A Meaningless Faith

I was listening late last night to an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel (one of the rare radio shows based on a television series) from December, 1958, when I came across this CBS Radio public service announcement early in the recording of the original broadcast, an earnest little message from the high water mark of American Christendom:

Crime, delinquency, threats of war. These are the subjects that dominate our news headlines these days. Not very pleasant subjects, are they? You may say that somebody ought to do something about cutting down on crime and delinquency, and in promoting peace among nations, but that there’s nothing you personally can do about it. That’s where you’re wrong. You can wage your own fight against crime and delinquency in your own family by taking your family to the church or synagogue of your faith this week.

The inspiration and guidance you and they will receive from spiritual contact will strengthen moral background and faith. Regular attendance at religious services will help your family to work out its own problems, and give them comfort in facing the tensions of our present day life. Worshiping together brings your family closer together too. And supporting your own religious institution provides funds to help those individuals and families who, unlike you, are unable to help themselves. Find the strength for your life. Worship together this week.

Where to start with this? Well, where’s God? Where’s the story of God’s people? Where is the struggle with God, and God’s struggle with us? This is a message tailored to be anodyne in its ecumenism (“church or synagogue of your faith”), deeply utilitarian and unparticular in its approach. It’s an appeal to faith composed by Don Draper. In this “faith” and “worship” is comfort, order, answers. Perhaps that is useful, and even important, but the you here is clearly singular and very likely to married family men (it would be interesting to see what CBS and its affiliates knew — or thought they knew — about listeners to this radio show). It is church as social agent, an adjunct to the greater society, in which the purpose of worship and faith is to help equip individuals and families for the “fight” against those sources of the “tensions of our daily life.”

It’s also clear, I think, that in this, there is no shared faith story except the role of the church in that greater social fight. This is not about God calling Abraham, or Moses leading the people out of Egypt, or the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and how those stories form us as the people of God. The civic story — the fight against crime, delinquency, despair in the face of the H-Bomb, dealing with daily tensions — is the only shared story here, and it is central. But that civic faith is not biblical, and in this telling, it is clearly not God shaped nor God centered.

There’s also the little matter of the “unlike you.” That may be the ad man’s appeal, during a radio show in which the primary character is a hired gunman who is constantly giving away his fairly substantial fees (in the episode in question, written by Gene Roddenberry, Paladin gives away his $1,000 to the chief of an Indian tribe; how Paladin manages to live as well as he does, in San Francisco’s swanky Carlton Hotel, with at least one Chinese servant, is anyone’s guess), to those who see themselves as self-sufficient. It may be a good thing to encourage. But that alleged self-sufficiency is not biblical story either.

This is not religion as deep and lasting encounter with the divine, but as socially useful service, religion as a public utility. And THAT was the essence of American Christendom. I can understand why many want a return to that society — you could assume most, if not all, of your neighbors shared the basic contours of this understanding. It didn’t ask anything of anyone except that they be good, patriotic American citizens. But it created a public faith, a confessed faith, a practiced faith, that was almost entirely devoid of any real attempt to meet, or be met by, God. And to be formed, to be changed, by that encounter. It was a faith that didn’t know what to do with those encounters. It was a faith that substituted the only shared story it had — the American story of progress, freedom and social respectability and responsibility — for the burning bush and the cross.

It was a meaningless faith.

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