Faith and “Religion”

“I think it’s important to distinguish between faith and religion,” said a man I know. “Religion too often is merely the perversion of faith.”

We often hear such things said, usually as an argument for maintaining the supposed “wall of separation” between religion and politics that is supposed to be the model for American public life. “Faith” is touted as a Good Thing, while “Religion” is somehow a dangerous perversion. It’s a pretty common distinction in American thought, but I’m not sure how useful it is.

“Faith” or its synonym “spirituality” has the useful quality of being private and subjective (highly prized qualities in American civic virtue). “Religion” (by which is usually meant “expression of basic convictions in the public square”) has the annoying quality of being public and speaking as though a given set of beliefs reflects reality outside the believer’s head. We Americans find this disturbing and rude when the beliefs being acted upon don’t suit our tastes. That’s why we cry out, “Don’t impose your beliefs on me.” But we only act that way concerning fundamental beliefs we don’t happen to share. When it comes to forced female circumcision, bride burning or ritual rape we remember our sanity and say, “That’s wrong!” with the conviction that we have every right and even duty to impose our beliefs on others.

The difficulty with the American wishfulness that “faith” be private and subjective is that it is simply out of step with reality. We live in an Incarnational, not a Platonic, universe. Therefore, “out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” and, hey presto!, you have believers making noise on street corners about Congress, the President, abortion, taxes, and everything else. The Word still becomes flesh. That is because the very nature of religious belief (which, after all, purports to be a system for sizing up the universe) is that it is inherently public and common, not private and subjective. It is–if it resembles anything like a real faith system and not merely the collected idiosyncrasies of a rich crank like Shirley MacLaine–a system that claims to explain, not secret, subjective fancies known only to initiates, but common things like love, fear upon the sea, tears at death, and anger at (and perhaps forgiveness of) the grocer when he cheats you. None of this is confined to “private” and subjective experience. It is all over the newspapers. It is where the great mass of us humans live. And religion (that is, the public and common expression of faith) necessarily entails the reality that humans as social critters will deal with it socially as well as privately. And they will not feel constrained to limit “social” to mean “with those of like mind.” If the problem their faith attempts to address looks to have roots in people outside their sphere, they will move outside their sphere to address the problem, sometimes with sermons and sometimes with swords. That’s our species.

And that, by the way, is also the problem of love, not just imperialism. It isn’t just the violent who seek to conquer. The lover does too, by a different sort of conquest. And it’s not just the imperialist who is intolerant. Sometimes it is the ignorant, self-satisfied suburbanite who doesn’t want to be bothered with the demands of love who will be willing to kill the one with the new ideas, even when he comes in peace.

The mere mixture of religion with politics is not necessarily bad as the Abolitionists, Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Pope John Paul II attest. Faith, for some reason, is imagined by modern culture to be an airy, bodiless thing that ought to exist in chemical purity and unsullied by contact with the earth. But the reality is, if you separate “faith” and “religion” you get the same thing as when you separate body and soul: not purity, but a corpse and a ghost. Yes, mixing religion and politics can and does lead to disastrous consequences sometimes, especially when political victory and not the love of God becomes the real goal (and we are all prone to that disastrous choice). But get rid of religious expression in the public square (which is like saying, “hold back the waters of the Niagara in your hand”) and you most certainly lose out on the driving force behind the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the emancipation of India, the abolition of the death penalty (may it happen soon), and most of the other acts of self-sacrifice for the common good which have happened in our world. That’s life outside the Garden.


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