Theocracy, Religious Freedom, and the Soul of America
My aunt died a few days ago. She left this world, and began her journey into the great Beyond.
Only a year and four months older than me, she felt more like an older sibling than an aunt. We also grew up together, living in the same house for three years when we were kids.
This essay is about her, and it’s also not just about her.
Following in the footsteps of several other family members, my aunt and her husband became “born-again Christians” a few decades ago. Many of these family members voted for the current POTUS in the last election. One of my cousins told me that while she did not like him, she was convinced that “God had his hand on him”, and that God works through imperfect people to accomplish “higher ends”.
Myself, I was raised Catholic as a child. Since then, I have learned and practiced a few different spiritual paths. I probably fit best under the “spiritual but not religious” umbrella; as far as politics go, I lean progressive-green.
Like several others in my family, my aunt became a very devout person after she was “born again”. What I mean by this, is that she did her best to truly live her spiritual beliefs. She volunteered at nursing homes on a regular basis, helping those in need with warm enthusiasm and genuine caring. She also coordinated the homeless outreach in her church. Those activities were only the tip of the iceberg.
I have met several truly devout people in my life. Some have been Mormon, some have been Buddhist, some have been Jewish, some have been Christian. Some have been secular humanists. Regardless of their belief system, I have been deeply moved to witness by their dedication to putting their ideals into practice. People who wholeheartedly practice their faith and are committed to being of service to others, are a true gift to the world.
My aunt was/is one of these people.
I attended her church’s memorial service via live-stream, wanting to honor her and the dedication with which she lived her faith. I was also curious to learn more about the community that has been such a big part of her life.
For the most part, it was a truly lovely service. I imagine many of my family members would prefer that I leave it at that.
Yet I also know that religious freedom is at stake right now in our country. And as much as I love my family, I simply can’t agree that the only ones who are going to get to see my dear aunt in the afterlife, are those who share her particular religious tradition.
The pastor at the service was quite clear about this.
HE knew where my aunt was, right now — but did we know, where WE would be going in the afterlife?
This pastor chose to use the opportunity of my aunt’s memorial to attempt to convert anyone who was not yet in the fold, to his particular brand of faith.
As part of this, he engaged in a theological argument against anyone who believes that someone can be “saved by works”. And if you don’t yet see what this has to do with politics, and with our well-being in THIS life, please bear with me a bit longer.
When I was a kid and first heard about “Protestants”, I was puzzled. At the time we lived in Peru with my father’s parents, and so I asked my dear grandmother Felicitas, a devout Catholic. “Those are the people who broke away from the Catholic Church,” she explained.
But then I asked another innocent question: “And so who are the Orthodox Christians?”
I was not intending to put my grandmother into a quandry; I only wanted to satisfy my curiosity. Yet her second answer was much less clear than the first. I sensed she was uncomfortable, and did not pursue it further. I was a kid, and I loved my abuelita.
Much later, looking back on that interaction, I realized what one simple answer could have been: “That was the first church, and we broke away from them, several centuries before the Protestants broke away from us.”
But of course, that would have required a certain clarity that was not part of the Catholic church’s teachings (at least not the church that abuelita attended.)
In search of more understanding, I once asked a good friend who is an Orthodox Christian, what his religion teaches regarding the afterlife: “So according to your religion, who gets to go to heaven?”
My friend’s answer was clear, simple, and at the same time, delightfully and mysteriously open-ended.
He smiled and said, “Our tradition teaches that ‘God reads hearts’.”
After the online memorial service, and after the pastor’s sermon that “only those of us who had a personal relationship with Jesus” would get to see my aunt in the afterlife, I knew I had to call my mother.
My mom has been broken-hearted over the loss of her youngest sister.
Yet while my mom loves everyone in her family very much, regardless of their faith is, she has her own spiritual beliefs. As a result, she was deeply hurt and upset by this message.
It took her some time to recover from the opportunistic and cruel aspects of that Protestant sermon.
In the process, she mentioned how moved she’s been, by some of the Pope’s statements over the last ten years. We have various people in our family who are agnostic, and some who are atheist. We also have several generations of LBGTQ+ folks in my family.
Thus, my mom was rejoicing at how inclusive and welcoming this Pope has been, by welcoming the good that all people do, regardless of their sexual orientation, or whether they happen to “believe in God”.
My mom’s youngest sister loved Jesus, and she did her best to follow in his footsteps. So now I leave it to you to decide… what religious perspective do you think might be the closest to the teachings of Jesus?
That of the Orthodox Christian Church?
That of the Pope?
Or that of the born-again preacher man, attempting to use fear to gain converts to his particular faith tradition?
My husband is Jewish, so I have been learning about the teachings of the Jewish tradition. With less of a focus on the afterlife, Jewish teachings emphasize the need to engage in “tikkun olam”, in bring healing to THIS world, so that it can become a haven of justice and compassion.
Seems to me that this was a thread in Jesus’ teachings as well. He was Jewish, after all…
So turning our focus to this world… it seems to me that there are quite a few people out there attempting to turn this country into a theocracy. And in case you are not clear on this, a theocracy is not a democracy. Which brings me to another moment in the preacher-man’s sermon that felt particularly jarring.
And that was, when he practically spat out the word “politics”.
He was mentioning how what really matters, is Love. And how my aunt’s life was such a fine model of that. And how wonderful a reminder this was, for everyone in the church community…. where lately there has been a lot of bickering and factionalism over things like viruses and… “politics”.
I don’t know for sure, because I’ve not met this preacher.
Yet from what he said, I surmise that he, along with others like him, believes that anyone who is obediently voting the way that he himself and other church elders recommend, is simply doing a good, spiritual deed.
Whereas anyone who may be questioning the wide-spread evangelical support for our current President, is engaged in (yuck!!!) “politics”.
Of course politics would seem disgusting to him. In a theocracy, there is no room for politics. You just do what your elders tell you…
I’m sure that my born-again family members and I might actually agree on some things. One is that a soul-less, materialistic culture, where greed and profit have become false gods, is leading us on a sure path toward destruction.
At the same time, while we may agree on the problem, I doubt we agree on the solution. On my end, I don’t agree at all, that creating a theocratic government — a “Christian Nation” — is a reasonable answer to the problems we are facing.
Just as individual people tend to have a mixture of positive traits and less-desirable ones, this is also true of our country. Yes, racism and sexism were alive and well during the founding of this country. However, there is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In addition to our “original sins” as a country, there were also some founding virtues. And one of the positive values on which this country was founded, is FREEDOM OF RELIGION.
I strongly believe we need to treat people of ALL faith traditions (and non-faith traditions) with love and respect, whether born-again Christians, secular humanists, Goddess-worshippers, Mormons, Jewish people, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Native Americans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. And having a theocratic government, controlled by people of a single faith tradition, is highly unlikely to do this.
Many of us might agree that Love, as in loving-kindness or human solidarity — the inclusive value that cherishes universal human dignity and human well-being — is the antidote to the problems created by greed and materialism. Yet Love does not need be limited to individual acts of charity, as wonderful as those are. Love can also be the basis of our social policies.
As progressives, most of us believe in the value of science. Yet that belief does not require us to renounce our faith in a Higher Power. Many renowned scientists have been people of faith. In turn, some scientists have been studying the power of loving-kindness, for helping people open their hearts to differences in the face of a rapidly-changing world.
You can find some useful links in this google doc, reminding all of us who identify as progressives that if we want to communicate the love that is at the heart of our value system, we need to start by treating people of all political persuasions with love and respect.
Yet while listening to others is a first step to building relationship, we also need to give voice our political beliefs in an effective manner. To do this, we need to stand up for the Love that is at the heart of the social policies we support… policies like social security, and medicare, and family-friendly policies, and public postal services… all of which are ways to help take care of our country’s old people, young people, and sick people. To care for all of our neighbors, not just those who belong to one particular faith tradition.
I have been deeply inspired along these lines, by the teachings of two rabbis whom I particularly admire … Reb Waskow, the founder of the Shalom Center, and Reb Lerner, the founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. I have also been inspired by another Jewish spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson, who has been writing and speaking for the last twenty years on Healing the Soul of America. All of these teachers emphasize the need to bring our spiritual values to bear in the work of collective self-governance.
In closing, I want to appreciate and acknowledge my aunt’s legacy, as well as that of all my born-again Christian family members. Their devotion to putting their faith into practice, has inspired me to live as best as I can, according to the spiritual values that I hold dear.
My uncle, my dear aunt’s husband, spoke at the end of the service. The two of them shared a deep Christian practice. I don’t think he was originally planning to speak, as he has been so devastated by his loss. Yet he stood up at the end, to give his thanks. And when he did so, he made a point to say, “We are ALL God’s children.”
I agree. And that’s why I believe we deserve to live in a society that treats ALL of us as “God’s children”, regardless of our caste, class, color or creed. That’s what democracy was designed to do. Does democracy need improvement? Sure… but to do that we need to move forward in constructive ways, instead of attempting to go backward to the 18th century.
May we all find the inner strength to contribute to healing the soul of this country — with our prayers, with our votes, with our songs (here’s one favorite, and here’s another), and of course, with our on-going actions.