“America’s entering a golden age of faith.”
—President George W. Bush, May 11, 1990
The turbulence within the Catholic Church is a world-shaking and spreading storm, mimicked by the actual hurricanes multiplying throughout our atmosphere. Michael and Florence soaked Florida and our neighboring states, Mangkhut battered South China, a tsunami and earthquake smashed into Indonesia (where our our son Tim works for USAID), while typhoons and cyclones are gathering strength in warming waters. We, as small individual creatures, are being buffeted by inner and outer forces that leave us little to hang on to.
Some friends who converted to Catholicism decades ago are going back to their original faith, so I’ve been thinking of the role of religion in our own lives. Historically, religion was what people turned to under stress: “There are,” they told us, “no atheists in trenches.” Tough to check on that one. Jeanne (Methodist) and I (Lutheran) were churchgoing kids from typical American backgrounds: very religious grandparents, less religious parents. Sunday School Christians ourselves, we enrolled our kids in St. Petersburg’s Unitarian Church, where I’d drop them off and wait on a bench by Mirror Lake, reading the New York Times with a cup of coffee and an English muffin. In this hazy lazy way, organized religious membership in the U.S. is eroding.
We were married in 1957 in the Community Church of Mountain Lakes, NJ, a small, vaguely Protestant church founded in 1913 whose motto was, and remains, The only justification of any Christian Church is to serve the people and to help them become Christians. It was like an extended family; I taught 7th Grade English to the Rev. Loral Pancake’s children (the irrepressible youngsters referred fondly to the dignified Pastor as “Dr. Flapdoodle”). The church’s smallness was comfortable; the service seemed to mean something, though we weren’t sure what.
Somehow the size of everything has led to trouble, and not just in the Catholic Church. Size enables corruption to be hidden, stuck in closets, moved around. Hysterical denials of sexual abuse abound in evangelical circles, especially in its megachurches as high-level pastors have been exposed, or exposed themselves. Around the world — in Chile, Ireland, the Netherlands, Japan and elsewhere — parishioners are lifting lids and finding Biblical serpents.
Last month, when President Trump boasted to the United Nations about his accomplishments, world leaders in the assembly laughed in unison. The confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh shook our belief in the Supreme Court as a dignified nonpartisan group holding up our highest standards. We already don’t trust Congress or the Senate. Even the high status of the Nobel Prizes are under fire, with sexual and financial scandals knocking out this year’s Literature Award. We just watched a new movie, The Wife, in which a Nobel laureate’s books were written by his wife. Where to turn for stability, or at least a calm heart?
Well, who knows? But we tend rely on memory — Jeanne and I look back with affection at our small churches; we learned a lot there, including a fondness for the Bible. And then at our children, and young people in general. Despite the current dissaray, good hearts and amazing deeds will certainly surprise us. And as I learned in Latin class, Illegitimi non carborundum (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”). What are we, wimps?
In a typical “boost” for religion, Republican senator John Kennedy from Louisiana concluded the September 28th hearing by asking Kavanaugh to look into his eyes and swear to God he was innocent. Kavanaugh raised his hand and did just that while Kennedy beamed in fatuous agreement: Well, that settles that! I turned off the TV, feeling nauseous, and left the room.
Where to go? To poetry and humor, of course:
...and 1000 light years away Carina
with its double star winks while pilgrims
in waxy clusters swerve off thruways mounting
toward Jerusalem under the golden arches
singing Lord I Want To Be A Christian:
Over Ten Billion Saved and Counting...
—from “Carina” by Peter Meinke, in Tasting Like Gravity (U. of Tampa, 2018)