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Political Tests For Religion

The publication of a long, interesting, if somewhat meandering Newsweek cover piece by John Meachem entitled "The End of Christian America" has spurred a brief resurgence of blogospheric debate on the whole church-state separation issue.

Much of the debate has been stimulated by Damon Linker at The New Republic, who has simultaneously argued against the "Christian Nation" concept, while also suggesting that a watered-down version of Christianity known as "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD) might serve quite well as a "civic religion."

Much of the blowback Linker has generated comes from this second assertion, which offers a pretty easy target insofar as Damon himself describes MTD as a theological abomination. Rod Dreher waxes indignant about the patent emptiness of MTD as a source for prophetic political action such as the civil rights movement. Ross Douthat more broadly asserts that the kind of thinking behind MTD is more dangerous than anything promoted by the Christian Right:

[Y]ou don't have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush's worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War") and some of his fellow Americans' worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion - from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne - and come away convinced that this theological turn has been "salutary" for the country overall.

I'm mentioning this discussion here because church-state separation issues tend to divide not only progressives from conservatives, and believers from seculars, but even progressive believers from each other. Damon notes my own "Augustinian dualist" position in the post above, which can be roughly described as staunch support for strict church-state separation on both civic and religious grounds. So count me as someone who agrees with Damon Linker on the threat to American liberties and traditions posed by the Christian Right (and for that matter, the Christian Left if it ever became really popular), but who also doesn't like the religious or political implications of some Christian Lite "civic religion" like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I don't think America really needs a "civic religion;" we should be able to get by as a secular republic characterized by religious (and irreligious) diversity, thank you very much.

So that puts me in the camp, for once, of the polymath Michael Lind, whose own essay for Salon on the latest Christian Nation debate flatly denies that religion, rigorous or Lite, is necessary for democracy, even though some (if not all) of the Founders felt that it was:

In [George] Washington's day, it may have been reasonable for the elite to worry that only fear of hellfire kept the masses from running amok, but in the 21st century it is clear that democracy as a form of government does not require citizens who believe in supernatural religion. Most of the world's stable democracies are in Europe, where the population is largely post-Christian and secular, and in East Asian countries like Japan where the "Judeo-Christian tradition" has never been part of the majority culture.

But as Lind points out, strict church-state separation not only protects secular society from religious abuses, but also protects religion from manipulation for political reasons:

The idea that religion is important because it educates democratic citizens in morality is actually quite demeaning to religion. It imposes a political test on religion, as it were -- religions are not true or false, but merely useful or dangerous, when it comes to encouraging the civic virtues that are desirable in citizens of a constitutional, democratic republic.

So gimme that old-time "wall" between church and state, beloved of the Southern Baptists of my childhood. America's religious and civic cultures are truly in crisis if they can't do without it.