God was not on the November ballot, but enterprising Harris pollsters did attempt to measure religious sentiments before the last election. As observers of the American scene since the time of Tocqueville have pointed out, large majorities of US citizens describe themselves as believers in God. Yet what God means is both more varied and more subject to fluctuation than many commentators realize.
If one listened only to the mainstream media, one could assume that religion in America is synonymous with the "religious right." The movement is characterized not merely by staunch opposition to abortion and homosexuality but also by Biblical literalism and faith in divine judgment and a second coming.
Though too narrow in its questions, the Harris poll unearthed some startling surprises. Large majorities of Americans believe in God, but they differ in the certainty of their conviction and their understanding of God. Nearly half of Americans are not sure God exists. Even more surprisingly are the public divisions on whether God has a human form and has control over events. Some 42% of adult citizens are not "absolutely certain" there is a God compared to 34% who felt that way when asked the same question three years ago. As to whether God controls events on Earth, 29% believe that to be the case while 44% said God "observes but does not control what happens on Earth".
Why do questions about God's form or God's control over events matter? Even the most secular among us must found "rational" arguments on some set of assumptions about human reason itself and the good life. In the face of our finitude and our limited knowledge, human beings inevitably construct values and "common sense" ways of looking at the world. These can strive to be attentiveness to their own limits in a world that may always exceed our grasp or they can look for security in final and binding truths.
For some, religion is about laying down clear boundaries. Cal Thomas argues that evil springs from the unwillingness of this culture to accept the notion that there is a clear line between good and evil and to adhere to that line. Thomas recently quotes with approval a former Senate chaplain: "Abandoning an absolute ethical (and) moral standard leads irresistibly to the absence of ethics and morality. Each person determines his own ethical/moral code. That's anarchy. Humans become their own gods and decide, each in his own way, what is good and what is evil. Evil becomes good -- good becomes evil. Upside down morality! Good is ridiculed! Evil is dignified!"
The God of Revelation is the ultimate backstop of this morality. He promises that "the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death." (Rev 21.5)
One can advance many arguments against this perspective. Were not many Nazis who consigned their victims to a horrid demise ardent Christians who were sure that their boundaries between good and evil were infallible? But beyond posing that question, it is important to understand that Christianity itself has other strands, and that these can serve as a powerful counterweight to moralities based on unquestionable commands and harsh punishments. Stephen Mitchell's The Gospel According to Jesus collects sayings that at least 80% of the Biblical scholars have concluded were spoken by Jesus himself. To take just a few: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Don't judge, and you will not be judged. For in the same way that you judge people you yourself will be judged." These words have inspired not merely a Social Gospel tradition that sought to bring social justice to the poor but other strands within Christianity more attuned to the limits of any human moral reckoning.
This is an ethos and an ethic informed not by command as by an appreciation for the ever expanding forms and concerns human life can take. It is not that punishment and regulations are never appropriate and that lines must not be drawn. Surely we must counter violence by those who would shut down other voices. But even as we draw lines, we must strive for sensitivity to the damage we ourselves may do and to our own role in evoking the hatred and disgust of others.
Most Americans believe in God, but for many the shape of that belief may be changing. The powerful set of religious and political convictions and interests identified by the media with religion are not the final word. Even among those who define themselves as Biblical literalists, different currents -- especially in such areas as global warming -- are emerging. One may take as much hope from that as from the elections themselves.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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