Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Let me say this once and for all, in a place where I can refer to it and the rest of you will never have to hear it again. I often find myself in the position of apologist for organized religion, to online or sometimes real-life friends who are politically liberal but religiously lukewarm in their personal lives. Is the church a transmitter of division and injustice? It has been at times, no doubt. But I'm learning more and more about the positive contributions the church has made to American history, which we should acknowledge whatever our personal religious beliefs or lack of same.

The desire for religious freedom obviously was crucial to our country's founding and to our tradition of civil liberties. But what's more, in many ways, churches and denominations were transmitters of the institutional habits of democracy. Look at the original Protestant refomers: John Calvin gets a bad rap a lot of the time, and certainly the man was ruthless in attacking religious dissenters, but Calvin was also a proponent of radical equality, of universal education, and of representative government. When I joined my church, I read pamphlets and heard talks of the Presbyterianism-for-Dummies variety, and I heard the repeated argument that Presbyterian church governance was influential in the movement for American independence and the authoring of the Constitution. (Presbyterians are a Calvinist offshoot.) It's a self-serving argument, but not without some weight. The Protestant churches have been agents of enlightenment in America.

The church and synagogue were key institutions for helping American immigrants gain a foothold in their new country. And black Americans--good grief, black American culture is unimaginable without the influence of and sustenance provided by the church. For decades when they completely lacked political power, African-Americans were maintaining the practices of self-government in their churches: electing bishops and other representatives, raising up leaders from the ranks of the community.

There are many more examples. I haven't read it yet, but I understand Tom Wolfe wrote a magazine profile of Robert Noyce (?), the founder of Intel. Wolfe argues that Noyce learned principles as an active member of a Congregationalist church that have been key to the corporate success of Intel.

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