Monday, June 21, 2004

What Caesar Rendered Unto

Recent surveys show that a majority of Americans claim to believe in the literal truth of such Bible stories as the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, and the parting of the Red Sea. Although American piety doesn’t seem to extend much beyond the Golden Oldies—who remembers what happened when Ehud stabbed Eglon?—the poll does show an increase in belief. In the most recent studies I’ve seen, however, church attendance and other indexes of religious behavior continue to decline. For most Americans, religion is adherence to a form of words rather than the practice of a form of life, which is a bit of a comfort to us infidels. The government recently argued before the Supreme Court that the “Under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance was constitutionally permissible because nobody took it seriously anyway. To judge by what people do, as opposed to what they say, affirming the existence of the Almighty to a pollster is similarly lacking in existential force. However.

A real, as opposed to notional, religious revival is not impossible granted the pathological state of our public discourse and the extremism and irrationality of our political leaders. One should remember that all the great historical religions achieved political and cultural domination through political coercion. Universal religions are systems of compulsion. Before the Conversion of Constantine, Christians were a considerable minority but no more than that. Islam was always an affair of the sword, and even Buddhism only spread widely with the help of the Mauryan emperors. The Church Fathers were well aware that it was Roman imperial power that made their success possible. From their point of view the Empire was a work of providence, part of what they called the preparation for the gospel.

It’s hard to imagine a real theocracy in America, of course; but the right obviously does not believe in the separation of church and state—according to one of the planks in the platform of the Texas Republican Party, the United States should define itself overtly as a Christian country. Professions of traditional belief are already a de facto requirement for high political office in these parts. Free thinkers like Jefferson couldn’t pass the test and the Spinozistic Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have much of a chance either. Much rightwing support for religion is completely cynical—neoconservatives from Leo Strauss on down regard popular faith as a useful fraud—but people like Bush appear to be completely sincere. We don’t know what may happen now that an authentic bigot has the bomb.

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