As a pastor in rural America, I encounter the phrase “I’m spiritual but not religious” quite often, mostly when folks are feeling guilty that they are not participating in some sort of religious community like a church, synagogue, or mosque. It is a troubling phrase because it denies that humans by nature are very religious, regardless of whether they attend or participate in a community’s organized religious services.
For example, one could argue easily that the television is an altar in every home where community values and “truths” are communicated and affirmed. Cars are meditative chambers where we utilize bluetooth hands free devices to connect to one another as an “ekklesia” via technology. The internet creates a virtual space where our highest values are enforced through social media sites like Facebook, Tik-Tok, Twitter, and other companies we give our data to with blind trust of neophytes like any religion.
We are human beings endowed with consciousness and spirituality, and thus religion comes with the territory. We ask ultimate questions about who we are and why we exist. Being human is often an incredibly mysterious journey with questions and revelations that scientists admit do not have satisfactory knowledge including what composes the non-material nature of the human mind, the interconnectedness of conscious thought, and how incredibly advanced systems compose our physical bodies; also how we understand and connect to a greater reality including our immediate communities and our environment. Philosophers wrestle with our comprehension of reality by postulating that we may be in a cosmic virtual reality. Are we in a video game played by some omnipotent being? How can we explain the presence of love and compassion, empathy and the workings of emotional bonds that are all too contrary to our rational ideals to be useful in a “dog eat dog” survival of the fittest world? The presence of all this may give us pause to consider the great questions: How did I get here? What is my place in the universe?
However we come at it, these questions are spiritual in nature and draw out our grasping at transcendence beyond the ordinary. When one acts in response to these reflections, as is the nature of being human, we become religious. It is impossible to divorce one from the other. Humanity is inherently spiritual and also religious.
In the United States, we have come to love walls, and we have constructed a psychological barrier between the world of religion and the world of politics. Not that one cannot be both, but it is civilly off bounds to bring both to bear in any one sphere, probably because one’s political views have become a religion in themselves. Nature loves to fill a vacuum. This puts ministers and people of faith in quite a bind when the universal claims of their faith seek to transform injustices in the world like racism, inequality, inequity, gendered violence, abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty.
“If everyone is religious in some way, and all people have a part in creating the political environment, there needs to be some way for us to re-evaluate the all-powerful unspoken rules that bind our peoples and collective conscience together. The answer lies in seeking solidarity.”
These are problems that societies from every age have had to muster up moral arguments for in order to make difficult decisions. These decisions affect great swaths of populations and determine in many cases who lives and who dies. A spiritual and religious person would have to form their decision based not simply on intuition or in brute rationalism but also take into account the revelation (such as the Bible, Torah or Quran and scholarly or saintly exegesis of one’s particular faith). The current interpretation of “Separation of Church and State” and the currents that punish those who seek to tear down the wall to have political opinions that affirm life in all its stages and facets reveals that we are not really a pluralistic nation with respect for all views equally, but rather we have an established and growing American civil religion that displaces all other religions in political discourse. How does the person of faith deal with the push back one receives when revealing the traditions and revelation informing their decisions?
The Donald Trump led era of the civil religion took on the conservative values like valuing sacrifice in the lives of our soldiers, but then gave sanction to militant aggression against anyone who critiqued the American war machine and the excesses of our weaponized dominance in the world. The gatekeepers revere the flag of our nation and seethed in anger when a football player took a knee revealing that the stadiums are modern temples to what we value. Strength and the perception of honor meant we uphold a liturgy of standing, placing our hands over our hearts, and participating with the people in the rituals we are supposed to know and never transgress. “We the people,” in the Trumpian vision, are the people who enforce these traditional American rites of passage; all others are demonized and told to leave.
Then the religion turned over a bit when Joseph Biden became President and was inaugurated with a new political priesthood unveiling the symbols and practices: beautiful poetry, colorful outfits, and a return to pageantry leading a celebration marking the values of the liberal elites. Even a meme of Bernie Sanders spread virally on social media in a humorous sigh of relief.
The civil religion now seems more relaxed, but the values of the political faith have definitely changed. The removal of the Hyde Amendment from COVID-19 rescue legislation signified that some lives will no longer have protection. Gender identification by the government changes based on non-traditional views on human biology. Our beliefs lead to practices in the life of the individual and to policy in the life of our associations, including the federal government.
“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system,” wrote Dorothy Day, the Catholic radical who advocated against inequality and institutional corruption. “We all have learned the long loneliness and the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
If everyone is spiritual, and everyone is religious in some way, and all people have a part in creating the political environment, there needs to be some way for us to clear the air and begin to re-evaluate the all-powerful unspoken rules that bind our peoples and collective conscience together. I guarantee it is not by holding rallies and ridiculing those who are perceived as threats nor sending angry mobs toward those we disagree with hoping to scare them into submission. The answer lies in seeking solidarity.
Solidarity is not a benign “Kumbaya” word that makes people feel good but does no earthly good. No, solidarity is grown from the shared needs and interests of the various groups of people in complex societies. In our romantic notions of the past, we understand it as the farmer providing food for the laborers who produce goods and services who make educated careers possible and allow portions of people to become public servants in governments and defense. Every person links together in a chain whether someone is a violin maker, a violinist or the provider of wood. All the chains matter and we find the links and cultivate a sense of interconnectedness. Returning to our earlier conversation, all peoples have religious behaviors and participate through institutions and interact in innumerable ways, but we are alike in seeking the answer to cosmological questions. On that ground we might also find solidarity rather than battles and broken hearts. Dorothy Day, the Catholic radical who advocated against inequality and institutional corruption, said, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” She said, “We all have learned the long loneliness and the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
With a world heading towards 8 billion people and our own nation growing largely from the hopes and dreams of new waves of immigrant and refugee families, we need to recommit to what binds us all and make a new contract with one another based in love and loving others as we love ourselves. This is where the solidarists can change the world and centrist voices can actively engage people of all backgrounds to remake the American religious and political landscape. We can tear down this wall that forces entire traditions to be silent or to explode in anger and we can learn to listen and act for one another with humility. As a Christian, this is the world I would like to cultivate. I hope I see the fruit of this in my lifetime but I’m glad to invest in this enterprise for my son and daughter and their children as well. The current crisis in culture is an opportunity to be all of the above: spiritual, religious, political, and free.
By Daniel Griswold