The Garden Outside Pleasantville

This is the manuscript of the Easter sermon yesterday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN. The sermon was an exploration into the contemporary meaning of the text: The Gospel According to John 20:1-18.

In some way or other, I think it’s safe to say that we all have a kind of nostalgia for the innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden…before what we call “the fall.” We have a sense that we are not supposed to be outside the gates of the Garden…out here. At the expulsion of the man and the woman in the story from Genesis, .the cherubim (angels) are posted at the gate to be sure that those who have been expelled cannot get back in. The cherubim and a twirling, flaming sword keep Adam, Eve – you, me, all of us – on this side of the gate, outside the Garden of Eden.

Well it’s a story, of course, but isn’t it our story? Nostalgic for a world where nothing ever goes wrong But illness comes, a marriage goes bad, a relationship with someone you love falls apart just when you think it’s to lead to something more permanent, you lose a job, you suffer depression, you suffer from an illness, you’re left alone in grief over the loss of a loved one. Or you yourself are dying, and there are wars and rumors of wars. We watch the children and wish that we could protect them, but we can’t, even though we are parents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. Out here…outside the Garden…it’s rough sometimes.

In this morning’s Gospel (John 20:1-18), the Risen Christ’s appearance to Mary takes place in a garden The garden is outside the empty tomb. Until Mary turns and sees the One she supposes to be “the gardener”, the text has said nothing about Jesus being laid to rest in a garden. It says only that Jesus was laid in a tomb in which no one had yet been buried.

Mary has already been there by herself in the early morning darkness. When she sees, to her great horror, that the tomb is empty, she runs to tell “the other disciple” and Peter.

What do they do? Well…these are guys, you know. They race each other to the tomb.

We don’t ever compete, do we, guys!? And Peter loses! The other disciple gets there first, and then Peter follows, huffing and puffing. Peter, bold man that he is, goes in. Peter in this story is like detective Joe Friday in the old Dragnet series: “Just the facts, Ma’am; just the facts!” He sees the facts. The burial cloths are lying there as though the body had evaporated out of them, but the napkin that had covered Jesus’ face, was neatly rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple goes in, sees the same thing. He believes…and then…they just…go home.

Well…what happened to Mary? They leave Mary there? By herself? And it is Mary who gets it – because Mary continues to stand there, weeping. She’s feeling her grief, feeling her sorrow, and it is as she is feeling her sorrow and her grief. It is as she goes down into the horror of the cross, the horror of having stood helplessly at the foot of the cross that she experiences the Risen Christ.

It is there that there is suddenly a garden, a new garden of Paradise.

I don’t know how it is with you, but sometimes I want to live in a perfect world. I want everything to be in its place. I don’t want any problems. I don’t want to feel anything. Someone I love much once said, “I hate feelings!” This is about feelings, brothers and sisters.
There is a certain kind of Christianity that says “No, no, no!” to every “negative” feeling. It wants everything to be happy. Like Steve Martin dancing around with happy feet. All we want is happy feet. But you don’t get happy unless you know sadness. You don’t get to laughter unless you know what it is to cry real tears of sorrow.
—————————————————-

This distorted kind of Christianity, this preference for the perfect world without any negative feelings or experience is humorously by the film Pleasantville.

David, who is played by Toby McGuire, and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) lead very different high-school social lives. Jennifer is popular and shallow. David is introverted, keeps to himself, and spends most of his time watching television. David’s favorite show is Pleasantville, a nostalgic throw-back black and white television series about the idyllic Parker family in the late 1950s. The little imaginary town of Pleasantville is, for David, a kind of Garden of Eden in which nothing ever goes wrong. Everyone is nice. No one ever feels pain. They are just, well… so nice.

One evening David and Jennifer fight over the TV. Jennifer wants a concert. David wants to watch Pleasantville. As they fight, the remote control breaks.

A mysterious TV repairman, played by Don Knotts, shows up, quizzes David about Pleasantville, and replaces the remote control with a strange new one. When the TV repairman leave, David and Jennifer resume their fighting, and are sucked through the television set into the black white gray, colorless world of the Parkers’ Pleasantville living room.

They are no longer David and Jennifer. They must pretend to be Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the son and daughter of the Parker family of Pleasantville.

David and Jennifer witness the wholesome nature of the town, such as a group of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree. David has to remind Jennifer that they must stay in character and not disrupt the lives of the town’s citizens, who don’t even notice the difference between the show’s original characters of Bud and Mary Sue, and their role replacements, David and Jennifer. In keeping with the show’s plot, Jennifer dates a boy from high school, but when she has sex with him, a concept unknown to the boy and to everyone else in town, the spell of colorless innocence is broken.

Slowly, Pleasantville begins to change from black and white and grayness to color. Flowers and the faces of people who have experienced bursts of emotion begin to have some color.

David becomes friends with Mr. Johnson, who owns Pleasantville’s cheeseburger and soda fountain. He introduces Mr. Johnson to colorful modern art via a book from the library, sparking in him an interest in painting. Mr. Johnson and Betty Parker fall in love, causing her to leave home, throwing George Parker, Bud and Mary Sue’s father, into confusion. The only people who remain unchanged are the city fathers, led by Big Bob, the mayor who sees the changes eating away at the values of Pleasantville. The city fathers resolve to do something about their increasingly independent wives and their rebellious children.

As the townsfolk become more colorful, a ban on “colored” people is instituted in public places. A riot begins when a nude painting of Betty, painted by Mr. Johnson, appears on the window of Mr. Johnson’s soda fountain. The soda fountain is destroyed, books are burned, and people who are “colored” are harassed in the street. As a reaction, the city fathers announce new rules preventing people from visiting the library, playing loud music, or using paint other than black, white, or gray.

When David and Mr. Johnson protest by painting a colorful mural on a brick wall, depicting their world, they are arrested. Brought to trial in front of the town, David and Mr. Johnson defend their actions, arousing enough anger and indignation in Big Bob, the mayor, that Big Bob becomes colored as well.

Having seen Pleasantville change irrevocably, Jennifer stays to finish her education, but David finally manages to return to the real world by use of his magical remote control.
———————————————————-

Easter is about a full color world. FULL of color. Full of emotion. Ups and downs. It has nothing to do with this imaginary, utopian Garden of Eden that never was and never will be, in which we no longer have to feel much of anything. “I hate feelings!”

There is no return to the Garden in which the man and the woman live in unconscious innocence, no way back into the black and white and gray world of the Garden of Eden from which humankind is expelled.

But this morning we see a colorful woman. She is a colorful woman, this Mary of Magdala, who stays with Jesus all the way through.

According to one tradition in the Church, this Mary was a prostitute. Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus, stays by Jesus, is healed by Jesus. Now she is in deep grief on this morning when, so far as she knows, her Lord was still buried in that tomb following a Roman crucifixion, dead and gone.

It is this Mary who goes out early in the morning, “while it was still dark.” Women don’t go out in the night; they don’t go out unescorted in the dark. But Mary does! And when the other disciple and Peter, the two heroes to whom she had gone for help, abandon her, she is there by herself.

“Why are you weeping?” ask the two angels, one where Jesus’ feet and been and one where his head had been. The cherubim!

These cherubim, who guard the way back into the lost paradise of the Garden of Eden, are there in the tomb. “Why are you weeping?”

Mary’s voice breaks into a stammering primal cry of horror. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him! Tell me where he is! Let me hold him!”

She turns around. The gardener greets her. The Risen Christ greets her, but she does know that it is Jesus. She supposes him to “the gardener”. She is in a garden where only the gardener would be early in the morning. The One she assumes to be the gardener greets her. She doesn’t recognize him. He asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Mary gives the same answer.

Then he calls her name. “Mary!”

Rabboni (Teacher)!!! It’s YOU!!! Is it really YOU?”

How about you? Why are you weeping? ask the Cherubim and Jesus.

“Mary, Mary, Mary!’ Her name is called. Your name is called, the name of the real you. Not some black-and-white-and gray, colorless character in a Pleasantville world, but the real flesh-and-blood, colorful you, the real Mary. The real Bob. The real Jane. The real you in living color.

“Do not hold me,” he says, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and sisters and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

”Go! Go! Go now!”

Tell each other. Tell each other it’s not over. Tell each other you have seen me. Tell each other that Caesar did not have the last word. Tell each other that life is greater than death, greater than might. Tell each other that you have heard the cherubim, standing guard from within an empty tomb, asking you why you are weeping. Tell them that you have heard the Gardener’s own voice in the New Garden outside my empty tomb!

Today the tears of sadness and the cries of horror are turned into the tears of gladness and shouts of exuberant joy:

“Christ is risen!” brothers and sisters, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen!” Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

The Sin of “American Exceptionalism”

Last night I watched Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in my home town, Broomall, Pennsylvania. What I saw sent chills down my spine. Demagoguery was on display. The people from my home town applauded the scolding of American President for apologizing. No apology for the tragedy of an American soldier(s) walking into the homes of families in Afghanistan to kill. No apology for … well…for ANYTHING. America is the greatest country in the history of the world. We should make no apology, said Mr. Romney.

In light of that speech, I am reposting this piece first published in February. It’s Holy Saturday for me. The one who lay dead on this day was killed, without apology, by The Myth of Roman Exceptionalism. The Roman Empire is long gone. But the myth never goes away. Only the name of the nation changes. Here’s the piece:

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“The stairway smelled of piss….This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world,  for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri.

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.

Elie Wiesel on Mormon Proxy Baptisms

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning author and survivor of the Holocaust, has called on Mitt Romney to join him in calling on the Church of Latter Day Saints (“Mormons”) to stop baptizing Jews who have died.  I wrote the following comment on the Huffington Post story:

We’re taught, and rightly so, to be respectful of religions and views different from our own. But that does not erase the responsibility to think critically about one’s beliefs and practices or those of others. I have the greatest respect for Elie Wiesel and am grateful to him for exposing a practice that insults every Jew, every Christian, every Muslim, every Buddhist, everyone who could not in good conscience embrace any religion at all, by imposing Mormon baptism. Nothing could be more arrogant. The proxy baptisms are not the only beliefs and practices that deserve thoughtful examination. More troublesome to me is the underlying Mormon assumptions that make the United States of America the very center of all human history – the alleged geography of a real Garden of Eden (in Missouri) and of the Second Coming of Christ (also in Missouri). As much as the proxy baptisms, those beliefs should send chills down the spines of everyone whose God belongs to no one nation, no one culture, no one religion – the God of the heavens and the Earth “Whose ways are not our ways and Whose thoughts are not our thoughts.”

An earlier commentary on the matter (posted earlier) addresses the matter moer fully. It’s a reflection that includes a visit to the Mormon Visitation Center in NYC. Let me know what you think.

The God of American Exceptionalism

Gordon C. Stewart          February 7, 2012

Jacket of My People Is the Enemy

“The stairway smelled of piss….

This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world, for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri .

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.

Religion and the White House

Gordon C. Stewart          Feb. 14, 2012

Is the religion of presidential candidates off limits?

President Obama’s remarks at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast and Mitt Romney’s statement about the poor and the wealthy resurrect a question regarded since 1960 as off the table.

The religious issue in 1960 was the Roman Catholicism of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No Roman Catholic had ever been elected President. The question was whether a faithful Catholic would be subservient to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, in matters of state. Finally the question was put to Kennedy himself.

Since that time, with the exception of conservative fundamentalist Christians, American culture has increasingly accepted the separation of one’s religion from one’s politics. Religious faith is regarded as private; political beliefs are public.

The old adage that the way to best assure civil tranquility is to steer clear of religion, sex, and politics is good advice at family reunions and the like, but does it serve the public interests of an informed electorate in a democratic republic?

It should not go unnoticed that then-candidate Obama’s faith was brought into the national spotlight when his political opposition sought to paint Mr. Obama as un-American because of comments made by pastor Jeremiah Wright.

The unspoken journalistic rule that “religion is off-the-table” was set aside by ABC’s investigative reporting into 500 hours of sermon tapes by Mr. Obama’s pastor and its decision to air a one-minute excerpt from one of Mr. Wright’s sermons.

It made no difference that the sermon from which the excerpt came was biblically-based and in the bold African-American preaching tradition of Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Howard Thurman that thunders the Hebrew prophet’s voice in scripture as it apply to today’s news. Nor did it matter that the statement about the chicken’s coming home to roost on 9/11 came after a long recitation of the history of American violence at home and abroad. Mr. Obama’s religion was on the table.

The public wanted to know. Was the President a Christian? Or was he, as some of his opponents claimed or insinuated, a Marxist, a secret Muslim, or un-American?

Mr. Obama eventually denounced the excerpt from Rev. Wright’s sermon, resigned from the church, and used the controversy to spell out his own views in a brilliant speech in Philadelphia on race in America called “A More Perfect Union.”

So here we are in 2012.

Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), a Mormon. His statement about the very poor, the middle class, and the wealthy became the center of media controversy. “I’m in this race, he told CNN following his primary victory in Florida, “because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the  90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” To be fair, his statement, like the Rev. Wright’s ignoried his earlier remarks. Nevertheless, the statement deserved careful scrutiny.

At the same time, President Obama’s religion was in the news again because of heavy criticism for connecting his faith with his public policies at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast  where he described his motivation as “living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need.”  “These values,” he said, “they’re the ones that have defined my own faith journey.”

In doing so, Mr. Obama voiced a conviction central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The belief goes to the heart of the Christian faith – the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in which Jesus tells his listeners that, if they want to know where to find “the Son of Man,” they will find him among the poor and destitute (Matthew 25:31-4.).”Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

Mr. Obama’s view came under attack from a number of quarters. One response came in the Washington Times with the headline “President Obama misrepresents the teachings of Jesus at National Prayer Breakfast,” arguing that “Jesus did not teach that wealthy people should give more money to the government or charity than others should.” And on CNN on-line, the public comments re: the President’s position ran heavily against his view.

At the same time, Mitt Romney’s stock was rising. So is his religion. Years ago Leo Tolstoy asked the American Ambassador to Russia about the new religion in America, the Ambassador pleaded ignorance, Tolstoy described Mormonism as “the quintessentially American religion” that would one day catch fire and be unstoppable.

Is religion on the table or off the table in 2012? If it’s on the table for discussion, as in Mr. Obama’s Prayer Breakfast statement, the question about the “quintessentially American religion” should also be on the table. How would Mr. Romney’s religious views affect his public policy decisions? What difference would it make to his conduct of foreign policy that his religion is American-centric, believing that “Christ  appeared in the western hemisphere between his resurrection and ascension to heaven; that the State of Missouri is the site of the Garden of Eden as well as the site where Jesus will return at the Second Coming? “For this and other reasons, including a belief by many Mormons in American exceptionalism, Molly Worthen speculates that this may be why Leo Tolstoy described Mormonism as the “quintessential ‘American religion'” (Wikipedia).

One does not need to be a partisan opponent or a despiser of religion to ask whether a candidate for the Presidency believes that America is sacred, God’s chosen people, and if so, what the implications are for how he would use American power and influence in a world that is always just one step away from nuclear holocaust.

It was the pernicious idea of American exemption from the way of the nations that got us into Iraq, and it is the rejection of that idea that has allowed us to begin to pull back into a more humble and realistic way of being America. The idea of American exceptionalism is widespread across party and religious lines in America, and, most sadly, an electorate that fears the future may fall for whichever candidate continues the illusion that America is God.

If I could ask one question to those who aspire to the White House, I would ask them to reflect, line by line, on the Clifford Bax’s hymn (1919):

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”

Earth might be fair, and all men glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep:
Would man but wake from out his haunted sleep,
Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise.

Earth shall be fair, and all her people one:
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done.
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky,
Peals forth in joy man’s old undaunted cry—
“Earth shall be fair, and all her folk be one!”

Melody from The Genevan Psalter