Defining Religion

Several years ago I wrote to my friend Ken about the religious nature of political liberalism as it pivots on public moralism. We continued the exchange as follows.

Moralism is a matter of public politics as often as it is about private behavior. They both deal with what ought we to do. Liberals are as religious, and as perversely so, to the point of idolatry, as anybody, but they hide it from themselves and others as a point of class-based etiquette. They know as well as anyone how to use other people’s religion politically, and they do so with sneers and disdain, because that’s what their audience expects and pays for.

Ken knows there are both religious and non-religious liberals and conservatives. The sine qua non in religion is belief in some god. Beyond that, we differ. The Owl would define religion more generally, more like Paul Tillich, as a commitment to whatever the individual takes as the most important thing to believe, his or her ultimate concern. That could be an institutional program, a policy, an ideology; in short, anything at all. When it is not God, it will be a false god, an idol. To make that choice is what the liberal considers the sine qua non of human dignity, freedom of religion, of which freedom from religion is but one variety. The extreme examples of this are the three great anti-religious religions of the twentieth-century, Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, and Maoism.

Ken is an honorable liberal: a humane, open-minded, kind man who will not sneer at other people’s religion. This puts him at odds with his liberal neighbors who have no such compunctions, who therefore are not really liberal thinkers at all. If they were, they would be tolerant toward a devout Ohioans like Ken. I would call them devout, doctrinaire liberalists. (Their liberal-ism has as much relation to liberal habits of thought as Islam-ism has to Islam.) 

There is another way. That is by resolutely secular pragmatic discourse. This is the mode another of my friends, Harvey Guthrie, adopted. He was a political activist in our county, an Episcopal priest, and a professor of theology. He kept the realms of politics and theism strictly apart in his writing, avoiding the name God, and any euphemism for it It’s an interesting experiment. Meanwhile, he treated all matters of principle or ideology to be matters sheerly contingent (he insisted on sheerly, no fudging), rooted in the circumstances of time and place. Principled metaphysical talk was as abhorrent to him as “God” talk, because even if it does not devolve to idolatry, it serves demagogues and tyrants.

Ken resists both sets of strictures. He asks, why should we deny ourselves the use of religious language? To be sure it will not be useful with people who aren’t religious, but why avoid it with folks who are religious? True enough some of the words are very loaded, and religious folks may have widely varying definitions for them, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up our language entirely. It’s one thing to have the bully grab your lunch, but it’s worse to simply give it away. And that is what we’ve done.

With folks who have some biblical grounding, why not use examples of old testament hospitality when we talk about laws that deny government services to illegals? Why not invoke our Judeo-Christian tradition of caring for the poor and the alien among us? Paul Tillich avoided using traditional religious terms because they were too loaded with traditional meanings He accomplished a lot by doing that because it allowed him to take a fresh look at some things. Fine. But not ever to use that language to refer to our heritage is to throw the baby out with the bath. 

Ken resolved to go on using religious language, if only keep some folks from thinking they have the moral high ground all to themselves. And who knows, some currently non-religious folks might be surprised and delighted to find that there are religious folks with whom they have something in common and for whom religion adds depth to their political stances.

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When Ken read all this, he kindly remarked to me, You don’t sound like a religious conservative to me. Nor a religious liberal. You have too much respect for God. The extremes on both sides seem to believe that God is on their side. We’d do better to hope and pray that we can discern enough of God’s will to be on his side. I think we have that in common, which puts us somewhere off the spectrum.

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