The controversy rages throughout the West. Does religion have a role to play in secular culture? Or should it be marginalized to a place safely outside the public square? So far as I can tell this controversy began in the 1960s but it is rooted in debates that are centuries old now. Europe and America are not the same in this regard but both face the same essential challenges. America still has a far more vibrant Christian presence than Europe so the issue here is still more openly addressed. This debate can be seen on a routine basis in American culture. Consider the recent flap about Brit Hume suggesting that Tiger Woods could find real peace and help if he turned to Jesus Christ in faith. If Hume had suggested that Tiger try some form of therapy or humanistic self-help the flap would never have taken on wings. But he specifically suggested Tiger could find real help in Jesus. The pundits went crazy. It would be hilarious if it didn't underscore once again the deep rift that has formed over the past fifty years.
The almost complete dismissal of religious faith, particularly the Christian faith, from public life has strongly characterized our time in history. This leaves people feeling disconsolate. The market, and consumption, have filled the role religion once held. While the market is not itself a bad thing, actually it is quite the opposite in principle, it can only meet superficial needs. The needs the market can meet are important. This is why the rise of economic earning power in China and India excites me profoundly. Having seen that these two countries first-hand I can now easily see the rising opportunities they are given by these economic gains. The free market still beats the alternatives hands down.
I am reminded of a conversation with a leading emergent writer several years ago. He had spoken about the need to address poverty and human misery in Africa. I asked him what system of economic and business thought could best lift Africa? He said, "Some form of the free market." Only a dyed-in-the-wool socialist would disagree. But I reminded him that what we needed was a free market with morality, a free market in a context where religion played an important role in forming the soul of those who prospered. We need markets but we also need morality. Part of what broke down in the last twenty years was the presence of morality in the marketplace. This opened the door to a host of major problems that now require new regulations. We have regulations because we lack morality. But we also have them because we still have a basic morality that promotes the need for them.
The consumer market can only meet certain needs. As important as these needs are they remain superficial in a real sense. The market, without faith, leaves a giant hole in the soul. The more we are able to have the more we come to realize that we lack the things that money cannot buy. For this reason a deep longing for faith has not died out in the West.
But should we keep religion completely out of politics? The answer depends to some extent on how we define religion. True religion cannot be excluded from everyday life thus it will always engage public life in some way. And public life will always involve religious faith in addressing things like diplomacy, economics and military decision making. Now religious faith is a primary factor in almost every part of the world scene. Some Americans might find this "unenlightened" approach too much to handle but I suggest it will not go away so easily.
Cardinal Schornborn, whom I quoted yesterday, suggests that we can only approach this issue from the perspective of the two-thousand year history of Christianity's actual experience with politics. We have seen more than a few failures thus we need to humbly learn from these. He suggests that we ought to be cautious about judgments regarding other religions. The Cardinal references the biblical incident where the Pharisees sought to entrap Jesus with a question about paying taxes to Caesar to make his point. Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, in effect, you do your own business with this money and stop putting your trick questions to me. In effect, and this is really good, he said to them, "You agree to the compromises that are necessary in life" (p. 68).
But beyond the "compromises" that are normal and sometimes necessary in everyday life there are profound influences that shape life in society and these will always involve religious faith. Cardinal Schonbron rightly concludes: "There is the clear distinction between the profane and the spiritual, between religion and politics." Yes, there really is a "clear distinction." The problem I see right now is that so few, either left or right politically, see this distinction or talk about it nearly enough. The real answers will not be found in the writings and speeches of the secular, anti-religious left. But neither will they be found in those who want to promote an intolerant form of religious faith, a kind of religious fundamentalism. This includes the fundamentalism of the media-driven secular faith. We need to be far more humble about our own history while at the same time we recognize that our public life is inherently religious in ways that require us to speak up and to influence community practice in healthy ways. One obvious example is the pro-life movement, which some people support on totally non-religious grounds. People of faith have a moral duty to defend life and the helpless and weakest among us should get the first priority by any reasonable ethical standard. Pro-life means more than saving unborn children but it always starts here. When people talk about this issue and do not faithfully pursue the politics of their talk I am unimpressed and unmoved by their talk. Talk is cheap and in this case very cheap if not pure manipulation.