One of the biggest problems Americans face in our (diminishing) attempts to debate policy in a civil and productive manner is that Americans often use the same words to mean different things–that is, when we aren’t simply using them as insulting labels devoid of discernible content (“libs” “socialists” “Nazis,” etc.)
Sunday, I considered the definition of infrastructure. Today, I’d really like to “poke a bear” and broaden the definition of what should count as religion.
As a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe recently noted, true believers are everywhere. They certainly aren’t confined to churches, synagogues and mosques;
increasingly, the passions of faith are being expressed through politics and culture wars.
A Gallup poll last month reported church membership at 47 percent. “For the first time ever, only a minority of American adults are affiliated with a church.” Jeff Jacoby, the columnist penning the cited column, bemoaned this statistic. He expressed his concern that the continuing disappearance of religion from American life is a negative occurrence.
I’m not so sure. Although there is, as Jacoby notes, a positive correlation between church attendance (note, attendance–not membership or religious belief) and physical, mental, and social health, more careful research studies attribute that correlation to the social support that comes from such gatherings of generally kindred folks–and many people get similar socialization from other, more secular groups.
Where Jacoby is right, however, is in the worrisome transfer of “religious” passion to politics.
A very different effect of religion’s disappearance is already all too visible: The unwavering faith and passion of true belief is increasingly being channeled not into religious observance but into identity politics and the culture wars.
“Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations,” remarks Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in The Atlantic. “This is what religion without religion looks like.”
On issue after issue, Americans increasingly treat political disagreement as blasphemy and dissenters as apostates. From climate change to immigration, from face masks to guns, debates take on the fervor of crusades, and true believers portray the stakes as all-or-nothing — a choice between salvation or damnation.
At its most extreme, this “religion without religion” is giving rise to dangerous political cults.
Jacoby says that “Religion without religion” is aggressive, intolerant, and scary. What he fails to acknowledge is that the same can be said for fundamentalist religions and their true believers.
Perhaps what we need is recognition that any belief system that is intransigent, intolerant and determined to impose itself on those holding differing values and beliefs merits being described as a religion.
To be fair, there is a truth buried in the hysteria of today’s culture warriors. In order for inhabitants of a country to function as at least a semi-coherent polity, a majority of citizens need to share what sociologists call a “civic religion.” In the increasingly diverse United States, the only workable content of such a civic religion would seem to be devotion to the principles and aspirations of the country’s constituent documents: the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Of course, the same folks who “cherry pick” their biblical readings are also noticeably selective in their reading of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
And it would help if more Americans actually knew what was in those documents.