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The political polarization in the United States, the red and the blue, has been the subject of so much explication that some pundits could check it off on their tax forms as a household dependent. Even as the two sides vent to their exasperated hearts’ content and discontent, the nature of the chasm remains opaque, as in: Why is this situation so deeply enjoined and How long this has been going on? To answer the second question, which is the simpler, I’d say “a long time,” though that leads to another question: How deep is this chasm? “Very deep” is the short answer, for what we have is not just a political conflict, though such internal conflicts can destroy nations, but a holy war of words and, as January 6, 2021, illustrated, much more than words, a war that goes to the core sense of what this country is about and concerning which “Make America Great Again” is a mere symptomatic echo.
I don’t use the word “holy” lightly, for I don’t think any other word will do. The word may—and should—feel strange in a latter-day United States given over to shopping, Disney World, sports, fast food, topless bars, and more shopping. And I shouldn’t pick on the United States. “Holy” left the world-at-large a while ago. Yet the notion of the sanctified has not left. Far from it. It may be that the fewer signs of holiness are apparent, the more those who feel twinges and pangs about religion are eager to assert the righteousness of their ways, however fallen. After the famous first one, falls are relative.
The Puritans who came to the shores of the “New World” and who proceeded to found something that came to be called “New England” were on intimate terms with holiness. They craved old-time religion, the original Biblical community of the godly. The government they favored was not democracy but theocracy, the rule of the putative saints who put religious matters before all else. They failed—among other matters something called “money” quickly got in the way—but they succeeded in casting a religious aura over the on-going endeavor. Many a politician who was not on close terms with the covenant vision has cited John Winthrop and the “City on a Hill.” Americans have a facility for bleaching out the ungainly facts of exclusion in their search for a very soft version of inclusion.
Those early settlers quickly paled in the overall story of what became the United States, but in the sense of their proclaiming the first version of a religious destiny they did not fail. The foot they put forward was the right one—blessed, holy, godly, sanctified, righteous. First and last they were Christians, which might seem to go without saying except that the “holy” I referred to in my title is about the duty of the United States to be unequivocally a Christian nation—whatever that means beyond everyone being suitably God-fearing. Even at the start of the whole American shebang, not everyone belonged to that category, hence, on one hand, some long-standing unease about the discrepancy and, on the other, relentless bluster to somehow make everything fit the religious yet much less-than-religious picture. As four years of Donald Trump showed, the bluster is undiminished.
However deistic and Enlightenment-oriented the founders of the nation were and however intent on separating state from church, the Christian imprint was unassailable. After the Civil War, however, and accelerating in the twentieth century, various powerful assailants appeared: industrialism that changed the individual’s sense of self, Darwinism that changed the sense of where a human being came from, geology that changed the sense of the earth’s history, psychology that changed the sense of the human psyche, and consumerism that changed wants into needs. My list is partial. Fewer people attended church but certain figures—Billy Graham, for instance—had great importance. It can be argued that even as Christianity meant less to more people, the public face of Christianity—the pledge of allegiance to one nation under God, the National Prayer Breakfast, televised evangelism—became more noticeable. The best way to counter secular threats and incursions was to double down on the nation’s Christian, God-avowing identity.
The pressures, achievements and rewards of modern times did not recede, which put a Christian in a bind. Eager to enjoy the material fruits of free enterprise, a Christian might wonder how religion fit into the bought-and-sold scheme of things. The Bible doesn’t mention quarterly profits, stock dividends, or tax shelters, though Christ did have something to say about the money changers. That was then of course and this was now, but “then” is the essence of the religion. Without “then” there is nothing. The bind, however, was larger since it included religion’s connection to nationhood and patriotism. The notion of Christ waving a national flag is as ludicrous as God cheering on a victorious army but that has not stopped people from believing wholeheartedly in the ludicrous. Whether for crusades or keeping the “inferior peoples” in their destined place or buttressing a power structure, Christianity has always been usable.
Yet what resides within Christianity, as the word indicates, is the God-person whose life and times were radical and disruptive. The Puritans who came to the North American shores empathized with Christ’s tribulations and emulated them. Christ did not fit in. Christ made the authorities’ lives difficult. Christ made extreme demands such as renouncing your birth family. One of the great historical ironies is that a religion came to be organized around such a maverick troublemaker. That is part of the genius of the religion but it is also a permanent unease, particularly in its Protestant forms that raised up the Bible-reading individual, more than one of whom saw him or herself as Christ’s direct messenger to a sadly erring world.
In the United States in the twentieth century Christianity squarely opposed godless Bolshevism, an opposition that also pitted capitalism against state ownership and freedom against totalitarianism. This struggle was as epic as any struggle in Christian annals, although it played out under the auspices not of the church militant but of a nation with something called the “military-industrial complex” increasingly prominent. Semi-officially labeled a “Cold War,” despite numerous very hot incursions and proxy wars, various denominations lent their support to the effort. Even as American society became more and more secular as personal freedoms, scientific innovations (“the pill”), and monetary powers opened various liberated floodgates, Christianity could revel in its steadfast contribution to the demise of the Soviet Union. For many, a morality play of good and evil had occurred in real time.
The habit of opposition did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall but, rather, formed a tandem with the assertion of Christian values, of the “Moral Majority.” This has been a powerful synergy since it plays on feelings of being disrespected by the secularists (whoever they may be) while backing a fiercely partisan political agenda. No martyrs appeared within the Capital Beltway but the notion of violated sanctimony, of good people endlessly traduced was propounded over many air waves. Given the comfort level of many gated-community, put-upon Christians, a satirical, Saturday-Night-Live thrust was understandable, though the sight of various players in the Hollywood dream machine urging the current version of social justice invited similarly snide barbs. Meanwhile, the economy that powered the machine and, for which Christ might have had some strong words, remained very securely in place.
Politics, as it makes a virtue of expediency, offers a showcase of spiritual failings, thus the incalculable importance of figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom at the present moment would be questioning the imperial “defense budget” (talk about two wrong words) that would seem to be—to use a religious word—sacrosanct. However much some in the political spotlight might protest, United States senators are more noted for ambition than piety. The present-day issue is not so much religious, certainly not about mercy and charity, as frankly sectarian—only true believers need apply. Soviet communism was vanquished, but the implacable coarseness of ideology, the belief in an ultimate cause however far-fetched, was not vanquished. For some, “great” has the same emotional conviction that “world revolution” once held.
Donald Trump, an irreligious man who lives to be partisan, has been eager to push the sense of being put upon. I stress the word “sense.” People driving new pickup trucks are not disadvantaged. The “great” America that they want is “our America.” In their heads they are huddled on that scrap of coast line and peering into the wilderness of otherness. As a prototypical American stance, fear and loathing oppose the openness of a nation built on immigration. The feeling of being embattled easily becomes so much media-drenched hysteria. Wickedness of some sort is everywhere. Trump continually complained about “terrible people” and “witch hunts.” Indeed.
The ethical dimension of Christ’s teaching has always been shortchanged. In the religious scheme of things—miracles, divinity, dogma, and salvation—ethics seems relatively small change. If I sound cynical, I don’t mean to because this is a large human dilemma, to put it mildly. Where do our ethics, our sense of right and wrong come from? Much of modern times has been devoted to the destruction of the ethical sense, through the devastation wrought by fascism and communism, the putative objectivity of science, the fashions of education, the uprooting of communities, and the economic war of each against each, even as the power of enormous corporations has grown steadily. As for the noble pursuit of justice, to quote Camus, it “exhausts even the love that gave it birth.”
The messianic note—saved or not, heaven or hell—is a dire one. The Bible, with its interventionist God, may be the good book but it is not a serene one. As a political compass it is dubious, despite the many oath-taking hands laid upon it. In a two-party democracy, there has to be give and take, a tenor that is not dire, that realizes the welfare of its citizens depends on the willingness to accept compromise. Most people want to live in peace and have the right to live in peace. That seems a modest dose of wisdom. There have been dire issues—slavery above all—that were impossible to bridge but for a political party to practice refusal as a principle while espousing Christian values is sheer hypocrisy. The arrogation of virtue whether in the name of social justice or Christianity creates an absolutism and a specious sense of endless travail. In that regard, the United States remains a strange blend of the ameliorative and apocalyptic, a bifurcated place where internal holy wars (Prohibition and McCarthyism, to cite two) come naturally. The saints would have it no other way.
Copyright 2023 Baron Wormser.
In 2000, Baron Wormser was appointed Poet Laureate of Maine by Governor Angus King. He served in that capacity for six years and visited many libraries and schools to talk about books and writing.
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Again, an excellent analysis.
“The messianic note—saved or not, heaven or hell—is a dire one. The Bible, with its interventionist God, may be the good book but it is not a serene one. As a political compass it is dubious, despite the many oath-taking hands laid upon it. In a two-party democracy, there has to be give and take, a tenor that is not dire, that realizes the welfare of its citizens depends on the willingness to accept compromise. Most people want to live in peace and have the right to live in peace.”
I am old and so tired of it all. I drink to that last sentence.
Baron nails it.