Why We Are Arguing About Religion

Most of us have been told from a young age that religious beliefs cause strife. The early modern “wars of religion” are portrayed as merely the most overt form of what happens when religion is allowed too much influence in public life. Of course, Protestant and Catholic forces fought on both sides of these conflicts. Nonetheless, we are taught that they were not primarily about the consolidation of national and royal power, but, rather, about religious intolerance. The solution, then, is supposed to be strict separation of church and state—leaving those who “have” religion to follow their beliefs in private, while preventing them from imposing those beliefs, or stirring up pain and trouble with those beliefs, in the public sphere.

There is, in fact, a certain logic to this position. If you are convinced that religion is an irrational set of beliefs that cause irrational people to fight over what they believe (falsely) is crucial to eternal salvation, you should try to keep those beliefs out of the public square. The solution, then, is a secular society that is “tolerant” enough to allow religious people to do their religious business, whatever it may be, behind closed doors.

The only real problem with this position is that it is based on a set of prejudices that utterly misconstrue the nature of religion. Religion is not merely a set of abstract beliefs. Thus, even if secularists were correct in their conviction that religion is all superstitious garbage, they still would be wrong in claiming that they can compartmentalize religion out of the public square with anything less than repressive action worthy of a police state. Sadly, proof of this fact, evident everywhere from America’s heartland to the streets of Bagdad, is consistently ignored by those whose “faith” lies in their prejudice against religion.

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The very word religion means “to bind.” Not “to believe in angels or fairies” but “to bind.” In our hyper-individualistic culture, many people have many different beliefs about religion—most of them boiling down to the self-confident demand that whatever we do will result, ultimately, in God, Gaea, or “the universe” rewarding us for our self-esteem and “good intentions.” These are not religions. They bind us to nothing but our own vapid fantasies, demanding of our solipsistic sense of reality that we be affirmed. A religion, on the other hand, is a way of life. It is something that binds us, not merely to a set of beliefs, but to a set of habits, as well as institutions, through which we learn and follow a specific form of conduct, attempting to walk in the ways of our Lord.

I will not claim any special knowledge of non-Western religions and so, beyond mentioning the importance of “the way” in several Eastern religions, I will confine myself to noting that in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and here the “Judeo” part is of great importance) children are not merely taught a few abstract beliefs, then left to their own devices regarding how to live. Rather, articles of faith (one thinks of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds) are just one (crucial) part of an interconnected set of catechetical things we say and do to become and live as Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, and so on.

Many readers will recall that culture and cult share a root word in Latin meaning to cultivate—be it one’s garden, or one’s soul. Even a passing familiarity with history shows quite clearly that civilizations grow, if at all, from common beliefs and practices that have their root, like their ultimate end, in religion. The question is whether civilizations can “outgrow” religion, stripping their public squares of religious beliefs and practices without descending into anarchy.

Secularists always have evinced great confidence that morality does not require belief in any divine being or beings, let alone any set of intrusive moral strictures. After all, do not we all just naturally “know” that it is wrong to kill, steal, or do any number of other bad things? And, if some people don’t know these things, cannot we simply teach them “self-esteem” and the advantages of playing by the rules?

From this perspective, the only real problem remaining is fending off attacks on the secular public square by all those religious types. So, for the moment, let us ignore all the evidence that the secular version of morality produces atomism, a general breakdown of social mores, and an exponentially increased dependence on organs of the state to maintain peace and even functioning markets (lawsuits, anyone?). Instead, let us ask why it is that “those religious types” keep causing problems and whether those problems can be stopped without tyranny and bloodshed.

They cannot.

Why not? Because a secular public square requires that religious people be denied the ability to lead normal lives. Not “barred from imposing their values on others,” or any similar euphemism for “told to pipe down.” A secular square requires actively preventing people from leading normal lives. What do I mean, here? Quite simply, one cannot lead any coherent, meaningful life without abiding by the basic moral requirements of one’s religion or, to use contemporary jargon, “faith tradition.”

When the Christians began preventing various pagan communities from engaging in human sacrifice, they kept those people from leading normal lives, because they kept them from fulfilling essential duties of their faith that had long been part of the fabric of their lives. Does this mean the Christians were wrong to interfere with such authentic customs? One hopes not. But in doing so they forced a dramatic change in the characters of entire populations and cultures.

And so secularists should recognize (as some among the most hostile toward religion do recognize) that they are demanding cataclysmic changes in our culture and in the very characters of religious people. In many areas this change has been taking place for some decades (still not a long period in historical terms). Thus, for example, the family is in the process of being changed from a lifelong bond devoted to the rearing of virtuous children to a convenient method of co-habitation that brings certain civil and political benefits. The financial, psychological, and religious impact of these changes on people who might still wish to live in intact families devoted to child-rearing in a society constructed for double-income households with few or no children that discourages the expectation of security is incalculable, and routinely ignored.

In the same way, the Obama Administration’s determination to end the participation of religious organizations in charitable and educational activities, unless they agree to give up on fundamental beliefs such as those opposing support for contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, would strip religious people of an essential element to their way of life.

Every religious faith by nature requires that its adherents act as people of faith in public. And that means that charities, educational institutions, hospitals, retirement homes, and a host of other institutions connected with particular religions must run on religious principles. And this goes against the secularist prejudice that all jobs are merely matters of technical competence, requiring no special moral requirements, save by intolerant haters who should be banned.

Moreover, faiths within our Western tradition are not quietist. They are not about separation from the world but, rather, about reaching out to evangelize the world, including by reaching out in education and charity work.

The secular state would not miss religious charities were they to disappear. Social democracy rests on the presumption that the state can provide what people need, and that various “particularist” viewpoints get in the way of political unity. But religions in the Western tradition, with very few exceptions (e.g., the Amish, who already are becoming problematic for the secular state in areas where there numbers are significant) cannot be put on the reservation as has been done with so many native Americans, whose cultures have been (at times quite brutally) marginalized and left to die. The attempt will be resisted because its success means cultural death, repression of a crucial part of the human personality, and destruction of an essential defender and substantial embodiment of human liberty—communities of transcendent purpose and meaning.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared  June 22, 2014 on Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. The image above titled “Lincoln Cathedral from the North West” was painted by Frederick Mackenzie (1787-1854).


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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