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A Yankee Notebook

December 5, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – It happens at the end of every year, but especially this year, with the lunacy of the two-year-long Presidential campaign upon us, the media-stimulated shopping frenzy that began with Thanksgiving, and Christ’s birthday almost here. Who, I wonder, are we? What can that mean? And how in the world can we wrap those things together into one bundle?

By “we” I mean the United States, graphically divided though we currently may be by colored maps portraying, like mood rings, our ideological leanings. We were founded and organized by a congress of classically educated, cautious, yet bold and disputatious deists; but our nation seems, over 200 years later, to have floundered off in a thousand different directions.

The motto on our currency declares that in God we trust; yet our treasure goes to our ever-more-powerful military. Our Constitution guarantees that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” But you’d have to have been living under a rock not to appreciate the influence of evangelical lobbies upon the religiosity of political candidates. Michael Kinsley, in a recent op-ed piece, mentions a lament by Roman Catholic bishops that rising secularism threatens organized religion, which fears marginalization and disenfranchisement. The real disenfranchisement, Kinsley argues, is of would-be candidates who happen to be atheists; they’d never pass the informal religious vetting by the voters.

Salmon P. Chase, a New Hampshire native, Dartmouth graduate, abolitionist, Treasury Secretary, and minor hero of mine, got the ball rolling for the in-God-we-trust motto on currency during the mid-1860s. Since then, it has progressed from coins to paper currency, and in 1956, to status as the nation’s official motto. Its biggest steps toward legitimacy have occurred during periods of national anxiety and paranoia – the latest the great Red Scare of the 1960s. (Chase might be bemused to see how, in the current ideological clashes, his natal state seems to have forsaken the Almighty in favor of “In guns we trust.”)

A strong majority of Americans, however, agrees with Chase’s motto. “Yes,” their accedence seems to say, “we do indeed trust in God.” Sixty-two per cent currently go on to conflate an official trust in God with the belief that ours is therefore a “Christian nation.” This opens such a can of theological worms, it’s amazing our nation has survived this long. If it weren’t for the dead weight and neutralizing effects of atheists, agnostics, no particular faithers, N/As, MYOBs, and Who-cares? holding the crew together, the faithful on the ship of state would have strangled or thrown each other overboard long before now.

I have the good fortune to belong to one of the most liberal of Protestant faiths. Over the years we’ve changed, slowly moving away from our Establishment roots and becoming ever more inclusive as a matter of principle. Every time we advance a new standard – civil and voting rights, women clergy and bishops, homosexual clergy and bishops, absolute inclusiveness – we shed members who can’t countenance the changes, and pick up even more from the newly included. Our African brother churches have revolted over the issue of gay clergy and marriage, but we still send them about a third of their financial support. Other congregations here in the States have left the main body over the same issues; but ever the episcopalians (look it up), have gone shopping for their own bishops among the similarly disgruntled. We liberals are, as they say, cool with that. Like Martin Luther long ago, we stand where we have to, based on our understanding.

It’s a calamity for rational discourse that the term, “liberal,” has become a political one, and further, a derogatory one. It’s actually a philosophical point of view that stands ready to consider as openly as possible new information and ideas, even if they challenge or seem to refute what was previously believed or thought. Heliocentrism is a perfect, if ancient, example. The old cultural taboo of homosexuality, for another, is as deeply a part of the American Puritan psyche as any could be. Its defenders routinely rush to the Old Testament for authority. But others, aware of the pain and isolation suffered by fellow citizens who’ve had to conceal their orientation, sometimes to preserve their very lives, ask themselves the question that, unfortunately, has become fodder for late-night comedians: What would Jesus do?

It’s an easy question to answer, because, if his biography is to be believed, we know very well what he did, and what he said. He spent a majority of his time with the dispossessed and outcast, challenging the conventions and theologians of his time. He was the most inclusive of teachers ever, and stipulated no prerequisite for joining his movement. As C.S. Lewis wrote many centuries later, “The Church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of its nonmembers.”

There seems to be a growing feeling in our republic that too much power and wealth have become concentrated in large institutions. I hear also a growing selfishness among those of us who enjoy – usually without desert – the benefits of citizenship. This must raise the question: Is the United States the Christian nation most of its citizens claim it to be? Is no one wondering if our diminishing civil liberties, in the name of security, are the victims of faithless fears, rather than rational thought? Must we really break up or send home the thousands of families who came here – like Mary and Joseph to Egypt – to escape oppression, fear, and poverty? Is that who we are?

Zenith Radio once had a motto we might adopt when describing our nation: The quality goes in before the name goes on. What quality do we want to be remembered by?

Photo by Willem lange