Speaking of God & country

Henry David Thoreau, the story goes, was once mooching Sunday dinner off old Ralph Waldo Emerson. The older man thought maybe he’d get his money’s worth of good conversation from the world’s most famous semi-hermit.

“Henry, what do you think about the hereafter?” the sage of Concord supposedly asked the Walden Pond wonder. “One world at a time,” answered Thoreau.

“Is that all you have to say?” his startled host exclaimed.

“No. Pass the salt,” grunted old Henry.

Old Henry had it about right. But, sadly, it is getting increasingly harder to separate religion from politics in this country.

And that is a very bad and dangerous thing. The whole point of America was to both have freedom of religion and freedom from religion, if you want to avoid it. The First Amendment, which also established freedom of the press, makes that crystal clear.

That means it shouldn’t matter what my religious views are, as long as I don’t interfere with your right to express yours. Personally, religion is one of the few things I am essentially neutral about. I have read all the major religious texts, found some passages that seemed meaningful and inspiring, and other parts that were less so.

I know many decent people who are inspired and gain solace and meaning from various religious traditions. Christianity, whatever else it has done, has helped us to standardize the calendar and see things in a historical perspective.

And whatever your views, it has been the dominant faith that has shaped our culture, leaving all of us with impossibly lofty standards for behavior, some worthy ideals, and large doses of guilt and confusion, especially, perhaps, about sexuality.

But to show my true colors, I must confess that religion doesn’t emotionally move or intellectually convince me. I am, in fact, an authentic secular humanist. I don’t believe in a personal God, much less one who tolerates Auschwitz and zaps teenage boys for masturbating, and I have no idea what happens after death.

Nor do I have any way of finding out. So I’m trying to grapple with, well, one world at a time, with an occasional hypocritical prayer on icy roads.

And to breach a taboo greater than shouting George Carlin’s seven dirty words on “Teletubbies”: I am willing to argue that religion mainly does harm in much of the world. Sorry, but I think the biggest evil in the world today is religious fundamentalism. Islam is the worst offender these days, but the Christians who blow up abortion clinics and intimidate women and shoot doctors are also to be despised.

There are millions, I’m sure, who will believe I will suffer eternal torments in hell for not Believing On The Lord Jesus, or accepting That There Is No God But Allah.

They may be right, but the whole point of being an American is to be able to pursue my follies unharmed until I reach room temperature. But even if you are favorably disposed to religion, you have to worry about its future in this country.

Fundamentalist, largely anti-intellectual and anti-tolerant churches are growing.

The, traditional, tolerant old main-line Protestant churches — Episcopals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. — have been losing members for decades.

Catholicism is doing better, but has taken a body blow from the sex scandals. All over Detroit, churches, some of them magnificent, are falling apart because the church can’t afford to maintain them.

Recently, I was in one of these, Martyrs of Uganda, on Rosa Parks Boulevard. When it was built in 1926, it was named St. Agnes, and served an almost exclusively Irish parish. Sometimes, more than a thousand people would crowd its pews. It has vast and wonderful stained glass windows and an impressive main altar.

But the roof needs replacing, and water damage is present everywhere. Once it had its own school in a sturdy brick building behind the church. But it is a ruin now. Father Tyrone Robinson, one of only five black priests in the city when he was ordained in 1979, told me he thought it would cost $800,000 to restore the interior of the church.

They can’t even imagine that kind of money. They can’t even pay the heating bill, and barely avoided having the gas shut off last year. Though Father Robinson says they still have a couple hundred members, sometimes there are only a few dozen at Mass.

During the worst of the winter, they don’t even try to heat the sanctuary, and hold services in a drab basement recreation hall. To a layman, it would seem unlikely that the church can stay open much longer, and a miracle vandals haven’t ruined the windows.

But the few faithful trudge gamely on, without funds except for those they generate themselves. There are crumbling churches like that all over the city. One wonders where Detroit’s grand old churches will be in another generation.

Incidentally, Roman Catholic tolerance is about to be again put to the test. Few realize it, but John F. Kerry will be the first Catholic presidential nominee since John F. Kennedy. The myth is that JFK’s election ended any problems for a Catholic candidate for president. The reality is that Kerry’s position on abortion is at odds with his church, and it will be interesting what kind of time his church gives him.

Whatever happens, both candidates are apt to dismayingly drag God into the campaign, spreading him into their speeches like mustard. They ought to take a cue from that other JFK, who in his inaugural address summed up the place religion should have in public life: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

Selah, and amen.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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