Perspective: Performing the rituals of a religion does not make you a member of that faith
Social progressivism and other secular ideologies are trying to influence the great historical traditions of faith. But you can’t have it both ways
When a new religion or ideology sweeps through a culture, and especially when that religion or ideology becomes fashionable among elites as the ideology of expressive individualism has become in the United States, people react in various ways.
Those who have already abandoned the old religion or religions, or whose allegiance to them is merely nominal, are great customers for the new.
They are easy “gets.”
At the other end of the spectrum are those most strongly allegiant to the old religion or religions. They will refuse to capitulate to the new and will resist efforts to coerce them by means of cultural or political power
In the middle are those who will do whatever they can to accommodate the dogmas and practices of the new ideology while trying to hold on to the forms and symbols of the old.
We are increasingly seeing this play out today.
Among the most risible phenomena of our times are the efforts of those who wish to retain the forms and symbols of the great historical traditions of religious faith while recasting those traditions to bring them into line with the moral and political dogmas of expressive individualism, and secular progressive ideology more generally. One finds this among Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians, and Latter-day Saints, as well as among Jews, Muslims and many others. It is, in a certain sense, poignant, though at the same time pathetic.
At the end of the day, one’s actual religion is a matter of what one actually believes and how a person allows himself to be guided in the important dimensions of one’s private and public lives.
If a person is guided by the tenets of a secular ideology — be it of the left or right, be it expressive individualism, fascism, communism or what have you — that ideology is one’s true faith. “Identifying” as Catholic or Jewish or Muslim or Latter-day Saint is neither here nor there. Carrying around a rosary, receiving sacraments or observing ordinances, complying with dietary laws, attending services — none of these things, to use an old expression, signify.
A “Catholic,” for example, who embraced or even tolerated fascism in Mussolini’s Italy, as far too many Catholics (and even some Jews at the beginning and others) did, is “Catholic” only in a technical and legalistic sense. Catholicism was not actually his or her faith, however much he or she may have insisted that it was.
One gets to choose whether to be a faithful Catholic, for example, or instead an adherent of a secular ideology ... But you can’t have it both ways. The same is true of the other great traditions of faith.
One gets to choose whether to be a faithful Catholic, for example, or instead an adherent of a secular ideology whose tenets and practices are incompatible with the Catholic understanding of human nature, the human good, human dignity and human destiny.
But you can’t have it both ways. The same is true of the other great traditions of faith. The same is also true if the competing ideology (or religion) is secular progressivism, rather than fascism or communism or any other “ism.” You can’t have it both ways.
Serious people who are committed to the historic traditions of faith need to soberly confront these facts. They cannot be ignored, nor can people wish them away. Those with responsibility for leadership of the institutions of these great traditions have a special responsibility to seriously consider what must be done to maintain the integrity of the faith in the face of pressure the faithful will feel to integrate into their beliefs and practices the dogmas of the new religion.
The story I am here telling and the plea I am making are both as old as human civilization and, indeed, are found in the most ancient scriptures. Much of the story of Israel as recounted in the Bible is about the chosen people of God wandering from his ways, lured by the alien practices of the various peoples they encounter. The Israelites drift from God, his laws, his ways, falling into the worship of idols and the corrupt practices of those who prescribe a different path. And so God’s prophets must call them back, reminding them of all that the one and only God, the God of Israel, had done for them and their ancestors —and warning them of the catastrophic consequences of allowing ungodly practices to corrupt their religion.
Moses, returning from the mountaintop to find Israel worshiping the golden calf, in anger throws down the original tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. He does not adopt the pagan practices the people had embraced in his absence, nor does he mince words with them about the utter incompatibility of pagan practices with faith in the true God.
Later, Moses’ faithful lieutenant, Joshua, encounters the same phenomenon — the people drifting from authentic religion into paganism, trying to accommodate and somehow integrate pagan beliefs and practices into the faith Moses had taught them. Like Moses, Joshua minces no words. He recounts for the people all that the God of Israel had done for them. Then he laid before them the stark choice they faced: “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Notice that neither Moses nor Joshua would yield to the idea that some accommodation could be made with the pagan practices, or that adjustments to the faith of Israel could be made to make it more acceptable to the pagan peoples in whose lands the Israelites were dwelling. Their message was as blunt and straightforward as mine: You cannot have it both ways.
Joshua’s message to Israel must be the message of faithful Christian and Jewish leaders to their people: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Leaders must recognize that the pressures on the faithful to conform to the new religion — the ideology of expressive individualism — are immense. Resisting these pressures is, for most people, extremely difficult. Indeed, given secular progressivism’s near monopoly on cultural power, fidelity to the old religions can impose on faithful believers heavy professional and even personal costs. Standing up for marriage and the family, the sanctity of human life, religious liberty and the rights of conscience can, as a practical matter, mean the loss of educational opportunities or opportunities for professional advancement; it can mean harm to the businesses that people have built with great effort and sacrifice; it can mean the loss of treasured friendships and even alienation from family members.
The cost of discipleship, to borrow Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phase, can be very, very high. But it is a price that we must pay, and a price that our leaders must, by precept and example, teach us to be willing to pay.
If leaders are, like Moses and Joshua, willing to fulfill boldly their prophetic duties, the lessons of scripture and of history are that the people will be fortified and respond by recommitting and rededicating themselves.
When Joshua confronted his people with the truth, when he told them that they could not have it both ways, how did they respond? Scripture gives us the rest of the story: “Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods.’”
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.