Preaching Text: “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” (Isaiah 5:5)
As I’ve said many times, Israel’s main contribution to the world of religion was not its belief in one God (monotheism) or its emphasis on the Law (ethics). Rather, its earthshattering discovery was that God is involved in history and not, as with all other gods, aloof and disinterested.
This means that history matters, that it tells us something not only about our Creator but the meaning of life. Both the Old and New Testaments invite us to read into our times for spiritual messages and to interpret events around us as signifying something.
In today’s reading from Isaiah, the prophet reads his times and offers a startling interpretation. The choice vineyard, Israel, has squandered its heritage, producing not only a weak yield out of rich soil, but has now invited, due to its faithlessness, a coming catastrophe – the Babylonian conquest of the “Promised Land.”
Fast-forwarding to the United States of today, we too are required to read our times through the discriminating lens of our Creator, much as Isaiah and the other ancient prophets did.
So perhaps we should consider the current “silly season” of American politics. To paraphrase a quote I recently came across, the current presidential contest appears to be a clear refutation of Darwin’s theory!
That got me to thinking about what this election says about our country. There’s a famous quote variously attributed, but most likely from the pen of 18th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre, who wrote, “Every country has the government it deserves.”
At first blush, this sounds a bit harsh. Yet perhaps it’s worth exploring. At least this seems to be Isaiah’s point, although the radical effrontery to his contemporaries is now all but blunted by the passage of some 2,500 years!
Back in June of 2002, I left First Church after a brief eight-month stint as interim pastor and landed in southeast Connecticut, an environment I found particularly unsettling.
Having grown up in southwest Connecticut, I discovered a part of the state largely foreign to me. For one, it seemed to lack any real sense of civil society or the social graces. People struck me as gruff and unfriendly (unless, of course, your family had lived in the area for six generations or more!).
The church I served, for example, refused to send their financial reports to the CT Conference out of distrust and a thinly-veiled hostility, or so it seemed. In reading the history of the region I discovered a possible reason why.
As most of you know, we’re currently embroiled in a dispute with the Town of Harwich over our Memorial Garden, and the cemetery as a whole. One of the issues that’s come to the fore is the terms under which local communities were formed in colonial New England.
As most of you know, there was a strict procedure every town had to follow before being allowed to incorporate. The reason is that the early settlers to these shores came for two basic reasons: religious freedom and economic opportunity. We mostly know about the religious part but may be less familiar with the economic incentives.
In England, most of the farms were owned by a handful of wealthy landowners. Thus the lure of plentiful land in the New World was a major draw. Rather than working as serfs on someone else’s land, the newcomers had the prospect of farming their own land.
Because of this strong economic pull, the governing authorities enforced strict rules regarding religion. When the residents of the “South Precinct” of Harwich, for instance, decided it was too far to travel for worship at the meeting house in the “North Precinct” (the current Unitarian church in present-day Brewster), the state mandated a religious counterbalance to economic interests, requiring the newly-formed town to have a church AND a settled pastor.
In other words, financial or mercantile considerations alone were deemed unacceptable. As a result, virtually every town in New England has a white clapboard Congregational church at its center, Harwich included.
But this was not the case, as I learned, in southeast Connecticut. Instead, the area was purchased by a group of wealthy English businessmen who, because of an adverse political climate in England, needed a place in which to flee in case things turned ugly. Over time, the political climate improved and the businessmen were able to remain in England.
But because of this unusual circumstance, the Connecticut authorities exempted the area from having to have a church. For some 50-100 years, in fact, Old Lyme simply had no church! This, as I say, was highly inordinate.
Due to an absence, over time, of the salient effects of the Christian graces and virtues formed in and through the church, the quality of civic life necessarily is coarsened and diminished. Without the constant humanizing effect of Christian charity and virtue, an alternate lifestyle moves to fill its void. Such is how I experienced southeast CT!
Is such a statement fair? Perhaps not. But none other than Alexis de Tocqueville arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the overall effect of religion on society, particularly democratic societies. Observing antebellum America, the ever-astute Frenchman sought to tackle what he considered the great issue of his day – the emergence of democracy, equality, and individual freedom. No other place on earth, he believed, embodied its blessings better than America, but also its challenges and dangers.
Tocqueville celebrated the way in which the American experiment freed people from the burdens of a coercive state, but he worried about the long-term effect created by the removal of the state’s unifying, moralizing, and communal aspects. Though Tocqueville was an ardent proponent of American democracy, he saw within it the seeds of its own possible destruction due to radical individualism (the “tyranny of the majority’) and the loss of social and moral cohesion. Here’s where the church plays an essential role.
“Despotism,” he wrote, “may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot…How could a society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people [as] master of itself if it is not subject to God?”
The church, therefore, for Tocqueville, was the key to social cohesion and morality – not state religion, mind you, but the free association of churches he found dotted all over the American landscape.
For Tocqueville, in a society free from old political loyalties, religion was the only force that could turn people’s minds beyond the physical, material aspects of life and toward the immortal and eternal. Religion would teach a free people how to use their newfound freedom well, providing “absolutes,” standards, and moral boundaries.
Without religion, he warned, “the soul may for a moment be found empty of faith and love of physical pleasures come and spread and fill all.” This, he wrote, is the downside of freedom and equality.
Reading his times, he warned: “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst. But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”
In the end, it’s easy to blame our politicians who are, in some sense, simply mirrors reflecting the sensibilities and mores of our society. Instead it is we who must save our nation, not so much by electing the right person to office, but by the moral and spiritual strength generated by “we the people.” Amen.