Saturday, July 4, 2009

American religion

In the early 80s when I spent two autumns and winters in a row in Europe, I had my first glimpse of how the world looks at Americans.  It's like a mixed cocktail of feelings, or it was then.  One part fascination, a splash of envy, two parts curiosity all mixed up in a tumbler of disgust.  Since most of the world's experience with us came via television in those days, the expectation back in 1982 when my friend and I backpacked through Europe, was that we'd be like either the women of "Dallas" or the barmaids of "Cheers." And we were neither.  In one place, where we stayed with my friend's cousin's cousin, we had to continually explain that we weren't interested in partying or having sex with random strangers.  Other places, as we met and shared meals with fellow travelers, we found ourselves so defensive about America that we hated to admit we carried those passports. "Why do you think you have to save the whole world?" we'd be asked.  "What makes America the boss of everyone?"  We had no answers for such things.  In fact, I think we were stunned--truly shocked into silence--by the dawning realization that, despite what we'd learned in Social Studies and Western Civ. most of the world wasn't enthralled by us, didn't covet our freedom or democracy, didn't believe we were the best, the only true place on earth.  They actually saw flaws in the nation we'd been raised to revere. By the time we left Great Britain, we'd begun to tell people we were British instead.  I'm not exactly sure we fooled anyone. I mean, by our footwear alone, we gave ourselves away.  If you've ever traveled out of our country, you'll understand what I mean.  There's just something about American shoes--tennies, sneakers, comfortable or sturdy walking shoes, cowboy boots, and the like--that are like neon red, white and blue flags to the rest of the globe.

The thing is, though the American evangelical church often laments the lack of religious faith in this country, there actually is a national religion.  Perhaps Godless, but every bit as fervent as the most devout of churches.  It's called 'patriotism.' Believing in our nation as the last great hope on the planet, our way of living, indeed, our freedom (!), as the truest of true things.  We have our national holiday--today--to worship this nation, and the great symbol that raises more reverence and more ire than any religious symbol.  Burn a flag and one is committing a crime. Burn a cross?  Merely exercising one's freedom of expression.  The most pious ones in this country's religion, it seems to me, are those in the military.  And this, I have to admit, troubles me.

This whole concept of the military fighting for our freedom in every war our country has participated in?  Just the other day, my kids and I were talking about this.  In which wars has this actually--literally--been true?  The Revolutionary War, of course, and the Civil War, certainly.  World War II? Yes.  But what about these others?  Korea?  Vietnam, the current war in two places in the Middle East?  I'm less convinced these soldiers, most so young and earnest and idealistic as they step foot off this continent, could actually express a clear and convincing argument about how this fight protects our freedom.  Because, after all, if we really believe in freedom, don't we also believe that other countries, other governments have the right to their own forms of governments?  Certainly there are reasons to assist--I think of the brutal coups in Africa, the civil wars and genocides that leave entire countries destitute beneath the reign of a madman.  But let's call our actions that--assistance.  Not fighting for our freedom.

And, let's celebrate being Good Samaritans in the world, not the bullying big brother.  Let's celebrate that we are participants in the world, not superior to it.  I'm glad to be an American, glad to have the choices this country, with its initial declaration and subsquent Constitution written to protect our lives.  But let's not be pharisees about it.  And I think sometimes, that that is exactly what we are.  Judging others by our standard--judging other nations, other responses, other views, as inferior because it's not 'free.'  Perhaps, if we REALLY paid attention to the gospel, were really intentional about living that as our constitution and declaration of Independence, the world would be less divided.  And we'd be servants to the world, rather than rulers of it.

But...I'm also thankful that I live in such a place that I can say such things freely.


SKC said...

Hey, C2, it's fun for me to read what you have distilled from our travels in Europe. It's a place and time that still lives and breaths in me. Many revelations, you know? SKC

jeskmom said...

Hey, great to know you're reading this. I think I continually re-learn what I learned as a young women. In many and varied ways. Or perhaps I simply understand from this wrinkled and greying perspective what I was too busy living to comprehend. You know? By the way, I just saw your photos of "The Producers" on facebook. Wow, you're increasingly beautiful as you age. Amazing!