An Interview with Adlai Stevenson III, Part Three: Religion in American Life

(1 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

While in the midst of a discussion about the vast unchecked growth of the military, the subject of religion entered our interview.  While on the subject, I mentioned that I am a Quaker, and opposed to the very existence of a military.  We then began to chat briefly about the connection between church membership and political allegiance. Senator Stevenson is a Unitarian Universalist, and though his church does not expressly take the position, he has long been in favor of abolishing the death penalty.  The Senator’s father and Great-grandfather also believed that capital punishment should be cast upon the scrap heap of history.  And as we discussed the particulars of the Religious Left, our interview then turned towards the abuses of the Religious Right.  

On this subject, the Senator writes,

Evangelical Christianity remains a powerful, perhaps growing force in the lives of Americans.  While mainline Protestant denominations have shrunk, evangelicals have increased and continue to derive their inspiration from a literal reading of the Bible and the resurrected Christ as their savior.  Christian Zionists have become supporters of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, trusting in the eventual conversion of the Jews.

The Senator noted that many of our Founding Fathers were often extremely suspicious of organized religion.  Products of what was perceived to be an Enlightened Age, they believed that reason alone could solve a multitude of societal problems.  Those who affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence, for example, did not need to look too far back in history to see the excesses and barbarity committed in the name of God.  This makes it extremely ironic, to say the least, that conservative politicians and groups have revised history so substantially that they reverently invoke the names of men who, were they alive today, would very likely have vocally repudiated their stated beliefs.    

Evangelism in the early days propagated the Gospel, preached salvation, and often employed Scripture to depict a caring Jesus.  Later, it began to metamorphose into salvation through rebirth, the end of times, and predestination, which had roots in Calvinist New England.  For a long while, this fundamentalism did not invade American politics.  God did not demand the submission preached by Luther, Calvin, or the Pope.

Without any background or contrast, many assume this latest incarnation of Christianity has been around forever.  Indeed, the version of Christianity now considered almost-Orthodox has taken hold so quickly and thoroughly that it is sometimes difficult to remember a time it was not present.  While spending two terms in the U.S. Senate, Stevenson saw the beginning of this transition firsthand.  He routinely worked closely across the aisle with Republicans to draft legislation, and is dismayed at the divided, partisan atmosphere that is now present in that deliberative body.  It didn’t take long.  The political climate in 1970, when he started his first term, was wholly distinct and different to when he left the Senate eleven years later.  To some extent, he assigns blame to the Reagan Revolution, which was on its way in while he was on the way out.  But part of this division and growing partisan rancor he places squarely on the shoulders of Evangelical Christanists.  “The Republican Party,” he notes, echoing others on the same topic, “has become America’s first religious party.”

With a now decreased voice in the greater debate, liberal faith traditions find themselves increasingly at a severe disadvantage.  The strident pronouncements and self-righteous testimonies of Evangelicals make the most noise and achieve maximum media saturation.  In part, this is because religious liberals tend to be more private about the matter, thus they are often loathe to appear as though they are proselytizing in any way.  Uncomfortable with what they see as the heavy-handed approaches of others, progressive people of faith routinely believe that church membership and religious faith ought to be entirely up to the personal conviction of the individual.  This attitude is, of course, itself a direct response to the mission statement of Evangelicals, which is quite often to save souls and win converts.    

In The Black Book, Stevenson cites the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood.  

The biblical record is far more concerned with events than it is with ideas.  Ideas there are, but they are subordinate to events.  The conviction usually unstated, is that God reveals Himself much more fully in history than in nature or in any other way…The men who wrote the words of the Bible were contented, for the most part, with telling a story.

It may be instructive to see this new Evangelism as a counter-reformation of a sort.  Where reason and religious tolerance once reigned, now fundamentalism, superstition, and intolerance poses as Gospel.  Once politics enters religion, problems are not far away. When Christian love should be of paramount importance, now stem cell research, gay rights, and abortion have become as important, if not more so.  Stevenson can’t help but note the tragedy.  To him, this is nothing less than class warfare, and nothing can be less productive than a Civil War.  

Senator Stevenson’s Great-grandfather, Adlai I, ran as Vice-President with William Jennings Bryan at the head of the ticket at the early part of the last century.  He notes that the Great Commoner himself would be dismayed at the result.  “Common people [are] waging war against their own class for the benefit of rich and privileged beneficiaries and their supporters.”  What is even more tragic is that many don’t seem to be able to see this.

Nor do people often recognize that religion has become big business.  Megachurches spring up on every corner, espousing philosophies which are little more than feel-good platitudes validated with a bare minimum of scripture.  The so-called Prosperity Gospel now in vogue is capitalism lightly disguised as theology.  True faith itself is not simply The Power of Positive Thinking.  Belief is a complex matter inclined to provide us what we need, not necessarily what we want.  When the focus shifts to bricks and mortar or individual gain, religion has no room to breathe.        

But amidst all that is discouraging, Stevenson does conclude with a few hopeful words.

Perhaps Reason will return.  Evangelicals have been detected taking an interest in global warming and the afflictions of the needy in the world.  Republicans, despite their most recent successes, have been losing elections.  But the commercialism of religion flourishes unrelated, as it is, to the evangelical virtues.


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