Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #184. First published in the St. Cloud Times, online and in print Nov, 6, 2022

Things are weird. Not unprecedented, but uncommonly intense. There’s the Big Lie (and the Big Liar, still at it, no respite), and hardly a ripple of rebuttal — with the noble exception of Reps. Cheney and Kinzinger. Violent rhetoric unleashes political violence (“Where’s Nancy?”). Voter suppression, intimidation. And conspiracy theories, some unimaginably grotesque, including the one about litter boxes in schools that has been repeated — with a straight face — by a major party candidate for governor of Minnesota (governor? Minnesota!).

Two days from now maybe we’ll know at least most of the outcomes. While it would take more than a column just to enumerate all my concerns in these weird times, I will highlight three.

The first one might appear not an issue at all. Who could quibble with the question, first posed by Ronald Reagan in 1980, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Times Writers Group member Gerry Feld last month asked, “are you better off today than you were two years ago?” Feld believes his readers would answer “No.”

Well, I want to quibble with it. What counts as “better off”?

I’m alive, which means — thanks to Dr. Fauci and Gov. Walz, no thanks to Donald Trump and Scott Jensen — I’m better off than 13,825 Minnesotans who have died of COVID. And one of Feld’s examples is misleading: he contrasts gas at $1.93 in August 2020 with $3.40 now — without noting that $1.93 was in the midst of the pandemic, when people were driving a lot less, and reduced demand lowered prices.

That’s not my main objection to Feld’s answer, however. What’s “better off”?

The best response was proposed by one of the greatest of Minnesotans — senator, vice president and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” I’m better off when the common good is made real. Not only are we all in the same boat; we’re all in the same storm. If you’re worse off and I’m better off, I’m not really better off. “We the people.” “A more perfect union.” That’s the better off I want.

Second is the issue of education. It has many dimensions. What I want to single out is the claim that students must not hear the truth of our history.

Central Minnesota Freedom Advocates, with school districts and teachers in their crosshairs, allege that “Our students have been taught to hate our nation and are being equipped to bring down our nation from the younger generation on up.” Three candidates for the St. Cloud Area School District 742 Board of Education are aligned with this claim.

To acknowledge that the human beings who were already here were nearly obliterated by those who came from Europe; that many of the founders were slaveholders; that the Constitution was shaped by views about Blacks and women that we (or at least some of us) find abhorrent — this is not to “hate our nation;” it’s to love it as a work in progress. It’s to be honest about who we were and are — who we all are — as Americans. Censoring the truth of our history, permitting the teaching only of what certain political agendas regard as the “good” parts of the narrative, is not “protecting” kids. The real threat to our nation? It’s shielding kids from the truth that makes sense of the present and prepares them for the future.

The third issue is something I was sure, in the years I was growing up, was settled — the separation of church and state.

Christian Nationalism has been around a long time, but I don’t recall any previous period in which it has been so loud, mainstreamed by prominent members of one of the main political parties. On his “ReAwaken America” tour, Gen. Michael Flynn — pardoned by Donald Trump — said, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God, right?” It really scares me that millions of Americans believe this, dismissing the fundamental question: “Whose religion? Who’s in? Who’s out?”

It scares me as an American — and it sickens me as a Christian. One feature of American history that deserves celebration is the challenge it posed and poses to the ancient notion that one nation requires one religion — a notion that limits religious freedom for most and litters landscapes with corpses.

“Better off” means common good. “Protecting” kids means trusting them with the truth. And America, in its Constitution, guarantees “no establishment” of a particular religion — a bedrock of religious liberty.