Does God Bless America?
When listening to Christian radio, I have heard the claim that good is a Christian trait, that the positive traits of our culture arose from its Christian roots. Recently 'God Bless America' has become a common theme of many (especially after 9/11/2001), giving the impression that some believe America is blessed by God. I take issue with these claims. Admittedly our culture has great Judeo-Christian influence. However I do not agree that the positive traits to be found in our American culture have direct linkage to that influence or that God smiles on America.
The Christian religions are based on the Bible and, to a great extent, how the apostle Paul (who had never met Jesus) interpreted the life of Jesus. Prior to Paul, the Jewish people were the primary readers of the Bible, as much of it was a written history of the people. Paul's primary audience were non-Jews and the Christian religion is very separate from the Jewish religion even though they have a common basis in the Old Testament. (Actually the Islamic religion also shares this same heritage, as characters such as Abraham are also important to that religion.)
The Bible describes the history of the Jewish people from their perspective. In the present day, our perspective on the Bible is very different. There were other literate peoples in the world two millennia ago. The Greeks, the Egyptians and the Babylonians, among others, were major civilizations of the time. The Americas also possessed significant cultures, including the Incas and their ancestors. Studies of the Egyptians mummies have found materials that can be found only in the Americas so trade between the continents across the Atlantic preceded the life of Jesus.
Major civilizations existed in the Far East as well, including China. Confucius, a very influential philosopher in Chinese history, actually lived around the time of Jesus. Some scholars (including Alan Watts, whose works that I have read are listed elsewhere) have pointed out that some of the teachings of Jesus can be interpreted as describing a religious experience, and are thereby related to similar expressions found in some of the Eastern religions.
Other scholars have described the cultures, religions and morals of many different cultures of the world present during the time of Jesus. Cultures that preceded and succeeded those have also been studied. I have never read any scholar claim that the early Christians were far different than others, where they were far 'better' or possessing 'higher morals' than any other culture. However the Christian religion shares something special with the Islamic religion - both are non-Jewish religions based on the writings of early Jewish history.
As the Catholic Church transitioned from an immature, persecuted religion to a mainstream religion aligned with the major European cultural and military force (thereby forming the 'Holy' Roman Empire), the conduct of the Christian rulers could be seen in retrospect as more 'evil' than 'good.' The Church rulers were the instigators of the Holy Crusades (the invasion of Palestine at the turn of the first millennium with the goal of taking the 'holy' lands from the Islamic residents) and the Albigensian Crusade (the massacre of thousands of people in Southern France in the 13th century). The Church rulers were also the enforcers of their view of the world. Those that disagreed, like Bruno (who was killed) and Galileo (who had to recant his scientific discoveries), had to suffer the consequences. The Spanish Inquisition (when Spain became a significant Christian force to counteract the Reformation) also participated in these activities that sought to ensure conformance by persecuting those that dared to offer a different view or opinion. The Church rulers knew what was 'right' so anyone that disagreed was 'wrong' and had to be silenced.
It is no coincidence that while Europe was barely surviving its Dark Ages, where higher learning was dissuaded since the Church knew 'all', other cultures in the world thrived, including the Islamic culture, that in China, and several in the Americas (the Mayan culture was at its peak before the Middle Ages). Only after the Reformation broke the hold of the Church did the European culture begin to advance again, in the European Renaissance. After all, some Europeans had been taught that the Earth was flat while the ancient Egyptians knew the world was round and in fact an Egyptian scientist had even calculated its circumference within 5% of the actual value.
Christians taking credit for the good in our present society is very misleading. That claim denies both the history of Christianity and the evolution of our Western society. The history of Christianity has had its highs and lows, like that of any other culture. Our present Western culture is the result of many influences, which Christianity has had a part but it is not the sole influence. To assert that Christianity is at the root of our culture is typically part of the same argument that we are moved by God's will.
The most ancient societies probably had barbaric rituals but at the same time the common morals and values had to be aligned with the perpetuation of the culture. Any culture that tolerated killing or stealing could not prosper, just because such acts would destroy the community if left unpunished.
The Ten Commandments are often portrayed as God's rules for our behavior, so that we are 'good' and not 'bad.' They are really just the basic rules for any community to survive. They apply to any culture. The story of Moses getting them from God on a cloud-shrouded mountaintop reeks of mythology rather than fact. Since God is supernatural, he has no physical form. The myth indicates that either
1) Moses made the tablets himself (or with the help of others) to bring together his people that was in religious disarray and the mythical cloud conferred the presence of 'God' (who lived high in the heavens (a.k.a., Saturn) or perhaps near the top of the highest mountains) on the transaction or
2) an extraterrestrial civilization visited Moses and passed on these rules of behavior to the humans and the clouds hid their space ship. I definitely prefer the first alternative to the second.
The 'good' and the 'bad' to be found in any culture is the result of that culture's evolution. A good example is the current situation of the Islamic religion and culture. Many years ago, when Europe was in disarray, the Islamic culture thrived due to its trade routes with Europe and Asia, and take credit for several advances in math and science, including the concept of hospitals. In the last century, the Islamic culture has become connected with violence and terrorism (as on 9/11/2001), while the countries dominated by Islam are not part of the group of countries that possess either advanced economies or technologies. The Islamic religion had been founded by Mohammed to bring together the Arabic tribes and became a dominant cultural force in the first millennium. Now many of its leaders seek to destroy opposing cultures.
Similarly, the Western cultures (of Europe and the Americas) have transitioned from the barbarians of Roman times, through the Dark Ages and then the Renaissance, to the Industrial Revolution. The extreme practices of the business barons of the 19th century (e.g., preying on the low wage working class; alternately the blacks and then the Chinese were slave labor) fostered possible solutions, including Marxism, Socialism and Communism. However the benefits of a capitalistic democratic society, where personal ambition in business is rewarded while the common good must take precedence over the profits of only a few, has resulted in its taking root in many countries and cultures.
Sometimes, I hear that our nation's founding fathers based this country on Christian principles. This is an odd claim since our government structure is the antithesis of a Christian hierarchy. It is based on checks and balances within a democracy. People that have been democratically elected pass the laws (the legislatures), another set of people enforce the laws (the judiciary) while a third set of people try to set the course for the country (the executive branch). Since the fundamental Christian principles imply that God has the master plan and we should follow his rules, a dictatorship (where a single person establishes himself as the ruler) or a monarchy (where a single family maintains control through its offspring) would be the form of government that follows that pattern most closely. Monarchies have been very common in the major European countries of the past few hundred years. Our country is based on the basic principle that its people will establish and enforce their own laws, in accordance of the basic human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution and its Bill of Rights lay the foundation for the subsequent generations but the Founding Fathers could see that changes to this foundation had to be accommodated, hence the Amendments to the Constitution. The United States of America is truly special among countries formed by that generation, not because this country is blessed by God but because the democratic government allows us to rule ourselves without any reliance on Divine Guidance (which is called a theocracy but in practice is often a dictatorship or the like, where one person or a small group declare they are divinely guided or are otherwise special). The American form of government is special because the American people set the rules, enforce the rules and live by the rules. Other forms of government place one or more of these roles in small groups of people.
After reviewing the history of our American culture, that America has weathered attacks from within (like the American Civil War and the civil rights movement) and from outside (two world wars and quite a few lesser conflicts in just the last 100 years), our 'goodness' is the result of the evolution of our national community, not as a result of God's will.
Also, the concept of God's will implies that everything is done by God and we are passive participants. This belief, that is often asserted by Christian fundamentalists, has fallen on hard times with the events of 9/11/2001. The actions taken within our global community are the result of those instigators, not as a result of a Master Plan. God is supposedly responsible for all that is good (and Satan gets credit for the evil) but if God has control of all events then God must be responsible for the heartless murders of innocent people. I have heard many people on Christian radio wrestle with this dilemma but none have an adequate answer. The reason is the belief is irrational, as it denies that people have any responsibility for their actions but assumes that people (apparently lacking in free will) act only in accordance with God's plan. The terrorist acts occurred because the terrorists planned and executed the acts. They are responsible for the murders, not God (or perhaps the Devil - an even stranger assignment of responsibility beyond humanity!).
As is discussed on other pages in this site, God is the 'wizard behind the curtain' that performs deeds that cannot be explained. As our cultures have become socially and technologically advanced, soon the ancient myths that still have much influence must be abandoned, just as our childhood stories of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are dropped when we reach adolescence. The religious myths that still dominate much of our culture have also survived far too long.
The opinions that our culture is following God's will or that we are somehow God's chosen people are dangerous. They are divisive; they serve to split our community on religious grounds and to split our world on the basis of who is chosen and who is not. There are even arguments on whether the God of Jesus is the God of Mohammed (that I have heard on Chuck Colson's Breakpoint) - even though both religions have an obvious common heritage.
If there really were a God with all these religions that profess theirs is the only true religion then God is playing a rather dangerous game with humanity. It is as if a league of three (or more) sports teams was formed by a single common owner and each team is told that they are the chosen team, not the others. These teams then continually battle to see who will win. The game results in the destruction of all teams since there is only competition, no cooperation. In this scenario, I am hard pressed to see a loving God; I see only one that plays with human emotions, resulting in human suffering not salvation.
We need to acknowledge our human social nature and that our communities and religions have evolved from our heritage and historical experiences and are not driven by an unseen supernatural force. When this social nature is accepted and is used for the context for international strategies, I believe that mankind can get past its current predicament of being on the verge of its own self-destruction. We are all in this together, bound by our nature as a social being, and our future depends solely on our own actions, not on an undisclosed master plan (of God).
created - Feb. 2002
last change - 7/12/2002
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