Kenneth Woodward’s Requiem for a Lost America

January 30, 2017

Responding to Kenneth L. Woodward’s Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama (New York: Convergent, 2016)

woodwardFew people have had the opportunity that has come to Kenneth L. Woodward who devoted most of his career to writing about American religion. His base was one of the most favored journalistic posts of the half century during which he worked: religion editor for Newsweek. This position provided financial support and entrée so that he could go places, watch from the inside, and talk extensively with people who were central to what was going on.

He wrote extensively and frequently in disciplined and lively, readable language. In later years, institutional archives have made this backlog of material available for him to draw upon when needed. Among the strengths of Woodward’s reporting is that he writes as a Christian believer and as a self-aware old man, conditions he affirms in the final paragraph of the book.

“One of the blessings of old age is the clarity with which diminishing energy of mind and body allows us to see what has been our human lot all along—namely, contingency, transience, and finitude. We cannot control what may happen to us. Nothing lasts forever. We must die. These hold true for believer and nonbeliever alike. They are the existential facts of life that all religions in different ways address. In reply, Christians like myself are called to abide in Faith, Hope, and Love. What matters is that God’s grace is everywhere” (413).

Everyone interested in the life of our nation during this half century can benefit from this book of “lived history” that Woodward has written. It is clear, articulate, vivid, and filled with insight concerning the central topic, which is the interaction of religion, culture, and politics during this period.

As soon as I started reading the book, I liked it. Perhaps the most important reason is that we are close to the same age (I was born in 1931, Woodward in 1935). We grew up in an era when the United States was characterized by what he calls embedded religion, marked by a fusion of faith, culture, and politics. He grew up in a Catholic culture in Cleveland, Ohio, whereas I grew up in a low-church Protestant culture in Portland, Oregon. Although the details of church life and education differed dramatically, there was an undergirding system of values, especially as focused on family structure, transmitted by church and school, that was much the same.

The first half of the book held my attention as Woodward describes the traditional patterns and then reports on the rapid changes that occurred, especially during the fifties and sixties. He describes the entrepreneurial religion of people like Billy Graham, basing his accounts on frequent interaction with leaders of these religious responses to changes in American life.

He gives careful attention to major changes in his own church, pushed in part by the Vatican Council, and describes the dismantling of the embeddedness that had been so important in his growing up years. Changes in Catholic liturgy and debates over birth control are carefully chronicled, and Woodward’s ambivalence about what was happening is clear. He quotes from his feature essay in a 1971 issue of Newsweek to describe why he and other Catholics of the time could remain steady in their faith.

“When the Catholic faith runs deep, it establishes a certain sensuous rhythm in the soul, a sacramental sensibility that suffuses ordinary things—bread, water, wine, the marriage bed—and transforms them into vehicles of grace. In these spiritual depths, doctrine and church laws fade in importance” (92).

At this point in his book, Woodward turns in a new direction. He describes the civil rights movement, as led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in which religious faith and zeal led to public engagement and the vigorous efforts to realize religious aspirations in public life by transforming a racist society. He emphasizes the restructuring of American religion, as described by writers like Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wuthnow.

Woodward quotes from James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America in order to state the central feature of the change that was occurring. “The great polarity in American religion, he argued, was between ‘orthodox’ believers who appealed to an external, definable, and transcendent authority and ‘progressives’ who tended to resymbolize the contents of historic faith according to the presuppositions of contemporary life” (179). Read more: woodward

Preaching on Politics and God

September 4, 2012

I’m watching TV a lot less these days, and for one reason. Virtually every broadcast dealing with news and opinion is dominated by the political campaigns leading to the November election. There was a time when the public political debate dealt with ideas, policies, and programs, which made it worth one’s time to tune in, but not this year. Even news casters and commentators whom I have valued in the past find themselves sucked in by the destructive character of the current campaign. My soul is troubled.

That’s why I sympathize—but only in part—with people who hope that in their churches on Sunday mornings they will find respite from politics. Instead of hearing more of the distortions and character assassinations that seem to be the nature of today’s political discourse, they want to be renewed in faith and once again be brought close to the eternal Spirit of Love at the center of the Christian faith.

Some preachers, however, resist this temptation to do the safe thing, which is to leave politics outside and preach only on the sublime truths of religion. Instead, they persist in connecting faith and public life. Here’s how one preacher explains the practice:

Ministers can’t help themselves. It’s an occupational hazard that goes back, not just through American history, but biblical history, too. Clergy feel called to speak the truth to the real situations of the day. You might like the truth. You might not like the truth. But that’s what ministers are called to do. And it doesn’t come from the authority of a church or a council or an employment agreement. It comes from a deeper place of faith. That’s why ministers speak.

This statement comes from a sermon by Scott Colglazier, senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. On the four Sundays of August, while the nation was preparing for the two political conventions, he preached a series of four sermons on the general theme, Politics and God.

The titles are provocative enough: The Separation of Church and State (And Why Every Christian Should Support It); God (And Other Liberals); God (And Other Conservatives); Dear Mr. President: One Letter from One Minister.

The sermons do not disappoint. The preacher speaks forthrightly about the liberal American political tradition in the light of a faith that is rooted in the message that was at the center of Jesus’ ministry:

Think about it… when he gave his first sermon in a Jewish synagogue, he claimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and that he was here to bring good news to the poor. He was here to bring release to the captives. He was here to bring sight to the blind. And he was here to liberate all who were oppressed. And he also said he was here to establish a year of Jubilee, and a year of Jubilee meant a year when old debts would be released and people would finally get out from under the crushing weight of all those student loans!

In his third sermon, Colglazier states his belief that a genuinely conservative quality also belongs to the Christian message.

So, is God a conservative? Well, in a way, the answer is yes. There is a part of God that never changes, like a great mountain that slopes down to the restless sea. God’s love for the broken spirit? That never changes. God’s desire for justice? That never changes. Just as in our democracy, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” should never change.

Although Colglazier draws upon the Bible to support his point of view (especially in the second sermon), he also draws extensively upon the American political tradition, including Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson.

Colglazier does more than proclaim these ideas in a broad, general way. He moves directly into public policy discourse, for example, commenting on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the current debate over health care. It is easy enough to see where the preacher’s personal sympathies lie, but he successfully (as I read and listen to these sermons) avoids taking an explicitly partisan view. There’s no advice about who to vote for or which way to vote on healthcare or banking legislation (or any other issue that confronts the electorate today).

If more preachers were preaching like this, the political discourse on TV might be better. I might even pay attention, once again, to what the politicians and commentators are saying.

Note: Colglazier appends this “personal word” to each of the sermons in this series: “I think it’s safe to say that everything I learned about church and state, politics and God, can be attributed in one way or another to my friend, Dr. Forrest Church, who passed away a few years ago. Simply stated, he is behind every word of this sermon.”

The image of Paul preaching to the city is a detail from a Povey window at First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon.


Learning from the Aztecs on Independence Day

July 3, 2012

My Independence Day reflections are influenced this year by three factors: 1) the muddled debate about social values in the American electoral campaign; 2) the struggle in Middle Eastern countries between secular governments and religiously-controlled governments; and 3) Jacques Soustelle’s exposition of the ways that religion functioned in the Aztec civilization, which was discovered by Spanish invaders in the early 1500s.

“It was by religion,” Soustelle says of Mexico City in Aztec times, “that the city and tribe were one, and by religion that variety was unified. It was religion that gave this town (so strangely modern in many ways) its mediaeval face: for the life of the Mexican, within his social and material compass, makes sense only if one perceives the degree to which an all-powerful religion told him his duty, ruled his days, coloured his view of the universe and of his personal destiny” (pp. 93-4).

This all-embracing religious factor of Aztec life can be summed up in five features:

1)    It integrated two earlier socio-cultural patterns into one integrated system.

2)    It defined and controlled social relations for families, economic activities (including occupational choice), education, and social mobility.

3)    It prescribed and performed human activities that directly influenced the regularity of natural processes.

4)    It shaped the physical structure of urban communities, including the design, construction, and maintenance of lavish ceremonial spaces.

5)    It required and justified public rituals of human sacrifice that legitimated and energized war and cultivated a willingness among citizens to participate in a social system in which its own members were regularly volunteered as victims.

Much of this was possible, Soustelle makes clear, because public power and religious ideology and practice were intertwined. The coercive power of government and the justifying theology of religion were tightly bound together so that each supported the other.

Soustelle reminds his readers that western civilizations have their own horrendous histories and ideologies. He also points out how vulnerable Aztec society was because of this integration of culture, politics, and religion.

“In any case, one thing is certain, and that is that this religion, with its scrupulous and exacting ritual and the profusion of its myths, penetrated, in all its aspects, deeply into the everyday life of men. Continuously and totally, it moulded the existence of the Mexican nation…It was this religion which, like a powerful frame, upheld the whole edifice of Mexican civilization: so, when once this frame was broken by the invaders, it was not surprising that the entirety should have fallen in ruins” (119).

These historical references to Aztec culture lead me to these conclusions about the role that religious leaders in my own country should take on this Independence Day.

1)    It is important that we continue to support the clear separation of powers—political authority and religious institutions—in the United States, especially during this election season when there is a strong tendency to use government to enforce religious convictions and practices.

2)    It is also important that we encourage American political leaders in their efforts to support a similar separation of powers in other parts of the world, including the Middle East.

3)    We can acknowledge and support the function of religion as providing an explanatory metaphor to explain the world and describe healthful human communities, but we need to acknowledge that any religious metaphor, including one’s own has significant limitations.

4)    We can affirm the benefit to a society, including our own nation, when more than one metaphorical system is actively engaged in the public debate.

5)    We can exercise great care in how we include patriotic materials in public worship. While it is appropriate to express gratitude for the land we enjoy and to affirm certain religious themes that have characterized the American mythos, it is important that we avoid the close integration of Americanism and Christianity.

On this past Sunday (July 1, 2012), worship in the church I attended used a hymn that illustrates practice that can be affirmed: “This Is My Song” with text by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness, set to the tune Finlandia. The characteristic to be commended is the combination of religious language (God understood as ruler of all nations) and love of one’s own country with the recognition that similar sentiments fill the hearts of people elsewhere. The universalism of the message and international character of the sentiments provide the proper context within which a particular group of people can sing their praise and affirm their own way of life.

Note: Quotations are taken from Daily Life of the Aztecs by Jacques Soustelle (London: Phoenix Press, 2002; first published in French in 1955; English translation by Patrick O’Brian copyright 1961).