Last week, I spoke at a Big Ideas meeting on the subject of the role of religion in American politics. I did so as part of my self-appointed crusade to make a case for preserving a role for faith in public life. At the end I was asked a very good, deceptively simple question – how would I actually define religion? My talk had presumed that having faith meant joining a church, believing in doctrine, and living the life of a visible saint. But for the vast majority of believers, religion is about births, deaths, and marriages and little else. They think about God fleetingly and only at times of need. So why give a prominent role to something so unstructured and, sometimes, cynical?
However, the utility of faith is one the things that makes it so indispensible. Religion gives us a language to describe triumph and tragedy. Take that language out of the vocabulary and we’d be emotionally bankrupt.
One of the greatest works about American religion is The Puritan Dilemma by Edmund Morgan. Morgan argues, convincingly, that the fire and brimstone Christianity of the 17th century Puritans was actually a way of expressing and understanding trauma. They concluded that bad things happen to faithless people, that war with the Amerindians, disease, famine, and poverty were linked to moral culpability. The Puritans created a lexicon to describe their ethical ambitions, leaving us the timeless image of “a city upon a hill”. Morgan is softer on the theocratic prejudices of the Puritans than he should be, but he is right that Jeremiad culture was an attempt to rationalize disaster and find ways through it. Christianity permeates the Civil Rights movement in a similar way. The movement was not a Christian construct by any means (its opponents were often Biblical fundamentalists), but religion helped express ideas of righteous suffering and redemption. It is no coincidence that so many of the movement’s leaders were preachers, or that African Americans identified so strongly with the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt.
Western society uses religious language and imagery far more than it realizes. Its values are there in human rights law or the casual evocation of brotherhood by politicians. When Jimmy Carter met Soviet leader Brezhnev at the 1979 Vienna Summit to discuss the control of nuclear weapons, the communist surprised the Baptist by remarking that “God will not forgive us if we fail”. Why did the commissar of an atheist state use such religious language? Probably because “God” is a way of expressing The Judgment of History – a supreme moral verdict that is beyond the transient, shortsighted opinions of man.
When the results of the UK Census are in, we shall discover the scope of belief in Britain. Doubtless, there’ll be mileage for the cynical in the mix of fantasy and ignorance that the survey will reveal (something I added to by putting “Jedi” as my religion. Process that, Lockheed). But the fact that so many British people don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus but do believe in horoscopes, reincarnation, and angels is not to be dismissed. That’s religion in an eclectic, postmodern age giving expression to a genetic need for the divine. Whether religious, agnostic, something, or nothing, most people desperately believe that there must be something more than this. If not, then we are in Hell. The fragility of our bodies and the evil men do are not temporary trials, they are all we get.