Day of mourning for secular fundies

1101010914 400 01The email is starting to come in asking when GetReligion is going to have something to say about that New York Times Magazine cover story from this past weekend, the massive piece called “The Politics of God” by Mark Lilla. The sad thing about it is that I am three time zones away from my office and involved in some long, long meetings in which a circle of journalists and academics are, during the break times, talking about this piece.

I wish I had the time to devote to it that it deserves. Let me stress that it is not a piece of journalism, yet it is certainly about a subject that looms behind much of the journalism of this era. It is very much a piece about whether our culture’s elites “get religion.”

Here is the opening, which the Times underlined by publishing on the magazine cover:

The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity– these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.

This is not the kind of piece that will make the Rev. Pat Robertson dance for joy, or anything like that. Trust me. It also must be said that some of its major themes are similar to points that historian Martin Marty has been making for ages. So this is not really a liberal vs. conservative matter. But secular vs. religious?

Consider this quote from a column I wrote about a Marty presentation in the wake of Sept. 11:

Truth is, most Western leaders have long believed that religion would inevitably fade, he said. Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. … “The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

There is much to write and, for once, I simply want to point you in the direction of a post elsewhere — by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher over at his Crunchy Cons blog. Rod has gone to the trouble of writing a lengthy summary of the Times piece and then offering his comments. He also rounded up another reaction or two.

To read that summary, click here. Here is a short sample of what he has to say:

I’ll say quickly, and for now, that I am glad to see this essay appear in such a prominent mainstream media outlet. I have been deeply frustrated for a long time over the inability of so many Americans, especially in the media, to understand that the American way of seeing God is not universal. Muslims are not Episcopalians in hijabs. For better and for worse, they follow their own powerful creed, and their creed is deeply incompatible with Western secularism, and with modernity. And we’ve got to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it were.

And that is the key for journalists. Do we want to try to offer informed, accurate, balanced coverage of these debates? Is that possible?

At the very least, this thunderclap in the holy Times is a sign that it is getting safer and safer to admit that religion is news, period, and that it is impossible to make sense of the news that is going on around us without admitting that journalists will have to “get religion.” Amen.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I did not see a link to the story in your post:

    There’s one paragraph in that story that really struck home for me:

    As for the American experience, it is utterly exceptional: there is no other fully developed industrial society with a population so committed to its faiths (and such exotic ones), while being equally committed to the Great Separation. Our political rhetoric, which owes much to the Protestant sectarians of the 17th century, vibrates with messianic energy, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never seriously challenged the basic legitimacy of our institutions. Americans have potentially explosive religious differences over abortion, prayer in schools, censorship, euthanasia, biological research and countless other issues, yet they generally settle them within the bounds of the Constitution. It’s a miracle.

    I think that is literally true.

  • Ben

    Christopher Hitchens’ response, FYI:

  • Ivan Wolfe

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

    Anyone who want to write or report on Religion in America needs to read the book “The Churching of America” (either edition is fine) by Finke and Starke.

    It covers the same ground as this post and the article it talks about, plus it uses solid empirical evidence and rigorous statistical and sociological analysis.

    That quote from the column on Martin Marty could have been in any chapter in that book.

  • Str1977

    It is no surprise that the Time writers are shocked by the present as they have chosen to see the past selectively:

    “For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity— these were the questions that divided us.”

    As if there had never been any conflict involving religion during these two centuries.

    As if the large modern ideologies are not merely religions without god/s.

    “Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty.”

    But they make up for their blindness by totally stupid utterances on the present too. Of course, if one is clueless about the 16th century (the European, Christian 16th century, that is) one may as well compare the present to it.

    “that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.”

    You were wrong because it was a sill silly thought to begin with.

    As for the NYT:

    Apart from mythology about “the Great Separation” (not the capitalisation), it seems like an answer to Time’s “eminently political problems”. It classifiey issues like abortion, censorship, euthanasia, biological research (whatever that is) as religious when in fact they are nothing of the kind.

    “We in the West … have our own fundamentalists” – and they inhabit Time and Times.

  • Bruce Tomaso


    You quote my friend and colleague Rod Dreher as saying, “I am glad to see this essay appear in such a prominent mainstream media outlet. I have been deeply frustrated for a long time over the inability of so many Americans, especially in the media, to understand that the American way of seeing God is not universal.”

    What, pray tell, is “the American way of seeing God”? This phrase is utterly, completely nonsensical. Rod may as well have used one of those kitchen-magnet word games to randomly slap together a five-word description of .. well, of what?

    If people who read this blog have learned anything at all about religion in America, it surely must be that there is no such thing as “the American way of seeing God.” My neighbor across the street is Jewish. We’re Catholic. Down the block is a family of Methodists. And an Indian family of Hindus. The gay guys in the gray house attend a gay-friendly church. Next door are two young seekers who bounce from one nondenominational church to the next. I’m sure we have an atheist or two in the neighborhood. Is my experience in this regard any different from that of any of you?

    Rod’s real frustration, I think, is that HIS way of seeing God is not universal. And he’s frustrated at the “mainstream media” for its refusal to be as alarmed about that as he is, despite the million or so alarmist words he has poured out on the subject.

    In the same paragraph, Rod writes: “For better and for worse, they [Muslims] follow their own powerful creed, and their creed is deeply incompatible with Western secularism, and with modernity.” At the risk of being accused of theological relativism, could one not say precisely the same thing about Catholics and Southern Baptists — at least, about the ultra-devout, ultra-conservative branches of those two faith groups?

    As for the NYT Magazine story, I tried twice — the second time because I felt I should. Didn’t make it to the 50-yard line.

  • Rod Dreher

    Hmm. By “the American way of seeing God,” I meant the idea that all religions are pretty much the same, and all can be easily folded into secular America. I have had lots of conversations over the past six years with well-meaning Americans who believe that there is no basic difference among the world’s religions, particularly Islam. I have written about an Oprah Winfrey broadcast right after 9/11, which was designed to calm Americans’ fears about Muslims. It was well-meaning propaganda from start to finish. If you’d seen that show, you’d think that Islam was just another variation on a basic Abrahamic theme, and that Islam posed no more of a threat to the settled order in the West than Judaism of Christianity.

    It just isn’t so. If you’d read the entire Lilla piece, Bruce, you’d have come across this passage:

    It is a world in which millions of people, particularly in the Muslim orbit, believe that God has revealed a law governing the whole of human affairs. This belief shapes the politics of important Muslim nations, and it also shapes the attitudes of vast numbers of believers who find themselves living in Western countries — and non-Western democracies like Turkey and Indonesia — founded on the alien principles of the Great Separation. These are the most significant points of friction, internationally and domestically. And we cannot really address them if we do not first recognize the intellectual chasm between us: although it is possible to translate Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush from Farsi into English, its intellectual assumptions cannot be translated into those of the Great Separation. We can try to learn his language in order to create sensible policies, but agreement on basic principles won’t be possible. And we must learn to live with that.

    Similarly, we must somehow find a way to accept the fact that, given the immigration policies Western nations have pursued over the last half-century, they now are hosts to millions of Muslims who have great difficulty fitting into societies that do not recognize any political claims based on their divine revelation. Like Orthodox Jewish law, the Muslim Shariah is meant to cover the whole of life, not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere, and its legal system has few theological resources for establishing the independence of politics from detailed divine commands. It is an unfortunate situation, but we have made our bed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Accommodation and mutual respect can help, as can clear rules governing areas of tension, like the status of women, parents’ rights over their children, speech offensive to religious sensibilities, speech inciting violence, standards of dress in public institutions and the like. Western countries have adopted different strategies for coping, some forbidding religious symbols like the head scarf in schools, others permitting them. But we need to recognize that coping is the order of the day, not defending high principle, and that our expectations should remain low. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected.

    Lilla is no friend of religion, and I had some problems with his piece. But at least he understands that the American way of seeing God and His place in the political order is fundamentally different from the Islamic view. And I know there are people in the Dallas Morning News’ newsroom who are desperate to believe that orthodox Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants are essentially the same as Muslims in their supposed threat to the liberal order, but no amount of wishful thinking can make that true. In America, the vast majority of people of faith, however critical they are of particulars in our politics, have made what Lilla called the Great Separation. Only the few and far between fringe groups want to see the constitution overturned and a theocratic regime installed.

    That, however, is precisely the goal of the Muslim Brotherhood, as revealed in a document captured in an FBI raid in Virginia, and introduced into evidence in the Holy Land Foundation trial underway now in Dallas. The MB openly says — in that document, and elsewhere — that it wants to infiltrate the US and bring about an Islamic theocracy. The MB has a hand in all the major Islamic organizations in this country. I will never understand why the plain statements of these people, and their documentable influence in American Muslim life, is ignored by the news media. Perhaps we’re too busy waiting for Bob Jones University graduates to fly planes into buildings.

    “Alarmist”? Please, Bruce, You’re just not paying enough critical attention.

  • momly

    I read an interesting opinion piece in USA Today yesterday about the closing of the secular mind. Sorta related to the topic.

  • Bruce Tomaso

    Rod, do you honestly believe that ultra-conservative Catholics think “all religions are pretty much the same”? If so, one of them needs to tell their pope, because he just endorsed a document saying the exact opposite, something you praised him for.

    How about Southern Baptists? You think they think their churches are pretty much the same as, say, the Cathedral of Hope?

    And the Mormons? All religions are pretty much the same to them? Wow.

    As for the Muslim Brotherhood, I’m sorry, but I simply have about eleventy billion more important things to worry about. They have as much chance of infiltrating the United States and imposing an Islamist theocracy as I do of spending a week — no, a month — in St. Martin with Uma Thurman. They’re crackpots. How much more critical attention than that do they deserve?

    Great line about Bob Jones U grads. It’s stuff like that that keeps me reading you, Dreher. But, let’s see… Before Sept. 11, wasn’t the domestic record-holder Tim McVeigh? Who was upset, if I recall correctly, at how the government’s jackbooted thugs had crushed the peaceful ekklesia of that Christian prophet, David Koresh.

  • Will Harrington

    Bruce, are you being wilfully obtuse to hold on to a point that is not particularly germain?. Of course most people who hold to a religion do so in the belief that it, as opposed to others, are true, with the exception of universalist faiths who do think that they all are true (which is not such a small number, perhaps). Rods point has nothing to do with this fact, but rather that pretty much all americans of all religions do not see seperate religions as a necessary impediment to co-existing peacefully and productively in a larger secular society. To put it simply, we don’t have an established religion, don’t want one, and can get along with each other just dandy even if we have different faiths. Rod, is this what you were saying? Thats the point I got.
    I also love people who make predictions about the future. Would you have bet on a small bunch of jews transforming the Roman Empire or a motley group of fanatical arabs conquering the Great Persian Empire without a fight and then conquering great swaths of the Byzantine empire and Spain as well? Or how about an ill equipped army of colonists without the complete support of even their own populace fighting the worlds greatest power at the time to a standstill until they gained independence and ultimately eclipsed that former super power. Yup, one thing about predictions, they are usually wrong. But in your case, I think you are reaching for extremes and it weakens your point. Historically, I would have to say that the expansion of Dar al Islam is probably still the goal of a great many muslims and the fact that it looks like a long shot to you will not deter them. Sharia law may not be an imminent danger, but certainly it has been clearly demonstrated that at least a significant number of those who would like to see it implemented are. That is not even an arguable point.

  • Str1977

    I must agree with Rod and Will.

    It is the American take that all religions are basically the same in the regard that they are non-political and infusing moral values. Note: in that regard. (BTW, there has even been a heresy termed Americanism that decries a similar view.)

    Even if some groups don’t agree, they haven’t shaped the culture and mostly members are shaped by the culture’s view.

  • tioedong

    Lillas talks about political religion yet his analysis is a narrow one.
    Ironically, Spengler of the Asian Times does a great “fisk” of the piece:

    Spengler’s best line? comments about Lilla saying how Hobbes saved civilization from religious wars:

    ” Precisely how Hobbes accomplished all of this is a mystery known only to political scientists who take themselves far too seriously. The masses, after all, did not rally in the public squares waving little books of quotations from Chairman Hobbes. Never mind that the United States, which defined the modern democratic state, was founded by radical Protestant refugees from Europe who set out to build a New Jerusalem,”

  • kyle

    Bruce, it sounds an awful lot like you’re saying that, to be a good American, a religious believer must believe “all religions are pretty much the same.” Is that what you think? If so, how does that particular religious bias affect your work as a journalist?

  • Julia

    1) “In modern Britain and the United States, it was assumed that the intellectual, and then institutional, separation of Christianity and modern politics had been mutually beneficial — that the modern state had benefited by being absolved from pronouncing on doctrinal matters, and that Christianity had benefited by being freed from state interference.”

    There is not as much “Great Separation” in the West as the author claims. In England, the Prime Minister still appoints the bishops of the Church of England, these bishops sit in the House of Lords making political decisions and an heir to the throne may not marry a Catholic but may marry a Hindu or a Mormon. In Great Britain as well as most countries on the Continent, governments own the churches, financially support even religious schools and some even collect the taxes for the various religious groups.

    2) “They then found theological reasons to reject otherworldly monasticism and the all-too-worldly imperialism of Rome, offering biblical reasons that strong Christians should be loyal citizens of the state they live in. And they did this, not by speaking the apologetic language of toleration and progress, but by rewriting the language of Christian political theology and demanding that Christians be faithful to it.”

    It sounds like the author is all for what is going on in China today with the government outlawing Catholic churches and arresting Catholic priests that don’t take a loyalty oath to the Chinese government in religious matters. The Church of England does not seem to be doing too well in keeping its communion together now that members like Nigeria see English and American attitudes toward gays for instance as “foreign” interference much as the English previously saw the Pope as a foreignor meddling in English religious matters.

    A little more introspection into how we in the West really operate is in order before we start lecturing the Muslims how they should be modelling themselves after our “Great Separation”.

  • Frater Titus

    As a Gnostic Christian, I get little respect here, and absolutely none in Europe. I don’t know why. We are the only christian sect that doesn’t practice imprecatory black magic.