Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

150 Million Non-Adherents Can’t Be Wrong

In Religion and Government on May 6, 2012 at 2:32 am

Well, the numbers are in. This week, the results of the 2010 Religious Census were released to the public – and there are a few interesting surprises. Catholics are still the number one group, followed by the Baptists – no surprises here. But, for the very first time, the census has included ‘non-denominational evangelical’  congregations in the count, and taken together, this is the third largest group in America.

Anyone who’s familiar with American life wouldn’t find this too surprising at all – pretty much every preacher on television belongs to this group, and almost all of those super huge castles you see from the main highways have signs that boast their non-denominational credentials. In fact, I would suggest that suburban life – outside of the former Confederate states – revolves around one of these kinds of churches. When you think of the soccer mom, NASCAR dad, Jerry Falwell, Tea Party, love Jesus, hate Obama crowd, I think you have to also think mega-church in the suburbs preaching the prosperity gospel, the Republican party, and American exceptionalism.

All of this holds true in the South as well, but the Southern Baptist convention holds sway there – think less speaking in tongues, a little more guilt – but with the benefit of eternal security. The Mormons are the fastest growing group in the US. This is intriguing to me, since most everything Mormons believe is based on the only decades-old teachings of Joseph Smith – clearly an Elmer Gantry before his time. At least the non-denominational evangelicals can boast roots going back to the Great Awakening.

The Census recognizes that some of the numbers could be skewed, as the information comes from the churches themselves, not from individuals. The thinking is that if you ask an individual if they belong to a church, they might say ‘yes’ even if they haven’t been in years. Churches were asked to estimate the number of ‘adherents’ they counted – and I’m not sure if any guidelines were placed on them, such as if said adherents were regular attendees or if they contributed financial support to the organization.

Growing up in the Assemblies of God, we paid a lot of attention to the average attendance – in fact, many AG churches have the attendance board posted prominently near the front of the church, with numbers updated weekly. If other evangelical churches are similarly fixated on attendance, then I’d say the numbers from non-denominational evangelical groups are a reasonably fair assessment of who ‘belongs’ to the church. This doesn’t even take into consideration the folks who agree with the ideas of Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Robert Schuller, and other evangelicals – but have chosen for one reason or another to stay with their denomination. (Schuller is Dutch Reformed, a Calvinist belief with roots going back to Revolutionary times – Martin Van Buren and Teddy Roosevelt were both members; but many evangelicals proscribe to Schuller’s positive-thinking doctrine).

From my limited knowledge of how Catholics and Baptists count their membership, I’d think those numbers might be overestimated; Catholics tend to put your name down when you’re christened as a little baby, and don’t take it off the record until you die and have your funeral in a Catholic church, even if you don’t show up much in between. Baptists tend to do the same thing – once you join, you’re counted in the membership until you ‘move your letter’ or die. I’m not sure about Mormons – but I know there’s a big controversy about them baptizing people posthumously – don’t know if this pads their numbers or not.

Bread of Life Central Church's Worship Gatheri...

I say all this to get to the number that I think is really important – the 150 million ‘non-adherents’ in American society. These are the people who either don’t believe in God, or don’t think he’s important enough to show up for any kind of Sunday (or Saturday) service or to offer any kind of financial support to a religious institution. How is it, then, that we are supposed to be a Christian nation?

Out of our 300 million citizens, fully one-half adhere to nothing. Out of the 150 million remaining, one has to subtract those of the Jewish faith, the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Daoists, etc., etc., etc. Then, take into account that many denominations may be giving us over-blown numbers – someone may have been christened, but never darkened the door of a church since then. And speaking of christening – how many children are included in those numbers? Is it really fair to call toddlers and pre-schoolers ‘Catholic’ or ‘Evangelical’? If a church has a thousand people attending a Sunday morning service, how many of those would not be old enough to make decisions about eternity for themselves?

Could we only be looking at perhaps 75 million adult Christians in America? And perhaps only a third of them actively anti-secular? This would mean that a group comprising less than ten percent of the country are wielding enormous power when it comes to trying to inject religion into our schools and into our laws.

It’s time to stand up and be counted.  Are you non-Christian? Your senator, congressman, school superintendent, and others need to hear your views – the fundamentalists have had their ear for too long – and their political power is disproportionate to their true numbers. It’s exciting to think that – given the right information and the opportunity to use it – four or five out of six Americans could  be persuaded to a secularist approach to education and government.

Render Unto Caesar

In Religion and Government, Religion and Money on April 29, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor...

Before we get too far down the secularist road together, I think I should take the time to clarify the BIG IDEA that I hope will drive this blog for some time. It comes from what is probably one of the better known stories of the New Testament gospels. It seems there were some folks in the religious establishment that didn’t like Jesus very much, and they were always trying to get him to say something that might cause him to lose followers – or maybe even his head. One day they decided it would be a pretty nifty ploy to ask him what he thought about the very unpopular Roman tax Judeans were required to pay.  If Jesus supported the tax, he’d have an angry mob to contend with, and would for sure lose most of his followers.  If, on the other hand, he replied that those of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be required to pay it – his enemies would certainly be able to bring a case against him with the Roman authorities.

Mark 12:13-17 American Standard Version of the Bible tells it this way:

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk. And when they were come, they say unto him, Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why make ye trial of me? bring me a denarius, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus said unto them, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled greatly at him

Now there have been a lot of attempts to make this say something it doesn’t, but I think it’s clear to even the casual reader that Jesus wasn’t interested in making any political statements. If your government requires you to do something, you should do it.  If your god requires you to do something, you should do that as well.  I suppose there might be times when these requirements might be at odds with one another – and I’ll be talking about those kind of situations at length – but it seems that Jesus doesn’t have a problem with paying taxes. (Funny that American conservatives – many of whom are fundamentalist believers – do.)

However, I think there’s more at work here than just a simple discourse about taxation – and this is where my BIG IDEA comes in.  Jesus himself seems to be saying here that religion and civic duty are two different realms, and in a sense require different kinds of commitments. It is possible to be a good Christian and a good citizen at the same time – even if your government is not God-centered. We separate church and state so that everyone can enjoy the rights and liberties in common that are given us by our democratic from of government, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of whatever religion we choose.

It is my hope that Americans would begin to see this separation not as simply institutional, but at the personal level as well, to embrace the dichotomy, as it were. Unlike many secularist organizations, I ask no one to abandon their faith for the sake of democracy. I simply ask that they use their faith to guide them in their quest for God – but use the powers of reason, observation, and intelligence when they make decisions about our government. I believe a person can be a Christian and still vote for candidates that do not share their religious beliefs – but they vote for those candidates because they are capable of making decisions that are good for all Americans.

Perhaps George Holyoake, the British lecturer who coined the term ‘secularism’, said it best:

“Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.”

Global climate change. Terrorism. Inequality. Poverty. These are problems that can perhaps be better solved by scientists, economists, and diplomats than by searching two-thousand-year-old texts. If I may re-phrase the words of Jesus – Americans should begin to give to their country the very best of their intelligence, reason, and rational thought, and continue to love their God with all of their hearts.  If we can do this, the rest of the world will marvel greatly.

The Inspirational Rick Santorum

In Religion and Government on April 29, 2012 at 11:14 pm

You might find it hard to believe, but Rick Santorum is responsible for the existence of this blog. I could say that, like Sarah Palin, he inspires me; both have caused me to make positive choices in my life. In Sarah Palin’s case, I was inspired to vote in a presidential election for the first time in years. I had always been a big fan of John McCain – his straight-from-the-hip style, his willingness to vote on principle instead of by party line – and this new guy Barack Obama seemed to have quite a bit of charisma too. I was pretty sure that America would be taking a big step up from the George W. Bush years, no matter who won. Going to all the trouble to cast an absentee ballot from Beijing, where I lived at the time, didn’t seem really all that important, since I’d be happy enough with either outcome.

Enter Sarah Palin. I only had to see a couple of interviews to be terrified of the idea that this person might be a heart attack away from the Oval Office. Just when I thought President Dumb was leaving the White House, here was the specter that President Even Dumber might take his place. I made the necessary phone calls, got my ballot, and cast my vote. In that time-honored American tradition, I didn’t so much vote for one guy as I voted against the other.  (This is closely related to another tradition known as vote the bastards out – for which a Google search turns up over 27 million hits.)

Rick Santorum’s surge in the polls this past winter meant that more of what he had to say was turning up in the news – and the more I heard, the less I liked. I never really thought he had a chance to win the nomination, but his campaign musings revealed a poisonous strain of political thinking in America, one that could only be called the desire for a theocracy. Don’t get me wrong – I am not opposed to a person of faith voting according to his conscience. Everyone has the right in this country to vote for whomever they choose. What I am opposed to is the idea that a democracy should be run according to – and is grounded in – the ideas of the Bible. Preachers and pundits are busily proclaiming such nonsense – but never offer one shred of proof from either history or their own sacred texts.

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

“Where do you think this concept of equality comes from?” said Santorum, according to ABC News. “It doesn’t come from Islam. It doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions, where does it come from? It comes from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that’s where it comes from. Don’t claim his rights, don’t claim equality as that gift from God and then go around and say, ‘Well, we don’t have to pay attention to what God wants us to do,’” Santorum continued to the enthusiastic crowd. “‘We don’t have to pay attention to God’s moral laws.’ If your rights come from God, then you have an obligation to live responsibly in conforming with God’s laws, and our founders said so, right?”

ABC News link . Quotes from Rick Santorum at a town hall in South Carolina, January 2012.

Wrong, Rick. Exactly what part of the Bible served as the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson to write “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence? And where might I find examples of God’s moral laws or his establishment of our American rights? I see many examples in the Old Testament of Jehovah encouraging genocide for those who were not of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I can read Paul’s letters where he tells slaves to be obedient to their masters.  I can even read how Jesus called a Canaanite woman a dog, and informed her that all the wonderful things he promised were for Israel alone. In fact, there are hundreds of examples in the Bible that would seem to refute the idea that concept of equality is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. How can Christians be so ill-informed about the very book upon which they claim to base their beliefs – indeed, the future of their eternal souls? If you’re going to run around telling everyone that they need to do what the Bible says if they know what’s good for them – shouldn’t you take the time to read it first?

Mr. Santorum and others like him have inspired me to do something positive – write this blog. Christians aren’t reading their Bibles – they are content to let patriarchs and pedagogues do their thinking for them.  In the process, what Jesus, Paul and others had to say is being grossly misrepresented.  Perhaps more importantly, too many Americans are completely ignorant of Enlightenment writings – which is where ideas of equality and democracy truly come from. I’m convinced that we desperately need a greater awareness of these ideas if our country is to continue to prosper.