Religion–Real And Performative

Last weekend, David French had a column in the New York Times that inadvertently highlighted the reason so many people these days reject religion.

French was focusing on the relationship between Tucker Carlson (recently departed from Fox “News”) and the Christian Right. His opening paragraphs are instructive.

On April 25, the far-right network Newsmax hosted a fascinating and revealing conversation about Tucker Carlson with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of America’s leading Christian conservative advocacy organizations. Perkins scorned Fox News’s decision to fire Carlson, and — incredibly — also attacked Fox’s decision to fire Bill O’Reilly. These terminations (along with the departures of Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly) were deemed evidence that Fox was turning its back on its conservative viewers, including its Christian conservative viewers.

What was missing from the conversation? Any mention of the profound moral failings that cost O’Reilly his job, including at least six settlements — five for sexual harassment and one for verbal abuse — totaling approximately $45 million. Or any mention of Carlson’s own serious problems, including his serial dishonesty, his vile racism and his gross personal insult directed against a senior Fox executive. It’s a curious position for a Christian to take.

Similarly curious is the belief of other Christians, such as the popular evangelical “prophet” Lance Wallnau, that Carlson was a “casualty of war” with the left, and that his firing was a serious setback for Christian Republicans. To Wallnau, an author and a self-described “futurist,” Carlson was a “secular prophet,” somebody “used by God, more powerful than a lot of preachers.”

French quotes several other examples, including a statement from Rod Dreher, editor-at-large at The American Conservative, who said he hopes Tucker Carlson runs for president,” and–even more appalling–opined that a “Tucker-DeSantis ticket would be the Generation X Saves The World team.”

French points to the obvious conflict between the doctrinal principles of his faith and the behavior of the (misnamed) “Christian” Right.

After all, isn’t “love your enemies” a core Christian command? The fruit of the spirit (the markers of God’s presence in our lives) are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” not Republicanism, conservatism and capitalism.

I read French’s column an hour or so after returning home from the talk I’d given to the Unitarian Universalists in Danville, Indiana, and I was struck by the contrast between that congregation and the pseudo Christians whose Taliban-like perversion of that religion French was documenting.

Let me just share a couple of sentiments from the Unitarians’ “Order of Service” handout.

A “Welcome message” read, in part,

Unitarian Universalists believe that religious faith is uniquely personal and evolves as we each engage in our inner search and our life journey. We seek for ourselves and our children attitudes of openness and tolerance, with religious convictions grounded in life and widely shared in action. We find our quest is enriched and empowered in community, a community that embraces and and welcomes all persons.

The service began with the following Affirmation.

We proudly carry the flame of religious freedom. We respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We encourage each other to spiritual growth; that makes for peace, ethical living and community service. This is our covenant.

I never watched Tucker Carlson, but from everything I’ve heard about him, I’m pretty sure he’d choke on that Affirmation. The version of “belief” endorsed by the Carsons and Perkins of the Right is a conviction that their God hates the same people they hate, and that the superiority of their Whiteness and version of Christianity gives them the right to impose their prejudices on the rest of us.

I’ve previously shared my youngest son’s description of the difference between a good religion and a bad one: A good religion helps adherents cope with life’s challenges–helps them recognize and wrestle with the moral dilemmas that we all inevitably face. A bad religion prescribes immutable beliefs and behaviors.

In other words, a good religion helps with questions; a bad one dictates answers.

To that very accurate analysis I would add that a good religion provides members with a welcoming and supportive community–a non-digital social network.

Given the in-your-face performative piety of those insisting that they are the only true Christians and thus the only true Americans, it’s no wonder that religious affiliation has dramatically decreased. Nice people are repulsed by hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness–and many are unaware that more open and inclusive options exist.

French says that the right-wing’s pursuit of its version of justice has overwhelmed its commitment to kindness, much less any shred of humility–and that “this is how the religious right becomes post-Christian.”

They’re making a lot of other Americans “post-Christian” too.

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Community–Lost And Found

A friend recently shared a Substack newsletter with me (requires subscription but no $$), knowing that the topic–the nature of community formation– was one that concerned me.

He and I have discussed a contention that I have also shared on this blog–my belief that the evisceration of local news, especially the demise of widely-read local newspapers, has diminished what the shared article labeled “horizontal communities.” In other words, the communities that previously formed among residents of the same neighborhood, city or town.

The author didn’t see this as a problem.

 In fact, I think the kind of communities we inhabit has simply changed. In the past, our communities were primarily horizontal — they were simply the people we lived close to on the surface of the Earth. Increasingly, though, new technology has enabled us to construct communities that I’ve decided to call vertical — groups of people united by identities, interests, and values rather than by physical proximity.

Had I been “physically close” to the guy who wrote this, I might have “physically” harmed him.

The bulk of the essay was a love-letter to the Internet, which has allowed billions of people to form communities that ignore geography in exchange for similar “identities, interests and values.” In other words, our ability, thanks to technology, to find people with whom we agree.

Can you spell “polarization”?

The great virtue of those disdained “geographical” communities was precisely the requirement that we find common ground with people unlike ourselves–and that we share an awareness of the multiple ways in which we differed and/or agreed and the various ways in which the local physical and political environments affected us all.

As I used to tell my students, “back in the day” when most residents of our city accessed news provided by the daily newspapers (yes, that’s plural–Indianapolis once had three), those residents inhabited a common information environment. Even if they only picked up a newspaper in order to get the sports news, or listened to a radio or television news personality who relied heavily on what reporters for the local papers had written, they saw the same headlines or heard the same “breaking news” and basically occupied a similar reality.

That common reality empowered local democracy.

Was there a report that city police had engaged in unwarranted brutality? That too many  of the local thoroughfares were filled with potholes? That a member of the local City Council was opposing funding for the library? That crime rates were increasing? (Add your own examples.) Such reports require local political changes–changes that require collaboration among members of those local “horizontal” communities.

If citizen A is determined to elect someone who will fix the streets, s/he needs to work together with citizen B, with whom s/he doesn’t necessarily share other goals or values. That collaboration has a number of beneficial consequences, among them the creation of what sociologists call “bridging social capital.”

“Bonding” social capital is defined as the strong relationships that develop between people of similar background and interests–your family and friends and those Internet acquaintances with whom you share an important identity. “Bridging” social capital describes the connections that link people across the cleavages that typically divide societies (think race,  class, or religion). It builds ‘bridges’ between diverse people.

Without bridging social capital, diverse societies disintegrate.

I do not mean to diminish the value of many of the “vertical” communities enabled by the Internet. Those connections can and do widen our horizons. But we cannot ignore the substantial, troubling ways in which those vertical communities polarize  and divide Americans. And we absolutely cannot and must not abandon our focus on the “horizontal” environments within which we live and work.

The mere fact that we live adjacent to one another doesn’t create a horizontal community. In order for residents of city A or town B to constitute a genuine community, those residents need to occupy a common reality–they need to agree that those holes in the roadway are potholes that need to be filled. Then they need the ability to bridge their other differences in order to work together to repair and/or improve their shared environment.

When citizens lose access to common credible, adequate local information,  they lose an  essential element of the bridging social capital that is the foundation of democratic self-governance.

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I versus We

In a recent column in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo asked a question that has preoccupied me for several years: given the wide diversity of global humanity–given the sheer numbers of humans who coexist on this planet with drastically different beliefs, personalities, experiences and cultural conditioning–is genuine co-operation and a measure of community even possible?

As Manjoo puts it,

 What if we’ve hit the limit of our capacity to get along? I don’t mean in the Mister Rogers way. I’m not talking about the tenor of our politics. My concern is more fundamental: Are we capable as a species of coordinating our actions at a scale necessary to address the most dire problems we face?

Because, I mean, look at us. With the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, humanity is contending with global, collective threats. But for both, our response has been bogged down less by a lack of ideas or invention than by a failure to align our actions as groups, either within nations or as a world community. We had little trouble producing effective vaccines against this scourge in record time — but how much does that matter if we can’t get it to most of the world’s people and if even those who have access to the shots won’t bother?

As Manjoo points out, most of the multiple ways in which we are inter-related and interdependent aren’t immediately evident. (As he says, the way deforestation in the Amazon rainforest  affects sea levels in Florida isn’t exactly obvious to the man on the street). But as he also notes, quite properly, the threat posed by the pandemic is another matter. Or at least, it should be.

Sometimes, though, our fates are so obviously intertwined, you want to scream. Vaccines work best when most of us get them. Either we all patch up this sinking ship or we all go down together. But what if lots of passengers insist the ship’s not sinking and the repairs are a scam? Or the richest passengers stockpile the rations? And the captain doesn’t trust the navigator and the navigator keeps changing her mind and the passengers keep assaulting the crew?

Can we ever put the common good of humanity above our individual and tribal commitments?

Research suggests that we humans do have the capacity to come together. Manjoo refers to groundbreaking work by Indiana University’s own Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel winner. Ostrom’s research went a long way toward debunking widespread belief in the “tragedy of the commons,” and showed “countless examples of people coming together to create rules and institutions to manage common resources.” Despite an enormous amount of neocon and rational-choice propaganda to the contrary,  Ostrom demonstrated that most people aren’t profit-maximizing automatons– that humans really can act on behalf of the common good, even when that action requires personal sacrifice.

However, Ostrom also understood that the nurturing of community requires institutions supportive of the common good. And therein lies my own concern.

Someone–I no longer recall who–said “It’s the culture, stupid.” What far too few of us seem to recognize about human society is the absolutely critical role that is played by culture and paradigms/worldviews–widespread assumptions about “the way things are” supported by embedded systems and institutions and habits of socialization.

What we desperately need are institutions supporting a culture that facilitates an appropriate balance between “I” and “we”–an overarching construct that enables each individual to pursue his or her own idiosyncratic telos while still being supportive of a strong community–and a recognition of how capacious our understanding of community must be.

The tribes fighting it out today are grounded in race, religion, and other (essentially superficial) markers of human identity. At some point–and thanks to the existential threat posed by climate change, we may be at that point–we need to redefine “we” as the human race. At a minimum, we need to come together to do those things that are necessary to keep the planet we inhabit capable of sustaining human life.

At some point, we need to realize that humanity is our tribe.

Maybe it’s because I’m old, maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many instances of people who are bound and determined to pursue obviously destructive paths, but I worry that too many of us have lost the ability to see beyond “I” to “we” and to envision a healthy balance between the two.

The pandemic and climate change are tests, and so far, at least, we’re failing.

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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.

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Let’s Talk About…Sea Shanties?

I am generally oblivious to popular culture. This is not a characteristic that has developed with age–unfortunately, I have never been “with it.” (My students came to recognize the blank look that was my response to musical references more recent than Dean Martin.)

This personal history is by way of explaining my confusion over recent references to the popularity of Sea Shanties. 

I consulted Dr. Google, and found that Sea Shanties are “unifying, survivalist songs,” designed to transform a large group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat. Their sudden resurgence of popularity has been attributed to the anomie of our time, and the fact that so many people are desperate for connection–evidently, the original goal of the Sea Shanty was to foster community, as sailors worked long hours aboard a ship.

That desire for connection has also manifested itself in current calls for national unity. In the case of the Trumpian “fellow travelers” in the Senate– Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and their ilk–those calls are deeply dishonest and self-serving, but others, including the incoming administration, seem genuinely committed to healing the deep rifts that separate ordinary Americans.

One question, of course, is whether healing and unity can ever be achieved in the absence of accountability. Another is the nature of unity in a radically diverse society. There is ample evidence that people are longing for connection, for community, for belonging–but connection to what? What defines the community we aspire to join? 

My entire research focus has been devoted to that question. How do very different people live productively together? What sort of governing arrangements can both function for everyone and still honor/respect individual and group differences?

My conclusion lies in what has been called America’s “civic religion”– allegiance to the overarching  values embodied in America’s constituent documents–values that are central to what I call the American Idea. During his inauguration speech, President Biden quoted St. Augustine for much the same sentiment–that a “people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”

In 2004, I wrote a column in which I listed what I saw as the values that define us as Americans–the values that should be the “common objects of our love.” These are the overarching principles that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and that, at least in my view, are absolutely central to what it means to be an American–hyphenated or not.

Here is that list.

Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.

We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.

We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging sacred civic responsibilities.

We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize gays or Blacks or Muslims or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is un-American and immoral.

We believe, as Garry Wills once wrote, in “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”

We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even non-American mankind).

We believe in the true heartland of this country, which is anywhere where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness rather than legal or cultural dominance.

We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.

We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.

It’s true that America’s aspirational values have never been wholly realized, but pursuing them is what unifies us. They are our Sea Shanties.

Healing and unity will require that Americans committed to those values reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different. 

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