The word religion literally means ‘to re-connect,’ yet religion is too often the most divisive word in the human lexicon, separating groups of people from one another, dividing families, and often, in the deepest sense, dividing a person internally, separating the rational mind from the emotional.
Religious divisiveness is nothing new. The most ferocious, bloody wars and horrendous persecutions have been perpetrated in the name of God. Historians who tell the story of the founding of our own country say that religion was the most divisive issue of the day, and in some ways it remains so today.
Examples abound. I had one this week.
Last Monday evening I officiated at a memorial service for Watts Wacker’s father. The service was held in the brand-new church building of a small congregation of Unitarian Universalists in New Braunfels, Texas. (Comal County UU Society) They held their opening service the day before, but they don’t have a minister, so the memorial service was the first clergy-led event held in their new building.
I had chance to talk at some length to Thelma, a woman in her 80’s, who is clearly the matriarch, who helped start the fellowship in 1995. I sat with her and one of the other members at the reception following the memorial service and they told me what ‘prompted’ their decision to build their own church.
They explained that they had been meeting at the local senior center and a few years ago one of their lay leaders announced a Sunday-morning talk on the relationship between Halloween and Wicca. Someone at the senior center did some research and learned that Wicca is associated with Paganism, a nature-oriented religion; that it was not Christian.
The folks at the senior center notified the Unitarian group that they would not be allowed to hold their meeting the following Sunday. Thelma said they decided to meet at her house, as they had done before renting space at the senior center, and to add insult to injury, they put a padlock on the door of the senior center.
“That did it!” she said, assertively, with her Texas drawl.
We’re reminded on a daily basis why Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute to keep the state out of the faith business, and to keep religion out of the state’s business. But it’s important to be reminded from time to time, not just as a matter of history, but some warn about the effort to turn our own nation into a theocracy.
Jefferson was what we would call a religious liberal. He’s best known for the separation of church and state, but he’s also known for creating what we call the Jefferson Bible; also known as the The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jefferson was a self-declared and self-described Unitarian; he considered himself to be a ‘true Christian,’ which he defined as one who followed the teachings of Jesus, the morals of Jesus; locates Jesus in Nazareth, an earthly address, to humanize him…denying that he was born in a miraculous manner, or at least any more miraculous than your birth or mine.
Steven Waldman, editor in chief of Beliefnet.com, in his recent book, Founding Faith, tells a story of Jefferson receiving a gift of a 1,235-pound cheese, designated just for him, when he was in the White House. It was, Waldman says, the work of nine hundred cows, and it measured four feet in diameter and seventeen inches in height. Painted on the red crust was the inscription: REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.
The important and interesting this is that this gift did not come from the Unitarians, who were not yet organized as a separate religious body in 1802 when the cheese arrived, but from an Evangelical Baptist Church in western Massachusetts.
Just a year or so earlier Jefferson had been attacked as an infidel and as an atheist. John Adams had political advisers in the campaign of 1800 who used negative campaigning techniques, saying that Jefferson was opposed to religion altogether, and they used a quote from Jefferson to press the point in which he said, “… it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
A Federalist newspaper suggested the people had a choice: “God—and a religious president, (Adams) or Jefferson, and no God.” (It’s interesting that both described themselves as Unitarians, and their differences strengthen one of our most important notions, that we can disagree – as the Universalist minister Hosea Ballou said, “Where there is love, no disagreement can do us harm; where there is not love, no agreement will do us any good.”
The evangelical Baptist minister responsible for the gift of cheese to Jefferson, John Leland, was the Jerry Falwell of his day. Jefferson became a hero of the Christian right of his day, not because of his religious beliefs, to be sure, but because he believed in the separation of church and state – he believed in religious freedom, and Baptists had been persecuted for their beliefs. It wasn’t only the religious liberals, or the anti-religious (secular) folks who appreciated that wall of separation, but anyone who had concern about having religion or religious doctrines imposed on them; anyone who knew that they could be locked out of the senior center, or the center of government as a punishment for their religious views.
(Ten of the original thirteen colonies banned Catholics from voting or holding office.)
Waldman writes: “Baptists believed that state-supported religion violated Jesus’s teachings and they deeply appreciated Jefferson’s efforts to keep government and religion far apart.”
There has been an effort in recent years to prove that the founders of this nation were Christians who intended their creation to be a Christian nation, specifically and exclusively, and that they were against the separation of church and state.
Jerry Falwell said, “Any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation.”
Today religious liberals feel the need to prove that the faith of the founders was not Christian –suggesting, for example, that they were all deists, who believed in one god at the most, and if there was a god he did the work of creation and then quickly left town, never to be seen or heard from again; the clock maker who made it, wound it and left.
Waldman refers to the debate about the true faith of the founders as an ongoing ‘custody battle’ between the religious right and liberals or secularists. He says, essentially, that both sides are wrong, or that they miss the most important point.
Those who were in favor of religion, and conservative or evangelical religion at that, were not against the separation of church and state — quite the contrary. They were as concerned about the imposition of religion on them or the imposition of creeds, as the liberals were and are today. Like our Unitarian Universalist friends in New Braunfels, they were concerned that their speech would be censored, that the doors of freedom would be padlocked!
Those who promoted the separation of church and state were not opposed to religion or against God. They were opposed to tyranny in the name of religion. We take religious liberty for granted today, but we have the responsibility to preserve and protect that liberty just as our founders were. It’s important to understand how that liberty came about, and to understand and appreciate the fact that we are the most religiously diverse nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth.
Religious liberty is at the heart of all our freedoms. It’s about what the founders liked to call ‘freedom of conscience,’ and the freedom to speak what you think…it relates to all the freedoms in the Bill of Rights.
Waldman attempts to tell the real story of how this important freedom came about, not only to understand how freedom of religion came about, but how this nation came about.
He points out that America was settled by ‘people who wanted rule of one religious denomination over others.’
He asserts that ‘the founders were rebelling against the religious tyranny they saw among their colonial neighbors.’
There’s a notion that the founders were deists, but Waldman points out that very few of the founders were deists—the theological notion that God created the world then left it to its own devices and doesn’t intervene or interfere with the natural processes. Most of the founders believed that God intervenes in the affairs of humans and can be relied on to help in times of need. Washington made this a big point, telling his soldiers to be nice and talk nice or God would get angry and let the other guys win.
Most of the founders were not devout Christians – they disliked a lot of things about organized Christianity, they disliked and were highly suspicious of the clergy and the clergy’s wish to have control over others with a narrow theology; they especially despised the Calvinist notion of predestination and election as opposed to the need to win God’s favor by good works.
Religion was a huge factor in the American Revolution, but Waldman says that the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation is wrong. He writes, “North America was settled as a Christian realm, and many states did promote Christianity even after the nation’s founding, but the United States of America was not established as a ‘Christian nation.’”
He points out that the First Amendment was not designed to separate church and state throughout the land: the founders only intended it to apply to the federal government, not the local governments that regulate schools courthouses and the town square.
Indeed, most of the colonies were established to promote a particular brand of religion or a particular denomination, with some brutal results. Quakers, for example, were hanged on Boston Common; Catholics were accused of being in league with Satan.
It is misleading to speak of the faith of the Founding Fathers, as if they were in agreement. They weren’t, except for one thing – that there should be freedom of religion, and freedom from religion…freedom from the imposition of any particular religion.
Washington took his responsibility as the first president of the new nation very seriously, and it seems that he personal religious views and sentiments differed, somewhat, from his public expressions. An inventory of his library at Mount Vernon in 1783 – he didn’t own a Bible; those that came to his library, later, ‘appear to be presidential gifts.’
The question of a politician’s personal religious beliefs is often confused with their public expressions of piety.
Washington, for example, is often referred to as a Deist, yet he expressed his belief that God intervenes in history, and did, he said, intervene in the Revolutionary War. He ‘ascribed many battle successes to God and beseeched the troops to attend worship in order to draw the ‘smiles of Providence,’ as he put it.
Following battle victories at Saratoga and Montreal, he thanked God for his interventions. When he was praised for battle victories he said that his efforts were the result of “the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.”
He expressed, publicly, his belief that God could be influenced by the prayers of his soldiers and citizens, as well as by their behavior.
Yet, the historian Brooke Allen says, “Religion seems to have played a remarkably small role in his own (personal) life.”
The portrait Waldman paints of Washington is bound to disappoint the religious fundamentalists who want us to believe that the founders were exclusively Christian, in their modern sense of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.
But that same portrait disappoints those of us who prefer the painting of a secularist, one who was openly critical of the religion of his day and wanted to avoid it in ours.
What is clear, however, is that he believed in religious tolerance: ‘a sense of tolerance that would have a profound impact on the evolution of religious freedom.’
“James Madison’s view was that Washington was spiritual but not interested in the theological particulars of the Christian faith.”
There’s nothing new or modern about saying that one is ‘spiritual but not religious.’
In some sense, spirituality is highly personal while being ‘religious’ is public piety.
Waldman asks, “Was Washington a ‘good Christian?’ He answers his own question: “By the definition of Christianity offered by contemporary liberal Christians, he would pass muster. He believed in God, attended church, endorsed the golden rule, and valued the behavioral benefits of religion. More conservative Christians, however, generally believe that being a good Christian means accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior and the Bible as God’s revelation. By those standards—those of twenty-first century conservative evangelical Christianity—Washington was not Christian.”
Waldman continues: “Still, he wasn’t a Deist either. He believed in an omnipotent and constantly intervening God—one who seemed to protect the nation as a whole and him in particular.”
Later we’ll look at the religious beliefs of some of the other founders: self-described Unitarians John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and others who had a significant influence at the founding and ‘foundation’ of the country — Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison.
It’s clear that they had minds of their own – the faiths of the founders were different from one another, and I trust that the faith of each of the founders had its own evolution; how could a person who is engaged in life remain constant in his or her beliefs?
Though they would not be surprised to see the way religion continues to be inserted into the political process, I think they would be disappointed that it is used to divide rather than unite us.
Thank God for the wall of separation!
We are certainly thankful for the religious freedom we enjoy and for the men and women who sacrificed so much to protect and to preserve that freedom.
We’re thankful to our nation’s founders for their faith in freedom; and we’re thankful for those whose courage and passion built our Unitarian Universalist faith that allows us to develop spiritual lives without being encumbered by creedal or doctrinal statements, and to those who keep working at it, at this place in particular – it’s the one we know most intimately…for the work, the dedication that keeps our doors open and keeps our hearts open.
It’s appropriate on this Memorial Day weekend to remember those who have paved the way for us, whose vision built this sanctuary and whose ongoing inspiration continues to vibrate in the temple of the heart, the ultimate sacred place which is both personal in the most ultimate sense, and is the glue that brings us together and holds us together as we continue to pave the way for those who will follow.
“Religious freedom is American religion.” Forrest Church
Freedom of religion, and freedom from having religion imposed on us, is the water in which we swim – the free mind is the filter we need to breathe, like the gills the fish uses to get needed oxygen…
We take the water of freedom for granted. The last thing a fish discovers is water, and then it’s too late.
Religious freedom is a political issue, and always a hot potato during political campaigns; witness the criticism that Barack Obama and John McCain are experiencing today.
Religious freedom is also a personal issue for each of us – how free are you? What inhibits or even prevents you from having a greater degree of religious freedom? Anger…at old religious teachings or experiences? Fear…of the unknown; fear of the god of your childhood? Prejudice prevents freedom. Resentments prevent freedom. The fear of freedom prevents freedom.
We’re here to deepen our spiritual lives; we benefit from the information, inspiration and provocations we get from one another…here.
We’ll close with a Memorial day poem:
When I’m Gone, Mrs. Lyman Hancock
When I come to the end of my journey
And I travel my last weary mile,
Just forget if you can, that I ever frowned
And remember only the smile.
Forget unkind words I have spoken;
Remember some good I have done.
Forget that I ever had heartache
And remember I’ve had loads of fun.
Forget that I’ve stumbled and blundered
And sometimes fell by the way.
Remember I have fought some hard battles
And won, ere the close of the day.
Then forget to grieve for my going,
I would not have you sad for a day,
But in summer just gather some flowers
And remember the place where I lay,
And come in the shade of evening
When the sun paints the sky in the west
Stand for a few moments beside me
And remember only my best.