Making Room for Religion in America

Our society gives 'absolute freedom to the secular world view,' says Christian Century editor James Wall. He aims to give people of faith the opportunity and a mandate to express their religious perspective.

HERE is a hunger for awareness of God and knowledge of God," says James Wall, editor of the Christian Century in a recent interview. A soft-spoken gentleman with just a trace of the South left in his voice, Dr. Wall visited Denver recently to give a lecture at the Iliff School of Theology. "I think there is a special hunger in our society that is manifesting itself in various ways, including in film. The hunger is there and so is identification of that hunger with a God answer." An ordained minister of the United Methodist Church, Wall seldom preaches and he has no direct ministerial duties. He teaches a course or two each year to seminary students on religion and film, a particular interest of his. But his main occupation for the past 30-odd years has been writing editorials and editing - first for the Christian Advocate and now for Christian Century, the highly regarded, nondenominational ecumenical weekly.

The function of the Christian Century, says Wall, "is to address the issues of contemporary society from a religious perspective. We engage the reader at the intersection of religion and society. We report on and interpret the organized religious community."

Articles on religious life and denominational activities appear in the Century, along with discussions of current issues of concern to the religious community, such as the right of religious people to express themselves without being put upon. Movies, ethics, politics, art, medicine, education, and war and peace are all considered from religious perspectives. Christian feminists find space there, as did an Islamic scholar trying to explain Muslim resentment of American secularism.

"My thesis is, we live in a very secular culture. And because of that, the religious perspective - and I say 'religious perspective' rather than 'organized religion' - needs to be clear about its own identity and has to address those issues that alert society to the need for allowing free expression to religious people." Beyond that, Wall says, the religious perspective itself has been denied the right to inform or shape public policy, whereas secularism has been allowed absolute authority.

The Constitutional separation of church and state prohibits the "establishment" of religion and the favoring of one religion over another. The government can do nothing that would inhibit the practice of religion in the private sector. But the Constitution by no means suggests that there should be no religious involvement with secular society, he says: "We give absolute freedom to the secular world view to shape society. It is the dominant religion of the culture, while the religious perspective is leas hed."

Many of the great problems of our time and the most important religious issues facing Americans stem from the secularity of our culture, Wall says: "Our value systems are secular in orientation. The driving forces of our society are secular." The so-called "academy," the entire educational system from kindergarten to the university, that "governs the intellectual life of the country is secular. The media, which is strongly influenced by the academy, is secular. And there's a sense in which institutional ized religious groups 'think secular' - they want to achieve success, they want to make progress. All this is a way of saying modernity has been the dominant mind-set in our culture for quite a long while. My concern is that people who function out of conviction of a higher power - God, ultimate concern - have the opportunity and a mandate to share that with secular society."

In Wall's view, the press looks to the academy for validation and the academy is the keeper of secular values, distrustful of all things religious. The news media, which are essentially antireligious, he says, love the Jimmy Swaggarts and the Jim Bakkers. Never has the moral turpitude of any public figures been the subject of more TV shows, Wall maintains. The media portray religion as bizarre, corrupt, emotional, and sentimental, he says; they don't want it to have true meaning in life.

Islam receives the same treatment: The fundamentalists, the most intolerant Muslims, get all the - primarily negative - publicity, he observes.

Wall says that one of the characteristics of religious faith at its best is tolerance and respect for pluralism, but that respect for pluralism does not mean one should minimize the validity of one's own faith. "The problem with liberal Christians is that in their embrace of pluralism, they went too far by saying 'it really doesn't matter what my faith is; I can absorb all faiths.' That is a serious error, because you can't be pluralistic unless you know the basis on which you stand. Pluralism means ack nowledging and respecting the faith of others without assuming theirs is superior to your own or even equal to it."

Wall sees the problem of secularity lying at the heart of the big issues facing Americans today. How, in a society in which secularity has displaced religion, can the religious person relate his faith to the great decisions regarding war and peace, technology and medicine, and ethics in public and private life? Does life have any deeper purpose to it? Such questions have been posed traditionally by religious communities.

WALL sees materialism as a byproduct of secularism. While secularists may value lofty ideals such as justice and peace, their emphasis on success, achievement, and rewards leads to materialistic values - the notion, for example, that technology will solve all our problems.

Then, too, secularity has pragmatized ethics: The primary "good" has become success. There is no outside reference point for the secularist's ethics - it's all relative and situational.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, on the other hand, all point to a divine good that addresses people in their perplexing human situation and says there is right and wrong, and it is each person's job to discern between them - in politics, art, and personal life. "If you believe in a creator God," says Wall, "then you begin to believe we are created in freedom to be responsible. And when we fail to respond to God at any time, we are subject to sin. [God] demands of us that we reflect our freedom respons ibly. Every new day is another opportunity to choose well."

Wall is actively involved in politics and has chaired several Democratic campaign committees, including both of Jimmy Carter's Illinois presidential campaigns in 1976 and '80. He says the Democratic Party has failed to take the presidency since Carter because it has failed to connect with the deeper concerns of the American people. Republicans have succeeded in appealing to the heart, while the Democrats appeal to the mind.

He is "much taken" with Garry Wills's 1990 book "Under God: Religion and American Politics." In it, Wall says, Wills "makes the case that [Michael] Dukakis is the most secular presidential candidate we've ever had. He had no way of identifying with the religious concerns of the country. He is a very secular man, pure Harvard, pure intellectual secularism, and the result was an individual who couldn't connect with the American public.... "

Wall's choices - political, social, aesthetic - are based on his religious conviction. He has steadfastly opposed President Bush's military tactics in the Gulf crisis, believing that negotiations were always possible and preferable to the use of deadly force. And now, at the end of the war, he feels just as strongly about it.

"This is a war we did not have to fight," Wall said later by telephone. "It solved the problem of removing [Saddam] Hussein from Kuwait, but it has created enormous, long-range problems.... I am particularly grieved by our national media's inability to communicate to us the horror of the deaths of upwards of 100,000 people for which we are responsible."

Wall says the protection of the United States military is the best excuse for the bombing, but questions whether it had all been necessary, since "Bush adopted a 'no negotiations' stance at the outset.

"And I'm no military expert, but I question whether we needed to do it."

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