As the holiday season reaches a crescendo, let’s take a moment in the midst of assembled families and celebrations of faith to evaluate what religion means to us and, moreover, what we mean to religion. As my brief bio states, “I am non-aligned … I belong to no one party, religion, or ideology.” But, not ‘belonging’ doesn’t mean the trinity of head, heart and power doesn’t fascinate me, or that I don’t grant each their due respect. In fact, they are what I study every day. My doctoral research examines the effects of religious convictions on US foreign policy over the transom of presidential ideology. And, not ‘belonging’ allows me the advantage of indifference—my interpretations of the historical record and today’s events endure no predestination (sorry St. Augustine).
In the American experience, dominated by Christianity, three tenets emerged that inform much of our American identity. Individualism rose from the Protestant Reformation to grant the individual primacy over institutions. Rights became intrinsic to humans rather than bestowed by monarchs or churches. Perfectibility, or the belief that humans could make the world right in advance of a Second Coming gave us hope and a reason for the “pursuit of happiness.” And, exceptionalism rose from a belief first uttered by John Winthrop as his ship, the Arbella, approached the coast of modern-day Massachusetts, that “we shall be as a city upon a hill”—a chosen people in a promised land—the new Israel.
Each of these tenets has found expression in and out of the private, public, and political spheres. At times, they remain more or less dormant; at others, they seem prominent. They ebb and flow. Our American religious convictions remained away from the political sphere after they were shamed to the sidelines during the Scopes trial in 1925. They found new expression in the public sphere during the 1950s as a point of differentiation to ‘godless communism’ and as a center of socialization while the suburbanization of America got underway. Then, they entered the political sphere in the late 1950s and early 1960s, providing compelling arguments for civil rights and anti-war sentiments. By the late 1970s religion was completely ensconced in the political sphere providing a political whipping-post for casting social judgment and filling the coffers of televangelists. Finally, more recently, they have provided cover for the hubristic projection of power to remake the world in our own image.
These tenets can be both beneficial and/or dangerous depending on their application. They are double-edged swords. In their benign state—where each is pursued and expressed with both confidence and humility—they act separately and collectively to build stronger citizens and a cohesive, powerful, and compassionate nation. In the last thirty years or so, they have been twisted and torqued reaching a level of perversion that threatens the future of our country and those upon whom we project our power. Our individualism has morphed into narcissism, perfectibility into entitlement, and exceptionalism into hubris. Our national self-righteousness has been deluded by its first cousin—self-deception—producing a decade of deceit beyond the values of any religion, or the expectations of any god.
In this season of celebration and reflection allow me a personal appeal—my hope for you and America. May we set aside judgment in favor of service, choose reflection over projection, and turn our evangelical zeal inward—that we might be exemplars of our beliefs and convictions rather than agents of their demise. If we don’t take care of our head, heart, and power our souls may be lost forever.