In an exclusive extract from her new book, the writer considers the bonds between church and state in America
.. Movements that present themselves as religiously motivated have now begun to regard the state as aggressively secular, and as enforcing secularism, precisely in maintaining institutional distance that was meant in the first instance to protect religious freedom. They have begun to regard the state with a hectic moral aversion, and at the same time to meddle in or to stymie public life by asserting a presence in governments national and local. The defence against these movements has often taken the form of a secularism that is contemptuous of religion
.. Some, in the fear of God, could never knowingly vote against the interests of the poor or of those who suffer discrimination, while others, in the fear of God, are content that the poor should be with us always, and would never vote for marriage equality.
.. The Second Great Awakening spent its last energies on cults and health fads and spirit photography. The awakening of my youth spun off into cults and drugs and health fads. The positive content of these movements tends to disappear except in the obverse image they impress on the reactions against them.
.. I know causes of the Civil War are widely disputed, but I have been reading the speeches and papers of leaders of the Confederacy, and for them the point at issue was slavery. Slavery plain and simple. They drew up a constitution very like the national Constitution, except in its explicit protections of slavery. Their defence of their sacred institutions means the defence of slavery. Their definition of states’ rights means their insistence on their right to bring this “species of property” into states that did not acknowledge it, and to make these states enforce their claims on such “property” without reference to their traditions, to their own laws, or to their right to protect their own citizens. The North did not start the war, but the issue that erupted in war had been smouldering for generations, and the issue was slavery.
.. The word “liberal” has been effectively stigmatised, as the word “abolitionist” was and is. As if generosity were culpable. As if there were some more reasonable response to slavery than to abolish it.
.. the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic. On one hand I do not wish to overstate the degree to which these two uses of the word “Christian” are mutually exclusive, and on the other hand I think it would be a very difficult thing to overstate how deeply incompatible they can be.
.. With these words Abraham Lincoln anchored the argument that the suffering of the North in the American Civil War — they had lost two soldiers for every one the South lost — was deserved because of Northern complicity in the system of slavery. His meaning was that this suffering was not to be avenged as a grievance against an adversary. It was instead to be accepted as affirming the impartial justice of God. Insofar as Lincoln’s words were taken to express an indubitable truth, the terrible war came to a less terrible and more final conclusion than civil wars generally do
.. The great religions are counterstatements made against a reality that does not affirm them with much consistency at all. This can only have been truer in any earlier century, when life was more brutal than we in the West can readily imagine.
.. Sigmund Freud said we cannot love our neighbour as ourselves. No doubt this is true. But if the reality that lies behind the commandment, that our neighbour is as worthy of love as ourselves, and that in acting on this fact we would be stepping momentarily out of the bog of our subjectivity ..
.. Lincoln spoke in Calvinist language to a population it might have been meaningful at the time to call Calvinist, as the historians generally do. He says, Accept suffering with humility. Both suffering and humility will serve you.
.. When I say Calvinism has faded, I am speaking of the uncoerced abandonment by the so-called mainline churches of their own origins, theology, culture, and tradition. I have spent most of my life in Presbyterian and Congregational churches
.. But through the whole of my experience I have had the sense that these churches were backpedaling, were evading, at last very effectively, the influence cultural history would have given them. I am sure they were wrong about some things, like all other churches. But I envy a time when an American president could speak as candidly as Lincoln did, and remind us that whom God loveth he also chastiseth, our adversaries and ourselves equally. That we must love our enemies because God loves them. Say what you will about “the Calvinist God”, he is not an imaginary friend.
.. I don’t know whether it is time or history or Calvin that has left me so profoundly convinced of the importance of human fallibility, and so struck by its peculiar character. But I wouldn’t mind hearing the word “sin” once in a while. If the word is spoken now it is likely to be in one of those lately bold and robust big churches who are obsessed with sins Jesus never mentioned at all. On the testimony of the prophets, social injustice is the great sin — according to Ezekiel the reason for the destruction of Sodom.
.. The religious monoculture we seem to be tending toward now is not a neutral averaging of the particularities of all the major traditions. It is very much marked by its cultural moment, when the whole focus is on “personal salvation”, on “accepting Jesus as your Lord and Saviour”. Theologically speaking, the cosmos has contracted severely.
.. The simple, central, urgent pressure to step over the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and after this the right, even the obligation, to turn and judge that great sinful world the redeemed have left behind — this is what I see as the essential nature of the emerging Christianity. Those who have crossed this line can be outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciations of anyone else.
.. Max Weber saw anxiety in Protestants’ — he meant Calvinists’ — uncertainty about their own salvation.
.. What some have seen as a resurgence of Christianity, or at least a bold defence of American cultural tradition — even as another great awakening! — has brought a harshness, a bitterness, a crudeness, and a high-handedness into the public sphere that are only to be compared to the politics, or the collapse of politics, in the period before the Civil War.
.. Many have noted that the media do not find reasonable people interesting. Over time this has surely had a distorting effect.
.. Christianity is stigmatised among the young as a redoubt of ignorance, an obstacle to the humane aspirations of the civilisation. The very generosity and idealism of young people is turning them away.
.. a polarisation of the good on one side and the religious on the other, which will be a catastrophe for American Christianity. And it will be an appalling deprivation on every side of the great body of art and thought and ethical profundity that has been so incalculable an enrichment of all our lives. Can a culture be said to survive when it has rejected its heritage?
.. I have mentioned the qualitative difference between Christianity as an ethic and Christianity as an identity. Christian ethics go steadfastly against the grain of what we consider human nature. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Identity, on the other hand, appeals to a constellation of the worst human impulses. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed
.. In the seventh chapter of Matthew there is a text I have never heard anyone preach on. There Jesus says that in the last day “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me’.” It is for Christ to decide who the Christians are, who has in fact done the will of his Father.
.. People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he might not also shout, “Give us Barabbas!”
.. there have been interests intent on legitimising bad ideas by creating an atmosphere around them that simulates mass passion — distrust or resentment or rage as the manufactured outcry of a virtual populace. These are not conditions in which religion is likely to retain its character as religion.
.. Paul speaks of “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” a woman in the audience, making a two-handed figure eight in the air, said: “But if you have a sword, you’re supposed to smite somebody.”
.. Does the word “stranger”, the word “alien”, ever have a negative connotation in Scripture? No. Are the poor ever the object of anything less than God’s loving solicitude? No. Do the politics of those who claim a special fealty to the Bible align themselves with its teachings in these matters? No, they do not, not in contemporary America, certainly. We have been hearing a lot about “takers” lately.
.. Under such circumstances it is only to their credit that they reject it.
.. Though I am not competent to judge in such matters, it would not surprise me at all to learn in any ultimate reckoning that these “nones” as they are called, for the box they check when asked their religion, are better Christians than the Christians. But they have not been given the chance even to reject the beautiful, generous heritage that might otherwise have come to them.