290: Godless America
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Last year in Janesville, Wisconsin, the city council had to vote in giving some federal money to the Salvation Army to build a homeless shelter. It's a small town, small enough that the council people are volunteers. And one of them, Paul Williams, voted yes to the federal money, but he added wording saying that the Salvation Army couldn't use the facility to hold prayer services or proselytize because of the separation of church and state. Well, these days, those are fighting words.
A couple of congressmen were called, and they got a hold of Secretary Green--
This is the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development?
So it got up to the United States Cabinet.
OK. And Janesville is a town of how big?
Janesville is 60,000 people.
You get a lot of attention from the US Cabinet over there?
No. Not usually.
It got bigger. On March 1, President Bush himself chastised the city council, saying that they had, quote, "No right to tell the Salvation Army that the price of running a center was giving up its prayers." In other words, yes, it is illegal to use federal money to proselytize. But just as long as the government was only funding the building and not the prayer service itself, it was fine with the president.
For a city councilman who usually deals with sidewalks and zoning questions, who thought he was just following the law, this whole noisy mess was a bit surprising. The local head of the Salvation Army, Major David Taube, was even quoted in The Janesville Gazette, questioning Paul Williams' morality.
A quote in the newspaper from him said, I have some concerns that we would have a city council person so anti-Christian, so anti-spiritual. I don't know. I'm at a loss for words.
Yeah. And just to be clear, for the record, do you oppose the Christian church?
One second on that, OK?
He wants to know, for the record, if I oppose the Christian church.
Who were you just saying that to?
That's my wife.
You just put your hand over the phone, and you said, he wants to know, for the record, if I oppose the Christian church.
Yeah. Well, as far as in my political role, again, I try and keep that separate. But no, I do not oppose the Christian church.
Have you ever celebrated Christmas, the holiday of the Christian church?
Let's put it this way. I was educated at a Catholic church, married in a Lutheran church, baptized in a Wesleyan church. So yes, I consider myself a Christian.
Thanks to pressure from the Feds, Paul Williams lost. There will be prayer services in the federally funded building. Though in an ironically tidy little ending to the story, the man who called him anti-Christian and anti-spiritual, Major David Taube of the Salvation Army, was recently caught emailing a pornographic picture of himself to somebody who claimed to be a 14-year-old boy. But it was, in fact, a Florida police detective.
You know, I don't even know if I should be bringing that up. But once people start calling each other anti-Christian, once it's all about your personal morality, it's hard not to. This is why the Founding Fathers specify in the Constitution that you don't have to have a particular religion to serve in public office. They knew that it just gets ugly when you start dragging everybody's faith into these public debates, and unnecessary.
And it's happening a lot. In Georgia, a science teacher who won the Presidential Award for Excellence in science education, whose taught for 28 years-- and we're asked that we not use her name-- tells this story. Under Georgia state guidelines, she is required to teach evolution, and she's not allowed to teach creationism. So she did what the rule said, and some parents complained. And then a fellow teacher ratted her out, informed the school's administration that evolution was being taught within their walls. Because although the rules say that they're supposed to teach evolution, that doesn't necessarily mean the school followed the rules.
Before Christmas, I was called into the principal's office. And the question was, are you teaching evolution as a fact? And of course, I'm saying yes.
Right. Because in a way, you're in a very cut and dry situation. There are state standards. You're supposed to teach them. And you're just teaching them.
Well, you'd think that would be cut and dry, wouldn't you?
Over the next few months, she was called into the principal's office two more times. At one meeting, the school superintendent was there to tell her that he didn't believe in evolution and that back when he taught biology, he taught evolution and creationism side by side. She told him that now, that was actually illegal.
Things got even more strange for her when she was called in for a meeting with her incoming principal about evolution.
We sat down, closed the door. And we got into a discussion of, he wanted me to know where he was coming from. And so he reached around off of his bookshelf and pulled a Bible off his bookshelf. And he said, I believe everything in this Bible. Do you believe everything in this Bible?
And he would not let it go. He just wouldn't let it drop. He says, I believe in every single thing in this Bible. And do you believe in everything in this Bible? And I said, yes, I do, but that's not the issue. That was the first time.
That was the first time? There was more than one time?
Yeah. The next time, we were in the cafeteria. And he said, I can accept a lot of things about evolution. But if the scientists ever get to the point where they say God's not involved, I can't accept that. I want you to say that.
I said, this just doesn't feel right. You shouldn't be asking me these kinds of questions. He said, no. It's just the two of us here. It's like we're just two people talking. If they ever get to the point where the scientists say that God's not involved, I can't accept that. I want you to say that. He wanted me to repeat it after him.
It felt like I was forced to take an oath. It felt like I was forced to declare my religion.
Did you ever think of, like, what year is this that I'm having to fight this?
I know, I know. And it felt like I was a caged animal. Much like I was cornered.
Lots of teachers don't want this kind of trouble. And people in science education say that in schools all over the country, evolution is mandated, but not being taught. Just as abortion is legal, but hard to find in many places.
What's happening in this school-- what's happening all over the place actually-- is not really a debate. It's people acting from two totally different assumptions. One group thinking that religion has no place in public life, the other thinking that, of course, it does. In fact, it needs to be there more.
And people who want the separation of church and state these days-- people who thought these issues were settled-- are finding they're anything but. Christian activists are fighting for friendly judges to be appointed to the bench so that they can get court decisions to swing their way on school prayer, and sex ed, and the Bible in school, and Roe versus Wade.
The president has come out and said that he will not appoint judges who don't think that our rights come to us from God. He said this even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test to hold a public office like a judgeship. That's Article Six. You can check that yourself.
In April, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said that the judiciary has imposed, quote, "a separation of church and state that's nowhere in the Constitution."
I read that quote. And when I first read it, I had this reaction I think a lot of people might have, which is, isn't the separation of church and state in there somewhere? Isn't that actually one of the ideas that our country is founded on?
Chances are that you are like me, and you haven't actually read the Constitution since high school. So today, to clarify this, we have answers. Is there supposed to be a separation of church and state in our country? And if so, why do so many Americans think otherwise?
From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today, Godless America. Act One of our show, a quick summary of the advances that fundamentalist Christians are making in turning their values into national policy. Act Two, why they believe the founders didn't intend a separation of church and state in the Constitution as we normally understand it, and why. Well, they're probably wrong about that. Act Three, in this very Christian country, in this very Christian moment in our history, Julia Sweeney takes on the Bible. Stay with us.
Act One: The Substance Of Things Hoped For...In Government.
Act One, The Substance of Things Hoped For In Government.
OK. So you've heard about the stem cell fight already, and you've heard about the filibuster fight, which was really about judicial appointments. And you've heard about how gay marriage was outlawed in 13 states in 2004. And you've heard about the pending decisions on evolution in schools in Kansas and Dover, Pennsylvania. But there's a lot more going on than that.
First stop on our tour of Christian activists trying to push the country toward more Biblical values, Virginia, where a former state trooper turned legislator named Bill Carrico introduced an amendment to the Virginia Constitution to, quote, "secure further the people's right to acknowledge God," to permit prayer, and the recognition of, quote, "religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools."
Now, of course, it's already legal for a child to pray in a public school, or to read a Bible, or to acknowledge their faith. The Supreme Court saw to that years ago. But Bill Carrico says that people do not understand these rights. And so a lot of these cases actually end up in court, which is why, he says, they should amend the state constitution to make the rules perfectly clear.
Basically, it was to protect those Christians from being persecuted the way they're being persecuted today just because they are the majority faith.
He got interested in the issue when, as a state trooper talking to a high school class before the prom, he mentioned David and Goliath. And parents complained. He says this happens all the time.
I've got a situation that occurred in Isle of Wight county, where a young girl was looking forward to her high school graduation and having the opportunity to sing. But when she chose the song that she wanted to sing at her graduation, just because it had the mere reference to God in the song, she was removed from the program.
Do you happen to know what song it was?
It was a Celine Dion song, "The Prayer." And the school officials said, you're crossing the line between separation of church and state, and you're not going to sing that song.
Yeah. So there's a kind of political correctness.
You feel embattled.
Yes. And you see, this country was founded upon those beliefs. Our laws are written after Biblical laws. And also, the wall of separation of church and state is nowhere in the Constitution. And all it's done is give the secular world, who doesn't profess to believe in anything, the right to say, just because I don't want to hear it, you can't say it.
Next up on our tour, Ohio. Pastor Russell Johnson of the Fairfield Christian Church runs something called the Ohio Restoration Project, which wants to sign up 2,000 fundamentalist Baptist and Catholic "patriot pastors" in Ohio's 88 counties, register hundreds of thousands of Christian voters, take control of local Republican groups, and elect a conservative Republican named Kenneth Blackwell to the governor's office in 2006. Pastor Johnson says he's doing pretty well for his goals. 600 pastors signed up so far. He expects to be at 1,000 by Labor Day. He says he is simply restoring Ohio to the Founding Fathers' original Christian values.
And yes, they came here to advance the Christian faith. The sense of separation of church from the state has been a secular jihad that has taken place primarily from the courts. I think, for instance, the discrimination against Christians defies explanation.
But still, 84% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. 6 out of 10 Americans say religion is very important in their lives. Only 16% of Americans say religion isn't important. Christians have Christmas off. It's sanctioned by the state. There's no mail service on Sunday. Attendance at evangelical churches is going up. Like--
Now, I appreciate you did a good thing right there, Ira.
I guess I don't-- where is the persecution of Christians?
Let me give you a track record on this if I might. From our standpoint, OK? All right. 1962, after 175 years of praying in the classroom, prayer is declared to be somehow an offense. 1963, don't read the Bible. You go on to where they take the Ten Commandments off the walls in Kentucky in '80. In fact, Roe v. Wade.
So we now have these consistent messages from the courts. Never happens at the legislative-- never happens at the level of where people will get a vote. And I think that finally, the Christian community has been pushed to the threshold and said, enough is enough.
Do you believe that we can be a moral nation without being Christian?
Long-term morality without God is a myth.
And so if there's a person who believes any of the things that you don't believe-- who believes that a woman should have a right to an abortion, or who believes that gay men and gay women should be allowed to marry-- do you think that the reason that shouldn't be the law in the United States is because we're supposed to be a Christian nation?
No, I candidly-- I don't have a problem with people disagreeing. What I have a problem with is when I have a minority trying to dictate to the supermajority. In an idea, for instance, like because there's one child in the school that doesn't want us to read the Gospels, the life of Christ. One child should not keep the rest of the school from having the privilege of discovering a rich history that we have.
This is something you hear a lot from Christian activists. They are the majority. And they're turning out their voters. Why shouldn't they get their way? That's what democracy is all about. If most Americans think that it would be OK to have school prayer or teach creationism alongside evolution, well, that's our system in this country.
The 2004 elections emboldened the religious right. They are taking credit for the reelection of President Bush and the increased Republican majority in the Senate and the House. Now they're asking, well, what do we get in return?
This is Rob Boston, a man with a rather unfortunate name to any of us who have watched Survivor. But that's another story. He's been monitoring these sorts of things at Americans United for Separation of Church and State for two decades, and he says that he has never seen Christian conservatives making such headway as they are now.
Some of the bills now before Congress, the House of Worship Free Speech Act, which would make it legal to endorse a candidate from the pulpit and still hold onto your church's tax-exempt status. The Constitution Restoration Act, which would try to bypass the courts on things like the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings by making it illegal for the courts to rule against any government official or body whose actions acknowledge, quote, "God as the source of life, liberty, or government." There's the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which counts among its cosponsors Senators John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. This law would force employers to accommodate religious practices and beliefs in the workplace as much as possible.
This, by the way, is coming at a time when a handful of pharmacists around the country have refused to fill birth control prescriptions on moral grounds. And Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has talked about introducing a federal Conscience Law which would specifically permit that. Four states already have conscience laws like this, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota. Again, Rob Boston.
This is an interesting example of where, for many people, these church-state issues seem theoretical. They seem abstract. Whether the Ten Commandments monument is inside the courthouse or outside, whether the Christmas creche is in front of the town green, and who put it up, and how long it's there. And a lot of people would just throw their hands up and say, you know what? I really don't care. But when you look at an issue like, can a woman get her birth control pills because of someone's religious bias and religious beliefs, that's an entirely different thing.
Do you think a law like this could pass?
Given the current state of Congress and the heavy influence of the religious right, I think some of these measures that seem really extreme and really out there do have a chance of passing. And then, of course, we're left with the courts to try to overturn them, and the courts are becoming more conservative by the day as well.
At the heart of everything for the Christian activists, as you've probably gathered, is this idea that America has gotten away from what it was supposed to be. That religious values are supposed to be at the center of everything in our country. And now there's a cottage industry of books and DVDs and other materials telling a history of our country this way.
What was the foundation upon which our Founding Fathers established this great nation? According to John Adams, the foundation was Christianity.
This is from a CD put out by Wallbuilders, which does a lot of this stuff. Wallbuilders.com, by the way. The narrator is David Barton, the founder of Wallbuilders, who declined our request for an interview, but who lays out his case in the materials that he sells.
The evidence that our founders did not want a separation of church and state, in Barton's materials, and whenever everybody else seems to talk about it, comes down to this. The founders were believers who often talked about the importance of God and morality in public life.
And Barton and others point out that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not actually in the Constitution. It comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802, which is true.
And then it just comes down to the language of the First Amendment. That's the amendment dealing with religion. Here's David Barton.
Although the phrase "separation of church and state" is well known and commonly associated with the First Amendment, the words "separation," "church," or "state," are not only not found in the First Amendment, they're found in no founding document. Still, many, after learning the phrase is not present, they frequently ask, well, even though the words aren't there, isn't that what the First Amendment really means?
Well, according to the Founding Fathers and their discussions of the First Amendment, which are recorded in the Congressional Records, all they wanted to preclude was what they had experienced in Great Britain. They did not want the establishment by the federal government of one single denomination in exclusion of all others, whether that would be Catholic or Anglican or any other denomination.
Some of these claims I have to be sympathetic with.
We meet one of David Barton's biggest opponents when it comes to history, Isaac Kramnick, a professor at Cornell who co-wrote a well-known constitutional history called The Godless Constitution with R. Laurence Moore.
And here is the first surprise about Kramnick. He agrees with Christian activists that there is far too much political correctness about church and state issues. He thinks people get hung up on this stuff too much of the time, that, of course, a kid should be allowed to sing a Celine Dion song mentioning God at a high school graduation. And Professor Kramnick says that Barton's right on other scores too.
Barton is correct in that most of the founders were believers. Many liberals get very upset when people like David Barton put out a list of all the quotes from the Founding Fathers about God, because they would like to sort of sweep them away. That the Founding Fathers, Jefferson included, never really spoke about God, and that God was unimportant to them. That's not right. It makes it all the more profound that these people were indeed, many of them, believers. They had no problem with a religious nation, a religious people. But they wanted a secular government.
And this, of course, was a great break from the past. And that, in fact, is the incredible achievement of America.
Kramnick says the founders wanted to keep religion out of government completely because they knew what happened in 16th century Europe, when millions of Protestants and Catholics killed each other in religious wars. In the wake of that, the philosopher John Locke theorized about a kind of government that could be completely secular. Take no sides in religion at all. And there's lots of documentation showing that Locke and his vision of government had a huge influence on the drafters of the Constitution.
And sure, says Kramnick. Barton's right again. The Constitution never explicitly says the phrase "separation of church and state."
That's true. So the argument about it not being in the Constitution is absolutely correct. It's not in the Constitution. Nor, of course, is God, or religion, or Protestantism, or the furthering of any faith in the Constitution either.
As you write in your book, they mention a creator in the Declaration of Independence, they mention a creator in the Articles of Confederation. In many state constitutions, they mention a creator. But here, they consciously do not mention a creator at all.
Absolutely. And then, to add insult to injury, Article Six of the Constitution says, there shall be no religious test for public office. And that created a firestorm around the country.
Now you should explain what a religious test is. That means--
A religious test was that in 11 of the 13 states, in their constitutions, in 1787, said you could only hold public office if you were Protestant. What happened after September 1787 in Philadelphia with the signing of the Constitution was that it wouldn't go into effect until 9 of the 13 states ratified it.
Americans have no idea how close the Constitution came to being not ratified. How in these state ratifying conventions, the vote would be 30 to 27, something of that sort. And one of the lightning rod areas of debate was, in fact, about religion, was the omission of any religious purpose from the Constitution. No reference to God, no reference to Christ.
Now, in each of these state conventions, for the next year, there was a huge cry that the Constitution be changed to eliminate the no religious test clause. With claims like it'll allow a Papist, a Mohammedan, an infidel, a Jew to hold public office. The proponents of the Constitution said no. And in fact, each effort in each of the states was turned down, which was read at the time as a clear announcement that government is a secular function and has no religious purpose. And this is how we know that despite the fact that there's nothing in the Constitution about formally saying separation of church and state, we know what their attitudes were to religion and government.
Then there were a series of fights over the separation of church and state, including a 20-year battle starting in the early 19th century over whether US post offices should be closed on Sundays so that work wouldn't happen on the Christian Sabbath. Ministers gathered names on petitions. They took it to Congress.
And Congress said no. Congress said no. A staunch Baptist was the head of the committee that recommended to Congress that this would be an unconstitutional interference of Congress in religious matters.
And then perhaps the most dramatic example occurs during the Civil War, when, as unbelievable as it seems, many Protestant ministers convened conventions to plead to amend the Constitution to put Jesus Christ and Christian government into the preamble to the Constitution.
And their argument, you write, is basically, the reason why we got into this mess and now we're at war is because when we wrote the Constitution, God wasn't in the Constitution, and now God is basically punishing us for that.
Absolutely. And therefore, they proposed the Christian amendment which would change the preamble of the Constitution to, "We the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the governor among the nations, and his revealed will as a supreme authority, in order to constitute a Christian government, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Now, how'd they do with that? You write that they did meet with President Lincoln.
They met with President Lincoln, who would have nothing to do with it. There was criticism from a large number of religious groups in the country. And it never got out of committee.
Now just to put the final footnote to that story, five more times there would be a Christian amendment put before Congress, and every one of them failed. 1874, 1894, 1910, 1947, and 1954. And there was a kind of booby prize given in 1863 when this failed. And that booby prize was, of course, that "In God We Trust" was put on our money. A somewhat less sacred part of our tradition than the Constitution.
But what's fascinating is that Barton and DeLay and Falwell and Ralph Reed have a story. And their story goes like this. The founders set up a Christian government which persisted until the 1960s. And then in the 1960s, a sort of subversive cabal of secularists, liberals, eroded and subverted this government which was supposedly to serve God's purpose.
In fact, the story, ironically, is just the opposite, which is the Constitution-- 1787 until the 1950s, the David Bartons and the Tom DeLays of the country were angry that the Constitution was secular, calling it a godless Constitution. And then in the 1950s, it's just the opposite. The secular foundation of government is, in fact, eroded because of the Cold War. In the Cold War, America came to define itself as godly people, of course, fighting godless, atheistic Communism.
So it's in the 1950s that you get the first presidential prayer breakfasts. You get the first congressional prayer rooms. And you get Eisenhower saying, we are a nation of believers. And perhaps even more important, the insertion of God into the Pledge of Allegiance.
Isaac Kramnick, coauthor of the book The Godless Constitution. The book is being reissued in August with a new chapter about the Bush presidency.
Coming up, it's the old story. Girl loves God. Girl reads Bible. Girl's not so sure anymore how she feels about God. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two: God Said, Huh?
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Godless America. And we've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, God Said, Huh?
Religious people don't see it this way, but I would argue that God has gotten a lot of play in the mass media lately. There was that saturation coverage of the death of the pope and the picking of the new pope. There are continual attempts by Hollywood these days, in the post-Mel Gibson environment, to do various God-related projects. There's Joan of Arcadia and Seventh Heaven and Revelations and a number of other TV shows.
This story you're about to hear takes a different point of view about God. Julia Sweeney was on Saturday Night Live. She's been in all sorts of movies and TV shows. She also did a one-woman show a couple years back about her struggle with cancer called "God Said, 'Ha!'" which Quentin Tarantino made into a film. Her latest one-woman show, which has been playing in Los Angeles, is about-- well, it's about God. This is an excerpt.
Not too long ago, two Mormon missionaries came to my door. They were each about 19, in white, starched, short-sleeved shirts, and they said they had a message for me from God. And I guess I was sort of curious, so I said, please, come in. And they seemed really happy because I don't think that happens to them all that often. And I sat them down in the living room, and I got them glasses of water. And after our niceties, I said, OK. I'm ready for my message from God.
But they had a question instead, which really threw me a little. I thought it would be more like a pitch at a studio. And they would tell me their story, and then if I were interested, I would have my people call their people or something. But apparently, this was going to be interactive. And they said, do you believe that God loves you with all his heart?
And I thought, well, of course, I believe in God. But I don't like that word heart because that so anthropomorphizes God. And I don't like the word his either because that sexualizes God. But then I didn't want to argue semantics with these boys. So after a very long, uncomfortable pause, I said, yes. Yes, I do. I feel very loved. And then they looked at each other and smiled, like that was the right answer.
And then they said, do you believe that we're all brothers and sisters on this planet? And I immediately said, yes I do, yes, I do. And I was so relieved that it was a question that I could just answer quickly. And they said, well, then we have a story to tell you.
And they told me this story all about this guy named Lehi who lived in Jerusalem in 600 BC. Now apparently, in Jerusalem in 600 BC, everyone was completely bad and evil. Every single one of them. Man, woman, child, infant, fetus. And God came to Lehi, and he said, put your family on a boat, and I will lead you out of here.
And so he did. And God led them to America.
I said, America? From Jerusalem to America by boat in 600 BC? And they said, yes. And then they told me how Lehi and his descendants reproduced and reproduced. And eventually, over the course of 600 years, there were two races of them, the Nephites and Lamanites. And the Nephites were totally, totally good, each and every one of them. And the Lamanites were totally bad and evil, every single one of them, just bad to the bone.
Then after Jesus died on the cross for our sins, on his way up to heaven, he stopped by America and visited the Nephites. And he said that if the Nephites all remained totally good, each and every one of them, they would win this war against the Lamanites. But apparently, somebody blew it, and the Lamanites killed all the Nephites. All except this one guy named Mormon who managed to survive by hiding in the woods. And he made sure that this whole story was written down in reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics chiseled onto gold plates, which he then buried near Palmyra, New York.
And then they told me how this guy named Joseph Smith found the buried gold plates right in his backyard. And he also found this magic stone back there that he put into his hat and then buried his face into it. And this allowed him to translate the gold plates from the reformed Egyptian into English.
Well, I was just looking at these boys with wide eyes, and I was really wishing I could give them some advice about their pitch. I wanted to say, OK, don't start with this story. I mean, even the Scientologists know to give a personality test before they start telling you all about Xenu, the evil intergalactic overlord.
Well, then they said, well, we also believe that if you're a Mormon and if you're in good standing with the church, when you die, you get to go to heaven and be with your family for all eternity. And I said, oh, dear. That wouldn't really be such a good incentive for me. I mean, everyone in your family?
And then they gave me a Book of Mormon, and they told me to read this chapter and that chapter. And they said they'd come back someday and check in on me. And I think I said something like, please don't hurry. Or maybe it was just, please don't. And they were gone.
OK. So I initially felt pretty superior to these boys and really smug in my more conventional faith. But then the more I thought about it, I had to be honest with myself. I mean, if someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the very first time, and they said, we believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us, and she had a baby, and that was the son of God, I would think that was equally ridiculous. I guess I'm just so used to that story. So I couldn't let myself feel condescending towards these boys.
But the question they asked me when they first arrived stuck in my head. Do you believe that God loves you with all his heart? Because I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about that question. Now, if they had asked me, do you feel that God loves you with all his heart, now, that question would have been much easier. I would have instantly answered yes. Yes, I feel it all the time. I feel God's love when I'm hurt and confused, and I feel consoled and cared for.
But since they asked me the question with the word "believe" in it, somehow it was all different. Because I wasn't sure if I believed what I so clearly felt.
OK. My religious history in a nutshell. I was raised Catholic, and for me, it was all in all a great experience. I know we can't stop reading about all of the people who have had just horrific and abusive experiences as a child in the Catholic church. But for me, it was mostly wonderful. I always felt really lucky to be a Catholic. It was easy for me to believe. I even had religious experiences. I know this is more of a Protestant thing than a Catholic thing, but I had a few times, maybe five or six times, where I felt the power of the Holy Spirit, this force of love and transcendence, come over me and just shake me to the core.
And in spite of their nutty story, the Mormon boys inspired me. I realized I'd been getting lazy about my faith. So I decided to rededicate myself to the church.
I went to Mass at several different Catholic churches and finally settled on joining one about 10 miles from my house. Their Masses were so emotional. I would have to choke back tears just to say the Nicene Creed every time I went. "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen." Well, I noticed in the announcements that the church offered a Bible study class on Thursday nights, and I decided to sign up for it.
The Catholics don't really emphasize the Bible all that much. Their attitude is sort of, leave that book to the professionals. Don't you worry your little self with that complicated book. So I felt eager to finally read this book, this book that I'd always wanted to take the time to read, but I really never had. And I was happy to see that the Old Testament starts out with two conflicting stories about the origin of the universe, one where Adam and Eve are created at the exact same moment, and then in the next chapter, a second creation story where Adam is created first, and then Eve is created out of his rib after he gets lonely.
And I thought, wow. For all those people who believe every word of the Bible is true, they can't even have read the first two chapters. In fact, the Bible contradicts itself all over the place.
Then we got to stories like Sodom and Gomorrah. All I remembered about that story is that they were these two sinful cities, like Las Vegas or something, and God got mad and wiped them out. And Lot's wife looked back when she was told not to and got turned into a pillar of salt.
But the nuns of my grade school didn't explain to us what happens right before they flee. Right before they flee, two angels that are masquerading as two men come for a visit and stay overnight at Lot's house. And this mob forms outside, and they yell, send out those two angel-like men to us so we can have sex with them. And Lot yells, no, which I think is a basic rule of hospitality. Don't give up your guests to be raped by an angry mob.
But then what does he say next? He says, instead of the men, please, take my daughters, and rape, and do what you will with them. They're virgins.
After Lot and his traumatized daughters flee Sodom and Gomorrah, they all go to a cave in the mountains. And during the night, Lot's two daughters get him drunk and rape him. Do they do this in revenge of what their father did to them? No. The Bible says it's because there aren't any other men around. Even though the Bible also says that they're not that far from a city named Zoar. So I guess no men around for maybe a few miles? And wait a minute. So Lot's daughters just had to drug and rape someone? And I guess if you're their dad and you're the only one there--
I knew the Bible had nutty stories, but I guess I thought they'd be wedged in amongst an ocean of inspiration and history. But instead, the stories just got darker and more convoluted. Like when God asks Abraham to murder his son Isaac. As a kid, we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it. We were taught to admire it? What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that, to ask someone to kill his or her own child? And isn't the proper answer no, I will not kill my child or any child?
At the next class, Father Tom reminded us that Isaac represents what matters to Abraham most, and that's what God asks us to give up for him. I said, but protecting and loving and caring for the welfare of your child is such a deep ethical, loving instinct and act. So what if what matters to you most is your own loving behavior? Should we be willing to give up our ethics for God? And he said, no, it's what matters to you most. It isn't your ethics because your ethics is your love and faith in God. That confused me, but I decided to just let it go.
But then I found that Abraham wasn't the only person willing to murder his own child for God. They're all over the place in the Bible. For example, in the Book of Judges, a guy named Jephthah tells God that if God helps him win this battle, he will kill the first person to greet him when he comes home. Who turns out to be his daughter. Who he sets on fire.
Some people argue that without the Bible, morality would be relative and wishy-washy. But in the Bible, morality is relative and wishy-washy. In fact, it sure seems like our modern morality is much more loving and humane than the Bible's morality.
After Mass one Sunday, Father Tom saw me outside the church, and he said, Julia, you always look so very sad in Bible study class. And I said, well, God is so offensive in the Old Testament. I mean, like, bipolar. And Father Tom said, well, you know, the Old Testament. The stories are legends. They're tales of trickery and deception that were told around the campfire. There's no evidence that Abraham is anything other than legend. Or Isaac, or Moses. But Julia, you can't approach the Bible with modern historical eyes. You've got to read it with the eyes of faith. This is the story that God wants us to know.
As I drove home, I thought, OK, calm down. This is the Old Testament. Old. Old is right in the title. A new, a newer testament is coming up. And that's why God sent his son Jesus. Because we clearly hadn't gotten the message right. Right? I could hardly wait to meet Jesus again as if it were the first time.
But oh dear. Well, first off, Jesus is much angrier than I expected him to be. I knew that Jesus got angry with all those money changers in the temple and everything, but I didn't know that he was so angry so much of the time. And very impatient.
For example, Jesus says he teaches in parables because people don't understand anything else. But the parables are often foggy and meaningless, and Jesus is snippy when even the disciples don't get them. He says, if you don't understand this parable, then how can you understand any parable? And, are you incapable of understanding?
I kept thinking, don't teach in parables then. It's not working. Even your staff doesn't understand them. Why don't you just say what you mean?
And it was hard to stay on Jesus's side when he started saying really aggressive, hateful things. Like in Luke. Jesus says that he is like a king who says, anyone who does not recognize me, bring them here and slaughter them before me. Or in John chapter 15, where Jesus says that anyone who doesn't believe in him is like a withered branch that will be cast into the fire and burned. In Matthew, he says, I come not to bring peace, but a sword. And then in Luke, he says, and if you don't have a sword, sell your clothes and buy one.
Then Jesus just starts acting downright crazy. Like in Matthew chapter 21. When a fig tree doesn't have a fig for him to eat, Jesus condemns the fig tree to death. That's right. Jesus condemns a fig tree to death. Not a parable, by the way. Just Jesus, pissed off that the fig tree didn't have a fig for him to eat when he wanted one. Not exactly the Prince of Peace who taught us to turn the other cheek.
And then there's family. I have to say the most upsetting thing to me about Jesus is his family values, which is amazing when you think how there's so many groups out there who say they base their family values on the Bible. I mean, he seems to have no real close ties to his parents. He puts Mary off cruelly over and over again. At the wedding feast he says to her, woman, what have I to do with you? And once, while he was speaking to this crowd, Mary waited patiently off to the side to talk to him. And Jesus said to the disciples, send her away, you are my family now.
Jesus actually discourages any contact his converts have with their own families. He himself does not marry or have children, and he explicitly tells his followers not to have families as well. And if they do, they should just abandon them. Isn't that what cults do? Get you to reject your family in order to inculcate you?
So that's the New Testament family values for you, the supposed big improvement over the Old Testament family values, which seemed to be mostly about incest and mass slaughter and protecting your own specific genetic line at all costs. The Bible. The Good Book. The Good News.
I was so disillusioned with the Bible by the time I finished the Epistles, I didn't think it could get any worse. But it did. We were just about to read the last and most oddball book of the Bible, Revelation.
Revelation tells us that in heaven, Jesus will resemble a dead lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. And when the gates of hell are opened, locusts pour out with human faces wearing tiny crowns, and they sting people with their tails. Revelation tells us that only 144,000 people will even be saved and go to heaven. And none of them will have quote "defiled" themselves with women, which I guess excludes most heterosexual men from heaven. And depending on how you interpret that word "defiled," I would say excludes all women too.
As we finished Revelation, the whole Bible study group just sat there, dumbfounded, our Bibles on our laps. I said, Father Tom, I am having a really hard time with this book. And he told me to pray for faith.
I left the church thinking, is this one big practical joke? Where is my God, the Jesus I thought I knew? The one that I love and the one who loves me?
I drove home, and I was stopped at this red light on Crenshaw and Wilshire. And I saw all these people walking to church, holding their Bibles. And I wanted to yell out the window, have you read that book?
I felt like I was in a horror film. And I realized that the clue to the insanity was not some secret document. It was a book that everyone was holding, that was in every hotel room. The biggest bestseller of all time. And yet if you cared enough to just glance inside, you found you'd opened the door to an insane asylum with a bunch of crazy people dancing around, yelling, "yippidee-yippidee-yah!" And I had quickly shut that door. And how was I going to pretend that I hadn't opened that door?
But some things were just too big to ignore. Like the whole point of the New Testament, that Jesus died for our sins. As if someone can pay for someone else's sins.
For the first time, after going to church my whole life, I considered the idea that God's son came to earth and suffered and died for our sins. Why? Jesus suffered, but you can't argue that he suffered any more than a lot of other people have suffered. I could think of examples in my own family. My brother Mike who had cancer, he suffered unspeakably for a very long time. Eyelids freezing open, and his eyes drying up. Canker sores all over his throat, and he couldn't swallow. Weeks and then months of gut-wrenching vomiting and nausea before he then died.
So OK. Jesus suffered. He apparently suffered terribly for one, maybe even two days. I heard someone say once, Jesus had a really bad weekend for our sins.
I suddenly thought, why would a God create people so imperfect, then blame them for their own imperfections, then send his son to be murdered by those imperfect people to make up for how imperfect those people were? And how imperfect they were inevitably going to be? I mean, what a crazy idea.
So I tried to concentrate on what I did like about the church. The stained glass windows were pretty. The light in the church. The religious art. The songs. Not the words to the songs exactly, but the melodies were nice. Especially at Christmas. It was also pretty in the church then.
After Mass, Father Tom saw me outside the church, and he said, Happy Easter, Julia. And I said, Happy Easter, Father. And he said, you know, I can see you frowning from the pulpit. And I said, I'm sorry, but Father, help me. What can I do? It all just seems impossible to believe.
He pulled me towards the coffee and doughnuts table. He said, I've spoken with some of the other priests about your predicament. I loved how he said "predicament." I felt like I was 16 and knocked up. I said, yeah? What do they suggest? And he said, listen. We all struggle with doubt, but we all come back. Just remember Proverbs 3:5. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.
So God gave us the gifts of reasoning and intelligence and curiosity, but then we're not supposed to use them?
Father Tom sighed, like he was so tired of me and my struggle. And I felt so angry that he used that particular proverb, like he was shutting the door.
Then Father Tom suddenly blessed me. It was kind of awkward. He just started waving his hands over me and chanting this phrase in Latin. Not that this is so out of the ordinary or wrong. It just felt like he was trying to perform an exorcism.
I came home, and it felt remarkably quiet. Just me and God. Not saying much. And the truth was, I was starting to get nervous about our relationship. I felt like we were this married couple in trouble, just trying to find some common ground.
And then one day I was Cometing out my bathtub, and I thought, what if it's true? What if humans are here because of pure, random chance? What if there is no guiding hand, no one watching? I realized I had spent so much time thinking about what God meant that I hadn't really spent any time thinking about what not God meant.
A few days later, as I was walking across my backyard into my house, I realized that there was this teeny-weeny thought whispering inside my head. I'm not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. And it whispered, there is no God.
And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. There is no God. There is no God.
I'm embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, well, how does the earth stay up in the sky? You mean we're just hurtling through space? That's so vulnerable. And then I thought, well, what's going to stop me from just rushing out and murdering people?
And I had to walk myself through it. Like, why are we ethical? Well, we have to get along with each other in order for communities to exist. So I guess that's why I don't run out and just murder people.
And then I felt like I'd cheated on God somehow. And I went in the house, and I prayed. And I asked God to please help me have faith. But already it felt slightly silly and vacant, and I felt like I was just talking to myself.
And then, over the course of several weeks, God disappeared.
And I wandered around in a daze, thinking, no one is minding the store. I had shared my mind with God my whole life, and now I realized my thoughts were completely my own. No one was monitoring them. No one was compassionately listening to them.
One day I was sipping my coffee, walking along a busy shopping area near my house. And I was lost in thought, thinking, so I don't think anything happens to us after we die. Our brain just stops like every other organ. So people just die.
And then I thought, wait a minute. So Hitler, Hitler just died? No one sat him down and said, you screwed up, buddy, and now you're going to spend an eternity in hell. Huh. So Hitler just died.
And my brother Mike. He just died. I always had this idea that Mike's death, while premature, was his divine destiny somehow. And that his spirit didn't really die, but it lived on. Not just in the memory of those that knew him, but in this real, tangible sense. And I realized that I now thought he died. He really died, and he was gone forever
And then I realized I had to go back and basically kill off everyone I ever knew who died who I didn't think really died. And then I thought, oh, so I'm going to die.
Then I started thinking about all the happenstances, all the random little moves which resulted in me being alive, me, in particular, at this moment. Not just of my parents meeting, but even of the billions of sperm against the hundreds of possible eggs. I thought about this randomness multiplying. My parents, their parents, and all the ways it could have gone one way, but it went the way it went. Richard Dawkins wrote, "Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. But in the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I in our ordinariness that are here."
An excerpt from "Letting Go of God," Julia Sweeney's new one-woman show. She's planning on a movie and a book. For news of all that, go to her website, juliasweeney.com.
Our program is produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Laura Bellows.
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It's not working. Even your staff doesn't understand them.
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