Saints, sinners and bigots

Posted: Oct 26, 2006 12:01 AM
Saints, sinners and bigots

When my mother died at the grand old age of 91 she left behind a long letter to her children, filled with loving reflections and one exhortation. "I think if I had one wish for all of you other than a long and healthy life," she wrote, "it would be that you give the grandchildren a little religion. Something that has lasted for over 6,000 years has to have something going for it."

She knew that her assimilated Jewish family was tempted by the secular culture. At the end of her long life she was puzzled by how difficult it had become for the generation following hers to integrate religious faith into their lives.

Whether Jewish or Christian, organized religion has fallen on hard times. Millions of Americans attend synagogue, church and cathedral services every week, but even among the devout, God is less integrated into daily life than in earlier generations.

The Founding Fathers, tutored intellectually and sometimes theologically in the Judeo-Christian tradition, counted on the wall separating church and state to insulate religion. This would allow the faithful to go about their business of spreading their good news freely. Skeptics would always assert their prejudices in the public square, but intolerance would be exposed as bigotry.

References to God -- such as "In God We Trust" -- are commonplace in our history, indeed right on the money. What astonishes me is that people of faith rarely sneer at nonbelievers, but scientifically oriented cosmopolites rarely hesitate to mock believers. Evangelical Christians are routinely scapegoated with impunity, as if they're troglodyte know-nothings unified in a cabal to promote ignorance.

George W. Bush is ridiculed as chaplain-in-chief because he openly speaks of his faith. Does anyone doubt his sincerity? Kevin Phillips, betraying an ignorance of American history, writes in The Washington Post that under George W.'s leadership, "The Republican Party has become the first religious party in U.S. history." Gerhard Schroeder, the former chancellor of Germany, writes in his memoir that what bothered him about the president "and in a certain way made me suspicious despite the relaxed atmosphere, was again and again in our discussions how much this president described himself as 'God-fearing.'" (Would that an earlier generation of Germans nourished a little fear of God.)

Critics of evangelical Christians usually lump evangelicals together as if they all walk in lockstep with Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Pat Robertson. The evangelicals I know are an independent lot who take pride in their ornery resistance to taking orders from anybody, and hold varying views on gun control, capital punishment, stem cell research, evolution and just everything else except, as one Baptist friend says, "deep-water baptism" and the right to do as conscience pleases.

Andrew Sullivan, author of "The Conservative Soul," is a lump-'em-all-together" critic, snidely referring to the evangelicals as "Christianists" as if they're looking for an office tower to ram a jetliner into. David Brooks, reviewing the Sullivan book, writes: "When a writer uses quotations from Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the 'Left Behind' series to capture the religious and political currents in modern America, then I know I can put that piece of writing down, because the author either doesn't know what he is talking about or is arguing in bad faith."

Evangelical Christians are attacked with the derision critics would never apply to Catholics, Jews or atheists. Conservative Protestants and other Christians voted overwhelmingly for the president when their only alternative was John Kerry, but their values, though nurtured by faith, are hardly synonymous with religion.

Belief in God begets a great variety in the thinking of thinking men and often acts as a check on behavior. So does conscience. After the Enlightenment emphasized reason as a guide, reason was nevertheless linked to religion. Woodrow Wilson, a preacher's son, a professor and the president of Princeton, was one of our most intellectual presidents, and observed that the Bible "reveals every man to himself as a distinct moral agent, responsible not to men, not even to those men whom he has put over him in authority, but responsibility through his own conscience to his Lord and Maker." He was a Presbyterian and, like the Methodist George Bush, saw his religious belief as inspiration and sustenance for his political decisions.

Religion, like reason, has its inconsistencies. Harry Truman, a church-going Baptist, was fond of contradictory references. He often quoted the prophets -- Isaiah for stressing the need to beat swords into ploughshares and Joel for emphasizing the need to beat ploughshares into swords. Conditions, he said, determined which policy to use.

That sounds about right to most of us. George Bush, like Harry Truman, should be judged on his policies and not on what inspired them. The devil, after all, is in the details.

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