Can we begin to understand those whose belief systems are opposite of our own?
There’s an old spiritual that I’ve heard since I was a baby:
Give me that old time religion,
Give me that old time religion,
Give me that old time religion
It’s good enough for me.
The song goes back at least as far as least as far as 1873, probably further. 1 It’s been covered and sampled more times than anyone can count. In the version I’m most familiar with, the hard consonants v and d are dropped so that it sounds more like “Gimme that ol’ time religion.”
The song is interesting and says something important about the history of religion in America. Never does the song actually say what “religion” the singer is getting. There’s no mention of Jesus, or a prophet, or any other religious figure in the earliest versions. Later versions, after the Revivalist movement started, added the verse, “It was good for Paul and Silas,” in reference to the earliest Christian missionaries, but the original form is rather ambiguous largely because everyone just assumed that by “religion” one meant Christianity. The general population was grossly unfamiliar with any other belief system.
Of course, that lack of familiarity with other belief systems led to an atmosphere of fear. Jews were as unwelcome in the deep South as they were in 1942 Germany. Other religions were deemed to be “heathenistic.” The great Christian missionary movement of the early 20th century was born out of that very fear. Upon discovery that there were other religions in the world, Christians set themselves to the task of converting the whole lot not for any altruistic reasoning or “the glory of God,” but more because they didn’t want those religions infiltrating their own society. American Christians were extremely ignorant of any other religion and rather liked it that way.
The modernization of American society after World War II led to its secularization and the influence of Christianity began to wane as more liberal theologies took hold of major denominations and Eastern religions gained popularity. This resulted in splits within major Protestant groups such as Presbyterians and a hardline conservative coup among Southern Baptist leadership. Even the normally quiet Lutheran church eventually split in 2009.2
Through the 1980s, the United States felt the power of the Religious Right in elections that gave the Republican party strong victories in 1984 and 1988. Now, as we’re sifting through the rubble of our most recent presidential election, trying desperately to figure out what caused the fire that burned down democracy as we once knew it, religion is once again getting a lot of the attention, and the blame. However, as with the old spiritual, it isn’t really religion in the broadest sense of the word, but a hardline, Bible-thumping, premillennialist-preaching, do-unto-others, form of conservative Christianity that is certain the apocalypse is coming at any moment. This is the religion that participated heavily in the election of Donald Trump.
This is also the religion that is scared to death of immigration, globalization, and science. This is the religion that believes the world is barely 6,000 years old and that there are no dinosaurs because Noah couldn’t fit them on the ark. This is a religion that threatens the modern world as we know it.
Not Everyone Is Getting Religion
In an interview that aired last Thursday on NPR3, The New York Times‘ executive editor Dean Baquet talked with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about the new incoming administration and he had something very interesting to say about politics and religion:
I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don’t quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she’s all alone. We don’t get religion. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better. And I think there are things that we can be more creative about to understand the country.
That’s how I look at it. I now have two big jobs. Big job one is to cover the most compelling and unusual president we have had in my lifetime. Big job two is to really understand and explain the forces in America that led to Americans wanting a change so much that they were willing to select such a different figure for the White House. Those are my two big jobs.
I hate to be the one to break it to Mr. Baquet, but I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone outside the hardline conservative movement to fully understand that particular aspect of religion any more than it is possible for us to understand the extremists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Both are about as far from the mainstream of their religion as they possibly can be. Yet, both manage to wrestle away the religious conversation, twisting it to meet their own needs, and in the process completely alienating anyone who is not part of their movement. Both give Christianity and Islam tremendous black eyes.
Yet, for all the extremism, there are still those underlying elements of fear that permeate the mainstream portions of religion as well. One can walk into a church here in Indianapolis that is culturally diverse, boasting of a membership comprised of people from 83 different countries, and still experience a fear against LGTB people or women who wear veils to cover their face. The fear there is whispered rather than shouted, but it still exists and it still affects the way people within that congregation think—and vote.
One of the challenges facing those who don’t “get” religion in the United States is understanding that the most vocal and politically active religions are based wholly in fear. They serve and angry and vengeful deity that will punish them, and the rest of us, if we disobey or dishonor him in any way. How many times over the past eight years have we seen the Religious Right’s Nutjob Emeritus, Pat Robinson, say some absolutely incredible things4 such as:
“You should cast demons out of secondhand clothes you buy, lest their previous owner’s evil infect you.”
“God punishes people for having too much education.”
“Abortion is a lesbian conspiracy.”
“Atheists are trying to steal Christmas to make you miserable.”
“Divorce is wrong, unless your wife gets sick.”
How is the reasonable mind supposed to “get” such unreasonable thought? This is like asking the sane to fully comprehend the mind of the insane. We can study it. We can theorize about it. We might even suggest a causation and attempt to medicate it. Yet, one would have to completely abandon reason in order to fully understand the level of fear from which this sort of babble flows.
Lying at the core of both hardline Christianity, conservative orthodox Judaism, and extremist Islam is a shared fear that their belief system could be wiped out of existence. Using their scriptures and shared Abrahamic traditions as justification, those furthest to the right of religious circles find an authority that commands them to dominate everyone else lest they themselves be dominated. Palestinian Muslims and Jews understand this fear better than anyone for it is a part of their daily reality. Coptic Christians in Egypt received an all new reason to hold such a fear as a church there was bombed yesterday5. American fundamentalist Christians have adopted that same fear, even though they face no real nor formidable enemy. With a dominate or be dominated attitude, members of these ultra-conservative religions may stand on the theological fringe, but their volume controls the conversation and too often sways the masses of believers.
Understanding is a two-way street
If Mr. Baquet faces a challenge in “getting” religion, then, even more, do those who are religious face a challenge in understanding those who don’t believe as they do. If anything, the challenge for those of the extreme right of religious thought is even greater because, unlike Mr. Baquet and his colleagues, they have no desire to understand anyone or anything outside their own belief system. This is a huge problem. Those who sit at the fringe and scream and yell and hurl insults demand that we give them attention and listen to their voice. Yet, they have so highly insulated themselves within their religious belief system that they are unwilling and, perhaps, unable to hear the voices of others.
Instead, these dear souls who are totally lost to reason are fully convinced that the only solution is for everyone else to believe as they do. This is why they continue to have domestic missionary programs with people going door-to-door attempting to convert those who, in their eyes, are nothing more than ignorant heathens. They deeply, genuinely believe that the hope of the world lies in the dominance of their particular belief system and nothing short of that is satisfactory.
This past Friday, I went to the mailbox and found a small, hand-addressed envelope for “current resident.” Naturally, I was extremely curious. I can’t tell you the last time I received a hand-written letter from anyone. Honestly, my expectation was that one of our neighbors was complaining about the dog barking or something of that nature. I was wrong. Here’s what the letter said:
You had a no trespassing sign so I decided to leave you this note. John 17:3 says it means everlasting life taking in bible knowledge. This is why over 8 million Jehovah Witnesses in over 240 lands and islands of the sea go door to door encouraging free home bible discussions one hour once a week at your convenient time and day. Or 30 minutes. Whatever is best for you. If you are interested call ***-****.
One of Jehovahs Witnesses
I’ll admit, I am still chuckling over the “240 lands and islands of the sea” bit. Nothing like a little dramatic flourish mixed in with the proselytization. Jehovah Witness is one of the reasons we have a No Trespassing sign on the front door, a fence with a locked gate surrounding the house, and a big dog that charges strangers standing at that gate. I have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with disruptions from such nonsense. Yet, be quite sure that they do not understand why I would want to turn them away so callously. They don’t “get” me any more than I “get” them.
Simply labeling the most challenging of religious people as “religious” is inaccurate, though, and unfair to the overwhelming number of people who hold more moderate views under those same religious umbrellas. It is indeed unfortunate that one must lump someone as bat-shit crazy as Pat Robertson under the same Christian label as Pope Francis. Similarly, I’m sure leading Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan winces to be lumped in with the violent extremists of the Middle East. Painting the religious with a broad brush is not only unfair, but the picture painted is not representative of the well-nuanced reality found in the whole of religious belief.
I look at the artwork of realist painters such as Travis Little6 and see in that work the attention to detail and finesse one needs in portraying the myriad belief systems held by the citizens of the United States. There are thousands of shades of red, thousands of more shades of blue, and then all the yellows and blends and shadows and highlights coming together to create a stunning portrait. The painter understands which shade of which color belongs where, but for the viewer, the best we can hope to do is appreciate the skill and talent of the painter.
Stripping Belief Systems
If we are to ever “get” religion, if there is any hope in us ever understanding how we are motivated by various belief systems, we must first get past all the fear, all the hyperbole, all the posturing, and be willing to allow everyone else the right to not only exist but have a voice in the conversation. Those who insist upon dominating effectively erect a wall that prevents anyone else from understanding who they are and responding kindly and favorably toward them. Anyone who proclaims they are better, or more deserving, or favored by anyone for any reason closes their eyes to the qualifications, justifications, and veneration of everyone else.
Metaphorically, we need to “get naked” with each other if we are to ever hope to “get” each other. No exaggerations about who is larger, who is more respected, or who is correct can be tolerated. We are all very good at clothing ourselves in the precise set of lies that we think make us look the best. Yet, just like the fabled emperor, we are all ultimately as naked as jaybirds. We would do better to admit our fears, accept the validity of ideas outside our own, and work together to create a tapestry that could cover us all.
I admire Mr. Baquet’s willingness to admit that, even though he grew up Catholic, he doesn’t get religion as it currently exists in the United States and as it presented itself in this presidential election. I grew up in a staunch Southern Baptist belief system and I don’t get the extremists views I’ve seen over the past 35 years, either. The voice that dominates religious conversation across the country today ill represents the people of faith around whom I grew up. If anything, what I see is more of a bastardization of a conglomeration of religions yelling and kicking and screaming out of the fear they will be seen for the liars and con men that they are.
One thing for certain is that I don’t sing that old spiritual anymore. I don’t want your old time religion. I’ve seen what fear can do. I’ve seen the hate it produces. I’ve seen the disaster and destruction of democracy it has caused. Keep your old time religion. I want nothing to do with it. We can talk when you come to your senses.