Secular or Sacred? A Pandemic Conflict

The pandemic has brought the conflict between the sacred and the secular to the surface. 

The Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, led a recent protest against Covid-19 restrictions.  He claimed that restrictions on worship violate the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.  He said, “when government asserts authority over the church’s very right to worship, it crosses a line. Our fundamental rights do not come from the state… they come from God.”  He also suggested that “secular elites” lack compassion for religious people and do not understand the pain caused by restricting worship.

The Archbishop did not deny the need for reasonable restrictions on religious liberty.  The problem is that we disagree about what is reasonable.  In fact, we always have. 

150 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Mormon polygamy (Reynolds v. U.S.), arguing that the state can restrict religious liberty.  The Court said that religious belief is not “superior to the law of the land” and that religious liberty does not “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The worry is that religious liberty can open the door to a kind of anarchy, as each sect claims an exception to the law.  The Mormon polygamists of the 19th Century did not think that polygamy meant anarchy.  Nor is the Archbishop prescribing general lawlessness in the face of the pandemic.  But it is difficult to figure out where to draw the line in disputes between the secular and the sacred. 

Furthermore, the Archbishop suggests that some values transcend the law of the land.  He says that our rights come from God—not from the state.  This may mean that we have a right (or even an obligation) to violate the law of the land in the name of a higher law. This is what happens in cases of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal. 

Public health and the common good would seem to call for restrictions on worship. But do religious people have a right to refuse?

A significant problem is that terms such as “public health” and “the common good” are subject to interpretation.  A religious person may think that spiritual well-being is part of public health.  And some religious communities think that communal worship is essential for the common good.

The Archbishop suggests that secular people often don’t understand the powerful role that ritual and communal worship play in the lives of religious folk.  There is some truth to this.  The idea of the sacred opens a realm of transcendent value, which has no parallel in non-religious life. 

The secular world is “disenchanted,” as Max Weber put it a hundred years ago.  Philosopher Charles Taylor said something similar: “The modern identity and outlook flattens the world, leaves no place for the spiritual, the higher, for mystery.”  Speaking as secular person, I think they are right.  The sacred, the transcendent, and the holy are indeed flattened in the secular world.

There is much to argue about here in terms of ethics, theology, and the meaning of life.  But let’s leave these existential arguments aside and return to the problem of the pandemic.  The present situation is this.  Some religious people live in a world of mystery and enchantment that requires communal celebration of shared rituals.  These communal practices appear to violate the public health rules created by a secular political system, which views the world as disenchanted and flat. 

This conflict becomes more complicated when the source of political and legal authority is called into question.  Are the laws a human creation, the result of a social contract?  Or are these laws reflective of something deeper, more mysterious and sacred? 

The present crisis prompts these deep questions.  To answer them we need the help of political philosophers and theologians.  But there will be no unanimous consensus about how to answer these questions. 

This gives us clue to finding common ground.  The fact that we disagree shows us the need for liberty.  The Courts are going to have to draw lines. These judgments will not be satisfactory to everyone.  But let’s agree, at least, that we should be free to ask these questions and to disagree about the source of the law and the meaning of life.

Christmas culture wars

Let’s avoid Christmas culture wars and be charitable

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2016

At recent rallies Donald Trump has announced, “We are going to start saying Merry Christmas again.” In Wisconsin, Trump spoke from behind a podium with the words “Merry Christmas USA” emblazoned on the front.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union forced Knightstown, Ind., to remove a cross from the town Christmas tree. The Christmas culture wars are raging again.

The Constitution provides some guidance. The First Amendment guarantees your right to say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hannukah,” or “Bah humbug.” You can plant a cross, a menorah, or a Festivus pole in your yard. However, the First Amendment prevents the government from imposing religion upon us.

But what about Christmas trees? The Indiana town removed the cross but left the tree. Christmas trees seem sufficiently secular to pass constitutional muster.

That tells us something about the meaning of “Merry Christmas.” The phrase can be a religious dog whistle. But it can also have a secular meaning.

Christians want to keep Christ in Christmas. For some, “Merry Christmas” is a proclamation affirming that Christ was born to save us from our sins. But most people are probably not thinking about theology when they offer a friendly “Merry Christmas.”

No yuletide greeting is entirely unproblematic. “Happy holidays” seems inclusive. But it leaves atheists out, since they don’t believe in “holy days.” “Season’s greetings” is more inclusive. But prickly pious types may take offense at such an insipid salutation.

Christ is certainly the root of “Christ-mas.” But what about the word “merry”? Even that word can be offensive since it contains a veiled hint about intoxication. The second-most-famous use of the word is in the phrase “eat, drink, and be merry,” where it points toward drunkenness.

Christmas parties are made merry with mulled wine and martinis. Some enjoy mimosas on Christmas morning. Christmas began as a drinking party. It developed from the Roman Saturnalia, a time of drunken merriment associated with the winter solstice.

Some Christians oppose gaiety. Christmas merriment was banned in England in the mid-17th century by Puritans under Oliver Cromwell. American Puritans such as Cotton Mather condemned the “mad mirth” of Christmas. For Puritans, salvation is serious business. Merriment in this world distracts us from the need to be saved from sin.

Can’t escape religious diversity

This brief history reminds us of religious diversity. Some view this world as a vale of tears. Others embrace the joys of life. We disagree about theology, the value of happiness and the meaning of life.

And that is why we need the First Amendment to the Constitution to guarantee religious liberty and prevent government from imposing religion upon us.

Religious diversity is a fact. According to the Pew Center, only 63 percent of Californians are Christian. Twenty-seven percent are not religiously affiliated. The remaining 10 percent include Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Shamanists, Sikhs and others.

Some non-Christians enjoy a secular version of Christmas. The Pew Center reports that 81 percent of non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and eggnog do not require faith in birth of a savior in Bethlehem.

Significant diversity exists even among Christians. Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. Orthodox churches celebrate it in January. Other Christians – Adventists, for example – believe Christmas celebrations are unbiblical.

Many roots to Christmas traditions

Christmas is not in the Bible, after all. The disciples did not commemorate Jesus’ birthday. Mistletoe, elves and reindeer were adopted from pagan sources, as was Santa Claus.

Christmas is also a product of pop culture. It includes Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Bing Crosby. We might note that Bing’s famous song “White Christmas” was penned by Irving Berlin, a Jewish composer. Berlin also wrote “God Bless America,” by the way.

It is a unique American blessing that we are free to say “Merry Christmas.” But we should use our freedom wisely. Liberty without compassion quickly becomes obnoxious.

Let’s be charitable with regard to religious phrases and symbols. It is rude to force a holiday greeting down someone else’s throat.

“Merry Christmas” is not a threat or a command. It is a toast to be said with a smile, not a sneer. It is an offering of hospitality, not an expression of hostility. In these dark winter months, we need less-malevolent mulishness and more making merry.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article121328108.html