Holy Wars

Chappel-bannerJames G. Chappel in Boston Review:

The American public sphere is blessed with many religious experts. In the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, pundits reminded us that Christianity enjoins the welcoming of refugees. Many of the same people, it turns out, are also deeply familiar with Islam, allowing them to piously intone that it is a “religion of peace.” These claims often come from people who are not themselves affiliated with those faiths or any other: they are political interventions masquerading, sometimes insultingly, as exegesis. They serve an important function, however, as a form of wish fulfillment. If these pat, nervous descriptions of long and complex religious traditions were true, the age-old problem of religion in the public square could vanish into a puff of banalities. Peace and refugee assistance are perfectly good secular, progressive goals, and it would be convenient if Christianity and Islam, which long antedate secular progressivism, happened to enjoin the same things. Alas, the world is not so simple. But what, then, are we to do? What should we expect from religion in a secular society?

The conservative position on religiosity has the virtue of coherence: America, from this perspective, is a Christian nation. Even if other religions should be tolerated in the name of Christian charity, they should cede pride of place to America’s exceptional Christian heritage. Progressives have a much more difficult time, and we ricochet between contradictory and unsustainable positions. On the one hand, religion is transparently absurd, but on the other the triumphant atheism of Richard Dawkins is embarrassing, too. When someone such as Kim Davis forces us to confront difficult issues of law and faith, we often have recourse to uncomfortable mockery, unsure why it is wrong to disobey political authority in the name of individual conscience. The old Marxist account of religion as an “opiate of the people” survives, too, in the conventional wisdom that evangelical voters cling to guns and religion because they are distracted from their true economic interests. These attempts to sidestep the question of religion’s role are dangerous but understandable. The great philosopher Richard Rorty once sighed that religion was a conversation-stopper: If someone claims to be acting for religious reasons, what is there to say? If he were alive today, he would know that if we cease talking about religion, we start shouting about it.

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