America has historically considered itself to be a theocratic society controlled by a secular government, but we are now facing a crisis where faith might either be our saving grace or ultimate undoing.
I believe in America.
This is the opening line in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, an American story of innocence lost and the corruption of power. Bonasera the undertaker tells a story of the failure of the American judicial system to apportion anything resembling justice in light of the degradation of his only daughter. He is chided for his misplaced faith in the ability of the police and the courts to dispense justice. In order to receive justice, Bonasera is forced to call on immoral men and pledge his fealty to the powers of darkness. Bonasera begins his mea culpa to the Godfather with the foundation of his folly, “I believe in America.”
I believed once, too. I believed in the American ideals of courageous independence, equal treatment under the law, standing up for what was right, and valorous morality. I also believed in the Christian faith that was presented to me as the flip side of the coin of American exceptionalism. The guiding morality that separated us from a godless world and which was central to our standing as a city on a hill. I bought into all of it, as the unassailable proof of America’s greatness.
As a young Republican, I was raised with the indisputable understanding that Jimmy Carter’s humanity, while undeniably Christ-like, had ultimately been a failure of leadership, that his humility and empathy were weaknesses not in keeping with the manifest destiny of a country born to greatness and the providence of an almighty God. Instead we were told to worship at the alter of Reagan’s manifestation of the glory of military strength and American exceptionalism. We could be that emblem of greatness, that city on the hill, if only we believed. It was a matter of faith that America was the greatest country on earth and one needed no further proof to convince us of the validity of that belief. The only thing that could stop us was if our faith faltered. It was lack of faith alone that kept the apostle Peter from walking on water to meet his Lord. After all, if we believed, we were told, Tinkerbell would live. And if God was with us, who could be against us?
And so I believed with a sort of childish openness and naivety that seems to be at the core of both American identity and Jesus’s teachings. A blind faith in the righteousness of the faithful. The clear patriotism of faith and the righteousness apparent in the love of country. The morality of money and the providence of power.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Republicans alone caused me to lose my faith in Christianity, but there is no doubt that the politicization of Christianity over the course of my lifetime and my own spiritual journey in observing the world around me, have caused me to question the faith of my youth in ways that go beyond a simple understanding of the teachings of Jesus, and the many inconsistencies and ludicrous nature of the Bible when taken as the literal word of God and factual history.
I came to question many things about the path I was taught, but I maintained a belief that at least those who remained faithful believed in the premise of their faith. It was crushing to learn how easily and quickly their moral principles could be bought in exchange for a little power and influence. Never had I imagined that the God of my youth was so small and timid as to crumble so quickly before the promise of money and fame. How easily justifications were made to allow for breaking with not only with tradition, but with core theology, in order to protect a crumbling white male power structure.
So much of the Republican Party’s immoral march towards authoritarianism and white supremacy has been disheartening and exhausting, but nothing has been as shocking to me as their assault on the principles of the faith of my family, and the absolute corruption of Christianity for political gain.
The undoing has been so complete, so devastating, that I can find no moral rationale for the existence of Republican Party. But the failure of Evangelical Christians to stand up for their faith has caused me to question how there could possibly be a deity of any substance watching over the proceedings with any sort of awareness or appreciation, let alone exerting control over our lives and the events that surround us.
You can presumably justify an all-powerful God allowing bad things to happen to good people, but it’s impossible to deny that a relationship with Christianity has brought nothing but unbelievable cruelty and self-righteous hypocrisy to the political and cultural landscape of American life. The complete lack of morality or theological principles brought to their pursuit of political power has been disastrous for my faith.
The five stages of grief, famously realized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I began to move through denial as I became more intellectually aware in my twenties, but didn’t really enter into anger until much later, as I watched people I knew bear the brunt of policies considered Christian and moral but were anything but. I did my best to bargain with the idea that it was not Christianity but sin that was causing so many of its followers to fail to grasp the basic tenants of their prescribed faith. And now I find myself merely depressed by the death of my belief that the God of my youth is nowhere to be found in the culture in which I find myself. Not in the world around me, and certainly not in the hearts of men. I have so far been unwilling to accept the final conclusion that there is no God, as my belief is either too ingrained or the loss simply too hard to bear. It’s a leap too far, whether because of fear or spiritual need, to believe that we are all alone, and that there is no purpose other than money.
The same holds true of my belief in America. The closer you look, the more you study, and the more honest you are with yourself about what you see, the harder it is to see a brighter way forward since the past is so undeniably dark. There is no safe harbor to return to in our history. No time when it was good. It was not only bad, it was demonstrably worse.
Despite our inglorious past, I often find evidence of divine inspiration in the natural world, just as I see glimpses of brilliance in the construction of our system of government. But without the faith to imagine a future that indeed shares a space with love and empathy for our fellow man, as well as justice, equality and freedom for each of us, the hope needed to continue, dies.
I have often struggled with the argument over whether people are naturally good or bad. The Christian faith believes that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are born sinners and are justified by faith alone. In short, we are bad to begin with and saved by grace alone.
The irony of the Republican Party’s move to embrace the nihilism of Ayn Rand and her rejection of the common good in exchange for selfishness as the ultimate realization of the human spirit, is appalling to me. It’s not just so un-Christlike as to be considered heresy, but so un-American in its concept of social order that it would shock the founders in its depravity—and these were people who owned slaves. Leave it to a former Soviet to distort the American ideal of individualism into a form of absurd patriotism so removed from our aspirational narrative, that America is in danger of becoming an anarchistic collective of armed isolationists. We will have to change our motto from E pluribus unum, meaning “out of many one,” to omnis homo sibi, or “every man for himself.”
I’ve been studying a lot of American history, along with a seemingly unrelated path of research into cognitive biases. It’s led to an interesting understanding of our need to conform reality to our liking, combined with a deeper awareness of how our revisionist history has allowed the rationalization of the use of white, male supremacy to accommodate our pursuit of world domination in the name of God. It’s not a flattering picture.
Our real history is not the traditional pablum we were taught in elementary school, or the fluff written by hack apologists likely to frequent Fox News. It is not the whitewashed propaganda offered up as performative soap operas supportive of the genius of the founders and the bravery of pioneers, but factual accounts of what really happened, stripped of their niceties and laid bare, by the people who were present at the time.
I am by nature a pretty cynical individual, quick to judge and slow to believe. But I am also at my core a irredeemable romantic—an optimist who relies on hope to get through the day. It is my faith in the human spirit that gives me pause enough to conclude that people aren’t inherently evil, but capable of divine inspiration all on their own. I am immersed in the news and spend countless hours thinking and reading about the worst humanity has to offer, but then am often reminded of our endless capacity for unthinkable innovation and improbable redemption. We are such a strange species, capable of such delightful wonder and irrepressible evil that it is no wonder that we believe, rightly or wrongly, that a supernatural struggle exists between good and evil, and that it plays out among our ranks of humanity.
We are not nearly as evolved as we pretend to be. A mere century removed from leeches and cocaine as medicine, and not even a generation removed from believing that fellow humans with different pigments in their skin are mentally inferior and morally degenerate.
The idea that we are just high-functioning mammals seems to belie our ability for abstract thought beyond tool making. Our very ability to imagine a supernatural force we cannot understand but believe to be true, is either base superstition little more than believing that the sun and moon rule over us, or a sign of divine inspiration.
It doesn’t really matter to me at this point which God you believe in, or that you believe in God at all. But I think that we must believe in something in order to ground us and keep us whole. Faith is required to be a functioning human because it gives us hope. Your faith not need be in the form of worshiping a deity such as prescribed in many religions, but should root you in some sense of purpose. We clearly have a desire not only for a God to believe in, but to connect to.
On the other hand, faith in a God that exists only for you, is a path to exceptionalism, tribalism and ultimately to violence, for if you believe that you alone speak for a God we cannot see or hear, then the difference between a prophet and a madman is nothing more than public relations and branding.
I believe in God, just as I believe in America. Not that either should necessarily be one of my own choosing, but that it takes faith and effort on my part in order for me to contribute to this belief and possibly realize my potential in its regard. As Kierkegaard said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I have to wholeheartedly agree with the Mahatma on this one. I often like to say that I like the idea of things far more than the reality of them. I like the idea of smoking, much more than the reality. I am working towards the same feeling towards drinking. I feel this way about many hobbies and pastimes. I like to think about them more than I like to participate. Same with humanity. I like the idea of people far more than the personal reality of them.
I believe in America, but not in the anthem. I believe in America, but not in pledging my allegiance to a flag. I respect those who serve in the military but not in fetishizing their service. I no longer believe in nationalistic pride, and patriotism has the stink of exclusion. I am skeptical of anything that reeks of exceptionalism and reject the idea itself that America is great. Let’s just say I think we have potential, but we’re only 240 years into this thing and the jury is still out.
I like the idea of America, just as I like the idea of a loving God. I remain skeptical that Americans are not nearly as exceptional as they think they are, and I’ve seen little evidence of love from those who call themselves God’s people, no matter what tribe, caste or denomination.
But I have faith and hope, and at least enough empathy that it can, in times of need, be translated as love. I pray, such as I do, that this will be enough.
I believe in America.