“Those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Forty years ago, when I enrolled in seminary, I encountered a term I had never heard before: American Civil Religion.
American Civil Religion is based on our national story. The story goes something like this: We are a proud, brave, free, compassionate people born of revolt against the tyranny of aristocrat, king, pope and priest.
We are founded on the humanist principle that people can govern themselves, and in so doing, we have formed the world’s very first liberal democracy.
America is a beacon of hope for the oppressed people of the world. In America, people are not judged by their birthplace in society but by their character and their willingness to work hard and take responsibility for themselves.
Anyone can live the “American Dream” if they work hard, love this country and are loyal to the principles of our nation. So great is our faith in humanity and our capacity to rule ourselves that we invite the world to, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
This is a powerful and hopeful vision of what it means to be an American, and what it means to be a human.
The reality is somewhat different. The America of late seems to be a place of little hope.
One-in-five of our children (ages 0-17) lives below the poverty line. Our infant mortality rates are among the highest in the industrialized world. Teen suicide rates have increased 300 percent since the 1950s.
According to the World Health Organization, we are 27th in the world in terms of quality of health care, even though we spend far more per capita than any other industrialized nation on medical care.
Americans’ life spans are declining. We are becoming shorter, fatter and sicker.
Economically, the bottom 50 percent of Americans own only 1 percent of the wealth of our country, while the top 10 percent owns 76 percent.
Hundreds of people die every day from gun violence and drug overdose. We have, per capita, more people in prison than any other country in the world.
Americans creates 40 percent of the world’s trash even though we are only 4.27 percent of the global population. We incarcerate children and build walls to keep out those tired, poor and huddled masses.
All the while, our elected officials promote hatred, bigotry, division. In other words, we have a national spiritual problem.
Why have we fallen so far short of our ideals as a nation and as a people? It is my opinion that we are failing to live up to the vision of our American Civil Religion because we people of faith have lost our way.
I am talking about all of us – Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, religious humanists and religious atheists, liberals and conservatives alike.
We have made politics a sport. We have drawn up sides, and we have learned to hate.
We feed on hate. Hate is the poison that is destroying us from within, shattering the American Dream and causing our great American society to degrade into a darkness of tribalism, bigotry, racism and income inequality.
Here is where Gandhi was right.
Our political mess will be corrected only when we return to our religious roots and learn how to love each other no matter what our religious beliefs and political allegiances.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Love transcends divisive politics and religious differences. Loving each other can heal us as a nation and as individuals. This is Human Being 101, and is foundational to all of our religions.
It is my opinion that we can find the spiritual wherewithal to renew and restore our American Civil Religion, and that we will do this by looking to our churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and fellowships.
Today’s Insights was written by the Rev. Jim McConnell, pastor of Berrien Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in St. Joseph. Insights is written by area clergy to give different viewpoints on a variety of topics. It is published each Saturday in cooperation with the Berrien County Association of Churches. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of member churches.