Civil Religion

It’s a commonplace to gripe about civil religion in America. It’s a standard complaint among many pastors, especially around major civil holidays, to bemoan their congregation’s commitment to the civil religion more than Christianity?

But what, in a nutshell, is the civil religion on the United States?

I’ve got some excellent academic resources on the subject. Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance is very insightful, but it is too technical and detailed to hold many people’s interest. But, I just found a gem of an explanation from Fr Thomas Hopko.

This is a very old podcast (Feb 18, 2009 — I’ve been doing some catching up). But it’s a dandy. It’s entitled “A President’s Day Reflection. and can be found at
Good listening!


An Alternative View on the Pussy Riot Verdict in Russia

I just finished reading The Mountain of Silence, by Kyriacos Markides. In the penultimate chapter he is explaining that the break between the Christian East and West is more than just a theological disagreement. Thinking the Eastern Christians as infidels, the Crusaders raped and pillaged. But here’s the kicker: “Churches were desecrated and destroyed” by the Western Christian crusaders. He then quotes John Julius Norwich, a western historian, who describes how the church buildings were dishonored and how this was so deeply offensive to the Christians that to this day, the sacrilege has not been forgotten.

I read this passage mere hours after the guilty verdict of hooliganism had been passed on the Russian punk band, Pussy Riot. The western news media has tried to turn this purely into a referendum on Putin’s heavy handed policies; and for Westerners, that’s probably what it is and why they protest. But in the Reuters news article, the journalist observes that very few Russians are opposed to the verdict.

I propose that there is a connection. Pussy Riot may have been protesting the Russian political regime, but in so doing, they desecrated a holy temple of God. That angers me deeply, as it should all Christians who believe that church buildings are more than auditoriums and truly holy places. Whether a two-year prison term is appropriate is another matter. I would tend to leave it in God’s hands and pray that these three women may repent of their blasphemy.

But there is a much closer relationship between church and state in Russia and there is certainly a very strong religious sensibility in Russia. Pussy Riot’s blasphemy ought not go unremarked by the Russian people or by the Russian government. Before we become so outraged at a government’s response to what some of have reduced to a political protest, we should consider the seriousness of blasphemy and earnestly pray for mercy, not only for these three women, but for all involved.

Remembering the 1968 Democratic Convention

Here is a rather remarkable audio clip of experimental radio by Bob Fass reporting from the 1968 Democratic Convention. It was Backstory with the American History Guys who posted this on their Facebook page, by the way. I was in grade school in 1968 so I only vaguely remember the Democratic Convention in Chicago. What I find so remarkable is the strange combination of brutality and innocence expressed by both the protestors and the police. What Jerry Rubin and Phil Ochs describe is nothing short of thuggery, but it is a naïve and old-fashioned sort of thuggery that is so different than the sort of terror inflicted on us by Homeland Security and their ilk. I am reminded of Dickens: the best of days, the worst of days.

Hangin’ with the Buddhists

We have new neighbors (in the last couple of months or so) and the neighbors were having a shindig today, so I stopped over to meet them. We’ve suspected it was some sort of Buddhist temple or monastery, so I’ve been curious. It is indeed going to be a Lao Buddhist temple. They have not yet received their tax-exempt status so it’s currently just a home for a few monks. When the paper work comes through from the state of Nebraska, we’ll have a second Buddhist temple in Siouxland and it will be just a few doors down from us.

“Two temples for a very small Southeast Asian population?” you may ask. (At least I did.) Most Laotian Buddhists practice Theravada Buddhism, which (according to the Laotians) is the traditional form. Most Vietnamese Buddhists, on the other hand, practice Mahayana Buddhism. According to the Laotians, Mahayana is the progressive variety. Siouxland now has a temple for both varieties.

We are currently in the midst of Buddhist Lent. If this shindig is any indication, it’s good to be a Buddhist in Lent. According the Wikipedia, the monks have to stay home during this three month period in order to study the teachings of the Buddha. Wikipedia didn’t say anything about the community, but based on my one hour of experience, the people celebrate Buddhist Lent with volleyball, loud, raucous music and dancing, and lots of food: sticky rice, chicken on skewers, beef on skewers, pork sausage on skewers, and those funky sweet soybean cakes … oh, and beer … lot’s of beer.

This particular shindig was a sort of kick off party for the new temple. People from the temples in Sioux Falls, Worthington, MN, Storm Lake, IA, etc. came to South Sioux City to celebrate, pray for their dead relatives (which is evidently a primary activity during Buddhist Lent), have a volleyball tournament, and eat, eat, eat! It’s worth noting that all these towns are packing plant towns. Like immigrant populations for several generations, these immigrants tend to work the hard and sometimes disgusting jobs that more established Americans tend to avoid if at all possible.

It’s interesting to see how these populations have become enculturated. It is generally believed that Buddhists eat a primarily vegetarian diet. But today there wasn’t a vegetable in sight. I suspect the truth of the matter is that Indians and Southeast Asians have traditionally eaten a primarily vegetarian diet with a little meat mixed in when available. That regional reality was incorporated into the religion. (This is similar to Christian fasting rules.) When the people and their religion came to the U.S., the diet rules were no longer practical, or at least desirable  These people, although they self-identify as Asians, are very much Americans. They drive like us (SUVs and Audis were prevalent),  they get inked like us, they eat like us, they are us.

It was also interesting to discover that the reason they are in our neighborhood (a few hundred yards outside the city limits), is that the City of South Sioux City would not give them a permit for a temple. The person telling me this didn’t elaborate. He said that they do have to do some work so that their parking, water, and sewage meet the Dakota County standards for public buildings, but other than those public safety issues, the County has no authority over where churches can be built.

If all this is true we have a very big church-state problem in South Sioux City. In a secular society such as ours, if South Sioux City can deny the Buddhists a room at the Inn, they can do the same to the Baptists. On the other hand, it is distinctly possible that what I heard is not accurate. I was trying to understand a man with limited English skills. I was trying to hear him over the very loud music. And he simply could have had his story wrong. But all of that, if it is addressed at all, must be pushed to another essay. For now I’ll say welcome to the neighborhood.

Oh, yeah, and is there any chance we can have Laotian restaurant here in the neighborhood?

Prayer and Magic

Fr. Stephen Freeman, speaking about the “paradox of prayer,” points out that in the physical world we typically think in terms of cause and effect, and this is easily transferred to our thinking about prayer. But prayer must be understood in terms of relationship not cause and effect. He then says,

The direct connection between the fervency of prayer and the efficacy of prayer is indeed magic, not Christianity, and magic is a temptation even in the modern world.

It’s Not That I’m Rooting Against Him …

Over at ESPN the reporters are gushy about Oscar Pistorius, the sprinter with artificial legs. ESPN asks (rhetorically, I will add), “Who can’t be rooting for Pistorius in the quarter finals?”

Well, me for one.

Pistorius races with a huge disadvantage (no natural legs) and a huge advantage (the highly unnatural spring in his blades) which makes his feats incomparable to any other sprinter. He’s unique.

This is not the MIT-sponsored “scientific creativity Olympics.” I wish Oscar Pistorius all the best in his life, but the Olympics is no place to pit metallurgical engineering against pure athletic prowess.