“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” Thus wrote Nobel Laureate W.B. Yeats in The Second Coming (1921). As Lord Kenneth Clark remarked, the trouble with the world as such is precisely that there is still no centre. We may be optimistic, but we can’t “exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.”
These words of caution came to mind when reading stories of the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision on praying prior to government meetings. In effect, the Court confirmed, in a 5-4 vote, that sectarian invocations for God’s blessing do not necessarily violate the United States Constitution. The case at issue questioned whether allowing Christian prayers before meetings was Constitutional. Although the ruling applies directly to praying prior to legislative deliberations, it apparently can justify prayer at local government meetings, and even sectarian religious displays in civic venues, provided, of course, that there is no effort to intimidate, coerce or convert those present. Moreover, to minimize problems of offending some, prudence is required in selecting leaders of prayer. However, the Court added, “offense is not to be equated with coercion.”
Coercion, related to religion, contradicts religion’s fundamental meaning. As Dostoevsky argued in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” one of the most memorable passages in The Brothers Karamazov, Christ did not come down from the Cross when taunted by the spectators to do so, precisely because he would not “enslave” belief through working an obvious marvel. Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ told us explicitly that when he was raised up, he would “draw” us to himself. The verb “to draw” rules out force. Force precludes freedom. Freedom was given to human beings to permit love. Love, essentially the opposite of compulsion, is at the core of authentic religious experience.
True religion pertains to the human being’s relationship with God; Cicero, a pagan, knew this; his classic definition of religion affirms this. So did the Greek philosophers before him – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, to cite the greatest.
Surely America’s Founding Fathers knew what pre-Christian Rome and the earlier Greek philosophers knew. Why is it that freedom of religion is specified in the very first Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution?
Furthermore, wasn’t freedom of religion the primary motive for the founding of many of the 13 original colonies here in the United States? Not simply freedom of worship, by the way, but freedom of religion and its observance?
To James Madison, one of America’s most distinguished Fathers, religion, which means the “duty we owe to our Creator,” must be left to the conviction and duty of individuals, whose right it is “to exercise it as these may dictate.” Moreover, in matters of religion, no one’s right is abridged by the institutions of civil society, and “Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785)
Also, is not religion always and necessarily at the heart of culture? Can one even attempt to define “culture” without citing religion at its heart?
The fact that Christianity has been the source and the dynamic force that created and sustained Western culture, moreover, has been the major reason thus far that Europe and America have not already suffered almost mortal defeat. Christian humanism, especially as it was emphasized by Pope John II, has not been simply a form of religious idealism (as George Weigel has pointed out) “existing somewhere outside history,” but rather a dynamic that has lent solidity within history. In other words, God’s power in history through Christianity has been the main phenomenon holding the Western world together, despite the world’s aberrations. (The Cube and the Cathedral, 2005)