Monday, January 18, 2016

On the Freedom of a Christian

The announcement of Professor Dieter Hochgeschwender's talk: Die Freiheit des Christenmenschen: Zur Vielfalt religiöser Gruppierungen in den USA was alluding to the title of Martin Luther's reformist paper: Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen although the speaker - belonging to the Catholic theological faculty of Munich's university - did not even mention the reformer.

What follows is possibly common knowledge of my American friends but Red Baron learned quite a lot listening to the talk. According to Hochgeschwender 90% of the US citizens believe in a supreme being, 80% are Christians, and 65% read the Bible. Therefore I was greatly astonished to hear that the knowledge of Americans about religion is limited when compared to Europeans in spite of Sunday schools and Bible stories on television.

Heavily criticized by atheists: the imprint In God we trust on the one dollar bill (©dpa)
Professor Hochgeschwender told his audience that the religious freedom in the States had led to an extremely varied landscape of religious practices although most of the denominations go back to European immigrants. In the beginning the New England States had state religions along British and Scandinavian models with members paying the tithe. This changed only slowly when in 1791 the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. This Amendment clearly meant explicitly that any religion could be exercised in any of the States and implicitly "a wall of separation between church and State" according to founding father Thomas Jefferson's correspondences* in that matter. The precise boundary of this separation however still remains in dispute.
*It is obvious that Thomas Jefferson was the driving force behind the separation of church and State. In Phillip Blom's book: A Wicked Company you will find the following paragraph: Count von Holbach's salon members’ writings became an integral part of how the founding fathers thought about the nascent United States. Jefferson’s handwritten catalogue of books lists not only works by British empiricists such as Hume but also titles by Voltaire and a whole list of crucial books of the radical Enlightenment: the famous De l’esprit by Helvétius (the cause of the 1757 crisis of the Encyclopédie), Holbach’s Système de la nature his Théologie portative (here interestingly attributed to Diderot), a set of Oeuvres philosophiques by Diderot, several anonymous or pseudonymous works such as Holbach’s Christianity Unveiled (“by Boulanger,” in Italian) as well as Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes and Beccaria’s Of Crimes and Punishments, and a wide selection of precursors, such as Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, and Pierre Bayle. Holbach’s Paris library had the same books on its shelves—as philosophers he and Jefferson were speaking the same language. A notion straight from Holbach’s table and the sum of the philosophical ideas defended there is the "pursuit of happiness".

In the following decades the Puritans in the States continued to have the say although in the 19th century religions became quite diversified with Baptists, Quakers, and Revivalist Movements. With their slogan: The Holy Scriptures interpret themselves they were standing against the established Anglican Church. Their liberal hermeneutics was also directed against the Catholic Church and its ex cathedra interpretation of the Bible.

Professor Hochgeschwender continued saying that what made America strong were those Evangelicals and Liberals working together believing in the Nation, the Constitution, and a liberal capitalism. In the beginning Catholics were regarded as adversaries to freedom in a liberal nation. However, in the 1950s all denominations including Calvinists, Jews, and Catholics stood united against Communism. This made the Papists socially acceptable with a Catholic president elected in 1960.

Today in spite of setbacks due to child abuse the Catholic Church in the States is booming running kindergartens, schools, and hospital along its motto: The poor belong to us. So on the one hand the Church gets back to its roots when in the Middle Ages it was the only charitable organization, on the other hand it meets the American idea of a local church practicing solidarity and charity. This is in a way contrary to countries where anonymous governmental social security programs are well established as in the case of Scandinavia with its decreasing church attendance. For Americans practical application of their religion in their community is more important than theological knowledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment