Bill Moyers loves community. He has spent his whole life trying to form it, even when he is the only one in front of the camera and everyone else is on the receiving end.
“Ours is a medium that can work magic by closing the distance between us,” Moyers said. “Television has made us intimate strangers.”
The broadcast journalist concluded a week of interviews with his own thoughts as a summary of Week Three’s theme “A Crisis of Faith?” He presented his speech, titled “Faith, Doubt and the American Way,” Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.
“I’ve often described journalism and journalists as beachcombers of the shores of other people’s knowledge and experience,” he said. “I am, to a very real extent, what I gather. This week of beachcombing has yielded an exceptional harvest.”
To begin his lecture, Moyers commended everyone who took the podium during Week Three.
“Even to blink this week was to miss another lightbulb going off, a keen insight, a compelling metaphor, a thought worth holding and turning over in your mind again and again,” Moyers said. “I tried to take notes but kept suspending my pen just an inch above my notebook because I was mesmerized like a child at the ice cream parlor, confronted with 36 different flavors and wanting to taste each one. That’s Chautauqua.”
Even though he strives for journalistic objectivity in the recapping of these lectures, Moyers said it is impossible to be entirely honest unless, sometimes, he acts a “kindred spirit, rather than exclusively as an observer.”
Over the course of Week Three, he kept recalling his first visit to the Chartres Cathedral in France with his wife, Judith. They were in their early 20s, equipped for a European trip spanning 10,000 miles, lasting three and a half months, with a budget of $750.
The city was a prime example of “architectural achievement,” and as he and his wife turned the corner around a set of rose-tinted windows, they saw it. A statue of the Bible’s Adam, the first human being, emerging in the book of Genesis as “an idea from God’s mind.”
“God was thinking us into being,” Moyers said. “We were considered as ideas in the mind of God. I had never before encountered face-to-face so powerful and precious a metaphor. Because with a beginning like that, we humans cannot avoid thinking for ourselves.”
People, he said, have the ability to “listen and heed that still small voice inside (them)” and indeed “the right to say no, even to God.”
That’s what he came to understand about the sculpture: the conflicting capabilities of human beings, able to draw closer and further away from a higher power.
“Doubt and belief are progenies of God,” he said. “The Siamese twins of faith. Belief is to ascend, doubt is to defy.”
Moyers was sure, too, that those listening to his lecture might conjure up doubt upon first glance.
“I’m aware of how all of this adds up,” he said. “I’m white, male, straight and old. I understand that any time I stand up before an audience half my age, there’s an undercurrent of skepticism — not malicious skepticism, but just generational skepticism.”
But his desire to communicate internal hope remains.
“When religion can address these people, us, and not in the politicized jargon of today’s over-televised, over-technologized and under-tenderized political class, we will not have to fret over the future of faith,” he said.
A standard Bible includes approximately 31,000 verses. Biblical site topverses.com used an algorithm to sift through 37 million online Bible references made in 2016. The winner: Jeremiah 29:11 — “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
“Doesn’t that break your heart?” Moyers asked. “People going online to find the consolation in an ancient Hebrew text (for) the misfortune and pain they’re experiencing in America in the 21st century, and what is it they’re seeking? Some protection against the insanity of the world, some hope and, get this, a future. Jeremiah 29:11 is the prayer of losers in the winner-take-all war of a political system that has been corrupted into the service of oligarchs and plutocrats, multi-millionaires and billionaires and the corporations that dominate the global economy.”
As a young man, Moyers felt a gravitational pull toward politics. He served seven total years in both the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, watching as both parties “betrayed everyday Americans.” He began to understand a Thomas Jefferson quote, recorded in 1789: “I am not a Federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whether in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else. … If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”
“Do we realize, do we grasp, do we understand just how too cruel our culture has become?” Moyers asked. “Our most vital safety nets are frayed and fraying. The policies of our workplaces have turned against (my parents) Henry and Ruby Moyers. Our quality of life is subjected to market-based metrics.”
And that’s not all.
“The bottom line and the relentless barrage of commercial propaganda,” he said, “(is) to the point that it becomes difficult for the public to acknowledge a cost in human misery and everyday hardship for millions of people just struggling to survive, dreaming of a decent income, dreaming of dignity, dreaming of hope, a future, as Jeremiah says, for themselves and for the kids.”
But that “hope and future,” a Pew Research Center poll said, can be linked to a survey of Republicans which monitored their church attendance.
“Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not,” Peter Beinart of The Atlantic wrote in his article “Breaking Faith.” “Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place?”
Beinart quoted MSNBC host Chris Hayes as well, who writes that American politics are divided by two groups: institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists wish to “preserve and adapt” the current political system, and insurrectionists despise the political system.
And whether in statecraft or spirituality, millennials, Moyers said, are just looking to be themselves.
“Their take on religion is about as myriad as their DNA,” he said. “You can’t really talk about religion today without reckoning with the diversity and variety of belief and unbelief. Everyone is different.”
Regardless, Moyers said, of whether they’re millennials, millions have “stopped believing in belief.”
Some were never religious to begin with, some were offended by politicians’ hypocritical usage of “God Bless America” and some were “turned off by the monster born of the coupling of politics and religion because that involves coercion and that involves extremism.”
Moyers said the only way to break these patterns of distrust was simple: fellowship.
“I urge you not to underestimate the deep thirst for fellowship among a generation facing the extinction of life itself from the foolish belief of an ideology that says we can have it all now,” Moyers said, “because they know that when we have it, we have lost something profound and something sacred, that sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that is at the heart of our human experience.”
In an essay he wrote in the The Buffalo News in response to Robert Jones’ 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey, Fr. William “Jud” Weiksnar wrote of what he believed to be an inclusive commonality: Slow Roll bike riding. Originating in Detroit, friends from the age of “4 to 93” gathered together for neighborhood exploration on wheels, oftentimes meeting up afterward for a meal or beverage.
“Blind riders and guides, deaf riders and the very young, as well as different races, ethnicities and nationalities — all are welcome,” Moyers paraphrased. Even without a religious connection, these bikers knew how to celebrate.
So, Moyers said, “acknowledging that America is a broken experiment but still rich in promise for all if we live up to the prologue to the Constitution” is vital to the success of the nation.
Moyers was at Chautauqua Institution over the Fourth of July weekend, and the festivities left him humming Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or the “Ode to Joy,” all night.
“I asked myself, why do we keep stepping on joy?” Moyers said. “What is in our heart of hearts that we really want — truly, a more perfect union, a saner society, a safe future for ourselves, our kids and everyone. I’m convinced that there are few human beings who are really content, satisfied as a human being if they’re the only one in the neighborhood who is safe and secure, well-housed, well-fed and well-clothed. Why do we keep stepping on our desire to live our lives together?”
Once, when traveling to the apartheid country of Rhodesia, Moyers woke up in the middle of the night and heard the “Ode to Joy” playing over the radio; he figured out it was the country’s national anthem, except there had been edits made: “Rise, O Voices of Rhodesia” — but, Moyers said, “not blacks, not Muslims.”
“They had taken this beautiful celebration of our capacity for fellowship, our capacity for community, our capacity for joy and turned it into a tune of an oppressive state,” he said. “That’s the dissonance in religion. That’s the conflict we have to wrestle with. That’s the resolution we have to make.”