Ash Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court: The justices are hearing arguments over the University of Virginia’s refusal to fund the Christian student magazine Wide Awake. As debate focuses on the nature of religious speech, Justice David Souter remarks, “It seems to me it is one thing to recruit people to one’s organization and another to recruit people to God.” No more evidence than this is needed to know that at least one member of the Supreme Court, and probably more, has no appreciation of religion, and therefore little understanding of the issues presently before him. Souter’s remark, seen in its best light, echoes the familiar refrain of those who claim a devout belief in God but want nothing to do with any “institutional religion.” But more likely it shows no appreciation for the inescapable role of institutions in achieving great purposes, purposes like worshipping God and preserving justice. Such confusion is deplorable regardless of what one thinks about public funding for a religious publication.
To Catholics in particular, such a comment is irksome, since to be Catholic and to belong to the Church are one and the same thing: Sacramental grace flows through the ritual life of an institution. The Church as a historical institution insures that its perennial wisdom will be passed on through the generations. Thanks to the Church our children will not be left to reinvent the spiritual wheel, and seek God in a vacuum, without history, without benefit of the words and deeds that have gone before them. One wonders if Justice Souter understands the law in the same solipsistic way, as if justice can be pursued and legal reasoning can be applied apart from institutional life and tradition. Would he applaud people who say they are devoted to justice but won’t have anything to do with civil law, courts, judges, and the legal profession? Would he find this a coherent claim? I hope not.
This willingness to accept God while rejecting religion is a convenient way to embrace vague spirituality without submitting to the demands of religious practice, particularly its moral teaching. It certainly insures that religious conviction will have little influence on moral, political, and legal reasoning. Understanding and authority in these matters is formed through recognized consensus. By allowing personal belief in God but disallowing organized religion, a spiritually-informed moral consensus never becomes institutionalized, never leaves its imprint upon a tradition, never makes its way into the historical consciousness of a people.
Some members of the liberal elite wish that traditional religion would go away, that all of its claims about moral absolutes and a final end would conveniently disappear. Souter’s comment is one more sign of their increasing discomfort in the presence of a moral perspective sharply at odds with their advocacy of the sovereign individual sheltered by a collectivist state. They see no more powerful representative of an alien morality than traditional Catholics, Evangelicals, and Jews—and they, like the administration of the University of Virginia, don’t delight in these voices being heard in the marketplace.
Their strategy, thus far, has been to rhapsodize vaguely about a “politics of meaning” while attempting to vilify and demonize the so-called “religious right,” its “mean-spiritedness,” and “repressive values.” Liberals, however, can support, and even finance, opinion that attempts to “sensitize” the rest of us in the ways of tolerance.
This strategy is failing badly. The message of traditional religion, of work and responsibility, family and children, worship and prayer, is beginning to make sense to people who thought modern society had outgrown it. At the core of this reconsideration is the meaning of care. People are finding it harder to believe the message of those, for example, who profess to make the future better for our children, but fail to protect their very existence. At the same time, it is harder to believe in the caring of those committed to collectivism, those who assume, often for Christian reasons, that caring takes the form of entitlement programs, the governmental guarantee to meet basic human needs. They refuse to recognize the long-term harm being done in the name of mercy—welfare dependency, illegitimacy, broken families, lack of initiative, loss of motivation, general disspiritedness.
What does it mean, people are asking, to care for others, especially those who for reasons of birth, have less opportunity to enjoy the basic goods of human life. This question is particularly pressing for those who look to God as the source and model of love.