March 9, 2005: Perspective
nation, under God: Two views
By Amy Ebeling McCreath ’87
Illustrations by Paul Zwolak
The Rev. Amy Ebeling McCreath ’87 is Episcopal campus minister at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A few months ago I was interviewed for an article about religious life on the MIT campus. Before the piece went to press, a fact checker called me. “Would you say,” he asked, “that it’s hard for you to put religious truths into a sound bite?” I explained to him that it’s not that I am not good at doing that, but I don’t think anyone should do it. “Would you call yourself a liberal Christian?” he asked next. I sighed, loudly enough to cause him to add quickly, “I know. I’m sorry.” We then had a conversation about how unhelpful labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are. He was apologetic but felt compelled to use these labels because they are the terms prevalent in social discourse about morality these days.
Underneath the labels tossed about in our current moral values debate is an enormous range of theologies, yearnings, ways of reasoning, and lived experience. Some students in our “liberal” Episcopal ministry are active in MIT’s pro-life group. A friend of mine and I both support stem cell research, but for different reasons that arise from our reflection on Scripture.
There is great danger in the loss of complexity in our national conversation about morality. The sound-biting of morality impoverishes us intellectually and leaves little room for speaking, voting, or praying out our complex, rich, and often ambiguous reality. The students with whom I work find it frightening socially and spiritually, because it preempts genuine dialogue, discourages self-reflection, and encourages the demonization of others.
In the days following the presidential election, I did a lot of pastoral care with students who were devastated, not so much by the outcome of the election as by the mean-spiritedness and oversimplification within which discussion of “moral values” had taken place. They found no place in the candidates’ rhetoric or media analysis for genuine reflection and compassionate engagement. Like many people, they turned to television’s Jon Stewart because he named the absurdity of the discourse. They also turned to foreign media — especially the BBC — in search of thoughtful analysis and reporting. And they brought their concerns and questions to small-group discussions in our chaplaincy, where they felt safe saying to one another, “It just doesn’t seem so black and white to me. What do you think?”
Issues such as the use of science in setting policy, sustainable development, and civil liberties — about which they care passionately as people of faith — were barely on the political radar screen and were far from the fray over “moral values.” For these students, virtually all of them engineers and part of a generation characterized by pragmatism, integrity and righteousness mean taking responsibility for solving problems and alleviating suffering. They were too busy laying plans to set up a flood-warning system in rural Honduras to worry much about the Windsor Report on the effects of the ordination of a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. When they did get around to talking about the report, their main concerns were, again, about the discourse: How can I have a genuine conversation with my family about this when we disagree so strongly? Should I believe what I hear on TV about all this?
One of the gifts of young adulthood is a profound awareness of the brokenness of the world. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, when we name and seek to make meaning of the suffering within and around us, are the best-attended services of the year at MIT.
Although, to a certain degree, naming and responding to the brokenness of the world is the perennial task of young adulthood, today’s college students engage in this work more seriously than my generation did, and they face greater challenges in doing it. The complexity of the world in which they have grown up, the flood of information they must process daily, and the myriad ethical claims competing for their attention and support are overwhelming. The pace of their lives affords no room for self-reflection. Depression and anxiety disorders plague them because they are deeply aware of the inadequacy of the norms and rhythms of society but are unable to find the time, space, and tools to sort through things for themselves.
In such an environment, one of the central tasks of educators and chaplains in higher education is to equip students to practice self-reflection. At MIT, our Episcopal ministry is doing this in several ways. Through the Technology and Culture Forum, we offer more than a dozen discussions a year challenging students and others to reflect on the ethical and societal implications of the scientific and technological work in which they are engaged. Our programs on subjects like weapons development, bioethics, and globalization affirm that these topics are moral issues and give people space to consider how their work is contributing to peace, justice, and human dignity. Our Just Desserts program, which we are developing with the MIT Public Service Center, offers students the chance to reflect on their experiences, begin to articulate their values and commitments, and share with one another tools for continued reflection. Interfaith scripture seminars bring together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students to discover common moral ground, and go beyond the stereotypes and sound bites.
I treasure the many opportunities I had at Princeton for reflection on “moral values.” The “What Matters to Me and Why?” gatherings in the café in the basement of Murray-Dodge, weekly conversations over spaghetti with others in the Episcopal ministry, and Jeff Stout *76’s class on Just War Theory helped orient me to the moral universe. Gratitude for this formation is a large part of the motivation for my work at MIT.
Higher education always has sought to inform and form young people in moral reasoning. But today’s political and religious climate challenges us to re-examine how we are equipping students to participate in political life, discern and live their own values, and engage constructively with those with whom they disagree. In a time when best-sellers have titles like Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), we cannot take for granted students’ capacity for this work. They have grown up in a culture that simply does not model thoughtful moral reasoning.
All of us who care about education must model best practices in moral discourse: Refuse to forward e-mails and cartoons that dismiss or demonize those with whom we disagree. Share stories with students about your own journey to find meaning and articulate your values, so they see that they’re not crazy for thinking it’s hard work. For those who pray or lead prayer, consistently pray for enemies and those who wish you harm.
Shortly after the elections this fall, I received an e-mail cartoon showing North America divided into two sections: “Jesusland” and the “United States of Canada.” Perhaps you received it, too. My first reaction was to snicker. My second reaction was to think: What about me? Where am I on this map? What about my concerns and hopes, which are grounded in my Christian faith but differ considerably from those of the people presumed to be in “Jesusland”? My third reaction — my final reaction, so far — was to resolve to help broaden the conversation about moral values, to find ways to communicate my convictions more effectively, and to help the young people I serve at MIT to do the same. I invite you to join me in this work.
An untidy history of diversity and dogmatism
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97
Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97 is an associate professor of religion at Princeton.
Contemporary debates about the role of religion in public life often are frustrating — not simply because many who participate in these conversations wear their piety on their sleeves, but also because those on both sides of the debate pay scant attention to the complex history of religion in American public life. We often proceed as if the question of religion and public deliberation does not have a history that continues to challenge us. Even if some of us are mindful of these difficulties, we place them within a narrative of America’s overall tradition of religious toleration. As my good friend, the religious historian David Wills, has written, “The most common way of telling the story of the United States’ religious past is to center it on the theme of pluralism and toleration — the existence of religious variety in America and the degree to which it has been tolerated or affirmed.” Indeed, from the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock to the adoption of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state, the story of our religious life is one where we place religious liberty and toleration of religious difference at the forefront.
But a brief glance at our country’s religious past reveals the incredible difficulty confronting religious pluralism. Our history is replete with exclusions and ugliness that defy such tidy and neat narratives. I would even say that at no point in our nation’s history, no matter how the story is written, has the nation accepted fully the mere fact of its religious diversity. To be sure, in our early history, Protestants had come to accept doctrinal differences among themselves as a kind of tolerable inevitability, but they rarely extended this tolerance to others, like Catholics or Jews, on the same basis.
When, for example, George Washington assumed the presidency in 1789, many Americans worried about the nation’s commitment to genuine religious liberty. Could such a commitment survive the political realities? In their book The Religious History of America (2002), Edwin Gaustad and Princeton professor Leigh Schmidt *87 note that Roman Catholics were keenly aware of the force of laws against popery and against receiving immigrants from Catholic countries. The authors recount how some of them even wrote President Washington, congratulating him on his election and inquiring concerning their status under a new form of government — to which Washington replied, on March 12, 1790, that he hoped to see “America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.” In response to Newport’s Jewish congregation, which asked if the new nation would continue to “offer an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and religion,” Washington replied that we no longer speak of “toleration” but rather of “inherent rights,” and that “happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Washington’s belief that an old age of intolerance had passed away, however, betrayed a naïve optimism about this fragile democracy. Obviously he knew of many forms of bigotry — religious and otherwise — in the new nation. Perhaps, like Jefferson and Madison, he hoped that enlightened people eventually would shed such prejudices and be satisfied to practice their religion in private. But we know that this was not the case. Some form of establishment continued well into the 19th century. Connecticut and Massachusetts, for example, continued to encourage local governments “to make suitable provision ... for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality,” note Gaustad and Schmidt. These Congregationalists placed the idea of a religious grounding to our public life at the center of what they saw as a holy commonwealth.
What I am suggesting is that we situate our discussion of the role of religion in American public life within the larger context of American religious history. First, we should see the difficulties surrounding religious and cultural differences that always have presented a challenge to many who claim to be committed to democracy. No matter what we often hear, most Americans view the United States as a Christian nation. (We need only note that 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians; 72 percent of Christian Americans believe in the second coming of Christ, and about 40 percent say that they talk to God on a regular and intimate basis.) As such, the normative commitment to respecting religious plurality must be viewed as an ideal toward which we strive, not as something already embodied in our form of living. But too often the current “values” discussion reflects a specific interpretation of a particular religious tradition that obscures the vibrant plurality that defines our religious landscape.
Second, when we take our religious past into account, we see religiously informed efforts to shore up the state of our public morality, which is perhaps a reflection of our Puritan inheritance. One can see that attempts to define public morality in the terms of a specific religious tradition effectively suppress religious pluralism and keep other religious traditions and beliefs on the margins. Efforts to achieve an exemplary state of public morality often undermine our commitment to religious pluralism.
I can imagine some Christians, and proponents of natural law among them, crying foul here. They insist that the positions they hold are not reducible to the particulars of one tradition, but rather reflect moral propositions that have objective standing and are true. And, in some ways, this takes us to the heart of the problem. It is not that those who insist on the importance of religion in public deliberation are intolerant of religious differences. They simply hold the view that their religious commitments are true, and they act on them as such. To do otherwise would be to act disingenuously.
I cannot settle the issue in this brief essay. I do know that we cannot resolve the matter by declaring by way of philosophical argument or fiat that religious believers cannot invoke their beliefs in public debate. Nor can we rig the terms of public deliberation by some appeal to extant rules of engagement (or some robust notion of public reason) that will tidy up our conversations before we actually have them. Doing so, in my mind, sets
the stage for engaging one another in bad faith. Furthermore, doing so will lead individuals — decent people with commitments that we may or may not accept — to mislead in order to secure their desired ends.
The reality is that religious commitments, for good or ill, always have informed American public debate. I suspect they will continue to do so. The problem now is that a particular interpretation of the Christian tradition parades around as if it were the only possible interpretation. This narrow view of Christianity and its pernicious provinciality results not in the formation of democratic character and a healthy respect for religious diversity but, too often, in blind dogmatism. What we need is a compelling counter to this view that acknowledges the startling diversity of our religious landscape. And, for Christians at least, we need a powerful voicing of the more prophetic dimensions of the Christian tradition — a tradition that concerns itself not only with our spiritual state but also with “the least of these” and with the social and economic conditions that produce so much misery.