And so begins a new round of us v. them religious freedom debates/news-cycles. Given the current state of thought in the nation and the state of religion generally, it is a debate that will never be settled to the satisfaction of either side. It is a situation in which the courts will have to continuously and overbearingly enforce compromise after compromise, creating a a state of perpetual discontent oscillating from one side to the other. Activist groups will continue to grow and be formed, uncountable amounts of money will be expended on everything from incredibly high-priced legal talent to advertising in various media forms. Both sides will be depicted by the other as evil incarnate – neither will be.
A situation like this one cannot be resolved by any court decision, regulation or legislation. The debate is fundamentally not a legal debate. In the end it is not even a rational debate. It more resembles siblings trying to set boundaries in the backseat of very small car than an actual debate. It is not really about the territory being claimed, it is about identity and individuality – general displeasure and scapegoating – boredom and desire.
This is an argument fueled by a media culture that thrives on dispute – dispute generally rooted in a desire for media attention. The internet has, metaphorically, turned media from a form of semi-entertaining voyeurism into something resembling a garter snake mating cluster. Nothing is going to resolve in this country until we figure out genuine resolution and satisfaction does not happen in media – it’s personal. Life is never fully satisfying, even if you are the actual center of attention; you have to find your satisfaction all on your own. The argument is also fueled by the idea that freedom means a lack of restriction. Blog length writing prevents me from exploring this in depth, but consider this – we are always restricted in some fashion, if nothing else by the laws of physics. Freedom means a lot of things, but it does not, by definition, mean a lack of restrictions.
The “debate” that swirls around us now, that enters a new cycle with recent action by the AG, has come based on two cultural developments that will have to change before anything approaching resolution is possible. The first development is “religion reduced.” The second development is the reduction of the ideological to the personal. In many ways these are the same development approached from the different sides. They need to be explored in a bit more detail.
In this morning’s Jolt, Jim Geraghty asked, “What happens when people stop seeing politics and governance as being contests of ideas, policies, and philosophies, and it starts being a battle of mortal demi-gods? What if — having so thoroughly left behind the concept of a divine redeemer — Americans turn to a series of secular saviors, ambitious narcissists who promise the world and seek scapegoats when they fail to deliver?” Another way to ask that is, “What happens when politics becomes entirely personal? – About who you think you are and who you most relate to.” Ideas and policies can be modified, but when everything is personal there is no room for discussion, there is only winning and losing. Politics becomes war.
But notice what Geraghty says we are leaving behind – “a divine redeemer.” In his question people are turning to secular redeemers. But what if we hold onto the idea of the divine, but give up the need for redemption? Then what are we left with? I think we might be left with something that looks a lot like American Evangelicalism and Mainstream Protestant Denominationalism. The former has largely turned God into a cosmic buddy and latter has turned the church from a powerful institution to a social club. These are both, despite their very different political viewpoints, expressions of the same phenomena – the abdication of effort to find an objective viewpoint and approaching everything from an entirely subjective one. In other words, it is all personal.
The problem, that everything is now entirely subjective, can be blamed on religion reduced. If we do not believe in divinity it is because religion has not be robust enough in its teachings to the irreligious. If we do not believe we need redemption then religion has not been robust enough in its teachings to the religious. We have allowed religion to be reduced to an option, not even necessarily a superior option, just one of many. We no longer need salvation, we just need to fell good about ourselves. We have squandered our institutional power; once we held states accountable, now they limit our voice. We have tried not to offend, but instead have become simply ineffective.
That cycle of what passes for debate in our current situation that I described in the beginning of this post indicates that while we have allowed religion to be greatly reduced, it still has the power to affect things. It is reduced, not eliminated. It can be rebuilt. But the trend is clearly in the wrong direction.
It is time to get serious about religion. It is time to start enlarging ourselves, not reducing.