Rather than list the most popular or significant stories from the past year, let’s ask a different kind of question to guide and sharpen our focus on religion in American life. When you reflect on all that’s transpired since January 1st, what stand out as the top ten most sacred concerns of Americans?
It shouldn’t be surprising, as you read RD’s official list, that these are also some of the most contentious political issues of our day…
1. Sexual Boundaries: A perennial sacred concern in every society. This past year, the highly charged American dilemma over sexuality points to one unequivocal fact: heterosexual intimacy between a man and a woman for the purpose of reproduction continues to be less and less relevant to American sexual mores and values. Major social institutions have lost credibility trying to police and reinforce this narrow view of what is morally acceptable when it comes to sexuality.
The Catholic Church contended with ongoing sexual abuse claims against celibate priests who are supposed to be models of spiritual leadership; not to mention the startling and confusing remarks by the Pope about condoms and AIDS. Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that seeks to deny equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, continues to be challenged and will likely make its way to the Supreme Court. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy that has until this point avoided dealing with gays in armed services, appears to be on its way out. Megastar, megachurch leaders like Eddie Long lost some of their credibility thanks to scandalous charges from young men.
And both political parties remain mired in the hypocritical muck because of men who can’t keep it in their pants: Representative Mark Souder from Indiana admitting having an affair with one of his staffers and resigned; former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards faced more fallout from his affair after Rielle Hunter went public in the pages of GQ; and Carl Paladino’s Tea Party-supported run for governor of New York got side tracked by revelations that he had a love child out of wedlock.
2. War Not Peace: America has historically been a war-loving and militaristic country, but this last year’s continued involvement in Afghanistan marked the longest war in the nation’s history. What are the costs? Thousands of American lives lost, trillions of dollars spent, international reputation shot to hell, psychological instability of returning veterans with unprecedented numbers committing suicide, veteran services stretched thin—these are only a few items that come to mind though they only scratch the surface of the psychic, social, and cultural scars inflicted by this war.
Historically and across cultures, warfare is often the most religious event in the life of any society. Is it any different here, in America, with this war? The patriotic and nationalistic fervor with which this war on terror is being carried out and the well-deserved support for American troops is sacred through and through, energies that in subtle and not-so-subtle ways strengthen the bonds that tie many Americans together and reinforce a distinctive American identity.
On the other hand, what’s more surprising is that peace doesn’t appear to have a chance, and any oppositional movements are absent or at best anemic. And forget about any religiously-inspired critique of this never-ending conflict, since there are apparently no Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Muslims in America who can make a case about the immorality of war that makes much of a difference. Why are we fighting this war?
Protest is futile, though some artists rise to the occasion and question national decisions and logic: “Wake up we’re here, it’s so much worse than we feared, there’s nothing left here, our country has disappeared,” in the words of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (I know, released in 2009, but relevant still). War continues to be an elemental thread in the fabric of our lives, sacred and revered, but also in many ways thoroughly passé, part of the “norm,” something we live comfortably with thanks to films, documentaries, television, political rhetoric, and one of the most popular, and entertaining, video games available: Call of Duty.
3. Islam Phobia: Islam is now the supreme enemy threatening the United States for many—too many—Americans, and it became evident just how virulent that hatred has become. Americans are willing to throw religious freedom and tolerance out the window, a posture all too familiar in the nation’s history and sadly contradictory to the sacred principles upon which this country was founded.
Opposition to the construction of a Muslim community center in New York; the brutal attack on a Muslim cabbie; the proposed burning of Qur’ans by a small church that created a media sensation; the passage of a law in Oklahoma outlawing shari’ah—taken together these and other similar incidents point to the sacred value of hating Muslims for Americans who place fear above education, knee-jerk militarism over carefully considered analysis, and mindless subservience to ridiculous media figures higher than individual reflection based on reliably researched information.
On the flip side, Islam is a global force to be reckoned with and has myriad forms of expression, commitment, moral codes, and values—just like global Christianity. In the U.S., Muslims are increasingly part of the social landscape, with mosques, community centers, and public figures (including the first Muslim Miss America and the easy reelection of one of the two Muslim members of Congress) who contribute to the fabulous religious mosaic that characterizes the best of American values.
4. Celebrity: Two words: Lady Gaga. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but the last year only confirms that one of the strongest religious cultures existing in America is the cult of celebrity, and the swirl of controversy, curiosity, and concern regarding Ms. Gaga is evidence that her popularity is more than just entertainment.
It’s fair to say that the actions of celebrities can be more meaningful and significant to everyday people than the actions of saints, religious leaders, or spiritual teachers. Whether we are talking about the highest heights of celebrity—like Simon Cowell granting a wish to a dying girl or Chris Brown’s tearful performance honoring the late Michael Jackson on the 2010 BET Awards—or the lowest lows for fallen and challenged celebrities—like Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen—our cultural orientations continually emphasize, and focus on, the power of fame. Just think of the endless cycle of awards shows for music, film, television, Broadway, and so on, or the countless outlets for popular fanzines, or the never-ending media fixations on stardom, whether instantaneously achieved on reality TV shows or YouTube, or more gradually from perfecting a particular craft like acting.
The cult of celebrity is so embedded in everyday culture, so critical to the economy, so powerful in our dreams, that we take it for granted as a given rather than see it for what it is: a sacred commitment for millions. The upcoming year-end ritual of marking and remembering celebrity deaths from the previous year is another—perhaps the most poignant—religious activity of the cult. If an anthropologist from another planet came to America I have no doubt the cult of celebrity would be the most obvious sign of religious life.
5. Money Matters: And speaking of cults, 2010 was a year in which the love and dangers of money placed the religious dimensions of the economy into sharp relief. Perhaps more than celebrity, more than politics, hell even more than institutional religion itself, money is a matter of life, death, and morality, a sacred matter of the highest order that is especially obvious now, in the midst of the Great Recession.
The recent suicide of Bernie Madoff’s son, Mark, is another piece in one of the most tragic stories of the decade, and a glaring indication of the stakes in the pursuit of, if not obsession with, money. From the uppermost echelons of the wealthiest classes to the bottom of the economic barrel, money rules our lives and guides our actions like no other force today.
Unemployment, bailouts, national debt, foreclosures, bank regulation, layoffs, and entitlement programs—the list of economic concerns remains the same since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, but the upcoming social, cultural, and political battles over how best to deal with these concerns cuts straight to the heart of national identity—a point made dramatically clear in President Obama’s recent compromise on tax cuts.
Who are we as a nation? What are our priorities? And even more relevant in today’s economic climate: WWJD (since he would of course be most attentive to the USA)? My guess is many Americans would be certain he would support tax cuts for the wealthy and oppose helping the poor.
6. Health Cares: The pursuit of health in all of its forms—well being and weight loss; psychological stability and physical comfort; spiritual harmony and self-image satisfaction; cancer cures and colon cleansing—can have religious valences and motivations for many Americans. The connection between health and sacred living is commonplace in many cultures throughout history so it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone looking back over the course of this year—especially since one of the most important news stories was the passage of health care reform.
A simple effort to ensure health insurance coverage for all Americans turned out to be not that simple at all, and created a firestorm of opposition with cries of a socialist takeover and the infamous charge of government-controlled death panels determining who lives and who dies. The ferocious battle over this legislation is only going to get worse now that the tea partiers have gained some power in the Republican Party, and though no one will come out and publicly state, “This is a religious issue,” you will see the evidence based on the rhetoric and actions of those who seek to repeal the law.
Outside of the cultural war zones, our understanding of health and how to manipulate the body to achieve it, raise distinctly religious questions. In 2010, the scientific vigor inspiring medical breakthroughs to cure diseases and slow the aging process led to the mind-boggling and ethics-challenging creation of synthetic life in the laboratory and the fountain-of-youth dreams sparked by recent discoveries of genetic mechanisms in the lifespan and immune systems of laboratory worms.
7. Scientific Truths: In many ways, the biggest battle brewing in the religious wars of the twenty-first century is over the place and value of science. On one of the many fronts in this battle, two sets of fundamentalists continue to duke it out: the New Atheists vs. the monotheistic literalists, led by the Christian Religious Right.
This year’s news that one of the leading lights of New Atheism, Christopher Hitchens, has esophageal cancer did not tone down the war of words between the two camps about the existence of God, as well as what God should do about Hitchens’ cancer. Even though Stephen Hawking attempted to end the debate with his new book, The Grand Design, no one seemed ready to drop their weapons.
Instead, Americans learned this year that they can look forward to the building of a Christian-based theme park in Kentucky called Ark Encounter (based on the story of Noah’s Ark, for the religiously illiterate). The governor promised lucrative tax incentives to the entrepreneurs who erected the Creation Museum and now want to build it—purely in the name, of course, of job creation, not Jesus.
Evolutionary theory is being challenged if not undercut by popular, institutional, and political efforts to raise the biblical creation myth to the level of a universal fact that every American, or at least every American student using Texas textbooks, must accept as truth. On the other hand, some biologists along with neuroscientists, psychologists, and other intellectuals see evolutionary theory and knowledge about the brain as a way to better understand that most basic of religious elements: morality.
8. Sports Values: Where do Americans get their moral sensibilities, learn lessons about right and wrong, and understand how to cope with disgrace as well as deification? The wonderful world of sports. Where to begin? Let me just list some names from 2010, and not even full names, to get this started: Tiger, Vick, (Big) Ben, Lebron (formerly King), Drew, Steinbrenner, and Arenas.
The moral dramas behind these names on and off the field are rife with sacred meanings about the costs of transgression (often sexual, but also, as in the case of Gilbert Arenas, with weaponry), but also the simplicity of redemption—simply win games. About the value and longevity of devotion to a cause (as is often the case, highlighted at death), but also the precariousness of loyalty (ironically it’s tattooed on Lebron’s body). And, of course, the belief that good things come to people who wait (“who dat”?), but also that God does not always reward those who think they are deserving (that theological conundrum was tweeted by Steve Johnson after dropping an embarrassingly easy catch).
On one level, the world of sports seems to be clearly divided into winners and losers; but on another level, as Atlantic writer Hampton Stevens discusses in an essay about the year in sports called “The Year in Fail,” sometimes winners can be losers, and losers winners, ambiguities that surprisingly do not lead to moral confusion, but in fact only reinforce the power and influence of sports in our lives.
9. The Natural World: I suppose it would be reassuring to believe that God wouldn’t let global warming occur, as some, perhaps many, assert in the battle over the meaning of climate change in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Are our ethical responsibilities to preserve and protect the earth’s natural resources, or to exploit and ravage the planet so we can live a more comfortable life and create jobs for the good of the American economy?
The aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will surely answer that question thanks to lobbyists and politicians who have adopted the unequivocal motto: drill baby drill. Screw the environment, we have jobs to create, profits to trickle down, and enemies to vanquish—even if the efficacy of each of those approaches is dubious. Let’s let Sarah Palin take the lead on this one, and pray that she does indeed understand God’s will in the natural order of things, and we’ll all be safe in the end.
On the less theologically optimistic side, the disastrous earthquake in Haiti in January raises questions about God’s ways, though the interfaith religious response to the suffering was a testament to the best of human efforts to join together in common cause.
10. RD celebrates its Two-Year Anniversary (February 4th). Sorry. This may have been sacred to only a few… Can you blame me?
Finally, just so I can’t be accused of slapping the label on any old thing, here is a list of items in the news that, for too many Americans, have nothing at all to do with the sacred—they are thoroughly mundane, lacking in urgency, ultimate values, or transformative power: