One of the areas I wanted to explore on my road trip was the role of religion in the US. ‘In God We Trust” is the official motto of the US. From my first day in Kellar School aged 9 – when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance with its line “one Nation under God” – I’ve been aware of religion in American society. This in spite of the First Amendment separation of church and state. I’ve had two higher conversations so far.
First was with Clark and Sinet in City Park, Denver. You might well have experienced Jehovah’s Witnesses offering you the Watchtower. In the UK, there seemed to be a concerted effort to congregate around train stations, but I always rushed by. This time I paused to chat and, half an hour later, no conversion took place from my or their perspective. Good, respectful chat and, through my enquiries, I learned about their lives and approach. However, having coached a person with Jehovah’s Witnesses upbringing, I had mood music going on in my mind about the impact of these teachings.
New Life Church
A more substantive engagement was with the www.newlifechurch.org in Colorado Springs. It was a Sunday morning, so I searched out an evangelical church, of the type popular in the area. I’d once been to an evangelical wedding, but nothing prepared me for this type of service. I got on my Sunday go to meeting clothes (the most respectful I could pull from my rucksack) and arrived just in time for coffee and donuts. When I asked if I could take them in, I was told “of course” – this contrasted with being told off for taking a cup of tea to the Jordanhill Parish Church Christmas service some years ago. I was made welcome, and also given what I took to be the wine and wafer for communion.
The first half hour was like a rock concert. The congregation of 1,500 stood and rocked to seductive music with words that made Van Morrison’s lyrics sound pedestrian. There were guitar riffs, crescendos and soaring vocals that would do any rocker justice. Full on lights, sound, and big screen. If I hadn’t seen the lyrics on screen, I’d have thought I was at a rock concert. I usually wake up to classical music on a Sunday morning. After half an hour we had what I took to be something akin to a baptism. Having been seated for a few minutes, we were again standing and swaying as the film crew with roving mic presented the proud parents and children.
The sermon by the minister was textbook speech 101 – three points, introduced, put on the big screen, presented, and then summed up. The points were under the heading of ‘friendship’ and, in essence, were: avoid individualism and build community; overcome busyness to engage with others; and don’t avoid conflict, but work things out. I found myself listening closely to, and agreeing with, the points. There were two examples to illustrate the messages, from basketball and what we call ‘men’s sheds’ in the UK. All made sense and I was moved to tears with the stories. However, when it came to the solution – which was to sign up to the New Life Church – I gave a pass.
I left conflicted. The analysis made sense but, given the extensive evangelical support for some issues that cause divisiveness – whether in the Middle East or closer to home – I was left wondering how worshippers behaved once they got outside. It might be the reverse of what happens on the terraces of Ibrox and Parkhead in Glasgow, where Rangers and Celtic fans yell insults against the other religion for 90 minutes, then behave afterwards like nothing happened.
On balance, the congregation streamed out with the message to focus on ‘community’. From my conversations so far, folk have commented that this is what is needed in America today.
Having got a feel for this type of worship, I’ll see what else I can experience on my road trip. What does seem to be emerging is the dilution of the First Amendment separation of church and state.
As an aside, Carlos greeted worshipers as they entered by making the case for Allah, and he admitted that his ‘F*ck the Police’ hat was probably not the wisest choice for his protest.