Christians should remind ourselves from time to time that we believe radical and implausible things, that Peter’s understanding of the world was (and is) not only fundamentally different from that of Tiberius but ultimately and finally irreconcilable with it. Ezra Pound was on to something with his caustic observation that the “Catholic Church went out of business when its hierarchy ceased to believe its own dogma.” A world in which Christians acted like they believed the things we say we believe would be a very different world.
(It is a tedious necessity of the stupid and stupidly arrogant times in which we live to here explicitly note that I do not exempt myself from that criticism.)
If the Christian account of God is true — actually true, not metaphorically true or true in some ineffable way but simply true — then it is, as Father Richard John Neuhaus put it, the truth about everything. Of course it matters whether that is actually the case.
According to prominent political scientist Charles Murray, the American republic is unlikely to survive without another Great Awakening — or, at the very least, a revival of the religious values that the Founders depended on to undergird their experiment. Murray is not a religious man — he is an agnostic — but he can read history, and he knows how nations die.
…“The Founders were not really super orthodox,” he observed. “They were all nominally Christians, but they wouldn’t pass the litmus test for a lot of evangelicals today. But they were absolutely, emphatically agreed that you cannot have a free society with a constitution such as the one they had created unless you are trying to govern a religious people. If you do not have religion as the controlling force, then the kinds of laws we have could not possibly work.” Without religion, Murray told me, there was simply no “intrinsic motivation” for people to behave morally — and no definition for what constitutes moral behavior in the first place.
Obvious questions present themselves. How does Murray, an agnostic, continue to behave morally without religion, and how is he exempt from the detrimental effects of faithlessness? Is it good enough to be a “faitheist,” i.e. one who privately thinks religion to be superstitious bunk, but is willing to publicly profess belief for the social utility of it? What about the countless examples throughout history of religion serving as a cover for decadence and corruption rather than a bulwark against it? Which aspects of religious belief are essential — belief in a personal God, a soul, a post-judgment afterlife? — and which parts are incidental? What if the tenets of Christianity are merely socially useful but not literally true? Do we then have a ruling class of Grand Inquisitors who keep their heresy to themselves while enforcing dogma on the rest of us for our own good? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Murray’s outlook seems Machiavellian, in that his primary concern is the continued health of the American republic. If religion is a necessary supplement, then so be it. I’m not an intellectual or a policymaker, though, so I have no interest in trying to imagine ideal political conditions. From my irreligious layman’s point of view, I find it patronizing to talk up the social utility of Christianity while treating its truth claims like a fart in church, as something to be studiously ignored. Speak plainly and respectfully. I don’t believe in a creator God, an immaterial soul, or an afterlife, nor do I accept the authority of holy scriptures. I do believe that the “bourgeois virtues” are no less valuable without a divine seal of approval, and I believe that they’re no less sturdy for being ultimately rooted in our shared evolutionary heritage as social mammals and our shared cultural history. Can a great nation be built upon such humble foundations? I don’t know, but honest relationships can, and that’s good enough for me.