Nation, Under God, Divisible
March 26, 2002
By Ernest Partridge
It is such a great blessing to live in this free country!
You have the right to worship God in your way,
And I have the right to worship God in His way .
What are we doing from morning to night,
but setting up our own fancies as a measure
of all heaven and earth and saying, each in
his own dialect, Whig, Tory, Radical,
Papist or Protestant, "When it pleases Heaven
to open your eyes, you will see as I do."
"Who are you to disagree with God Almighty, the Creator of
That daunting rebuke was thrown at me some thirty years ago
by an evangelical minister, as we argued on "the Long John
Nebel" radio talk show, in New York City. It was neither the
first nor the last time that I was so challenged. No doubt,
most of us have heard such a rebuke, and more than a few of
us have spoken it.
I believe that the point at issue was the doctrine of salvation
through acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's personal savior.
It could just as well have been the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy
My reply, as I recall, was "it would never occur to me to
disagree with God Almighty, were I assured that I was hearing
the voice of God Himself. But all that I am hearing at this
table, Reverend, is your voice. And as we both know, there
is no shortage of individuals who totally disagree with you,
and yet claim that they, not you, are preaching God's eternal
History provides an unending chronicle of ruthless suppression
of "your error" in behalf of "God's truth" (the latter in
exclusive possession of "me and my faction"). "My way" (i.e.
God's way) "or no way!" We see this today in Northern Ireland,
Kosovo, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and
Unless we are vigilant, we will see it in the United States.
The harbingers are abundant and clear. For example, in the
abortion controversy, the "pro-choice" position (which has
never advocated mandatory abortions) is opposed by "pro-life"
advocates (who insists upon forcing women to continue pregnancies
they wish to terminate). Conservative Christians have repeatedly
attempted to prevent the teaching of evolution in the public
schools, while it never occurs to the scientist to forbid
the teaching of creationism in the churches. (Scientists have,
however, successfully resisted the attempt to introduce creationism
into the public schools as a "science," which virtually all
scientists and the Courts agree it is not). Finally, the Lord's
wrath, we are told, will be loosed upon our country if we
do not restore prayer in the public schools, thus requiring,
once again, that some children hear or even utter prayers
to a Deity that they and their parents do not recognize.
About sports, musical and artistic tastes, and even politics,
individuals can amicably "agree to disagree." After all, the
other fellow is a human being like ourselves, and equal before
the law, and who's to say, he may just know something that
But when it comes to matters of religion, the other fellow,
we are told, is not simply disagreeing with "us," he is at
odds with the Lord God Almighty Himself, and his soul is in
danger of hellfire. And that sort of "error" has no rights.
Few pause to consider that "the other fellow" just might
have a mirror-image view of things, whereby he is confident
that he holds that ticket to Paradise, while the rest of us
are unwitting minions of Satan.
And it is just this kind of bifurcation of humanity into
two groups - the "enlightened elect" ("our" group, of course),
and all those others - that sanctions wars and ethnic conflicts
and which, if we are not all duly cautious, might turn this
blessed nation into an Ulster, a Kosovo, or a West Bank.
A belief that the Lord God favors our religious community
above all others, can lead to some truly bizarre, and, I suggest,
morally outrageous, beliefs and behavior. Examples are abundant
in history, literature, and even the current news reports.
However, I prefer to state a case from my own experience.
I was raised in an authoritarian-exclusive Christian religion
(never mind which). One of the practices of this group was
a regular recitation of "faith-promoting stories" of God's
personal blessings upon the "True Believers." One day, when
I was in my early teens, a very intelligent, well-educated
corporate attorney, a man of absolute and uncompromising faith,
told us of the time that he was scheduled to present a report
to his company. On the night before the presentation, as he
was hard at work on the report, and with about a half-hour
of work remaining he ran into a "wall" of fatigue. Desperate,
he fell to his knees and prayed the Lord God to help him.
He reported that a great peace fell over him, and that he
was led to understand that if he retired immediately, he would
awake refreshed in the morning with the energy and presence
of mind to complete the assignment. So great was his faith,
along with his wish not to disturb his wife, that he didn't
set the alarm clock, and sure enough, he awoke early and completed
the report "as promised."
Everyone in the congregation was duly impressed and their
faith validated by this story.
And then, I began to reflect on it. By back-dating to the
approximate time of this divine intervention, I figured that
it was contemporaneous with the time that millions of European
Jews were being led into the Nazi gas chambers - a time when
mothers and fathers were praying to the Lord of Israel to
spare, if not themselves, then their children.
Tragically, as we all know, these prayers were unanswered.
Even so, I was asked to believe that at that same time the
Almighty Creator of the Universe saw fit to deliver, like
a night clerk at a motel, a wake-up call to our worthy friend,
for the greater good of his employer.
This was not the message that the Lord gave to Job "out of
Due, in part, to such "faith-promoting stories" as this,
my childhood faith soon began to unravel, and I eventually
went off to college to become a philosopher.
I submit that such tales are not atypical of "true believers"
of exclusive religious organizations. For example, Pat Robertson
claims that the power of prayer altered the path of a hurricane
that was headed toward his home and college. He did not explain
why the individuals victimized by this holy diversion, deserved
their suffering and losses. Similarly, Jerry Fallwell proposed
and Pat Robertson agreed that the 9-11 attacks were manifestations
of God's displeasure at the United States for its tolerance
of the abominable gays, abortionists and the ACLU. And yet,
most of those in the twin towers that fateful morning were
not gay, were not patrons of abortionists, and were not card-carrying
members of the ACLU. Neither were their bereaved families.
Falwell has not told us why these individuals were deserving
objects of the Wrath of God.
The mind-sets of a Fallwell or a Robertson are not dissimilar
from those who are capable of strapping a bomb to their belts
and walking into an Israeli marketplace, or (to balance the
ledger) willing to assassinate an Israeli Prime Minister on
a mission of peace with his Palestinian neighbors.
Please understand that I fully acknowledge that the Nazi
Holocaust was an atrocity unparalleled in human history. Moreover,
there is no ethnic group (including my own) that I respect
more than the Jewish people, who have contributed to world
literature, art and science to a degree far out of proportion
to their numbers. But at the same time, I recognize that the
Palestinians are among the most highly educated and cosmopolitan
of Arabic nations, who have occupied their land for centuries
since, and before, the scattering of the Jewish nation in
79 AD. Moreover (as few westerners are aware) it was the Arabs
who preserved Ancient Greek philosophy, and who made significant
advances in science and mathematics, while my ancestors in
Northern Europe endured the poverty and ignorance of the Dark
Finally, those who take Biblical authority more literally
than I do, should be reminded that The Lord's (alleged) covenant
to Abraham promised the land of Israel to "the seed of Abraham,"
which included through the lineage of Hager and Ishmael, the
Arabs. (See my "The Holy Land" and "Warriors of the Lord"
Do They Hate Us?"
To a neutral observer who affords Christians, Jews and Moslems
equal respect for their devoutly held religious views, a fair
resolution of the strife between the Israelis and Palestinians
seems quite straightforward. The Holy Sites in Jerusalem should
be administered by an international body, with representation
within by members of each religious group. Unfortunately,
with both sides of this conflict believing, respectively,
that God favors their cause (and with each side supported
by like-minded allies far beyond the borders of the region),
no such reasonable resolution is in sight, and this dreadful
conflict appears to be fated to continue indefinitely.
Finding no lesson from the history of religious conflict
nor guidance in Constitutional law and precedence, the Bush
II administration now proposes that federal funds be directed
to "faith-based" (read religious) agencies (read churches).
No state "establishment of religion" involved, they tell us.
We are dubious. No doubt, more applications for government
largesse will be received than can be granted. How will the
Nation of Islam and the Church of Scientology fare in competition
with the Southern Baptists? The moment a choice is made (by
a government agency, of course) religious "recognition" and
preference will be manifest. And so, under this "Big Government"
system, the needy faithful will be cared for, provided they
associate with an "approved" "faith-based agency" (i.e., church).
Those in need who are atheists, agnostics, "cultists," or
simply believers who choose to march to the sound of their
own drummer, must move to the back of the queue. Whereupon
protests will result, and the nation will be religiously divided.
Far better that we follow the good advice of those who wrote
and ratified the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no
law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof."
The way out of civil and international strife is as simple
as it is unlikely. It consists of the acceptance by a "critical
mass" of the public and its leaders of just two elements:
1. Acknowledge that someone, somewhere, has a contrary religious
or philosophical belief, which he or she embraces with a fervor
and certainty equal to, or possibly even greater than, your
own. (In fact, such individuals number in the billions, and
they are everywhere).
2. Then entertain a possibility, however remote to your credulity,
that this other individual just might be right and you wrong
- or even that all of us frail mortals are mistaken in at
least some small degree about our fundamental religious convictions.
That much accomplished, then we can proceed with our lives,
firm in our convictions, but tolerant of others and willing
in principle to alter our beliefs in the face of superior
evidence and argument.
An enduring facet of Judeo-Christian morality calls this
"humility," and regards it a virtue.
Philosophers of science call this falliblism. It is a firm
foundation both for scientific investigation and for civil
peace. And it should suffice for enlightened religious faith.
After all, "what does the Lord require of you, but to do
justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your
God?" (Micah 6:8)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer
in the field of Environmental Ethics, and a Research Philosophy
at the University of California, Riverside. He publishes the