Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Christian Nation

In January of this year, while speaking at a luncheon of a religious organization, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court asserted that the First Amendment right of religious freedom applied only to Christians, and did not apply to Buddhists and Muslims, noting that "they didn't bring the Koran over on the pilgrim ship."

This is probably an extreme example of one of the conceits of the religious right, which is that the United States was founded by Christians for Christians, and that our laws and policies should be based on the Christian faith.  However, like many beliefs of the religious right, it is based purely on wishful thinking with no basis in historical fact.

It's true that "In God we Trust" is the official motto of the United States, but that was only adopted in 1956.  The phrase did not appear on any money until 1864.

The Pledge of Allegiance as it was composed in 1892 and adopted by Congress in 1942 did not contain the phrase "under God."  That phrase was added by Congress in 1954.

Most significant is that in 1797, just seven years after the Constitution of the United States was ratified, the Senate unanimously ratifed, and President John Adams signed, a treaty with Tripoli which contained the following Article 11:
Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
 The apparent purpose of this article 11 was to assure Muslim nations that United States had no intention of engaging in any religious wars and that there was no reason why the United States would not peacefully co-exist with Muslim nations.

Which is quite a contrast to the rhetoric that is often heard from the right, many of whom might be described as Islamaphobic.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


I recently read a suggestion that people who go to church only on Christmas and Easter should be called "Chreasters" and not "Christians."

There's a certain amount of humor in that, but to me, also a certain amount of sadness.

When I was a Presbyterian, I grew to dislike Christmas and Easter services, because they were always too much.  Too many people, too many flowers, too many hymns or anthems, and too many words in the sermons.

And the sermons were almost always boring.  After all, how can you explain the inexplicable?  Births and deaths are the great joys and sorrows in life, and also the great mysteries.  We don't know where we came from, or where we're going.  So, after you've said, "Jesus is born!" or "Christ is risen!", you've pretty much said it all.

So I feel a sadness for people who think of Christianity as the flowers and songs and hoopla that are Christmas and Easter, and miss everything in between.  They focus on the birth and the death, and don't hear about the things that Jesus said while he was living.  Which is a shame, because Jesus said some very interesting things.

The emphasis on the birth and death of Jesus is also paradoxical when you consider that Jesus came to be regarded as the Savior or Messiah because of his teachings, and yet his teachings have nothing to do with his birth or death.  As I've pointed out before, the "Christmas story" appears in only two of the four gospels, so two of the gospels considered the circumstances of Jesus's birth to be so unimportant as to be not worth mentioning.  And the stories that are told in Matthew and Luke conflict with each other.  But not even the authors of Matthew and Luke went so far as to claim that Jesus ever said anything about his own birth.  So there is a narrative disconnect between the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and the telling of the ministry of Jesus.

In the gospels, Jesus also says very little about his own death and resurrection.  Obviously, they hadn't happened yet, but if the great message of Jesus was to be his death and resurrection, you'd think he'd have laid the groundwork a little better.  Instead, the teachings and parables of Jesus seem to be about living, and not about a life after death.

Yes, you can find some passages in which Jesus seems to be talking about his resurrection, or is reported to be talking about is resurrection.  For example, look at Mark 8:31-32:
"The he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be reject by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly."
And that's it.  The author of Mark claims that Jesus talked about his death and resurrection, but couldn't report what Jesus actually said.  Which is weird.

There are similar passages at Mark 9:30-32 and Mark 10:32-34.  Very abrupt, very conclusory, and not connected with any parables or other teachings.  Jesus is reported to have explained what was going to happen, but not why.  Which seems to have been very short-sighted of Him.

What we "know" about the "why" of the resurrection we learn from the writings of Paul, and not the sayings of Jesus.  Indeed, much of what we call "Christianity" is based on the teachings of Paul and not Jesus.

But I digress.

So, when I was a Presbyterian, my favorite Sundays were the Sundays when nothing was happening.  On a rainy Sunday in October, you could enjoy a quiet, simple service, with a thoughtful sermon about the nature of forgiveness, or what it means to love our neighbors, or why we should love our enemies.  Things that might actually affect our lives, or at least how we think about our lives.

Which is probably why I'm now Quaker, because that's what most meetings for worship are like.  We don't have songs or sermons or responsive readings, so there's even less going on than in my stereotypical Presbyterian service in October when nothing was happening.   A Quaker service is just time for quiet prayer and reflection, and there are often thoughtful messages about forgiveness or love or how we think about our lives.

Not at all what a Chreaster would want.