Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Religion and the Public Square

6/18/2008--I am now writing the third book in the series that began with American Religious Democracy and will continue with Hallowed Secularism when that book is published late this year. The first book was about religion and politics and the second about how to live a full secular life by incorporating the wisdom and message of Our Religions even though one rejects their dogmas.

The third book is about religion and American constitutional law. It will be called, For the Establishment of Religion. The book argues that constitutional law should not be interpreted, in fact is not going to be interpreted, to require a secular state. Instead, the law should allow the people through their government to endorse religion in a general sense, though not any one religion.

I’ll set forth the arguments in favor of this position in later posts. For now, let me introduce the basic idea. These three books are really about one matter seen from different perspectives. The matter is secularism and its life. If we are going to be secular, and I think we are, we had better stop borrowing our goodness and values from the residue of Christian culture and start thinking about how we can continue to renew our civilization without Christianity per se. I am tired of materialists insisting that they are good people when there is no particular reason they should be, given their purported understanding of reality.

Here is an example of what happens to a secular culture when it loses its sense of magic. Will Blythe is writing in the 6/15 edition of the New York Times book review section about a new edition of James Agee’s posthumously published novel, Death in the Family. The first line is a quote from Michael Lofaro’s new edition:

“'One by one, million by million, in the prescience of dawn, every leaf in that part of the world was moved.' Why don’t our novelists write in Agee’s tender high style these days? Either something has gone out of the world, or something has gone out of them. His book reads like a prayer, an attempt to breathe life into the dead through mighty exertions of language. Everything is consecrated. Trees move in their sleep, stars tremble like lanterns, and a butterfly — yes, a butterfly — alights on a coffin."

If we take Blythe’s question seriously--why don’t our novelists write this way these days--we can answer that they do, or that times change, or something not too dramatic. But even if Blythe is wrong, Blythe’s question at least suggests something that can happen. Light can go out. I am afraid that this is exactly what is going to happen unless secularists wake up and take a look around at the religionless world they are helping create. It is not going to be a healthy world.

What can be done? Well, first we can drop our automatic opposition to all things religious in the public realm. Senator Barack Obama may be suggesting that we do exactly that. But that will be for another post.

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