My faith is more than a cultural artifact
One of my Sunday habits is reading the New York Time’s columnists. I enjoy Maureen Dowd’s snarky column, I like Thomas Friedman’s political commentary on the Middle East, and I usually enjoy Nicholas Kristof’s compassion world news coverage, he usually covers area of great distress that are not necessarily making headline news. Kristof is the kind of reporter that is humble in his style and gentle in his rebuke, even. I usually appreciate his writing. I appreciate his willingness to go out on a limb and be bold (he supported the U.S. attacking Syria, even).
This Sunday’s column was no different. It started with a religion quiz, where he wrote a few paragraphs about religion with twenty explicit errors. He wondered if people could identify them. His point was that many “secularists” as he termed them could not identify the mistakes. He was writing about the importance of understanding faith because faith and religion is still important to much of the world. My favorite quotation:
"Secularists sometimes believe religious knowledge doesn’t matter because the world is leaving faith behind. Really? Faith is elemental in much of the world, including large swaths of America."
I agree with Kristof’s premise. In fact, I noticed such indifference and summary dismissal of faith on the wildly popular Cosmos. (That actually insighted a Facebook discussion that proved my point that sometimes even people that don’t profess faith in God can be as bad about spreading their message as Christians sometimes are.) It is a frustrating reality that Christians and other people can be so easily dismissed, even by so-called religious experts.
It seems to me that Kristof is still identifying religion as an aspect of one’s culture—and in that sense, any good anthropologist should know a lot about it. Not surprisingly, Kristof got disemboweled on his Facebook page by the legions of secularists that follow his page and read his columns. My main issue is that my faith isn’t just a byproduct of my culture (I am in fact Egyptian—90 percent of whom are Muslim); it is a matter of divine revelation!
But I suppose when you make a large generalization about any group of people, you’re going to get in trouble. It wasn’t a surprise for me that many Americans knew a lot about religious language and ideas, because the United States uses our longing for faith and a soulful connection to one another to further its indoctrination of us. Robert Bellah called it American civil religion.
Bellah made the argument that the U.S.’s national identity is tied in a faith of its own. Examples of such aren't just in the Judeo-Christian values that the nation was supposedly founded on, but even language like saying that the President’s power comes from God, or America is God’s chosen nation, phrases like “In God We Trust,” “God Bless America,” “One Nation Under God.”
Moreover, our Presidents are like our prophets; our founding fathers have a diety-like status among us, the government can hand out forgiveness, the Constitution is like our sacred text, we have a sacred symbol in the American flag, our Pledge of Allegiance is like our Lord’s Prayer, we believe it's preaching as the President delivers the State of the Union each year and we marvel at his charisma, during our wars we had propaganda campaigns that convinced people to buy war bonds, we have names for our heretics too and we excommunicate them if they go too far, and we even have “holy days” (holidays): Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, President’s Day, Veteran’s Day, etc.
I think we feel the heaviness of American civil religion and its constant evangelism as an assault on our souls. The reaction that we often get is a resistance to being a part of anything other than ourselves. It’s a beautifully American image of course, because as we are all propagandized into believing the myth of individual expression with which we are so readily indoctrinated. In fact, if our reaction to American patriotism is individual exceptionalism, how far off are we from the American exceptionalism that Ronald Reagan sold to the American people in his 1974 speech? One excerpt:
"You can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.”
Reagan of course, borrowed his phrase from Jesus, actually. Jesus uses the term “city on a hill” when he was first giving the Sermon on the Mount, his big speech in Matthew that retaught us all how to live our lives. Today he might be giving it to all of our people that are in our cells, because they are the light of the world, the light of Philadelphia. I really believe that. Jesus starts the revolution that we are continuing today. And I’m ready to keep doing it with him. I don’t want anything to do with the Godlessness of the U.S. and I am proud to be a Christian! I’m proud to be following Jesus and I want to do it with you.
July 4th isn’t my Independence Day, Easter Sunday is. My year starts with Advent. I celebrate our birthday on Pentecost Sunday. My founding fathers are the Gospel writers, and the cloud that bears witness to the power of the Cross and Jesus’ conquering death. I get really amped up, because I hate when my faith is reappropriated for someone else’s agenda. Just like when Israel this week started recruiting Palestinian Christians to fight its wars feels like Constantine becoming a Christian so that the anarchists that were the early church would start killing people for the state. I’m not doing that. I’m following Jesus. Jesus reappropriated the Empire’s symbol of execution as the one that represents my salvation. And I’m not getting fooled, so I don’t believe in the civil religion because I follow Jesus. Following Jesus to me isn’t a matter of religion, it is a matter of revelation.