I. God as Effect in America (a)

February 13, 2015

As I seek to discuss God, Art, and the reasons why we do what we do in modern life I have to admit one guiding principle. In practical, grounded reality atheism doesn’t matter. What I mean is that one may passionately disbelieve in God; one may be actively anti-theistic convinced that belief in a “higher power” is destructive and be convinced that rationalism and science has completely disproved the notion of God–and it does not really matter in practical real-life terms. It doesn’t matter because people do believe in God and they act on those beliefs–for good, for ill, for neither. All of us living in the world today feel the presence of God as a reality whether we believe in God or not. I am not arguing that any particular deity is in fact existentially real, just that we feel the effects of God through the actions of individuals who act out their interpretation of God daily: subtly, passively, actively, aggressively. Forgive me if I sound pretentious, but something is only as real as its effects are and in the modern world despite every philosophy of “rationalism” the effects of God remain ever present.

Ultimately then, theology is about people and theology is a subject of importance to Jew, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Atheist alike. If theology tells us who God is and what God is by studying how individuals create and interpret God in daily life, what does theology tell us about God in America today? There are those who enact God in the voting booth, at city hall, in art and entertainment on a daily basis. Sometimes this is from a Jewish or Muslim perspective, often it is from an at least nominally Christian perspective. There is a public religion in America, a sort of blend between patriotism, soft-Catholicism, Evangelicalism, and some core principles from old-school Protestantism. It is this public religion we see most often in the media and in politics. The liberal mainline Christianity that informed the social gospel movement, New-Deal era politics,  and so much of the civil rights movement has slipped from public view in everything but the battle for marriage equality. Interestingly enough, in that arena mainstream Presbyterians, Episcopals, and various others are claiming a voice and presence they haven’t in decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this voice and action is curiously absent from most news reporting and uncommon knowledge in the conservative corners of the south and mid-west where churches of almost every denomination still view the battle for marriage equality as a direct assault on their religious principles.

Christianity in modern America is a very odd breed. From a historic perspective we as a nation invoke God publicly in the political realm more today than we ever did in our early days. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would never pass the scrutiny of voters who religiously field the validity of any candidate in part due to their religiosity. Yet for many even the actual religious commitment of a politician is only valid in so long as the actions of that politician line up with their own political preferences. Case in point, current President Obama has likely attended a Christian church far more often than the beloved conservative icon Ronald Reagan yet it’s the latter rather than the former considered truly “Christian.”

And if we are to believe the voices of American religion in recent years what God wants is less taxes, no universal healthcare, and the ushering in of a new libertarian market-driven age. Caring for the sick and poor, those things that seemed so important to Jesus, are to be relegated to private charitable giving (of which constitutes roughly 2% of the income of those 67% of households who contribute to churches or charities, far less than could ever address the needs of today’s poor). All of which I say, at least this time, not for any political argumentation but really just as food for thought and a prompt question. If modern American “public religion” is rooted in equal-parts  an almost fundamentalist reverence for the constitution  and Christianity how do we reconcile the chasm of difference between those sources and the expressions and actions of modern voices claiming God in the public sphere? If the constitution was framed by deists and free-thinkers who placed a healthy distance between government and religion and if Christianity, the movement started by Jewish followers of Jesus of Galilee whom they believed to be God’s Messiah, was centrally focused on active non-violence as well as service and healing to the sick and the poor and lived out in a community of shared resources, how in the world do today’s invokers of God in the public arena so often claim America must be organized on Christian principles which include free-market capitalism and a pull-yourself up by your bootstraps rugged individualism? Perhaps this is just the result of what process theology claims–that God evolves, changes, and grows. If so, this is a scary growth period for the primal force of the universe.

I realize one who is religious and opposed to this religious caricature will argue that this is just the case of a large group misrepresenting God. It is certainly presumptuous of any us to speak for God, but in this series I am studying God as an effect and we can only know an effect by the results we see in the world. In this case. people vote, argue, include, exclude, welcome, persecute, and financially support causes based on their stated interpretation of God. All of these considerations dovetail with an examination of secular humanism as I ponder whether it can inspire action in the same way that religious belief can. There are those from every tradition that stridently believe one must ground any religious belief in some sort of text to blueprint and prevent a development like the one just mentioned. Yet this group who speak and enact God in American discourse today are often those that claim the strongest tie to their text-source; yet after years of studying the Bible myself I see no grounding for free-market capitalism therein. Religion can help, religion can kill. By abandoning aspects  of tradition that emphasize utmost concern for the poor in favor of an ideology that views basic health and survival needs as privileges rather than rights is almost as disturbing as the many extremist parties who pervert their creeds to violent ends. Both theologies kill, just one is more subtle and socially acceptable.

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One Response to “I. God as Effect in America (a)”

  1. […] Last time I talked about God as an Effect in modern America. This time I’m broadening the topic to discuss God as an Effect in a Nation, period. If, as I suggested, we only know something by its effect and are therefore experiencing God in the public sphere on a daily basis whether we “believe” in God or not simply because a majority of our population acts at least on occasion on the premise that God exists and is an influence on their behavior, then we get a sense of God as an expression of the people. Last time I mentioned how much in contrast the modern “public religion” version of God in America differs from the alleged source and inspiration for this God. Therefore, one could very well argue that America’s God  bears some resemblance to Its scriptural and historical inspiration but is  markedly different than the God of the early Christian church. This God is a nation’s God; patriotism is clearly in the mix as modern Americans simultaneously praise “God and Country,” ask fervently that God “Bless America” (and often imply “and no one else”), and pray in public politics. Certainly this is not new; this has been a gradual development with peaks and valleys and at least some such praise is expressed merely as “lip service” to constituents and believers. Yet if something only exists as it has an effect, this is a real “God” that we see acting in American politics. There is a Christian precedent for this God; “Queen and Country” and the Church of England; nation-churches throughout Europe; and of course Constantine’s Christian Empire. All of these examples differ drastically from the early Christian church and the historical Jesus of  course, both of which worked in spite of  nation and often in contrast to nation. The “Kingdom of God” certainly wasn’t an allusion to the then current Roman empire. Yet perhaps this expression was a rupture from the “normal” evolution of nation and God. Another similar rupture would have to be Siddhartha and the early Buddhists as a king renounced the kingdom for a higher path. If we trace the evolution of Western religious theism, the earliest examples we have to study are the Greeks. The Greeks celebrated a pantheon of gods–gods who were exaggerated humans with emotions, whims, and often nefarious plans. Worship of the gods was intrinsically tied up with celebrating the state which was the sole purpose of individual life. These aspects of worship were amplified in the Classical Roman religious expressions when worship at the temple and prayers to the gods and the emperor were the focus of public morale and societal participation. Greek gods and Roman gods and the worship thereof were tied up with national identity inseparably. […]

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