There is a fine line between tonic and toxin and many Americans have crossed it during our climb from Puritan hardship to sententious abundance, perhaps most of all in our contemplation of God. What follows is not a harangue about religion and faith; I have neither the conviction nor explicatory skills of renowned atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Sam Harris. To me, neither theists nor atheists have made their case, my head and heart remain open to discovery. Whether religious or not, however, we Americans had better come to understand both the virtue and vice of our religiosity. Projected beyond the self, let alone beyond borders, piety creates predictable yet preventable disasters. And the final victim may be the stability of our republic.
As philosopher Robert Wright observes in his study, The Evolution of God, belief in the supernatural has been with us since primordial times, initially as a way “to explain why bad things happen … and offer a way to make things better.” Since then religion and faith have been expressed and reinterpreted in both monotheistic and polytheistic ways, but essentially fit within the definition offered by psychologist William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, as “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” The evolution of God in America has taken its own particular course, dominated by Christian sects and quite unfortunately without consistent regard to James’ concept of harmonious adjustment to an unseen order.
In 1630, just before arrival on the shores of what would later become the state of Massachusetts, John Winthrop gave a sermon of sorts to his shipload of anxious pilgrims aboard the Arbella. He borrowed from Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and offered both prescriptions and proscriptions. He said, “the Lord hath given us leave to draw our own Articles” and that “he ratified this Covenant and sealed our Commission [and] will expect a strikt performance of the Articles” that if neglected in any way would cause “the Lord [to] surely breake out in wrath against us” but if we set the example of His Word, “hee shall make us a prayse and glory… for we must Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.” Winthrop set the stage for what became a broad new interpretation of America that is alive and (too) well today. America was a new land that could set its own rules and, as long as Americans abided by them, and set the example of “His Word,” they would live as a “City upon a Hill” that the world would look to for guidance and inspiration. In Winthrop’s relatively few words, America became the new Israel, and Americans were God’s chosen people.
What followed was the development of a special American identity expressed in many new and different ways, from notions of “manifest destiny” to several presidential doctrines that all contemplate a role for America, divinely ordained, as the purveyor of Truth to the world about both seen and unseen order. In the process the world became America’s province. Meanwhile, religion ebbed and flowed to and from the political sphere in America through wars, so-called “great awakenings,” and other exigencies, becoming firmly ensconced in political discourse by the mid 1970s. Along the way, intoxicated by the certitude of evangelism and honed against the anvil of godless communism and modern-day terrorism, Americans neglected their own “Articles” and compliance with “His Word” and have exchanged the role of exemplar for zealot, sliding further still toward dispensing condemnations and even waging preventive war while caught in the mystical allure of the “City upon the Hill.” Today, the prospect of the Lord’s wrath Winthrop warned of has been reassigned to non-Americans and, moreover, non-believers. James’ notion of “harmonious adjustment” has been long forgotten.
The results of such zealotry now lay at our feet: a country that has lost much of its respect (and yes, power) around the world, and that is now attacking itself from within. The tonic of freedom our Founding Fathers fought so hard to preserve in both word and deed has been poisoned by the toxin of righteousness. Virtue has yielded to vice. What is called for now are the better religious values of humility, tolerance, and sacrifice; but what we hear from too many religious leaders, and by pols and pundits masquerading as theologically pure, is ever-increasing righteousness and venomous condemnations. It is upon this altar our republic will either be lost or renewed, but as columnist Lisa Miller recently pointed out in Newsweek, the religious right have hardened their resolve to make the elections in 2012 about “God’s own special country” and remain furious advocates of “fear and domination.”
I remain convinced that the next few years in America will prove as important as the first few some two hundred thirty years ago. The way we behave now, toward the world and each other—whether or not we corral the perversions of Christian nationalism—will largely determine the fate of the republic. As we gather this holiday season to celebrate our various traditions, family, and community, I would encourage each of us to address America’s God problem, summoning our better selves by setting aside bigotry and isolation in favor of tolerance and inclusion.