From Civil Religion to “Hate”

Although the United States has never had an official religion, it has traditionally been, in an informal and unofficial way, a Christian nation; more specifically, a Protestant nation. A virtually universal Protestantism was one of the chief factors, in addition to shared language and common law, which unified British America prior to the Revolution. After the Revolution this near-universal Protestantism helped make it relatively easy to unite the thirteen states into a single federal state.

It is true that many of these early American “Protestants” were un-churched, especially in the less thickly settled regions of the country. All the same, they thought of themselves as Protestant Christians. No matter how uninstructed in the contents of the Bible many of them may have been, they regarded the Bible as the great authority in religion. And they deplored the Catholic Church, as did all good Protestants (except for a small number of High Church Anglicans).

When in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries great numbers of Catholics flowed into America from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Quebec, and the Slavic countries, the purely Protestant nature of the USA was compromised; and it was further compromised when many Jews came in from the Russian Empire, joining the smaller number of Jews who had come in from Germany in the mid-19th century.

As the newcomers were gradually integrated into the American way of life, the nation continued to have an informal and unofficial religion. This time it was no longer pure Protestantism. Instead it was a “Judeo-Christian” religion, a common denominator religion based on those faith-and-morality elements that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews agreed on. But this Judeo-Christian faith was much more Protestant in tone than it was Catholic or Jewish. This Protestant tone was especially notable in its belief in the right of private judgment.

Both Catholicism and Judaism were religions of authority, not of private judgment. In Catholicism, the authority was that of popes and bishops and general councils. In Judaism it was that of the rabbinical tradition. Protestantism too had an authority: the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.

But there was no authoritative interpreter of the Bible. That was up to the private judgment of every man and woman. In America, Catholics and Jews adopted this great Protestant principle of private judgment. Among Jews, rabbis lost much of their teaching authority. Among Catholics, bishops lost much of their teaching authority.

It happened sooner among Jews, later among Catholics. Both rabbis and bishops continued to be respected, but in the last analysis you didn’t have to heed them if you didn’t like to.

At the beginning, that is, in the early days of Protestantism, the private judgment principle was meant to apply to Biblical interpretation only. But inevitably it tended to expand its jurisdiction. Americans have increasingly come to “think for themselves” in all things. We feel that we are entitled to hold our own opinions on any and all subjects: religion, morality, manners, politics, art, etc.

Nero’s Torches by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876 [National Museum, Kraków]

All of these are matters of taste and personal preference. On none of these is there any authority with the right to tell us what to think – not popes or bishops, not rabbis, not even the Bible.

As a consequence of this right to think for ourselves, we Americans now agree on fewer and fewer matters. We are truly “diverse” – dangerously diverse.

Of course, there are still many old-fashioned believers: Orthodox Jews, orthodox Catholics, and fundamentalist Protestants. But these appear to be dying breeds in America. If they survive, it will likely be as relatively insignificant religious enclaves (ghettos) having little impact on American society and culture as a whole.

Freedom of thought within the framework of certain taken-for-granted fundamental premises can be a good thing. But unlimited freedom of thought, a freedom of thought for which absolutely nothing is out of bounds, is a dangerous thing, for it will eventually call into question these fundamental premises. We are now approaching this dangerous moment in America, if we have not already reached it.

In the realm of sex matters, we have already reached this point, and I expect we’ll soon be going further. We have already overthrown the immemorial premise that marriage is a relationship between men and women. We are now in the process of overthrowing the premise that your sex/gender is something you’re born with.

Many people are already challenging the monogamy premise. Soon we’ll have people challenging the ban on incest. “Why shouldn’t adult brothers and sisters have sex with one another? Why shouldn’t a man marry his widowed or divorced mother? How would that hurt any third party? Are you afraid the sky will fall?” I expect to hear words like these any day now.

It isn’t, however, in the realm of sex only that fundamental premises are being questioned.

Freedom of speech is being challenged. For some, any speech they find unwelcome is “hate speech” and should, therefore, be banned.

Freedom of religion is being challenged, for some religions teach “hate” (for example, Catholicism, which teaches that homosexual conduct is immoral, allegedly a doctrine of homophobic “hate”).

Freedom of conscience is being challenged, for some people have a conscience that tells them to “hate”; and this should not be allowed.

“The Revolution devours its own children” – as was said at the time of the French Revolution when notable revolutionaries were sent to the guillotine. Before long we’ll hear people challenging the hitherto taken-for-granted premise that hate is bad.

“What’s wrong with hate?” they’ll be asking. “We think hate is good. It’s a sign of energy, vitality, strength. A sign of manliness. Down with womanly tolerance. Down with love. Long live hate.”

Words like these are just around the corner. They are the kind of words that will be spoken by persons with a KKK mentality or a neo-Nazi mentality. Even if they style themselves “antifa,” which is to say anti-Fascist.

The alternative is to revive our Judeo-Christian national religion. If not, get ready for the worst.

 

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

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