Ray Suarez's new book The Holy Vote examines the way Americans worship, how organized religion and politics intersect in America, and how this powerful collision is transforming the current and future American mindset. Not since the Civil War has the United States been so polarized - politically and ideologically. But at the very heart of this fracture is a fascinating and paradoxical marriage between our country's politics and religions.
Ray Suarez has been a senior correspondent with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer since 1999, where he is responsible for conducting news-making interviews, studio discussions and debates, and reporting from the field.
Ray Suarez joined The NewsHour in October 1999 as a Washington-based Senior Correspondent. Suarez came to The NewsHour from NPR where he had been host of the nationwide, call-in news program "Talk of the Nation" since 1993. Prior to that, he spent seven years covering local and national stories for the NBC-owned station, WMAQ-TV in Chicago.
Jane Wales is vice president of philanthropy and society at the Aspen Institute, president and CEO of the World Affairs Council, and founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum.
Previously, Wales was a special assistant to President Clinton, senior director of the National Security Council, and associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
She also chaired the international security programs at the Carnegie Corporation and the W. Alton Jones Foundation and directed the Project on World Security at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Wales is the former national executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Considering that religious dogma is strongly STRONGLY based on unprovable stories about magic, spirits and God, I don't see something that should be a logical process, in this case politics, to have anything to do with someone who believes in a man in the clouds. There are too many religions to warrant one correct over the others, and we can't stop to listen to them when it comes to the matters of the masses that includes everyone that is and isn't religious. By the way, my thoughts are scattered, so don't mind my crazy multiposts!
Religion's completely incompatible, in my mind, with politics. Religion is something that I fear is a dangerous phenomenon. In my mind, it's a large cult that makes billions of dollars. I think people have to learn that spirituality, religion and philanthropy are three completely different concepts. You don't have to be one of those three to be the other. But too many think that without a religious background, you can't be a good person. There are too many who don't think that being spiritual is as important as being religious.
Thoughts that pertain to the speech:
I think the naturally curious and critical nature of humans makes us first want to know the conscience of others, and then to understand why it's different from ours. And we can't help but think that our deeply-held convictions would be similarly held by everyone else if they only had access to the information we had. So it's only natural for us to try to create things that convince (and if those fail, force) others to see things our way. That goes for any sort of belief, although it especially pertains to religion.
I am not an expert on Christianity or Jesus, but I think the original intention was that religion have its own theatre, and that this never mix with politics or society. And yet--perhaps because we inherited the version of Christianity designed by Constantine and shaped by all those who came before and have come since--we never seem to be successful at it.
And yet it's only natural that Christinaity should avoid this type of theocracy of thought, because a complicated religious doctrine is bound to be interpreted differently by everyone who can read it. So religious unity was probably more present in the 18th and 19th centuries (as Suarez notes above) because the rate of literacy was lower. People were less able to make sense of the world and especially the written word, and were therefore more prone to frenzy. And if everyone will believe what they are told, and there are only a few who have information to tell, sooner or later everyone will believe something close to the same thing.
That's why with 'liberal reform' (and I use the term in a historical, rather than political, sense), society always moves away from fad and away from orthodoxy. The decision of people to follow their own consciences, rather than the ones given to them, comes with forward movement into liberalism. Given the choice, some will always choose no religion, some will always choose to have a deep-seated belief in the popular religion--although not necessarily because it is popular--and most will fall somewhere in between. None is necessarily more enlightened than the others.
He makes so many interesting points, I would love to talk to this guy in person and pick his brain some more. I particularly liked his parsing of the common phrase "America is a Christian Nation," and what that would actually mean if it were true.
Ray Suarez has thirty years of experience in the news business.He came to the news hour on PBS in 1999 as a Washington-basedsenior correspondent, departing his position with National Public Radio, wherehe'd been host of the noontime show Talk of the Nation since 1993.Prior to that, he spent seven years covering local national and internationalstories for the NBC-owned station WMAQ TV in Chicago.He was also a Los Angeles correspondent for CNN,a producer for ABC Radio Network in New York,a reporter for CBS Radio in Rome,and a reporter for various American and British news services in London.Suarez shared in the National Public Radio's 1993-1994 and 1994-1995DuPont Columbia's Silver Baton Awards for on-site coverageof the first all-race elections in South Africa and the first hundreddays of the 104th congress, respectively. (Two different sets of stories.)He's been honored with the 1996 Reuben Salazar award for the nationalcouncil La Raza, Current History's 1995 Global Awareness Award and the 2005 DistinguishedPolicy Leadership Award from UCLA's School of Public Policy.His latest book is The Holy Vote and it examines the relationshipbetween politics and religion in our country.And that's the subject of today's program.Please join me in welcoming Ray Suarez.Now if you happened to watch the news hour last night, there wassort of a karmic convergence because I was on interviewing Sara Chase,who's going to be speaking here in a couple weeks, and rightafter us came David Brooks, so...if you can't come here all the time,you can sort of top off your diet.When we were young (and I say "we" because though you and I might havebeen young at different times, I don't think the world was that different...I'm assuming the way you grew up is not all that different from the way I did)I could depend on getting a sharp look from across the room when at a grown-up partyor any gathering with neighbors and friends I was caughtdiscussing politics or religion with the guests.It was thought that these were two topics that would divide peoplewho otherwise thought of themselves as together, as neighbors, as friends,as extended family, and it wasn't considered polite to mess with that presumed unityby bringing up things that would drive us apart, even if it was just conversationallyWe think of courtesy in slightly different ways forty years later, I think.We think our relationships can stand up to disagreements about thesetwo important parts of our common lives. But today I think I'd still get that sharplook from across the room from my mother...we just go to different parties now.But those terrible twins, religion and politics, have gone from being social unmentionablesto something we talk about at the drop of a hat, something we feel no restraintabout discussing with intimate friends and complete strangers.It may be the talk-radio-ization of American culture, but as those private concernscame out of the conversational closet, and as politics has become a basic divider in Americanlife, we've also moved religion in particular to a very different place in our political life.Many of you here today probably know that George Bush is a methodist.Yes, born and raised in the Episcopal church of his parents,but an adult convert to his wife's Methodist church.You know that: it's mentioned in the papers,it's mentioned in magazine articles, it's mentioned in books.To what church did Dwight Eisenhower belong?Here he is, five-star general, twice-elected President of the United States...did it ever come up in daily conversations or in stories in the newspaperwhich church claimed one of the most prominent Americans of the 20th century?Ike had a very interesting religious history, as it happens.His parents were members of a branch of the Mennonite church called the River Brethrenbut they became members, when he was a little boy, of the precursor church to theJehovah's Witnesses, called the Russellites, or the Bible Students.His father then left that church when the prophecies of theend of the world in 1914 or 15, as I'm sure you've heard by now, didn't come true;but his mother remained a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses throughout her long life.Eisenhower became a Presbyterian in 1952. Anyone raised among Jehovah'sWitnesses knows their scriptures pretty well. It is known that in later lifeEisenhower rejected many of the teachings of that church, and in fact never mentionedpublicly that he was raised in that church. He only joined the Gettysburg Presbyterian Churchshortly before he became President. He was only baptized at National Presbyterian Church(just a few blocks from where I live in Washington) after he became President.I don't know how au current you are with religious matters- how much you follow this kind of thing - but just ask yourself whether,in 2003, someone first baptized in their sixties could make a successful run for President.You've got to wonder whether a man of such interesting religious backgroundand no denominational affiliation throughout his adult lifecould be elected President in the frame of mind that the country's in now.The governor of Massachusetts may find out in 2008 whether there'sa de facto religious test for public office when hefinds out if there's a ceiling for Mormons in public life.I did dozens of interviews in preparation for writing my book and asked allmy subjects one question: Do you think an atheist could be elected president?Everyone: left, right, center, religious, and not so, said "No."Now there's explicitly no religious test for holding public office in the U.S. Constitution.One of the very few times the Constitution even mentions religion is to saythat there is no religious requirement for public office.Yet in effect, there is such a test. What denomination was Lyndon Johnson?Was that president's religious faith much of a concern for a country in themiddle of a war and a social revolution at home over civil rights?I remember one morning in Paris C-SPAN's In-Morning News Round-upI nursed a cup of coffee while running through the newspapers with Brian Lamb,and he presented me with an unexpected topic of morning chit chat: Thomas Jefferson.Now he wasn't in that morning's papers...as it happened I talked aboutthe just-passed anniversary of his birth and the rehab job just completedon his memorial in Washington, and almost as an aside, given thereligious fervor with which bill Clinton's moral failings were being debatedright at that moment on capitol hill, how the sage of Monticello wouldmatch few members of the Christian coalition's definition of a ChristianA caller from South Carolina dismissed my opinion of the third president'sreligiosity from the secure bunker of ignorance, calling it, sickeningand typical anti-Christian NPR propaganda. Well, I told her that whileshe could have her opinion about what I just said, in fact therewere only one set of facts, and they were incontrovertible.There are many presidents, as we look down the long corridors of Americanhistory, whose religious convictions might be called a total mystery.We very rarely discuss the inner soul workings of James Knox Polkor Millard Fillmore or Chester Allen Arthur. But Jeffersonis not on that list of mysterious inner life presidents. The prolific Virginiansometimes seemed scarcely to have had a thought in his long and active life that he didn'tthen commit to paper. So, he's got the proverbial paper trail.One of my favorites is the letter to his nephew Peter Kerr in 1787.His nephew was moving ahead with a demanding course of study, whichJefferson heartily approves...he endorses in his letter the study of Spanish over Italian,and calls it a language of the future. Just another thing to piss offsome people today, I guess. He speculates on the studyof astronomy and math. Then when he comes to the subject of religion, Jeffersonsuggests to his nephew, "Question with boldness even the existence of a God.Because if there be one"...if there be one...see what he wrote: "...if therebe one he must approve the homage of reason rather than that of blindfolded fear."Now, that isn't bad advice even for a 21st century Christian.If that approach leads you to faith, it gets you there from convictionrather than from intellectual laziness. If it leads you tounbelief, at least it gets you there with integrity rather than a shrug.Jefferson continues, "Read the Bible, then, as you would Livvy or Tassivus."Now we're treading on dangerous ground. The Word of God,even his very existence, held up to the same kind of critical analysis thatyou would bring to a work of literature or philosophical treatise.In a final riff of advice to young Kerr, the future president deliverswhat would be the final blow to his chances for election in 2008instead of 1802. He writes, "You will next read the New Testament.It's the history of a personage called Jesus.Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: 1) Of those who say he was begotten byGod, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the law of nature at will andascended bodily into heaven, and 2) Of those who say he was a man ofillegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set outwithout pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally.Jefferson's Jesus was a moral teacher of modest birth who did not call himself God.It is frequently declared in the current debates over religion in public life- separation of church and state, the use of publicly owned land andbuildings for religious purposes - that America was founded as a Christian nation.The people who say it in speeches and write it in essays often use the phrasein the full and serene confidence that the listener or readerknows what it would mean to be a Christian nation, like it's a fixed definition.Well what is a Christian nation? And is the United States one of them?If the majority of Americans really wanted to aspire to the lofty boast of this beinga Christian nation, what obligations if any would they have to undertake?Author and Christian layman Bill McKibbin, also a Methodist like George Bush,notes that the vast majority of Americans believe - told pollsters so, in a recent survey,75% in fact - said that the adage "God helps those who help themselves" comes fromthe Bible. Its actual author was none other than that crusty old skeptic Benjamin Franklin.Now maybe you've heard that saying your whole life without thinkingoo much about where it comes from. But the distinction, I think,is absolutely crucial. "God helps those who help themselves"is a very American notion. But it is most certainly not a Christian notion.In fact, you can read the New Testament cover to cover andrealize that it flies directly in the face of almost everything that Jesus said.Now would being a Christian nation mean finding a way to stop beingthe wealthy industrialized nation with the highest rates of murderand violent crime on the planet? Would being a Christian nationmean finding a way to climb off the bottom of the leaguechart of wealthy nations in government giving to the world's poor? And I meanthat as a percentage of GDP, not in gross dollar amounts, where the UnitedStates obviously fares much better because of the sheer size of its economy.Both the very secular and the very religious make a key error in lookingback at American history. The very secular almost erase the impactof religion, or ascribe only negative effects to its profound presence inthe daily lives of Americans today and throughout our history. While theother end of the continuum, the very religious exaggerate its place in America'sfounding documents, among the founding fathers, and in charting the course of the country'sgrowth from an insecure archipelago of former colonies toa globe-straddling commercial and military power.Now, I'm not suggesting that there's only one answer to these questions.If we were a Christian nation, I would hope that we would at leastask some of those questions. And the fact that we not only don't debatethem but don't ask, well, that gives me an important piece of evidence.The people we now call the Pilgrims, Anabaptist dissenters from England'sestablished church, came to the northern Atlantic coast in what is now theUnited States in the early 17th century, and they were indeed deeply religious.But to merely look back and note their search for religious freedom and takethat as proof of America's religious foundations is to purposely ignore the brandof religion they themselves practiced and the kind of society they made once they got here.The settlements that spread into New England from Plymouth Rock were the antithesisof what would become our national aspirations, and certainly the way we viewreligion in American in the 21st century, and what we value about being American.The theocratic settlements were rigid, intolerant, racist, dishonest,and occasionally murderous, in their dealings with the Indians.So can you take your pilgrims a la carte? Quote the Mayflower Compact,but not take a look at what happened after they built their first settlements?Can you vaguely endorse their religiosity and then close your eyes to the impacton the kind of place it made early New England? That naÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¯ve purposeful mis-telling ofAmerican history has its uses on both sides of the cultural divide. However, ifyou're willing to present some parts of the lives of early Americansas admirable and worthy of imitation, you reveal much about where you yourself draw the line.There's a certain intellectual dishonesty in quoting the Mayflower Compact,finding the roots of modern Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Plantation,and then quietly erasing the mass murder of Piquats just a few decades later.One of early America's most prominent preachers and theologians, Cotton Mather,was not shocked by the massacre of hundreds of men, women and childrenHe didn't peer into the gospels for ammunition to condemn wholesale murder.Instead he noted in his diaries with some satisfaction that "some 600 Indiansouls had been sent down into hell," in his words. Where theybelonged. You know, murderous land-grabs as a faith-based enterprise.No doubt early New Englanders were frightened of Indian reprisal.This was a war, after all. They had every reason to be frightened of reprisal.But these early American Christians also exhibited an all too human failing,a failing exhibited by societies of every religion in every age, in every corner of the world.They denied the humanity of their enemies in order to make killing them easier.Because the Piquats, the Wampanonds, and many other tribes hunted to near extinctionwere not Christian, they failed to meet a baseline test for compassion.Was Massachusetts Bay all that different from other colonies because of itsreligious bent? Down the coast in Virginia, other sons and daughters of Englandwere embarking on a very different kind of experiment. They had few pretensions tocreating a city on a hill, longed for by John Wintham. Instead they longed for gold,and found it not in mines, but in tobacco. Virginia was a tough place tolive. It didn't seek a higher power as much as the power of the sword and the purse.Named for Elizabeth I, the virgin queen, it divvied up thevast lands into estates for a transplanted English aristocracy who now just lived in Virginia.The muscle to exploit the land came from indentured servants and slaves. And the frontierthreat came from Indians roughly pushed inland by the new British dominion.The church in much of English speaking America was not an institutionwith the far reaching power it had back in Europe. The established - that is,government-supported - churches kept their doors open with state subsidy, and commandedan uneven loyalty from Massachusetts all the way down to Georgia. In the earliest daysRoman Catholics were only fully free in Maryland. Jews lived in small communities alongthe seaboard. They could be found from Newport Rhode Island to Savanna Georgia.And in early America the Spardim, the Jews who spread through the Mediterranean worldafter the Portuguese and Spanish expulsions, gave American jury in 1776 avery different flavor from its later 19th century incarnations. The GermanReform Jews and the Yiddish-speaking Ashkinazin of Eastern Europe would later lay thedemographic foundations for 21st century Jewish Americans.The thinly settled western edges of British America bumped up againstFrench Louisiana, where places that they called "church" were reallyinformal things: a community leader holding group prayer in ahome...a more formal liturgy only when a clergyman came through townriding a circuit passing through networks of small settlements. For manyearly Americans, religious life was a loosely structured episodic affair. Popularpreachers were the pop stars of their era. Before mass communication, beforeasy transportation, meetings in clearings and barns resembled competitions, battles ofthe bands, with traveling preachers showing their best stuff in front ofenthusiastic crowds hungry for stimulation and news of the outside world.We tend to exaggerate the religious conviction of early Americansand early America. Why? Because there's a sort of pessimist strain inAmerican culture that wants to always think that we used to be better than we are today.Either when we long for the simplicity of life in the fifties; or the closeness ofcommunities where people depended on each other through the worst days ofthe depression in the thirties; or looking back to a time before any of uswere alive, to the nineteenth century, where people where undoubtedly more moral anddecent than they are now. Fat chance. Then, as now, the religious life of Americanswas one of stunning contrasts and bewildering variety. The largelyself-taught preachers of the slave quarters kept hopeof freedom alive with the promises of the songs and the liberation of Israel.There's a funny little paradox in trying to understand America's Christianroots, and whether and how they lead us to the yeasty diversity and bitterdebates of today. In 18th century America, and the 19th, church attendance was verylow compared to today. Yet any literate person knew the Bible well, bothHebrew scripture and the New Testament. Even the semi-literate andilliterate knew whole chunks of the Bible by heart: the Psalms, the beatitudes,the foundational stories of Adam and Eve, Job, the passion of Jesus...while today withthe highest levels of church attendance in the wealthy world, and one ofthe highest self-declared rates of God-belief in the entire world,scriptural illiteracy is widespread.I've already mentioned the revealing assignment of "God helps thosewho helps themselves" to scripture instead of to Poor Richard, buteven as battles over Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses and nailedto schoolhouse walls reach the nation's highest court, a sizable majority ofAmericans can't name the Ten Commandments, even if you spotthem fifty points by telling them "you can name them out of order, it's okay."Both Christian conservatives and die hard secularists agree that thelandscape began to change with the series of supreme court decisions that madeAmerican public schools more secular places. With the election of John Kennedy in 1960opening the most exclusive doors in the American power structure to America's largestreligious group, and affirming consensus around an neutral deist civil religion thattried to include most American believers in very very general affirmationsof faith, that involved no statements of real sectarian conviction, so whenyou heard, for instance, the house chaplain open a session of that chamber with the prayerit wouldn't invoke the Holy Trinity or the ever-blessed VirginMother, or set out rhetorical lines in the sand where members who weresitting there wouldn't be able to buy in...the kind of prayer that was said bya chaplain was one where more or less everybody in the room could more or less sign on.High public officials mentioned God from time to time but never hadto flesh out the meaning of those statements in any detail. Nelson Rockefeller usedto talk in his campaigns about "the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God."And the press corps that covered Rockefeller frequently heard it so often that theyused to just write in their reporters' notebooks BOMFOG because, you know,he said it so often they'd just write B-O-M-F-O-G. But it wasn't really a kind ofprofession of faith that he had to deliver any exegetics on...explain what he meant...you know, explain what his understanding of that phrase was as a Baptist,as opposed to a member of some other church.The push back had been gathering for awhile but it really began to pickup steam with Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968; it continued with Jimmy Carterselection in 1976; and began cresting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.These events are major chapters in the story of the realignment of American politicsand the religion-ization of our politics at the same time. The Southern Strategy helpedthe Republican Party phase in southern whites feeling disaffected and betrayedby the Democratic Party during the civil rights years,paving the way for an increasingly Republican south.The election of Jimmy Carter brought southern and other evangelicalsinto the electoral spotlight after decades of their holding a suspicion of politicsand elections, decades during which this huge block of citizens had simplynot punched their weight in American elections. Now a candidatewho spoke their language, with their accent, mirrored their concernsas his own and spoke openly, publicly, in a newly detailed way about his personalfaith and its attachment to his public life, was asking fortheir support to head to the White House, and he got it.The Carter campaign mobilized these voters. But then four years later, thosevoters were in full revolt. They felt they had been let down by JimmyCarter after being welcomed into the arena of electoral politics by him.If you look at the approval ratings and the margin of loss in 1980you might conclude that most Americans felt let down by the Carter administration.But this block of white, non-urban, middle and working class evangelicals were nowenergized, identified, organized, and became the target of the surging Republican Party in 1980.Dismay over abortion after the Roe v. Wade decision was used as a potentorganizing tool, but add to that: backlash against the secularized popular cultureand the sexual-ization of that culture that came in during those same years...a disdain for public schooling in the post-integration era..a disdain for public assistance,public transportation, just about anything with the word "public" in it, and what you'vegot is religion gradually operating as a terrific sorting mechanism,a shorthand for determining who's like us, who's not, who's with us,who's my kind of American, who isn't.I mourn the day when smart political operatives figured out that religioncould be used this way; not because I don't think a religious faith can bringa person to convictions, deeply-held convictions about the way the world ought to be;not because I believe that religion has no place in shaping common wisdom, creatingcommon cause, and having us carry those values to the voting booth; nothing couldbe further from the truth. The story of how a string of struggling Europeansettlements along the fringes of a vast continent eventually became the richestand most powerful nation on the planet can't be told without the story of Americanreligious conviction, religious inventiveness, new ways of being both Christian and American.But just as that is true, you can't tell the story of America without the secularstory as well. The story of Tom Paine, and Tom Jefferson. Of Ralph WaldoEmerson, Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain, who cherished this country's watersheddecision to separate its religion from its electoral politics, its religious treasuriesfrom the public purse, and stepped back from giving Christianity the overwhelmingmajority religion from the first days of the United States, through to today,they resisted giving it some special exalted legal status, as it has in many western democracies.Those two meta-narratives, the religious and the secular, are entwined through200 years of history: from the salons of Boston and Philadelphia to the tent meetingsof early Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois... from Joseph Smith's Palmyra New Yorkto Fre Junipero Serra's California missions...from Thurston Deblin's lecture hallsto Thoreau's cabinet Walden...from Jane Adam's hull house to DorothyDay's soup kitchens and manual traning classrooms.America's tremendous inventiveness, drive, fruitful conflict, its unshieldednoisy muffler throwing off sparks to light 200 years of tinder, is an inheritancewe owe to believers of every stripe, and skeptics, free thinkers andatheists of every stripe. We are all heirs in common to that intellectual inheritance.But a winner-take-all mentality has soaked into American religion, a mentalitythat it may have picked up like a bad cold from hanging around politicians so much.One strain of American Christianity has melded itself to the state and created a kind ofChristian Americanism which conflates belief in Jesus with the belief in the unassailablerightness and goodness of the United States in world affairs, with the idea of America asa chosen nation, with a mission in the world that is godly, rather than expedient, whichcarries embedded in it the notion that non-Christian or secular nations are less valuable, lessgood, less noble than our own. It's a far cry from the Baptist disdainfor both government and politics that held them both to be flawed creationsof man, prone to compromise, corner-cutting and temptation.Today even leaders on the inside who are welcomed into the highestcouncils of government aren't sure whether they're making a bargain withthe powerful and the partisan that they're going to be so glad to keep. Some havewondered to me whether they'll still be able to speak prophetic truth to the powerfulafter they've allowed their churches to become part of the voteridentification and "get out the vote" efforts of one particular political party.Now let me be very very clear about something. Do not think for a secondthat I'm taking sides in the partisan debates of the debate, that I think one party is rightand the other one is wrong, and the conclusions they make about how to run America.That one party has reliably good answers while the other's are reliably poor.I'm a reporter, and if you read my book, The Holy Vote, you'll see that thereare not white hats and black hats in my story as much as it's an expositionof how flawed religion is as a policy-making tool, and how it leads us to placeswe probably don't expect to go. The very notion of what a government is has been under assault.It is no longer a shared creation, something we own and operate together and for each other.instead it's something that gets seized in the view of some Christian activists by a confessionalmajority, to be run according to the wishes of that majority, to benefit the benightedminorities bringing them "benefits" whether they like them or not.In this elbows-out rough game of seizing the government for righteous reasons,the majority first presents itself as a persecuted minority, deprived of the basicrights of citizenship by an abusive and hostile elite. I'm sure you've heard some of t