Jumping the shark for Jesus, continued

Jumping the shark for Jesus, continued

: George Will has a good start to a column today about George Bush apparently trying to pull back from the follies of the religious fringe. But Will doesn’t pull back quite far enough, in my view, for he contrasts only the religious fringe with the godless and leaves out the vast religious majority inbetween.

The state of America’s political discourse is such that the president has felt it necessary to declare that unbelievers can be good Americans. In last week’s prime-time news conference, he said: “If you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.”

So Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes and a long, luminous list of other skeptics can be spared the posthumous ignominy of being stricken from the rolls of exemplary Americans. And almost 30 million living Americans welcomed that presidential benediction.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Americans who answer “none” when asked to identify their religion numbered 29.4 million in 2001, more than double the 14.3 million in 1990. If unbelievers had their own state — the state of None — its population would be more than twice that of New England’s six states, and None would be the nation’s second-largest state:

California, 34.5 million.

None, 29.4 million.

Texas, 21.3 million.

The president, whose political instincts, at least, are no longer so misunderestimated by his despisers, may have hoped his remarks about unbelievers would undo some of the damage done by the Terri Schiavo case. During that Florida controversy, he made a late-night flight from his Texas ranch to Washington to dramatize his signing of imprudent legislation that his party was primarily responsible for passing. He and his party seemed to have subcontracted governance to certain especially fervid religious supporters.

He then goes on to praise Pat Robertson — “who is fervid but also shrewd” — for tolerating the idea of a Guiliani run for President and says: “Some Christians should practice the magnanimity of the strong rather than cultivate the grievances of the weak.”

As if Robertson is a model. He neglects to mention Robertson’s other recent media appearance contending that loose judges are the most serious threat to America in 400 years of history — more serious than the Nazis and slavery and explicitly more serious than al Qaeda. A fine model of political reasonableness.

Will then goes on to argue that the religious right should stop trying to play victim and he uses Passion of the Christ and best-selling religious books and more as his evidence. “But their persecution complex is unbecoming because it is unrealistic.” I agree with that.

But I have a problem with making Robertson, Passion, and the Left Behind books the milestones of religion in America. Will puts people in that camp or in the unbelieving camp. But there is a vast religious middle that would not qualify as religious by the definition of some, that may not be the most loyal churchgoers or churchgoers at all, that may hold opinions that are antithetical to the beliefs of this group… but they are religious Americans nonetheless. I am in that middle, that mainstream. But that’s the subject of another post another day.

: At the same time, in The Times, David Brooks writes about religion and Abraham Lincoln:

On Sept. 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln gathered his cabinet to tell them he was going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He said he had made a solemn vow to the Almighty that if God gave him victory at Antietam, Lincoln would issue the decree.

Lincoln’s colleagues were stunned. They were not used to his basing policy on promises made to the Lord. They asked him to repeat what he’d just said. Lincoln conceded that “this might seem strange,” but “God had decided the question in favor of the slaves.”

I like to think about this episode when I hear militant secularists argue that faith should be kept out of politics.

Well, I’d be stunned, too. So what if the battle had gone the other way: Would Lincoln have left the slaves imprisoned? Does this mean he believes that God joins in a battle? Yes, stunning. I don’t think that’s a mark of sane religion in government any more than Pat Robertson is.

Deciding that slavery is wrong and must be stopped should not require a signal from God; it should be evident from studying God’s word and from examining one’s own conscience. Brooks would call that relativism — “the bland relativism of the militant secularists.” But that is not relativism. That is morality. That is what religion is about.

But Brooks would call me a “militant secularist.” I think those are fighting words.