As Long As We’re Defining Terms….

One of the biggest problems Americans face in our (diminishing) attempts to debate policy in a civil and productive manner is that Americans often use the same words to mean different things–that is, when we aren’t simply using them as insulting labels devoid of discernible content (“libs” “socialists” “Nazis,” etc.)

Sunday, I considered the definition of infrastructure. Today, I’d really like to “poke a bear” and broaden the definition of what should count as religion.

As a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe recently noted, true believers are everywhere. They certainly aren’t confined to churches, synagogues and mosques; 
increasingly, the passions of faith are being expressed through politics and culture wars.

A Gallup poll last month  reported church membership at 47 percent. “For the first time ever, only a minority of American adults are affiliated with a church.” Jeff Jacoby, the columnist penning the cited column, bemoaned this statistic. He expressed his concern that the continuing disappearance of religion from American life is a negative occurrence.

I’m not so sure. Although there is, as Jacoby notes, a positive correlation between church attendance (note, attendance–not membership or religious belief) and physical, mental, and social health, more careful research studies attribute that correlation to the social support that comes from such gatherings of generally kindred folks–and many people get similar socialization from other, more secular groups.

Where Jacoby is right, however, is in the worrisome transfer of “religious” passion to politics.

A very different effect of religion’s disappearance is already all too visible: The unwavering faith and passion of true belief is increasingly being channeled not into religious observance but into identity politics and the culture wars.
“Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations,” remarks Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in The Atlantic. “This is what religion without religion looks like.”

On issue after issue, Americans increasingly treat political disagreement as blasphemy and dissenters as apostates. From climate change to immigration, from face masks to guns, debates take on the fervor of crusades, and true believers portray the stakes as all-or-nothing — a choice between salvation or damnation.
At its most extreme, this “religion without religion” is giving rise to dangerous political cults.

Jacoby says that “Religion without religion” is aggressive, intolerant, and scary. What he fails to acknowledge is that the same can be said for fundamentalist religions and their true believers.

Perhaps what we need is recognition that any belief system that is intransigent, intolerant and determined to impose itself on those holding differing values and beliefs merits being described as a religion.

To be fair, there is a truth buried in the hysteria of today’s culture warriors. In order for inhabitants of a country to function as at least a semi-coherent polity, a majority of citizens need to  share what sociologists call a “civic religion.” In the increasingly diverse United States, the only workable content of such a civic religion would seem to be devotion to the principles and aspirations of the country’s constituent documents: the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

 Of course, the same folks who “cherry pick” their biblical readings are also noticeably selective in their reading of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

And it would help if more Americans actually knew what was in those documents.


  1. A couple who lives down the lane from us defiantly left a TRUMP 2020 banner mounted above their garage door until it was nothing but tatters (an apt analogue). But this past weekend they replaced it with a new banner that reads: “Don’t Blame Me I Voted For TRUMP”.

    That, my friends, is religion.

  2. Jeff was making an interesting observation but couldn’t quite put it together. Then he made this comment, “Different faiths and churches have long coexisted in harmony.”


    What whitewashed history book has Jeff been reading? Maybe we can send Jeff over to the Middle East so he can solve all their problems over differing religions.

    I know white and black people who attend church together who also adamantly support Trump and claim he is not a racist. If they can turn a blind eye to such obvious truths, what else are they in denial about?

    Quite frankly, this isn’t a Christian Nation, as many believe. It’s not even a religious one. Making that claim will break the hearts of many. Our so-called ties to Israel involves money, corruption, weapons, and international surveillance. It doesn’t sound anything like Christian values.

    To be honest, the Christian religion needs to be dumped into the Spirituality bucket and de done with surveys checking on their visits to churches. We have way too many as it is preaching absolute nonsense to gullible attendees.

    I would ask, are you a spiritual person and leave it at that.

  3. It’s too bad that nobody seems to be a follower of Zeno. I would love to see more skeptics in the world.

  4. My hard wired 92 yr old Baptist cousin refused to look at a Bible excerpt sent from my conservative Catholic almost 40 yr old niece
    Hmmm. Isolation is good for me

  5. Todd; history, like our personal memories, tends to remember and hang onto the negative because it has a greater personal impact on our lives. It seems to be human nature and the law of averages.

    And regarding defining terms; Trump has defined all white people as Anglo-American, all black people as African-American, all brown people as Mexican and all yellow people as Chinese as well as his evangelicals being the real Christians. The majority of Americans are now lumping all Republicans as Trumpians…but that is probably because those who who do not support him remain mute and idle in the Legislature at federal and local and state levels. If they want to end being connected to Donald Trump, they need to speak out; “No judgement IS a judgement.” which they have brought upon themselves. Especially since the 2020 election and the January 6th insurrection which endangered the lives of all of them.

    “Of course, the same folks who “cherry pick” their biblical readings are also noticeably selective in their reading of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

    I left organized religion decades ago and my faith has strengthened since then. But I keep a copy of the Constitution on my coffee table and a copy of the Constitution and my Bible next to my computer for referencing claims on the news and comments on this blog. That does not mean I put stock in the Biblical references used to prove social or political claims better served by using the Constitution.

  6. So many self-ordained Christians read the sermon on the mount and ask, “What the hell is he talking about?”

    Opiate of the masses? Nah. Just another excuse to avoid the truth and facts. Why let science and reality interrupt a perfectly good fairy tale? After all, the Republicans have made that concept of fairy tales into a…… science.

  7. “Jacoby says that “Religion without religion” is aggressive, intolerant, and scary. What he fails to acknowledge is that the same can be said for fundamentalist religions and their true believers.” All to true!
    Patrick, also, sadly, the case.
    Todd, you make good points.
    I gave a ride to an acquaintance, on Saturday, to go birding, a bit over an hour from our area, and found out that he is a Fox News fan, and, apparently, living in a universe that I do not inhabit. I will admit to being flabbergasted by what he believes, in regard to Trump. At the gym, a TV playing Faux News was stating that Biden is planning on “packing the courts,” making, of course, no mention of what McConnell and Trump did for the last 4 years, in this regard. He had no idea that this happened, had never heard of gas lighting. This does seem much like religious “cherry picking.”
    I, for one am pleased that there is an, apparently, increasing secularity here, and find the idea that politics has become religion-like, a bit scary. I attribute much of this to the polarizing impact of Faux News, the dirth of local, independent, newspapers, and the internet bubbles within which people have come to live.

  8. On the way to a wedding a few years ago, I got lost in southwest Indiana trying to find a detour around construction on I65. I was amazed at how many “churches” I passed – mostly set up in private homes with signs displayed on the house or in the yard. My theory was that, in an area devoid of decent jobs, setting up “churches” could be a viable cottage industry – with the side benefit of owning your own private echo chamber.

  9. Christianity is not a monolith. Neither is Judaism or Islam. There are, believe it or not, progressive Christians. Obviously, none of you have seen the sermons at All Saints church in Pasedena California which is a very progressive Christian church. They do not shy away from issues of social justice. They have services in Spanish. And then there are the heretical UU Christians like yours truly here. I want people to quit demonizing religion as a monolith. It is fundamentalist and evangelical Christians that create culture wars not progressive Christians. Progressive Christians often rebut them.

    It is my understanding that Stalin was an atheist. I don’t know if Hitler was.

    I too am appalled by the way certain Christian denominations have created culture wars. For me the heart of the teachings of Jesus are simply love God and love one’s neighbor. And the Sermon on the Mount both inspires and challenges me.

    We can point our fingers at others that contribute to the divisiveness in this nation. The question for me is, what are we on this blog doing to diminish the divisiveness? Or are we exacerbating it as well?

  10. If there is a single common belief among the world’s estimated 10,000 religions (most of which derive from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or some form of folk religion), it is their reverence for cherry picking. Religions have shown a predilection for killing or shunning those with minor doctrinal differences. Methodists and Presbyterians hate other Methodists and Presbyterians over a single issue that other sects consider minor. Baptist are forever fighting other Baptists over how soon Christ is coming back (given his first experience, one would think he would delay his second visit as long as possible).

    But the real point is cherry picking. Given that all religions are based on no evidence whatsoever, they are each unchallengeable. What is there to challenge except some group that expresses with devout certainty that “this is the way it is because I said so.” Once you agree to put your faith in a fabricated story, you have little to stand on when making a case that certain views are unacceptable. From the point of view of the authorities, if engine-driven vehicles are declared “bad” or burkas are declared mandatory, the discussion is over.

    So the glory of religion is that if you take a position in line with that of the head priest (or politician or cultist or anti-science crusader or gun owner or climate denier, your position is unassailable. Your belief has been pre-approved by those you support. Everything worth saying has already been expressed, so you don’t have to defend your position. And your tendency to hate those who disagree with you is met with approval.

    The problem then is that we accept, in a very deep sense, everyone’s right to believe whatever they choose to, although their beliefs may be based on a total lack of evidence. Is it surprising that much of the world’s population walks around with minds crammed with misinformation, or that they frequently base their actions on unfounded beliefs (think “Taliban” and how they treat women). Couldn’t we begin to fight back by denying credence to beliefs made out of whole cloth? Five thousand years ago, our nearly total scientific ignorance justified religion as a way of explaining (or at least thinking about) things. We have now fixed that problem. Let’s get rid of the dregs and vestiges.

  11. Understanding what motivates other people is beyond me and therefore, I believe, others too.

    As a youngster, significant effort was expended on me teaching me the beliefs of Protestantism. Most didn’t stick for me but did for many others. Why them and not me? I don’t know nor do I worry too much about the answer to that. If it helps them get through life productively and satisfied I’m happy for both of us.

    As I recall the main point of those lessons was power over life, most specifically over death which is a scary eventuality both for ourselves and those we love. Another lesson was evangelism, the power in “spreading the Word”.

    I also noticed that the Faith in those lessons among individuals was very personal. (I’ve always thought that the two most personal areas in human life are Faith and sex.) Those who absorbed belief from them were quite selective about the details that mattered to them personally. Not at all surprising.

    I have no problem drawing a very distinct line between religion and politics but perhaps there is a correlation between some who are religious and their political motivations. They want more control than really exists over life, theirs and other’s.

  12. As long as we’re talking about “cherry picking” things from the Bible, I thought this was worth reprinting:

    Dear Dr. Laura –
    Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination…End of debate.

    I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

    1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

    2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

    3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

    4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

    5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

    6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

    7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

    8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

    9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

    10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

    I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help. (Origin unknown)

    A bit of humor never hurts.

  13. Kathy M., bless you for making me laugh till tears came to my eyes.
    Sheila, I think you’re treading on dangerous ground when you write: “Perhaps what we need is recognition that any belief system that is intransigent, intolerant, and determined to impose itself on those holding different values and beliefs merits being described as a religion.” You risk offending important progressive allies whose dedication to social justice movements, environmental activism, anti-war efforts, etc. has been inspired by religious teachings, examples, and exemplars. So I suggest a different vocabulary—perhaps fundamentalism.

  14. No, Patrick, your neighbor is in a cult. Cults exhibit very particular characteristics. One study I saw on cults identified about 50 characteristics they often exhibit. Only several of the characteristics have to be met for it to be a cult. Trumpism met about 45 of those 50 characteristics.

    And, no, most religions don’t qualify as cults.

  15. Kathy M; you are correct about the need for humor but…how many active religions keep wives in some level of bondage today? And their belief in the general lack of worth of women and girls in general is an accepted part of organized religions throughout the world.

    And I cannot imagine surviving in a world without pork chops!

  16. Kathy M @ 11:48 am I have seen this posted on Face Book, What hoot. Here is link to it’s big ground

    I have a good friend who is a bible thumping evangelical. I am an agnostic. I find it amusing that she is constantly in bible study with others. She was in some church that had doctrinal dispute. She tried to explain it to me. It sounded to me like the old argument about how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Her old church decided to interpret the bible some what figuratively, rather than literally. So she left the old church to find a new one.

    She is a Republican falling hook line and sinker for the family values they espouse, especially no abortions, and gun rights. She views Socialism as just the entry political philosophy to godless Communism.

  17. All the arguments over religion have convinced me that I am not a religious person. But I am a child of the universe, however that is perceived.

  18. Monotonous – Your friend is ill-advised. Socialist and communists don’t like one another and thus socialism is hardly an entry level move toward communism. I am beginning to think that the reaction to out of control capitalism is a more likely candidate for the embrace of communism in this “the people should own and control it all” vs. “a few should own and control it all” set of extremes in socioeconomic living. As I have written many times, Marx rightly diagnosed the problem but prescribed the wrong medicine.

    Todd – Your notice that Jacoby talked of religions living in harmony? Apparently he doesn’t know of the Hundred Years War in which Catholics and Protestants slaughtered one another by the zillions in Central Europe.

    Robin – I tried out the Unitarians before their merger with the Universalists, and yes, they were liberal religionists but (like those from whom they differed) they were not above cherrypicking the issues to make their point(s).

    Kathy – Leviticus also provides that women who wear men’s clothes should be stoned though I see no such proscription for those wearing no clothes as well as no proscription against men wearing women’s clothes. Takes all kinds, I guess. . .


    Good afternoon!

    In aid of increasing humour, I offer the above link…it has been around a while, so some may find it old hat. It does, slyly, address the issues being considered herein today, at least I think so.

    As an aside, a serious one, I wonder how many of us have met or known a, or more that one, actual Christian…not one who is a member of some group, and/or wants you to join their group (lest you end up burning in hell), but a person who has and does think deeply about what it means to follow Christ and tries on a daily basis to actually live as they believe. It shows. I can count on one hand such people I know and feel blessed to know. And, no, I do not count myself in this group, though there are worse things to be.

    I am pretty sure that the ideas of cults accurately describe most ‘organized’ religions, among other characteristics, the insistance that you ‘drink the coolade’ and join them in their heaven.

    Be calm, be kind, and be safe! (The words of our public health director in this place)

  20. Take heart. Progressive pastors in both black and white churches have put religion in religion. My own pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis changed sermons to address the Fed Ex mass shooting of last week and the issue of gun control. He covers United Methodist resolutions on gun control in this video clip which is a 4 minute breath of fresh air.

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