Saturday, January 5, 2013

THE PERILS OF CIVIL RELIGION



 As I contemplated Shin Dong-hyuk and his escape from North Korea last week, I also happened to be reading Ralph C. Woods Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South--an unintentionally apropos pairing.

One of Wood’s main theses is that O’Connor--the novelist, short story writer, and devout Catholic--preferred the excesses of fundamentalism, which at least takes God seriously enough to take him literally, to the bland “civil religion” practiced by most Americans, including most Catholics.

"O’Connor discerned that something deadly had occurred when national identity had been made to trump religious faith”…

“[Her] objection to a blithe indifferentism concerning truth and error, to an all-tolerant notion that one church or synagogue or mosque is as good as another, to a reduction of doctrinal and communal faith to uncritical moral earnestness, was also voiced by the Jesuit Gustave Weigel in a debate with the liberal Protestant Robert McAfee Brown: 'The average Protestant seems to think it makes little difference what you believe so long as you are decent and virtuous. About the only faith he seems to demand is the one implied in the sincere effort to do the right thing' "…

'Not only did the civil religion of the 1950s melt particularized historic faiths into a thin religious gruel; it also made even the most secular Americans into allegedly religious people. As Dwight Eisenhower once declared, 'Our government makes no sense…unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith…and I don’t care what it is.' "

"Religion itself, as James C. Edwards once put it, has become another consumer choice at the smorgasbord of the American emporium”…

As Wood points out, the final showdown will not be between religion and science, but rather between nihilism and the Gospels:

"Though Flannery O'Connor's death came more than a quarter-century before [the Catholic novelist] Walker Percy's, the latter shared her worry about the nihilistic gas that is asphyxiating our church and culture alike. Percy believed that it was having an especially deadening effect on certain souls who sit in the high places of American cultural and ecclesiastical power. Only two years before his own death in 1990, Percy wrote a letter to The New York Times, which it refused to publish. That our national "newpaper of record" refused to run a plea voiced by one of our major novelists makes the letter all the more worth hearing:

The most influential book published in German in the first quarter of this century was entitled The Justification of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value. Its co-authors were the distinguished jurist Karl Binding and the prominent psychiatrist Alfred Hoche. Neither Binding nor Hoche had ever heard of Hitler or the Nazis.

Nor, in all likelihood, did Hitler ever read the book. He didn't have to. The point is that the ideas expressed in the book were the product not of Nazi ideology but rather of the best minds of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic--physicians, social scientists, jurists, and the like, who with the best secular intentions wished to improve the lot, socially and genetically, of the German people--by getting rid of the unfit and the unwanted...


I would not wish to be understood as implying that the respected American institutions I have named [The New York Times, the United States Supreme Court, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization of Women] are similar or corresponding to pre-Nazi institutions.

But I do suggest that once the line is crossed, once the principle gains acceptance--juridically, medically, socially--[that] innocent human life can be destroyed for whatever reason, for the most admirable socio-economic, medical or social reasons--then it does not take a prophet to predict what will happen next, or if not next, then sooner or later. At any rate, a warning is in order. Depending on the disposition of the majority and the opinion polls--now in favor of allowing women to get rid of unwanted babies--it is not difficult to imagine an electorate or a court ten years, fifty years from now, who would favor getting rid of useless old people, retarded children, antisocial blacks, illegal Hispanics, gypsies, Jews...."


A holocaust rages in North Korea. That innocent people of all ages are suffering, starving, being shot on sight for having sex outside that ordered by the camp administration, disobeying a guard, or failing to rat out their parents is a crime against humanity, a crime against reason and truth, and a crime against Christ.

We would like to blame the [psychopathic] "dear Leader." But I wonder sometimes if we are not headed in the same direction.



6 comments:

  1. I believe adding "philosopher" to your bio is in order.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Another coincidence (?), I've been reading Wood's book too, and just last year got into Percy. That letter to the NYT is one of the few essays I've plowed through from Signposts in a Strange Land.

    It's an urgently bleak, not dim, warning. I love how it ends: "To pro-abortionists: According to opinion polls, it looks as if you may get your way. Bu you're not going to have it both ways. You're going to be told what you're doing."

    Being in Texas, where controversial abortion regulations recently passed, I've thought of Percy and that line when a local radio host publicly attempted to humiliate the director of Texas Right to Life; and when a newspaper commented despairingly about the new laws:

    "While right-to-lifers claim the fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks of gestation, that's anything but settled science..."

    Nihilism indeed.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for sharing this most cogent and on point article. I was just in Georgia and almost bought the book about O'Conner that you mentioned. Now I will. I would really like to post this article (and many of your others) to FB.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Feel free, Mary, and thanks for your email of the other day. Thanks, PAT!!! And Pantagruel, glad to hear you're reading the Woods book, too. There's so much in it I could have quoted the whole thing--his close and deep and insightful take on her stories, and the to me spot-on analysis of our culture, in and out of our beloved, beleaguered Church...

    ReplyDelete
  5. Just watched Camp 14 the other night, devastating! My son watched some of it with me and asked how this could be happening. I think it's going on in more places than we can imagine. Mans inhumanity to man.

    ReplyDelete
  6. < crash said...

    I believe adding "philosopher" to your bio is in order. >

    And "prophet."

    ReplyDelete

I WELCOME your comments!!!