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Do you need to have faith to practice values?

Organized religion, however flawed, can be a guide for doing right

A man walks by a church in the Bloomingdale neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
A man walks by a church in the Bloomingdale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. (Tom WIlliams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An increasing number of Americans are identifying as “nones,” with no religious affiliation at all, or switching faiths, dissatisfied with the one they knew as children. That is not exactly a revelation. Trust in every sort of institution is sinking. But does that trend signal the end of the world?

To my seatmate on a recent flight, it did. Not that he thought gun violence, political polarization and racism could be solved if everyone started attending weekly services. But organized religion, however flawed, provided a moral structure, a guide for living a decent life, he told me. And the secularization of America leaves too many adrift, missing something of importance as they figure out how to navigate the world’s challenges.

As a churchgoer — intermittent, I admit — I was surprised at the intensity of my pushback, to a stranger, no less. Perhaps I should have been agreeing with him instead of saying, “Wait a minute.” But my reaction was fueled by my recollection of congregations, especially those most faithful in their attendance and outward piety, acting in ways that would make the Jesus in “What Would Jesus Do?” blush.

If anyone thought the house of worship was refuge from such concerns, more about the commandments than political party, that’s not what folks in the pews believe. According to a study from Lifeway Research: “Half of U.S. Protestant churchgoers (50 percent) say they’d prefer to attend a church where people share their political views, and 55 percent believe that to be the case at their congregation already.”

That doesn’t include all religions, but being an insider is balm for many I speak with who seek refuge rather than argument whenever and wherever they worship.

Judging people based on how they fall politically has indeed become an article of faith, even when there would seem to be an easy area of agreement, like, for example, caring for the less fortunate.

But even that baseline is not so reliable.

For instance, I have always admired the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II for speaking up continuously and relentlessly about the poor — from his pulpit, from the streets, during marches and demonstrations, to anyone willing to listen, as I have been in several interviews with him.

On that topic, the good reverend has lots of backing from the Bible, which praises those with little, doing the best they can, giving to others even if they don’t have anything to spare. And though I realize that in some quarters, poverty has become a sign of personal weakness rather than misfortune, I was a little shocked when a tweet on the North Carolina Republican Party’s official account last month called the founding director of the Center for Public Theology & Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, the man who brought together diverse coalitions as part of the Poor People’s Campaign and Moral Monday marches, a “poverty pimp.”

Barber’s apparent offense was appearing with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a North Carolina rally on raising the federal minimum wage, a position most Americans favor, according to polls.

Though, in this case, his companion was a progressive democratic socialist senator, Barber walks with anyone who favors his causes, be it a living wage with Sanders or rural hospitals and Medicaid expansion when he joined with a Republican mayor to shine a spotlight on what both deemed an urgent need.

So much for “blessed are the meek.” When racist, demeaning slurs flow so easily (and officially), it’s a signal that disrespect for the clergy is no deal-breaker, especially if there’s a political point to be made.

Just as Barber believes that meeting actual people whose lives are affected by unemployment or a lack of health care is crucial, Utah Republican state Sen. Daniel W. Thatcher has said it was meeting with people affected by anti-trans legislation as well as his work on hate-crime legislation and suicide prevention that led to his opposition to his state’s anti-trans bills, according to The Washington Post.

“I have had people who claim to be Christian reach out to me and tell me that I can’t be a Christian unless I hate certain people,” he said on The New York Times’ “First Person” podcast.

The recent Supreme Court ruling that would now allow a Colorado woman to refuse to provide wedding website services to same-sex couples — if they ever asked — has been both hailed and derided by those who worship under the same spiritual roof.

“This case was never about discrimination. It was about moral disagreement,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty. USCCB filed an amicus brief in support of web designer Lorie Smith. “The government must allow room for people to disagree on hot-button issues. It’s even more important when the person disagreeing has an unpopular view.”

New Ways Ministry, with Catholic outreach to the LGBTQ+ community, disagreed: “Discrimination violates our nation’s ideals for building a more just and equal society. Moreover, it goes against Catholic social teaching which upholds that every person has inherent human dignity and deserves equal treatment in society.”

Maybe those who have opted out — the “nones” — have observed the disagreement and occasional hypocrisy of those who profess to have “the answer,” and have decided to pass.

It’s not as though followers of God acting in an ungodly manner is a new phenomenon. Fellow ministers chided the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his “impatience” on civil rights progress, and “devout” Catholics booed Maryland’s Cardinal Lawrence Shehan in the 1960’s when he spoke eloquently in favor of open housing laws.

Back in 1964, readers of The New York Times could read about 11 a.m. Sunday being the most segregated hour of the week, still a contemporary complaint — though things have gotten better.

But you also see stories like The Washington Post profile of a Georgia preacher slowly building a congregation by opening his doors and heart to all. Those motivated by a higher power to do good works need not have cynicism from folks like me dampen their devotion. 

You certainly don’t need permission or the leadership of a minister, rabbi or imam to live according to a moral code, to point out the difference between right and wrong. Indeed, faith can be a crutch or excuse for turning away from basic decency and kindness.

But it need not be.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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