The sheer silliness of the stranglehold religion has upon government is represented by the dispute that has arisen over Barack Obama’s decision to select pastor-bigot Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church to give the invocation at is inauguration, outraging the LGBT community and others. He also selected a more liberal pastor to give the prayer at the end. But the real question is, what is this, an inauguration or a religious event? Why have either of these—of course, both Christian—pastors spew their nonsense that seems only to bring divisiveness and controversy and not only insults gays and lesbians, and people of other, not-included, faiths, and non-theists such as myself. Obama has portrayed his invitation to a pastor with whom he disagrees on a numbers of social issues as openness and inclusiveness, but he fails to recognize just how narrow and exclusives his choices happen to be. Moreover, it appears that it might be more informed by a calculus of political advantages than by the norms he expresses.
One of the popular online sites I visit had a piece the other day about “where President Obama and his family are going to worship (emphasis mine)? We all know, of course, that our political process is suffused with this religious nonsense. We know that, if Obama were truly a Muslim (which the Republicans tried to pin on him) the question would be where John McCain worships (we already know where Sarah Palin worships). However he feels about religion and worship Obama will probably take himself off to some Christian church, kneel, lower his head, join his hands and maybe say to himself “This is bullshit.” Nevertheless, our mythology requires us to believe that the most powerful man on earth must exercise obeisance to the most powerful man in the universe.
BS is what I would say. But there was a time when I sort of understood worship; the same way I later understood that you had a better chance of getting laid after a political rally or a rock concert. The Church operates the same way; the music, incense, ceremony, those stained-glass windows, the stirring readings from the gospels, they are all designed to take you to another level psychologically, to where you feel you are “connected” in some way with the spiritual world. It’s all in the power of suggestion, combined with the willingness to believe (although some religions do employ narcotic assistance). The evangelical and charismatic churches that have become popular in recent years have greatly increased their production values and come to understand the utility of music and values in their liturgies. Black gospel music churches were already well ahead of that curve. But the desired effect is to transport the worshipper emotionally to a state of intensity that is spiritually orgasmic. (“Oh, my God!”) Nowhere is the line between physical and spiritual ecstasy more blurred that on those Indian temples adorned with sexually explicit sculpture.
The practice of worship has always stuck me as odd behavior. We observe it in al societies and, of course, it is not restricted to devotion to the divine (just go to Graceland in Memphis or a Stones concert sometime).
First of all, does God really need all of this adoration. He is “all-knowing,” isn’t He? So he knows if you really care about Him, right? Worship therefore comes off as sort of “sucking up” to the deity, ingratiating yourself for some sort of special favoritism perhaps, or to get Him to favor your faith over that of the those infidels over there bowing towards Mecca, or those Hindus worshiping some god with the head of an elephant. “Oh, I love you better and more truly, oh great God of us all. I will build thee a bigger church. Who loves ya, baby? I prostrate myself before thee.”
What self-respecting God needs all this fawning? It’s boring, and a waste of time.
There is also something ostentatious about worship. People fall to their knees, bang their heads of the floor, raise their hands heavenward, mutter prayers and praises, they might even do harm to themselves with scourges and piercings. Every year people are crushed to death in the worshipping throngs at Mecca. It seems there is a bit of “putting on” for the crowd as well as trying to impress the deity with the sincerity of their veneration. Rich people used to (and still do) endow private chapels in the big churches—sort of the “executive jets” to the afterlife—where they could worship away from those smelly co-religionists all mobbed together in the nave. They could also inter themselves in their chapels, their bodies in a permanent state of worship. Muslims make a haj, Buddhists chant, others have festivals and ceremonies. I suspect a lot of worship to be showing off.
People actually say that they “worship.” “I worship at Chuck’s Church of the Risen Christ and Muffler Repair,” one might say. What? You mean that’s a special holy place in some strip mall along some godforsaken (I use that non-religiously) ugly suburb. What makes that a place of worship? At least in the old days some care and putative “rationality” was exercised in selecting a “place of worship.” There had to be some sense that the location, was “special.” Maybe some goatherd had a visitation of the BVM on some hill and that spot became “sacred.” Being that that are closer to heaven, church locaters have long had a predilection for mountaintops and hills for the placement of their places of worship. Failing that, of course, churches use to have the highest spire, or campanile in the city.
At any time around the world there will be people worshiping someone or something that they have no evidence whatsoever even exists. They have a vision in their head perhaps, some idea that has been implanted by their culture, some Osiris, or Amun, or Yahweh, or Ganesh, or Buddha, or Jesus, or whatever. They will be spinning prayer wheels, dobbining at the Western wall, choking on incense in a moldy temple, or trying to find the direction of Mecca from a Wal Mart parking lot in Wisconsin (GPS improves the accuracy of Muslim worship.)
So where will President Obama be worshipping? I thought I wouldn’t be concerned about that, but now I am. We had an idiot for a president for eight years who allegedly got down on his knees for some divine advice on how to run this country. What we got was disaster, and by a man who has neither reservations nor regrets about the death and destruction he has brought, nothing to confess, nothing to seek forgiveness for. It is unknown just how much Obama’s faith is a product of listening to the ravings of Rev. White, or owes to political acumen. But I resent his using my vote to give a religious bigot a national pulpit, and secondly for giving validation to the insidious conjunction of church and state. Maybe he sees this move as good “ecumenical” politics, but it might also be a regrettable Faustian compact. I am reminded of a street in Rome that runs from the Vatican toward the heart of the Capitol. It’s called Via della Conciliazione and was built by Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator to effect a détente with Pope Pius XI. I don’t want to see Pennsylvania Avenue turned into America’s “Street of Conciliation” with the fascists of the Religious Right. If Obama needs a place of worship I recommend the Lincoln Memorial.
© 2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.19.2008)