Religion and Space at a Presbyterian Church

Webster

Webster Presbyterian Church

Over at The Outline, Allyson Gross, a Ph.D student in rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes about Houston’s Webster Presbyterian Church, the so-called “Church of the Astronauts.”

Here is a taste of “Finding God on the Moon“:

Retired astronaut Clayton Anderson, 60, had returned to Webster Presbyterian, his former church, to deliver his first sermon on the anniversary of a special event in the community’s history. Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin consumed the symbolic body and blood of Christ on the lunar surface in an act of Holy Communion. In the Moon’s 1/6th gravity, the wine “curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the chalice,” as Aldrin later recalled. Inside the Lunar Module, Neil Armstrong watched quietly. But instead of following along across millions of radios, the world was none the wiser.

Webster Presbyterian isn’t just any church: It’s the “Church of the Astronauts,” located just down the road from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the home of space flight control since 1961 and the “Houston” in “Houston, we have a problem.” Like many other astronauts, Aldrin was a member. According to the 1970 book First on the Moon, he had approached the late Reverend Dean Woodruff in the weeks before the flight for help coming up with a symbolic gesture that “transcended modern times.” Woodruff believed that “God reveals Himself in the common elements of everyday life,” and suggested that Aldrin bring along with him a little silver chalice, a sachet of wine, and a piece of bread.

But 1969 was a tough year for NASA and religion. In an international radio broadcast on December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 had taken turns reading from the first 10 verses of Genesis upon completion of the Moon’s first circumnavigation. Activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair then sued the U.S. government, claiming the reading violated the First Amendment. “That’s the reason the communion was kept secret,” church archivist Pat Brackett told me. “[Chief of the Astronaut Office] Deke Slayton said, okay, go ahead with your plans, but keep it quiet.”

So in the moments before Neil exited the Lunar Module and took one small step, Buzz called for radio silence, and requested that all listening “contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours, and give thanks in his or her own way.” He then read John 15:5 from a small slip of paper, ate the consecrated bread, and drank the wine. “The ‘silver chalice’ [was] actually a shot glass,” Associate Pastor Helen DeLeon told The Outline. “It just happens to have the right shape, and it was small enough that he could take it.” This was, for DeLeon, both the beauty of the event and the lesson at its center: “We take ordinary things, and we imbue them with meaning.”

Read the entire piece here.

Pence’s Space Theology

Buzz-Aldrin-notes

Buzz Aldrin’s notes from Apollo 11

Marina Koren has a really interesting piece at The Atlantic on Mike Pence’s use of religious language in describing space exploration.  Here is a taste:

 

And when Pence speaks of space exploration, he speaks not only of the frontier, but of faith. His speeches sometimes sound more like sermons.

Here Pence was at the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, in October of last year:

As President Trump has said, in his words, “It is America’s destiny to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown.” And today we begin the latest chapter of that adventure. But as we embark, let us have faith. Faith that, as the Old Book teaches us that if we rise to the heavens, He will be there.

And then, in April of this year, at a gathering of space-industry professionals:

And as we renew our commitment to lead, let’s go with confidence and let’s go with faith—the faith that we do not go alone. For as millions of Americans have believed throughout the long and storied history of this nation of pioneers, I believe, as well, there is nowhere we can go from His spirit; that if we rise on the wings of the dawn, settle on the far side of the sea, even if we go up to the heavens, even there His hand will guide us, and His right hand will hold us fast.

And earlier this month, at a press conference about Trump’s proposed Space Force:

Just as generations of Americans have carried those who have taken to the skies in the defense of freedom borne upon their prayers, I want to assure all of you, who will be called to this enterprise, that you can be confident. You can be confident that you will go with the prayers of millions of Americans who will claim on your behalf, as generations have claimed before, those ancient words, that if you “rise on the wings of the dawn, if [you] settle on the far side of the sea,” even if you go up to the heavens, “even there His hand will guide [you], His right hand will hold [you] fast.” And He will hold fast this great nation in the great beyond.

Read the entire piece here.  I am always struck by the way Pence incorporates evangelical language into virtually every policy announcement he makes or social issue on which he comments.  Yesterday I was talking to a reporter who is writing a biography  of Pence. We discussed how the Vice President’s faith became central to his political career after he embraced the narrative of the Christian Right sometime in the 1980s.  (As a college student, Pence had an evangelical conversion experience at a Christian rock festival in 1978).

Koren starts-off her piece by comparing the way JFK, LBJ, Bush 1, and Bush 2 talked about space exploration with Pence’s language on the subject.  JFK talked about space exploration in terms of the liberal progress.  LBJ compared space exploration to the settlement of the American colonies.  George H.W. Bush compared astronauts to Columbus and the travelers on the Oregon Trial.

The language of Manifest Destiny–whether applied to the American West, the globe, or space– has always been saturated with Christian, religious, spiritual and providential themes.  As Koren shows, when Pence talks about “rising to the heavens” he is tapping into the language of evangelical astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, Jeffrey Williams, and Jim Irwin.

And speaking of space exploration and evangelicals, there were also fundamentalists who were fascinated with UFOs.

McIntire UFOS