Personal Perspectives: Religion and Values in U.S. Society


August 23, 2019

Today some personal observations, because people have asked me. My area of research and university teaching for many years has been religion and values in American (U.S.) society. I have often thought that my fascination with religion in American culture and history springs from my family history and perhaps my “theological DNA.”

My paternal ancestors were immigrants to the United States long before it became the United States. My paternal grandfather’s family came from England. Arriving in 1684, they were Quakers from Chester, England. My paternal grandmother’s family arrived in the late seventeenth century. They were French Huguenots, escaping France after King Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, which made Protestantism illegal. My maternal ancestors were French and German speaking Roman Catholic immigrants from Alsace who arrived in the early nineteenth century.

With immigrant roots, I am indeed an authentic American. I am also an open-minded Roman Catholic, although some Catholics think I am really a Protestant. Although living abroad these days, because of my academic career, I remain a politically active American citizen, involved in discussion/action groups, voter registration, etc..

I do not belong to the religious right, where some of my friends are located. I respect them and they respect me. As I look at U.S. society today, however, I am alarmed that so many leaders of the religious right, who long claimed to be the champions of Christianity and American morality, appear to have gladly traded their values for a kind of theocratic power in support of a White House occupant who repeatedly demonstrates, by rhetoric and behavior, that he has no resonance with the moral vision and values of Jesus Christ.

So what do we say about American culture and its underlying values? I think right now about this month’s deadly shootings in El Paso and Dayton. So much racist and xenophobic violence. So many Americans fear lost identity and security. How they fill the gaps is important.

This week I have simply made a list of my observations and concerns. I am always interested, of course, in reader reactions.

(1) The U.S.A. is indeed a nation of immigrants, who have generally learned how to live and work together. This has been the genius of the American experience. That being said, however, it was not always easy. Right from the start, the country’s people had to deal with racism and xenophobia: fear of “Indians” our native Americans, fear and control of African slaves, prejudice and violence against Italians, against the Irish, against “papist” Catholics, and others. Today of course against Mexicans and other national groups.

(2) We need to acknowledge our historic faults and short-comings, learn from them, and move ahead. The good old days, in fact, were not always that great.

(3) As contemporary Americans (U.S. citizens) search for meaning, purpose, and security in their lives, many feel that the American Dream has by-passed them. In many respects this may be true; but it is too easy, and incorrect, to blame the situation on Mexicans and other foreigners.

A political administration with a humanitarian conscience, compassion, and a creative approach to social welfare can help a lot here.

(4) Many white skinned Americans feel that they are becoming a minority because of the rise of non-whites in U.S. society. Their rhetoric Is fueling a kind of violent white nationalism. Well…. we do have to acknowledge that the racial mix in U.S. society is changing greatly. It is a fact of life. It is not necessarily bad. Racial and ethnic diversity is part of who we are as Americans. By 2060, 44.29 % of the population will be White, 27.5 % Hispanic, 15% Black, and 9.1 % Asian. We need to learn how to live together in respectful collaboration and harmony. Churches can help here a lot.

(5) Right from the start, religion has been important for Americans. Most people know about the famous Christians who contributed to the making of America. (My ancestors among them.) The first Jewish settlers arrived in New Amsterdam (today’s New York) in 1654. By 1776 there were an estimated 2,000 Jewish people living in America. In Charleston, South Carolina, interesting enough, almost every adult Jewish male fought on the side of U.S. freedom. Islam in America? Many enslaved peoples brought to America from Africa were Muslims from the predominantly Muslim West African region. Current American statistics: About 70.6 % are Christian, 1.9 % are Jewish, and 0.9 % are Muslim.

(6) I cannot condone Christian leaders, like the well-known White House friend, Pastor Robert Jeffress, who proclaims that Satan is behind Roman Catholicism and that Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and gays are all destined for Hell.

(7) In the current presidential administration, far-right fundamentalist Christians (Protestant as well as Catholic) are working to turn the United States into a theocracy. A theocracy is the antithesis of a democracy. In a democracy, political authority comes from the consent of the governed. In a theocracy, authority comes directly from God. How does one vote the representative of God out of office? The answer, of course, is that you don’t. History shows, however, that theocracies end up being authoritarian dictatorships. Sometimes I fear America is moving toward an authoritarian dictatorship.

(8) Netflix’s new five-part series “The Family,” now streaming, explores an elite coalition of theocratic fundamentalist Christians who have enormous influence in contemporary American politics. This past week I read, in connection with the Netflix presentations, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power by Jeffrey Sharlett. He stresses in his book that the organization embellishes political power over people by comparing Jesus to Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and Bin Laden as examples of leaders who change the world through the strength of the covenants they established with their “brothers.” A bizarre Christianity to say the least. Bizarre politics as well.

(9) The Fellowship, also known as The Family, is best known for serving as the organizer of the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering of diplomats and world leaders in Washington, D.C. The core issue for The Fellowship is capitalism and power. It has connections with businessmen in the oil and aerospace industries, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the Department of Defense.

(10) We need to be very clear today. The politics of xenophobia, can only be pursued in contradiction to the Gospel. A truly humane culture welcomes the stranger, embraces the orphan, and heals the wounds of all who are our really neighbors. It does not promote a politics of cruelty and fear.

(11) As the Chicago-based scripture scholar, Donald Senior, (a doctoral graduate of my university) wrote recently, we need to “Speak truth to power….encouraging those who know the truth not to hesitate to proclaim it, even in the face of indifferent or oppressive power, such as government officials or heads of industry or, for that matter, religious leaders. It implies that often those in positions of power hide or distort the truth for their own purpose or to protect their institutions.”

From Moses, to the prophets, to Job, to Jesus, the Biblical message is on the side of the powerless. May we truly speak truth to power.

Take care. We can and will move forward.

Jack

P.S. I will be away from my computer during the Labor Day week end. Back in touch with you the week after that.

4 thoughts on “Personal Perspectives: Religion and Values in U.S. Society

  1. Dear Jack,
    As a much younger and more naive man, I thought/felt that my Christian/Catholic faith would guide me in all the moral decisions of my life which would also include political choices. The Vietnam war, abortion struggles, the social safety net, gay rights, etc. all seemed very clear in my head. I also thought that my fellow “Christians” were in agreement with my beliefs. It was also my innocent understanding that my mentors leading the Catholic church were strongly connected with “my values.” Needless to say, I am a much older, wiser, and more cynical person today than fifty years ago. My unquestioning belief that my “religion” is guiding me has been shattered. Religions, including the Catholic Church, I now know are in the hands of frail, sometimes uninspired, and vulnerable human beings. As Vatican II taught me, my conscience is the final arbiter in decisions that I make. Sadly, that sometimes conflicts with “official” rules or ecclesial dictates. Your wonderful analysis of the present state of our church/state relations greatly explains why so many of our young and not-so-young people are self-declared Nones, affiliated with no religion. As some wise person said, it is often Christians who give Christianity a bad name.

    Thanks, Jack, for spreading the Gospel.

    Peace,
    Frank Skeltis

  2. Thank you, Jack!
    It became clear to me, some time ago, that while the need to gather together for worship is strong, it is Jesus who draws us together and only that voice inside, which I know as His, is what leads me in life.

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