Let’s talk about the two things mom and dad always told you not to discuss: religion and politics. The former has been systematically removed, in varying degrees, from public discourse over the course of the last century or so. The iconoclasm ranges from the “holiday” tree of this year’s White House Festivus (I’d call it Christmas, but clearly the Christmas Tree defines Christmas) to the banning of the hijab under certain circumstances in France.
So, why the attempt to remove religion from the public sphere? Well, some say it is because religion is an essentially private matter. In America, this strain of thought has many followers, but things certainly haven’t gotten bad enough to result in some kind of neo-Cristero War against Obama’s government. That said, many people find themselves scratching their heads wondering what happened to baseball and Jesus (that is the American religion, right? You know, the Eucharistic apple pie on the altar of the checkerboard pattern picnic tablecloth).
But should religion actually be a private matter? I am not so sure I am convinced. As a dirty, wannabe medievalist I can’t help but think of the communalizing force that was religion for both Christians and Muslims during the Middle Ages. Holidays were (and here comes the etymology) quite literally “holy days” on which one practiced traditions dating back hundreds of years. Religion was not intended to be something you did by yourself, alone in your dark room, wearing your hairshirt while whipping yourself with a bag filled with potatoes (okay so they didn’t have potatoes in Europe in the Middle Ages; sue me). Your faith was something that was to be expressed; it was to inform your decision-making and it most certainly wasn’t something of which to be ashamed.
Most telling is the fact that both enemies and friends of “religion” (broadly defined) have recognized its efficacy, especially as regards uniting diverse peoples across large territories. Maximilien de Robespierre, an avowed anti-Christian and general opponent of things I like, invented the Cult of the Supreme Being in an attempt to provide a basis for interactions within the French Republic. Similarly, Auguste Comte (why are they always French?) supported the foundation of a “Religion of Humanity” that amounted to Catholicism without God. These men, though enemies of traditional theism, recognized the efficacy of religion as an institution. Even for them, it was not to be private, but to be a force for public unification.
Now I am not arguing that religion in America should violate the separation of church and state. However, I am in favor of not shunning religion, of allowing it to influence the decisions being made by our public officials. Abraham Lincoln, who some argue was not a theist, was at least a great purveyor of Biblical wisdom and President Obama himself quotes the Bible on occasion. The controversial thinker Leo Strauss, who was probably an agnostic, also supported the institution of religion as a unifying force in society. So whether theists, atheists, or some kind of weird hybrid that probably exists in modern society, we should seriously consider what our religious traditions have to say about the way we’re living our lives. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to tap those rich beliefs for their moral and social value. And that goes for both the right and the left. Lest we forget the “Social Gospel Movement” of the early twentieth century and today’s pro-life movement are both products of a rich Christian social tradition. I extend the same invitation to my atheistic friends who may find their faith in no god equally as informative. The point is that to be ashamed of allowing one’s private beliefs to influence one’s public ideas is silly. Hopefully, the future is one in which religion can be a topic discussed freely and happily among a 1950s style American populace in which we all come home to a big dinner, a smiling, valium-filled mother, and a brand, spanking new train set. But seriously, stranger things have happened. I mean, I did name this article using a scientific equation.