The religious theme, if you can actually call it that, running through this ongoing presidential campaign, is revealing a worrisome truth. And that is that we have a lot of misguided thinking in this country about religion.
Many of our very religious sounding politicians today keep telling us what a dangerous threat Iran is to us. But what seems to be completely lost on them is that the government of Iran is a theocracy led by religious leaders who have made their sacred teachings the law of the land. And any violation of those teachings is strictly punishable by brutal and sometimes fatal consequences.
There is a cruel and shameful trail of abuse and horror throughout history when religion has attempted to control the lives of all people. Catholics, Christians, Muslims, and Jews have all contributed to those grim periods in history when people were victimized by obsessive and extremist religious beliefs and the leaders who demanded faithfulness to them.
The distinguished Supreme Court Justice, Harry A. Blackmun, who served for nearly three decades, once wrote: “When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”
A democratic nation defaults on its promised freedoms when it begins demanding of its people that they must follow certain religious beliefs and display certain religious conduct in order to belong in the society.
People can argue over the semantics of the idea of separation of church and state but the framers of the Constitution clearly intended the country to be free of religious tyranny. Article 6 specifically forbids any religious test for anyone seeking office.
The whole point of escaping England was to have the right to worship without government interference or intervention. Why then are so many politicians today eager to make religion a part of their campaigning? Do they think we really want our president and other elected officials to tell us what to believe, how to worship, and what we can and cannot do with our lives?
Isaac Backus was the most prominent Baptist minister in New England in 1773. He wrote, “When church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other; but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.”
Perhaps the worst problem with extremely religious politicians, or anyone for that matter, is the self-righteousness they display and the increasing demand that everyone else accept their beliefs or else be ridiculed or shamed as being less.
This behavior carries nothing of the true message of the Jesus of the New Testament or of the history we know about him outside the biblical text.
His was a life of simplicity. He wore authentic humility and it brought honor to his words. He opened his heart, his arms, and his care to the suffering, the hungry and poor, the sinner, the sick, to those no one else wanted anything to do with. He stood up to the forces of power in his time and undermined their bullying with his courage. He faced the ungracious and sanctimonious religious leaders of his day who mocked him and he shamed them with his acts of generosity, tolerance and love.
In contrast to that life I think of T.S. Eliot’s poem (adapted) that exposes the shallow religious hype of our day with his description of far too many of us:
“We are the hollow people
We are the stuffed people
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.”
Neither religion, nor democracy, nor freedom has any meaning if they are not offered as choices, if they are not fueled by tolerance, and if they are not lived with humility and gratitude.
© 2012 Timothy Moody