The Holy Vote
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The Holy Vote

Ray Suarez

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馃摉 eBook - ePub

The Holy Vote

Ray Suarez

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About This Book

Not since the Civil War has the United States been so polarized, politically and ideologically. At the heart of this fracture is a fascinating, paradoxical marriage between our country's politics and religions.

In The Holy Vote, Ray Suarez explores the advent of this polarization and how it is profoundly changing the way we live our lives. With hands-on reporting, Suarez explores the attitudes and beliefs of the people behind the voting numbers and how the political divide is manifesting itself across the country. The reader will come to a greater understanding of what Americans believe, and how this belief structure fuels the debates that dominate the issues on our evening news broadcasts.

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I LOVE MY COUNTRY. I love my church.
I love the land itself in its stunning beauty, and my 300 million countrymen and -women. I even love the ones that make me crazy.
I love my church, the small-c place in a corner of Washington, D.C., where I sing and pray and teach Sunday school. And I love my Church, the teeming, globe-straddling capital-C place that I鈥檝e given my lifelong devotion and trust to, along with my affection.
I am thrilled to see what looks like wisdom and kindness from my country and its people. I cringe when I see my country going off course. I think I am a patriot. At the same time I wrestle constantly with myself over what the country at its best ought to be, and how the things we do will affect the rest of the world.
In every corner of the world, I鈥檝e gained strength and consolation sharing bread and wine with fellow Christians, and watched as the church has tried to live up to the encouragement from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned.1
I pray often, and nobody knows I鈥檓 doing it. I have prayed in school all my life, but it never caused a fuss, because I didn鈥檛 need official sanction, a loudly announced time at the school鈥檚 flagpole, or a mandated moment of silence in order to accomplish the task: a few words between me and God.
I say the Pledge of Allegiance without coercion or irony, and don鈥檛 drop the 鈥渦nder God.鈥 But I do wonder how I鈥檇 feel about the whole exercise if I didn鈥檛 believe in God, and was being made to recite the Pledge.
I revere the Constitution and its attempts to speak to every generation of Americans, and the hundreds still to come. I also recognize that the Constitution is a political document, not a sacred one. It was crafted by politicians as a handbook to get us through the rough spots in American daily life. It was crafted in response to the particular grievances against the British monarchy and the fresh memory of failing self-government under the Articles of Confederation.
While it was very much a product of one hot summer in Philadelphia in the infancy of a fragile and insecure country, the national charter has aged magnificently. The Constitution helps maintain a voluntary consensus, a submission to the rules of a shared enterprise, in a country not defined by blood, clan, land origin, or religious belief.
The adaptability of the Constitution has gotten our country through uncomfortable and conflict-filled ages, including a blood-soaked spasm that saw one vast section of the country pull away from that consensus umbrella to save human slavery. When the Civil War began, slavery enjoyed recognition under the Constitution. When the smoke from millions of rifle rounds and cannonballs cleared, over a million people were dead, and that same Constitution forbade the ownership of one human being by another.
Whenever it is called for at a public occasion, I sing the national anthem, even though it must be the hardest national anthem to sing on this anthem-filled planet. And I鈥檓 especially fond of the final, frankly religious, stanza.2
Why tell you all this?
I tell you this because, until recently, I thought of all of the above as pretty normal. However, today, I feel as if I鈥檓 no longer living in the country I was raised in. Something valuable in the accommodation we made for one another is gone, and getting it back will take something more than just groping our way forward.
I tell you all this also because trying to discern the secret agendas of American journalists (I am one) has become something of a parlor game. One of the most offensive markers of our era is the implied division of our citizens, by our citizens, into Real Americans and everyone else, Patriots and everyone else, and Christians and everyone else. Of all the assumptions a reader might make about me, Christian Patriot might not have readily come to mind. Northeasterners, Latinos, reporters, and Christians outside certain denominations have, to some people, been traditionally suspect: someone who is all those things is only more so.
Ours was not founded as a Christian country. In the 230 years since then that label has only become less appropriate. We do have a unique status as the wealthy, industrialized country with the largest numbers of religious believers, active congregants, and people who merely say they believe in God. The gross numbers visible from a cruising-altitude-look at the country hide a complex mosaic of belief and a broad continuum of conviction as to what belief in a Creator means to our country today.
Our national life is cobbled together from a mix of noble dreams and grubby politics. That is no shame, but rather a realistic combination of the forces that move us as a people. Yet, more and more Americans, in full backlash against one another, want purity of purpose in the sausage-making of policy. And when they don鈥檛 get it, they often identify the culprit as religion: there is both too much of it, and too little of it, in our shared civic life.
These are strange days.
I grew up at a time when it seemed every second adult had a cross of ashes on his or her forehead on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian penitential season of Lent. I grew up at a time when half my schoolmates would open up their lunches for a week in the spring, to inspect the version of a 鈥渟andwich鈥 their mothers had cobbled together from various fillings and matzoh. Passover days were part of the heartbeat of the neighborhood, keeping time for everyone as we moved through the year.
Also in spring, hundreds of other kids were dragged to department stores for their Easter clothes, and on that Sunday the streets were filled with surprisingly cleaned-up-looking kids, some with Brylcreemed hair, coming back from church and heading to relatives鈥 for dinner.
In the fall came Sukkoth, a Jewish harvest festival, and makeshift shelters sprouted on fire escapes, in alleys and backyards and driveways, as the Jews of the neighborhood gathered outside on the last few nice nights of the fall for a festive dinner.
I tell you this for a reason. Not to hit your bloodstream with a sudden jolt of saccharine about the good old days. Not to flood your eyes with sepia-toned images of girls in frilly first communion dresses and boys in yarmulkes heading to religious instruction before handball and stickball.
It鈥檚 something much more basic than that.
From life in a world soaked in religious imagery and practice, where the seasons of the year were punctuated by public displays of piety, I learned that the best distance to keep between church and state was a broad and respectful one. The Lord鈥檚 Prayer wasn鈥檛 said at school. There were no cr猫che displays in our public parks. There was no agitation for scripture readings at school. When a clergyman (and they were all men then) was at school for a major occasion, he could be relied upon to deliver a broad, bland, and monotheistic prayer.
On one fairly routine day covering the Chicago City Council, I watched as the aldermen stood for an invocation, delivered on this day by the late George Hagopian. The request for divine help in the work of the city council started innocently enough, with praise for God and thanks for his kindness. Then it veered away from the kind of prayers the council鈥檚 four Jewish aldermen might include in their private devotions, ending in the name of 鈥淵our Blessed Son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and Mary, His Ever-Blessed Virgin Mother.鈥
Was the prayer appropriate? I asked two of the council members during a break in the session later that day. One said, 鈥淥h, that鈥檚 just George. There鈥檚 certainly nothing hostile about it. It鈥檚 something you get used to.鈥
I asked if they should have to get used to it. The other member chimed in. 鈥淵ou鈥檙e too young to remember public school beginning every day with a Bible reading. Over the loudspeaker system. And the Lord鈥檚 Prayer! And my school was heavily Jewish. It鈥檚 Chicago. That鈥檚 just the way it is.鈥
It is, granted, a small thing. But in the moment of recalling youthful exclusion, a successful American Jew became almost rueful, trying to explain to a reporter what the constant reminder of his differentness, even as an elected member of a governing body, really means.
By the time I started school, in 1962, American public schools were changing. We learned to pray, if we prayed, at home. We learned about the Bible, if we did, on our own and our family鈥檚 time. Nobody felt that anything was missing.
I was born into what I鈥檝e since been told was the decaying and fallen world after Supreme Court decisions like Abington Township School District v. Schempp. Talk to older Americans and they鈥檒l routinely date the decline of American morals from the series of Supreme Court decisions that severely restricted school prayer.
School prayer is still a topical issue and an important component of the political and cultural wars of this young century. Until 1963, Pennsylvania had a requirement that ten Bible verses be read to begin the day in the state鈥檚 public schools.3 In finding for the Schempp family鈥擴nitarians who found that the readings both contradicted their own beliefs and isolated their children鈥擩ustice Tom Clark wrote, 鈥淭he very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One鈥檚 right to鈥reedom of worship鈥nd other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.鈥 4 When you write a phrase like that, you might be forgiven for thinking you are locking in a legal view for the ages. Yet the fight continues.
I was in kindergarten when Schempp was handed down, and am the middle-aged father of a first grader as I write this today. In the decades since that 1963 court decision and others that followed, the country has become not only more religious but more religiously diverse at the same time. Today, our national family now includes tens of millions who profess no religion at all.
However, those same years saw, first, the construction of a workable consensus around the place of religion in the public sphere, and then a militant backlash against that consensus. The United States is now contested terrain, a place where many of the commonplace ideas of the postwar decades are now reopened for negotiation鈥攁nd battle.
The battle over the place of religion in public life has pushed more people to the poles of the debate. We are whipsawing between bare-knuckled partisan combat waged with all the tools of modern communication鈥攕atellite teleconferences and e-mails, blast faxes and pressure campaigns鈥攁nd a contest of psychobabble: a world where people are, moment by moment, 鈥渋nsensitive,鈥 鈥渉urt,鈥 鈥渙ppressed,鈥 and 鈥渕arginalized.鈥
This is a battle fought by gesture, sign, and signal. This is a fight in which symbolic acts are given deep significance. The acts are significant to those who carry them out for an audience of TV cameras, and assigned great importance by the people who see them.
Look. There鈥檚 a man lying facedown on the steps of the Alabama Supreme Court. He鈥檚 got an enormous black-leather-covered Bible in his hand. He鈥檚 weeping. He鈥檚 waiting to be carried away by uniformed officers who have ordered the court steps cleared.
Quick! What鈥檚 the man doing?
Careful. Your answer may force you into joining a group you may not be sure you want to join. Will the weeping man鈥檚 prayers prevent the two-and-a-half-ton monument from being moved from the court rotunda? Does the man believe his prayers will encourage a God who has so far taken no direct action to smite the moving men?
Or is this man and many others like him, shouting and predicting doom for the State of Alabama, involved in a very modern kind of public theater meant to force us, the distant audience in a continent-sized country, to take sides in a fight over a religious monument? However, this pious and very public support for public displays of the laws handed down on Mount Sinai sits very uncomfortably alongside the persistent public opinion research that shows most Americans can鈥檛 name all ten, never mind in order.
The charm of that one datum is this: it may prove both sides鈥 points. Depending on where you sit when you read the poll numbers about biblical ignorance, it may show that all the bellowing about the Commandments鈥 public display is just so much hypocrisy, or it may demonstrate exactly why the ancient laws should be posted in every public building in America. (I will get back to the Ten Commandments in chapter six.)
Along with all the other changes in American political life came a change in the way we see each other. We Americans do not go into battle crediting the other side of the argument with operating out of goodwill. Increasingly, your opponent is not merely wrong, or mistaken, but bad. In the eyes of many fighting to insert more religion into the public sphere, their opponents hate America, hate religion, and will not stop until all signs of religion are chased from the public realm. In the eyes of many fighting for strict separation, the religious will not stop until there is a theocracy in America, until it becomes a conservative Christian state.
The stereotyping is nonstop. The allegations are often laughable. But the visions of America from the two poles are mutually exclusive, and鈥攁t first glance鈥攊rreconcilable. The large and growing number of Americans who profess no faith at all may make tough and unsentimental critiques of American political life and the national culture, and yet find displays of American religiosity damaging affronts to their liberty.
Then big religious voices in the culture reply in an equally laughable way. Despite their wealth, influence, power, and reach (not to mention their power in the political party that currently controls both houses of Congress and the White House), these institutions cry out that a hostile popular culture, academia, and 鈥渁ctivist judges,鈥 among other members of a vast rogues gallery, have persecuted religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
Both sides submit for your judgment an America that simply does not exist. One side suggests there is the oppressive establishment of a confessional state, where people who take seriously the First Amendment鈥檚 free-exercise clause are a hounded and dwindling population. The other sees a dark and scary world where American entertainers, journalists, professors, and liberal politicians are enforcing an anti-Christian worldview.
You might say, 鈥淭hat isn鈥檛 politics. It鈥檚 church-state separation.鈥 Or, 鈥淭hat isn鈥檛 politics. It鈥檚 culture.鈥 The public square is the place where culture becomes politics. When we come together to negotiate the terms under which the institutions we hold and support in common are managed and ordered, politics are the tools we use. We use politics to persuade boards and commissions, we use it to elect leaders, and the leaders seek to persuade one another using the calculus of public support and the power it conveys. If I put the Ten Commandments over my bed, it is a matter of personal taste. When I decide I love the commands handed down on Mount Sinai so much, I want it on the facade of city hall, that鈥檚 politics.
Political tools are the ones we use to try to turn a point of view into law. That way it moves from one person鈥檚 or one group鈥檚 conviction to a rule that applies to many, or all.
That leap, from the purely private realm to the public one, where some individuals can have power over the choices and life conditions of others, is where the intimate relationship between God and a human being becomes political. It鈥檚 the spiritual corollary to the pugilist-political clich茅: 鈥淵our rights end, and my rights begin, where your fist meets my nose.鈥
Deciding where to draw the line between my nose and your fist will not be easy because the terms of engagement have changed. American evangelicals will no longer accept at face value the notion that religious persuasion belongs at home and out of the public way. Richard Cizik, leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, told the PBS documentary series Frontline, 鈥淲hat we鈥檙e talking about is an evangelical view that you can鈥檛 compartmentalize religion and civil government. If Christ is redeemer, over not just the private (the church) but the public (the state), then the state itself can be redeemed in a positive sense. You cannot, to the evangelical, relegate faith to the private arena only. You simply can鈥檛 do that.
鈥淩ight behavior coming from right beliefs are two sides of the same spiritual coin. But that challenges the modern fundamental assumptions about Western political values that, 鈥榃ell, religion is private. Politics is public. And never the twain shall meet.鈥 So by our very pietistic influence, evangelicals are challenging, I would say, the biases of Western political foundation.鈥
Not even all evangelicals agree. The Reverend C. Welton Gaddy is pastor of a Baptist church in Louisiana and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, a national religious group in Washington, D.C. When asked about where that subtle line is between private devotion and public duty, he said, 鈥淵es, thankfully, he [President George Bush] has a profound religious faith, and I hope that he draws on that faith鈥擨 think he does鈥for personal sustenance, for strength, for courage. But no elected political leader has ...

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APA 6 Citation
Suarez, R. (2009). The Holy Vote ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/590994/the-holy-vote-pdf (Original work published 2009)
Chicago Citation
Suarez, Ray. (2009) 2009. The Holy Vote. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. https://www.perlego.com/book/590994/the-holy-vote-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Suarez, R. (2009) The Holy Vote. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/590994/the-holy-vote-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Suarez, Ray. The Holy Vote. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins, 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.