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Sirico Parables book

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas--a religious holiday that is also a national holiday--it is worth remembering what George Washington said in his farewell address about American religion:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Here the first American president put his finger on an important difference between the role of religion in the U.S. and that professed and practiced by the likes of the Taliban. In many parts of the world, religion inspires despotism, unending bloodshed, and war; but here, many faiths, each vigorous in its truth-claims, live at peace with each other and form the foundation of society.

The difference is that American faiths are reconciled to freedom, and indeed serve as a bulwark of that freedom. It is a fiction of the Enlightenment that equates any claim to truth or objective standards of morality with the version of Islam promoted by the Taliban, which denies any distinction between religious and civil law. In fact this distinction lies at the core of American culture, and Western civilization itself. That there is a distinction between religious authority and state power has been a constant line of thought from the ancient Hebraic world (in the separation of the religious from the civil courts) to our own, which came to be embodied in the American idea of religious pluralism. Jesus endorsed this concept when he said: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's” (Matthew 22:11).

This does not mean a complete separation between the two. In our own society, religious faith undergirds pluralist political and cultural institutions.

Faith-inspired action has been especially evident in recent months. In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans displayed astounding levels of generosity, donating $1.3 billion to the victims. Nor was this unusual. Two percent of American GDP, or $203 billion, is voluntarily donated to charity each year, a level of giving that has been stable for 40 years.

Americans give more to charity than people in any other nation, with the possible exception of Israel. Clearly, prosperity and generosity are not inherently at odds in American culture. Religiously active people give two-thirds of all charitable dollars in the U.S. donating 3.4% of their incomes annually, while people who do not profess or practice a faith give less than 1.5%.

Many commentators have said that Sept. 11 inspired a return to God. Indeed worship attendance spiked upward in the weeks following, and settled back down afterward, prompting other commentators to debunk the announcement of a religious revival. The truth is that Americans have always been solidly religious, even in the midst of an ostensibly secular culture, and that is likely to increase in these unstable times. As one example among many, a Harris poll conducted in 1998 revealed that 94% of adults believe in God, 89% believe in heaven, 73% believe in the Devil, and 73% believe in hell. Polls show that weekly church attendance in the U.S. increased from 1939 (41%) to 2001 (47%), and remains the highest in any developed country.

The commercial sector is not often considered when it comes to assessing the impact of faith on society. But in modern American life, it would be an enormous mistake to overlook the huge commercial success of religious books, and religious media generally. Last year, religious book sales hit an all-time high of $2.15 billion in revenue, making overtly religious books (including religious fiction) the second biggest category after general fiction, accounting for 16% of all books sold. The National Religious Broadcasters Guide lists 1,635 radio station, 103 film producers, 430 periodicals, 224 book publishers. 45 television networks, 267 music publishers and 307 television stations. That religious faith has found a strong market niche, rather than dominating the mainstream, may reflect not the secularization of society, but rather an increased specialization of the media market.

More broadly, another example of American faith at work can be seen in the holiday season itself, when shoppers spend billions of dollars in order to give gifts to others. This isn't necessarily “consumerism” so much as an application of a charitable and generous spirit within the framework of prosperity made possible through freedom. While retaining a necessary caution with regard to materialism and commercialization of religion, we might also reflect on the genius of the evangelical enterprise that it has so well adapted itself to the institutions of our times, just as did it when living under pagan rule in the early Christian centuries, in order to spread the message of the Christ-child.

Hence, the despairing attitude toward religion in public found among some religious leaders today has little basis in public opinion as such. That is not to say that there are not disturbing aspects to the role of faith in American life. Public institutions, whether in government or the media, have been notoriously unfriendly to faith, and hardly ever take account of the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans, except to criticize it.

The greater problem, however, rests with believers themselves. What American faith possesses in its commercial vigor it often lacks in theological seriousness. Most popular Christian literature, for example, is superficial as compared with the great popular writings of saints and theologians of the past. The line between religious writing and the pop psychology is increasingly difficult to detect.

Perhaps that too will begin to change. Since Sept. 11, I have received numerous reports from around the country of a marked changed in the tone of homilies and prayers in houses of worship, and new recognition that we do, after all, find often ourselves “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears,” in the words of an old prayer. If the American expression of faith is going to provide solace and strength, it must reclaim its robust roots that address how one may be able to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and yet fear no evil.

We have no official religion in the U.S., nor do our public institutions require or enforce a particular belief in public policy. This is as it should be. The American religious tradition depends on its free acceptance by believers; it is a faith that is not imposed. At the same time, it is time that we recognize that it is impossible to comes to terms with horror and evil without serious reflection on transcendent meaning.

In troubled times, there may yet be a still, small voice that speaks peace to the human heart. A life of faith ought to enable us to maintain a certain spiritual equilibrium in good times and bad, reveal to us the transcendent potential that exists in routine chores and obligations. To discover the Divine hidden in the most ordinary and vulnerable of human conditions is what this season is about. The real capitol of religious faith is and always has been the heart of the believer.