I was just reading an article in the Guardian entitled "Obama race row reflects divisions in key Pennsylvania city" and some thoughts began to occur to me concerning not race, but the state of religion in America. In this article someone said,
In Chickie's and Pete's restaurant and sports bar in Philadelphia, John Fernandez, a chiropractor, said Obama must have known what Wright was preaching. "How can you be that tight and not know or share some of those opinions? I was leaning toward him a little bit, but that took it over the edge," Fernandez said, hollering to be heard over the din of the bar and televised basketball game.
"You got to go to another church, or you share those opinions."
How interesting that we have progressed to this point where the Church we go to defines who we are rather than vice versa.
Let's take a look at the role of Church in early America. While it is true that many of the original colonies, especially in the New England colonies, were founded by religious groups seeking refuge in the New World, the entire community was not as uniform as one would suppose. There seems to be 2 threads of religious thought in the United States. There's the conformist attitudes of the Fundamentalist and Calvinist ilk, and then there's the non-conformist attitudes of the newer brand of American protestantism, such as the Congregationalists. In other words, there is a group where people come to church to subscribe to an ideology and another group who attends a church for social reasons as well as debate on scripture and the nature of God and spirituality.
Take a moment to put yourself in the mindset of a person in a typical small town. You may be a farmer or even might work in the local town. Think about the number of people you may encounter withing any given day. Not exactly a grand social event. There's no telephone to call up your best friend. There is the postal service, but that takes a long time to send letters back and forth. There may be others on the same farm, but they are usually family or at least the same people day in and day out. And then there are your immediate neighbors. You might run into them, but probably not unless you make an effort to go over and visit in the evening. You might make a trip into town and see people, but there really needs to be a good reason to do that since that take you away from the farm work that needs to be done before it gets too late. Take that kind of thought process and take it into the town. So in the town, you get the occasional visitor, but the town is pretty sleepy in general. There are the occasional gatherings, but it's primarily on the weekends that you get to see people. Especially on Sundays. That was the day when everyone came into town to go to church. It was a more social occasion rather than for religious purposes, although I certainly don't want to discount that aspect in the least. It was the best opportunity for people to gather and talk about things that mattered. Status of the harvest, what's going on in people's lives, politics and spirituality. Given that no one is ever really conformist, there are bound to be discussions on theses subjects and even debates. There may be someone who is leaning in the Evangelical direction and another who is leaning in the Deist direction. But since that single church (as is probably the case with exception of the larger towns and cities) is the only game in town, most people don't exactly have a choice in the matter.
Then came the Great Awakenings. These events and their revivals brought out many new sects such as the Methodists, the Baptist and saw the split of the congregationalist churches into the Unitarians, the Univeralists and what is now known as the United Church of Christ. As I stated above, this is where people started to go to a church to subscribe to an ideology rather than subscribe to a community; except for the congregationalists, which were, and still are, built around community rather than a shared ideology. I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist and I can certainly attest to that spirit. There were those who held the traditional Unitarian point of view, those who were Atheists, those who were more Christian in their approaches, those from a Jewish background looking for a more open community, and those who took a more Eastern philosophy. All were welcome and I was told as a kid, "I don't care what you come to believe; however, we will discuss it with you and even challenge it, but it's still yours." From what I understand, the United Church of Christ is rather like this, albeit more conformist along Christian theology.
This gives me some rather interesting insight into Obama's refusal to dismiss his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright and Obama's comments last Tuesday about this topic. Are we a people who wholly dismiss a person because we disagree with them? Is that the sort of America we want to live in? Do we want to continue to be a divided America or do we want to learn how to live with each other? Obama is advocating a real unity. Not a false unity based on conformity. That's really being a uniter, not a divider. I find his stance courageous and heartening. That's the sort of America I want to live in.