By Bishop Paul Peter Jesep
"...the wisdom of God is manifold.
The paths [to God] must be diverse...
Diversity and unity are compatible conditions...
Each one must attend to his calling -
let God be the judge of all."
Fr. Alexander Men (Russian Orthodox priest murdered in 1990)God will be the unofficial running mate for at least one presidential nominee. Faith will play a central role in this year's election. The "cultural war" now unfolding - regarding abortion, school prayer, gay marriage, and display of the Ten Commandments - will be shaped by a narrow religious agenda if other faiths don't add their voices to the national dialogue.
Many think injection of God is inappropriate. The long-held position has allowed a militant, evangelical element to impose views on millions of Americans who don't share in their misguided, nationalistic spirituality. Like it or not - religion is impacting public policy. There isn't much the American Civil Liberties Union can do about it. Achieving an administrative separation of church and state is relatively easy. Trying to remove an individual's spiritual bias from shaping domestic and foreign policy is impossible.
In this year's election much will be said about morality and America being a Christian nation. Opposition to gay marriage, for example, has more to do with one kind of exegesis of Scripture than a secular, impartial policy objective. Support for Israel no longer stems from doing it because the country is a democracy and long-time ally. Some members of Congress support Israel based on Old Testament teachings that Jews are the chosen people of God. One U.S. Senator even said that Israel should never give up the West Bank because "the Bible says so." This approach is not in anyone's long-term interest. The United States must always protect the sovereignty of Israel, but the reason should not be theologically-based. Today, the political process and government mechanisms in place are used in ways never intended by the Founding Fathers and Mothers.
Moderates and liberals are uneasy publicly expressing their religious beliefs or sharing personal feelings about faith. This has allowed a well organized spiritual conservatism to inordinately influence elections and public policy. No matter your faith - Jew, Baha'i, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Christian, Atheist, Earth-centered, or Unitarian-Universalist - all Americans must engage in the spiritual dialogue taking place in the public arena. National forums with broad representation are needed to bring a greater balance to the religious discussions being reported by the media.
Deeply held spiritual beliefs often complement passionately held centrist or progressive views on social, political, and economic justice. Remember Martin Luther King Jr. Matters of faith cross ethnic, cultural, and educational boundaries. The vast majority of people have a spiritual yearning that sometimes goes unsatisfied and leads to apathy or ambivalence toward God. It is this vacuum that has created opportunities for the religious-right. Thomas Paine, the intellectual-architect of liberty, would not be pleased with the influence it has.
Even persons skeptical about faith or organized religion still usually have a belief in a Supreme, all-justice, all-knowing, all-loving Being. Sometimes an individual can feel the presence of God or have a spiritual experience by reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, burning sage during meditation, hiking the White Mountains in autumn, or praying before an icon.
I once heard a world renowned theologian at Bangor Theological Seminary tell his class during a lecture on Apostle Paul that he sees God in nature. A whale watch off the coast of Maine is an awe inspiring experience that brings him closer to the Creator and the wonders of heaven and earth. God's presence is felt in many different ways. Individuals experience God at a very personal level. This reality needs to be underscored.
In light of today's social, cultural, and political climate, there's no time like the present for those ambivalent about faith to explore it or those reluctant to share it to do so. In the end it will nourish the soul and counter-balance the growing clout of evangelical conservatism that is directing the nation's future. The current trend is leading toward an unofficial, institutionalized faith that will determine who is a patriotic, God-fearing citizen. America must never have that kind of litmus test.
Increasingly, polls reflect that more Americans vote according to their understanding of faith. Voting patterns based on religion, however, often do not reflect moderate values. This need not be the case. Women's rights, poverty programs, environmental safeguards, protecting civil liberties, preventing jobs from going overseas, or assessing the post-war strategy in Iraq can all be reconciled with a more mainstream faith-based value system. The case has yet to be made in a coherent, uniformed manner with the grass roots activism needed to back it up.
Citizens must ask: What does it mean to be "one nation under God?" To date the answer has been very restrictive. How can America be a God-fearing nation that accepts everyone, discriminates against no one, and unites the country as a family while being mindful of individual differences? This can only be achieved by an honest dialogue about God, faith, and religion. Otherwise America inches closer to a federal theocracy with a perverted Judeo-Christian wrapping.
The country needs a spiritual re-awakening. How it unfolds will be determined in part on whether moderates and liberals engage in the religious debate. God sometimes offers conflict as an opportunity to grow, reflect, and come together. Americans need to make the best of these unsettled times by embracing an inner spiritual journey that will benefit themselves and the entire nation.