From the Editor: Uncivil Religion

Ray Waddle

These days bring to mind the line from William Carlos Williams’ poem “To Elsie”:

“The pure products of America go crazy – ”

Williams was writing in the early 1920s, gazing out on a despoiled Jersey landscape, tenderly lamenting the daily grind that so many Americans faced to the point of desperation and derangement. Nearly a century later, his words echo.

Lately the national catalogue of “pure products” and their human cost has expanded. The list includes a fascination with certain runaway abstractions – a nostalgia for the 1950s, the fever dream of an armed citizenry, a creedal loyalty to market freedom or racial superiority. These body politic visions of purity go crazy.

Writer Peter Schjeldahl once said the USA is an idea that stands on three legs: “first, a set of 18th-century political documents, which we argue about continually; second, the cautionary example of the Civil War, which fates us to stick together no matter what; and, third, daily consumption of mass culture. That’s it. Everything else, however tremendous, is secondary.”1

Relegated to his secondary list is religion. That demotion looks doubtful. An American civil religion, a belief that this pluralistic nation is blessed by the Creator, is a historic marker of our identity and exceptionalism. An old thought – God is watching – always did egalitarian work over here. It was a way of saying we’re all equal, and equally vouchsafed, in the economy of salvation.

The assumption of God’s providence is now under strenuous reassessment. The pressure of events – economic pessimism, gun slaughters, the rages of ideology – is rattling the confidence of many. On the big plasma screen, enchantment surrounds the powerful celebrity, as if to fill a spiritual void. Extremes of rhetoric and violence carry a dark glamour. And so the will of God gets an updated rival – the human will to power – stockpiled with firepower to enforce a perfect isolation inside the castle of individualism. Ideas that stand up for a functioning public life scatter in retreat.

American Christianity often gets defined as a religion of individualism. When that happens, little is expected of it in the arena of public solutions. The  faith, however, teaches a wisdom that has consequences for political reform: an abiding affection for creation, a love of the things God has made.

What God has made is exceedingly, unnervingly diverse, and evidently it flourishes only if a balance is struck, a system of mutual courtesy. That seems to be the point of the much-repeated scriptural commands about Golden Rule, love of neighbor, and forgiveness. This group of commands isn’t there to flummox people with guilt. It arrives each moment as a practical principle.

And it applies everywhere. Golden Rule, regard for neighbor, the power of forgiveness – the world couldn’t manage without them. Daily business transactions depend on them. So does all the unglamorous work of organizing a neighborhood, launching a bond issue, or improving police-community relations. The everyday world is messy and plural. It resists our quaint impositions of ideological purity. Things go wrong when militant zeal becomes a spellbound fixation.

In his new book Putting God Second, Rabbi Donniel Hartman suggests what happens when the pure products of devotion hold sway: They lethally distort religion’s best values, and then faith is dishonored and the public is harmed. It’s possible to be so consumed with pious intoxication that one becomes morally blind to God’s will, which is always to respect what God has made. The corrective is, as Hartman provocatively puts it, to “put God first by putting God second.” Serve God by repairing the world and greeting the divine image in others. Here the theological and the political meet.

“Creation in the divine image is not merely a statement of value but one of purpose: a special charge to humanity to engage in tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world,’ grounded in the responsibility to be God’s partner in governing and managing creation,” he writes.2

In its marrow, faith is a pragmatic force for sanity – people working for a humane future, feeling solid earth underneath. Politics too is about getting things done, and doing it together, after the bluster of ideology moves on to its next self-defeat, away from the hybrid surprises and graces of real life.


  1. Peter Schjeldahl, Let’s See: Writings on Art in The New Yorker (Thames & Hudson), p. 14.
  2. Donniel Hartman, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion From Itself (Beacon, 2016), p. 165.