‘Awakening’, by Marilynne Robinson

In an exclusive extract from her new book, the writer considers the bonds between church and state in America
President Barack Obama, Congressman John Lewis and former president George W Bush join hands during a prayer at the commemorations marking 50 years since the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, March 2015

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It is an essential principle of American government and society that there should be a separation of church and state. As with all our essential principles, we argue endlessly about what this means. In eighteenth-century Britain and Europe there were laws that limited the civil rights of subjects who did not conform to the established church. So in America there was to be no established church, and there was to be no religious qualification for public office. State churches in Britain and Europe were subsidised by government. This was not to be true in America, though all the denominations have enjoyed the passive subsidy of tax exemption. In these respects the matter is straightforward enough. Still it is perhaps even truer of our society than of most that religion and public life are inextricably involved. Where most people are religious, where their values or at least their sense of identity are formed by Christian cultural influences, and where government is at least formally popular, it could hardly be otherwise.

For various reasons the bonds between politics and religion have begun to chafe in the last few decades, and not for the first time. Movements that present themselves as religiously motivated have now begun to regard the state as aggressively secular, and as enforcing secularism, precisely in maintaining institutional distance that was meant in the first instance to protect religious freedom. They have begun to regard the state with a hectic moral aversion, and at the same time to meddle in or to stymie public life by asserting a presence in governments national and local. The defence against these movements has often taken the form of a secularism that is contemptuous of religion — religion being for these purposes identical with the unbeautiful phenomenon that now so loudly claims the title for itself. This is a bad turn of events for church and for state, a separation of culture and ethos that truly amounts in certain quarters to deep mutual antagonism. It is a turn things have taken before, as a student of our history would be aware. Whether this fact is reassuring or alarming is hard to know. In any case, we have been reminded again lately how true it is that a small flame can cause a great fire. And that, to complete the allusion, the tongue is a flame.

My country has a relatively brief history, yet it has existed long enough to be patterned with certain recurrences. Owen Lovejoy, who became the close friend and confidant of Abraham Lincoln, was a Congregational minister and a passionate anti-slavery man. In 1842 he gave a sermon deploring the distinction he felt was customarily made between religion and politics. His text was from 2 Samuel: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” Lovejoy said, “My general remark is, that every individual in this country that has arrived at years of discretion, and especially every voter, is responsible for the laws which are enacted and the manner of their execution.” In a republic, he said, every person capable of asserting influence, male or female, as effective ruler, stands under the judgment of God. This view is still widely held in America, if not in precisely these terms, by people on every side of every question. It seems so right in the context Lovejoy gives it, preaching the day before an election in Illinois that would influence policy on the treatment of fugitive slaves. And there is no disputing in any case that the responsibility of the individual citizen is real and grave. But to put it this way is to introduce very stark language into what are after all contending opinions about what is just, or best, even when the issues involved are very grave. Some, in the fear of God, could never knowingly vote against the interests of the poor or of those who suffer discrimination, while others, in the fear of God, are content that the poor should be with us always, and would never vote for marriage equality. The very high standard of responsibility Lovejoy articulates has the effect of making political differences intractable. I will say at the outset that I do not know how this problem can be resolved. I cannot find any slightest inclination in myself to make concessions, precisely because I attach religious value to generous, need I say liberal, social policy. If it would be illiberal and unchristian of me to suppose that divine judgment might be brought down on the United States for grinding the faces of the poor (despite all the great prophet Isaiah has to say on the subject), I take no comfort from the certain knowledge that my opposite is struggling with just the same temptation, though mulling other texts. So, is this order of seriousness, the consequence of the compounded effects of relative democracy and a basically religious habit of mind, on balance stabilising or destabilising, good or bad? There is little point to the question, since these things are so engrained in the culture that they are no doubt our perpetual storm, raging in place like the red spot on Jupiter. If there is a dynamic equilibrium at work here, then it takes its stabilising force from the belief in and expression of views that are opposed. Therefore I can in good conscience put aside my attempts at evenhandedness.

The First and Second Great Awakenings, religious revivals that swept through the midcolonies in the late eighteenth century and the northeastern states in the first third of the nineteenth century, were followed, I have come to realise, by a third awakening in the latter half of the twentieth century, just as I was coming of age. Historians usually treat the earlier awakenings as surges of religious enthusiasm primarily or exclusively, though they are attended by a characteristic cluster of reform movements — enhancements of the status of women, broadening of access to education, mitigations of social and racial inequality. These were consistent even while the demographics of the country changed. The religious and denominational character of the earlier awakenings seems to have been as much a consequence of the old centrality of the churches as centres of civic life as it was a result of their role in stirring religious passion. I hasten to say that in these instances religious passion — and there were occasions of hysteria, fainting fits, visions — led to, and was consistent with, stable and thoughtful social change. The period in the twentieth century I would call the third great awakening was led by the black church, and sooner or later had the support of all the major denominations. But it was not, and is not, understood as an essentially religious movement, though as I have said the distinction between civic and religious is never clear, and was certainly not clear in this case.

The Reverend Martin Luther King spoke in the language of what has been called the American civil religion — “We hold these truths to be self­-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This is explicitly religious language, of course, based on a reading of the creation narratives in Genesis. But it functions as a powerful ethical statement for vast numbers of Americans who have no investment whatever in the authority of Scripture. Thomas Jefferson, that most complicated man who stands at the origins of our most complicated civilisation, happened upon one bold sentence that, in course of time, overturned the society he lived in and the society Dr King lived in, as well. It contains an energy that pushes its meaning far beyond his probable intentions, with the result, for example, that my life is vastly different from my mother’s, as hers was from her mother’s.

The sobering truth is, however, that these reform movements fall back. They exhaust themselves and trivialise themselves. The Second Great Awakening spent its last energies on cults and health fads and spirit photography. The awakening of my youth spun off into cults and drugs and health fads. The positive content of these movements tends to disappear except in the obverse image they impress on the reactions against them. There is comfort to be found in the fact that they are more expansive in each iteration. There is discomfort to be found in the fact that the baseline from which they begin is always inexplicably low. America had fine colleges integrated by race and gender decades before the Civil War. I saw the same integration occur in my own youth, as if it were an experiment never tried before. On every side the relevant history had slid into oblivion in the strictest sense of that word. In America the demographics and even the geographics of reform and reaction are relatively straightforward in the moments of change. But it is the collapse of the reformist side that punctuates our history decisively. The pattern is most strikingly apparent in our racial history. I know causes of the Civil War are widely disputed, but I have been reading the speeches and papers of leaders of the Confederacy, and for them the point at issue was slavery. Slavery plain and simple. They drew up a constitution very like the national Constitution, except in its explicit protections of slavery. Their defence of their sacred institutions means the defence of slavery. Their definition of states’ rights means their insistence on their right to bring this “species of property” into states that did not acknowledge it, and to make these states enforce their claims on such “property” without reference to their traditions, to their own laws, or to their right to protect their own citizens. The North did not start the war, but the issue that erupted in war had been smouldering for generations, and the issue was slavery. That the point is still disputed seems to me now a lingering effect of reformist collapse, since it is among academics, who notoriously self­-identify as liberals, that the question has currency. The immediate and vastly more important consequence of this collapse was the emergence after the war of the near-­slavery called Jim Crow. This system emerged most strongly in the South, but it influenced law and practice throughout the country, buttressed by eugenics theories and “racial science”, which were taken as real science in those same religious and intellectual circles that had been passionately antislavery decades before.

I was in high school and college when the civil rights movement emerged. That was a very troubled time, and it was for me a deeply important education. I came from a strongly conservative background. I can truly say that I was schooled in generosity and optimism by the great movements of that period. I understood them as an essential America bursting the bonds that had distorted and constrained it. We hold these truths to be self­-evident. Nothing has ever persuaded me to think less of these movements or otherwise about them. Therefore the fact that they seem sometimes to be at risk of following precursor movements into collapse and oblivion alarms and appals me. The word “liberal” has been effectively stigmatised, as the word “abolitionist” was and is. As if generosity were culpable. As if there were some more reasonable response to slavery than to abolish it. As I write, the Voting Rights Act is being challenged before the Supreme Court. If American civil religion can be said to have a congregation, I was a member in good standing — until certain shifts became apparent in the meaning and effect of religion in America. These changes made me realise that I had indeed allowed my culture to instruct me in my religion — to my benefit, during a period that was singularly worthy of the confidence I placed in it. This is to say, it was worthy as other periods, quite reliably, are not. I am not suggesting that this change is irremediable, irrevocable. Americans are always looking for trends and projecting them forward to their extremest possible consequences, as if there were no correctives or countervailing forces. “The crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But trends can be counted on to reverse themselves. I take much comfort from this fact.

Still, in the last few decades a profound, if relative, change has taken place in American society. No doubt as a consequence of a recent vogue for feeling culturally embattled, the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic. On one hand I do not wish to overstate the degree to which these two uses of the word “Christian” are mutually exclusive, and on the other hand I think it would be a very difficult thing to overstate how deeply incompatible they can be. This drift is the American version of a phenomenon that is clearly widespread throughout old Christendom. A ferocious secularism can carry on its internecine wars under the names Catholic and Protestant. Notional Christians can align themselves against actual Muslims in defence of European culture and civilisation, which are based on a system of belief that is no longer believed, and are therefore under a severer threat than any they could face from a competing religion. History has shown us a thousand variations on the temptations that come with tribalism, the excitements that stir when certain lines are seen as important because they can be rather clearly drawn. This is old humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.

What is at stake in these great struggles? Very few of us know enough about a religion that is not our own to venture any judgment about its place in the cosmic scheme. We cannot know how another faith is felt by its real adherents, the peace or the sense of rightness or truth it brings to them in its own terms, by its own means. Even to broach the subject is to ac­knowledge the depth of the mystery that surrounds culture and consciousness. I used the word “truth,” referring only to in­ward assent. A Muslim might say, God is merciful, and feel she has uttered an indubitable truth. A Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew might say, and deeply feel, that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. With these words Abraham Lincoln anchored the argument that the suffering of the North in the American Civil War — they had lost two soldiers for every one the South lost — was deserved because of Northern complicity in the system of slavery. His meaning was that this suffering was not to be avenged as a grievance against an adversary. It was instead to be accepted as affirming the impartial justice of God. Insofar as Lincoln’s words were taken to express an indubitable truth, the terrible war came to a less terrible and more final conclusion than civil wars generally do, granting as I must that it has not really ended yet. Granting that I do not now foresee circumstances that will end it. Granting, indeed, that in recent years its embers have been flaring up rather brightly. For the moment the words “secession” and “nullification” have currency.

The world is cruel and God is merciful. The sword draws blood on every side and God is righteous altogether. The great religions are counterstatements made against a reality that does not affirm them with much consistency at all. This can only have been truer in any earlier century, when life was more brutal than we in the West can readily imagine. The temptation has always been to hold affirmations of this kind up to given reality and then declare the two of them irreconcilable, the faith statements therefore unsustainable, weighed and wanting. This is to deny the ethical meaning of such affirmations. Sigmund Freud said we cannot love our neighbour as ourselves. No doubt this is true. But if the reality that lies behind the commandment, that our neighbour is as worthy of love as ourselves, and that in acting on this fact we would be stepping momentarily out of the bog of our subjectivity, then a truth is acknowledged in the commandment that gives it greater authority than mere experience can refute. There is a truth that lies beyond our capacities. Our capacities are no standard or measure of truth, no ground of ethical understanding.

I have written more than a thousand words and not mentioned Calvin once, except implicitly. Lincoln spoke in Calvinist language to a population it might have been meaningful at the time to call Calvinist, as the historians generally do. He says, Accept suffering with humility. Both suffering and humility will serve you. This apparent fatalism is actually confidence that life is shaped by divine intention, which will express itself in ways that can be baffling or alarming but that always bring an insight, pose a question, or make a demand, to the benefit of those who are alert to the will of God. The activism, even radicalism, of this tradition is inscribed very deeply on modern and American history. At the same time it was characterised by a striking inwardness, based on an immediate, an unmediated, conversation between the Lord and the individual soul. God’s language in his discourse with humankind was taken to be experience, personal and historical, intellectual and sensory, emotional. All this yielded some good novels and some fine poetry. It created a number of excellent universities. I put it in the past tense because I no longer see much trace of it in American culture. Perhaps I am too close to the situation to be a reliable judge.

I am not speaking here of our changed demographics. When I say Calvinism has faded, I am speaking of the uncoerced abandonment by the so-called mainline churches of their own origins, theology, culture, and tradition. I have spent most of my life in Presbyterian and Congregational churches, and I was well into middle age before I made the connection of these traditions with Calvin, though I had heard any number of times in other contexts about the all-­pervading influence of this theology. What has taken the place of Calvinism in the mainline churches? With all due respect, not much.

I apologise. There are countless good souls in the mainline churches. No other tradition interests or attracts me. But through the whole of my experience I have had the sense that these churches were backpedaling, were evading, at last very effectively, the influence cultural history would have given them. I am sure they were wrong about some things, like all other churches. But I envy a time when an American president could speak as candidly as Lincoln did, and remind us that whom God loveth he also chastiseth, our adversaries and ourselves equally. That we must love our enemies because God loves them. Say what you will about “the Calvinist God”, he is not an imaginary friend. Nor is he entangled in any sort of one-­to-­one relationship to human expectations. I don’t know whether it is time or history or Calvin that has left me so profoundly convinced of the importance of human fallibility, and so struck by its peculiar character. But I wouldn’t mind hearing the word “sin” once in a while. If the word is spoken now it is likely to be in one of those lately bold and robust big churches who are obsessed with sins Jesus never mentioned at all. On the testimony of the prophets, social injustice is the great sin — according to Ezekiel the reason for the destruction of Sodom. Oh, well. The Old Testament is so, you know, Calvinist.

Then again, all the theologies are fading away. America was populated in its early years by people seeking religious freedom. This is our way of saying that the early settlers were refugees from the wars of religion, and then from the suppression of dissent that followed outright war. In light of the fact that our ancestors were the belligerents on every side, oppressed and oppressors depending on circumstance, our religious traditions have gotten along remarkably well. We have spent four hundred years getting used to each other, making accommodations, and we have done so fairly successfully. In the course of achieving this general amity we have virtually erased all sense of the history that gave rise to our many denominations. It is a bitter history, in some ways well forgotten, even though it entails losses we would regret if we were aware of them. As one consequence denominations themselves are fading away. The theological coherency developed over the centuries within the denominations, each one in its own way, created a vocabulary of thought, a literature of hymns and prayers and testimony, that gave its adherents the means to conceive of the divine and of humankind. I assume they were all wrong and right in important ways, richer for the light they shone on one another in the very fact of their differences.

The religious monoculture we seem to be tending toward now is not a neutral averaging of the particularities of all the major traditions. It is very much marked by its cultural moment, when the whole focus is on “personal salvation”, on “accepting Jesus as your Lord and Saviour”. Theologically speaking, the cosmos has contracted severely. The simple, central, urgent pressure to step over the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and after this the right, even the obligation, to turn and judge that great sinful world the redeemed have left behind — this is what I see as the essential nature of the emerging Christianity. Those who have crossed this line can be outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciations of anyone else. Somehow in their eyes this does not make them hypocrites, a word that for Jesus clearly had a particular sting. And no, this is not Calvinism. Calvin would have called it salvation by works, which for him was anathema. As corollary, his famous predestinarianism forbade the passing of judgment, since such matters must be left to God’s inscrutable will. Max Weber saw anxiety in Protestants’ — he meant Calvinists’ — uncertainty about their own salvation. There are worse things than uncertainty, presumption being one.

So, we have an element newly prominent in American religious and political life, a new form of entitlement, a self-­declared elect. What some have seen as a resurgence of Christianity, or at least a bold defence of American cultural tradition — even as another great awakening! — has brought a harshness, a bitterness, a crudeness, and a high-­handedness into the public sphere that are only to be compared to the politics, or the collapse of politics, in the period before the Civil War. Its self-­righteousness fuels the damnedest things — I use the word advisedly — notably the acquisition of homicidal weapons. I wonder what these supposed biblicists find in the Gospels or the Epistles that could begin to excuse any of it.

Well, life is full of surprises. I thought I knew more about American Christian culture than I did. When Martin Luther King was preaching to us all, there was a strong enough sensitivity among the public to the language he spoke in to stir deep assent, the recognition of truth in what he said that made the reality he spoke from and to appear as it was, mean and false. But he was a reverend doctor after all, learned in the difficult disciplines of historic Christianity, brought up in the richness of the black church. His educational attainments would no doubt disqualify him from respectful attention in certain quarters now, as President Obama’s do him.

I still see the best impulses of the country expressed in its politics, and its worst impulses as well, the worst abetted by self-­declared Christians, the best holding their own despite what seems to be silence and passivity on the part of those who might make the Christian case for them. Many have noted that the media do not find reasonable people interesting. Over time this has surely had a distorting effect. Nevertheless, the mainline churches, which are the liberal churches, in putting down the burden of educating their congregations in their own thought and history, have left them inarticulate. Christianity is stigmatised among the young as a redoubt of ignorance, an obstacle to the humane aspirations of the civilisation. The very generosity and idealism of young people is turning them away. I know this is not unique to America. But there appears to me to be a dynamic at work that is new for us, a polarisation of the good on one side and the religious on the other, which will be a catastrophe for American Christianity. And it will be an appalling deprivation on every side of the great body of art and thought and ethical profundity that has been so incalculable an enrichment of all our lives. Can a culture be said to survive when it has rejected its heritage? Every defence of Christianity is nonsense while in one way or another its loyalists are busy cutting it off at the root. I’m speaking here of the partisans who use it to put a lacquer of righteousness over fearfulness and resentment, and I’m speaking here of the seminaries that make a sort of Esperanto of world religions and transient pieties, a non-­language articulate in no vision that anyone can take seriously.

I have mentioned the qualitative difference between Christianity as an ethic and Christianity as an identity. Christian ethics go steadfastly against the grain of what we consider human nature. The first will be last; to him who asks give; turn the other cheek; judge not. Identity, on the other hand, appeals to a constellation of the worst human impulses. It is worse than ordinary tribalism because it assumes a more than virtuous us on one side, and on the other a them who are very doubtful indeed, who are, in fact, a threat to all we hold dear. Western civilisation is notoriously inclined to idealise itself, so it is inclined as well to forget how recently it did and suffered enormities because it insisted on distinctions of just this kind. If the claims to Christian identity we hear now are rooted in an instinctive tribalism, they are entirely inappropriate, certainly uninformed, because in its nature the religion they claim has no boundaries, no shibboleths, no genealogies or hereditary claimants.

However sound our credentials seem, we have it on good authority that the prostitutes and sinners might well enter heaven before us. It is difficult to respond to this assurance with a heartfelt amen if one has found comfort in despising people in whom our eponymous Christ clearly finds great value. In the seventh chapter of Matthew there is a text I have never heard anyone preach on. There Jesus says that in the last day “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me’.” It is for Christ to decide who the Christians are, who has in fact done the will of his Father.

I have recourse here to chapter and verse to make the point that all the praying on street corners, or, in contemporary terms, all the making of elaborate claims for one’s special piety on cable channels, and, heaven help us, at political events, might be evidence of an upsurge of enthusiasms that assume the colouration of religion for purposes that are not, strictly speaking, terribly religious. People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he might not also shout, “Give us Barabbas!”

But, understandable or not, a mistake is still a mistake. And its consequences can be very grave indeed. For some time there have been interests intent on legitimising bad ideas by creating an atmosphere around them that simulates mass passion — distrust or resentment or rage as the manufactured outcry of a virtual populace. These are not conditions in which religion is likely to retain its character as religion. Once, in a discussion of the passage in Ephesians where Paul speaks of “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” a woman in the audience, making a two-handed figure eight in the air, said: “But if you have a sword, you’re supposed to smite somebody.” Where to begin. But it is just this kind of slippage, of the figurative into the literal, of affection for the traditions of Christianity into hostility toward those who are known or assumed not to share them, that makes the religion the opposite of itself. Does the word “stranger”, the word “alien”, ever have a negative connotation in Scripture? No. Are the poor ever the object of any­thing less than God’s loving solicitude? No. Do the politics of those who claim a special fealty to the Bible align themselves with its teachings in these matters? No, they do not, not in con­temporary America, certainly. We have been hearing a lot about “takers” lately. True, this interpretation of the social order sent a thrill of revulsion through enough of us to doom a candidacy. But those Americans who use the word as if it actually describes something are disproportionately self-identified as Christians.

Inevitably, this is how Christianity has come to be understood by a great many good people who have no better instruction in it than they receive from ranters and politicians. Under such circumstances it is only to their credit that they reject it. Though I am not competent to judge in such matters, it would not surprise me at all to learn in any ultimate reckoning that these “nones” as they are called, for the box they check when asked their religion, are better Christians than the Christians. But they have not been given the chance even to reject the beautiful, generous heritage that might otherwise have come to them. The learned and uncantankerous traditions seem, as I have said, to have fallen silent, to have retreated within their walls to dabble in feckless innovation and to watch their numbers dwindle. A recent article in The New York Times reported that the mainline traditions were actually gaining ground, relative to the so-called fundamentalists. The article concluded by quoting a professor in a mainline seminary to the effect that they spent a great deal of their time trying to adapt the methods of the fundamentalists to their own purposes. This I do truly believe. I would expect this to be the case for the next few decades, so that they and fundamentalism can lose the interest of the populace together. We poor dwellers in history. To what can our situation be compared? Only to earlier history.

Recurrences, atavisms, are by no means uniquely, or even especially, an American phenomenon. What are we to do? Prayer would be appropriate, and reflection. We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us about our blindnesses and predilections. The haunting fact is that we are morally free. If everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, it is only probable, never necessary, that some of us join in. Since we have not yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that are uniquely our gift. If we are making the last testament to the nature of human life, or if we are only one more beleaguered generation in a series whose end we cannot foresee, each of us and all of us know what human beauty would look like. We could let it have its moment. Fine, but would this solve the world’s problems? It might solve a good many of them, I think.

Copyright © 2015 by Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne Robinson’s ‘The Givenness of Things’ is published next week by Virago in the UK and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US

Photograph: Tami Chappell/Reuters

Letter in response to this article:

Salvation: the belief at the heart of the Calvinist approach / From Christopher Robbins

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