The Current Political Season and Organized Religion(s)


Contrary to the pious wishes of some devout believers, our American nation was not established as a Christian nation. Ample studies show that the Founding Fathers were mainly Deists and had a fear of organized churches, especially if one would try to dominate and impose itself upon others of differing faiths. John Adams wrote clearly that “the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on Christian religion.”

There is not a mention of the name of God in our four basic documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution. We are of secular origins. There are clauses which proscribe any testing of religious beliefs for holding public office. We are free equally to practice any religion without government interference, as well as be free to practice no religion! The phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared on coins in 1861 during the Civil War. Only in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, did “under God” get adopted in the Pledge of Allegiance and in 1956 did Congress adopted it as national motto.

Strangely enough the US is one of the most religious of all modern nations in terms of its citizens. Even if the number among younger persons has fallen somewhat recently, a great number still say that religion plays a very important role in their lives. We see the cultural presence in our idea of confession and forgiveness, in the 12 Steps of A.A., and our public condemnation of popular figures like Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong and Bill Cosby. At the time, being divorced almost cost Ronald Reagan a shot at the presidency. We frown upon the sexual escapes of JFK, LBJ and Bill Clinton while in the Oval Office.

More and more people are coming to the realization that one’s character influences the decisions and actions, the judgments and world view that he or she will adopt. It does make a difference in what he or she believes. What are his or her basic philosophical underpinning? While it is generally true that we do not worry about the moral fiber of the mechanic who works on our car, the surgeon who operates on us or the computer expert who keeps us on line, it is a different story when we talk about those who run a nation and have such an sway over our daily lives.

Isn’t it useful to question and examine what makes a candidate tick, using also the light of basic, universal religious principles, using no sectarian religious testing? Can’t these moral principles which organized religions have been orientating people for millenniums have anything useful or important to say during our electoral season? On how we vote?

If we insist that they stay in the sacristy, aren’t we ignoring ancient wisdom and insights into human nature by refusing to listen to those universal principles: on how to live together in one brotherhood, about respect and tolerance, of forgiveness or mercy, clemency, tolerance, being open to others, views on when to wage war and seek for peace, even while we may disagree with others on the way they practice their faith?

Separation of Church and State, commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, meant that the government should not make laws establishing an official religion and developed the idea that no religious test shall be required. It is important to remember than during most of recorded history religion and government always went hand in hand. There was no room for pluralism allowing one race or people worshipping differently. Had to be just one. The American experiment was a revolutionary step in human development.

Yet this phrase, cited many times during the years, was never meant to be absolute as some Supreme Court declarations show. A debate continues until today. If the guiding principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are to be preserved, we must also accept the historical limitations in counting black persons as only 3/5 of the number of citizens (it took a bloody Civil War to settle the matter, another hundred years to be implemented), to not letting woman vote nationally until 1920, etc.

There have been long hard struggles to break through these white masculine biases and blind restrictions. So isn’t it time to reconsider that there is no more danger of an organized, official state religion dominating public life? Isn’t there room for new insights and development from the presence of groups who teach their members that there are laws and rules which go beyond the power of a government to give or to take away? Such as all men are created equal does not depend upon the largess of rulers to give.

We need to be free from all types of prejudice or bigotry when we debate complex issues which involve and affect all members of the nation, which includes listening also to what religious groups may contribute with their perennial wisdom. After all, we want some back up when it comes to defending the poor and weak, of safe guarding sexual practices, of cheating and dishonesty, or taking of innocent life etc.

What all true religions hope to accomplish is not just control and limit illicit actions, but change hearts, to bring about conversion and growth of the person.

Since Judeo/Christian principles are already well enough known and part of American popular culture, such as observing the 10 Commandments as a way of being a good citizen, about loving one’s neighbor as oneself, of taking care of orphans, widows and the stranger, that Might does not make things Right, etc. So what can we learn from other major, worldwide religions who have followers in America?

While running the risk being accused of cherry picking quotes, I offer a small sample of phrases that are representative of some major religious beliefs which have guided billions of people over millenniums, inviting you to research your preferences. Do not let any personal biases or hang up about acts done by followers of these beliefs influence you. Look at what they ask from their members. Or as G.K. Chesterton once said, Christianity has not failed. It has yet to be tried!

In the Talmud we read, “Why did the Creator form all life from a single ancestor?” The answer is, “that the families of mankind shall not lord one over the other with the claim of being sprung from superior stock … that all men, saints and sinners alike, may recognize their common kinship in the collective human family.”

Or “The Holy One strikes every person from the die of the first man, but no one resembles another: Their uniqueness is mental as well as physical, and they all have a special function to fulfill in the realization of the cosmic purpose. (Each) has a unique role to play in it, so that the cosmic scheme will be incomplete without him.

We exclude others who are different to our own disadvantage and peril. “I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also His creature; my work is in the city and his in the field … we have learned that it matters not whether one does much or little, if only he directs his heart to serve the divine purpose.” Thus “non-Jews residing in Jewish communities were to share in all the beneficences which the Jewish community held out to its own members: to sustain their needy, to visit their sick, and to bury their dead.” Whether this is being lived today is open to debate, not the validity of the action.

Or Muhammad, who said, “When you speak, speak the truth; perform when you promise; discharge your trust … withhold your hands from striking, and from taking that which is unlawful and bad … the worst of God’s servants are those who do mischief.” Or, “he who shall do good to the indigent, God will do good to him in this world and the next. Be persistent in good actions.” Reminded of our phrase about rotten apples, the Prophet says that, “when bad, the whole body is bad, and that is the heart.”

Or, to counteract violent extremism, “Shall I not inform you of a better act than fasting, alms, and prayers? Making peace between one another: enmity and malice tear up heavenly rewards by the roots” Or “do you love your Creator? Love your fellow-beings first.” Or, as M. K. Gandhi said in 1938, “There will be no lasting peace on earth unless we learn not merely to tolerate but even to respect the other faith as our own.”

Long held misconceptions are hard to uproot. Whatever our backgrounds, we have all been tainted by prejudices and biases. Us versus them. All major worldwide religions preach brotherhood and peace in one way or another, co-existence with those who are different, not excluding someone because he or she is of another race, defend the weak and protect the fragile. One should not get hung up on a phrase that one or another representative of a group has stated. Look to the deeper, broader vision which that group has espoused

Yes, there are many criteria that one should use to choose one’s candidate for any public office. To automatically exclude the wisdom which organized religions can offer is not the sign of an open mind. In today’s complex world we need all the insights and understanding that is available.

Father Donnell Kirchner, CSsR, received a degree in moral theology in Rome and taught for 39 years as a Redemptorist priest in Brazil, teaching at a regional pastoral institute in Manaus. He is currently working with theologians in Chicago.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2016

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