The days after Thanksgiving are quiet ones in our family and in our neighborhood. Matter of fact, the only people we see out and about are the dog owners, because dogs don’t recognize holidays — except for the extra tidbits of turkey they are awarded.
They jump and clamor and beg at the door until, despite the raw, bone aching chill and the freezing gusts, we bundle up, get their leashes, and head out.
On our rounds, we meet and greet people we have known for a dozen years now, or we drop in on them in their robes and slippers, those lucky ones who have cats instead. The question of the day gets asked, partly with curiosity, partly with trepidation: How was your Thanksgiving? Meaning less how over-cooked was your turkey breast or how many green bean casseroles we brought, than how was it with your relatives: your mother-in-law, your brother-in-law, your aunt from South Carolina? Meaning this year, most especially, did you end up talking about the election and religion?
Did you manage to avoid these topics? And even if you did, did the table feel like a temporary truce in an epic battle, like the German and English troops during World War I who got out of their foxholes on Christmas to sing carols and share rations, then resumed killing each other the very next day?
Enemies turned into comrades in the spirit of peace on Earth, and then back into enemies again. Over pieces of land and an unfortunate assassination.
Here’s the scenario I imagined might have happened in those families where no truce was struck around the heaving, heaped dinner table sometime between noon and six p.m. on Thursday: The turkey has been carved and the carver complimented, plates filled with bird, and the side dishes passed, with murmured kudos for the gravy and the dressing and the homemade cranberry sauce. There’s the initial silence of bites taken, with perhaps some chewing and cutting sounds.
And then a few people pause, or perhaps the fast eaters are done, chairs pushed back a bit, or elbows rested tautly on the damask cloth.
So, Uncle Jack queries, innocently enough: how about that election?
Bet that taught those godless liberals a lesson. Those baby-killing, gay-loving, terrorist-pampering, immoral traitors. Or something like that. Efforts are made to politely ignore the first folly by those who know where this is going, but then a second shot across the table, with only its thin protective barrier of china and half-empty macaroni bowls.
This time, the nephew who just spent a month registering voters, or the daughter who is embarrassed by her father and angry at him for his judgmentalism fires back — saying something like, what do you mean by that, or this isn’t the time or place. And suddenly there is a huge gap where a table had been — where different views of right and wrong politics, morals, and religion line up like GI Joes in their combat fatigues, waving flags and pointing rifles.
Imaginary, perhaps, but just, perhaps, in a metaphoric way, a real depiction of a real situation that played out on Thanksgiving, that day when graces and blessings are said for bounty and unity and ties that bind us.
I know for fact that it doesn’t have to be a conservative fundamentalist who throws the first grenade. In past years, at my own family table, it has likely been my father who refused to join in our lightly religious blessing of the food, or when learning that our guests were two fellow seminarians, both Methodists, pounded on the table telling them that he couldn’t understand why anyone was stupid enough to believe in God.
And me wanting to crawl under the table with the dogs.
There are places in the world where the matter of God is always, as former nun Karen Armstrong dubbed it, a battle over God. That gets mixed up with all the other possessive and aggressive tendencies of the human animal. Ironically, places that call themselves God loving and moral can appear the most judgmental and hateful. When it comes to being religious, or at least professing to be religious, the United States is right up there.
One way of seeing our country is through the eyes of those other people in the world that we tend to call foreigners. How do they see us, and when they see us and describe us, do they see and describe that Maginot Line, those trenches dug out of hard clay?
A fascinating guide for foreign exchange students printed pre-election 2004 described American values this way:
- U.S. society is made up of ethnic groups and cultures that have helped shape American values.
- Some individuals and groups have respected values and beliefs that are quite different from mainstream America.
- People’s attitudes and behaviors are based on their values.
The overarching (or underlying) values that the education guide describes are:
Individuality — U.S. Americans are encouraged at an early age, we are told, to be independent and have their own goals in life.
Privacy — U.S. Americans like their privacy and enjoy spending time alone.
And equality — U.S. Americans uphold the ideal that everyone is created equal and has the same rights. This includes women as well as men of all ethnic and cultural groups, and there are even laws that protect this right to equality in its various forms.
Nothing in this carefully worded guide even alludes to U.S. America being a Christian country, a God-fearing country, or a country where it is necessary, to be accepted or to win an election, to be anti-choice, anti-gay, and carry a gun, ideally more than one gun.
Yet, the word is out, if we pay attention to non-American newspaper reports and columns. In a piece in The Star, a Toronto paper, the reporter concluded, after hearing a forum on God’s Back with a Vengeance: Religion, Pluralism, and the Secular State, that we may be neighbors and seemingly similar in our values and way of life, but in attitudes towards religion, Canada and the United States are worlds apart. And, he warned, the gap is widening.
In broad strokes, the reporter noted, Canada is vastly more secular than the U.S. Canadians, he acknowledged, like religion and politics to keep a comfortable distance and if there are alignments, Canadians line up with Europeans rather than Americans in their views on faith in the public square.
This forum, which sounds like it turned into our Thanksgiving dinner debate, was between Karen Armstrong, who wrote the best selling History of God and Battle for God, a study of fundamentalism across religions — and Richard Land, the lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention. Land told the skeptical and then hostile Canadians that politicians, winning politicians, knew well the winning issues for those in his large conservative denomination and other religious right-of-center evangelical groups. They knew this group and counted on this group to win the 2004 elections and ballot initiatives, because their numbers are in the millions. And they vote in a predictable way, with conservative and traditionalist voters who go to church once a week or more voting for conservative candidates, including the Presidential candidate, two to one.
America’s political and intellectual elite, as he called them, are out of step with mainstream America, Land told those gathered. These elites, he said, have increasingly become hostile to religion playing a role in public life. They don’t mind a private devotional life, but taking it out in public is not the thing to do.
Americans ought to and did vote their values, he declared. Never mind the economy. Never mind the war on Iraq. The number one issue Americans needed to keep in mind in November was how the candidate stood on abortion. I vote for babies and I vote my pocket book every time, Land said.
He wasn’t given an easy time by the delegates, mostly middle aged or older, reasonably well off, opinionated and highly educated — and also Canadian. In this case, being a Canadian had as much to do with the gap between this conservative fundamentalist and his audience as anything else.
A new and revealing poll by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life tells the story of the God Gap between Canadians and Europeans and the United States. Twice as many Americans as Canadians say religion is very important to them. This is, from the point of view of our neighbors to the North and across the Atlantic Ocean, a church-going land of puzzling proportions. America is traditionally more religious than most, if not all, European countries, with 80 percent saying that they believe in God (a much higher percentage in the American Southern Bible belt) and 65 percent agreeing that religion plays a very important part in their lives.
What may be changing, says a just-published piece in the Economist, is that the country is getting what they describe as a little more intense in its religious beliefs, and more and more tolerant of the ad-mix of religion and politics, partisan politics. The Pew study reported that the number of people who “agree strongly” with the core items of Christian dogma rose substantially between the 1960s and the New Millennium. So did the number of those who believe that there are clear guidelines about good and evil, applying those guidelines regardless of circumstances.
And in more than a few cases, in more than a few million cases, that their God and their religion was/is on the side of one political party. In fact, one end of one political party.
Before the election, more religiously liberal groups like Sojourners placed full-page ads in prominent papers declaring that God is Not a Republican or a Democrat. The ad copy declared that this group, with its long list of religious underwriters, believed that the claims of divine appointment for the President, uncritical affirmation of his policies, and assertions that all Christians must vote for his re-election, constituted bad theology and dangerous religion.
We believe, the signees said, that all candidates should be examined by measuring their policies against the complete range of Christian (in their case) ethics and values.
We will measure candidates, they wrote, by whether they enhance human life, human dignity, and human rights. Whether they strengthen family life and protect children. Whether they promote racial reconciliation and support gender equality. Whether they serve peace and social justice.
Whether they advance the common good rather than the individual, national, and special interests.
This, they affirmed, is the meaning of responsible Christian (in their case) citizenship.
Following the election, part of whose outcome was attributed to a large increase in the conservative evangelical vote, secular Europeans, according to one report, wondered whether they and Americans were now on different planets. The week before the election, in contrast to the American outcome, one candidate for European Union commissioner had to withdraw his nomination because he said homosexuality was a sin, that marriage exists for children and the protection of women.
He would have won Ohio, one commentator noted.
The most overtly religious president of recent times was re-elected with an increased majority, and true that 13 states passed state constitutional referendums banning gay marriage and that plurality of American values put “moral values” at the top of their list of concerns. But, as the London-based Economist observed, they hardly formed what we like to call a moral majority. The moralists’ (or the conservative moralists’) share of the election was 22 percent, just two points more than those who were most concerned about the economy and three points more than those who voted based on their concerns about terrorism.
Moreover, that 22 percent share was much lower than those in the 2000 election who put moral issues top — nearly 40 percent. Thus, in the last election, almost half the voters put moral issues first, this time only a fifth did.
And at the same time, alongside all those signs of conservative religiosity that I talked about earlier, there are indications of mellowing, tolerance, and different priorities. Support for interracial dating has doubled since 1987, discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS has become unacceptable, and in many of the old moral issues, invasion into the private lives of others (gay marriage and abortion being striking exceptions) things have eased.
So, the message is, from the outside in, that all is not, as we Americans tend to see things, all one way. Morality, conservative morality, garnered lots of punitive votes from religious faithfuls in traditional and conservative churches. But not so resoundingly as in previous elections. And while going to church regularly seemed to be the winning factor in the God Gap, the outcome may be that those of us who also consider ourselves faithful members of religious communities, and religiously oriented, whether Humanist, Theist, Pantheistic, Panentheistic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or Islamic may have heard a wake-up call.
Not to pretend that this isn’t a country drenched in religiosity, or that religious and really moral values don’t make a difference on the American public square, but to take back our own pulpits and soap boxes.
Within days after the election, there were letters to the editor on moral values from Christians and others who were not, are not, willing to cede goodness, grace, and righteousness to one side of the God debate.
“As a Christian and a member of the clergy,” one man wrote, “I am heartbroken. My heartache isn’t as much about the results but how Christianity is portrayed. There is so much arrogance and division that the true meaning of the Christian Faith is being replaced with a political agenda. My question to everyone, including Christians, is this: Where is God’s Grace?”
Gary Hart, a former senator from Colorado, raised in the church of the Nazarene and a graduate of Yale Divinity School, wrote on the Monday after the election, that if we are to insert faith into the public dialogue, going forward, then it need not be selective. It need not be restricted to language around law and judgment. Let it be defined also in terms of love, caring, and compassion. We all can agree, he believes, that human need, poverty, homelessness, illiteracy must be addressed.
Liberals, he said, are not against religion. They are against hypocrisy, exclusionism, and judgmentalism.
If faith now drives our politics, at the very least, he hopes, let’s make it a faith of inclusion, genuine compassion, humility, justice, and accountability.
And that, when we gather around a common table in future holidays, that we will not be afraid of talking about and saying blessings in the name of God, or the source of our higher and deeper consciousness.
All images of God, all ways of seeking and finding a moral compass, meaning, and purpose.
Bring many names.