Religious Freedom Day: From Jefferson and Adams to Trump and Biden

Fresno Bee, January 14, 2024

Religious Freedom Day” is January. 16. The day commemorates the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed into law on January 16, 1786. The law was originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson and carried forward by James Madison.

It is worth reading the whole document. It is not long. But it does contain dense prose that brings together a number of important points from theology and political philosophy. Before summarizing it, we might note how different things seem today from the time of the founding. Jefferson and Madison studied philosophy, religion, history, and politics. They spoke moderately and with reasoned arguments.

These giants are quite different from the leading Republican candidate for president, who has been talking a lot about religion. In a Christmas post, Donald Trump wrote of Joe Biden and others he calls “thugs,” “MAY THEY ROT IN HELL.” And before Christmas, in Iowa, Trump said, “Our country’s gone to hell. As soon as I get back in the Oval Office, I’ll immediately end the war on Christians … Under crooked Joe Biden, Christians and Americans of faith are being persecuted and government has been weaponized against religion like never before. And also presidents like never before.”

This Christian nationalist dog whistle fails to acknowledge that the Constitution makes persecution of any religion illegal. It fails to recognize that in our system of checks and balances, the president does not have the absolute power to declare war on religion. Trump also fails to understand that Christmas is a time of joy and love, not grievance and resentment.

Of course, Trump is free to say what he wants. Thanks to the founders’ wisdom, we have freedom of speech along with religious liberty. The Constitution’s First Amendment ensures that there can be no war on any kind of religion. It also allows Trump to damn his opponents to hell.

Now let’s consider that Virginia Statute. The law states that faith ought to be free from coercion because God created the human mind free. The government should stay out of religion because coercive state power corrupts the nature of faith.

The law notes that the men who lead churches and states are “fallible and uninspired.” It also claims that these faulty mortals have “established and maintained false religions” throughout history. Such crooked men end up warping religion when they try to impose their opinions on others.

The statute further says that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” This means that every person has the same civil rights, no matter what they believe (or don’t believe). Civil government exists to maintain peace and good order. Beyond that it should not go. The state does not exist to enforce religious orthodoxy.

The statute concludes by paraphrasing the philosopher John Locke, saying, “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” There is a suggestion here that political coercion tends to undermine truth. At the same time there is the hope that if people were left alone to develop their own consciences, truth would win out and we’d all be better off.

These are important ideas found deep in the heart of the American tradition. They also remind us of a different kind of political tone. The founders valued civility, moderation and restraint. Of course, from time to time, the founding generation engaged in heated political rhetoric. These men were human, after all. In the election of 1800, supporters of John Adams accused Thomas Jefferson of being an atheist. William Lin, a clergyman who opposed Jefferson, said the election of Jefferson would “destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”

Despite that hyperbole and animosity, Adams and Jefferson eventually reconciled after their respective presidencies ended. They went on to exchange a number of letters in which they discussed religion and philosophy. These letters show that Jefferson was not an atheist. Nor was Adams an orthodox Christian. Rather, these were inquisitive minds trying to make sense of religion.

It is religious liberty that allows us to think critically about our beliefs. In the long run, wisdom is found in free and moderate discussion. And it is better to argue reasonably than to wish that your opponents should rot in hell.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article284146833.html#storylink=cpy

Christmas peace and the anti-political turn

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2023

Donald Trump is threatening to govern as a dictator. Joe Biden is cruising toward impeachment. And partisan bickering never seems to end. But it’s a mistake to fret too much about the absurdity of American politics.

The crises of our republic matter. We live in a broken world. But the ugly mess of political life is less important than we think. There has never been a perfect country. To obsess about politics is to fail to understand that politics cannot solve spiritual problems.

So, I disagree somewhat with Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who wrote an interesting recent column on “The Spiritual Unspooling of America.” That “spiritual unspooling” includes loneliness, suicide, drug overdoses, polarization, violence and hate.

Murphy suggests that the antidote is a better kind of politics. Sure. Better politics might help. It would be nice to live in a good country led by honorable people. It would be wonderful to live in a world of harmony and peace. And we should work toward those goods. But as I argued in a recent column, humanity is constructed of “warped wood” not easily made straight.

The real solution for “spiritual disintegration” is, well, spiritual. Harmony, peace and honor have always been in short supply. Learning to accept the tragically flawed reality of political life is an essential part of wisdom. Once we understand this, we can look elsewhere to find solace and hope.

Our spiritual malaise will not be solved by better politics. Your flourishing does not depend on Trump or Biden. Politics is not the highest good. The best and most important things transcend political life. These transcendent goods include spirituality and art, love and community.

This anti-political idea is clear at Christmas. The story of the season is of a new conception of power, born of humility and existing apart from politics. Christianity teaches about a kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus was not a political leader. He raised no army and was murdered by the state. According to one important story, when Satan tempted Jesus with political power, Jesus refused.

The turn away from politics is a common theme in the world’s wisdom traditions. The Taoist sages avoided politics. Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, left China because he was fed up with the hypocrisy and corruption of Chinese politics. The wisdom of Buddhism aims to cultivate nonattachment, which looks beyond the tumultuous fires of social and political life. And the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus encouraged his followers to “live unnoticed” in a garden sheltered from political turbulence.

Unfortunately, it is easy to be seduced into an obsession with politics. The partisans and the political media encourage this obsession. Political squabbles keep us glued to our screens, while helping the partisans raise money and get people to the polls, and into the streets.

But political obsession is a recipe for anxiety and despair. The more upset we become about politics, the more we focus on things that are really beyond our control. Instead of cultivating our own gardens, we get frustrated. And when things go wrong — as they always do — we end up angry and hopeless.

Rather than obsessing about politics, we need to understand that spiritual health is found in religion and other deep sources of meaning; in small local and loving communities; in music, art, and ceremony; and in connection with the wonder of nature.

Spiritual integration depends upon a set of habits that are good for body and soul. It is cultivated in silence and solitude. It is nurtured by love. It flourishes among friends and family. It blossoms when we discover wisdom, wonder and gratitude.

The bad news is that we are easily distracted by the crises of the moment. The partisans and the news cycle feed the frenzy of political frustration. The good news is that higher goods are easily obtained, if we turn off the TV and rediscover the world of nature, spirit, and loving community.

This does not mean we should drop out of political life, as Lao-Tzu did. Citizenship requires us to pay attention. And ethics demands solidarity with those who suffer.

But at Christmas, we should also remember that comfort and joy are found beyond the halls of power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article283061398.html#storylink=cpy

Religious liberty, atheism, and the question of faith

Fresno Bee, July 30, 2023

The atheists are coming out the closet.  A new Gallup poll shows that 12% of Americans don’t believe in God. Only 74% of Americans say they do believe in God. The other 14% are not sure. Back in 2001, 90% of Americans believed in God, and the atheists and agnostics only made up 10%. 

The Pew Research Center published a report last year suggesting that in a couple of generations about half of the population will be non-religious and Christianity will be a minority religion. Earlier this year, a Wall Street Journal poll found that only 39% of Americans said that religion was “very important” to them. That was down from 62% in 1998.

This radical shift in American values helps explain the Christian nationalist backlash among those who want to make American Christian again. As Christianity loses its dominance, it is understandable that some Christians want to demand that the U.S. be a Christian nation. But the idea of forcing religion on people seems doomed to fail in the modern world. The First Amendment to the Constitution prevents the establishment of any religion. It also guarantees the free exercise of religion.

Religious liberty means that individuals are free to choose their faith. This idea is deeply rooted in a modern understanding of religious belief. Modern thinkers tend to agree that external conformity to religious rituals is not sufficient for genuine faith. Rather, faith is thought to require consent and subjective commitment. 

In the late 1600’s, the British philosopher John Locke said, “All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.” He suggested that people may go through the motions of religious life without genuine belief. But external conformity is not real faith. That’s why trying to use violence, force, or law to establish religious conformity is wrongheaded. Locke famously said that with regard to religion, “all force and compulsion are to be forborn.” In fact, Locke suggested that external conformity breeds hypocrisy. 

Locke’s writings on government and religion had a profound influence on the American Founders, as I noted in a column earlier this month. The Declaration of Independence appealed to Locke’s idea of a right to revolution. And his thinking about religion appears to undergird the view of religious liberty found in the First Amendment. 

Again, the issue is that when people are forced to go through the motions of faith because they fear punishment or social disapproval, they simply become liars and phonies, lacking in authenticity. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard made this a central theme of his work in the 19th Century. Kierkegaard understood faith as an inward or subjective experience. For Kierkegaard, faith was a passionate existential commitment. Kierkegaard was also critical of the hypocritical conformity of those who simply go through the motions of faith. 

According to this modern understanding of faith, your religion is not about your ethnicity or your family identity. Nor is it a matter of which church you grew up in, or which Bible you have on your bookshelf. Nor is faith about what you wear, what you eat, or which holidays you celebrate. Rather, faith is about what you freely choose to believe in the depth of your soul and with the whole of your mind.

With this on the table, let’s reconsider the rise of atheism and agnosticism. If people don’t believe in God, isn’t it better that they are honest about that lack of belief? Do the Christian nationalists want atheists to just play along and pretend they believe? And if not, what would they propose to do about those who are not persuaded by the claims of Christianity?

It is best for people to be honest about what they believe or don’t believe. Only then can we have genuine and free conversations about faith. Of course, free and open conversations about faith may result in some people becoming atheists. But it’s better for people to make that choice freely than to try to enforce conformity and push nonbelievers back into the closet. The growth of disbelief is a sign of our liberty. It is also an opportunity for deeper discussions of faith, and of freedom. 

Finding Hope Beyond the Political

Or Why We Need Philosophy, Religion, and Art

Political life is limited and ultimately unsatisfying.  When we focus on the external and horizontal dimension of political life, we are bound to be frustrated.  But there are other dimensions and sources of meaning, beyond the political.

The despair of the political

The world is unjust.  Good people often suffer in misery and obscurity.  And bad folks become rich and powerful.  The social and political world is messy and frustrating.  Our imagined ideals fail to become real.  And although progress can be made, there is backlash and unfulfilled expectations. 

We inherit a broken world that conflicts with our idealism.  The dream of justice runs aground on the shards of these fragments.  The more we want to repair these ruins, the more hopeless things appear.  We also disagree about who ruined this world, why it is broken, and how it ought to be fixed. 

This sense of grievance and longing explains why the passion of the political can become shrill, dogmatic, and polarizing.  Political intensity feeds off dissatisfaction.  And when these deep emotions are frustrated long enough, there is the risk of despair.  The passion of the political dwells in the thought that if these ruins cannot be repaired, all is lost. 

Clinging to hope

To fight the despair that haunts politics, political rhetoric is often infused with what Barack Obama called “the audacity of hope.”  The best and most inspiring political speech reminds us of an imagined future in which the ideal will be actualized.

Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a well-known example.  He was aware of the problem of political despair.  In response to the disappointments of the civil rights movement, King said, , “The only healthy answer lies in one’s honest recognition of disappointment even as he still clings to hope, one’s acceptance of finite disappointment even while clinging to infinite hope.”  And: “Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward nonviolently, accept disappointments and cling to hope.”

King warned that disappointment in the face of injustice can lead to bitterness, self-pity, cynicism, nihilism, and other “poisons” of the soul.  His remedy was to “cling to hope.”  This phrase is interesting.  To cling is to hold on, to try to remain committed, even as the storm rages.

Thinking in more than one dimension

As a Christian, King found a source of hope beyond the storm.  King’s hope was oriented toward another dimension, a source of meaning that exists in a realm beyond the political.  This is what Rev. Jeremiah Wright (who inspired Obama’s idea of the audacity of hope) called “the vertical dimension.”

Politics is one dimensional.  It views the self and the other on a merely horizontal dimension, failing to take into account other dimensions of life and experience.   This is bound to be dissatisfying because human beings live in more than one dimension. 

The vertical dimension is often understood in religious terms, as an axis oriented toward the divine.  But secular folks can also discover an inner dimension connected with love, beauty, or other sources of meaning found in the human experience.  The most important of these non-political axes are called art, religion, and philosophy (borrowing a set of concepts from Hegel). 

Now there is a tendency among some thoroughly political (or politicized) folks to reduce art, religion, and philosophy to politics.  Marxists explain the “ideological” in terms of material and economic conditions.  Feminists and race-conscious theorists also sometimes interpret art, religion, and philosophy from a liberatory framework.  Conservatives do this as well, when they think that art, religion, and philosophy ought to support some preferred nationalistic ideal. 

But the wonder of art, religion, and philosophy is that they burst the bounds of any politicized and reductive account of human reality.  The artist, the mystic, and the sage exist in a different dimension, oriented toward values and ideas that are not reducible to questions of justice or power. 

The example of comedy and tragedy

This may sound abstract.  So let’s consider two familiar artforms: the comedic and the tragic.  Comedy can be political.  It can be used both to liberate and to oppress.  But sometimes the comedic reveals the absurdity of existence.  And laughter can be an end-in-itself. 

Tragedy can also be employed for political purposes: to tell a story about oppression or the “triumph of the will.”  But tragedy also transcends the political.  It makes us shudder to wonder about death, evil, pride, murder, and betrayal.  Sophocles has the chorus say in Antigone (line 332): There are terrors and wonders on earth, and none is more terrible or wonderful than we humans. 

When a comedic artist reveals absurdity, we are directed beyond the political dimension toward broader reflection on the human condition.  When we laugh, and play along, we are engaged in a world of imagination, on a dimension apart from the political. The same is true, when we are moved by tragedy to see the terror and the wonder of human existence.  This act of imagination gives us a glimpse of a dimension of experience that is beyond the political. 

This act of imagination can be a source of hope, repair, and reconciliation.  It can also renew the spirit and gives us the energy to return to our struggles with better perspective, and a clearer sense of self. 

Hope beyond politics

Now a critic may suggest that this experience of transcendence comes from a position of “privilege” that is conveniently able to ignore the challenges of political reality.  But the move beyond the political is not an excuse for political indifference.  We are political animals, as Aristotle said.  And we cannot simply ignore injustice and the struggles of political life. 

But we all possess the power of human imagination.  And we can all find consolation and hope when we open our minds to those other dimensions of human experience that transcend the political.

What does it mean to believe in Christmas?

Someone recently asked me, “Do you believe in Christmas?” We were talking about religion. As we wandered in the depths of theology, my friend said, “But what about Christmas? Do you believe in that?”

This struck me as a strange question. What would it mean to believe in Christmas? Is the question about the virgin birth and the metaphysics of incarnation? Or is it about Santa and the elves? Or is it about something else, like love and hope? Maybe it is all of these.

Skeptics have criticized the traditional Christian narrative. Jamie Carter, a science writer, recently asserted that there is no such thing as a supernatural star. Carter suggests the Christmas star may have been a bright conjunction of planets or a passing comet. But that deflationary account ignores the star’s symbolic value. To ask if that star was really a supernova is to miss the point of the story.

Scholars have debunked many aspects of the Christmas story. Bart Ehrman argues, for example, that we don’t really know the year, the date, or even the season of Jesus’s birth. But one need not be a skeptic to understand that Christmas includes myth and legend. Ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI published a book explaining that there were likely no animals present at Jesus’ birth. The animals were added to the story for symbolic value and dramatic effect.

The current Pope, Francis, wrote about the nativity scene a couple of years ago, recounting the creation of the first Christmas creche by Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis wanted a symbolic representation of the Biblical story. According to the pope, the nativity scene is a symbol that brings light into the darkness.

So were there really three wise men, shepherds, and a baby asleep on the hay? The Bible’s Gospels don’t agree about the details of the nativity. And when I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, our tour guide told us that Jesus was born in a cave, not in a wooden stable. As the years pass, stories are repeated and embellished. Churches are built atop ancient grottos. And tales are retold and repackaged for the present generation.

Much of what we enjoy about that Christmas has been adorned by art and imagination. Christmas includes “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” There’s also Charlie Brown, Scrooge, and the Grinch. In the shopping malls, Santa gives out candy canes. We hang lights on the outside of our homes and bring trees into our living rooms. None of that is in the Bible. But Christmas is all of this, and more.

But is there a kernel of truth that we might believe in? The theologians tell us it is about the incarnation of God. But what exactly does that mean? And how are we supposed to get our heads around that singular and mysterious event?

Maybe the attempt to nail things down points us in the wrong direction. Human culture and religion are expansive. They grow and develop. New songs, images, and interpretations appear and add to our experience. This creative, hospitable, and joyful spirit is surely part of what it means to say that the angels are singing about goodwill toward all.

Christmas bears witness to the creative spirit. Saint Francis contributed to it. So did Franz Gruber when he composed “Silent Night.” So did Charles Dickens, when he created Scrooge and Tiny Tim. We also witness the Christmas spirit in “White Christmas”, a tune by Isaiah Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Charles Schulz showed us Linus caring for Charlie Brown’s sad little tree. And Dr. Seuss reminds us that the Grinch can be redeemed.

And each family has its own traditions and stories, ornaments and favorite foods. When we celebrate Christmas with our loved ones, we renew that creative and joyful spirit. This is what the exchange of gifts is all about. It is a process of sharing joy, hope, and love.

December is cold and dark. Without Christmas, these days would be bleak. But we warm our hearts by filling the night with laughter and song. The Christmas star is more than a passing comet. It is a symbol that reminds us to seek light in the darkness.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article270075617.html#storylink=cpy