Is the Left Waging a War on Religion?

Is the left waging a war on religion? Peter Beinart doesn’t think so, and published a piece in The Atlantic explaining how the war on religion is just a silly conservative canard. As obtuse as this argument might seem, his missive is instructive as a tutorial in how egregiously modern progressives fail to understand what religion is.

Beinart takes his evidence from a recent study showing that many Americans feel pressured to exaggerate their level of religious observance. The study asked people in live phone surveys whether they attend religious services frequently. It then compared their answers to reports from online surveys asking the same question. The overwhelming majority of self-identified conservatives reported in both formats that they do attend religious services. Liberals were significantly more likely to admit in the online format that they do not.

The presumption behind the study is that people feel more pressure to conform to social norms when they are talking to a live human being. This seems plausible. Thus, the disparity between liberals’ answers in live conversation as opposed to online surveys seems to indicate that they see religious observance as a good thing, and regard religious inactivity is a social negative that they feel some pressure to hide.

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The survey’s results are indeed interesting. Also interesting to me is the stigma that still evidently attaches to openly professed atheism (which Beinart also discusses). The brash, proselytizing, Richard Dawkins-style atheist may have some cache in our time, but evidence indicates that most people are still reluctant to be seen that way.

But of course, the fact that Americans like to be regarded as (at least nominally) religious doesn’t in any way disprove the claim that the left is waging war on religion. Beinart’s confusion becomes obvious when he offers John Kerry and Barack Obama as examples of liberals who “flaunt” their religious associations. I suppose in a sense it’s true that these political figures “flaunt” their religion; they must pay regular lip service to their ostensible faith commitments, because if they didn’t, nobody would suspect them of having any. Most serious Christians I know regard these men’s public professions of faith as crass opportunism. All faithful Catholics I know are disgusted by the widespread scandal that is caused when apologists for the culture of death self-identify as Catholic.

Beinart sums up his view in the final paragraph where he explains that:

That’s what the “war on religion” types don’t get. Liberals may dislike the political views that religious conservatives espouse, but they’re quite sympathetic to religion itself. Of course, admitting that would make it harder for religious conservatives to play the victim—which is what the “war on religion” is really all about.

So, Mr. Beinart. Allow me to pose a question. What do you take “religion itself” to be?

I doubt he has reflected very deeply on the question; if he had he wouldn’t have written such a childishly simplistic piece. But we can make some strong guesses as to what he has in mind. Religion is a fairly complicated phenomenon, which tends to entail quite a number of things. On the most obvious, observable level, religions organize people into communities which provide mutual support and encourage good behavior. Liberals approve of that. There is considerable evidence, however, that churches that embrace this organizational function as their most central purpose tend to die pretty quickly. (This was the overwhelming lesson of the accomodationist experiments of the 1960’s and 1970’s.) That’s reflective of another well-confirmed fact: people who view religion primarily as a form of moral calisthenics tend to stop going to church, even if, as this survey suggests, they feel a little bit bad about it. The ones who keep coming are the ones who are there to worship God.

Religion survives when it offers transcendence, and a fully fleshed-out worldview that contains life-guiding metaphysical and moral claims. Of course, the problem with that kind of religion is that it really does influence the way people live. Liberal progressives find that distasteful, particularly insofar as religion poses an obstacle to their attempts to remake the culture completely according to their own views and preferences. If we religious conservatives would just get over ourselves and start accepting that church is just a happy occasion for singing songs, drinking coffee with friends, and re-affirming our general commitment to niceness, think how much better the world could be! Beinart has absolutely no problem with that sort of religion.

It’s ironic that Beinart quotes Ann Coulter claiming that politics is the “religion of the left”, and then goes on himself to suggest that it’s only “conservative politics” that he finds objectionable, and not religion. He could hardly have proven Coulter’s point more neatly. As an acolyte in the left’s political religion, Beinart naturally sees politics as the thing that’s worth discussing; religion is offensive insofar as it bleeds into the territory of topics about which he himself has strongly-held views. Nevertheless, he doesn’t believe that he’s anti-religion. He just wants religious people to be reasonable and discerning about their faith, which is to say, they should leave out all the parts that conflict with the views and priorities of liberal journalists like himself.

Could we work a little harder, please, to enable the Peter Beinarts of the world to realize that their liberal materialism has a real and serious foe in religion? It depresses me to be dismissed as a paper tiger.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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