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Is America a Christian Country?

David C. Stolinsky

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A Jewish view.

July August 1994

Some time ago a Southern governor referred to the United States as "a Christian country." The media were unanimous in their denunciation, while my liberal and Jewish friends derided him as a bigot and a fool. My reaction was a bit different. When I first heard his description of this country, I thought, "What an optimist!" Perhaps my and my family's background can explain my attitude.

My mother was born in Russia just before the turn of the century. Her most vivid memory of early childhood was the pogrom of 1905. She and her family were hidden for three days in the home at times under the table of a friendly Christian family. The woman of the house placed icons in the window to make clear to the mob that it was not a Jewish home. My grandfather, a rabbi, had to be restrained from rushing outside in his unwillingness to be saved by images of Jesus and the saints. Nevertheless, the family was unhurt, while persons they knew were beaten to death. My mother was too young to have any memory other than fear. An older brother felt discomfort at the sound of church bells for the rest of his life. His memory of the pogrom starting in the churchyard overcame his memory of being saved by Christians. Soon after, the family emigrated to the U.S. After a brief stay on the Lower East Side, they settled in North Dakota, where my mother attended the university.

My father was born in the area of Poland that was ruled by the Czar. The hatred to which he and his peers were subjected was returned in kind. The older boys taught him to spit when passing a church surreptitiously, of course. His most salient memory of later childhood was seeing notices for jobs or places at the university, all of which ended with the proviso "Except Jews." Unwilling to serve in the army that supported such a system, he emigrated to New York as a teenager. He arrived with no money, no knowledge of English, and no high school diploma. He still managed to put himself through school, while taking time off to serve proudly as a private in the infantry in France in World War I. He later applied to various medical schools, where admission for Jews was limited by quotas. Ultimately, he was admitted to the University of North Dakota, where he met and married my mother. At the time it was a two year medical school, and for the additional two years my father transferred to St. Louis University, a Jesuit school.

My parents set up medical practice in Lisbon, North Dakota, a town of 2,000 inhabitants in those days one said "souls" and at length my mother became pregnant. The obstetrician informed them that a Caesarian section would be needed. My father decided to take her to the hospital where he had interned. It was a Catholic hospital, but my father had been well treated, and he trusted the people there. Things went well, and I was born. All in all, this was not a bad outcome for the little girl who hid under the table and the little boy who spat when passing churches.

My parents came from the generation that was trying to get away from Europe and everything that went with it, so the lack of formal religion did not bother them so long as I was small. When I was in first grade, a classmate was killed by a car and the class attended the funeral, so the first house of worship I entered was a Protestant church. I participated in the school Christmas program and sang about the "Mergin Mary." I recall my parents' mixed reaction, but they needn't have worried eventually I became bar mitzvah and married the granddaughter of a rabbi. I recall no school prayers, but strict honesty was required, and although I was unaware of it then a religious basis for ethics was assumed. The U.S. entered World War II when I was seven years old. Wishing to contribute to the war effort, my father applied to the Veterans Administration and was assigned to Boise, Idaho. Here he and a colleague set up a Jewish Sunday School in our home. We held Friday night services in the small Reform Temple, which was unused during the year. However, it was used for the High Holidays, so our little Conservative congregation rented the meeting room of the Mormon Temple. Thus I was introduced to my religion in a uniquely American way.

After the war my family settled in San Francisco and joined a Conservative congregation, so my religious experience took a more conventional form. Still, my parents wanted to expose me to a variety of experiences, and we frequently attended Reform or Orthodox services. In those days the Reform and Orthodox movements had not yet moved to opposite poles, and religious centrists had many options. We could attend a Reform service and hear a sermon, not a liberal political speech, or my father and I could attend an Orthodox service and sit with my mother. In addition, our rabbi occasionally invited guests to preach at Friday night services; one of these was a black minister whose beautiful sermons I still recall. Besides, I sometimes watched Bishop Sheen on television and listened to "The Old Fashioned Revival Hour" on radio, and once my parents took me to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

My parents sent me to public junior and senior high schools, which I attended via public transportation, and without fear. The worst thing that happened during those six years was a fight in which a friend of mine slipped and cut his head on the shower room floor. Many of us carried knives to school Boy Scout knives but there was not one stabbing or shooting. The "bad boys" smoked cigarettes, drank beer, and fooled around with the "bad girls." Those who smoked between classes chewed breath mints so the teachers wouldn't smell tobacco on their breath. Drugs were unknown. And this was no suburban locale; I attended middle class schools with multiethnic student bodies.

Besides parents and teachers, I enjoyed the benefit of positive role models from the media. First there was radio, with Captain Midnight, Tom Mix, and Gang Busters, narrated by H. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. Later came television, with Science in Action, the U.S. Steel Hour, and Playhouse Ninety. Most of all, there were the movies, where I absorbed everything from The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Story of Pierre and Marie Curie, and The Magic Buffet to Sergeant York, They Died With Their Boots On, Gunga Din, and Fort Apache. Today things are different. Instead of Pasteur, who overcame the establishment to fight for truth, or York, who overcame pacifism to fight for freedom, we have rap stars who glorify violence but fight for nothing. And instead of the chaplain praying with wounded soldiers in The Fighting Sixty Ninth, the myriad deaths depicted today are usually meaningless, and the dying or bereaved never pray. Religious persons are shown as fanatical bigots, while clergy appear only to perform exorcisms. Those expressing patriotic sentiments are often shown as rednecks, and veterans as unstable alcoholics. Happiness is equated with having fun, and is shown to come from money and possessions rather than inner qualities. It is untrue that today's media are not educational it's just that the lessons have changed.

As an early teenager I was painfully shy around girls, so I would loiter at the newsstand and sneak looks at "girlie" magazines until the clerk shooed me away. In those days, girlie magazines featured full figure shots of smiling young women in bathing suits or lingerie. Now, of course, such magazines are filled with full page crotch shots and are sold in supermarkets, where pre teen boys can show them to each other and say, as one did in my presence, "F her brains out." Perhaps I was lucky to have had my mental image of a woman formed by pictures of a whole woman, not just a crotch. Perhaps this has something to do with the increasing rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce, and violence against women. Perhaps visualizing a woman as a depersonalized crotch is not conducive to a lifelong, caring relationship.

Despite the absence of prayer, religion of a sort was taught in the public schools Americanism. In my early school years, the war and immediate postwar period made patriotism and a sense of unity an unexpressed but understood subtext to everything that happened. In high school I took ROTC. Our instructors were master sergeants who were World War II veterans with multiple rows of decorations and campaign ribbons. Even the rowdiest boys paid them respect. We knew to whom we owed our freedom. American History and Civics courses emphasized the values of our Founding Fathers. A history text did include a chapter entitled "The Age of Imperialism," but in general our nation was viewed positively. Those who wished to attend Hebrew School or Chinese School after school hours, or to attend parochial schools, did so, but no one expected the public schools to teach anything but general American values and culture. That was a big enough job. On the other hand, foreign languages were required, unlike many of today's "multicultural" high schools.

Each year we had a beautiful Christmas program that happened to be directed by a Catholic priest, so I came to appreciate "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin. The announcement of the program always included the proviso that those who did not wish to attend could go to the library, so no one felt compulsion. Christmas vacation was at least as welcome as the modern "winter break." Graduation ceremonies from junior and senior high included prayers. One was offered by a minister who caused me discomfort by mentioning Jesus Christ; the other was offered by a rabbi. Following graduation I attended the University of California at Berkeley and spent the vast majority of my time studying, as did most of my friends. We were aware that marijuana existed, but cigarettes, booze, and girls were temptation enough. There were Marxist professors, but as a rule they were unobtrusive, and my studies were not interrupted by a single demonstration or sit in. I recall the annual Charter Day ceremonies, which closed with the University Hymn:

Oh God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blas
t And our eternal home.

Somehow this didn't upset me or my Jewish friends. The speaker at one Charter Day was Chief Justice Earl Warren. Apparently it didn't upset him either I believe he joined in the singing. Have we really advanced since those days?

I attended medical school in San Francisco. The third year courses were at the old County Hospital, where we were thrown into patient care duties. A vivid memory is of the emergency room, where a young boy was brought by ambulance. He had been hit by a car and was in coma. I was given the task of shaving his head in preparation for surgery. As I was doing so, the Catholic chaplain arrived and, since the boy was in the uniform of the Catholic schools, began to administer the Last Rites. As I clumsily shaved away, the priest accidentally touched my hand with the holy oil. We said nothing to each other, but through his Latin prayer we somehow communicated our joint efforts to help the boy in our different ways. The boy eventually died; the priest's way proved to be the more beneficial.

On another occasion, a cardiac patient was doing poorly and his minister was called. The Protestant prayers sufficed to move to tears a young nurse I knew to be a devout Catholic. During the long nights on call, a stethoscope sometimes hit an oxygen tank and made a bell like sound. Somehow this reminded me of the little bell the altar boy rang to alert worshipers to important parts of the Mass. Of course, bells no longer accompany Mass, which is no longer said in Latin, and oxygen is piped in, so there are no more bell like sounds in the middle of the night to remind us that a hospital is a holy place.

Later I specialized in medical oncology, which at the beginning involved trying new treatments on patients with far advanced cancer. Frequently I came in Sunday morning to make rounds. Our hospital was a small branch of the County Hospital, but somehow the First Amendment allowed Sunday church services to be held in the sun room at the end of our ward. Patients in wheelchairs and on gurneys crowded the hallway to participate. Often I would squeeze past them while the minister preached or led in singing hymns. A black Baptist minister alternated with a Korean Methodist; what their singing lacked in musical ability was more than made up for by genuine emotion. It was an unforgettable experience to care for my patients in that atmosphere.

In medical school lectures and later in medical journals, discussion of medical ethics invariably began with Hippocrates and frequently included the Bible, Maimonides, and the Church Fathers. Slowly these references disappeared, and for at least a decade they have been virtually absent.

A leading medical journal published three articles advocating medical euthanasia that is, actual killing of patients by their physicians. Another article discussed the Dachau experiments, in which Nazi doctors submerged prisoners in ice water, supposedly to discover how to aid flyers downed in the North Sea. Each time, I submitted a letter to the editor, noting that the authors justified euthanasia. None of the four letters was published. Upon enquiry, the editor replied that even brief references to God or Hippocrates ("I will give no deadly medicine...") would not be published because they were "not interesting" and because they represented merely an "appeal to authority." Apparently, the editor did not recognize that in advocating medical killing, the authors were simply substituting themselves as the authority.

In short, in reply to the Southern governor I would say, "Is America a Christian country? I doubt it but I grew up in one." The country that gave shelter (not welcomed, gave shelter) to my parents, despite their being Jewish, did so because its people were religious. If one doubts this, let him notice that religious groups lead the fight for continued immigration today. Clearly, religious people can be bigots and worse, as history shows. But in a nation descended from immigrants, where no group has a majority, religion tended toward tolerance rather than bigotry. In past years, Catholics and Jews had discrimination in common, and now fundamentalists are among Israel's strongest supporters. This is not to say that my family experienced no bigotry. One of the professors who interviewed me for medical school insisted that I had an accent, and he did not mean a Midwestern one. My father was not always accepted by other physicians, or my mother by other teachers. Still, the overall effect of living in a Christian country was beneficial for us.

Those who believe that all anti Semitism is religious in nature ignore the obvious fact that 19 centuries of pogroms, expulsions, and autos da fé still left six million Jews for a secular dictatorship to annihilate in 12 years. Hitler built on this long history of religious based bigotry, but what does this mean? It means that hatred, which for almost two millennia had been propagated by religion yet held in check by religious scruples, was released in its full fury by a post Christian, essentially pagan state. The decline of American Christianity thus makes me quite uneasy. What hatreds or other repressed evils will surface when the restraint of religion weakens still further? Moreover, our complaint against the Churches during the Nazi era is that they interfered too little in politics. Luckily, there was no G.C.L.U. (German Civil Liberties Union) to block even these efforts. But at precisely what point should the Churches have interfered? Clearly, it was far too late by the time the mass deportations had begun. To have any hope of being effective, protests must begin when the situation is still ambiguous and controversial, and thus reversible. Those who object to American Churches opposing abortion or euthanasia should keep this in mind: To paraphrase Pastor Niemöller, if no one speaks up against abortion or euthanasia, there may be no one left to speak up against something worse. Churches are rather like the police we must put up with traffic tickets if we expect their help when killers break into our homes.

Despite all this, many of my liberal and Jewish friends continue to fight old battles. Like my uncle, they remember the church bells, not the rescuers. They react reflexively against anything remotely suggesting a connection between religion and the nation. There are no more prayers at school graduations. Are the graduates any better for it? The University Hymn is no longer sung at Berkeley. Are the students or professors any happier or better? Nativity scenes no longer appear on city hall lawns. Are anti Semitic incidents less frequent? A Democratic Party official refers to the unborn child as a "blob of jelly." Are women safer or more respected? A film involving a sexual relationship between an adult male and a 12 year old boy is reviewed as "controversial." Will the "controversy" be settled by lowering the age of consent to 12, as some propose? Pornography in its grossest forms is readily available. Are sexual problems less common? Grammar school children are taught details of condom use and homosexuality. Do teenagers have an easier time finding their identities? Films, television, and music videos overflow with sex and violence, often combined. Do they produce better or happier people?

Children grow up without being taught that anything is sacred. Is it likely that they will later come to appreciate the significance of a marriage certificate, an oath of office, or a contract, much less a handshake? All the litigation generated by 800,000 American lawyers will not suffice to repair the resulting damage. Value free education produces value free graduates. Why are we surprised that criminals roam free? An assistant chief of police is driven from office because he consulted with fellow church members before carrying out an order he questioned. Do citizens feel safer from police abuses? Marriage is discouraged by welfare and tax policies. Are we unaware that criminals are more likely than not to have grown up without a father in the house? Medical journals assert that doctors may kill their patients under vaguely defined circumstances, and 46 percent of California voters agree. In the Netherlands, cited by advocates of euthanasia as a model, over one thousand patients annually are killed by their doctors without their consent. For the old or poor or disabled, this maybe troubling. In an era of health care rationing, it should be.

Only a few years ago, if a person was found lying on the sidewalk, someone would stop to help. The only exception was skid row on Saturday night, when drunkenness was common. Now hardly anyone stops, even at midday in the "best" neighborhoods. Homelessness, drug abuse, and AIDS are common, and no one wants to get involved. Besides, civil libertarians have taught us that autonomy is the highest value. Stepping over a prostrate individual truly expresses how highly we value autonomy, at least our own. It says less for the value we place on human life, and still less for the example we are giving our children and the society we are leaving for them. A study of non Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust showed that rescuers tended to have a strong religious background and sense of community. We seem to be doing our best to rid our society of such persons. One can only hope that we will need them again.

Even the Boy Scout Oath is under attack. What is wrong with teaching young people to do their duty to God and country, in that order? Perhaps that is the key point. Perhaps that is what irritated the editor of the medical journal. We may soon live in a country where nothing, especially God, comes before what we want, or what the experts want, or what the government wants. Despite my friends' fears, there are no pogroms. Skinheads and the Klan must be watched, true, but they are small groups with little influence and less religion. The reason we fear to go out after dark is not that we may be set upon by bands of evangelicals and forced to read the New Testament, but that we may be set upon by gangs of feral young people who have been taught that nothing is superior to their own needs or feelings. And if religious (and secular) fanatics are to be feared, what could possibly strengthen their hand more than the continued disintegration of society? When the majority religion is under attack, should a minority feel safer? Christians are resented as reminders of universal ethical rules; will Jews be better received?

That a society can preserve ethical values and transmit them to subsequent generations in the absence of a permanent source for them is a belief unsupported by historical evidence. It requires a leap of faith just as does a belief in God. Nevertheless, we are betting everything we have that it is correct. As a Jew, I occasionally felt mild discomfort living in a Christian country. As a human being and a Jew, I frequently feel real fear living in a post Christian country. A Christian country? Barely, and not for long, unless we do something about it.

David C. Stolinsky, M.D., lives in Los Angeles, and is semi retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

Read the entire article on the David C. Stolinsky website (new window will open). Reprinting allowed with attribution.

Posted: 07-Aug-07

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