Church and State
Mr. Moomjean’s article “America 2.0” in the July 9 VCReporter reminds me of 70 years ago when I was in basic Air Force training in Biloxi, Mississippi. Our barracks were two-story structures, and in our case the upper story housed guys from Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, while the lower story did the same for guys, including myself,f from Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It wasn’t long before we were calling the barrack steps the Mason-Dixon line as one couldn’t get into any extended conversation with the upstairs guys without the Civil War becoming an issue. It became irritating, our attitude being, “Hey, get over it. Aren’t we supposed to learn from past failures and be strengthened by them to live more satisfactory, less burdened lives?”
Obviously, the past can be so entrapping, both in what we think it encompassed and in what it didn’t. Going on to Mr. Moomjean’s thoughts about the status of Christianity presently and at our nation’s founding, I would reverse his judgments. Our Founding Fathers were overwhelmingly influenced by the Enlightenment, which in turn had been fomented by an utter rejection of the mentality motivating the wars of the Reformation and other benighted belligerent actions. None of this was just theoretical; their King George III had ultimate human control of their religious lives. And whether he exercised it or not, the threat was always there.
John Jay, if I remember correctly, was the sole devout Founding Father. Others were nominal Christians, while at an extreme to Jay’s position was Thomas Jefferson who, in a remarkable effort, expurgated all from the New Testament except the words he thought Jesus had uttered. Never in our history had “separation of church and state” been such an alive concept as at our nation’s founding! Of course, popularly, as to our founding, people think of the Pilgrims, not realizing that a quarter-millennium separated them from the Founding Fathers.
Christianity’s present impact on us, even for the unreligious, is far more pervasive and subtle than most realize. When I was young and becoming aware in the ’40s, evangelical Christianity was a backwater in our national life, most evangelicals avoiding politics because it dealt with messy, worldly affairs that were a hazard to the faithful. Besides, the second coming was imminent; thus mucking about in worldly affairs was not only spiritually dangerous, it was unnecessary.
This mode, though, was before the impact of the new technologies of radio and especially television, which fundamentally changed the religious scene. Granted, there were almost titillating failures, like the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker affair, but otherwise evangelicals did a 180-degree about-face, and today they are a dominant element of American society. Mega-church pastors, mostly evangelicals like Rick Warren, come to mind when the religious scene is invoked. When I was young it was old church thinkers like Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Bishop Bromley Oxnam that figured in press releases.
The operative dynamic in this fundamental change is certainty. In an evangelical religious context it’s buttressed by inviolate scripture, in a political setting by the tough sounding “no compromise” mantra, but what’s missing in the last scenario is that there’s no final justification other than the mindset of the no-compromising politician or a group of the same, a pretty flimsy structure built on the ever-shifting sands of time. Following this to its psychological meaning, church and state are no longer really separated. Thomas Jefferson, it is to be hoped, is not witnessing this!