NOT so long ago, people thought nothing of identifying themselves by their religion. They were Catholic, Protestant or Jewish until Islam arrived. Of the four, the first three are in steady retreat and Jews are assailed by the return of anti-semitism, cynically disguised as opposition to Israel.
The new secular orthodoxy is not just to reject belief, but to regard religious faith as cultish. Especially to the Left, with its own attachment to strict rationalism, religion is seen as a barrier to human progress and perhaps even a little weird.
The relationship of religious belief to society has become an issue again with the nomination of a practising Catholic, Amy Coney Barrett, to the US Supreme Court. Democrats have pulled out Senator Dianne Feinstein’s accusation when Barrett became a federal appeals court judge in 2017 that ‘the dogma speaks loudly within you’. Feinstein herself is Jewish.
The immediate Democratic fear is practical rather than dogmatic. It is that a strengthened majority of conservative justices on the court will overturn or limit legal abortion and be less open to endorsing sexual rights. This is despite the fact it has refrained from doing so while six of the existing justices are Catholic. Barrett will make seven out of nine.
Her nomination is already controversial becomes it comes so close to the November 3 presidential election. Her religion and her unfashionably large family of seven – which includes two adopted Haitian children – have been the main lines of feminist attack, since she’s an unlikely target for the standard allegations of sexual misconduct.
Questioning religion – which in effect means Judaeo-Christianity, since Islam is off-limits – is one thing. Attacking people for being observant, whether they are seekers of public office or ordinary individuals, is not. We haven’t got to the stage of claiming that religious belief is disqualifying – Democratic candidate Joe Biden himself is Catholic – but it threatens to become a trend in future.
It’s a short step from wondering whether depth of religious observance determines a person’s eligibility for a public job to wondering whether someone religious should have such a job at all.
Church and state are strictly separated in the United States. Prayers are disallowed in public schools, although religious freedom is guaranteed under the constitution and has been taken for granted until now.
Religious organisations of all denominations work in the fields of education, health and welfare. Their contributions are large enough to be vital to the survival of some of the activities they finance in areas where the government is absent.
The gradual erosion of religious rights began with Obamacare, which insisted that Catholic institutions obey its mandates even when these conflicted with church tenets.
The health care law obliges employers to cover contraception, which Catholicism forbids. Various groups, including the Little Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic charity which shelters old people, are still fighting for exemption from the fines for non-compliance.
Suspicion of religion, because it limits sexual freedom, has affected the commercial sphere. Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts company that is run according to Christian ethics, won a Supreme Court battle against the contraceptive mandate, but the ruling does not apply generally. Same-sex marriage activists boycotted Chick-fil-A, a fast food chain that does not open on Sundays, purely because its ownership is avowedly Christian. The company was never accused of sexual discrimination.
Churchgoing in Europe has declined constantly since the mid-20th century. Europeans have regarded Americans with their megachurches, charismatic preachers and Bible reading as being much more devotional than themselves. It was one of the things that separated us. However, since Obama, the fiction that presidents are Sunday regulars has died. The media are more likely to report how often they played golf.
Even in the US, religious observance has glided downward in recent decades and the enlightened Left does not hide its contempt for evangelicals and multi-faith organisations such as People of Praise, which is described as charismatic and to which Barrett and her husband belong.
Their membership means they take their religion seriously. It doesn’t make Barrett a judge whose faith overrides the law any more than it did Antonin Scalia, who was her mentor.
The Covid crisis has had a religious dimension of its own. State governors have been accused of bias against believers because they kept houses of worship of all denominations closed while allowing restaurants and bars to reopen.
I’m not a believer and I never belonged to Catholicism. But I have no doubts about the moral importance of the Roman Catholic Church and its adherence to core principles such as the sanctity of life.
What guides Man when he is estranged from God is an old question which is all the more important in an era of general godlessness. The Catholic Church’s refusal to give way provides us all with something to cling to.
The Bible, the Torah and the Koran give each generation a moral foundation without which human beings are without a compass. An issue such as abortion becomes a matter of pure politics and political majorities. When we decide the difference between right and wrong for ourselves, without reference to higher authority, it becomes little more than a matter of convenience and even self-indulgence.
Legalising abortion alone has changed us in more ways than we can understand without the deepest self-examination, hardening our minds against the consequences of our actions. Fulfilling our desires is easier when there is no need to set them against acquired wisdom. We become callous.
What Feinstein said to Barrett, implying that her Catholicism would prevent her from judging according to the law, was a bigger insult with wider implications than the senator may have understood. She forgot that legislators who pass our laws, and judges who apply them, must do so because the common good is greater than their personal convictions.
If being irreligious were to become a litmus test for public office, it would not only be discriminatory in itself, but damage the fabric of our society, not least by making a mockery of the liberals’ own god of diversity.