Culture At Large

Speaking Religiously

Steven Koster

With the change in American political administrations, I've been hearing loads of chatter (and fear mongering) about the freedom of religious speech.  One example is around so-called hate-speech legislation and the Fairness Doctrine.

Another and more intersting example is highlighted in a recent Pew study on government funding of faith-based social services. The results seem conflicted, which largely reflects American ambivalence towards religion and religious speech.

One the one hand, Americans favor public funding of social services through religious groups, like Catholic Social Services. We want our religion to do good things for people.  

But we also don't want religious groups to be too religious. That is, we don't want these groups to hire only those who share the religious beliefs that are the impetus for the social action in the first place.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="441" caption="Survey says government should fund relief work of faith-based groups, but not allow those groups to hire only the faithful"]

It seems to me that this ambivlence reflects the increasing sense that religion is a private issue, one that should not be visible in public. Like sex, smoking, and other nasty personal indulgences, our culture wants Jesus to stay in the closet.

It really reflects the prevailing American Deist worldview, one in which The Divine, sometimes called God, is a vague presence, one that mostly encourages us to be nice to one another. God gives us a general sense of morality or spirituality, but he stays general and far away, and we like it that way. God is OK, but he's best at arm's length, and never incarnate enough to make specific claims, either in doctrine or life. God is OK, but not so much Jesus (or Mohamed, or Buddha).

The irony to me is that these hiring rules are precisely designed to curtail faith-based speech. We like faith-based workers, but not faith-based speakers. The fear is that people might speak consistently and passionately about the reasons that motivate them to serve, and that those reasons might involve specific claims. Our culture claims to value freedom of speech, but not when your religious speech challenges the religious speech of others, and certainly not when it challenges the prevailing Deist view.

Inevitably, this gets rolled into the separation of church and state arguments, which again, in recent years target more the silencing of speech and the freedom from religion rather than the protection of speech and the freedom to express religion. The notion of non-establishment has been transformed into a notion of sanitization.

And, at the very heart of this resistance, there is a Deist (increasingly Agnostic) religion that fights for supremecy. By the restriction of other religious speech, it has long established itself as the state religion. In the name of pluralism, it's less and less pluralistic all the time.


Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, Social Trends, North America