The revelation last week that Vermont was named the third most patriotic state was startling, especially considering it has consistently been one of the least religious, in fact, quite frequently “the” least religious. Patriotism, religion — Christianity to be precise — and politics have become so intertwined the last few decades that we’ve come to perceive them as being one and the same, however likely that the founding fathers might have cringed at such a thought, preferring instead a clear distinction between God and country.
How that distinction has become blurred over the last half-century is illustrated by two men seeking the presidency years apart and the remarks each gave outlining how his religion might or might not affect his decision making. In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism presented a problem for many voters, particularly Protestants, while in 2007, Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, addressed the controversy surrounding his own faith, perceived by many to be a type of cult. While Kennedy was clear that church-state separation was “absolute,” Romney’s more ambiguous address illustrated how far in the opposite direction we’ve come since then.
Listening to both speeches — available on NPR — is a study in contrasts, with JFK going full secular while Romney, running against Barack Obama in 2007, sought to have it both ways, cherry picking Kennedy’s overall message but peppering his remarks with a perception of religion and politics more likely appealing to evangelical Christians, who, in the ensuing 50 years, had become an influential constituency. While Kennedy kept religion at arm’s length, Romney adroitly wove the beliefs of Mormons together with those of evangelical Christians in opposition to what he termed “the religion of secularism.”
Given recent political cycles, where it has become increasingly necessary for candidates to extol their own religious beliefs and respect those of their opponents, Vermont’s demonstrable lack of piety might be conflated as a lack of patriotism, but, according to Wallethub, the D.C.-based personal financial website conducting the survey, this is not the case.
Based on a variety of criteria, including the percentage of voters in the last presidential election; military engagement and enlistment per capita; and volunteer hours, Vermont joined New Hampshire, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho rounding out the top five.
While this research might leave you mystified, considering what patriotism really means, it begins to make some sense. Likewise with our designation as the least religious, which doesn’t necessarily translate to a dearth of spirituality. Romney’s oxymoronic reference to “the religion of secularism” was an overblown attempt to breach the church-state wall, but can also be a useful description of, for instance, a person’s “religious” devotion to a hobby: “For him, fly fishing was a religion;” or how driving through the grove of October maples can be a religious experience. Obviously, these are not listed among organized religions, but, nonetheless represent spiritual experiences for some of us.
Vermonters are big on civic engagement, involved with their communities, serving on boards, commissions and volunteering in various capacities in schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Our voter turnout usually exceeds national averages, and we’re generally well-informed on both local and national issues, often working for the candidates we support. Religiously, we may not attend church services, but many of us are devoted to what we consider a more rational approach to nourishing our souls (if we believe we have souls).
Although we’re proud of Vermont’s uniqueness and we may decry the shotgun marriage of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, we actually seem to have adopted our own version of the same thing: a kind of a civil union between pagans and progressives, checking many of the same boxes as the holy rollers.
However diametrically opposed our long-range goals might be, our processes for reaching them are eerily similar. Where Southern Baptists may go strictly by the book, accepting “the word” unchallenged, Vermonters seem quite comfortable designing a completely individualized spiritual path. Right-leaning fundamentalist Christians are staunchly conservative politically, while our Green Mountain “secularists” are generally progressive voters.
It’s refreshing that Vermonters are comfortable enough in their own skin to dismiss the lockstep expectations of both organized religion and traditional politics, negotiating their own, often alternative, path through the metaphysical world. Town meeting makes an annual statement about participation, as do the yoga, Tai Chi and meditation classes scattered throughout the state. Buddhist prayer flags mercifully outnumber Trump 2020 signs; vast numbers of Black Lives Matter placards appear in mostly white communities; and marchers in our Independence Day parades highlight an almost inconceivable assortment of independence and diversity.
So, it seems we are both patriotic and spiritual, but mostly on our own terms, believing in the true spirit of America, the foundations of democracy and expecting the same from Washington, and despite sparsely attended church services, neopagans could very well be out in the woods, engaging in rituals adapted from traditions that predate Christianity.
Unusual? Absolutely. Weird? Maybe a little. Existential threat? Hopefully. Why most of us live here? Yup.
Walt Amses is a writer from North Calais.