Did you know that 55% of Americans believe that Christianity was written into the Constitution and that the founding fathers wanted One Nation Under Jesus (which includes 75% of Republicans and Evangelicals) (USA Today)? It is true that Puritan pilgrims came here seeking religious freedom, and that today we are one of the most religious of industrialized nations. But the fact that the vast majority of Americans think we are and are supposed to be “a Christian nation” is disconcerting, for two reasons. One, we certainly are not; America has slowly come to accept that religious pluralism and toleration and separation of church and state are ideals worth striving for. Some of the founding fathers were deistic and not particularly religious. But perhaps even more so, how can we be considered a Christian nation when we have this level of political chicanery, poverty, militarism, materialism, and greed? Those counter-ideals are literally antithetical to the message we believe Jesus was trying to convey during his brief time on Earth. This is a blog about the ignorance many Americans have, and even court.
Bill McKibben opined on the Christian thing when he said:
America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior. At the moment the idea of Jesus has been hijacked by people with a series of causes that do not reflect his teachings. It’s hard to imagine a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or war in Iraq. We have made golden calves of ourselves — become a nation of terrified, self-obsessed idols.
Arianna Huffington also satirized the seriousness with which evangelicals tend to take our grave planetary situation with the following: “Why worry about minor little details like clean air, clean water, safe ports and the safety net when Jesus is going to give the world an ‘Extreme Makeover: Planet Edition’ right after he finishes putting Satan in his place once and for all?” Keepin’ it light, here is another satirist of Christianity doing his usual: “They have a politically correct Bible now. They didn’t want Jesus to be killed by Jews, an ethnic group, so he dies of secondhand smoke” (Can’t we silence those Christian athletes who thank Jesus whenever they win, and never mention His name when they lose? You never hear them say, ‘Jesus made me drop the ball.’ ‘The good Lord tripped me up behind the line of scrimmage.'”
Religious tolerance was virtually absent from the original colonies on the east coast in the 17th and 18th centuries, and is more of a product of 20th century progressive ideals. Not only a racist and a segregationist, Woodrow Wilson typifies a lack of wisdom and insight when he said the following about America’s belated and very questionable role in World War I:
“America’s world role has come by no plan of our own conceiving, but by the hand of God. It was of this that we dreamed in our birth. America shall indeed, in truth, show the way.” Oliver Stone lays that bare with this commentary: “In Wilson’s view, America’s ‘manifest destiny’ was no longer a case of continental expansion; it was now a divinely-ordained mission to humanity. This idea of ‘saving humanity’ became essential to the American national myth in all subsequent wars.” Of which there have been many.
It is interesting and worth pointing out, though America was founded on the separation of church and state (what I consider to be a fact), is not necessarily the whole truth. What is true is that we are far afield of what we should be. Here is scholar Daniel N. Robinson speaking about the nature of the nascent nation:
[We tend to picture John Wayne, on horseback, in the wilds, with his shotgun over his shoulder], but that’s not the America at the founding. The America at the founding is a communitarian America – colonists who understand their obligations are chiefly to each other. In fact, the idea then that the whole point of revolution, the Constitution, a just form of government is, to quote Justice Brandeis: ‘that somebody is to be left alone’ … would have been regarded as pathological. These were communities that understood themselves largely in Christian terms, very much in the patrimony of the Puritan fathers, understanding that a community of people must live together in such a way as to put private interest and self-interest aside and to operate in behalf of the good of the whole. That communitarianism shows up in the founding documents themselves. There are so many attempts to resist and avoid and deflate faction – to continue to remind people of common cause. The Puritans regarded themselves as so-called ‘Commonwealth men.’ They were part of an extended community and a brotherhood, and indeed, essentially, in Christian terms.
Now, one could also end up wearing a “scarlet letter” or in stocks back in colonial America; it wasn’t exactly heaven on Earth. But Robinson’s point is well-taken: that America has become much more individualistic and greedy and materialistic than perhaps anyone ever intended. If I were a religious man, I would probably imagine that, as Tolkien wrote, “the hearts of men are easily corrupted,” and that we have strayed and decayed and been influenced the devil. To look at Wall Street, the sex trade, the vast poverty, and the recent tax cuts for corporations would convince an onlooker that we have our priorities all confused. “The so-called Christian Right — they think they’re moral. They really believe that they’re moral. But they’re moral in the way that the Taliban is moral,” points out
Developing one’s ethical, spiritual, and emotional life does not happen as easily as gaining weight – it is more akin to exercising. But when you think of Jesus, see that movie character doing the right thing, hear the Dalai Lama, or watch a religious figure in your place of worship, think of Martin Luther King or Helen Keller, do you — like me — get the feeling that they practice and really “live” their chosen values?
Indeed, we seem far afield now not only from a traditional, conservative ethos but also from some more progressive, enlightened existence. It’s a no-man’s-land of the worst of theism and greed. How did we get here? Hint: follow the money! “America’s moral ills were defined in the ‘80s and ‘90s in terms that reflected the traditional conservative worries, with a focus on things like crime, drugs, premarital sex, and divorce. Other concerns — little problems like greed, envy, materialism, and inequality — have been excluded from the values debate,” (
Certainly the goal of adding to our material comforts and our leisure time has not filled our lives. Are we not beginning to yearn for something beyond ourselves?
Ignorance based on a literal interpretation of the Bible and the resulting hypocrisy vis a vis our materialistic and wanton culture is not our only problem. Another fun fact: “When asked on what year 9/11 took place, 30% of Americans were unable to answer the question correctly, even as few as five years after the attack,” Nico Lang informs us. As Thomas Jefferson also informed us, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
The Free Republic points out the alarming fact that “only 71% of Americans can locate the Pacific Ocean on a map.” Yikes. The article also shows that “When asked to find 10 specific states on a map of the U.S., only California and Texas could be located by a large majority. Only 51% could find New York.” Okay, so geography isn’t Americans’ strong suit.
Here are some stunning findings in a video lecture I have been watching entitled A Skeptic’s Guide to Ameican History:
In the article on AlterNet entitled “Ignorant America: Just How Stupid Are We?“, Rick Shenkman illustrates that “A study by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpsons family members, compared with just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.” One in a thousand!? How can we expect to remain free if we don’t even know what the freedoms are supposed to be? You think the people who would subvert and erode our Constitutional rights don’t know what they are? Think again.
Shenkman lists five aspects of ignorance, and they are:
First, is sheer ignorance: Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who’s in charge. Second, is negligence: The disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third, is wooden-headedness, as the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: The inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Fourth, is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are mutually contradictory, or contrary to the country’s long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better name: The susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.
Wow. Alarming. This book is an interesting (dispiriting?) look at scientific illiteracy:
Climate change, the energy crisis, global pandemics, nuclear proliferation—many of the most urgent problems of the twenty-first century require science-based solutions. Yet Americans are paying less and less attention to scientists. For every five hours of cable news, less than a minute is devoted to science; the number of newspapers with weekly science sections has shrunken by two-thirds over the past several decades. Just 18 percent of Americans personally know a scientist to begin with, and exceedingly few can name a living scientist role model. No wonder rejection of science is rampant: 46 percent of Americans deny evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; large numbers of Republicans continue to attack the science of climate change; and the public—including its wealthiest and best educated sectors—is in dangerous retreat from childhood vaccinations.
As noted scientist Edward O. Wilson points out, we may be perpetuating ignorance by teaching that the Bible is literally true and that we can possibly know what our creator thinks, believes, wants, and wishes. He writes: “Science has always defeated religious dogma point by point when the two have conflicted. But to no avail. In the United States, there are fifteen million Southern Baptists, the largest denomination favoring literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, but only five thousand members of the American Humanist Association, the leading organization devoted to secular and deistic humanism.”
It’s just built into the fabric of Christianity. From wars of intolerance to molestation scandals to burning heretics at the stake, much of the ignorance, superstition, exceptionalism, and hatred that plagues America has been fomented by organized religion. I’m not saying there is not a helpful, legitimate vein running through the sclerotic muscle of capitalistic America; my wife generally does good and takes strength from religion. It’s somewhat akin to the situation with Islam and its political leaders. It’s a lack of rationality, free-thinking, and reason. George H. Smith points out, rightly, that: “One is not morally free to investigate the truth of the Christian doctrine by means of reason; instead, one must believe uncritically or be condemned as immoral. A man is thus forced to choose between morality and truth, virtue and reason. The paragon of virtue, according to this view, is the man who refuses critically to evaluate his ideas—and one can scarcely imagine a more vicious form of irrationalism.”
Ilya Somin of The Washington Post opens up a can of political worms for us. He points out that: “Even more than most others, the awful 2016 election cycle has highlighted the dangers of political ignorance. Data has long shown that voter ignorance is widespread on both sides of the political spectrum. A high percentage of the public is often ignorant of even very basic information, such as which party controls Congress, which officials are responsible for which issues, and how the federal government spends our tax money.” Here is his disheartening article.
Why do we try, in fact? With like 33% of Americans voting in mid-term elections, we clearly don’t try very hard. Much of that undoubtedly has to do with the utter powerlessness in which the moneyed class (the political overlords who donate unregulated sums of money to their favored political candidates, perpetuate the two-party system, and decade after decade get their own interests placed above those of any other interest or group) would keep us all. Somin shows that if one’s “only reason to become informed about politics is to make better choices at the ballot box, that turns out not to be much of an incentive at all. The odds that your vote will decide the outcome are infinitesimally small. From the standpoint of the ordinary voter, it makes sense to pay little attention to political issues, and instead devote most of your time and effort to other matters.” We may not be as dumb as we seem when it comes to politics: as Robert Reich points out:
Moneyed interests do not want the curtain of the “free market” lifted because that would expose their influence over the rules of the capitalist game and reveal potential alliances that could countervail that power. They would prefer the bottom 90 percent continue to preoccupy themselves with tendentious battles over government’s size (or that it war over noneconomic issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, guns, race, and religion) than find common cause.
Wow. I couldn’t have said that better myself. In fact, Reich’s whole book Saving Capitalism is a tour de force in debunking myths, exposing truth, and making clear that in this late hour, our democratic republic is in grave danger. Indeed, one only look at the climate change and pollution, frightening population growth and rise of the eager middle class in China and India, and the utter absurdity of our political system here at home to have to take two aspirin and go to bed.
Really. We seem to have reached a nadir with the election by about 35% of the populace of Donald Trump. Yes, gerrymandering, the electoral college, the appeal of Hillary Clinton, the repugnance of most of the GOP candidates, and perhaps Russia all doctored his rise. But still, at times in the past, and in other countries, his power grab would have been laughed at or roundly defeated. Here is a summary of how he is denigrating what class and principle there was in the late 18th century, when the Thomas Jeffersons and John Adams of the colonies were leaders. As the article states, perhaps he is just the chickens coming home to roost:
This sort of attention [he has gotten from all of us and the media] hasn’t been a fluke. It doesn’t represent a Trumpian black hole in time or an anomaly in our history, and neither does he. Of course, he’s Donald J. Trump in all his… well, not glory, but [you fill in the word here]. However, he’s also a symptom. He didn’t create this particular media moment or this American world of ours either. He just grasped how it worked at some intuitive level and rode it (or perhaps it rode him) all the way to the White House.
So, politics is a huge, probably formative, part of our problem. Clearly, the educational system has flaws and issues that could be remedied if it weren’t for the political roadblocks and if we had the popular will. But we each have a responsibility, too. Just because a shiny new tablet or phone is available doesn’t mean we should spend $700 on it and get sucked further and further into the mental vacuum it (and Facebook) create. To send our kids off to Sunday school and expect that will be good for them and teach them “morals” is wrongheaded. Why do we need 70%+ of grads from Ivy League schools pursuing “me-me-me” careers in the financial services, advertising, marketing, and insurance industries? The violence on television is clearly not helpful. It used to seem like we had a more civil, productive, prosperous country. While we have made progress with gay rights, abortion rights, and the sexual harassment thing, we now have the 24-hour news cycle, an Orwellian level of deceit and corruption in politics, and a populace that loves watching football players knock each other into a vegetable state more than reading, helping, and political activism.
In sum, think about the powers that be, what they want, and what condition we find ourselves in. Put two and two together. If we can put a man on the moon and cure polio, but are in a nuclear stand-off and don’t produce safe vaccines, something is amiss. If we feel that we couldn’t possibly be affected by the madmen running this country or North Korea, we are courting ignorance. If we feel that we are too special to comply with vaccine mandates, it is merely endemic of the “me-me-me ethos” that has been growing in this country.
Since when? Well, about the time that income has stagnated, cheating has been on the rise, the rich cared less and less about “the Commons,” and wealth has moved increasingly into the hands of the political elite and uber-wealthy. Jobs have been increasingly shipped overseas, unions have largely been busted, and CEOs and shareholders demand huge portions of the pie.
Note that Citizens United allows legal bribery of politicians, and three Americans now own as much wealth as half of the country (Gates, Buffett, and Bezos). Note also the moves Microsoft has made in regard to its business practices, the goals it has for market domination, and that Bezos owns the Washington Post. Something is clearly amiss. Ignorance is being cultivated. The Commons are in grave danger. Corporations only need workers — drones — they don’t need educated citizens who want their rights, demand the kind of welfare state our GNP can produce, and to be organized. Someday, they may not even need workers, but merely robots.
I will end with these trenchant thoughts on religiosity, morality, and progressive politics:
“I can’t believe I am standing today in a Christian church defending the proposition that we should lessen the suffering of those who cannot afford health care in an economic system that often treats the poor as prey for the rich. I cannot believe there are Christians around this nation who are shouting that message down and waving guns in the air because they don’t want to hear it.”
“Charity makes sense from a Christian viewpoint, centered on selfless love. But, also from a utilitarian viewpoint, which gives the greatest good of the greatest number as the purpose of human conduct. Prosperous people have a vested interest in helping their wretched counterparts who constitute a potential or actual menace to society.”
“Where political discourse lacks moral resonance, the yearning for a public life of larger meaning finds undesirable expression. The Christian Coalition and similar groups seek to clothe the naked public square with narrow, intolerant moralisms. Fundamentalists rush in where liberals fear to tread.”
“This country is bankrupt. The war is morally bankrupt. The claim of this administration to be Christian is bankrupt. And the only people who can turn things around are people like you – young people who are just beginning to wake up to what is happening to them. It’s your country to take back. It’s your faith to take back. It’s your future to take back.”
“If people who care about fundamentalist Christian moral values more than anything can make common cause with people who care about nothing more than money, surely progressives can bring together a powerful coalition, too.”