Asking the government to fill in for God
As religion has lost appeal in America, people have put their faith in democracy. But can it meet the challenges of the day?
Can government provide enough moral foundation for a nation growing less religions? (Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash)
If you tell a child that God is invisible, the kid will still almost always imagine some sort of a human-like Overseer of All Things.1 It’s just how humans are, at whatever age: We draw upon what we know to explain what we can’t imagine. When I was a little fellow, I figured that God looked like Dwight Eisenhower.
Perfectly understandable, I’d say, that an American Baby Boomer tyke would link the president and the almighty, because most of us saw both church and state as potent forces for good in our lives, and they were tightly linked. In my public school classroom, each day started with the Pledge of Allegiance and, then, the Lord’s Prayer. We were taught patriotic songs declaring that God had shed his grace on America, and our coins declared that it was in God that we all trusted. America was “a Christian nation,” some insisted (9 out of 10 Americans professed Christianity in the 1960s), and if that didn’t square with what we soon learned about the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom for all, it couldn’t have been too much of an offense, surely, because the earthly goals of that faith were those of the nation’s government, too: to care for people and comfort them, so that they might have abundant lives.
Were those naïve days, or did I simply experience a chapter now closed in the long cultural hegemony of white Christians in a pluralistic society? Whatever the cause, things aren’t the same now.
We’ve thankfully become more respectful of varied religious practices, but we’ve also gotten less religious: Less than half of Americans told Gallup pollsters last year that religion was “very important” in their lives, and less than half are members of a church.2 So you don’t hear a lot of prayer in public places these days, and you don’t get a sense that the teachings of religion — like, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”3 — have much credence in the corridors of power.
For a time, it seemed that patriotism had replaced religion as the center of Americans’ values, so that while our leaders still always implied that God was safeguarding America’s interests because we are exceptional, religion felt more like a safety belt for our inevitable success as a nation. The coins might as well have been stamped, “In US we trust.” America’s salvation now was self-insured, and guaranteed by the nation’s wealth and might. In a conflict between church and state, most Americans had little hesitation: America first.
Now, though, it seems that we’ve lost faith in both church and state. Not to casually generalize for a nation of 330 million people, but a whole lot of us seem to feel both spiritually unmoored and politically impotent.
Do you wonder why our government seems powerless to stop the slaughter of innocent children in our schools? Why the response of the world’s richest nation to a pandemic was botched when compared to other powers, costing hundreds of thousands of lives? Why we haven’t truly yet taken on climate change, which threatens our very survival? Why racial and economic justice are so elusive?
I’d say it’s because too many of us have lost trust in the state’s capacity to do good. And why can’t the world’s religions, their teachings imbued with essential moral codes, stop evil behavior? Because we have come to see religion as just another constituency with its own goals to satisfy in a brutal and selfish world.
In weighing the future of church and state, I’m out of my league on the former. It’s simply beyond my intellect and experience to suggest a way that adherents might help their religion again exert a powerful and positive role in America. Humans have always craved spiritual knowledge and shared religious practice, so I think a genuine resurgence of honest faith would likely have good effect. I just don’t have any idea how that might occur.
But I do have some thoughts about the state. The first is that as we have pushed aside the notion of “a Christian nation,” we have left the nation itself as the ultimate arbiter of value — one that a democratic political system, with its built-in partisan tug and pull, is ill-suited to fulfill. The fervor that we once expended on religion is now directed toward politics, with bad results.
“No wonder the newly ascendant American ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was, are so divisive. They are meant to be divisive,” Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution fellow, wrote in The Atlantic last year.4 You know, you don’t win elections by demonstrating loving compassion toward your opponent.
That American politics is a mess is undeniable. One party has been morally bankrupted by its allegiance to a corrupt and mendacious leader, and by its tolerance of anti-democratic means, including insurrection, in pursuit of power. The other party has been unable to find its true footing, so that citizens don’t know if it intends to be bold or just boring, the latter apparently its limited capacity just now.
We are a long way from the nation that landed people on the moon, that wired a whole country with life-saving electricity, that led a world war against facism, that built an interstate highway system in a single decade and that guaranteed civil rights for all, regardless of race, gender, national origin or sexual orientation. We’re not even the same nation as that which drew upon bipartisan backing to rescue us from the Great Recession several years back.
There are ample reasons that our government can’t get anything done. First, people have come to distrust it — which is no surprise, given the disillusionment caused by the lies of Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra and so many more government scandals, the details of which we can’t even recall anymore. Second, for more than half the years of the past four decades, American government has been attacked from within, starting with the assertion of Ronald Reagan during his White House race that government is more a problem than a problem-solver. That anti-government tone from the government itself has been debilitating to democracy’s ability to get citizen buy-in, even for shared goals. And let us not dismiss the lesson of Donald Trump’s success, if you’ll pardon the cynicism: Integrity has value in partisan politics only as a talking point, not as a mode of behavior, if the goal is to gain and hold power. So why bother trying to make government conform to Sunday school lessons, kids?
Perhaps the mistake some of us made in response to those challenges was to double down on our civic beliefs — to glorify democracy as the core value that would assure all other good things. It’s a perspective that likely leads us to conclude that any perceived offense against our democracy – or anything that denigrates any citizen or silences any voice – must be viewed as a venal sin, like our ancestors might have viewed pagan idolatry. That kind of thinking turns political opponents into ogres.
“If only Americans could begin believing in politics less fervently, realizing instead that life is elsewhere,” Hamid wrote in The Atlantic. “But this would come at a cost — because to believe in politics also means believing we can, and possibly should, be better.”
But that’s true: We should do better. And if over-trusting in democracy was foolish, given human frailty and all that, then what do we do about the other Americans, those who are so dismissive of democracy’s intrinsic value that they’re willing to install leaders who openly say they will push aside voters’ will if it doesn’t match their own? (See: Pennsylvania gubernatorial nomination of Doug Mastriano, who vows to ignore the state’s popular vote for president if it doesn’t go Republican.5) How do we swallow what seem to be outright attacks on the institutions that have assured our nation’s stability and progress over the last two and a half centuries?
For more than 20 years, Edelman, the global public affairs company, has published a Global Trust Barometer, this year based on interviews with more than 36,000 people in 28 countries. Its 2022 report cited “a world ensnared in a vicious cycle of distrust.” Not even half of the American respondents said they believe their government can “successfully execute plans and strategies that yield results,” though Democrats are by 20 points more trusting in government than Republicans.
The Edelman findings concluded with a section on solutions. To restore citizens’ belief that societies can build a better future, it concluded, governments needed to “demonstrate tangible progress” — that is, to “show the system works.”6
Easier said than done. But that’s ultimately the only solution to the mess at hand now: to keep fighting. We are angry and heartbroken that the murders of innocent children in Uvalde will likely not lead to any meaningful legislative solution just now to America’s epidemic of mass killings. We are frustrated that Republican-led states, intent on preserving the profits of carbon industries, are pushing back against corporations that are trying to lead us to a clean energy future. We are horrified at the resurgent racism that gets a wink and a nod as it surfaces in the subtle language of campaign advertising.
But absent a miracle — and, admit it, we would be dubious of one if it appeared — our only solution to save democracy is to depend upon democracy. That is, we can’t expect some kindly deity who looks like a retired Army general to fix our broken political system, but we can try to do it ourselves, since that’s the way it has been done before — and since we have no alternative. We can only double down again on democracy, and engage as fully as possible in the partisan fray that will lead to our future.
The charge was summed up by John F. Kennedy at the end of his 1961 Inaugural Address, at a time when a politician would cite religion not to appear pious, but to remind Americans of their shared values. “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love,” the new president said on that bright, cold morning, “asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Topeka, Kan. (Topeka Capital-Journal, cjonline.com)
Lafayette, La. (Lafayette Advertiser, advertiser.com)
Fall River, Mass. (The Herald News, heraldnews.com)
Nashville, Tenn. (The Tenneseean, tennessean.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Psychiatric hospital waits draw lawsuit
Larned State Hospital is the largest psychiatric facility in Kansas, serving the western two-thirds of the state. But a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners by the ACLU of Kansas claims that it has such a long wait time for evaluations that some prisoners wait in jail for nearly a year — an unconstitutional incarceration — before they get a determination if they’re fit to stand trial. According to reporting by Andrew Bahl in the Topeka Capital-Journal, the hospital has grappled with staffing shortages for a long time, and can’t use its bed capacity as a result.
Experts call for action in the face of youth suicide risk
The pandemic and economic problems are adding to the unprecedented stress and anxiety that many young people have been feeling, factors contributing to the fact that suicide is now the leading cause of death among college and university students in the United States, according to reporting by Leigh Guidry in the Lafayette Advertiser. "A lot of people wait until it's a crisis for their kids," one expert told Guidry. "Get them into care before it's a crisis, and then when it is, take it seriously."
‘Men for Menstruation” class hopes to help impoverished women
For the past year, United Neighbors of Fall River has been addressing “period poverty,” a term applied to women who don’t have access to products for menstruation or to education about handling their periods. One of their sessions, according to reporting by Audrey Cooney in The Herald News, there will be a special class for men to learn the ins and outs of periods. It’s all part of a campaign to help families better understand and cope with their menstrual cycles. “It’s not just enough to give (period) products, we need to help people understand why we’re doing it,” one of the organizers told Cooney. “The stigma is just unbelievable.”
Death penalty probe reveals state not following rules
Melissa Brown and Josh Keefe, reporters for The Tennessean in Nashville, read thousands of pages of documents detailing how the state followed its protocols for lethal injection. They found that since resuming executions in 2018, the state hadn’t followed its own rules. The records were generated after Gov. Bill Lee held up executions after discovering that a man slated to die on April 21 was about to be given an injection of a lethal cocktail that hadn’t been tested, as the law requires. A full investigation of the state’s lethal injection policies is now underway.
What gets our attention?
During my decades as a newspaper editor, I often heard complaints from readers about my newspapers’ news judgment: Why not more stories on this topic or that one? Why was that story “buried” at the bottom of the page? Why was there not a single word in today’s newspaper about (insert readers’ favorite topic here)?
The answer was usually that there’s so much more news every day than most news organizations can possibly publish, and that the factors of newsworthiness include such matters as timeliness, freshness, relevance to readers of the publication, proximity and impact on the community. But there’s another answer, too: A publication needs to pay attention to what interests its readers (or listeners or viewers), because there’s no glory in publishing something that nobody reads. You can’t force people to consume the news you want them to consume.
It’s against that backdrop that I weighed the news reported by Axios last week suggesting that we might measure reader interest by checking the number of social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) per published article on a given topic. That is, looking at not what editors and producers decided was newsworthy, but what people who read, heard and viewed their news decisions passed along via social media.
By far, the defamation trial between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard was the top story on social media. In readers’ reactions, it’s clear that the Depp-Heard trial far outpaced coverage of Elon Musk or Joe Biden, the pending Supreme Court abortion decision, the war in Ukraine, inflation or Covid-19. The existential crisis of climate change didn’t even register.
So the next time you feel like blaming the media for what our society pays attention to, consider the fact that consumers ultimately drive product decisions in our economy — and that people seem to be fascinated with celebrity, now as they have always been. And to those of you who have taken in and even passed along important coverage of big issues, thank you. We’re all depending upon you.
Thanks for reading The UPSTATE AMERICAN, and for joining me on *our common ground, this great country.