This morning, my American Literature Survey class and I examined the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This Calvinistic masterpiece of God’s absolute control over a Puritan congregation of people who may have preferred to think that they were saved but were most likely damned (in Edwards’s estimation), displays the most horrific example of religion used as a weapon for mind control, ever known in the Western world. It also reminds me of the long, lingering shadow of Puritanism over America, from its beginnings in New England to the present day.
From Edwards, we can trace a straight Puritanical line to the actions of the Texas Legislature in seeking to curtail the rights of women to control their own birth processes and choices; to the US House of Representatives, in grappling with the question of racism, as it impacts the issue of illegal immigration—how cynical and unfair to propose deporting the children of illegal immigrants who are born here! In our Puritan beginnings, with its Biblical literalism, we can find ample ammunition to use against gays, interracial marriage, and anyone who crosses the Biblical line which fundamentalists draw in the sand.
We Americans hypocritically insist that our political leaders be simon pure, at least, in public: all of this is the legacy of Puritanism. It displays itself in our insistence on public religion: prayers before sports events, before town meetings and school gatherings; meetings by the President with religious groups; even the office of the President as mourner-in-chief, or celebrant-in-chief of Jewish or Christian holidays, a sort of secular High Priest to usher in national celebrations, in the glare of TV cameras.
I believe that religion has no place in public life at all. If a minister, imam, or rabbi makes a benediction in a public place or school, it means that a captive audience is held hostage to that prayer, even if they do not subscribe to the celebrant’s faith. Should the celebrant attempt to make an “all-inclusive” prayer, he runs the risk of being untrue to his particular faith; should he offer it in the name of his faith, he risks offending members of other faiths, or those whose consciences dictate no faith at all: a fundamental American right. It also means that I, as a rabbi, a Jewish minister, am not doing my job properly. People have the choice to attend a particular house of worship; they do not have that same choice in a town meeting, sports event, public school, or the White House. Our American schizophrenia regarding public worship has gone on for centuries now, and it is public hypocrisy of the worst kind. We should keep faith where it belongs: in church, synagogue, mosque, or shrine, and leave the public square for matters of public interest.