America: a Christian Country, a Judeo-Christian Country, a Secular Country, or Whatever?

By | January 18, 2016 | 0 Comments

Some time ago, the ACLU threatened to sue to force Los Angeles County to remove the tiny cross from its seal. You can see it if you look very closely. The cross represented the Franciscan missions, an integral part of California history. The mere threat of a suit frightened the county into removing the cross. A group of us filed suit to restore it. We lost, but at least we tried.
As Pastor Niemoeller would say, we spoke up to protest the erasure of part of our history. Only tyrants want to alter the past. So instead of the tiny cross, we have a “mission” that looks like a barn. No cross on the building? Okay. But no bell? Is a bell also a religious symbol, and therefore verboten? Are even indirect, oblique, implied references to religion not allowed?
When anyone refers to the United States as a “Christian country,” the media denounce him, while liberals ridicule him as a bigot. My reaction is a bit different. When I hear this description of America, I think, “What an optimist!” Perhaps my family’s background can explain my attitude.
My mother was born in Czarist Russia. Her most vivid memory of childhood was a pogrom. She and her family were hidden for three days in the home − at times under the table − of a friendly Christian family. The woman of the house placed icons in the window to show the mob that it was not a Jewish home. My grandfather, a rabbi, was at particular risk.
The family was unhurt, while persons they knew were killed. Soon after, the family came to the United States. They settled in North Dakota, where my mother attended the university, the first in her family to do so.
My father was born in Poland. The hatred to which he and his peers were subjected was returned in kind. His most salient memory was seeing notices for jobs, all ending with, “Except Jews.” Unwilling to live under such a system, he immigrated to America as a teenager.
He arrived with little money. Still, he put himself through school, while taking time off to serve proudly as a private in the infantry in France in World War I. He later applied to medical schools, where admission for Jews was limited by quotas. He was admitted to the University of North Dakota, where he met and married my mother. At the time it was a two-year medical school, and for the additional two years my father transferred to St. Louis University, a Jesuit school. I still have his Latin diploma.
My parents set up medical practice in Lisbon, North Dakota, a town of 2,000. When my mother became pregnant, the obstetrician informed them that a Caesarian section was needed. In those days, only one such operation was possible, so my father knew that this would be their only child. He decided to take my mother to the hospital where he had interned. It was a Catholic hospital, but my father had been well treated, and he trusted the people there. Things went well, and I was born. Years later, my mother recalled a kindhearted nurse, Sister Emily. All in all, this was not a bad outcome for the little girl who hid under the table, and the little boy who was hated.
My parents came from the generation that was trying to get away from Europe and everything that went with it, so the lack of formal religion did not bother them so long as I was small. When I was in first grade, a classmate was killed by a car, and the class attended the funeral, so the first house of worship I entered was a Protestant church. I participated in the school Christmas program and sang about the “Mergin” Mary. I recall my parents’ mixed reaction, but they needn’t have worried − eventually I became bar mitzvah and married the granddaughter of a rabbi.
I recall no school prayers, but a religious basis for ethics was assumed. When America entered World War II, my father applied to the Veterans Administration and was sent to Boise, Idaho. Here he and a colleague set up a Jewish Sunday school in our home. We held Sabbath services in the small Reform Temple, which was unused during the year. However, it was used for the High Holidays, so our little Conservative congregation rented the visitors’ room of the Mormon Temple. Thus I was introduced to my religion in a uniquely American way.
After the war, my family settled in San Francisco and joined a Conservative synagogue, so my religious experience took a more conventional form. Still, my parents wanted to expose me to a variety of experiences, and we frequently attended Reform or Orthodox services. In those days the Reform and Orthodox movements had not yet moved to opposite poles, and religious centrists had many options. We could attend a Reform service and hear a sermon, not a liberal political speech.
Our rabbi occasionally invited guests to preach at Sabbath services. One of these was a black minister whose powerful sermons I still recall. Later I learned that Dr. Howard Thurman was famous; he was a mentor of Dr. King. Besides, I sometimes watched Bishop Sheen on television. And I listened to the radio and heard The Old Fashioned Revival Hour (“Give me that old-time religion…”), The Lutheran Hour (“A mighty fortress…”), and The Catholic Hour (“Holy God we praise Thy name…”). Once my parents took me to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. And not just any Mass, a Solemn Pontifical Mass celebrated by Archbishop John J. Mitty.
My parents sent me to public junior and senior high schools, which I attended via public transportation − without fear. Many of us carried knives to school − Boy Scout knives − but there was not one stabbing. We were taught marksmanship at the ROTC rifle range in the school basement. There were no shootings, either. We learned that people, not inanimate objects, were good or evil.
The “bad boys” smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and fooled around with the “bad girls.” Those who smoked between classes chewed breath mints so teachers wouldn’t smell tobacco on their breath. Drugs were unknown. And this was no suburban locale; I attended middle-class schools with multiethnic student bodies.
Besides parents and teachers, I enjoyed the benefit of positive role models from the media. First there was radio, with “The Lone Ranger,” and “Gang Busters” − narrated by Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the general’s father. Later came television, with “Science in Action,” “The FBI,” and “The Rifleman.” Most of all, there were movies, where I absorbed everything from “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” “The Story of Pierre and Marie Curie,” to “Sergeant York,” “They Died With Their Boots On,” “Gunga Din,” and “Fort Apache.”
Now things are different. Instead of Pasteur, who overcame the establishment to fight for truth, or York, who overcame pacifism to fight for freedom, we have rap stars who glorify violence but fight for nothing. And instead of the chaplain praying with wounded soldiers in “The Fighting Sixty Ninth,” the many deaths depicted today are meaningless, and the dying or bereaved never pray. Religious persons are shown as superstitious bigots, while clergy appear only to perform exorcisms. Those expressing patriotic ideas are shown as ignorant rednecks, and veterans as unstable alcoholics. Happiness is equated with having fun, and is shown to come from money and possessions rather than inner qualities.
Today’s media are educational – it’s just that the lessons have changed.
Despite the absence of prayer, religion of a sort was taught in the public schools − Americanism. In my early years, the war and postwar period made patriotism and a sense of unity a subtext to everything that happened. Our ROTC instructors were master sergeants who were World War II veterans with combat decorations and campaign ribbons. Even the rowdiest boys respected them. We knew to whom we owed our freedom, and how much it had cost.
American history and civics courses emphasized the values of our Founders. Those who wished to attend Hebrew School or Chinese School after school hours, or to attend parochial schools, did so, but no one expected public schools to teach anything but American values. That was a big enough job. On the contrary, foreign languages were required, unlike many of today’s “multicultural” high schools.
Each year we had a beautiful Christmas program directed by a Catholic priest, so I came to appreciate “Come All Ye Faithful” in Latin. The announcement stated that those who did not wish to attend could go to the library, so no one felt compulsion. Christmas vacation was at least as welcome as the modern “winter break.”
Graduation ceremonies from junior and senior high included prayers. One was offered by a minister, who caused me discomfort by mentioning Jesus. The other was offered by a rabbi, who caused me discomfort by giving a mediocre prayer. Young people in their teens and early twenties tend to be irreligious. But this does not mean that we should scrap religion to make them comfortable, any more than we should stop teaching algebra. Some discomfort is a necessary part of growing up.
I attended the University of California at Berkeley and spent my time studying, as did most of my friends. We were aware that marijuana existed, but cigarettes, booze, and girls were temptation enough. There were leftist professors, but they were unobtrusive, and my studies were not interrupted by a single demonstration.
I recall the annual Charter Day ceremonies, which closed with the University Hymn:

Oh God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.

Somehow this didn’t upset me or my Jewish friends. The speaker at one Charter Day was Chief Justice Earl Warren. It didn’t upset the great civil libertarian, either − I believe he joined in the singing. Have we really advanced since those days?
I attended medical school in San Francisco. The third-year courses were at the old County Hospital. A vivid memory is of the emergency room, where a young boy was brought by ambulance. He had been hit by a car and was comatose. I was given the task of shaving his head in preparation for surgery. As I was doing so, our full-time Catholic chaplain arrived and, since the boy was in the uniform of the Catholic schools, administered the Last Rites. As I clumsily shaved away, the priest accidentally touched my hand with the holy oil. We said nothing to each other, but somehow we communicated our joint efforts to help the boy in our different ways.
On another occasion, a cardiac patient was doing poorly, and his minister was called. The Protestant prayers sufficed to move to tears a young nurse I knew to be a devout Catholic. During the long nights on call, the stethoscope around my neck sometimes hit an oxygen tank and made a bell-like sound. Oddly, this reminded me of the little bell the altar boy rang to alert worshipers to important parts of the Mass. But bells may no longer accompany Mass, which is no longer said in Latin, and oxygen is piped in, so there are no more bell-like sounds in the middle of the night to remind us that a hospital is a holy place. Or at least it should be.
Later I specialized in medical oncology, which at the beginning involved trying new treatments on patients with advanced cancer. Often I came in Sunday morning to make rounds. Our hospital was a small branch of the County Hospital, but somehow the First Amendment allowed Sunday church services to be held in the sun room at the end of our ward. Patients in wheelchairs and on gurneys crowded the hallway. I squeezed past them while the minister preached or led in singing hymns (“Leaning on the everlasting arms…”). A black Baptist minister alternated with a Korean Methodist. What their singing lacked in musical ability was made up for by genuine emotion. It was an unforgettable experience to care for my patients in that atmosphere.
Three times in my life, I have faced the possibility of death. I can testify that having everlasting arms to lean on can be a crucial help in times of trouble.
In medical-school lectures and later in journals, discussion of medical ethics invariably began with Hippocrates and frequently included the Bible, Maimonides, and the Church Fathers. Slowly these references disappeared, and for decades they have been virtually absent.
A leading medical journal published articles advocating euthanasia. Each time, I submitted a letter to the editor. None was published. The editor replied that even brief references to the Ten Commandments or the Oath of Hippocrates (“I will give no deadly medicine…”) would not be published because they were merely an “appeal to authority.” The editor did not recognize that in advocating medical killing, the authors were simply substituting themselves as the authority.
In short, I would say, “Is America a Christian country? I’m not sure − and I grew up in one.” The country that gave shelter to my parents, though they were Jewish, did so because its people were religious.
Clearly, religious people can be bigots and worse – look at the Middle East. But in a nation descended from immigrants, where no group has a majority, religion tended toward tolerance rather than bigotry. In past years, Catholics and Jews had in common being objects of discrimination. And now Evangelicals are among Israel’s strongest supporters.
Those who believe that all anti-Semitism is religious in nature ignore the obvious fact that 19 centuries of pogroms, expulsions, and inquisitions still left six million Jews for a secular dictatorship to annihilate in 12 years. True, Hitler built on this long history of religious bigotry, but what does this mean? It means that hatred, which for almost two millennia had been nourished by religion yet held in check by religious scruples, was released in its full fury by a post-Christian, pagan state.
The decline of American Christianity thus makes me uneasy. What hatreds or other repressed evils will surface when the restraint of religion weakens still further? Besides, our complaint against churches during the Nazi era is that they interfered too little in politics. Luckily, there was no G.C.L.U. (German Civil Liberties Union) to block even these efforts.
Despite all this, many of my liberal and Jewish friends continue to fight old battles. They fail to realize that America is the only Judeo-Christian country. Bethesda is in Maryland, not France; Moriah is in New York, not Belgium; Palestine is in Texas, not Germany; Hebron is in Connecticut, not Poland; and Zion National Park is in Utah, not Russia. The Pilgrims identified with the Israelites and took Old Testament names. They viewed themselves as establishing a New Jerusalem. Jefferson’s and Franklin’s proposals for our Great Seal showed the Israelites leaving Egypt.
Yet many liberals react reflexively against anything remotely suggesting a connection between religion and our nation:

● There are no more prayers at school graduations. Are the graduates any better for it?

● The University Hymn is no longer sung at Berkeley. Are the students or faculty any happier?

● Nativity scenes no longer appear on city hall lawns. Are anti-Semitic incidents less frequent?

● A Democratic Party official refers to the unborn child as a “blob of jelly.” Are babies and women safer or more respected?

● Pornography in its grossest forms is readily available. Are sexual problems less common?

● Primary-school children are taught details of condom use, homosexuality, and transgender issues. Do teenagers have an easier time finding their identities?

● Films, television, and rock videos overflow with sex and violence, often combined. Do they produce better-adjusted people?

● Children grow up without being taught that anything is sacred. How will they come to appreciate the significance of a marriage certificate, an oath of office, or a contract, much less a handshake? All the litigation generated by 1.2 million American lawyers will not suffice to repair the resulting damage.

● Value-free education produces value-free graduates. Why are we surprised?

● An assistant chief of police is driven from office because he consulted with fellow church members before carrying out an order he questioned. Would citizens feel safer from police abuses if officers obeyed orders robotically, like Nazis?

● Marriage is discouraged by welfare and tax policies. Are we unaware that criminals are more likely to have grown up without a father in the house?

● Medical journals assert that doctors may kill their patients under vaguely defined circumstances, and many people agree.

● In the Netherlands, cited by advocates of euthanasia as a model, over 1000 patients annually are killed by their doctors without their consent. For the old or poor or disabled, this may be troubling. In an era of health-care rationing, it should be.

Years ago, if a person was found lying on the sidewalk, someone would stop to help. Now hardly anyone stops. No one wants to get involved, and civil libertarians have taught us that autonomy is the highest value. Walking by a prostrate individual expresses how highly we value autonomy − our own. It says less for the value we place on human life, and still less for the example we are giving our children.
A study of non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust showed that most had a strong Christian background and sense of community. We are doing our best to rid our society of such persons. One can only hope that we will not need them again.
Even the Boy Scout Oath is under attack. What is wrong with teaching young people to do their duty to God and country, in that order? Perhaps that is the key point. We may soon live in a country where nothing, especially God, comes before what we want, or what the “experts” want, or what the government wants.
Despite my liberal Jewish friends’ fears, there are no pogroms. Skinheads and the Klan must be watched, but they are small groups with little influence and less religion. The reason we fear to go out after dark is not that we may be set upon by bands of Evangelicals and forced to read the New Testament, but that we may be set upon by gangs of feral young people who have been taught that nothing is superior to their own desires or feelings.
And if religious − and secular − fanatics are to be feared, what could strengthen their hand more than the continued disintegration of society? When the majority religion is under attack, should a minority feel safer? Christians are resented as reminders of universal ethical rules. Will Jews be better received? With extremist Islam on the march, should the weakening of Christianity make us feel more secure?
That a society can preserve ethical values and transmit them to subsequent generations in the absence of a permanent Source for them is a belief unsupported by historical evidence. It requires a leap of faith just as does a belief in God. Nevertheless, we are betting everything we have that it is correct. Is this a wise bet?
Is America a Christian country, or more accurately, a Judeo-Christian country? Barely, and not for long, unless we do something about it. Otherwise, we will have to answer the question in the title of this article by saying, “Whatever.” Nations that can be described as “whatever” do not survive for long, nor do they deserve to.

A prior version of this article appeared in New Oxford Review. Contact: You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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