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Coffee & Wisdom 02.57: The Wobbly Wall: Separation of Religion and State Part 3

David Breeden is speaking all week about Church/State Separation.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation, humanist since 1916. This week I’ve been talking about “The Wobbly Wall: Separation of Religion and State.” This is what the Freedom From Religion Foundation thinks about that: “The only wall we need is between church and state.” That’s certainly one way to argue the question. Quick review. Yesterday I went over that really that term. Judeo-Christian needs to go out of our vocabulary. It isn’t Jesus versus Moses. That might make a good video game, but it doesn’t make for good politics or good theological thinking. Judeo-Christian was a term that came out of the early 1930s when the Nazis began to crack down on people who …had converted to Christianity but who were culturally Jewish or had been born in Jewish families. It comes into the U.S. through U.S. rabbis who knew what was going on in Europe, and we’re trying to talk about getting beyond anti-Semitism by considering Judaism as a part of Western cultural theological thinking. But after the war, this began to be used by McCarthyite right wing conservative type people to talk about something that really doesn’t exist. I’ve also been talking about non-secular, the meaning that government and a religion are very closely aligned. The United States is not like that, but it is good to think about countries that are. The U.S. is specifically not like that, probably because we were a colony of England at one time and the people who formed the U.S. government were rebels against the U.K. government. The public opposes bishops in the House of Lords, by the way, by more than three to one because it is a non-secular state. We have the monarchy and the Anglican Church, the Church of England, right together, side-by-side, from the time of Henry VIII. In the House of Lords, that is the Senate of the U.K., if you will, not exactly but kind of, we have people who automatically sit in the House of Lords because they are bishops in the Church of England. That is a non-secular way of doing it. More than three to one of the British public says, no, that’s not a good idea. But guess what? “It’s a non-secular nation, so you don’t get to vote on it, subjects. You just have to listen to what your religion and your government have to say to you.” Secular is an interesting term that we do need to define a little bit it, because it’s thrown around. But what is it really? Well, it comes from a Latin root: saeculum, meaning “a generation or an age,” a generation or an age, a time. Secular. But then it began to be used in Church Latin, Latin used within the Roman Catholic Church to mean “the world” (as opposed to the Church). Basically the idea there and how this came to be was that secular is “in time”, that would be on the planet in history, rather than “beyond time in eternity.” Well, guess what? Politics is done, yup, in time on the planet, not in the beyond time of eternity. So secular has an interesting meaning in the Western world. One question is, is it even possible to be secular? That’s not a settled question, as a matter of fact, because this month The Atlantic Monthly has an article called America Without God. It is written by Shadi Hamid, who is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a founding editor of Wisdom of Crowds. The subtitle of America Without God is “As religious faith has declined, ideological intensity has risen. Will the quest for secular redemption through politics doom the American idea?” So, The Atlantic Monthly for this month is thinking about that particular question. We should mention that Hamid is of an Islamic family who is an American citizen. So he’s looking at the US from a non Christian viewpoint, but his work in the Brookings Institution is to think about politics and religion in the United States, so he thinks about it quite a bit. He has this to say. He leads into the article by talking about the nones, and the conclusion on that is that roughly 25 percent of Americans are now secular. We have talked about that in Coffee and Wisdom, what that means. It means lots of different things to a lot of different people. It doesn’t mean 25 percent of the American population is agnostic, humanist, etc. It does mean that 25 percent of the American population now doesn’t belong to any kind of organized church, religion, etc.. So Hamid says this” “American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.” So, a fairly big claim here. But he’s saying that the American political situation is now so divided because even secular people are looking at the politics of the U.S. from a religious viewpoint. Well, what does that mean? He goes on to say: “This is because America itself is almost a religion,…'” The country itself is almost a religion. Now, reflect on what that would mean then to this idea of Christian Nationalism. “…as a Catholic philosopher Michael Novak once put it, particularly for immigrants who come to their new identity with the zeal of the converted, the American civic religion has its own founding myth, its profits and processions, as well as its scriptures, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Martin Luther King Jr. wished that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” Creed being a religious term. Yes, it is. “The very idea that a nation might have a creed, a word associated primarily with religion, illustrates the uniqueness of American identity as well as its predicament.” So you see where Hamid is going with this particular argument. “Whereas religion sees the promised land as being above in God’s kingdom, the utopian left sees it as being ahead, in the realization of a just society here on Earth.” Here you see how the politics is going to start shaking out between Christian Nationalists and conservative Christians within the body politic of the U.S. and those who are secular or liberal Christians, as I’ve talked about before. At this point, liberal Christianity basically is also liberal politics. So that’s part of what has happened within the U.S. frame of reference. He goes on to say: “Religion in part is about distancing yourself from the temporal world,…”, the secular world, right?, time world, “…with all its imperfection. At its best, religion confers relief by withholding final judgments until another time, perhaps until eternity. The new secular religions unleash dissatisfaction not toward the possibilities of divine grace or justice, but toward one’s fellow citizens who become embodiments of sin, “deplorables” or “enemies of the state.” Left and Right, in the way that they break down, seeing people who are the “other” within these traditions. And so both Right and Left, at least in the extremities, are religious in their zeal, is what Hamid is arguing here. So there is then not an idea of unleashing the satisfaction, he says, toward divine grace or justice. So we’re not going to even argue about religion any more, in other words, which is. Yes, something that secular people once did a lot. But now we are really talking politics all the time. This is what he’s saying anyway. We can disagree or not, but it is a very good point to be thinking about I think. He goes on: “We are a nation of believers. If only Americans could begin believing in politics less fervently, realizing instead that life is elsewhere. But this would come at a cost, because to believe in politics also means believing we can, and probably should, be better.” So he is giving the Devil his due or the secular its due, as a matter of fact, by saying, yeah, one of the things that this does do is some good because it improves or it leads people to think about improving the human condition here on Earth, and specifically in the United States. “America’s Regionalized Politics,” by Mark Tooley. I should mention that this is an internal argument because Mark Tooley also is involved with the Brookings Institute. He is answering this particular article. He knows Hamid. America’s Religionized Politics by Mark Tooley. He is the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s president and editor of the IRD’s, foreign policy and national security journal, Providence, an online journal. You can look at it here. Prior to joining IRD, Mark worked for eight years in the CIA and is a graduate of Georgetown University and he lives in Arlington, Virginia. So (he’s) very much a part of the Washington Beltway, the swamp or whatever you want to see it as. He’s also a devoted United Methodist, I should quickly point out. So he says, “At no point in American history where most people actively devout.” This is absolutely true, Christian Nationalists will not say this, but when we look at the actual numbers that we have and, yes, it’s a little difficult to look at the past. They didn’t poll as we do nowadays. But this does appear to be true. I mentioned yesterday that the British poor people who were coming to the U.S. really had no interest in religion at all. They saw it as a political game. England was merely a non-secular nation where the monarchy used religion to control the poor, and they had no interest in being controlled. So they said, you know, I’m done with that. But back to this. “At no point in American history where most people actively devout. (Church membership in the 19th century was lower than today and lower still in the 18th century.) But the American people mostly, consciously or not, sheltered under the spray of this spiritual fountain,…” By that, he means, he doesn’t really explain himself, but what he means is mainline Protestantism of the Congregationalist, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, etc., Disciples of Christ and the mainline religions, ELCA Lutheranism, that kind of thing. That this was some kind of Protestant centrist but leaning a little bit toward the less conservative side was the spray of the spiritual fountain in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in the U,S., “… which watered democracy…,” he says, “…while usually, if not always, displacing political extremisms that threatened democracy.” So, the argument here is that, such as his tradition of Methodist, it reduces the pressure by reorienting the political impulse both through a religious lens and specifically a liberal Protestant lens, as a way of getting at more of a consensus within the idea of what the U.S. should be. Now, Widening the Circle of Concern is a report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change from June of 2020,and they agree. And I should look a little closely at this. Those of you who are interested in Unitarian Universalism, you can see how this is playing out in this wider discussion. They say, “Justice making is not a substitute for a coherent theology, and faithful justice making requires a liberatory theology.” Well now, what does that mean within Unitarian Universalism? Does it mean we need to go back to the state church of the Unitarians in Massachusetts, or what does it mean? Right. They go on to say: “Amidst the diversity of the theology is represented in our congregations, justice work has become a proxy for what we believe in some congregations.” So, again, going right back to that Atlantic Monthly article that’s saying, yeah, most Americans or most UUs, in this way, or many, how many we don’t now, believe that actually politics is more or less their religion these days. And that’s not a good idea to be into justice, rather than into religion, is the argument here. “While in other congregations, engagement with the intellect, debate and social ties have been the substitute. Our justice work without theological resources and spiritual practices leads us down the path to burn out. Many of us have come to this faith seeking an alternative faith hone and drawn by its actions in the world. Yet we don’t often work to heal from our religious past. Those most harmed by the divisive and stressful times we live in, are in need of faith tenets that can hold us fast in confusing times and help us make ethical and values based choices about how to engage.” So that’s the argument, is that politics is not a replacement for religion, but what is the replacement within the universe of Unitarian Universalism is a good question. Well, I want to refer to something that goes back before this debate. John Gray, a couple of years ago published a book called Seven Types of Atheism. John Gray is a British philosopher. He’s a British conservative philosopher, I should say, politically conservative, but he is an atheist as a philosopher. He looks very, very carefully at the different types of atheism that he sees within European thought. And he says this: “Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives. In other words, it’s not a search for explanation. Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means. That’s where religion steps in.” So, number one, he’s going to say in this argument that science and religion are about different things. He would, I think, also add philosophy into this mix as it’s something else. So he goes on to say this: “Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God’s surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it’s a flight from a genuinely godless world,” A flight from, right? “I’m most interested in the atheists who seriously asked what it’s like to live in a godless world.” What’s it like to live in a godless world, rather than running away from the idea of God into politics, in other words. I have here a picture. “There’s Probably No God Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.” This was a British Humanist Association little thing that they did a few years ago in the streets of London. He goes on to say: “Not to construct some alternative God, like reimagining humanity as some collective agent that manifests itself through history or science or some other redemptive force. Too many forms of atheism have functioned like monotheisms by another method,…” Again, that’s exactly what Hamid is arguing in The Atlantic article. “…in other words, they’ve tried to fill the gaps in their view of the world, a world in which God has been dethroned, and then they just leave the rest of it as it is.” So the idea here is that most Atheisms become merely inverted monotheisms as a way of thinking. So you remove God, but what does it mean? All values come from the human animal. Again, Gray is very much a Darwin-believing atheist. “All values come from the human animal, and that’s just the way it is. That doesn’t mean all values are equally good or bad or wise. I think that’s a mistake, too. We have natures and there are certain constants in human life and that’s a moral foundation we can build on.” So he’s talking about what we usually call the human moral imagination. “To think that you can escape …the storytelling impulse that animates myths,…” he says, “…to think you can do politics without relying on these same impulses is a deadly myth of its own, because it means you can condemn all these other practitioners, except yourself, of course, because you’re the rationalist who stands above it all. But that is a terrible conceit, a fatal conceit.” So the idea of merely setting up politics or something else like that, rationalism, science, etc., in the place of a different God is not the way to get at being a moral human creature on our planet today. So, “The question,…” however, …”within what he is saying, within what the Unitarian Universalist Association is saying, within the Atlantic article, is that it all “assumes a Western Christian worldview,” that is, that we all come from this idea that there is a God, that the Bible is true in those kinds of things. And then we we back away from it. Very, very European. Very, very, basically, I would say, Protestant Christian, you might throw in some Roman Catholics who think that way as well. And we do have to remember some very basic facts. The biggest non-Christian, non-religious group in the world is in China: 720 million people. Now have they all responded by being atheistic, by becoming political animals? Not really. In Japan: 74 million people are atheists. In the United States: 62 million, roughly, are non theist or outside the regular religious bounds. So that’s a lot of Americans. And Vietnam: 28 million. South Korea: 23 million. Russia: 21 million. Germany: 21 million. France: 20 million. United Kingdom: 20 million, of which in England there is about 60 million people, so at least a third. So you see that what we really have here is some confusion as to the difference between the human mind, which seems to be fine with atheism and the Western Christian post-Christian mind, which is maybe or maybe not okay with atheism, but we do have to draw these distinctions a little more closely than they’re often drawn in this particular discussion. And the fact is, the question that Gray is asking, and the UUA is asking, “assumes that people haven’t really thought about it.” And they have. Humanists have been thinking about this for a long time. One of the founders of Unitarian Humanism (Curtis Reeves), a close friend of John Dietrich, the minister who helped create religious humanism at First Unitarian Society, had this to say: “Humanism holds that the religion that would be useful in this new day must be neither individualistic nor socialistic, but mutualistic.” So he already, right in the first sentence, is setting up this thing, saying, no, we don’t have to go into either a personal sort of subjective world, but we don’t have to go into a merely political world. We can go into some sort of communal idea instead. “It must seek to weave the best personal values into a noble social order. It cannot preach the gospel that is purely personal, nor one that is purely social. It must preach the gospel that will help to balance personal and social impulses to the end that individual man… that’s his language, “…shall experience within himself the harmony of his impulses, and mankind be organized for the harmonious development of all the races of the world. Such a religion is now finding expression here and there among all churches and all religions, and in the lives of many who are not associated with any religious movement. Humanism is bringing into the light of day a religion of, by and for the whole man and the whole world.” So, Curtis Reeves, John Dietrich, they didn’t think that’s where humanism was going to end up as merely an inverted political form of worshiping some sort of deity. But it is a little bit tricky here, because this is language that is very complex and philosophical ideas that are a little bit nuanced, probably, for most people to really have thought about. And the humanist history in the United States is pretty well buried within a larger political discussion of you have to be a theist or a non-theist and those kind of much more political and kind of cliched kinds of arguments. So, for example, at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, we’ve had people living in a totally humanist world for well over a century and we’ve developed aspirations. The people of First Unitarian have, I didn’t, have aspirations of the society. One is to “Live joyfully and ethically and loving relationship with humanity in nature.” No God there. “Pursue wisdom through reason, science, art and the stories of civilization.” Not ignoring any of things other than reason and science. “Make the change we need for a more just compassionate and peaceful world.” Not live in politics, but make the change, and “Support one another’s journey toward meaning and connection in the here and the now.” That is, mutual support going all the way back to what Reece was saying, not about individual freedom to think whatever you want or to insist upon your own value system. So, people have thought about this, but not mainstream people. These have been very small and isolated groups until maybe today. We will have to see how it really works out in the future. If an idea of non-theistic living can become more mainstream in the U.S. instead of leading merely to an inversion in which politics becomes religion. We’ll see. We don’t know. But we’ll continue looking at that for the next couple of days. Join me on Sunday afternoon, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, 2:00 p.m. Central, for my answer to the question, “Does Humanism Have a Future in Unitarian Universalism.” A brilliant up-and-coming young UU minister and humanist, Leika Lewis-Cornwell, will be the respondent. She’s president of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. Go to their website to register First Unitarian in Pittsburgh and you can sign up. You do need to sign up, although it is free. And don’t forget Wednesday. Oh, what’s going on? We’ve got Bibles and Beer with special guest Reverend Wendy Jerome and FUS member and humanist who is going to do a little humanist Bible study looking at the Christian and Hebrew scriptures from the viewpoint of a humanist. Join us tonight and I’ll see you again tomorrow. Thank you.

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