Secularism and its discontents

22 03 2010

This past March 17th, AG and I went to a talk at Loyola University here in New Orleans given by Fr. Joseph Tetlow S.J. entitled “American Culture, Religion, and Spirituality”. This was part of the Sacred Word / Sacred Music series, and true to its name, the talk was interpolated with verses from popular Protestant hymns sung by the audience. The subject of the talk was the rise of secularism in the American context, and what we can do to defend ourselves from it. While I agreed with many of his arguments, and was surprised by the radical nature of some of his proposed solutions, I found them not convincing since they appealed to a sense of non-confessional “religious decency” that tends to paralyze cultural thought in this country. In my opinion, if any collective action is to be taken against the “secular menace”, its foundation must lie in truth and ideas, not in vague sentiments of “needing a god” to uphold the social order.

Much of Fr. Tetlow’s talk consisted of a catalogue of the attacks by militant secularists against any public manifestation of religion, and the historical background of the role of religion in public life dating to the colonial era. He described how militant atheist groups are striving to strike such phrases as “one nation, under God” and “in God we trust” from use in various places in the public sphere. For him, this has nothing to do with “freedom of religion” or violations of the establishment clause, but is a direct persecution of believing Christians in public discourse. This of course has accompanied the general decline of religious practice in the last fifty years, and Father provided all of the statistics with which all of you I am sure are now familiar.

The Jesuit priest then went on to describe the general malaise of a “society without God”, citing Jeb Bush’s comment at John Paul II’s funeral that the nation has “lost its soul”. Here, the usual suspects that Catholic rhetoric usually calls out were found: abortion, economic inequality, lack of “values”, selfishness, etc. The fascinating part of the talk for me was his citations from the writings of the “Founding Fathers” as to how they conceived of religion as being very much a part of public life. Apparently, the figure of Moses almost became a national symbol, and the most common early metaphor for the new republic was that of Moses leading the people out of Egypt towards the Promised Land. Fr. Tetlow was keen to draw out the religious roots of the American polity, all the while conceding that it was a historically Protestant country in which the Catholic Church had to struggle for its space in the public sphere.

The presenter’s solutions for the crisis that secularism has caused both inside and outside the churches were somewhat engaging and shockingly novel coming from such an established figure in the official Church. First, he wanted us to consider no longer framing religious debate in this country along the lines of “separation of Church and State”, but rather along the lines of “the free exercise of religion”. He cited in particular pro-abortion groups’ co-opting of the term “pro-choice” for their political advocacy as a good example of the power of language, and how making religious discourse in this country be about “freedom” could have a similar positive effect for our cause. A more radical solution that he advocated was the abolition of the public school system. He said that before, religion and not the State was responsible for the education of children. In the event that schooling was returned to the religious realm, one ideology ( such as secularism) could never become dominant; religious people would have “their schools”, the secular people would have theirs, and so forth. His last recommendation was for the churches to foster an atmosphere in which believers are encouraged to enter and engage official channels of public life, such as the media and academia.

Overall, his talk was greeted warmly by the audience of about fifty people. One man insisted on asking a question regarding some administrative decision he had made at Loyola around the Kent State incident in the 1960’s, but he was quickly hushed up by the unsympathetic audience. And I suppose people liked the singing portion, though AG and I did not sing, since we found the choice of hymns unsatisfactory and inappropriate. (White people singing black spirituals has always grated on me.)

I was a little disappointed that the ex-hippie asking about something that happened back in 1968 abruptly ended the question and answer section, since I did have a question. Mine was about the role of religious indifferentism in the weakening of religious discourse in this country. For me, Fr. Tetlow was speaking in broad categories of an “us vs. them” variety: it is the big, bad, secularists against all of us “people of faith”. But what do these “people of faith” actually believe? How is it that they think that they should engage the culture? What do they think that the role of religion should be in public life? Isn’t this generalization just buying into the consumerism that is ultimately at the heart of secularism? After all, Katherine Schori is a “person of faith” who I am sure doesn’t mind all that much the exclusion of religion from much of public life if religious symbolism and rhetoric happen to offend some people. How would she feel about someone advocating using Moses as a national symbol, when he, after all, advocated the stoning of people engaging in homosexual acts?

For all of you kids too young to remember, it was not all that long ago that Catholicism used to consider religious indifferentism to be a “grave heresy”, even amongst those who consider themselves to be Christians. For if God ultimately doesn’t care what confession you belong to as long as you believe in Jesus, why would He care if someone doesn’t believe in Him at all, as long as he or she is a “decent person”? And just what is a “decent person”, anyway? The genius of the American polity at its inception was the creation of a religious ethos without doctrine, but our secularism is a logical extension of this adulterous marriage, even in its most militant form. A Mormon is just as American as a Baptist, who is just as American as a Catholic, who is just as American as an agnostic or a believer in reincarnation, etc. What kind of moral “united front” can these people create, when they are so divided amongst themselves? Isn’t it just one where “I’ll leave you alone, if you leave me alone”? And aren’t such things as putting the Ten Commandments in a court room fair game for people who don’t want the law of “you shall have no gods before Me” in their face when they go to trial?

Yes, I found Fr. Tetlow’s analysis to be more wishful thinking than anything else. And being part of the generation that brought forth and executed Vatican II, this should be no surprise. Before, Catholicism was seen as a monolith, just like the rest of society. After the 1960’s, institutions decided to let a thousand flowers bloom (using the famous phrase of Chairman Mao), and thus we have the general chaos that we have all grown to appreciate. And the only way pluralism can function in the West is at the expense of Catholicism and other forms of Christianity, which, unlike their ancient pagan counterparts, are far less tolerant towards other forms of belief. For (reverting for a second back to my integrist Catholic persona) when the lie is given equal freedom with the truth, it is the truth that always suffers. This of course was the genius of the “pre-Vatican II” magisterium. Those Popes knew that Christianity performs poorly in competition with other modes of belief.

And that was perhaps the one thing that I took away from Fr. Tetlow’s talk (other than the confirmation that Catholics indeed cannot sing). The 80 year old Jesuit was speaking in the general tone of regret that many mainstream members of the Church now have towards the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. This of course began with people like Maritain in his book The Peasant of the Garonne and even, to a certain extent, with Paul VI himself. They went from wanting Catholics to assimilate into the public sphere by any means necessary to advocating the abolition of public schooling. The present pontificate can be seen in this light as well, from the dusting off of old papal vestments (which even I think look silly) to the retrograde liturgical practices that seem so a la mode in some sectors. There is a hint of regret in all of this, but not total regret. It is a partial nostalgia, a sort of historical wanting the secular cake but eating it in a Christian manner. I have concluded that they will all go to their Maker not knowing exactly what went wrong with their glorious revolution, and we of course will have to continue to live with the aftermath.


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2 responses

22 03 2010
Tom

So what’s your solution, Arturo?

22 03 2010
Agostino

Addressing a very small point that you mentioned in the good Father’s speech, I’d like to say that there’s a joke that exists in my circle of friends (many of whom are living examples):

What do you call a female of above-average intelligence, who went to parochial school all her life?

The answer is “Pagan.

As for myself, I tell people that “The reason I stayed Catholic is because I went to public school.” So I find myself possessed of the (hopefully understandable) belief that any attempt made at advancing the notion of abolishing public schools, is just a really bad idea.

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