President Obama delivered thoughtful remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this month, a careful consideration of the relationship between religion and violence, but one which also pointed inadvertently to a deeper problem.
In condemning the “unspeakable acts of barbarism” of the so-called Islamic State, he took pains to separate jihadist zealotry from Islam itself, importantly repudiating a broader conflict with the whole Muslim world. Lifting up the need for humility on the part of non-Muslim critics, he recalled that horrible violence has been wreaked in the name of Christianity, too — including the fact that, in the United States, “slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
“So humility I think is needed,” Obama said. “And the second thing we need to uphold is the distinction between our faith and our government. Between church and between state.” History has shown the virtue of that distinction. Brutal consequences follow when coercive state power and religious zealotry are joined. What Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation,” protecting every citizen’s conscience, is essential both to democratic freedom and to authentic faith. But the divide between church and state should not be celebrated without confronting its one profoundly negative consequence — a privatizing of religion that infantilizes faith and exempts politics from serious moral criticism.
The proper exclusion of religion from government-sponsored education — no prayer in the public school classroom — has meant, in practice, that serious instruction in religion, one of the most important aspects of human experience, rarely occurs in America. Religious institutions themselves, on their side of the “wall,” were supposedly responsible for such education in faith, with parochial schools a prime example.
But the “Sunday school” ethos has mostly defined the religious education effort and is universally defined as children’s activity. As a result, when it comes to their religion, most adult believers are deprived of the sort of intellectual sophistication they take for granted in every other sphere of life. Bible stories yes, biblical criticism no. The anthropomorphic “God” of whom most believers and atheists alike so glibly speak — one to defend, one to debunk — has little in common with the God of intellectually responsible religion.
Thus, famously churchgoing Americans are, for the most part, religious illiterates. Secular Americans, meanwhile, don’t know enough to see the cost of their ignorance.
The intense privatization of faith in America has freed the political realm from the challenge of the sharp ethical mandates that can come from religion. Morality, so they say, cannot be legislated. The claims of slave owners, to which President Obama referred, depended less on appeals to “Christ” than on this assumption that morality was a private matter exempt from public scrutiny. The ownership of chattel slaves was a matter of individual moral judgment, of the owner’s conscience, a realm into which the government had no right to intrude. Jefferson’s wall of separation saved him from the need to free his slaves. It took a savage, apocalyptic war to uproot this mistake from the American polity.
But American religious illiteracy has also meant that citizens were ill-equipped to recognize how a biblically generated apocalyptic nihilism seized the nation’s imagination — beginning, in fact, with the extreme violence of the Civil War, whose battle hymn lyrics resonate with the Book of Apocalypse.
The idea, rendered powerfully in that Scripture, that God brings about the redemptive end of history through mass destruction, became an American idea. It was essential, for example, to the United States’ embrace of nuclear Armageddon as its central Cold War purpose. “Better dead than red” applied not just in America, but across the planet we were prepared to obliterate — a demonic nuclear project undertaken with an implicitly religious justification that Americans were too religiously ignorant to recognize as blasphemy.
And now, in the age of terror, comes the problem of whether and how religion advances violence — a question that is beyond the competence of a people for whom all matters of religion are held to be in a realm apart, uncriticized and unexamined. The knee-jerk readiness with which Americans responded to Osama bin Laden’s apocalyptic assault — redemption through destruction, yet again — was rooted in this religious ignorance.
President Obama now finds it necessary to remind the nation that Christians, too, have sponsored mayhem because our first, unthinking response after 9/11 was to imagine a conflict between the forces of absolute virtue and the axis of evil, a Manichaean bifurcation that has defined religious war since ancient times. Our blind, omnidirectional striking out in violence, that is, was as apocalyptically religious as bin Laden’s, which was exactly as he hoped. He knew us better than we knew ourselves.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.