America’s God Problem

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.”[1]  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.”[2]  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.[3]

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.”[4]  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.[5]  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.”[6]

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.

[1] Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (New York: Little Brown & Co., 2009), p. 27.
[2] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Press, 1982), p. 53.  (The original publication date is 1902.)
[3] I recognize, as Robert Wright did, that the mere suggestion of evolution and God in the same sentence, let alone the “evolution of God,” would seem heretical to many.  So be it.  The historical record is all anyone needs to demonstrate the gradual and certain variance that develops into seemingly new cognitive iterations of God over time. The most historical Christian document, the Bible, was written in many languages by many people at different times and has contributed mightily to the evolutionary dynamism of God.
[4] John Winthrop in Conrad Cherry, (ed.), God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), p. 40.  For more of Winthrop’s writings see his Modell of Christian Charity in volume II of his works at The Massachusetts Historical Society, www.
[5] Among the more important so-called presidential doctrines are the Monroe doctrine, which began as a hemispheric caution to the Europeans; then the Teddy Roosevelt ‘corollary’ that gave Monroe’s concept an expanded imperial tone; then the Truman doctrine that was directed principally at the Middle East; then the Reagan Doctrine that addresses essentially the entire world; and, more recently, the Bush doctrine that promulgated preventive war.
[6] Lisa Miller, “One Nation Under God,” Newsweek, December 9, 2010,
By |2017-05-27T18:30:45+00:00December 13th, 2010|American Identity, General|0 Comments

The Caffeine Debate

Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw warned, “Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”  Accepting his thesis requires an assessment of our individual and collective effort to deserve better; or, at least better than we currently endure.  Historian and editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, echoed these sentiments recently when he argued the “broad indictment of the capital and its culture too often fails to include government’s co-conspirators: We the People.”  Two responses to this challenge have formed over the last year, both populist but otherwise diametric opposites: the Tea Party (, and the Coffee Party (

Most of us have heard about the Tea Party, although a little research suggests we have to be careful to ask, which tea party? requires strict compliance with their “non-negotiable core beliefs” that include to “honor God” while condemning illegal aliens, belief in a strong military and the sanctity of gun ownership, together with strict fiscal limits on a government that “must be downsized.”  Tea Party ‘Patriots’ appear to be a bit more benign—frankly less threatening and more populist.  Their mission is “to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”  While differences certainly exist in those who adopt the Tea Party flag, their ideology and cultural profile are not. They are right, white, Christian, and armed.  They believe in American exceptionalism-cum-triumphalism and prefer walls to bridges where free markets are where only American products are available for sale.  They are angry and ready to fight anyone who differs in either appearance or ideology.

More recently, another movement has formed, equally populist and committed to saving America, but their approach is collaborative rather than combative.  The Coffee Party was formed by Anabelle Park, a Korean immigrant and documentary filmmaker from Washington D.C. Their mission is:

To give voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government. We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans. As voters and grassroots volunteers, we will support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.

They don’t want to throw all the rascals out, just bring them to heel.  Unlike their tea party counterparts, they include all ethnicities, religions, and age groups, and most probably don’t even know how to load a gun. They are the ‘brains over brawn’ bunch.  And, curiously, they smile in their photographs. No growling here.

Both parties seem to acknowledge Shaw’s warning; they just have very different ideas about getting the government they deserve.  Both are emblematic of American’s growing disdain for all-things-Washington. One conservative, interested in re-establishing the mythic of a muscular Norman Rockwell America, while the other aims to reinvent America in the image of an Obama election night party.  It is unclear which will have the largest, if any, impact.  Tea has the early lead and loudest presence, but Coffee might attract more with a more inclusive and less angry platform. Coffee appears to have a greater grasp of organic networks and the nuance of political progress.  Whichever group proves more effective, one thing is for sure: Americans are no longer willing to sit back and take it.  Hooray for caffeine.

By |2017-05-25T22:19:34+00:00March 1st, 2010|General|0 Comments

A Christmas Message

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.

By |2017-05-27T15:49:02+00:00December 24th, 2009|General|0 Comments

Celebrating Crisis

White Windsor collars on crisp colored shirts, banded by Hermes cravats and striped suspenders, offered the mousse-laden coif of Gordon Gekko an air of elite credibility as he unabashedly granted greed the seal of morality twenty years ago, “Greed is good!”  Today, while the sequel to Wall Street is in production, our sense of what is good is changing, at least on Main Street.  The rest of the world is learning—slowly and painfully—that crisis is good too, even as the mantra of greed continues its reign of primacy in the shadow of Trinity Church in downtown New York.  As Goldman Sachs conjures a new bubble-market to inflate and exploit, crisis brings hope in the most unlikely places.

In the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, which was demolished and left as rubble by the many government agencies who swore to rebuild it, crisis offers a vacuum of opportunity.  Wayne Curtis reports (The Atlantic, November 2009) “New Orleans is seeing an unexpected boom in architectural experimentation.”  In the Lower Ninth the new dream homes are also green. Simple, yet high design is combined with solar power to make the electric meter “run backwards” and building materials are reclaimed from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. If the Corp of Engineers does their job re-building the levy (for real this time), what had become a cesspool in the Lower Ninth Ward will be one of the most advanced new neighborhoods in America.

Then there’s the case of ‘biochar.’  While Al Gore promotes environmental apocalypse (justified by his own Hobbesian view of brutish man) and is challenged by less vocal but brilliant scientists like Princeton’s Dr. Freeman Dyson, the nearly unknown Danny Day is busy solving the problem beyond the hue and cry of politicized climate change.  Mr. Day is founder and president of Eprida (  Eprida applies old technologies first used by indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin to convert biomass to build  “sustainable food and energy production.”  Biological charcoal (‘biochar’) is made from organic waste that keeps harmful carbons ‘locked-in’ providing a new form of highly effective organic fertilizer and storage of harmful carbon for many millennia. Clean up the air while increasing crop yields—a two-for-one piece of creative elegance.

Finally, while our elected leaders wrestle with their temperamental paramours in the health insurance and pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Jay Parkinson is executing his own healthcare reform by renegotiating the relationship between patient and healthcare provider. At, the patient manages his or her healthcare where they can find a physician, schedule an appointment, handle simple visits online, and manage their prescriptions and medical records. HelloHealth utilizes a combination of health savings accounts and catastrophic insurance to provide coverage, while reducing the enormous waste of time and paper associated with most patient/physician interactions.  Many of the appointments are completed online using instant messaging with the patient’s records in front of the physician as digital files.  The only thing missing are all the tattered back-issues of People magazine in the waiting room full of wheezing patients.

If these three cases suggest anything it is that crisis may indeed be as good, or better, than Gekko’s greed.  Americans have an uncanny capacity to experiment, innovate, and prevail. Maybe, just maybe, this crisis will prove really, really good.

By |2017-05-27T16:16:04+00:00November 16th, 2009|General|0 Comments
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