MAXWELL: RELIGION’S POISONOUS HISTORY
12/9/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered his much-anticipated speech about his Mormonism, and GOP hopeful Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, has never shied away from letting you know about his faith.
I am glad these candidates have put their faiths out in the open. Their action should give the rest of us reason to examine our own views on the importance of religion in public life and government policy.
Because of my experiences and because of the divisiveness and carnage organized religion has spawned throughout history worldwide, I distrust people who display their religious faith, especially zealots. And because of my experiences with the church’s racism, sexism and homophobia, I do not believe that religion belongs in politics or in any other area of public life.
My personal relationship with religion began with my grandfather, a Pentecostal minister who died in 1995 at age 92. The unintended consequence of his honesty turned me into a devout doubter.
Jim Crow governed our lives, and my grandfather apprehended the intersection of race and religion, often reminding those willing to listen that if life on Earth reflects the true nature of God, “then race means a whole lot to God and Negroes.”
I asked him if Negroes and whites had the same God. My grandfather said he used to think so, but he was not so sure anymore “because Negroes suffer too much.”
When I asked if God liked Negroes, my grandfather said: “Not as much as white people.”
Those words changed my perception of God. From that day on, we talked honestly, sometimes arguing, about God and religion. Those talks became integral to my life.
My grandfather closely followed events surrounding the Rev. Martin Luther King’s struggle to dismantle the de jure and de facto institutions of Jim Crow. He said that King was right to attack white Christians for defaulting on their responsibilities to help eradicate segregation. He frequently talked about the Southern Baptist Church, which was home to many klansmen, and its rationalization of slavery and other brutalities against blacks. He also talked about the racism in the Church of Latter-day Saints.
One summer when I was visiting from college, I noticed on my grandfather’s desk a dog-eared, purple-inked copy of a document written by King titled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.”
He had underlined these passages: “There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing All Hail the Power of Jesus Nameand Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind, you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America.
“I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for.”
My grandfather said that while the courts could ban social and political Jim Crow practices, “Jim Crow in the pews” was racism of the “heart and soul.” Only a profound spiritual conversion could rid a person of it.
Today, I see much of the same race-related segregation I saw as a child. Sure, many megachurches and others with nondenominational names boast of racially mixed congregations, where parishioners worship together for a few hours. Following benediction, however, the overwhelming majority of these worshippers go their separate ways, returning to their segregated communities until the next Sunday.
Essentially, not enough has changed since my grandfather’s day. Worshipping together for an hour or two each Sunday is fine, but it is not a prescription for genuine racial understanding and transformation in society at-large.
When the church, either deliberately or inadvertently, separates people along what I consider to be artificial lines – ethnicity, sexual orientation, wealth and political affiliation – it is a primary source of the nation’s toxic culture wars.
And so we have Romney, the Mormon, and Huckabee, the Southern Baptist, vying for the presidency. Romney claims to believe that every word in the Book of Mormon is true. Huckabee professes to believe that every word in the Holy Bible is true.
Many voters say they do not care about a politician’s religious beliefs. I do. In fact, I do not want religious beliefs to enter into government and policymaking in any form.
Religion should be a private matter.