Any editorial staff putting together an issue on religion and government must grapple with two fundamental questions: what is government, and what is religion? The first question is easy to answer; the second is impossible. Especially in a nation that prays to both the Church of Rome and the Church of Elvis, that flocks to both Billy Graham and L. Ron Hubbard, religion is perhaps best defined by Potter Stewart’s test for pornography: you know it when you see it.
This October Thursday morning, as I consider the varieties of American religious experience, two strong images come to mind. The first is of the chapel of First Missionary Baptist Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida. First Missionary is a world away from other churches I’ve attended. Unlike First Presbyterian Church of Verona, New Jersey, into whose purple-and-white-robed propriety I was confirmed, and unlike First Baptist Church of Molena, Georgia, whose country pastor had a disconcerting knack of discerning from the pulpit the transgressions of my adolescent heart, First Missionary is a clapping church. Its services are rousing, its pastor—during the years when I was there the pastor was Andrew McRae—charismatic, and its call and response so fervent that ultimately it was impossible to divine who, minister or congregation, was doing the calling, and who the responding.
A good McRae sermon was more akin to avalanche than homily. He liked to launch each one slow and pretty, but by the time you saw it coming it was tumbling and roaring too fast to outrun. At some point, usually while things were still relatively calm, McRae’s exertions would be met by a barely audible, spontaneous humming from the pews. The humming would coalesce into a hymn, sung low at first and then louder, with the organist throwing in an occasional mischievous chord, until by the time McRae reached his peroration he had to shout above a full-throat chorus, the exhortings, advice, encouragement, and correction of his insurrectionary congregation.
I would wish for my country that it could perfect such a relationship between governor and governed, shepherd and flock, could learn to luxuriate in such a fractious democracy—what my friend MaVynee called the consent of the rebellious.
That’s the second thing I think of, my friend MaVynee. MaVynee Betsch was nothing if not rebellious. Child of the black haute bourgeoisie of Jacksonville, Florida, great-granddaughter of A. L. Lewis—Florida’s first black millionaire and cofounder of Florida’s first insurance company and also of American Beach, a black Depression-era seaside resort that still exists in threadbare splendor—she threw all her pedigree and privilege overboard, deserted her celebrated career as an opera singer in Europe in the 1950s and ’60s, gave away her inheritance to the last penny to environmental causes, grew her hair to her heels, and lobbied hard and successfully to preserve local black history and to protect the great sand dune at the core of American Beach, where she lived as a willful pauper, sometimes residing on a chaise longue on the beach in front of A. L. Lewis’ old home.
It’s odd that I should think of MaVynee when I try to define religion, because among her other rebellions, she rejected organized faiths. She saw the concept of “god” as a patriarchal confection, and the church as an engine of conformity and social regimentation. She might have seen it otherwise—might have made common bond with an institution that has historically been a hotbed of protest, especially in lands like ours not dominated by a mother denomination. Most of
America’s churches, regardless of affiliation, could fairly call themselves “protestant,” because burning in their hearts is a red coal of outrage, at racial injustice, or abortion, or declining social mores, or promiscuous hedonism, or war. Religion is not only the opiate of the masses; it’s the methamphetamine.
American churches are to a large degree defined by what they choose to rebel against. The Christian right has set itself in opposition to liberal, secular government and, as a political consequence, declared itself a buddy of big business. The alliance of those two makes historic sense: sects since the Puritans have positioned themselves in relation to capitalism, and couched virtue and sin in commercial terms. And it makes psycholog-ical sense: churches that see themselves as bulwarks against the evils of the flesh find colder, sexless endeavors like business and sports more congenial than the suspect domains of sensuality and art.
The conundrum is: the alliance between religion and business makes no religious sense. What will happen on the day American Christians wake up to realize that capitalism is economic Darwinism, that free enterprise is code for individualistic amorality, that the marketplace is the temple of secular humanism? Will they then shift their allegiance to support a more liberal ideal of communal responsibility, and perhaps even become fans of government? The prospect of that shift in religious awareness is one of the great reservoirs of latent energy in the nation’s political landscape. Unleashed, it would reshape religion as well as politics, in a direction MaVynee would have applauded.
Though MaVynee rejected the church, it was only to adopt a more rigorous, more scouring penitence. Her professed godlessness was accompanied by the rituals of deep devotion: monasticism, constant prayer, divestiture of riches, a renunciation of worldliness. In the eyes of at least this ordinary believer, she was, until her death last month at 70, the embodiment and exemplification of a religious approach to life.
I would wish for my country that it could learn to honor such maverick observance as truest faith, could feel jealous of any place where an atheist has the abundant freedom to lead her friend to grace. On Saturday, when a Yoruba priestess spreads MaVynee’s ashes over the sand dune she rescued in the town her great-grandfather built, I will rejoice in living in just such a place, and in having such a friend, God rest her soul.