Will it Be Coffee, Tea, or He?
As I checked in for an outpatient test at a local hospital last week, the admissions lady asked for the usual name, rank, serial number, insurance, and ailment. Then she inquired, "What is your religious preference?" I was tempted to say, "I think Buddhism is the coolest of all, but I happen to be Jewish."
My second impulse was to repeat what Jonah said when asked by the shipmates of his foundering skiff to identify himself: "I am a Hebrew, ma'am. And I fear the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." But that would surely have got me sent to psychiatry rather than X ray. So I desisted.
In ancient times, they asked, "Who is your God?" A generation ago, they asked your religion.Today your creed is a preference. Preference? "I take my coffee black, my wine red, my sex straight, and my shirts lightly starched. Oh yes, and put me down for Islam."
Of course, the only reason hospital folk bother to ask about religion at all is prudence, not theological curiosity. In case they accidentally kill you or you otherwise expire on their watch, they want to be sure they send up the right clergy to usher you to the next level, as it were. We're not talking belief here. We're talking liability protection.
According to Chesterton, tolerance is the virtue of people who do not believe in anything. Chesterton meant that as a critique of tolerance. But it captures nicely the upside of unbelief where religion is trivialized, one is unlikely to find persecution. When it is believed that on your religion hangs the fate of your immortal soul, the Inquisition follows easily; when it is believed that religion is a breezy consumer preference, religious tolerance flourishes easily. After all, we don't persecute people for their taste in cars. Why for their taste in gods?</.p>
Disdain for religious conviction
Oddly, though, in our thoroughly secularized culture, there is one form of religious intolerance that does survive. And that is the disdain bordering on contempt of the culture makers for the deeply religious, i.e., those for whom religion is not a preference but a conviction.
Yale law professor Stephen Carter calls this "the culture of disbelief," the oppressive assumption that no one of any learning or sophistication could possibly be a religious believer—and the social penalties meted out to those who nonetheless are.
Every manner of political argument is ruled legitimate in our democratic discourse. But invoke the Bible as grounding for your politics, and the First Amendment police will charge you with breaching the sacred wall separating church and state.
Carter notes, for example, that one is allowed to have any view on abortion so long as it derives from ethical or practical or sociological or medical considerations. But should someone stand up and oppose abortion for reasons of faith, he is accused of trying to impose his religious beliefs on others. Call on LSD guru Timothy Leary or Chairman Mao, fine. Call on St. Paul, and all hell breaks loose.
So ingrained is this disdain for the religious that when presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal called Whitewater prosecutor Hickman Ewing a "religious fanatic"—Ewing's sins against secularism include daily prayer, membership in a Fundamentalist church, and a sincere belief in God—it caused barely a ripple. Blumenthal did apologize following a bit of Republican grumbling, but there was nothing like the uproar that routinely accompanies a public insult regarding, say, race or gender or sexual orientation. Indeed, the question of Ewing's alleged fanaticism so pricked the interest of the New York Times, zeitgeist arbiter of the Establishment, that it dispatched a reporter to investigate. The result is hilarious: a classic of condescension posing as judiciousness.
On the one hand, writes Francis X. Clines, the Times's designated anthropologist to the Bible Belt, "some critics find it revealing that his 1980 law review article 'Combatting Official Corruption by All Available Means' began with an Old Testament quotation." The horror! By that standard Martin Luther King was not just a fanatic but a raving zealot. (And what shall we do with the first line of Moby Dick?)But Clines does find another side to the story. Associates of Ewing defend him thus: "His open Christian faith, they insist, is left at the prosecutorial door." An interesting form of exoneration. Ewing is fit to carry out his judicial duties after all. Why? Because he allows none of his Christian faith to corrupt his working life.
We've come a long way in America. After two centuries, it seems we finally do have a religious test for office. True religiosity is disqualifying. Well, not quite. Believers may serve—but only if they check their belief at the office door.
At a time when religion is a preference and piety a form of eccentricity suggesting fanaticism, Chesterton needs revision: tolerance is not just the virtue of people who do not believe in anything; tolerance extends only to people who don't believe in anything. Believe in something, and beware. You may not warrant presidential level attack but you'll make yourself suspect should you dare enter the naked public Square.
Reprinted with permission from Time (June 15, 1998, p. 64), courtesy Time Life Syndication.Subscribe