Sunday, September 18, 2005

A Little Sunday Sermon

The United States is a predominantly Christian country. Most people believe in a god and the majority appear to believe in angels, too. The religious right tells us that the politics and the laws of this country should reflect its Christianity, and the natural inference to draw is that these should somehow follow the tenets of this religion.

But things get confusing when we hear (via Bobo's World) that most American Christians don't know their own religion very well:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation's educational decline, but it probably doesn't matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

Asking Christians what Christ taught isn't a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation—and, overwhelmingly, we do—it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.

This isn't that astonishing. Most religious people in this world appear not to know the tenets of their own religion or what its leaders might be doing. - I remember listening to a radio interview to do with Aceh during the time when various Islamist policies were attempted there. One of them was the use of shariah law in place of a secular legal code. The ordinary people interviewed in the program were happy to hear about the possible use of shariah; they expressed a strong need to do something about the lawlessness on the streets, the rapists and the muggers. But the religious expert also interviewed stated that the use of shariah would ban playing cards, alcohol and would punish adulterers more harshly. And indeed, these would have been the major changes to the laws already in force in Aceh, with the exception of extra whippings etcetera.

This may not be astonishing, but it is very worrying. It means that the voices of authority within the religious sphere have the power to misinform. There are few built-in safeguards to correct anything that is said from the pulpit or its equivalence in other faiths. Still, the very act of uttering something in this context makes it more weighty, more to be trusted, than the statements the same people might make in their private roles. Or in their political roles.

It is also difficult to debate a religious authority if all that the outsiders can use are the written tenets of the religion, yet these tenets are not widely known or perhaps even followed. This pretty much makes real debate impossible, should it not already be so by the unspoken code that religions must not be criticized.

As the article I quote points out, the Christianity of many Americans is better seen as an identity than actual adherence to Christian teachings. Such an identity is moldable, and the religious right has effectively molded the idea of Christianity into something that requires, among other things, that the faithful always vote Republican. Religion has entered politics, yes, but even more it is the politics that have entered religiosity. What to make out of this all is unclear to my divine eyes.