18 April 2009


Today I received another mass-forwarded email; this one calling for a day of prayer for a return to "traditional American values." The email message implies that America is going to hell because of its loss of unnamed, supposedly traditional, values. Without analyzing how America has always, in every era, purportedly been "going to hell"--an epicycle around the central Christian belief of America's "fallen nature"--I would like to point out that there is another, alternative tradition in American life: that of the perennial struggle for freedom, for equality, for the poor.

While recognizing the thesis of historians Will and Ariel Durant, who said, "Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensible, in every land and age"--I would like to draw attention to someone--lawyer and writer Clarence Darrow--who I think represents that vital aspect of American history and very real American traditional value, for which the mass-forwarded email does not represent. Today (18 April) is his birthday (see 
http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/DARROW.HTM) He was born in Kinsman, Ohio (1857), and fought for unions, racial equality, and the poor. In the 1925 "Monkey Trial," he defended high school teacher John Scopes for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in a Tennessee school.

If you have not viewed it before, I encourage you to watch the movie, Inherit the Wind, about heroic Darrow and the Scopes Monkey Trial. This, too, I maintain, represents traditional American values.

Are the writers and forwarders of the email calling for a day of prayer concerned with assertive government policies to help the poor? Are they concerned about social justice? Are they concerned about the end of racism? Do they advocate for some redistribution of wealth in America? Are they concerned for marriage equality?

No, I think not. Their prayerful concerns are political in a negative sense, in that they divert attention away from an agenda of social justice. They can have their revival in the "wilderness," like the 1801-1805 Great Revival which swept the frontier in Kentucky and spread throughout the South, but it will do nothing to ameliorate the material basis of American inequality.

For this, the traditional prayerful might need our prayers.

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