Throughout the nation our minds and activities have now turned toward Christmas, a celebration many among us still consider to be profoundly religious. Even those whose greeting is “Happy Holidays” are acknowledging, perhaps without knowing it, that Holy Days are in the offing.
Nevertheless, it is clear that in many institutions, stores and even homes, secularism has all but replaced the story of the holy family, the baby, the angels, the shepherds and the magi. Retailers and manufacturers count on this month for almost half of their year’s sales. Gift buying and giving outrank the manger as the December obsession. What a relief this is from what is going on in much of the world. For these days we can at least enjoy a modicum of distance from the horrors around us. I have no need to name them.
Nevertheless, anyone who takes the time to look will be aware that religion is under serious attack. If it has been sidelined, do not blame secularism. Perhaps religion’s diminishment is because it has become its own worst enemy. The beautiful Islamic tradition seems almost overshadowed by terrorism. The Holy land, the seat of the three Abrahamic religions, (Islam. Judaism, Christianity) now lies in the hands of Jewish fundamentalists whose religious bigotry holds hostage any resolution of the Palestinian quagmire.
In this nation Protestant fundamentalism is how many today view Christianity. There is no need to guess at the contemporary content of Christian music, Christian books, Christian schools or Christian politics. When asked what Christians will do in the upcoming election, we tend to mean, “What will fundamentalists do?” Many of us now find it difficult to refer to ourselves as Christians, because that term has become an embarrassment. The farther to the right politicians go, the more they become the darlings of the religious right.
Why is a denial of climate change so deeply embedded in conservative politics? Isn’t it at least partly because fundamentalists believe that science has sought to replace God as being in control? Or are these voters simply in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry? What is the backbone of the pro-gun lobby, support for the death penalty, the rejection of universal health insurance, and even lower taxes for the already rich? Conservative politicians know they can count on Protestant fundamentalists to rally behind these and other right-wing causes. Don’t ask me how this combination of politics and what passes for Christianity came about. What seems increasingly clear is that in the popular mind Christianity now means right-wing politics. If you are looking for a reason why so many younger people have abandoned the church and now are called “nones,” here may be one cause.
At the same time, many born-again secularists, as well as Christians and Jews who identify themselves as “progressive,” seem to epitomize the values that much of modern religion has abandoned. Having escaped a rigid judgmental religious perspective, many secularists have somehow espoused the very essence of what religion is at heart — what it means to live compassionately in this world occupied by a great variety of people, all of whom have similar human needs. But more about that later in the month.
As one whose life has been embedded in religion and its institutions, I want to spend these next weeks trying make sense — first for myself and then for those who will read what I have written — as to whether religion is still needed in this increasingly complex world. Next week I will talk about what may be the essence of religion and religious thought.