I read the article with interest. In some areas, however, I have a different experience, and that difference brings a different evaluation of the current situation in American society.
I was a military chaplain from 1975 to 1983. In my experience, Roman Catholic chaplains were generally on the periphery of theological issues. The greatest conflict within the chaplain corps was among different Protestant denominations: for example, how will worship work?
This same pattern holds within the larger world as well. For example, what are the expectations for clergy who volunteer as chaplains in a local hospital? Are they there for pastoral care or primarily to proselytize? Ethics can become nearly explosive in such a situation, with one faction of the clergy upset at the other.
While I agree with much of Professor Reno’s argument, for many of us who are Protestants, we have it different than our Roman Catholic colleagues. Some of us might find neutrality to be of more value.
A Hard Sectarianism
There are two kinds of secularism: soft and hard. Soft secularism accommodates and even promotes nonsectarian religion. Hard secularism opposes accommodation and is sectarian. We need to emphasize that secularism today is the hard variety and is sectarian. No, sectarian secularism is not a contradiction in terms. Just ask the French.
Not in the Way
Professor Reno writes of what religious people who hold traditional values are “in the way of.”
What traditional religious were not in the way of were the unjust and unjustified invasion of Iraq, the unjust Vietnam War, the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. Nor were traditionally religious people in the way of slavery. It was those who wished to see religion intertwined with society who wrote slavery into the Constitution. Abolitionists were a small faction within society.
Traditional religious were not in the way of Jim Crow. They are not in the way of denying health care to all of our fellow citizens. They are not in the way of establishing the vision of atheist Ayn Rand, of a society based on selfishness and social Darwinism.
My point? You can have your society influenced by traditional religious.
Voiceless But Victorious
A welcome article. This is not the first time secularism has clashed with religious belief. The main current of secularism is flowing from the universities, where it is offered to students who often are without values themselves.
The Catholic bishops, most often reflecting education received in diocesan seminaries, usually are unable to publicly respond with effective explanations of our positions. I find the same true of diocesan priests. The church is largely voiceless in the debate.
In the end, however, we shall win, as we have in the past, because our values are in line with reality.
A Better Message
Professor Reno writes, “Proponents of gay rights, for example, believe the freedom of religious individuals and institutions should be limited if they do not conform to the new consensus about sexual morality.” Where is the evidence for this assertion?
The example of the wedding photographer misses and distorts the point. If we followed Professor Reno’s logic, then it would be legally permissible for many businesses to offer their services only to people who abide by a certain religious teaching. What type of society would this be? Photographing a gay wedding for a price, as part of business services, is not forcing people to perform a morally evil action that the Catholic Church considers a sin that must be confessed.
I agree that the trends in our culture are problematic. Many of the problems in society have complex and multidimensional causes. Today we have too much negative and divisive language and actions within groups that represent both sides of the conflict. If there is any antireligious rhetoric or discrimination, then the answer is a better message, a better delivery medium and being an example of the Gospel of Jesus in our daily lives.
I agree with the general outline provided by Professor Reno. However, a government antagonistic to Christianity may not necessarily be bad for the church’s health. The church has proven remarkably resilient in spite of all sorts of external forces. It has even been able to withstand a host of bad Catholics doing their best to sink the ship in almost every century. As long as the church in the United States remains steadfast to the whole faith, I am confident it will prosper.
And from a global perspective, statistical data show no letup in the number of people joining the Catholic Church in the developing world, in spite of (or because of) much greater hardship and risk in their countries than we face in ours. The increase of Catholics in Africa (21 percent between 2005 and 2010) dwarfs the increase of the “nones” in Europe and the United States.
If my conscience informs me that miscegenation, abortion or even contraception is morally wrong, should I be allowed to refuse to serve a mixed-race couple, a woman who had an abortion or a couple that practices artificial birth control at my restaurant?
Professor Reno’s call for increased legal protection for freedom of religion is a recipe for societal anarchy. Religious freedom under our Constitution means that each individual is free to practice the religion of his/her choice, so long as that practice does not infringe upon the legal rights of other believers or nonbelievers.
Need for Dialogue
I think this article is good, but only as far as it goes. What the article tends to gloss over is the other side of the coin in this seemingly perpetual debate: the actions by “religious.” Quite frankly, the story there has not always been one of shining glory and Gospel values.
We need this debate. But if such a debate is to be productive, it needs to move from “us versus them” to an ongoing dialogue. Pope Francis has it right: It’s time to stop jawboning and create something that ultimately makes society a much better place.
There is a place for the law, of course, but I think the law will follow. Right now, the directions discussed in the article are likely just as much a reaction to generations of negativity sown by religions as they are the Machiavellian actions of a few powerful people.
As a follow-up to “Our Secular Future,” by R. R. Reno, America asked our readers: “Do you agree that religion is being increasingly marginalized in the United States? Does this demand a response from people of faith?” You responded:
Whether this is true or not, none of it inhibits people who hold traditional values from practicing their values in their own lives, which is the definition of religious liberty. The contest of worldviews perhaps limits the ability of people of traditional values to shape American law, culture and society, and it means “marginalization” in that the traditional values camp does not necessarily set the tone for society, but that is not the same as marginalization. Nones and engaged progressives have religious liberties, too, which means the freedom to resist traditional definitions of marriage and sexuality. If we all are allowed to profess and practice what we believe, religious liberty is still alive and well in America.
The following is an excerpt from “A Reply to Reno,” by Michael Sean Winters, published in The National Catholic Reporter (2/21).
There is much in R. R. Reno’s recent essay in America that is beyond reproach. Reno attempts to provide cultural analysis, with a primary focus on law, to explain why he believes we are heading into an era that will be more hostile to religion than any that went before....
I agree with what he writes, but the unwillingness to recognize that, in this culture, the most powerful people are the people with money, and what they want is more money, and that Christians should be standing in their way too, well, this is an absence that speaks more loudly than even the good points Reno makes. This is a criticism I could have easily expected to be leveling this time last year. One year into the pontificate of Papa Francesco, I am a bit surprised. Mr. Reno: Get out of the office and away from your fellow conservatives for a bit. Mencken and the “nones” and the “engaged progressives” have met their match and his name is Francis.
Michael Sean Winters