Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nostalgia for Hypocrisy (and the War on Christmas)

cross-posted from Dagblog

It's Christmas time, which means "War on Christmas" time, which means a whole bunch of bizarre complaints about persecution by members of an overwhelmingly privileged religious majority group. This bad behavior is often understood as part of the most intense and fire-breathing American Christianists' fire-breathing intensity. But that's only half the story, or maybe less. The support for more public displays of Christianity comes from two very distinct groups: one group of very intense church-goers and another group that spends little or no time in any kind of formal worship. (Flavia got me thinking about this second group with a great post about Rick Perry's appeal to the people who aren't "in the pew every Sunday" but who nonetheless feel uncomfortable with gays.) If that seems paradoxical, the thing to understand is that the second group wants more public religiosity precisely because they have no particular religious practice of their own.

The familiar Christianist groups take the position that they can't exercise their freedom of religion unless they can exercise it everywhere, and for them exercising their religion means constantly attempting to spread it by any means necessary. Those believers cannot tolerate any religiously neutral public square, because they feel obligated to claim everything they can for their particular version of Christ. That's a coherent but wrong-headed position, which basically insists on the bitter sectarian struggles that the Establishment Clause is designed to prevent (struggles that the Founders could picture all too clearly). These groups want school prayer, public Nativity displays, and monuments to the Ten Commandments because they want to establish their (very, very specific) version of Christianity and disestablish the rest. As part of that process, they want to turn every inch of the public square into a site of red-hot theological controversy.

But the other group who's interested in public displays of religion is interested in an extremely bland and unobjectionable Christianity, with no religious controversy or debate at all. They want religious displays that are specifically Christian, but not specific to any group of Christians; the goal is something that 90%-95% of self-identified Christians can sign off on without feeling bothered. Yes, that excludes and marginalizes all of the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and so forth. But it turns out that excluding only the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews without also excluding more than 5 or 10% of the Christians is a very complicated proposition. It demands minimal content and superficial symbolism; since Christian groups agree on so little, you can absolutely not afford to get into even a limited discussion of what any of this means. The question of how to be a good Christian, of how to put Christian moral values into action, is right off the table. There's a reason that so much Christmas and Easter symbolism is not actually religious; Christians don't have centuries-old disagreements about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But we can't talk about Mary for more than five minutes before hitting some deep-seated differences. Santa Claus is a much safer topic of conversation. The need to avoid controversy makes America's public Christianity so watered-down and superficial that it's really religion in name only, symbolism without content.
Now, taking away those nominal and minimal expressions of Christianity, the Nativity scenes in front of Town Hall or the little rote prayer in home room, doesn't change anything if you actually, you know, go to church, or read the Bible, or pray. If you have an active faith life, you're going to get plenty of chances for devotion without needing to have a cross displayed in the airport around certain holidays. I don't need a big Nativity diorama in the public square.There's one in my church. My spouse and I own one. If I needed to see one on my block, I'd buy an outdoor version and put it in front of the house. I have no need for little gestures of public piety because I actually go to services, which (unlike the little gestures), involve genuine religious content and require genuine religious thought. But you really miss those empty and trivial religious gestures if the empty and trivial gestures are all you have. It's not a blow to me if the staff at Target don't say "Merry Christmas," because Target is not my primary place of worship.

There are plenty of Americans who like to think of themselves as Christians without actually doing anything about that, who don't go to services, don't read or think about any religious writings, and certainly don't do anything so outrageous as to give to the poor or follow any of Jesus's directives about mercy or compassion. But they like to think of themselves as Christians, and taking away the token gestures makes them face the reality that they don't even have a church to go to. The "War on Christmas" bothers them because it impinges on their no-cost, no-effort religious identity. 

What many of these Christians-in-their-own-minds miss is the sense of an established national religion that those lame and superficial Christian gestures helped to create. They're not longing for America as a Christian Nation, in the current idiomatic sense: they don't want a society where religious hard-liners set the agenda for the rest of us. They want a strictly notional but national "Christianity," a shared recognition for a lukewarm and nearly content-free faith. They want Christianity as a badge of social cohesion and a symbol of tradition. In fact, they like public expressions of Christianity precisely because it excludes Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. But they don't actually want any public practice of Christianity. The actual teachings of Christianity are irrelevant, because they're not using Christianity as a religion per se; they're using it as a way to promote social solidarity and in-group identity and other goals that are not religious in nature. It's very common for national religions to become more national than religious. That's another reason that the Founders didn't like them. National churches bury the genuine believers inside a crowd of conformists and hypocrites who are there to get along or get ahead instead of getting to heaven. (You may have heard a claim that no one can serve two masters at once. That never gets mentioned in those vague and nominal expressions of public Christianity.)

When you read conservative pundits, especially "moderate" or "centrist" pundits bemoaning our secular age and the loss of our civic religion, etc. etc. etc., remember what they're pining for is an era of meaningless lip service to a vague and denuded parody of Christianity. In essence, those pundits are feeling nostalgia for hypocrisy. And I suppose that hypocritical expressions of loyalty to a lukewarm religion have their uses, but I don't want any part of them. National and civic goals should be pursued by national and civic means. Religions, on the other hand, should be left to their own goals, thinking about their followers' spiritual and moral development rather than serving sociological cohesion. It's a pretty simple principle really: give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God's what is God's. And no, that's not from the Federalist.

Season's greetings, all. May you each keep the winter holidays in your own ways, and prosper in the New Year.


Renaissance Girl said...

This is spot-on, and welcome. Especially this bit:

It's not a blow to me if the staff at Target don't say "Merry Christmas," because Target is not my primary place of worship.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thanks, RG. Glad you liked it.

My spouse liked the same bit that you did, fwiw. Cheers.