NEW YORK (Nov. 24)
The Three Great Awakenings in America — the first, in the 13 colonies from 1725-1770; the second, west of the Alleghenies, 1770-1830; the third, 1865-1899, with the rise of city evangelism — were all responses to the widespread decline of religion and the degenerated moral conditions of the times. We may well be in the midst of the Fourth Great Awakening today.
The point is that there are more people affiliated with our churches and synagogues today than any time in the past. And while we face real and serious moral issues in contemporary American and in the troubled world, it serves no useful purpose to imply that we are a generation of moral pygmies when contrasted with our forebears who were supposedly moral giants.
Precisely because there are more Americans who are religiously committed today than in the past we are in a for better position to mobilize conscience and moral will to cope constructively and realistically with our many problems. That means that religious and civic leadership needs to speak to our better selves rather than evoke paralyzing images of our worst selves.
A VITAL LESSON
A vital lesson that should be derived from our past is that when confronted with the massive moral challenges of the frontier societies, evangelical leaders — to their everlasting credit — launched a wide range of moral re-form-movements as voluntary expressions of the churches. Organized benevolence (“The Benevolence Empire” these efforts were called) were created for the poor and downtrodden, anti-slavery groups, temperance societies, aid to youth, and the military.
With the exception of the Prohibition legislation calling for total abstinence from alcoholic beverages adopted as the 18th amendment in 1920, the anti-evolution law, and the Puritan Sabbath — all of which subsequently collapsed and resulted in general disillusionment and loss of morale — all of the great moral re-form movements were effected through internal, voluntary church resources, rather than through legislative means of dominating the government or the nation’s political machinery.
3) Several “New Christian Right” spokesmen have asserted or implied that “the Founding Fathers” of our nation perceived America as “a Christian Republic.” If you check your writings, you will find that such assertions contradict everything Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others stood and fought for.
Thus, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom — which become the basis for the First Amendment — Almighty God hath created the mind free, and all attempts to influence it by tempt or punishments or burrs or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.”
The exercise of religion, Jefferson added, is “a natural right” which has been infringed by “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers” to set up their “own modes of thinking as the only true and infallible,” and “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves,” which is “sinful and tyrannical.
In his “Notes on Virginia,” Jefferson stated, “The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God … Subject opinion to coercion; whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature.”
PRESUMPTUOUS AND OFFENSIVE
I would commend such writings of our Founding Fathers to the Rev. Bailey Smith and others who share his views about uniformity of conscience and religion. Smith’s utterance about “God not hearing the prayer of a Jew” is not only religiously presumptuous and morally offensive it is dangerous to the future of our democratic pluralistic society.
He is saying not only that the Jewish people have been living a religious lie for 4,000 years across 30 civilizations; he is also saying that because they are religiously invalid there is no place for them at Presidential inaugurations or political conventions, and ultimately, no legitimate place for them in American democratic society. Some evangelical pastors spoke such theological obscenities about the Jews in Nazi Germany.
It is encouraging to us that literally hundreds of Baptist posters, Christian seminary faculties and lay people have issued statements repudiating his narrow views as un-Christian and un-American.
(Tomorrow: Part Three)