drive what would seem to be obvious human rights positions: blacks should be treated with dignity and respect; Native American lands deserve protection from destruction.

In these troubling times, as in previous troubling times, religion will play a vital role in the debates and conflicts and suffering that is likely to come. Religion is both the solution and the problem in our society, which is a confusing but honest place to end this brief overview of a confounding, but utterly elementary, aspect of American life. Maybe if everyone took a religious studies class or two we’d be in better shape understanding religion in our lives and world. You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

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