Believers, Uniting

The religions of the world, it seems, are largely in agreement;
They’re seeing different facets of one God
Not long ago, faiths disagreed on what, exactly, “we” meant
So this putative agreement just seems odd.

Religions had their enemies (and likely always will)
But their foes are vastly different now (we checked)
While interfaith “believers” have one message to instill
Through their histories, they’ve battled other sects!

Why, the Catholic’s bitter enemies were Methodists, at first,
Till the Baptists formed a bigger, badder foe
While today we see the atheists among the very worst
Were the godless problematic then? Well, no.

Cos the Christians fought the Christians (and the Muslims and the Jews)
And the atheists were folks you never met
But what could hammer unity from once-opposing views?
Is it possible the godless are a threat?

I’ve written before of my personal experience with what once appeared to be a bunch of separate religious views seeming to change over time to come together in a common cause (whether for political gain or to oppose atheism, I can’t say). Today, my aggregator throws at me an essay describing the same phenomenon over the past centuries of American religions. The essay speaks of the phenomenon as the effect of a religious free market, where competition among producers of religion for the limited consumers of religion was fierce:

The nineteenth century saw a fervor of religious inspiration, entrepreneurship, and frantic competition. In 1800, most Americans belonged to no church or denomination; many others were only nominally committed to the stuffy and stern established churches of several states.

But now, a host of young, energetic, and plain-speaking preachers evangelized all across the country for new denominations like the Methodist Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and dissident Baptists.

The Catholic Church, rooted in a continent where people were born into a faith and never left it, was shocked by the competition. One priest dispatched to Maryland complained in 1821, “There are Swarms of false teachers [Methodist preachers] all through the Country, in every School house, in every private house—you hear nothing but night meetings, Class meetings, love feasts &c &c.”

Historian of religion Martin Marty described “a competition in which the fittest survived,” one in which backwoods ministers found that their “first enemy was neither the devil nor the woman but the Baptist” – or any number of evangelists. (Later in the century, even atheists came together in formal association.)

I won’t quote more–it’s a really nice read, though, and while not a huge surprise (given the Bartonian mythology of America’s early years, though, it’s probably a huge surprise to someone), it’s refreshing to see.

Only just last week I was reading something about “the overall message of all religions”, which seemed a bit of a desperate attempt to gather allies, at the expense of historical accuracy. I guess it always seemed to me a bit of an insult, to have the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door claim common ground with other Christians, with Muslims, Jews, and others, when trying to show how reasonable and commonplace belief is. I mean, if there is such agreement, why the various sects? These are differences that once merited banishment from a state, or discrimination in the workplace, or war–how is it that now you all believe the same warm, fuzzy things?

I don’t have an answer. If wishing worked, I’d find indisputable evidence that the great coming-together was a reaction to the growing threat of atheism. But it could be simple political pragmatism, and the functional equivalent of coalition-building. Or maybe each religion is evolving… Nah.


  1. says

    Great post! This is something I have been struggling to write about since last year. Is it simple political pragmatism or coalition-building? I think yes, absolutely – first and foremost.

    Conservatives were galvanized by the civil rights and women’s movements in the 60s and 70s. Religion has always been the tool of patriarchy so it was the natural choice for rallying support to drive women and “other” people back down where they “belong”. But to do it, they had to smooth over the sectarian differences. I think that is why the term non-denominational “Christian” became a thing.

    In my generation, if anyone asked, you would reply that you were a Catholic or a Methodist or a Lutheran or a Baptist. The Christian part was given. But that identification did not suit the goals of those trying to form a united front against social progress – hence the push for church planting – mega churches and non-denominational Christian churches. I remember being mystified by that “I’m a Christian” talk when I first heard it in the 70s. But now I see that the idea was to do away with the older group identities which kept conservatives divided into separate – rival – entities.

    But also church is big business. Drive through the southeast (small town, byways off the interstate) and just observe how many small businesses churches there are. In many places, churches are the only businesses in town. It’s horrible to pass run down houses, boarded up businesses and poverty everywhere, but a church on every block and often well-manicured church estates just outside of the town limits. It reminds me of blood sucking leeches – sucking the life blood (and life savings) out of these struggling communities and as the towns die, the churches get fatter and richer. Many young “preachers” aspire to the wealth and power of a Billy Graham or a Joel Osteen just like many a business student aspires to be the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. But the church “career” is a whole lot easier and doesn’t require a college degree – on those rural byways, you will also see signs pointing to small “seminaries” – start your own church! Even those who don’t achieve the success of a Rick Warren will very likely be able to earn a living sucking the community dry.

    I actually believe it is a good idea to challenge conservatives on just what flavor of Christianity they expect to see in a USA formally made subject to “Biblical” law, as many right wingers want. Most don’t like to think about that too much, but if pressed will express the expectation that the flavor will be their own – and are uncomfortable when reminded that it is very likely NOT to be their own flavor of Christianity. I think throwing out reminders of the reasons why even religious people supported separation of church and state in the early days of this country’s existence might be helpful.

  2. says

    I remember being mystified by that “I’m a Christian” talk when I first heard it in the 70s. But now I see that the idea was to do away with the older group identities which kept conservatives divided into separate – rival – entities.

    That should read “when I first heard it in the 80’s” not 70’s. I don’t remember noticing it in the 70s , but did begin to notice it more in the 80s.

  3. Randomfactor says

    Shame Tom Lehrer’s out of the satire business. He should update “National Brotherhood Week:”

    “….and everbody hates the Nones.”

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