Faith and loss in America

The debate about separation of church and state has been in the news a lot lately. This year, Kansas school boards have tried to promote “Intelligent Design” and discredit evolution in their schools. Judges insisted on displaying the Ten Commandments in their court-rooms. George W. Bush, whose supporters in the religious right expect action in return for their votes in the last election, has increased funding for “faith-based initiatives”. Fundamentalist Christian politicians like Bill Frist have been trying to break down traditional barriers between the government and pulpit. And a hard-line religious conservative has just been elected in a landslide. (Sorry. Don’t know how that one slipped in there.)

These stories reflect a greater conflict within American society. A new poll by the AP finds that “40 percent of Americans think religious leaders should influence public policy”. It seems that some groups want the United States government to promote one official religion, and not tolerate alternative religious beliefs. That’s a theocracy.

So I was especially pleased to see that This American Life had produced the show Godless America about the separation of church and state. It’s a terrific show. And not only because it helps validate my world view. It offers a warning against religious dogmatism, but does so with grace and humor.

The first segment exposes the mine-field that is today’s religious and political landscape. The second is an interview with Cornell government professor Isaac Kramnick, co-author of The Godless Constitution. He talks about just how radical it was for the framers of the constitution to found a secular state, and how the effort just barely passed. He counters claims by the religious right that the U.S. is really a “Christian nation”, and talks about how they were motivated by the writings of John Locke, and the religious intolerance in the early colonies. (Did you know that they hung Quakers in Boston Common in the Massachusetts colony? Just for being, well, Quakers.)

But the final segment, “God said Huh?”, is just incredible. In it, Julia Sweeney talks about how she recently embarked on a course of religious study. And how as a result she lost the faith she had held since childhood.

Sweeney is a former Saturday Night Live comic, had previously produced a one-woman show “God said Hah!”, about her brother’s battle with lymphoma, and her own diagnosis of cervical cancer. That show combined humor and pathos in an ultimately uplifing story. Her latest one-woman show, which she performed a few months ago in L.A. to rave reviews, is called “Letting Go of God”.

Now, I’ve lived in California for 11 years, and I have never visited L.A. But if Sweeney’s show was still being performed there, I would drive through the night to see it. It’s that good.

They played an excerpt on TLA. She begins by telling how two earnest young Mormon missionaries came to her door to explain their beliefs to her. The whole story about the lost tribes of Israel and the golden tablets in New York state sounds unbelievable. But then, on reflection, not much more unbelievable than the Catholic faith in which she was raised.

She resolves to study the bible, to learn more about her church. And what she reads horrifies her. The more she reads, the more she finds her faith called into question. By the end, when she sees a beautiful family walking to church in their Sunday best, with bibles tucked under their arms, she wants to yell at them: “Have you even read what’s in that book?”

But as always, her story is told with humor and poignancy. It will make you laugh, and make you think. So listen to the broadcast. And keep thinking for yourself.

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