Should the Pledge of Allegiance contain the phrase “under God”? Should faithbased social service organizations receive government funds? If ever religion was a private matter, between individuals and their God, that time is surely not now, when questions of religion and public policy intersect at every turn.
For perspective on this issue, Titan Magazine turned to Ben Hubbard, professor emeritus of comparative religion at Fullerton and the founder of the university’s Center for the Study of the Place of Religion in American Life. (The center is currently inactive due to lack of funds.) Hubbard specializes in the areas of Jewish studies, biblical studies, interfaith dialogue, methodology in comparative religion, religion and the media and world religions. He is revising an earlier publication, “An Educator’s Classroom Guide to America’s Religions,” coauthored with James Santucci and John Hatfield, to be completed in 2006.
Americans who attend church regularly are more likely to be devout than Europeans by a large
percentage. What accounts for the difference?
The first reason is World Wars I and II. Those horrible experiences gave Europeans a more sober and pessimistic view of both human nature and religion. The number of European religious wars, especially since the Reformation, has also colored their view.
There has been an upsurge of attention to Americans’ religious beliefs in the past few years,
especially in regard to politics. Have there been other periods since 1776 when religion played
such an important role in our national life?
America has had three periods of religious fervor. The first, called the Great Awakening, lasted from about 1700 to just before the Revolutionary War. It arose because most Americans came to this country for mercantile reasons – to grow tobacco and to make a new life. Except for the Puritans, they didn’t bring a lot of clergy along. But a series of English preachers like George Whitefield traveled the country and gave great orations that awakened the people. A revival tradition began with them. Similar periods occurred in the early 1800s and then after the Civil War to World War I.
Some historians think we are in the middle of a fourth one now, one that began with the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell, and Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The catalyst was Roe v. Wade, the decision in 1973 to legalize abortion. Other decisions had made conservative Christians unhappy, such as doing away with school prayer and Bible readings, but Roe v. Wade galvanized people. Reagan supported the evangelicals, which increased their enthusiasm, aided by the TV evangelism of Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others with a political agenda. We used to have tent revivals; now we have them in arenas, like the annual Harvest Crusade at Angel Stadium. They’re quintessentially American; Europe has nothing like them. What brings these revivals to an end? Secular, real-world concerns catch up to them. World War I was the ending of the third Great Awakening. The Iraq War, global warming, and America’s financial problems and concern about its place in the world may bring an end to what may be this fourth awakening. (We’re too close to it historically to make an accurate judgment now.)
In what ways has religion been a unifying force in this
country? How has it been divisive?
Americans have always seen themselves as a people protected by God. The Puritans thought of themselves as a City on a Hill, with this nation as providential and special. Whatever we did, God was on our side. This belief led to some tragic consequences such as Manifest Destiny, which convinced Americans they could do whatever they wanted with the Indians and Mexicans, for example.
It has also led to a lot of intolerance — in colonial times, intolerance towards Baptists and Quakers. One reason James Madison was so keen on forging the First Amendment was that he had seen persecution of Baptists in Virginia. He had heard about a Baptist bullwhipped by an Episcopal priest on horseback. Later on Catholics and Jews faced the same kind of intolerance.
Fortunately the First Amendment provides protection. It allows any religion to be practiced freely without endorsing any specific religion. It’s a work of genius, perhaps the greatest element in the Constitution.
What is the historical origin of the phrase “the separation
of church and state”? Does it mean different things to
different people or groups? Is it one reason we are seeing
conflict on matters such as prayer in public schools
and Christmas crèches on public property? Or does the
conflict come about because many don’t agree such a
separation should exist?
The phrase is found in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Church in which he tried to explain the First Amendment. Most liberal thinkers believe the statement is implied in the Constitution, but it does mean different things to different people. Some think a country devoid of religion is not what the Founding Fathers intended. I think we can gain insight into their intent by looking at documents like Jefferson’s letter. But we will always have a tug and pull between the country’s Christian majority (about 85 percent) and various minorities, as exemplified by the recent attempt to excise the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
To take a purist position, the phrase wouldn’t be in the pledge, and Christmas wouldn’t be an official holiday. But you make certain workable compromises for the sake of the greater good. No one is being persecuted because “In God We Trust” is on our coins, and children aren’t forced to include “under God” when they say the pledge. Realistic accommodations will always be necessary.
The number of Americans exposed to higher education
has never been greater. Higher education supposedly
teaches students to question, not take things on faith.
At the same time, the number of people disposed not to
question but rely on faith is increasing, as shown in the
percentage of people who believe literally in the Bible
and the virgin birth of Christ. Isn’t this a contradiction?
First, although more young people are being educated through college than ever before, some do go to private religious colleges where their belief system is reinforced. Second, many people bracket out or compartmentalize their secular education from their religion. In most cases their religion doesn’t conflict with their major. It might cause a problem for strict fundamentalists majoring in biology, but most fundamentalists don’t major in biology. Similarly, students who don’t want to consider that religions other than their own might contain true insights, won’t take my world religions course. Of course many liberal religious people are perfectly comfortable with biology or comparative religions courses.
It’s interesting that people can believe on the one hand in the literal truth of the Bible and on the other live in a society that takes a hard-headed, scientific viewpoint on many issues. Perhaps people see their religion as a refuge. They live in a public world when they have to and retreat to their private world when they want to.
A related question: An NBC poll shows that 57 percent
of respondents believe in the Biblical account of creation,
compared with 33 percent who think evolution is the
explanation. Many people believe that schools should
teach intelligent design along with evolution, as if these
two explanations are simply matters of opinion. A Pew
Foundation poll shows that 42 percent of Americans think
intelligent design should be taught instead of evolution.
What are the implications of this?
Among conservative, evangelical Protestants, a tradition going back to the Scopes trial and to the start of the Darwinian revolution in 1859 links Darwinism to atheism, secular humanism, and even, at the time of the Nazis, to a eugenics program emphasizing the survival of the fittest and doing away with the unfit. Also, many people have trouble with the notion that their ancestors were apes, even though 97 percent of our DNA is the same as chimpanzees’. Those factors, along with the story of the Creation in Genesis, make Darwinism look suspect. So people can live in the world and deal with business and finance and yet take a sinister view of Darwinism. They link it to abortion, gay rights, and a lot of liberal movements they don’t like.
In 1913, a social scientist found that about 40 percent of American scientists believe in a higher power or creator and an afterlife. In the ‘30s, the ‘60s, and the ‘90s, similar surveys again found the same percentage. So the scientific community hasn’t become more secular. The percentage of scientists who believe that science and religion are compatible has remained constant for a century.
Over the past half century, mainstream religious sects
have declined in membership and influence while the
membership and influence of formerly marginal sects
have increased. Why? Are there parallels to this trend
in other areas of American life?
The country is definitely more conservative now than 30 years ago. Ronald Reagan’s presidency coincided with the upsurge of the Christian Coalition and Moral Majority, all of which share the view that America has become too secular and lost its values. They point to what I call the Twin Towers of abortion on demand and gay rights. (Evolution is in the same bailiwick but one step down.) People see the formerly mainstream churches as too liberal on those two crucial issues. Those issues allow the conservative churches to say “We stand on solid principles and don’t compromise,” which has an appeal, especially in troubled times.
Reagan is important because he is seen as a principal force in the downfall of godless Communism, which validates the conservative viewpoint. All these issues – anti-abortion, anti-gay, and anti-Communism, combined now with anti-terrorism and a strong national defense – fit together. Conservatives feel they stand on principle.
The country has definitely swung to the right. I don’t think it will remain that way because in America as elsewhere the pendulum swings back toward the middle. But conservatism is the reality today. I think it’s important for liberals and conservatives to listen to each other. My editorial comment is that conservatives don’t listen to liberals. They see them as so bankrupt they no longer deserve a hearing. The reverse is also true, though less so. The caricatures each side has of the other do no one any good.
Is tolerance for people of other religions (or no religion)
Yes, even among devoutly religious people. That is the good news. People are better educated. They may not embrace Hinduism, for instance, but they don’t think Hindus are evil and warrant blanket condemnation. Americans realize we’ve survived as a nation for so long because the First Amendment allows freedom of religion. As the Founding Fathers said, religion works best when it’s left to prosper in the marketplace of ideas.