Tuesday, February 28, 2017

They Will Know We Are Christians

Almost 50 years ago, when I went to college, it was the heyday of the Folk Mass.  Out with organs, in with guitars!  Out with “Blessed Be the Tie” and “The Old Rugged Cross”, in with “Kumbaya” and “Let Us Break Bread Together”.

A couple of lines especially of one song popular in the Folk era, “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love”[1] has stuck with me over the years, and is particularly poignant to me these days:

            And we’ll guard each man’s[2] dignity and save each man’s pride
            And they’ll know we are Christians by our love…[3] 

One of the sayings at Christian retreats, which has almost become a cliché is:  If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?

I don’t mean for this blog to become preachy on religion, but if I, and some of the readers, profess to be Christians, we need to come to grips with the reality that intolerance is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. 

Another cliché of Christianity holds that when you sing, you pray twice.  I don’t pray as often or as fervently as I should – I suspect I am not alone there – but when I do, it’s for strength and improvement.  As Paul has written, the good that I should do, I do not.

But we continue to seek strength and improvement for ourselves.  We ask to see the person whose dignity must be guarded and pride saved.

We ask for the discernment to realize, truly, who is my neighbor. 

We pray twice to “guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.”

[1] To hear Jars of Clay perform this song, click  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyHvO4xoEh4
[2]  Yes, I know, it should be each one’s pride, but the song was written in the 60’s….

Saturday, February 25, 2017

George Washington Mason

The following is an excerpt from Founding Faith, by Steven Waldman.  It’s an interesting take on the development of the First Amendment right of Freedom of Religion.

The author suggests that George Washington promoted freedom of religion as a strategy to hold his Continental Army together as a fighting unit when disputes between protestant and catholic troops, and among protestant sects, threatened its readiness.  The author suggests another reason for freedom of religion for Washington...

Though I believe that his role as commander of the Continental army was the most important factor shaping his vision of tolerance, there may have been one other influence:  he was a Mason.

Freemasonry began as an association of bricklayers and craftsmen, in the 1720s in England, evolved into “speculative Masonry,” connecting non-craftsmen and elites for a variety of callings.  Masonry became quite important in the colonies in the period just before, during and after the American Revolution, providing a way for social elites from different realms to gather, form bonds, complete business deals, and promote common values.  The Founding Fathers were fairly obsessed with the question of how to instill enough virtue into citizens that a republic could flourish.  Institutions that could imbue personal and communal values – such as Masonic lodges and churches – were viewed as essential building blocks for democracy. 

Though they renounced claims to being a religious organization, the Masons did have a distinct attitude about faith.  First, Masonry maintained substantial ties to biblical Judaism.  The original Masons claimed to have descended from Hiram Abiff, the master bricklayer for King Solomon’s Temple, allegedly murdered during construction.  “Rituals firmly placed Jewish biblical tradition at the hearts of all Masonry,” historian Steven Bullock has written…  By the 1700s, Masonic lodges required members to believe in a Supreme Being – what they called “the Grand Architect.”  In the years before and after the Revolution, temples typically kept a Bible in a place of honor and used scriptural passages in their rituals. 

Later, the Masons become even more explicitly and exclusively Christian – and later still were attacked by evangelicals as anti-Christian – but during the period when Washington was most involved, the Masons stressed a broad religious tolerance.    Philadelphia’s St. John’s Lodge included Baptists and Presbyterians, the lodge in Newport, Rhode Island, even included Jews.

To what degree was Washington influenced by Masonry?  He was open about his involvement...  He apparently attended few private meetings, but did participate in public Masonic rituals.  ...  Most dramatically, in 1793 Washington led the ceremony laying the cornerstone of the US Capitol:  He wore a Masonic apron and sash, placed a silver plate on the stone, and then baptized it with the Masonic symbols of corn, oil and wine.  ...  [H]e was sworn in as president on a Bible borrowed from a New York Masonic temple, was surrounded in the Continental army and in his government by other Masons, and was buried with full Masonic rites.  There is no direct evidence that Masonry influenced Washington’s approach to tolerance – perhaps Washington developed the sensibility on his own and was attracted to the Masons because they shared his views – but at a minimum it reinforced Washington’s desire for nonsectarianism.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

George Washington Letter to Synagogue

Much has been written about the religious persuasions of the Founding Fathers, particularly their views on other religions.  While many fled their native lands to come to the colonies to freely practice their religions, there was much persecution and discrimination among religions. 

Yesterday was the birthday of one of those Founding Fathers, George Washington, Father of our Country.  Steven Waldman writes in Founding Faith – Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (Random House 2008) that Washington’s leadership in religious tolerance preceded his role as first president.  As commander of the Continental army, Washington prohibited demonstrations against troops on account of their religion.  His reason was simple:  The army needed to be a cohesive unit to stand up to the trained troops of Great Britain.  It could not afford disruptions due to religious conflict. 

Washington was the president of the Constitutional Convention, where issues of religious freedom were front and center.  In 1790, a year before the Bill of Rights, including the Freedom of Religion in the First Amendment, was enacted, Washington wrote to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”  Washington closed with an invocation: “May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”[1]

Waldman writes in Founding Faith, “At one point, [Washington] surveyed all the possible causes of America’s greatness and highlighted just two.  The first was the “cheapness of land,” which allowed for much of the population to become property owners.  The second was “civil and religious” liberty, which “stands perhaps unrivaled by any civilized nation of earth.”  Long before Emma Lazarus welcomed the tired and poor, Washington declared that the “bosom of America [was] open to receive, the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”[2]

Oh, that our country would live up to the exhortations of its first president!  (It never fully has, but we should aspire to be better.)