God And Country, Redux

In 2007, I wrote a book titled God and Country: America in Red and Blue. It explored a question that had preoccupied me for years: how do religiously inculcated world-views affect our political behaviors? I was–and remain–convinced that a number of ostensibly secular policy positions are (consciously or unconsciously) rooted in religious ways of seeing the world.

In order to examine the religious roots of America’s cultural and policy divisions, I needed to do a lot of research. I was–and am– far from well-versed about my own tradition, which is Judaism, and I knew little or nothing of the 2000-plus Christian denominations in the U.S., or how religious beliefs affect socialization. Writing the book required a “deep dive,” and I remain very grateful to Christian friends–including a couple of clergy members (you guys know who you are!)– who patiently read drafts and checked my conclusions.

Those conclusions are detailed in the book (which is still available) and it is not my intent to recite them here. I share the fact of that rather extensive research because it is the background with which I approached a recent column by John Pavlovitz and a New York Times guest essay about America’s rapidly growing secularism.

Pavlovitz is a writer, pastor, and activist from North Carolina, and a favorite among my Facebook friends, who share his posts rather frequently. He’s what I consider a “real” Christian (granted, deciding who is “real” is pretty arrogant coming from a non-Christian…). This column was titled “How You Know if You Have the Wrong Religion,” and what struck me was that his message–with which I entirely agreed– addressed the longstanding divide between faith and works. (Traditional Christian denominations are typically concerned with belief; Judaism prioritizes works.)

Growing up and later ministering in the Church, the elemental heart of spiritual community was the stated or implicit sense that we alone had cracked the God code; that we’d figured out what every other faith tradition (and many communities within our tradition) had not. Evangelism was less about sharing God’s love with the world around us but about getting the world to be as enlightened as we were by completely agreeing with us.

Believing the right thing was everything. The world was sharply divided between the saved and the damned and the greatest imaginable sin was to reject that idea. And it wasn’t enough to believe in God, you had to believe in the correct God, adopt the correct doctrine, and pray the correct prayers—or else your sincerity or judgment (not to mention, your eternal destination) were questioned.

Pavlovitz isn’t the only critic of those ostentatiously pious believers whose faith never quite translates into good works or even loving-kindness. There’s significant research suggesting that the growing exodus from churches and organized religion is a reaction to precisely that form of religiosity.

And that brings me to a New York Times guest essay by a Baptist pastor who is also a college professor. After charting the steady decline in American religiosity since 1988, he reports

Today, scholars are finding that by almost any metric they use to measure religiosity, younger generations are much more secular than their parents or grandparents. In responses to survey questions, over 40 percent of the youngest Americans claim no religious affiliation, and just a quarter say they attend religious services weekly or more.

The partisan implication of that statistic, which he duly notes, is a reduction of support for the Republican Party, which is heavily dependent upon religiously observant Christians, including but not limited to Evangelicals. As he also points out,  however, Democrats will have to balance policy priorities “between the concerns of the politically liberal Nones and the more traditional social positions espoused by groups like Black and mainline Protestants.” 

Whatever the partisan consequences, Christians like Pavlovitz are offering a way forward that would significantly reduce  today’s religious tribalism–and ultimately, redefine what counts as genuinely religious.

If you claim to be a “God and Country “Bible-believing Evangelical,” great. But if you have contempt for immigrants or bristle at white privilege or oppose safeguards in a pandemic, your Christianity is ineffectual at best and at worst, it’s toxic. You might want to rethink something.

If you believe because you prayed a magic prayer to accept Jesus at summer camp when you were 13,  that you can inflict any kind of adult damage to the people and the world around you and you’ll still be golden, while gentle, loving, benevolent atheists and Muslims go to hell—you’re doing religion wrong.

So many of America’s problems stem from “doing religion wrong”…


  1. I would hope that at some point we can start believing in each other and not in magic and magical incantations. Silly stuff. Has mankind ever produced a worse invention?

  2. Patmcc,

    I’m am your choir to which you preach.

    It’s the arrogance. Humans are the most rapacious organism in the planet’s history. Why? Because those who lust for power and attain it show utter disregard for the planet that gives them life. The single thing that defines that statement is the equally lustful assumption that earth’s resources are there solely for the life quality of humans and that those resources are infinite.

    Does that sound like a different subject? It isn’t. We have indeed “gone forth and multiplied” to the point where the planet can no longer produce sufficient calories to feed the nearly 8 billion humans. Moreover, the waste, pollution and flagrant disregard for those things that provide our drinkable water and breathable air are the things that will drive us to extinction – irrespective of thermonuclear devices.

    The fact that a totally irresponsible political entity like the Republican party embraces the arrogance of religiosity should surprise nobody. Look who runs that entity. Look at their platforms. Watch what they do, not what they say. What Republicans are doing is proving the tenet that religion will be the utter downfall of mankind. Believing in fairy tales and using them to support one’s arrogance and feelings of superiority is folly.

  3. The Republicans in charge of the party must realize this problem will affect their ability to win elections relatively soon, so they are taking steps to counteract the trend, by passing voter suppression laws as quickly as they can. It will not be long before only card-carrying Republican/Christians will be allowed to vote. Not vaccination cards, but cards certifying that you know who should be in charge.

  4. Vernon seems a little cranky this morning. 🙂

    The first clue there is something awry with the “Christian religion” built around Christ is there is one universal church built around God and Christ and over 2,400 others who believe their version of God and Christ are true while protesting the universal truth.

    In my small community, you can spend a whole year going into a different church each Sunday to hear a different version of “the word.” Why is that?

    Because humankind is interpreting a single text written over 2,000 years ago in a different culture during a different time, it’s not evolved with the times.

    It’s the same thing with our Constitution, even though plenty of writings supplement exactly what the Founders were constructing. It has been updated, but some people still want to try and interpret what they meant exactly.

    Personally, if we all had access to all the texts surrounding the Bible, I’m sure we’d have an entirely different belief of what the authors were trying to convey. There are quite a few additional texts, but they’ve been sealed in the Vatican.

    What cracks me up is they send out surveys asking what religion do you identify with…that is an Ego construct. For example, “I want to be like everyone else, so I’ll check, Christian.”

    Now, what does that mean?

    Quite literally, it means nothing.

    One of the Christian guiding principles is unity, but there are literally 2,400 denominations with the same book.

    Now, what if they took the lessons of Jesus and taught us how to live like him. A philosophy instead of dogma and ritual-filled religion. Teach love instead of guilt, shame, and fear.

    Religion is a human construct used for controlling the masses. It’s a tool of the ruling class. Period.

  5. Yes, Todd. But viewing the state of the human condition as a scientist indeed makes me cranky. How could it not with Republicans exacerbating EVERYTHING that is wrong with the general attitude of American politics. My ultimate point is that using religion as a weapon just makes our time on earth that much shorter.

  6. The more humble state of intelligence is realizing the multiverse is so complex, I do not know what I do not know. While suspended indefinitely, as we all have the past two years, in the uncertainty of defeat of a deadly virus that cares less about our politics … for me, faith is both a source of healthy skepticism and a glimmer of hope that good will overcome evil. That is good enough for me.

  7. There’s nothing wrong with a little faith in a power outside of our realm. There is a lot wrong with insisting that the power you like the only one there is, so your beliefs must be absolute and correct. And BTW, if your Christian faith doesn’t have you out there doing good, you’re focusing on the wrong parts of the gospels.

  8. Vern, thanks to the billionaires funding the GOP, manipulating the same people televangelists dupe is quite simple. If you didn’t have a conscience, you’d probably figure out a way to profit off these Ivermectin-guzzling dupes as well.

    Our health department officials are having meltdowns live on TV. The mass stupidity that the GOP hustles with their dark money billionaires is truly amazing to watch.

    They’re holding political rallies in churches all over the South. If the IRS wasn’t neutered, they’d be revoking their nonprofit status. The criminals in our midst are having a heyday right now because there is no rule of law. The first check, morality via conscience, doesn’t work if you’re a sociopath. The second rule of law (courts) is filled with corrupt judges who were bought by the same people buying politicians.

    Not sure how to end this kakistocracy, but voting probably won’t be the way either since they’ll be overruling that method as well.

    Love thy neighbor as thyself has been abandoned over sheer idiocy.

  9. Reminds me of the old joke about St. Peter giving a tour of heaven to a group of new arrivals and asking them to be quiet when they went down a certain hallway. When asked why, he replied this is where the Baptists are and they think they are the only ones here.

  10. I left protestant organized religion seven years ago after getting sick and tired of so many people who attended church every Sunday vocally judging people homosexuals to be sinners who must not be accepted. I kept thinking that they should “remove the plank from their own eyes before trying to remove the splinter from someone else’s eyes”. I could no longer tolerate their behavior and I could not allow them to think I supported their beliefs by continuing to show up and sit among them.

    Sheila wrote “So many of America’s problems stem from “doing religion wrong”.

    I will take that statement a step further and say “So many of the world’s problems, including violence and wars, stem from doing many organized religions wrong”.

    A prime example – the middle east wars that have been going on for centuries that we had the audacity to step into and think we could resolve their religious differences and force them to change their ways.

  11. Having been raised Roman Catholic and now in the non-affiliated group, I can attest to divide between faith and works.

    Todds comments about trying to find the meaning in 2000 year old texts came home to me. Two years go when we were still allowed to travel, I had a chance to visit Ismuth and Corinth Greece. These are two towns on either side of a narrow neck of land that in ancient times, ships would pull into port, and then be hauled over the narrow neck of land rather than take the a week (if the winds were in your favor) to sail around the pelopennesian peninsula. Needless to say these were big sailor towns. In the times of St. Paul, one of the biggest whore houses in the know world was located in Corinth. It was the site of Greek and then Roman temple (Dionysus and then Bacchus) where thousands of priestesses were on hand to help you celebrate. Our guide mentioned that St. Paul spent several months in Corinth, writing letters to the Corinth town council before he was run out of town. If you know your new testament and the book of Paul, and his letters to the Corinthians, they are some beautiful writing. The themes are about what is love, and are often cited in wedding vows. The context is that they are protest letters trying to convince the Corinthians to shut down their giant whore house! Nobody ever mentioned that in my Roman Catholic catechism class.

  12. We must separate the religion from the person. I am Jewish and take my life from “tikkun olam” (acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world) at the heart of our faith. That doesn’t excuse Jews who live their lives in the opposite direction, nor does it mean they have diminished Judaism as a belief system.

  13. Vernon I consider the earth a gift from God. When I read the prodigal son, I see the human race destroying God’s gift to us, our Mother Earth. We need to stop wasting our inheritance. We need to become faithful stewards of this gift. I am a progressive, heretical Christian. I love to listen to Carl Sagan and other astrophysicists. I just bought a Prius Prime which will run on electricity for 25 miles and then convert to a hybrid function. Why? Because I love the earth. And, I am amazed at all the computer tech in cars. I kept my first Prius for 16 years.

    Many religous leaders have failed to make the scriptures relevant to people in modernity. That failure contributes to the departure of youth. Instead of simply walking away from Christianity, I chose to listen to Biblical scholars and yes, even Muslim and Jewish religious scholars who appreciate Jesus as a prophet.

    The founders of our country understood the danger of theocracy and so required that all religions be separate from our government. The “evangelical” Christians do not honor this.

    Christianity was ruined when it was declared by Constantine to be the religion of the Roman Empire. Later that was translated into the kings and queens of Europe being crowned because this is what God had ordained. Quakers knew that was BS.

    Too many Christians are caught up in their creeds, an intellectual assertion of dogma. Karen Armstrong, a religious historian from England, states what is more important is corda. Corda is what we surrender our hearts to. She has also strongly asserted that the human race will not survive unless we practice compassion with one another. I would add all sentient beings to that.

    If all of you would like to see a Christian church that seeks to hold true to the activist teachings of Jesus, go watch the sermons at All Souls Church in Pasadena, California. They are on YouTube.

    May each and every one of you be blessed with that peace which passes all our understanding on this Sunday and in all the days to follow.

  14. Forty years ago Mac Davis preached “Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way” and we laughed and sang along.

    Was that celebrating the end of humility? The timing correlates.

    Of course, that timing also was the end of the idea that we were merely an example of life and all of the examples that we know of shared the same home and were absolutely dependent on each other and the common home to continue to exist.

    But we had invented the idea that we were in the image of God and technology confirmed that by showing us that we could invent anything just like we formerly learned that He could too.

    Now the post humility world seems decidedly broken because none of the old ideas are working right anymore.

    It’s a race between problem solvers and problem creators.

    Maybe God is watching from his various heavens. Which side is he praying will win?

  15. Most religions are Illogical. Take the Baptists for example. Do you know why
    Baptists are against pre-marital sex? They’re afraid it will lead to dancing!

  16. Years ago I went to a Bible Thumping Church on a Sunday, I was not a member. Long story why. There were jumbo TV screens and big speakers just to amplify everything.

    It was Jesus this and Jesus that and various quotes from the Bible trying to convince you of the righteous of what was being said. There was a bit of time for healing of different ills, loss of faith, sickness – mental, physical or in the heart. The supernatural was invoked just to prove God was on our side. The message was in so many words a lack of belief translated into earthly and spiritual woes. Oh yes and Satan had many disguises, so Beware.

    There was no call to to go out and do Good Works for your fellow humans, just go out with belief and do some “witnessing” to the heathens. There would be coffee and sweets after church for fellowship. If 1 1/2 hours of church was not enough, you could go to a Bible Study after the service. There was a children’s Bible Study too. Wednesday evening there would be more Bible Study for adults and children.

    To me it seemed obvious the “Flock” had be regularly and periodically corralled to maintain control over them.

  17. Great comments Robin. Yours and several others, today, underscore my points, both intended and accidental. A rational person simply can’t make real something for which there is no evidence to its existence.

    In your comment about God giving us the Earth, I’d expand that thought – personal for you – that “God” gave every organism in it the entire universe. I reject human arrogance that keeps claiming we’re so special.

  18. “Religion spoils everything,” springs to mind.
    ‘…built around Christ.” There install some doubt that “He” ever lived, certainly that “He” was lifted to Heaven by the magic sky-fairy.
    Religion may, I say “may” have been invented by the ancients of so many cultures to try to get a handle on what seemed, and still does, like a very random universe, which does not particularly care about these bi-pedal “naked apes,” and their hubris. If there are 2.700 versions of some religion, or 2,700 religions, that in itself ought to signal that there is a problem with the entire concept.
    Todd, you are right about the Kakistocracy, but that does not mean that Vernon is mistaken. And the phenomenal level of thoughtlessness (to be kind to people whom I would rather damn) we see around us might be, at least in part, due to the religious training they have received from the time they could crawl, to not bother to think. Like the framed command in my daughter-in-law’s house, “Just Believe.”
    I was in an Amish general store deepen the heart of Maine, a few weeks ago, and on their wall was their statement of religious “Knowledge.”
    QAnon has seemed poised to slip into a formalized religion, right alongside Scientology, more science fiction.

  19. As a Christian, I can tell you that the bible itself is a trap, only to be understood by those who ‘have’ the Spirit of God or God’s blessing when it is read. Read unworthily it will cause a world of harm. Read humbly and with an open heart focused on loving, it is like water to the thirsty. Let’s not forget that Satan used the scripture to tempt Jesus. So too do Satan’s ‘people’ use the scripture to destroy others today.

    Of course, if you do not believe in the existence of the God of the bible, then this will be nonsense to you. In that case just let it slip off your back like water on a duck.

  20. Same old platitudes, same inability to back out of the culture and see yourselves. I don’t care. There’s solid value for your self, your friends, and up the ladder, to the whole world.

    Basic truth? Islam will take on China’s Emperor worship.
    Christinanity will die out, from massive internal conflicts.

    Sound arrogant? More arrogant than those who proclaim they know who created the universe? I’m a piker in these crowds…

    When you die, you’re done.
    Morality is evolved concurrently with cognition/socialization.
    Pascal’s wager only works if you picked the correct “god”.

    Religion poisons cognition, and thus, everything human.

    Ask ISIS-K or Sunnis or Shias or Tammy Faye, or Biden.

  21. Tom Strong, I love your post. It made me laugh. I finished my secondary education in the Buckle of the Bible Belt: Abilene, Texas. Nothing worse than the tyranny of church stepping from their lanes to impose restrictions upon the local school board and what is best for students.

    The church generously allowed one school sponsored dance a year.

    I was encouraged to run for student body president my junior year. Four very capable friends ran for the same office. I never went to a student council meeting. Worse yet, I was Methodist and the other candidates were Baptists and Church of Christ.

    The candidate to beat was the eldest son of the head pastor of the largest Church of Christ Church in the city.

    Worse even yet, I was a varsity tennis player where football reigned, even if it was not Friday night in the Fall.

    I ran in the campaign as if to win, but I knew my chances were slim to none. Miraculously, I won by a margin of 20 votes over the pastor’s kid.

    I did not touch the dance as my campaign platform. But upon assuming my position the Fall of my senior year, I quietly plotted without announcement, to consult with the Basketball Coach who commanded the use of the court and the high school principal, whose daughter I successfully asked for a dance in the one dance of the year during our junior year. Both the Coach and the Principal were Church of Christ. That’s just the way it was.

    Long story short, I won approval for a second dance event after the basketball season was over. I literally doubled the event as one of the finest achievements of my term.

    To seal the deal, after the successful meeting with the principal, I went to his daughter and told her how much I respect her father. She laughed and asked me what on earth was I up to. I told her before any public announcement. And asked her for the first dance at the second one of the year, and she said yes.

    My brief but gratifying experience in politics at the intersection of church and state.

  22. As it happens, I grew up Quaker. Fortunately for me, most Quakers I knew tried to live according to Christianity’s deeper meanings, based on their belief that each being has that of God within them and that we are called to honor that devine essence in every dealing with others. Later I read about the formal beliefs of Quakers and to my dismay, found them horribly similar to what I understood of Baptists. Somehow Quakers seem to remain humble, which helps. We could, over long years, cast aspersions on religions not our own, forgetting in the righteousness of our self-justifications that being human implies being imperfect. But, I began this backward glance to note that our Quaker selves lived across the street from folks we termed ‘Southern dried Baptists’ and who, apparently, disapproved of us as we, the Quakers, condoned dancing…the whole idea still makes me smile!

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