Personal Perspectives: Religion and Values in U.S. Society

August 23, 2019

Today some personal observations, because people have asked me. My area of research and university teaching for many years has been religion and values in American (U.S.) society. I have often thought that my fascination with religion in American culture and history springs from my family history and perhaps my “theological DNA.”

My paternal ancestors were immigrants to the United States long before it became the United States. My paternal grandfather’s family came from England. Arriving in 1684, they were Quakers from Chester, England. My paternal grandmother’s family arrived in the late seventeenth century. They were French Huguenots, escaping France after King Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, which made Protestantism illegal. My maternal ancestors were French and German speaking Roman Catholic immigrants from Alsace who arrived in the early nineteenth century.

With immigrant roots, I am indeed an authentic American. I am also an open-minded Roman Catholic, although some Catholics think I am really a Protestant. Although living abroad these days, because of my academic career, I remain a politically active American citizen, involved in discussion/action groups, voter registration, etc..

I do not belong to the religious right, where some of my friends are located. I respect them and they respect me. As I look at U.S. society today, however, I am alarmed that so many leaders of the religious right, who long claimed to be the champions of Christianity and American morality, appear to have gladly traded their values for a kind of theocratic power in support of a White House occupant who repeatedly demonstrates, by rhetoric and behavior, that he has no resonance with the moral vision and values of Jesus Christ.

So what do we say about American culture and its underlying values? I think right now about this month’s deadly shootings in El Paso and Dayton. So much racist and xenophobic violence. So many Americans fear lost identity and security. How they fill the gaps is important.

This week I have simply made a list of my observations and concerns. I am always interested, of course, in reader reactions.

(1) The U.S.A. is indeed a nation of immigrants, who have generally learned how to live and work together. This has been the genius of the American experience. That being said, however, it was not always easy. Right from the start, the country’s people had to deal with racism and xenophobia: fear of “Indians” our native Americans, fear and control of African slaves, prejudice and violence against Italians, against the Irish, against “papist” Catholics, and others. Today of course against Mexicans and other national groups.

(2) We need to acknowledge our historic faults and short-comings, learn from them, and move ahead. The good old days, in fact, were not always that great.

(3) As contemporary Americans (U.S. citizens) search for meaning, purpose, and security in their lives, many feel that the American Dream has by-passed them. In many respects this may be true; but it is too easy, and incorrect, to blame the situation on Mexicans and other foreigners.

A political administration with a humanitarian conscience, compassion, and a creative approach to social welfare can help a lot here.

(4) Many white skinned Americans feel that they are becoming a minority because of the rise of non-whites in U.S. society. Their rhetoric Is fueling a kind of violent white nationalism. Well…. we do have to acknowledge that the racial mix in U.S. society is changing greatly. It is a fact of life. It is not necessarily bad. Racial and ethnic diversity is part of who we are as Americans. By 2060, 44.29 % of the population will be White, 27.5 % Hispanic, 15% Black, and 9.1 % Asian. We need to learn how to live together in respectful collaboration and harmony. Churches can help here a lot.

(5) Right from the start, religion has been important for Americans. Most people know about the famous Christians who contributed to the making of America. (My ancestors among them.) The first Jewish settlers arrived in New Amsterdam (today’s New York) in 1654. By 1776 there were an estimated 2,000 Jewish people living in America. In Charleston, South Carolina, interesting enough, almost every adult Jewish male fought on the side of U.S. freedom. Islam in America? Many enslaved peoples brought to America from Africa were Muslims from the predominantly Muslim West African region. Current American statistics: About 70.6 % are Christian, 1.9 % are Jewish, and 0.9 % are Muslim.

(6) I cannot condone Christian leaders, like the well-known White House friend, Pastor Robert Jeffress, who proclaims that Satan is behind Roman Catholicism and that Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and gays are all destined for Hell.

(7) In the current presidential administration, far-right fundamentalist Christians (Protestant as well as Catholic) are working to turn the United States into a theocracy. A theocracy is the antithesis of a democracy. In a democracy, political authority comes from the consent of the governed. In a theocracy, authority comes directly from God. How does one vote the representative of God out of office? The answer, of course, is that you don’t. History shows, however, that theocracies end up being authoritarian dictatorships. Sometimes I fear America is moving toward an authoritarian dictatorship.

(8) Netflix’s new five-part series “The Family,” now streaming, explores an elite coalition of theocratic fundamentalist Christians who have enormous influence in contemporary American politics. This past week I read, in connection with the Netflix presentations, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeffrey Sharlett. He stresses in his book that the organization embellishes political power over people by comparing Jesus to Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Bin Laden as examples of leaders who change the world through the strength of the covenants they established with their “brothers.” A bizarre Christianity to say the least. Bizarre politics as well.

(9) The Fellowship, also known as The Family, is best known for serving as the organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of diplomats and world leaders in Washington, D.C. The core issue for The Fellowship is capitalism and power. It has connections with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the Department of Defense.

(10) We need to be very clear today. The politics of xenophobia, can only be pursued in contradiction to the Gospel. A truly humane culture welcomes the stranger, embraces the orphan, and heals the wounds of all who are our really neighbors. It does not promote a politics of cruelty and fear.

(11) As the Chicago-based scripture scholar, Donald Senior, (a doctoral graduate of my university) wrote recently, we need to “Speak truth to power….encouraging those who know the truth not to hesitate to proclaim it, even in the face of indifferent or oppressive power, such as government officials or heads of industry or, for that matter, religious leaders. It implies that often those in positions of power hide or distort the truth for their own purpose or to protect their institutions.”

From Moses, to the prophets, to Job, to Jesus, the Biblical message is on the side of the powerless. May we truly speak truth to power.

Take care. We can and will move forward.


P.S. I will be away from my computer during the Labor Day week end. Back in touch with you the week after that.

An Assumption

August 16, 2019

Albrecht Dürer, The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, 1510

I have absolutely no desire to denigrate Jesus’ Mother. She must have been a wonderfully faith-filled, attentive, and caring mother. She remains as well a source of strength and encouragement for any woman who has lost a son or a husband especially through a violent death. Actually a source of strength and encouragement for all of us. No wonder she is also Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Consolation, and Mother of Perpetual Help.

Reflecting, on August 15th — Feast of the Assumption — this week, it struck me, nevertheless, that the Assumption is indeed a good case study for official Catholic teachings past and present.

The Assumption of Mary is a Roman Catholic dogma: a belief which must be accepted and affirmed by all Catholics. Pope Pius XII proclaimed this dogma, “infallibly,” on November 1, 1950. The document issued that day taught that the “Immaculate Virgin,” the Mother of Jesus, “after the completion of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into the glory of Heaven.” This means that after her death, Jesus’ Mother was assumed into heaven, body and soul, in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures. The doctrine further states that she was glorified in heaven and is “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things.”

The dogma of the Assumption, however, is based solely on very post-apostolic church traditions and has no foundation in the Christian Scriptures.

The Christian Scriptures say very little, in fact, about the Mother of Jesus. The Gospel According to Mark names her only once (6:3) and mentions her as Jesus’ Mother, without mentioning her name: in 3:31. The Gospel According to Luke mentions Mary the Mother of Jesus most often: identifying her by name twelve times and all of these in the infancy narrative (1:27,30,34,38,39,41,46,56; 2:5,16,19,34). The Gospel According to Matthew mentions her by name five times, four of these (1:16,18,20; 2:11) in the infancy narrative and only once (13:55) outside the infancy narrative.

The Gospel According to John refers to the Mother of Jesus twice but never mentions her by name. She makes two appearances in the Johannine Gospel. She is first seen at the wedding at Cana of Galilee (Jn 2:1-12) which is mentioned only in this Gospel. The second reference, also exclusively listed in this Gospel, has the Mother of Jesus standing near the cross of her son together with the (also unnamed) “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn 19:25-26). John 2:1-12, by the way, is the only text in the Christian canonical scriptures in which the Mother of Jesus speaks to, and about, the adult Jesus.

In the Book of Acts, the Mother of Jesus, and the “brothers of Jesus,” are mentioned in the company of the eleven, gathered in the upper room after the ascension (Acts 1:14).

It took a good four or five hundred years, after the earthly days of Jesus’ Mother, for the development of an imaginative and creative Marian tradition that became the basis for nineteenth and twentieth century infallibly-proclaimed Virgin Mary dogmas. There is really no big list of infallible teachings. That is because there are only two, and both are about Mary: her Immaculate Conception, declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 even before the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 and her bodily Assumption into heaven.

In the second century, St. Justin the Martyr (c. 100 to 165 CE) gave us the understanding that the Mother of Jesus had always been a virgin. In the fourth century, Christian theologians decided Mary the Mother of Jesus was a very unique kind of virgin: her hymen was not even broken in childbirth. Baby Jesus simply passed miraculously through the wall. (A bit of theological hymenology by celibate males?) But then the learned men had to deal with another Bible-based theological problem.

In the Gospel According to Mark and in the Gospel According to Matthew, we read about Jesus’ “brothers and sisters.” As the doctrine of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” became increasingly widespread so did confusion about Jesus’ siblings. Theologians had to harmonize the New Testament with the new dogma (a bit of biblical revisionism) ….and so “brothers and sisters” became “cousins.” Problem solved……

The fourth century was also a particularly fruitful time for creative religious archeology. Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena (c. 246 to 330 CE) was a strong supporter of the developing Mary-Mother-of-Jesus cult and created what one could call ecclesiastical archeology. In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity and 10 years later, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Helena told her son they needed some Christian holy places.

Helena was quite a researcher….. Everywhere she went, local tour guides (who were well paid) helped her find “evidence” of Jesus or the Mother of Jesus. She then had churches built on the spot! She found, for example, the cave of the nativity (or so the local people had told her), the house of the Last Supper (or so the local people had told her), the Garden of Gethsemane (or so the local people……), the hill of crucifixion, the empty tomb, the cross itself. She even found the very tree from which the wood for Jesus’ cross was cut!

Every shrine that Helena discovered was honored with imperial patronage and became a profitable pilgrimage site as well. With each shrine went a Mary festival.

But back to my reflection about the Assumption……

The world view and the theological perspective that underlie the Assumption belong to an archaic pre-Galileo cosmology: the older flat earth model of Hebrew biblical and early and medieval Christian cosmology. Over the flat earth was a dome-shaped rigid canopy called the firmament. God the Father’s throne was in the firmament and he controlled the earthly and human events down below. Heaven was understood as the place and space around God high up in the firmament.

Sitting at the right hand of God the Father was Jesus, his Son, whom he raised from the dead and elevated up to heaven, on a cloud, on Jesus’ Ascension Day.

Later, in the seventh century, thanks especially to the theology of John of Damascus (c. 675 to 749 CE) and Gregory of Tours (c. 538 to 594 CE), the church developed the understanding (another theological assumption) that the Mother of Jesus, as well, was carried on a cloud and assumed body and soul up to heaven.

And my point today?

What do contemporary Catholic believers do when they suspect that a dogma or doctrine safeguarded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is flawed or is simply not believed anymore by many in the Church, including its best scholars?

There must be an avenue in the Catholic Church for open, respectful, and intellectually honest dialogue about serious kinds of theological questions. On the top of that list today I would put recognizing and supporting women’s ordination. (I think Mary would like that.) There are of course a great number of questions to be explored, especially when it comes to human sexuality and what is “natural” or “unnatural.” Theological exploration is an open field….or should be.

– Jack

Sacralizing Politics

August 9, 2019

It happens. A few days ago I was unfriended on Facebook by a fellow who fears I have ceased being a theologian and am now a political agitator. Actually, I don’t mind agitating a bit but I am still very much a theologian…..

If they are true to their calling, theologians must critique social movements and political positions, when they are unethical and promote false belief. It happened in the past and is happening today. And not just in the U.S.A……

This week I continue a theological reflection connected with last week’s post on Christian America. We are certainly living in a time of major socio-cultural shifts and unsettlingly cruel and evil developments, as the recent killings and violence in El Paso and Dayton have so painfully demonstrated. This time a new political twist was added; and an August 6th editorial in the National Catholic Reporter expressed it pointedly: “Never have we experienced political leadership where mass murderers could quote the very rhetoric emanating from the White House to justify their evil.”

My thoughts today are about what happens when people – without questions or critique — begin to use religion to sacralize politics; and authoritarian leaders misuse religion to promote their distorted political agendas. When belief is twisted out of shape and paves the way for authoritarian movements and regimes – what we call today neofascism.

I remember being in a taxi along Interstate 170 near St. Louis, Missouri last autumn, when I saw a large billboard with a picture of the 45th U.S. president. With the picture was this caption “And the Word was made flesh.” I asked the cab driver what he thought about that. “Well,” he said “I don’t think our president is Jesus Christ but, like Jesus, he was sent by God. He is a man of God and we need him to save us.” The sacralization of politics. Perverted religion. Perverted politics.

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain supposedly said, “but it rhymes.”

In 1932 Mussolini declared that the fascist state had not created its own god but recognized the God of traditional saints and Christian heroes. He was playing a phony political game. Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI both had come to power in 1922. Thanks to their shared distrust of democracy and anti-communist zeal, the two leaders clicked immediately. Evil often comes dressed up as something Good. In 1929, Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican, ending decades of struggle between the Italian state and the Papacy, and recognized the independence of Vatican City. A grateful Pope Pius XI acclaimed Mussolini as “the Man of Providence.” Mussolini needed Catholic support but in fact he resonated strongly with Friedrich Nietzsche’s anti-Christian ideas and the negation of God’s existence. He did the talk and played the game. And who was really listening?

It is a perennial problem. Who is really observing what’s happening? Who is seriously considering the implications? And who is willing to speak out and take action?

Catholics in Germany, by way of another historical example, were basically opposed to Hitler. In 1933, however, Hitler signed a concordat with the Vatican. It was signed by the Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII. Catholic rights in Germany were theoretically put on a new basis, while the Hitler regime was strengthened. The Vatican had a sense that Hitler, was an indispensable bulwark against Bolshevism. The concordat gave moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime; and Hitler acquired dictatorial powers through the Enabling Act of 1933, which was facilitated through the support of the Catholic Center Party. In the years after the concordat was signed, however, the Nazis regularly ignored it. Hitler in fact was hostile to the Catholic Church, but for his political strategy played the public image game. There were of course Catholic protestors. Some of the most courageous demonstrations of opposition to Hitler were the 1941 sermons of the Catholic Bishop August von Galen of Münster.

In general, Protestants in Germany found a way to be both believers in Christianity and supporters of Nazism. A few –- like Dietrich Bonhoeffer — openly opposed the Nazis, while others saw themselves as neutral. Still others actively supported Nazism, calling themselves “storm troopers of Jesus Christ.” Nazism was not just an alternative political party. It was, in Hitler’s own words, “a form of conversion, a new faith.” In responding to one of his co-conspirators in his 1923 coup attempt, Hitler had said “I need for the building up of a great political movement, the Catholics of Bavaria and the Protestants of Prussia.”

While the Second World War did bring an end to Nazism in Germany, the evil dictatorships of Franco and Salazar persisted well into the mid-1970s.

Societies in transition, as we experience today, are always vulnerable to strong forces for political change. The link between Franco’s fascism and the Catholic Church was at that time a marriage of convenience. When Franco’s government defeated the Spanish socialist party that had taken control from 1931 to 1936, it aligned itself with Spain’s Catholic Church and the Spanish bishops overwhelmingly endorsed Franco’s Spain. Under the guise of religion, the Franco government used the Catholic educational system as a means of socialization and connecting nationalism and religion to promote their fascist agenda. To achieve his economic goals, Franco relied as well on the wealthy and ultra-right Catholic group Opus Dei. Franco’s dictatorial style did introduce social and economic reform – as well as the slaughter of thousands of men, women, and children. The consistent elements in his long rule (1939 to 1975) were above all authoritarianism, extreme Spanish nationalism, conservative Catholicism, anti-Communism, imprisonments, torture, and mass executions.

Today’s authoritarian (neofascist) leaders display all the old historic characteristics: exaggerated nationalism, invoking the blessings of conservative religious leaders, disdain for the human rights of foreigners, racist and incendiary rhetoric, fabricating “the truth,” glamorizing the military with big parades, misogyny promoted by a kind of toxic masculinity, and protecting corporate power.

Returning to the historic Jesus, one sees a very different perspective.

In Matthew 25: 37-40, we read: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The Lord will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Here ends today’s theological reflection. Followers of Jesus must be willing to speak truth to power.

Kind regards to all. Please don’t unfriend me…..

– Jack

Christian America…

2 August 2019

Some find this a “sensitive issue;” but we really have to deal with it…. Separation of church and state is an important safeguard for both the church and the state.

A group of nineteen U.S. Christian leaders — Protestant, Episcopalian, and Catholic — have put out a statement warning about the threat of “Christian nationalism” in the United States. They stress that Christian and American identities must remain separate to not distort “both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy.” Their strong concern, which I share, is that such a distortion as Christian nationalism wrongly suggests that to be a good American, one must be Christian and that to be a good Christian, one must be American.

“Conflating religious authority with political authority” the statement warns “is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minorities and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.” The complete statement is here:

Christians Against Christian Nationalism

As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy. Today, we are concerned about a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. We believe that:

* People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.

* Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.

* One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.

*Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

* Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.

* America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.

* Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.