Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Thoughts on "Establishment"

Most Americans have no interest in or affection for anything smacking of "religious establishment." Religious belief is either a negative, in which it's best kept private (like all superstitions), or it's best kept very clearly separate from the state, so as to avoid political complications. Even those who very explicitly endorse a stronger role for religious values and perspectives in the public square rarely speak fondly joint religious-civic establishments, though they quickly point out extreme interpretations of the establishment clause which push too far in the other direction. Still, you sometimes find, when people's guards are down, a willingness to reflect on the virtues which come from living in communities that are, shall we say, somewhat more religiously and morally "settled" than otherwise. Amada Butler of Crescat Sententia did that (perhaps unknowingly) recently, when she wrote about a graduate of her high school, one Bobby Jindal, who is running for governor of Louisiana, and who is quite open about "defending the role of faith and values" in his state. Whereas Jacob Levy, who knew Jindal at Brown University, writes that "any credible candidate for governor of Louisiana is going to have views that I don't find particularly palatable," Amada allows that: "At the end of the day...I don't think Mr. Jindal will really wreck anything with his faith-and-values program, and I sometimes like the atmosphere of a state that's more actively religious than areligious if it's not acting like a whited sepulcher (I'm not sure I can articulate these reasons, but they do stretch deeper than my grumblings that you can't find decent Friday seafood specials during Lent in Chicago)."

That hardly an embrace of religious establishment, but it is a very open-minded acknowledgment that the very idea of religious-civic partnerships aren't all or always bad. As she said, there is something to an "actively religious" atmosphere; and I agree, that something isn't easy to articulate. But here's something from Stanley Hauerwas that I think comes close:

"Theological questions were not high on our agenda as we toured Ireland in 1988. We drove innocently into Sneem, a village on the ring of Kerry....We decided to stop and shop at one of the stores selling Irish sweaters. We were enjoying the large and beautiful selection the shop offered when, suddenly, the young man who seemed to be the proprietor announced that he had to close shop in order to go to Mass. It was eleven o'clock on a Thursday....He explained that it was the feast of the Ascension and also the traditional day marked for first communion. Suddenly little boys and girls appeared from everywhere fitted with white suits and white dresses. Then they all marched together into the church for Mass. After Mass, we were told, they all came out of the church, circled the fountain at the center of the square, while everyone in town cheered and clapped. This was confirmed in every little town we passed through that day in west Ireland. Little girls and boys dressed in white were everywhere celebrating their first communion....I could not suppress the thought: 'If this is Constantinianism, I rather like it.'" (From In Good Company: The Church as Polis, pg. 19-20)

An actively religious atmosphere is one in which daily life takes for granted that there is more to life than daily life: there is stuff which came before (history, culture, language, faith), and there is stuff which will come after (take your pick, depending on your theology). That atmosphere depends upon personal, private belief of course; to promote "faith and values" where none exist clearly falls into what Amada rightly called the "whited sepulcher" category. But on the other hand, "faith and values" alone cannot create the kind of atmosphere whereby some things can be substantively cherised and protected. Amanda notes that she can't find good deals on seafood on Fridays during Lent in Chicago, and that's part of the point of course: for a community to hold, through whatever means, on to a particular atmosphere means there will be limits on the type and availability of the air one breathes, metaphorically speaking. To extend the metaphor, many people find any and all such limits stifling. But not all people do: as Amanda also wrote, her desire for that atmosphere is greater than her frustration with its limits. She might dislike my discovering of elements of "establishment" in her comments. I'm sure she wouldn't--and I definitely don't--want to come off as a defender of theocracy here. Still, it's important to prevent the usefulness of talking and thinking about "establishing" faith and values to be wholly lost. There is something to be said for Constantinianism, or as Bobby Jindal puts it, in much more ordinary language, "religion [should not be] an exclusively private matter, and people of faith should not be required to separate their faith from their daily lives, their professions, or from public discourse." Wise words, even if you wouldn't vote for the man.