On religion and secular democracy in America

The upcoming issue of The Boston Review looks at religion in America and its relationship to the politics of individualism, compassion and solidarity.  Two pieces are already available. 

Mike Gecan looks at why Democrats have had a hard time attracting the faithful and suggests that the Republican economic agenda and religion in America have an elective affinity.

“[R]eligious resonance is reinforced by an economic resonance that is also deep and powerful. The president’s “ownership society” is based on a vision of an individual who is capable of having a direct and personal relationship with the market. An individual should have control over his or her own economic destiny—should be able to own a home rather than renting, work for a private business rather than for the government, save money for retirement rather than expecting the government or an employer to make the arrangements. This is self-reliance, updated and reaffirmed.

The president is asserting that the individual person or family doesn’t need mediating institutions and programs. In fact, in his view, these institutions and programs have disrupted the development of the hoped-for relationship between the person and the market, just as many believers feel that denominations and religious bureaucracies impede the growth of the personal relationship with God. Rugged economic individualism parallels rugged religious individualism; it is a consistent, compelling, and profoundly appealing theme.”

. . .

What is the nature of this appeal? What is so resonant in its refrain? First, it is positive and optimistic. When I watch Joel Osteen, I have a clear sense of why his congregation has grown from 7,000 to 25,000 in just a few years: he exudes good feeling in his preaching. Forget the words. Watch his eyes, his face. He communicates his belief in the ability of the people to reach for Jesus and relate to him. Many liberals and progressives have never understood the power of relationships—relationships that start with an enthusiastic recognition of the capacity of others to grow and develop, of the innate preference that most people feel to be viewed not as clients of agencies or bundles of needs desperate to be “served” but as good and full beings who are agents of their own destinies. Osteen seems to understand this deeply and radiates it with every gesture, expression, and word. Bush communicates it, too, in his own way, by positing a picture of each individual American with the ability and means to control his or her financial future.

Also worth reading is this piece by Albert Raboteau, a believer.  He offers this insight into the political response of many of the faithful.

“To keep Christianity from being reduced to religion—just one more isolated compartment among the many that occupy the modern person’s life (this, for Father Schmemann, was the meaning of secularism)—it is essential to hold sight of the reality of the kingdom as present and as future. Secularism is not antireligious. It approves of religion by turning it into what Niebuhr called an ‘idol,’ one among others suited to our self-gratification. Secularism, in this sense, robs the Church of its eschatological dimension. It is no longer the primary community for us, the source of our life and our joy, but one more activity in a busy week, competing with work, social life, and entertainment.

When the Church loses its awareness of the kingdom of God and its essential sacramentality, there develops (as Father Schmemann writes) ‘a peculiar divorce of the forms of the Church’s life from their content, from that reality whose presence, power and meaning they are meant to express and, as a consequence the transformation of those forms into an end in itself so that the very task of the Church is seen as the preservation of the ‘ancient,’ ‘venerable,’ and ‘beautiful’ forms, regardless of the ‘reality’ to which they refer.’ The Church, in effect, becomes a museum of archaic artifacts and rituals, beautiful but inert.”

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