Friday, November 17, 2006

For a History of the Use of Religion

rousAt Spinning Clio, Marc, writing about Michael Novak, distinguishes between the religiosity and spirituality of the sogennant Founding Fathers:
I do think things have a gone a bit too far in proclaiming that the Founders weren't really, you know, that religious and, by extension, they'd be somehow against referring to God in public. Historians have learned to contemporize their subjects in so many other areas of historical research. Yet, it seems to me that there is a deficit of contemporization with regards to how important religion was in both the daily life and the philosophy of the Founders.
Now, I'm not going to discuss the merits of Novak's arguments about their attachment to Judaism as portrayed in the Old Testament (I don't believe there is much Judeo- in the Judeo-Christian Tradition). Nonetheless, Marc points out a problem about the way religion is presented in historical discourse that is not limited to the founding of the United States. Inordinate attention is paid to the doctrines and orthodoxies of faith without examining the importance of faith and its use in daily life. This is especially true in the teaching of religion in the past, and I am afraid that students believe that almost all past societies are dominated by fervent spirituality. Moreover, they become convinced that the political application of religion leads necessarily to intolerance (something I complained about last month).

Yet the application of religion is of utmost importance. Even in the Nineteenth Century, when religion supposably declined in the midst of faith in progress, religion grew in astounding ways. As Owen Chadwick pointed out (
The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century), religion persisted despite the effectiveness of anticlerical rhetoric on faith. Surely faith lost its intimacy, but religion practice remained (perhaps even strengthened) as it became seen for its potential for moral education.

Indeed, for an age known for rationality, there were many mystics and pilgrims. This was especially true for Catholicism, which experienced a revival even though its position vis-a-vis the state progressively weakened. Suddenly it was free to concentrate on the faithful, and in some ways, to be led by them, as in the popular sentiment that grew around Bernadette Subaru Soubirous.

But if there is one trend that shows the change in the use of faith, it would be how religion was transformed into identity. Perhaps the best work of history I read this year, is Michael Gross' The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany. He writes evocatively about the Catholic revival missions and the propaganda used to raise the alarm about the Jesuit presence in Germany. Protestantism, interestingly, became a foil for Liberals' campaign against Catholicism, casting the visibility of Catholics as a threat to the nation and its dominant religion.

Can religion influence the public mind in the absence of spirituality? I think it can, and does.


At 1:48 PM, Blogger Marc said...

Nathanael, Thanks for taking this farther and also pointing back to your piece on Sullivan's book. As you said, "But if there is one trend that shows the change in the use of faith, it would be how religion was transformed into identity." Being identified as religious or with a particular religion (whether by someone else or oneself) carries with it a set of assumptions. And as you mentioned , "Hopefully Mr. Sullivan will remember this part of the Conservative tradition, one that could embrace (what we might call today) progressive policies, but come to them from an entirely different outlook, and give religiously-inspired Conservatives, like Kuo, their due." I think too many think of religion in terms of power and don't take the faith or spirituality of an individual seriously enough.

Again, thanks for taking it further.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger chattr said...

the popular sentiment that grew around Bernadette Subaru.

Ouch. You meant Bernadette Soubirous, no?

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

This always get me in trouble: I let Blogger do my spell checking. Apologies.

At 4:28 AM, Blogger Freudian Slip said...

Here in the United States, I definitely think that religion influences the public mind in the absence of spirituality, though you have to read between the lines sometimes :)


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