Last week in this space I took a few pokes at organized religion. First I made the point that, in order to be a true believer, you have to accept at face value some stuff that really defies the common sense test. And then, even while you are professing to believe all that, you have to ignore other parts of the good word — stuff that would make you a pariah among your people (if you don’t get taken out in a drone strike first).
After all that was said and done in my March 11 column, I sat back and felt, well, a little guilty. The fact is that many faith-based groups still do way more good than harm. The headlines may reflect the work of ISIS and Boko Haram, not to mention the Wacos and whackos of the western world, but the unrelenting good work by religious groups deserves to be mentioned.
Think of the increased number of couch potatoes we would have if organized religion didn’t get people up off their butts and off to a house of worship once a week or so. And the nice thing about those religious services is that almost everyone walks out feeling better than when they walked in. The believers have been uplifted. The skeptics and those forced to go by their parents or significant others are relived that the hour of power is finally over. I live on a street that has churches at either end, and I can see the joyous smiles after church is over.
Think of the musicians who get their start by performing at church services. My two kids are just sticking their toes into the cold waters of music performance careers and have already appeared at an Episcopal church in Philadelphia, a Pentecostal church in suburban South Jersey, a Lutheran church in Vineland, another mainstream church in Delaware, and with gospel choirs in Atlantic City and Trenton.
And think of all the families who turn to a nearby church when a loved one has died and use it as the gathering place for the grieving relatives. We have all heard stories of funeral homes taking advantage of their clients, but I don’t know of anyone ripped off by a church.
A Rutgers psychology professor, Julien Musolino, has just published a book, “The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain by Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs.” In it he argues that “soul beliefs” — the idea that an individual has some “immaterial, psychologically potent, and detachable soul” that will continue to exist even after the individual has died — can impede those seeking a more humane society.
I haven’t read his book so I don’t know how he measures a “humane society.” But it’s hard to miss all those soulful church folks putting their words into action and getting stuff done. The church at one end of my street has hosted a jobseekers group and sends parishioners to visit patients at the hospital. The church at the other end of the street hosts a soup kitchen every Wednesday evening and this Saturday, March 21, will hold a fundraiser to raise money to fight river-blindness disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo (www.riverblindness.org).
Maybe my beef in last week’s column should have been with bigtime organized religion, the kind that rules entire countries abroad, or substantial portions of political parties here at home.
A Princeton history professor, Kevin Kruse, is about to release a new book, “One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” and he wrote an op ed on the same subject in the New York Times on March 15.
Kruse argues that the idea of America as a “Christian nation” is a recent development, spawned by businessmen looking for allies in their fight against the New Deal of the 1930s, which they attacked as “pagan statism.” The movement helped elect Dwight D. Eisenhower president in 1952, and then Eisenhower did a clever pivot. He made it all about God, not just Jesus Christ, and welcomed Jews (!) and Catholics (!) and even Democrats (!) into his fold.
Within days of his inauguration, Ike was baptized; broadcast an Oval Office address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign; appeared at the inaugural National Prayer Breakfast; and began the practice of opening cabinet meetings with a prayer. In 1954 Congress added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The slogan “In God We Trust” appeared on postage that year. And in 1956 it became the nation’s official motto.
And, to continue to give religion its due, one good thing did come out of that. At shot-and-beer joints and roadside diners across the country signs began appearing near the cash registers: “In God We Trust — All Others Pay Cash.”