The God Factor

November 27, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Hi Margo,

Since the election a month ago, I’ve been driven to distraction by how the news media has handled this stunning revelation: Moral values are back. Not only did the values thing play a role in George Bush’s victory, apparently, but it has fed untold talk shows and column inches pondering the blue states versus the red states. So much baloney, as far as I’m concerned, to slice the country into two neat pieces — devout Christians on one side, rabid secular humanists on the other. If there’s some end-of-the-year award for “most reductive idea,” this has got to be it. People of faith and thoughtful secularists are everywhere. 

This fact is made apparent by the provocatively titled “When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today,” by Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox, and newly published by Houghton Mifflin. Yes, Virginia — I mean Margo — Christians still live and work in that liberal bastion, Massachusetts, and Cox is one of them. And he’s at Harvard, no less, sharing the wisdom of Jesus’ ministry as part of an undergraduate program developed two decades ago, which recognized the university’s obligation to send its grads out into the world with an appropriate moral compass. Cox is not a biblical literalist, I’ll grant you that. But his use of the Gospels in the classroom proves that Harvard is not a godless — or even Jesusless — universe. It’s just that Cox emphasizes Jesus in his rabbinical robes, telling stories with open-ended meanings to shake up his listeners. “The first shall be last”: Ah, c’mon.  Haven’t you seen “The Apprentice”? 

Where Cox and conservative Christians meet, I believe, is that neither buy the relativistic, who-am-I-to-judge garbage often associated with the so-called liberal elite. As he rightly points out, this kind of tolerance is less about compassion than it is fuzzy thinking. The problem, he writes, is not that college students (or the rest of us) aren’t capable of discerning the difference between right and wrong. Rather, it requires an investment of time and in some cases prayer to sort it out. 

In another new book that thoughtfully addresses the values divide, “Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church” (Knopf), sociologist and documentary filmmaker James Ault Jr. describes the three years he spent with a small-town Massachusetts congregation. Like Cox, Ault sits on the more liberal side of the church. But he wants to understand the other half, the kind of people who home-school their kids and read the “Left Behind” series, and he resists projecting his own values on them.

In doing so, he makes an important point: American intellectual culture — which includes the news media, at least on a good day –makes a big mistake by assuming that religious conservativism represents “a lower stage of human development,” as he puts it. By his count, the movement has been building for nearly 40 years. This has given the mainstream and the Democratic Party a long time to adjust, and yet it appears urban intellectuals (and many members of the news media) were taken by surprise in Election 2004 — when voters not only went Republican in a big way but also snubbed gay marriage, even in my own allegedly “blue” state of Oregon.

We all get the joke when we see the new map of North America, with the two coasts joining the United States of Canada and the middle of the country branded “Jesusland.”  But where do you put those of us who have a foot in both camps? Cox and Ault are the few who are making intelligent noises on this subject.

Hey Ellen,

First off, I think the whole “moral values” issue has been grossly exaggerated — and politically exploited. According to The Economist, the percentage of people who claimed that “moral values” were the biggest consideration in their vote for president actually DECREASED over the past two elections. And secondly, no one seems to appreciate that “moral values” can cover a lot of territory — from opposing gay marriage to opposing the war in Iraq. Yet, here we are (we, as in journalists) scrambling to re-assess our attitudes toward religion, as if religion has been demonized — or ignored — in the press or book publishing world.

I say baloney to that. Religious people of all stripes get an enormous amount of respectful coverage — certainly more than their atheist counterparts do. Sure, secular humanists may dominate academe. But most of them at least count themselves as “spiritual.” And most of them, by definition (since they believe so strongly in tolerance), are respectful of believers. Those who DON’T believe are the real pariahs in this society. Can you imagine a declared atheist as a presidential candidate?

That said, the books I find most valuable in this never-ending discussion are the ones that probe rather than preach. I haven’t read Cox’s book, but I do like James Ault Jr.’s approach in “Flesh and Spirit.” (Ault, by the way, returned to his Episcopalian roots after spending time with the fundamentalists.)

My own recent choices of questioning spiritual books would be Karen Armstrong’s “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness,” published by Knopf earlier this year; and Nancy M. Malone’s “Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading,” out this year in paperback from Riverhead Books. Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, describes her move away from orthodoxy and her career as a writer exploring the sacred texts of the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Malone, also a former Catholic nun (do you see a pattern here?!), offers a rumination on pondering things spiritual through books. She even includes a recommended reading list of her favorite authors, who range from Patrick O’Brian to Alice Munro.

Meanwhile, to learn more about all those those “secular humanists” supposedly found only in blue states, I recommend Susan Jacoby’s “Free Thinkers: A History of American Secularism” (Metropolitan Books). Although at times she overstates her thesis (that securlarism, by insisting on the strict separation of church and state, has done more to ensure religious liberty in this country than sectarian religious thinking), Jacoby provides an exhaustive history of secular activism. In spite of all the current brow-beating by journalists and Democrats about their supposed neglect of people of religion, it’s worth noting how little we know of our secular history and how important the fight for a secular government has been.

Religion has always played a more important role in America than in most Western democracies.  But the idea of imposing a particular religious belief clearly runs contrary to the founders’ intent. Public morality and issues of faith do matter to a lot of people in both red and blue states, but not everyone agrees on what is a moral issue (abortion? capital punishment? the war in Iraq? gay marriage? women’s rights? victims’ rights?) or, for that matter, which position on these issues represents the more moral side. I am always wary of those who proclaim absolute certainty in moral matters. A bumper sticker I recently saw sums up my position on spirituality best: God save us from your followers.

Hi Margo,

Contrary to what you may have read in the secular (my, we do like that word!) press, religion is not a dictate. It’s an invitation. The preacher men who attempt to speak for all Christians are the ones who have turned belief into a caricature for political gain — and this applies to both sides, the Rev. Jerry Falwell as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The assumption that faith equals intolerance gives secularists an easy out — too easy, in my opinion. God dwells in the details, and I’m not talking about Ephesians 5:22 (“Wives, be subject to your husbands…”). Faith relies on moments of quiet reflection, a sense of our shared humanity,  a reach for the common good — and a selective reading list.  This lays the foundation for respectful dialogue. 

Atheists are entitled to their  views. But it’s unlikely that one will be elected president because, by virtue of their belief, he or she demonstrates an inability to appreciate the electorate’s spiritual yearning (reliable polls show that the vast majority of Americans consider themselves believers). What politician is dumb enough to admit he or she is tone-deaf to a tune that most people hear?   

It’s striking that, just as all this talk about values and religion takes center stage, one of the most important works of fiction published this fall hits the topic head on.  Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) speaks through the voice of an elderly Midwest preacher preparing to meet his Maker in the late 1950s. Here is wisdom, folks, distilled into one old man whose reflections frame a century’s worth of cultural change and give more insight than most non-fiction books as to why religion still matters so much to so many people.  Its quiet, almost elegiac tone could serve as a model for a national conversation on the role of faith in American life.