Politics and Religion in the Age of the Sound Bite

The founding fathers of the United States were not super-human.  They were not god-like in their powers of reasoning or prescient in their grasp of the future.  They were men.  They made mistakes. They were imperfect.  They wrote or ratified that all men are created equal, but held fellow humans in slavery. Their successors subscribed to the tenets of their predecessors, and, through the misguided application of an idea that the people of the new nation were divinely appointed to rule the continent from sea to shining sea, who subscribed to the mythos of “manifest destiny,” rooted the Native Americans from their homes and took their lands, making promises that were less permanent than the paper on which they were written.

No, these men were just men with grand and noble ideas and ideals.  But even in their human imperfection, they provided guidelines and touchstones that seem as if they just may have been divinely inspired.  No, I would not add the US Constitution to the canon of scripture.  But the first ten amendments to it, the Bill of Rights, are held as sacred to many who live in this country and love the freedom they have provided for well over two centuries.

The first amendment may contain the greatest and most important of all of the guaranteed rights.  In a single sentence, James Madison, as framer of the Bill of Rights, provided citizens with extraordinary benefits and assurances:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and the freedom to petition the government for the redress of grievances—what a slate of liberties in one sentence.

But the first guaranteed right, even before the freedom of speech, is the assurance that no particular religion would be embraced and made official by the government, and that all people would be free to exercise their faith without the interference of the government.  This was, of course, contrary to the practice of the day.  England, from whom the fledgling country had just won its independence, has an official religion.  Many of the colonists who came to America were seeking a place where they could practice their faith without persecution.

I believe in that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.  When the two become intertwined, freedoms will erode.  Government will force its will on religion, or religion will force its will on government.  Beyond these possibilities, there appear to be no alternatives.

And yet, it is commendable when men of faith come together to celebrate that faith, and to petition God for guidance.  Such an event happens annually, where the President of the United States presides over the National Prayer Breakfast, held the first Thursday of each February.

The latest iteration of these events sparked controversy for the remarks that President Obama made regarding the violent history of Christianity, that people had done bad things in the name of Christ, ranging from atrocities during the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, to state sanctioned slavery and the suppression of African Americans with discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Many political figures of the other party gasped in disdain over the remarks.  How dare he invoke history to remind us that people who professed to be Christians could be construed as being little different from those in other religions who perpetrate acts of violence in the guise of religion?!

My mind immediately returned to the Jeremiah Wright controversy of 2008.  During his first presidential campaign, then Senator Obama was forced to distance himself from the pastor of the church he had attended in Chicago, largely based on a single snippet of a sermon.  You remember the one, where Wright uttered those inflammatory words suggesting that African Americans should not sing “God Bless America”; “No, no, no.  God Damn America!”

Here is the famous quote in context:

Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontus Pilot – Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from east to west. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonised Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating her citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them in slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no. Not “God Bless America”; God Damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

I heard that three-word snippet over and over and over.  And I wish I had the presence of mind to do then what I did this very morning.  I searched for the source and found a transcript of the sermon, which was titled “Confusing God and Government.”  (You can find the transcript at this forum site: http://www.sluggy.net/forum/viewtopic.php?p=315691&sid=4b3e97ace4ee8cee02bd6850e52f50b7)

Wright opened his remarks by talking about whether or not Jesus wept.  Of course, John 11.35 confirms this in the account of the death of Lazarus.  But the sermon, given on Palm Sunday of 2003, recounted Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in the week he was to die.  In Luke 19.41-44, Jesus paused and wept for the city, as he would surely weep for America in its present condition:

“41  And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42  saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43  For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44  and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”   

Wright made three points in his sermon:  1)  Governments lie, but God does not;  2)  Governments change, but God does not; and 3) Governments fail, but God does not.  He emphasized that people should not confuse the role of government with the sovereignty of God.  

Now, I cannot say I agree with all of Wright’s political positions, nor can I vouch for the factual nature of every comment he made in his impassioned message.  For example, he made assertions that cannot be proven apparently implicating the US government in schemes like engineering the 9/11 attacks, and engineering HIV as a means of genocide against Africa.  Conspiracy theories abound, and anyone is subject to falling under their seductive spells. But conspiracies aside, there were many points that were indeed thought-provoking.

But a three-word sound bite was all that many ever heard from that Palm Sunday sermon.  For the vast majority of people, Wright’s message has never been read or heard in its entirety.  Only a couple of lines later, he said, “God Damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”  His message was cautionary: if our nation continues to treat groups of people as they have done, we will fall like Israel fell, struck down by divine retribution for disobeying fundamental laws of justice and mercy.

That was his message: “…as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!”  His was a call not unlike the prophets of the Old Testament.  Unless the nation repents of its collective sins, we may face the same fate as Israel: conquest by a foreign power, occupation, captivity and degradation.

Obama’s speech was cautionary as well, and may have been offered in the spirit of Jesus’ admonition against judging another while we may remain blinded by our own past.  As President of a nation that guarantees freedom of religion, he could not condemn all Muslim people for the acts of the most extreme. And contrary to how it has been spun in some quarters, he did not condemn all Christians for the acts of a few in the past.

Politics and religion are perhaps the two most volatile forces in human society.  When the two clash, as inevitably they will, there will be ill will and misunderstanding leading to suspicion and division.  Those early framers of our government knew that.  Despite the controversies that will inevitably swirl any time the two come near each other, we should be thankful for the guarantees of the First Amendment, which may be as close to a divine mandate as any nation, or any community or person of faith can ever hope to receive.


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