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Steps from God. . .to the Religion of the Self

John Paul II famously celebrated the critical importance of Greek philosophy in rescuing the Church from falling into a species of superstition.  The fathers of the Church would recruit to their side the fathers of philosophy in order “to bring to light the link between reason and religion.”

And “as they broadened their view to include universal principles, they no longer rested content with the ancient myths, but wanted to provide a rational foundation for their belief in the divinity.” That would make the most profound difference, for as he said in Fides et Ratio, “the truth conferred by Revelation” would be  “a truth to be understood in the light of reason.”

With the thrust of that teaching, John Paul II set himself once again at odds with the currents of popular opinion that were eroding the very meaning of “religion.”  It became all too familiar among politicians, judges, and ordinary folk to identify religion, not with truths, but with “beliefs.” And beliefs had no claim to be valid for anyone who did not share them.

The great unraveling came through the cases of “conscientious objection” to serving in the military.  At the time of the First World War, those exemptions from military service were granted to objectors who belonged to “any well-recognized religious sect or organization.”  By 1940 the exemptions were given to those whose  views had been shaped by “religious training or belief,” and by 1948 the privilege was connected to a belief in a “Supreme Being.”

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But those constructions gave the advantage to churches and sects already established, with bodies of theology already formed.  One by one the Supreme Court began to dismantle these requirements, which made no room for new revelations, and revelations with no connection to that Supreme Being understood so widely at the Founding. The Court began to recognize, as a tenable ground for “conscientious objection,” beliefs about right and wrong, held with the kind of passion that seemed “parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.”

In our own day, we see that sense of things reflected among some of our own friends who seek to defend “religious freedom” in the courts by removing, from the understanding of religion, any insistence on the presence of God – or any moral test of the teachings being offered in the name of religion.  All that is asked is whether a person holds to his views “sincerely.”

But that test is favored precisely for the sake of avoiding any judgment about the truth of what any religion purports to teach.   Of course, we would not want judges or legislators casting judgments on all matters of faith, such as the Trinity, but it is not beyond reason that we could judge the claims made for Satanism as the radical affirmation of evil.

And yet, under the current dispensation, benedictions and prayers have been permitted before the opening of legislative sessions, and so we’ve found a new growth industry for Satanists in doing these benedictions.  Not only the Satanists, but even certain self-described officers in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  A recent photo showed a “minister” of that club offering a benediction with a colander on his head.

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John Paul II warned strongly against the facile tendency to accord to the “individual conscience the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment”:

[I]n this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and “being at peace with oneself,” so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment.

But we discover again that “modernity” is not as recent as we usually think it is.  And so we find the Blessed John Cardinal Newman, in 1875, noting this novel fallacy already in the making.  “When men advocate rights of conscience,” he wrote, “they in no sense mean the rights of the creator, nor the duty to Him, but the right of thinking, speaking, writing, and acting according to their judgment or their humour, without any thought of God at all.”

This passage in Newman was recalled by Gerard Bradley of the law school of Notre Dame in his breakthrough of a new book, Unquiet Americans: U.S. Catholics and America’s Common Good [2].  Many of our friends have fallen into a groove of trying to protect religious freedom through the expedient of removing that divisive G-word (God), along with any test of moral truth.

But as Bradley sees so clearly, “once God is removed from the scene. . .the only source of value is the individual”:

When American constitutional law imagined a secular America, it was only a matter of time before religion would become an individualized, non-cognitive enterprise. Then religious liberty would inevitably collapse into a freedom to manifest one’s personal identity, including (for many) an idiosyncratic spiritual brand.

Hence, we arrive in the age of “identity politics” when religion is reduced to the religion of the self and its search for “meaning.”  Professor Bradley takes it as the purpose of his new book to “restore moral truth as the foundation of our law of civil liberties”—and, indeed, of all of our laws.

Bradley’s book marks another notable move, even on the part of conservatives, to break away from that lingering reluctance of “conservative jurisprudence” to have judges engage in reasoning about the moral substance of the laws. And on that, surely, more is coming.

 

*Image: A “Pastafarian” minister (representing the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) gives the invocation at a local Alaskan assembly meeting, September 18, 2019 [photo: Megan Pacer/AP]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.