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July 17, 2009

Religion and the ''Moral Axis of the Universe''

(Photo by Robin Holland)

In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with author Robert Wright, who discussed his vision of how various cultures’ notions of God have evolved throughout history. Wright suggested that, at their best, religious traditions have aligned their adherents with a transcendent “moral axis of the universe” that encompasses values applicable to all of humanity:

“I believe there’s a purpose unfolding that has a moral directionality – I have barely the vaguest notion of what might be behind that and whether it could be anything like a personal God or an intelligent being or not... Whatever is behind it, if something is, is probably something that’s beyond human conception... Given the constraints on human cognition, believing in a personal God is a pretty defensible way to go about orienting yourself to the moral axis of the universe... [The] conscience, which certainly is imperfect as natural selection shaped it, is not by itself a reliable guide to moral conduct, I think... If we want to secure the salvation of the global social system and of the planet – in other words, if we want salvation in the Hebrew Bible sense of the term – we do have to move ourselves closer to what I would call the moral axis of the universe, which means drawing more of humanity into our frame of reference, getting better at putting ourselves in their shoes, [and] expanding the realm of tolerance.”

What do you think?

  • Do you believe, as Wright does, in a “moral axis of the universe” based on common values of expanding tolerance? Why or why not?

  • In your view, is religion necessary to build a more ethical society?

  • April 25, 2008

    The Controversy Over Wright

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) in Chicago and Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Il) pastor for more than 20 years, who’s been embroiled in controversy.

    “When something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public, that's not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a "wackadoodle"... I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ... To put an element of fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of Americans who still don't know the African-American tradition, know nothing about the prophetic theology of the African-American experience, who know nothing about the black church, who don't even know how we got a black church.”

    Some have argued that TUCC’s “Black Value System,” which emphasizes commitment to the “Black community” and “Black family” rather than to communities and families in general, prioritizes racial identity in an inherently racist way. Arguing that Wright himself might be a racist who holds racial animus against certain groups, commentators have pointed to his statement that “white folks’ greed runs a world in need” and to his accusation that the U.S. government “invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” Furthermore, Wright’s association with Louis Farrakhan, whose history of anti-semitic and anti-white statements has been condemned, has brought further controversy.

    In contrast, some have come to the defense of Wright's rhetoric and his notion of “the prophetic theology of the African American experience” and black liberation theology. In today’s Dallas Morning News, Gerald Britt dismisses “attempts to delegitimize Dr. Wright and Trinity United Christian Church for its Afrocentric theological emphasis” and argues that the black church “has been admired for its powerful presence within the African-American community; its worship is envied for its emotional freedom.”

    What do you think?

    April 18, 2008

    Religious Tolerance in America

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, author Martha Nussbaum addressed the topics of religious tolerance and equality in America.

    Nussbaum said:

    "The University of Virginia said that student activity fees could be used to fund every student group: the Young Democrats, the lesbian and gay students group, the gardening club, the choir. But the one thing they couldn't use the money to fund was the Young Christians. Now, there really is an issue of fairness. I mean, why should it be just because you're a religious group that you don't get what everyone else gets to pursue their own conscientious commitment?"

    In the case that Nussbaum mentions, students decided to sue and ultimately persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that their right to free speech had been denied because of religion.

    In addition to this divide between religious and non-religious groups, division can be seen between religious groups themselves. For example, many have alleged that there is a "war on Christmas," defined as attempts to replace traditional Christmas greetings and decorations with generic "Season's Greetings" in the public sphere, while symbols of other religions are welcomed for providing diversity.

    A recent blog post from the NEW YORK TIMES noted that many voters took umbrage at an email that was widely circulated after Sen. John Kerry's (D-Ma) defeat in the 2004 election. The email, which labeled states that Kerry had won as "The United States of Canada" while dismissing those that President Bush had carried as "Jesusland," was interpreted by many as offensively anti-Christian.

    Recently, controversy has engulfed Minnesota's Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), a publically-funded charter school that reportedly has been violating state and federal law by teaching Islam, scheduling and organizing Muslim prayer on school grounds during the school day, and marketing itself among Muslims as an avowedly Muslim institution. Reports suggest that these abuses have continued despite several inspections by state officials responsible for ensuring that no public school promotes or endorses religion. Some commentators have speculated that a Christian school acting in the same ways would not have been handled with the same leniency.

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with the Supreme Court's decision in the University of Virginia case?
  • Are some commentators correct when they allege discrimination against Christians?
  • Are the examples in Virginia and Minnesota representative of what's happening across the U.S.? Have you seen these divides in your community?

  • February 25, 2008

    Bill Moyers Rewind: Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Finding Peace in the Middle East (1990)

    In a conversation with Bill Moyers on WORLD OF IDEAS in 1990, three years before the first attack on the World Trade Center, Mideast scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr discussed the prospects of achieving regional peace given increasing unrest in parts of the Islamic world, rising anti-western sentiment, and the first Gulf War.

    "[The symbolism of American and other western troops being stationed near Mecca and Medina] in many Muslims' eyes is kind of a final desecration of things Islam, the final humiliation that Muslims can't defend even the center of their world."

    Click below to watch the interview:

    We invite you to respond by commenting below.

    February 15, 2008

    Bill Moyers Rewind: Susan Jacoby

    This week, Bill Moyers speaks with Susan Jacoby, author of THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON. In the clip below of a 2004 interview from NOW WITH BILL MOYERS, Jacoby discusses her previous book, FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM.

    Watch Video

    We invite you to respond in the space below.

    January 18, 2008

    Is Cynicism Un-American?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Reviewing Professor Harvey J. Kaye’s book THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA in THE NEW YORK TIMES, historian Joseph Ellis wrote:

    “'The promise of America' that Paine glimpsed so lyrically at the start cannot be easily translated into our 21st-century idiom without distorting the intellectual integrity of its 18th-century origins... In the wake of Darwin's depiction of nature, Freud's depiction of human nature, the senseless slaughter of World War I and the genocidal tragedies of the 20th century, Paine's optimistic assumptions appear naïve in the extreme. What a reincarnated Paine would say about our altered political and intellectual landscape is impossible to know. Kaye hears his voice more clearly and unambiguously than I do, a clarity of conviction that I envy. My more muddled position is that bringing Paine's words and ideas into our world is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

    Responding to this review in his JOURNAL interview, Kaye said:

    “I got to the end and I thought, 'How sad. The loss of hope, the loss of aspiration - how un-American,’ I almost said... Americans should always be trying to plant flowers. There are ways of sprouting things anew, and that’s what America’s about. We have no reason to fear. We have no reason to be cynical, no reason to be desperate...

    We need to have this kind of confidence in our fellow citizens that they somehow are able to take advantage of that confidence. It's our job to join with our fellow citizens and join them in the courage that we have.”

    What do you think?

  • Is cynicism about the direction of the United States “un-American?”
  • How much can “confidence in our fellow citizens” cure the ills of our body politic?
  • If such confidence can be effective, how can ordinary citizens “plant flowers” for a better nation and world?

  • December 7, 2007

    Religion In Politics

    In this week’s edition of the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers asked Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Melissa Rogers about Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s high-profile speech regarding his Mormonism, highlighting the following quote:

    "Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are."

    This is a debate with deep historical roots that has long defied easy categorization into "left" vs. "right" terms. While some liberal figures - like Jimmy Carter - have embraced linking religious principles to their political values, a number of conservative statesmen have taken stands arguing for the stringent separation of church and state. In 1981, Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater said:

    "On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

    I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in 'A,' 'B,' 'C' and 'D.' Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of 'conservatism.'"

    (For more on Barry Goldwater and Bill Moyers' interview with Goldwater staffer Victor Gold, click here)

    What do you think?

  • Is it acceptable to ask candidates questions about their religious faith? If so, which questions?

  • Is it appropriate for a candidate to promote, as Mike Huckabee has, their religious viewpoints as part of their appeal?

  • What is the proper relationship between candidates’ religion and their decisions when they reach office?

  • November 30, 2007

    An Evangelical Christian for Peace

    by Ronald J. Sider

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    The following essay by Ronald J. Sider was originally posted on the blog on October 4, 2007. Since issuing this letter to the President urging for further Israel/Palestine negotiations, Evangelical leaders issued a new statement this week urging for a two-state solution to the conflict. We invite you to continue the conversation where it left off.

    The religious right - whether Pat Robertson, James Dobson or Rev. Hagee of Christians United for Israel - simply do not represent the evangelical center.

    Earlier this year, James Dobson and friends sent an open letter to the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) – the largest evangelical network in the U.S. representing 30 million evangelicals – urging them to discipline or fire their VP for Public Policy. Why? Because Rich Cizik was speaking out on global warming. Dobson insisted the NAE should focus on what Dobson called the great moral issues of our time – i.e., the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage and sexual abstinence outside marriage (Hagee would have added uncritical support for Israel).

    Continue reading "An Evangelical Christian for Peace" »

    October 4, 2007

    An American Depression?

    There's no question that the Christian Zionist movement in United States is growing strong. As CUFI founder John Hagee, who already claims two million members in his young organization, and would like to align all American evangelicals to his cause, recently exclaimed at CUFIs annual A Night to Honor Israel:

    When 50 million evangelical bible-believing Christians unite with five million American Jews standing together on behalf of Israel, it is a match made in heaven.

    But why has this movement had such a profound allure for many Americans?

    In his conversation with Bill Moyers this week, Rabbi Michael Lerner offers one explanation, discussing the appeal of dispensationalism, or the religious view held by many Christian Zionists, that the second coming of Jesus is incumbent upon the Jews being in Israel. He offers this reasoning:

    Dispensationalists are onto something. They are onto the growing depression that people are feeling, a deep emotional depression in the United States. A lack of any hopeful picture of what the world could be - and that failure is not a failure of dispensationalists. It's a failure of the mainstream political framework in this country that to address the major questions facing the world in the 21st century.

    What do you think?

  • Are Americans yearning for some new philosophy to fill a void left by mainstream politics?
  • Besides Christian Zionism, do you see any signs of other movements beginning to fill this void?

  • October 3, 2007

    Preview: Christian Zionism

    This Week on Bill Moyers Journal:

    As leader of the politically powerful group Christians United for Israel (CUFI), Pastor John Hagee wants to bring millions of Christians together to support Israel. But some say his message is dangerous: “It is time for America to…consider a military preemptive strike against Iran to prevent a nuclear holocaust in Israel and a nuclear attack in America.” Bill Moyers Journal reports on CUFI and then gets theological and political context from Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a Jewish journal of politics, culture, and spirituality, and Dr. Timothy P. Weber, an evangelical Christian, historian, and the author of On The Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend. Also on the program, a year after the tragic shooting, Bill Moyers looks at what the Amish can teach us about healing.

    Can't Play This Video? Click here for quicktime and windows media versions.

    Check Your Local Listings here and we'll see you on the blog after the show.

    June 22, 2007

    Growing Up Muslim in America

    Last month, the Pew Research Center conducted the first ever, nationwide, random sample survey of Muslim Americans, and some of the findings might surprise you. Here are a few key findings from the Pew Web site:

  • Roughly two-thirds (65%) of adult Muslims in the U.S. were born elsewhere. A relatively large proportion of Muslim immigrants are from Arab countries, but many also come from Pakistan and other South Asian countries. Among native-born Muslims, roughly half are African American (20% of U.S. Muslims overall), many of whom are converts to Islam.
  • Muslim Americans reject Islamic extremism by larger margins than do Muslim minorities in Western European countries. 51% of American Muslims are very concerned with the rise of Islamic extremism in the world today.
  • 62% of Muslim women believe that life is better for them in the United States than in Muslim countries.
  • But statistics never speak as loudly or clearly as first hand accounts, so we invited Eman Ahmed to speak further about her personal experience growing up as Muslim woman in America.

    A native New Yorker, Eman Ahmed is an attorney specializing in employment discrimination. She received her B.A. from St. John’s University, Suma Cum Laude, and her J.D. from New York Law School, where she also served as an editor at the New York Law School Law Review.

    Eman is an active member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals and is a member of the NYSBA Committee on Women in the Law. She appeared in the 2003 edition of Who’s Who Among American Law Students and currently appears in the Madison Who’s Who. Eman also blogs regularly on


    It’s funny how much has changed over the last 20 years. As one of the only Muslim students in a public elementary school in Staten Island that was strictly populated by Christian and Jewish students, I was seen more as a novelty than anything else. While the other students chowed down on cheese fries and hamburgers during lunch, I sat in my Social Studies teacher’s classroom during Ramadan, isolated from their stares and name-calling. To them, I was different and weird because for a month, I couldn’t eat or drink during the day. They had no idea what Islam was, except for the one day we learned about it in while studying the Crusades (which is a very skewed view of the religion as a whole to say the least!)

    Continue reading "Growing Up Muslim in America" »

    June 8, 2007

    Are Science and Religion at Odds?

    Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), Republican presidential hopeful and one of the three candidates who, at a recent debate, raised his hand signifying that he did not believe in evolution, recently clarified this action in an Op-Ed for THE NEW YORK TIMES:

    The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God...

    ...While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

    --Senator Sam Brownback, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 5/31/07

    In her interview with Bill Moyers, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was an oceanographer before becoming a priest and later the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, explains how she sees the connection between science and faith:

    My faith journey has been, as a scientist, about discovering the wonder of creation...Things that come in different sizes and colors and shapes and body forms are all part of that incredible diversity of creation that's present below the waters where we never even see them. And the Psalms tell us that God delights in that.

    ...I don't believe they [Religion and Science] are, at their depth, incompatible. In the Middle Ages, theology was called the Queen of the Sciences. There are ways of knowing. It is our hunger for radical certainty that leads some people to assume that they're incompatible...

    ...Religion and science are both ways of knowing, but they go at it from somewhat different perspectives. Science asks questions about how things happen and where they've come from. Religion and faith traditions ask questions of meaning, about why we're here and what we should do with what we have here, and how we should relate to the rest of creation.

    --Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

    What do you think?
    -Are religion and science truly at odds with one another?
    -Can and should scientific terms and notions be used to explain religion and vice versa?

    May 21, 2007

    Tolerance and Democracy

    Expanding upon your diverse comments regarding Bill Moyers' interview with Bruce Bawer, consider these two arguments from the blog discussion:

    Posted by: Toscha | May 19, 2007 01:11 PM: is beyond hypocritical to criticize an ideology or faith that is, according to you, anti-democracy, and then turn around and state that democratic freedoms (to say, vote for your elected representatives) should not be extended to people who profess this faith or ideology! Bawer holds democratic values as the end all be all, but in the same breath admits these values do not work when it comes to a certain segment of the population. Democracy means giving everyone a voice and adequate information and accepting the will of the people. Not, giving everyone who agrees with you a voice and ensuring the will of the people reflects your values.

    Posted by: M. Costello | May 19, 2007 09:16 PM:

    It should be noted that Muslims are quick to insist on their rights in Europe, but equally quick, and in large numbers to denounce others who exercise those rights. The Danish cartoons episode is but one example of this. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press is ok, except when criticism of Islam is involved. Such is the Muslim notion of democracy at work, and such is the notion of Muslim democracy.

    What do you think?

    -Can democracies ever be too tolerant of other cultures and their beliefs?
    -When, if ever, does tolerance become appeasement?

    Photo: Robin Holland

    May 11, 2007

    Personal Faith and Politics

    I never want to impose my religion on anybody else. But when I make decisions I stand on principle. And the principles are derived from who I am. I believe we ought to love our neighbor like we love ourself. That's manifested in public policy through the faith-based initiative where we've unleashed the armies of compassion to help heal people who hurt. I believe that God wants everybody to be free. That's what I believe. And that's one part of my foreign policy. In Afghanistan I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty. And I can't tell you how encouraged how I am to see freedom on the march. And so my principles that I make decisions on are a part of me. And religion is a part of me."

    --President, George W. Bush
    Third Presidential Debate, Tempe, AZ, October 13, 2004

    Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.

    --Senator, Barack Obama
    Call to Renewal Conference, June 28, 2006.

    Examining the church and state debate on its most intimate level, how personal faith affects the decisions of individual politicians, raises new questions:

    -Should a politician be expected to keep separate his/her personal faith from the political arena?

    -Or, should we expect a politician to make decisions based upon his/her faith and moral values?

    What do you think?

    May 9, 2007

    Poll: Separation of Church and State

    Answer our poll question, then debate the topic below.

    May 3, 2007

    A Brief History of Disbelief

    This week on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talks with Jonathan Miller about his upcoming series and his views on religion in the modern world.

    Jonathan Miller's series "A Brief History of Disbelief" will air on many PBS stations across the country starting May 4. Click the adjacent picture to watch a clip from the series.

    To find out when it is airing where you live click here or check with your local public television station.

    Miller, referring to the events of 9/11, states:

    The conspicuous absence of the the Twin Towers involving, as it does, the inherent conflicts between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is I think one of the most powerful expressions of religious fanaticism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

    What do you think?

  • Where does religious fanaticism come from?

  • Is ever there such as thing as too much belief?

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