It remains to be seen how religious we are

July 2, 2011 in How do you explain 'America the Religious'?, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Steve Montgomery

As we prepare to celebrate July 4, studies show that the wealthier a country is, the less important religion is to that country. The ONE EXCEPTION is the United States of America.

Our question to you this week: Why?

Drawing on your life, your work and your time here in Memphis, how do you explain America the Religious?

I suppose my first question in response to the question before us is “What does it mean to be religious?”  Does “being religious” guarantee any concern for the common good?  Does it simply mean attendance at some kind of worship service a given number of days a year?  Does it mean professing a certain affirmation or belief? 

Both the prophets of the Hebrew Testament and Jesus himself warned against limiting one’s faith expression to ritual.  Amos chastized the followers of the one God who only cared about “solemn assemblies” and “burnt offerings and sacrifices;”  even music — “the noise of your songs,” because through all they neglected the really important things that make for a “religious” life: “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

And Jesus himself said that it was not enough to call him “Lord, Lord,” but only those who “do the will of my Father” will enter the kingdom of heaven.

So though we might see ourselves as a “religious” nation, or view Memphis as a “religious” city, it remains to be seen just how “religious” we truly are. A quick glance at efforts in Congress to balance the budget on the backs of those whom Christ called “the least of these, our brothers and sisters” could cause Amos to shudder and Jesus to weep as he did when he entered the city of Jerusalem “because they did not know the things that make for peace.”

And when one considers the threat that “religious” people pose in limiting or denying fundamental rights through state legislatures for gays, Muslims, or “aliens and sojourners,” one has to question if religion is pleasing to God or if Marx was right, that it simply is “an opiate of the people.”

It was a grand experiment that our forebears undertook 235 years ago. Those founders of the Republic — most of them believers in God, knew that belief in a sovereign God translates into respect for the individual and individual conscience, which means that at our best, people of faith stand for a society in which individuals are to be protected, nurtured, and cared for, and that because God is sovereign and all people are children of God, there are no unimportant people, no throw away people.

That would truly be “America the Beautiful,” and “America the Religious!”