Bible Politics

“The Most Friendly To Religion”

America has given to the world a precious jewel.

It has shown that a government whose concerns are purely secular and which leaves to the individual conscience of its citizenry all obligations that relate to God is the one which is actually the most friendly to religion.

It is a precious jewel that we have. We should guard it well.


– Leo Pfeffer, 1910-1993, jurist

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17 Comments

  • One Sunday morning I showed up for worship at an unfamiliar church. The pastor got up and said, “Today, the entire service will be conducted by Mozart. Mozart will preach the sermon, Mozart will pray all the prayers, and Mozart will read the scriptures.” Then he sat down and the choir performed Mozart’s Requiem. It was so moving, I wondered what would happen if the word people backed off a bit and let the musicians take over for awhile.

  • Definitely. 😉 But as this thing (“dissenting agreementâ€?) is now happening between us for the second time (cf. Why Do We Call Him Lord?) I’d like to just tell you how I explain it to myself. No, I won’t ‘explain’, but give you an anecdote.

    My sister and I are moderately musical persons, but not well trained. Our father, on the other hand, has a fairly rich experience in chorus singing, in church or earlier in (hobby) concert. And it so happens that, as upon a time we used more frequently to listen to classical music in family, fugues and motets from J.S. Bach and others, us sprigs sometimes had some difficulty in making out the melody amidst the multitude of musical strands, especially when it was ‘tucked away’ in one of the lower voices and stretched in tempo. So we asked, and our father ‘pointed it out’ to us, meaning he hummed it, droningly, expandingly, and was so audible that we heard the melody very well, but nothing from the loudspeakers any more, least of all the tune that was ‘shown’ to us. So we begged him to stop, regularly causing confusion with the helper, who was expecting thanks.

    Bookaholic, I think there is a melody in life which resonates with you in a way essentially harmonious with what I ‘hum in clumsy German philosophy’ on this site. But as the German tradition does also comprise folklore, and as this folklore has a nice, disrepectful little adage, – requiring the witty one to keep silent at the crucial moment of delicacy, lest he cease to be a true philosopher, – I will join you now in stepping out of our way and let the melody be heard again by all. 🙂

    Thanks again for your above (first) comment, which in any case I really enjoyed (if this is the appropriate word, given the message it has).

  • Martin, I used to have trouble with German philosophers back in college and apparently that’s still happening!

    I’ve been looking for the “surplus of conscience� you mentioned and can’t find it. Our Puritan ancestors were guilt-ridden to an unwholesome extreme, while our contemporary attitude is: “God, thanks for creating a really great person like me, how about buying me a new car?� Maybe you don’t understand how poorly our brakes work over here in the land of the free.

    Also I can’t see how “social responsibility is defined by the community and imposed on the individual.� We aren’t passive recipients of anything; we affect our environment and it affects us, all the time. We are always our individual selves and we are always in relationship to others. It seems like more of a dynamic process to me, although as I mentioned above, some people seem to have access only to their “go� pedal and these folks provide way too much work for psychologists, social workers, doctors and policemen (and mechanics too, if my metaphor is taken too literally.)

    I do agree that our literal-minded friends on the Christian right often have odd ways of processing Christian teachings, but I think it may be because the group they belong to most whole-heartedly is modern materialistic culture, not the Body of Christ. Everything gets filtered through the wrong set of filters, never mind how thoughts and feelings do or don’t get questioned, prayed over, thought about, etc. In fact you may be giving these guys too much credit for thinking and reflection. Thinking and reflection have a bad reputation these days. (The extroverts won.)

    In any event, we agree about the importance of agape and its role in motivating truly moral behavior. In order to let the Spirit do its best with and in us, we have to shut up and get out of our own way, so that’s what I’m going to do now.

    I hope I didn’t misunderstand too much of what you said, Martin. Thanks for the brain exercise; the poor thing is out of practice. 🙂

  • But I fully agree with your assessment of the practical aspects of the situation. Moreover “collective guiltâ€? is indeed a misleading notion; for guilt is always personal and goes along with the degeneration of hope into greed and of faith into (a false kind of) assuredness, thus estranging both ‘spiritual virtues’ from the purity of love.

    Social responsibility is defined by the community and imposed on the individual, and with it goes a sense of conscience and the possible awareness of guilt. But the destruction which our community (esp. as large ones as states and nations) may inflict on individuals or other nations do not by natural means as strongly and reliably invoke our consciences as we feel our individual responsibilities. And this is to a large degree, but not indeed fully, justified by differences in the degree of our ability to get effective on the personal or public plain. I say ‘not fully’ for (a) there MAY be means to (slightly or ‘seminally’) alter the course of communities on the one hand, and (b) our personal responsibilities may not be completely in our power to command either, on the other hand.

    My entire point above was that our culture (esp. western protestant tradition) is disposed to dangerously and unnecessarily heighten that surplus of conscience making itself felt on the personal plain, as compared to collective deeds, – this surplus in itself being inevitable with every nation or culture -, but to heighten it even more via the (anti-humanist) notion of moral works being the fruit of some purity of faith, whereas in my understanding of Scripture they should be seen as works of love (agape), whose purity is itself the grace and privilege of faith.

    So what I mean is not properly to be named ‘collective guilt’, but something like ‘collectively incurred guilt’, namely via and in case of our personal non-differentiation from the relevant collectivity. The exact instance, means and degree of our differentiation, of course, is and remains a question of our personal consciences and subject to a wide variety of moral understanding.

    But the sense of moral involvement itself, this sense must not be allowed to get blunted due to literal-minded conceptions of biblical faith.

    I think this was our common concern. Agreed?

    Afterthought: As to how you take Juan Cole’s saying, I think there is no real difference in our positions. But it should be added that “improve the situationâ€? always means both: (a) assuage the effects and (b) cleanse the common cause from its stain of corruption. For, after all, it’s our belief that from a correct understanding of this “marker of identityâ€?, and thus also from its moral acceptability, depends a thing so trifling as the eternal destiny of people. 😉

  • Martin, if you are saying that we as individual citizens are partly responsible for our country’s behavior, I agree, even though steering the Titanic away from a nearby iceberg seems like an easy job compared to changing America’s present bad direction.

    I’m not a fan of collective guilt and tend to agree with Juan Cole that “Individual human beings aren’t responsible for the actions of other people with whom they have some marker of identity in common.â€? But to the extent that I can do something to possibly help improve the situation, I believe I have a moral responsibility to get off my rear and take that action. (Hint to my fellow Americans: it needs to be something more constructive than sending out another Bush joke to the Bush joke email list.)

    I really don’t know anybody who thinks it doesn’t matter, or who doesn’t want to do something. But I do know a lot of people who are frustrated and don’t know what to do. The only answer I can think of is pray and do something. Write a letter. Sign a petition. Speak up in meetings or classes or at parties. That type of thing. It’s not very satisfying but that’s tough. We’ll just have to keep working at it til it gets done.

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