I’ve been sitting on this NYT piece for a couple of weeks, because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to wade into the media’s current mania about religion. The author, Mark Lilla, sets out to refute the thesis, put forward by Gertrude Himmelfarb and others, that the Anglo-American Enlightenment differed from the Continental version by its acceptance, in fact its welcoming, of religion.
This was unquestionably the case. Lilla, however, maintains that the acceptance of religion among British and American thinkers was contingent on changing it: only a liberalized Christianity, those Enlightenment worthies believed, can coexist with self-government. And there’s an element of truth in that as well. John Locke began a process of rationalizing Anglicanism that led, by a tortuous and indirect path, to Jefferson’s odd attempt to write a Gospel stripped of miracles, to New England Unitarianism, and ultimately to the vague spiritual effusions of Emerson and Thoreau.
The way Lilla sees it, our Enlightenment got it wrong. Biblical religion can only be rationalized so far: eventually, it fights back. Anglicanism was overtaken by Methodism. Today, the Unitarians are greatly outnumbered by more traditional varieties of Christianity. This alarms Lilla, who trots out the business about the Rapture and warns us all to be on our guard against an uprising by bible-waving theocrats:
The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith. American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the ”end times,” the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement — all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.
No one can know how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist. But so long as it does, citizens should probably be more vigilant about policing the public square, not less so. If there is anything David Hume and John Adams understood, it is that you cannot sustain liberal democracy without cultivating liberal habits of mind among religious believers. That remains true today, both in Baghdad and in Baton Rouge.
For some reason, Hume and Adams are made by Lilla to stand for the British and American Enlightenments. As a general proposition, that’s fair enough. But Hume was a monarchist as well as an atheist. The defense of democracy against religion, as a question for discussion, never entered his mind.
Adams, on the other hand, wrote the constitution for a state that retained an established church after 1789, and anyone old enough to recall the phrase “banned in Boston” knows that the Puritan religious impulse long outlasted Adams’ day. Even Jefferson, when he was president, took care to be seen going to church carrying the largest bible he could find.
There is much to be said on this subject, but I won’t carry on. I don’t think anyone outside a few fevered heads in MSM and academia worry about this question. I know many religious people, and not one has raised the Rapture as a subject of conversation. Home-schooling isn’t some sort of test of one’s adherence to democracy. It’s a choice, which is what a free country provides. And the “demonization” of popular culture is perpetrated by most parents, Jews and gentiles, Christians and heathens, myself included, who wish to preserve a shred of innocence in childhood.
One can be tolerant and religious, or intolerant and religious; the same applies to the secularists. No group has a monopoly on intolerance. The love of reason has led to the guillotine as well as to modern science. Without making any cosmic statements about the Enlightenment, I’m certain the Founding Fathers intended the free exercise of religion to flourish. That was the point of the first words of the Bill of Rights.
The worry was about a single all-controlling church, such as the Church of England or the Catholic Church in pre-revolutionary France. The proliferation of faiths nullified that threat. To demand that religious belief be adjusted to a single political ideology strikes me as, well, intolerant, or at least wildly naive. To assert that all religions that stray from liberalism are undemocratic is to deny the reality of American history.
The concern of democracy isn’t with belief but with behavior: with character. Conceivably, a person can have a perfect understanding of reality, and become a mass murderer. There is no logical contradiction in this. Equally, a person can hold all kinds of fanciful beliefs about God and spirituality, and be tolerant and engaged in civic affairs. No inconsistency there either. I have trouble understanding why “reality-based” critics of religion, not only academics like Lilla but scientists like Richard Dawkins, fall into a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder about what other people choose to believe or disbelieve.
Allow me a South Park moment. One episode has great fun ridiculing the beliefs held by Mormons. But at the end, the little Mormon kid confronts the South Park brats with the following argument, with which I will conclude this post (in the interests of de-demonizing popular culture, I have omitted the expletive at the end of the soliloquy):
Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.