Why We Are Arguing About Religion

Most of us have been told from a young age that religious beliefs cause strife. The early modern “wars of religion” are portrayed as merely the most overt form of what happens when religion is allowed too much influence in public life. Of course, Protestant and Catholic forces fought on both sides of these conflicts. Nonetheless, we are taught that they were not primarily about the consolidation of national and royal power, but, rather, about religious intolerance. The solution, then, is supposed to be strict separation of church and state—leaving those who “have” religion to follow their beliefs in private, while preventing them from imposing those beliefs, or stirring up pain and trouble with those beliefs, in the public sphere.

There is, in fact, a certain logic to this position. If you are convinced that religion is an irrational set of beliefs that cause irrational people to fight over what they believe (falsely) is crucial to eternal salvation, you should try to keep those beliefs out of the public square. The solution, then, is a secular society that is “tolerant” enough to allow religious people to do their religious business, whatever it may be, behind closed doors.

The only real problem with this position is that it is based on a set of prejudices that utterly misconstrue the nature of religion. Religion is not merely a set of abstract beliefs. Thus, even if secularists were correct in their conviction that religion is all superstitious garbage, they still would be wrong in claiming that they can compartmentalize religion out of the public square with anything less than repressive action worthy of a police state. Sadly, proof of this fact, evident everywhere from America’s heartland to the streets of Bagdad, is consistently ignored by those whose “faith” lies in their prejudice against religion.

The very word religion means “to bind.” Not “to believe in angels or fairies” but “to bind.” In our hyper-individualistic culture, many people have many different beliefs about religion—most of them boiling down to the self-confident demand that whatever we do will result, ultimately, in God, Gaea, or “the universe” rewarding us for our self-esteem and “good intentions.” These are not religions. They bind us to nothing but our own vapid fantasies, demanding of our solipsistic sense of reality that we be affirmed. A religion, on the other hand, is a way of life. It is something that binds us, not merely to a set of beliefs, but to a set of habits, as well as institutions, through which we learn and follow a specific form of conduct, attempting to walk in the ways of our Lord.

I will not claim any special knowledge of non-Western religions and so, beyond mentioning the importance of “the way” in several Eastern religions, I will confine myself to noting that in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and here the “Judeo” part is of great importance) children are not merely taught a few abstract beliefs, then left to their own devices regarding how to live. Rather, articles of faith (one thinks of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds) are just one (crucial) part of an interconnected set of catechetical things we say and do to become and live as Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, and so on.

Many readers will recall that culture and cult share a root word in Latin meaning to cultivate—be it one’s garden, or one’s soul. Even a passing familiarity with history shows quite clearly that civilizations grow, if at all, from common beliefs and practices that have their root, like their ultimate end, in religion. The question is whether civilizations can “outgrow” religion, stripping their public squares of religious beliefs and practices without descending into anarchy.

Secularists always have evinced great confidence that morality does not require belief in any divine being or beings, let alone any set of intrusive moral strictures. After all, do not we all just naturally “know” that it is wrong to kill, steal, or do any number of other bad things? And, if some people don’t know these things, cannot we simply teach them “self-esteem” and the advantages of playing by the rules?

From this perspective, the only real problem remaining is fending off attacks on the secular public square by all those religious types. So, for the moment, let us ignore all the evidence that the secular version of morality produces atomism, a general breakdown of social mores, and an exponentially increased dependence on organs of the state to maintain peace and even functioning markets (lawsuits, anyone?). Instead, let us ask why it is that “those religious types” keep causing problems and whether those problems can be stopped without tyranny and bloodshed.

They cannot.

Why not? Because a secular public square requires that religious people be denied the ability to lead normal lives. Not “barred from imposing their values on others,” or any similar euphemism for “told to pipe down.” A secular square requires actively preventing people from leading normal lives. What do I mean, here? Quite simply, one cannot lead any coherent, meaningful life without abiding by the basic moral requirements of one’s religion or, to use contemporary jargon, “faith tradition.”

When the Christians began preventing various pagan communities from engaging in human sacrifice, they kept those people from leading normal lives, because they kept them from fulfilling essential duties of their faith that had long been part of the fabric of their lives. Does this mean the Christians were wrong to interfere with such authentic customs? One hopes not. But in doing so they forced a dramatic change in the characters of entire populations and cultures.

And so secularists should recognize (as some among the most hostile toward religion do recognize) that they are demanding cataclysmic changes in our culture and in the very characters of religious people. In many areas this change has been taking place for some decades (still not a long period in historical terms). Thus, for example, the family is in the process of being changed from a lifelong bond devoted to the rearing of virtuous children to a convenient method of co-habitation that brings certain civil and political benefits. The financial, psychological, and religious impact of these changes on people who might still wish to live in intact families devoted to child-rearing in a society constructed for double-income households with few or no children that discourages the expectation of security is incalculable, and routinely ignored.

In the same way, the Obama Administration’s determination to end the participation of religious organizations in charitable and educational activities, unless they agree to give up on fundamental beliefs such as those opposing support for contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, would strip religious people of an essential element to their way of life.

Every religious faith by nature requires that its adherents act as people of faith in public. And that means that charities, educational institutions, hospitals, retirement homes, and a host of other institutions connected with particular religions must run on religious principles. And this goes against the secularist prejudice that all jobs are merely matters of technical competence, requiring no special moral requirements, save by intolerant haters who should be banned.

Moreover, faiths within our Western tradition are not quietist. They are not about separation from the world but, rather, about reaching out to evangelize the world, including by reaching out in education and charity work.

The secular state would not miss religious charities were they to disappear. Social democracy rests on the presumption that the state can provide what people need, and that various “particularist” viewpoints get in the way of political unity. But religions in the Western tradition, with very few exceptions (e.g., the Amish, who already are becoming problematic for the secular state in areas where there numbers are significant) cannot be put on the reservation as has been done with so many native Americans, whose cultures have been (at times quite brutally) marginalized and left to die. The attempt will be resisted because its success means cultural death, repression of a crucial part of the human personality, and destruction of an essential defender and substantial embodiment of human liberty—communities of transcendent purpose and meaning.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared  June 22, 2014 on Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission. The image above titled “Lincoln Cathedral from the North West” was painted by Frederick Mackenzie (1787-1854).

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Lord Acton gave one of the best explanations of the secular state’s opposition to religious freedom, when he wrote, “Civil and religious liberty are so commonly associated in people’s mouths, and are so rare in fact, that their definition is evidently as little understood as the principle of their connection. The point at which they unite, the common root from which they derive their sustenance, is the right of self-government. The modern theory, which has swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it, is the enemy of that common freedom in which religious freedom is included. It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. It recognises liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of a limited command. Under its sway, therefore, every man may profess his own religion more or less freely; but his religion is not free to administer its own laws. In other words, religious profession is free, but Church government is controlled. And where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is virtually denied.”

    The key phrase is, “It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs.”

    • DE-173

      MPS, thanks for posting this. What is it from?

    • fredx2

      He was obviously a seer. He foresaw the Obama administration.

  • asmondius

    ‘In the same way, the Obama Administration’s determination to end the participation of religious organizations in charitable and educational activities, unless they agree to give up on fundamental beliefs such as those opposing support for contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, would strip religious people of an essential element to their way of life.’ This is represented by the current semantic progression from ‘freedom to practice’ to simply ‘freedom to worship’.

    • DE-173

      “current semantic progression from ‘freedom to practice’ to simply ‘freedom to worship’.”

      It won’t be long after they establish that idea, that they’ll want to convene a government regulatory with authority over liturgy, ministry and doctrine.

    • fredx2

      What people do not understand is that the Obama administration’s position is a fundamental break with the past, and a rejection of the First Amendment.

      In the past, exemptions were easily and freely given for those who had religious objections to specific government mandates.

      This was done because the constitution guarantees Free Exercise of Religion.

      Now, the government seeks to remove that clause from the Constitution. The Obama administrations behavior is exactly why that clause was included in the first place.

    • tamsin

      The next step will be that ‘freedom to worship’ cannot include teaching children, below the age of consent, about chastity and sexual sin.

  • publiusnj

    The reason the State is usually antagonistic to a free-standing religion (i.e., a universal onethat is not controlled by one of the populace subject to the state/culture) is that politicians–be they kings, dukes, presidents, gauleiters, commissars or assemblymen–cannot put together a package of benefits and detriments that will make such a church sufficiently malleable to the political decision-making of the State. Principle is something politicians cannot handle because politics depends on give and take with all things negotiable and all players available to give up a point to get a point. And, of couurse, few politicians ever say they don’t have a say in any issue.

    That malleability of most religions is working its way through on the moral issue of gay marriage with the mainline denominations beginning to get in line behind the Judges’ decisions and against the Bible. Just last week the Presbyterians freed ministers to follow their individual Holy Spirit’s guidance–as opposed, I guess, to the Holy Spirit Who had purportedly previously been forming the collective conscience of Presbyterianism–on gay marriage. Within the past day or so, one Methodist minister’s ecclesiastical conviction for performing a gay marriage was overturned by an ecclesiastical appellate court.

    History shows that one country religions can usually be co-opted by the State, Indeed, the Reformation looked at politically looks more like a massive co-opting of fragments of the Church by the State in a flock of countries–England, Scotland, the Seven Provinces, Navarre, parts of Switzerland and Germany and all of Scandinavia–than anything else. Probably the best exemplar of such co-opting is the case of the Church of Constantinople. It had been co-opted by the Byzantine emperors so totally that when the Emperor was replaced by a Muslim Sultan, the Istanbulish patriarch just shifted his loyalties to the new overlord and Constantinople entered the long period of domination by the Sultan known as the Tourkokratia.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      You could certainly add France to your list of countries. Hilaire Belloc describes the French Church, in the aftermath of the Wars of Religion: “Not only did the hierarchy stand in a perpetual suspicion of the Roman See, and toy with the conception of national independence, but they, and all the official organisation of French Catholicism, put the security of the national establishment and its intimate attachment to the general political structure of the State, far beyond the sanctity of Catholic dogma or the practice of Catholic morals.”

      One could add to French Gallicanism the Febronism and Josephism of Austria.

      • publiusnj

        I agree. And the situation in France might have been even worse but for the Concordat entered with France at the dawn of the Reformation, as the result of the Italian Wars.The Guises also set a check on the French kings that helped preserve the independence of the church such as it was.

        I agree also on Austria. You could also throw in the Marquis de Pombal’s aggressive behavior toward the Church (and the Jesuits in particular) in 18th C Portugal, and the Bourbons’ antipathy toward the Jesuits throughout their several kingdoms.

  • In my view every religion is an attempt to share and show the way to “Love” and all that entails. The politics of religion are the issue. GOV would prefer a nation of slaves ready to do its bidding at its will. Ultimately there will be no need for GOV or ‘organized’ religion. Until then the ‘war’ continues.

  • Watosh

    Very thoughtful and insightful article. We are conditioned in America to believe that separation of church and state is beneficial to all, particularly we Catholics. It does enable us to publicly attend Mass unhindered by the State. It is encouraging that some question the long run benefits to the church in this environment.

    I do wonder if though, the statement that “the Obama Administration’s determination to end the participation of religious organizations in charitable and educational activities unless they agree to give up fundamental beliefs such as those opposing support for contraceptives and anti-abortion inducing drugs…” may reflect a subconscious belief lingering from the separation of church and state conditioning of the American mind that the solution is to vote Republican. Now please I don’t want anyone to think that I think any Catholic should vote for a Democrat. But as John Rao points out in his book, “Removing the Blindfold,” after the French Revolution when the liberal revolutionists made life difficult for Catholics, some of the serious Catholics supported a return to the “ancient regime” because the Church was better off then. This was really not the answer that the counterrevolution needed to support, just as voting in Republican conservatives will make things okay again for the Catholics. In each case that was a mirage. I can understand the attraction to French Catholics of 1900’s to support the restoration of the ancient regime in France, just as I can understand the attraction of serious Catholics to vote in the Republican ticket. But I think it is a mistake, it doesn’t address the real problem.

    Yes it is true that the Obama Administration’s actions are an attempt to restrict Catholics from practicing their faith, and is reprehensible. BUT doesn’t anyone remember how the George Bush Administration had a program of giving federal money to religious Charities, like Catholic charities on the grounds that they wouldn’t use the money to proselytize. Again, please don’t anyone reading this leap to the conclusion I am defending the Obama Administration by pointing out the Bush Administration did the same thing. To so many Americans there are but two sides to any question, the Republican or the Democrat. I believe we need to break loose from the shackles imposed by this way of thinking if we would mount an effective counterrevolution.

    • asmondius

      The excuse for Obama is Always, ‘George Bush’.

      • Watosh

        Invariably whenever anyone refers to some misdeed of George Bush, it will be twisted to suggest that the intent of the criticism of George Bush is merely to provide an excuse for Obama. That must be something that adherents of George Bush use to counter any criticism of George Bush, and by repeating this tactic over and over, they seek to quash anyone from mentioning any criticism of George Bush. They do not, because they cannot deny the criticism of George Bush, so they respond by accusing the person mentioning some misdeed of George Bush of doing this out of the base motive of defending Barack Obama. Art Deco always responded that way, his mother must have taken him to summer camp as I haven’t seen him patrolling the blog lately.

        Asmondius, are you unable to recognize that in bringing up the fact that George Bush’s administration also curbed religious groups, that the curbing of religious groups by the central government is something that both parties do since they both spring from a secular democratic basis. In other words I am pointing out that for those who object to the curbing of religious expression, they need to realize that the problem is bigger than just voting Republican. Personally I have no desire to defend Barack Obama, I think he is an empty suit, an opportunist who on cue emits sonorous gas for public edification. I have never intended to ever make any excuse for Barack Obama and I never will. I reserve the right to denounce any wrong doing by Barack Obama and any previous presidents, including the preppy George Bush.

        • asmondius

          Since Catholic charities do not as a matter of course proselytize, your entire point about Bush is hot air. Comparing that to Obama’s attempt to force Catholics to provide contraception is thin indeed.

          • Watosh

            Actually today many Catholics have apparently forsworn proselytizing, as I believe Pope Francis stated how he felt about proselytizing. The only voice for proselytizing seems to be the commandment to go forth and teach all nations given by Jesus Christ, but that was a long time ago in a different age. So you Asmondius evidently look with approval on Catholic charities not engaging in “proselytizing.” Now it is a fact that George Bush’s administration required charitable groups that took federal money including Catholic charities required that they not engage in proselytizing. In other words A Catholic Charity should not try and win over the souls of the poor and help them gain eternal salvation since this is not something that the secular world feels is desirable. But you think this is a trivial restraint because some Catholics have abandoned commands of Christ in order to better fit in to the modern secular world. It is my contention that conservative Catholics often are more loyal to Republicans than to the teachings of Christ. You have provided another data point. You always leap passionately to the defense of George Bush from any possible slight much like Moslems defend their prophet.

            • asmondius

              ‘Apparently’ = conjecture

              You have a mistaken understanding – Catholicism is not just yet another flavor of evangelical Christianity. Catholics do not perform service for others as a means of winning converts, they do it because Christ asked them to. Catholics witness for Christ through their actions, and they have been doing that a long time. Please visit your local Catholic parish and see for yourself how organizations such as St. Vincent De Paul operate.

              • Watosh

                My brand of Catholicism is to use every means to spread the word because the Catholic faiths the true faith, and to use every action as a means of instructing. I don’t accept this idea that the liberal secularists have foisted onto gullible Catholics that one should never, never try to convert someone when all that person needs is a full stomach. In the meantime thee evangelicals win converts and grow despite the fact they are a deficient form of Christianity, while the Catholic church obeying the secular dictates that you find so attractive, are losing members, particularly in Latin American countries. Now can you just tell me if you consider the act of converting someone in order to save his or her soul and to gain them everlasting life as a “trivial” pursuit? I am sure there are atheistic organizations involved in charitable work that take good care of the needy that come their way, do they represent the standard that the St. Vincent De Paulists find worthy of emulation. Are you suggesting we Catholics take our cure from the way they, the non-believers, operate? Now it is a good thing to help the poor, and it is something Christ requires us to do, but I see no command to limit the care we give to the poor to simply taking care of their material wants. That after all is what non-believing do gooders do. I do not need to take lessons from them, my friend. I fear we Catholics living in a secular society have absorbed too mush of their ideas.

                • asmondius

                  Your comments have morphed from a proclamation of what Catholics do in general to whatever your personal beliefs are. The fact remains that asking Catholic charities to refrain from proselytizing had no practical affect on their efforts because their primary motivation is not to win new converts. Catholic charities do not inquire into what, if any, faith tradition is practiced by those they assist. Why? Because they see Christ in those they serve. Secondly, there is an obvious difference between using the power of government to force religious people to act against their beliefs and a requirement tied to voluntary participation in a government program.

                  • Watosh

                    My personal beliefs are what Catholic teaching has always said. Of course today many Catholics cut and trim Catholic teaching so as to come in line with what secular society considers to be proper. To justify this they can come up with very plausible rationalizations. If Church teaching has not sanctioned divorce. This is hard. This can work a hardship on those desiring divorce. We must show understanding, so the Church in America in particular, tells these couples desiring divorce, you can’t get a divorce in the Church but we can give you an annulment. Look at the surge in annulments that occurred. Oh those that felt granting annulments was the right thing to do can come up with many reasons for justifying the wholesale granting of annulments, and that this is in line with the Church’s concern for the well being of Catholics under its care. Now since I believe that annulments should not be granted unless there are clear and obvious instances of raid and deception involved. This leads me open to the accusation that I am just expressing my personal belief since many prelates in the church today, think otherwise. Same with communion in the hand. Officially the Church frowns on it and for a long time forbade it, while this was practice was implemented illegally by many bishops until it was so widespreadRome had to officially permit it. My penal opinion is that I hold to Church tacking on this, that I am not just expressing my personal beliefs. So it is easy to claim that my statements are not in line with Church teaching, given that there is the widespread substitution today of personal opinions as representing Church teaching, some may be mislead and become confused. Like as has been observed, it is a case where some claim dogma is set in stone, but pastoral application is elastic. And those who implement the elastic applications will always be able to give “good” reasons for their behavior.

  • cestusdei

    When tax exempt status is pulled then the IRS will have much more regulatory control over churches. Given the current IRS scandal that should certainly give us pause. They mean to run us out of town.

  • tamsin

    Very much appreciate the example given of how Christians put an end to pagan sacrifice; the pagans are back in power and want to re-institute their sacrificial practices. In fact, some very important person in our government referred to the “sacred ground” on which we sacrifice tiny humans.

    The other important point to make is that people who claim they are not religious, are. As was said, religare means to bind. People who think themselves without “religion” are still bound; they bind themselves, and seek to bind others’ words and deeds in the same way.

    You cannot not legislate morality.

    • DE-173

      “You cannot not legislate morality”

      Yet, in every jurisdiction in the United States, we are constantly told to make the MORAL decision not to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, to prearrange a “designated” driver, or take other measures to ensure we are in control of our faculties

      The U.S. legal limit is .08 BAC, (advocacy organizations enjoin us that “impairment begins with the first drink) if we choose to ignore moral decision and limit we risk an unpleasant, costly and consequential encounter with the constabulary and judiciary.

      • tamsin

        DE, you are forgetting your newspeak! We do not drive drunk because it would be immoral to kill someone; we choose not to drive drunk because we went to school and learned how to make safe, healthy choices. We choose not to drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs because we are well-educated!

        On a more serious note, a direct and conspicuous financial exposure to a constituency exists; it is to people who pay taxes. My husband supports not only our family, but many families through the taxes he pays that fund social welfare programs administered by the State. He’s the sugar daddy with no benefits; and I don’t even get to be the tiger mom. Too bad!

        • DE-173

          “we choose not to drive drunk because we went to school and learned how to make safe, healthy choices.”

          My school was Penn State. A healthy choice was light beer.

          I get your point though…

    • MariaGo

      Are you the Filipino who replied to me on Dr Taylor Marshall? If so, the RH law does not legalize abortion. Abortion is still illegal in all its forms here. I’m a law student and have read the law several times. The greater fear is that a contraceptive culture may change that. Yes, as a law student I have to agree that we cannot legislate morality. Morality should be part of the fabric of our culture. Given th RH law , it is more imperative than ever that families, schools and parishes instill this culture. If so, than the laws will indeed change.

      Remember when the Church and State was separated this was at a time when religion was still very much part of peoples live not only here but in the West as well. It was not meant to persecute tha faith the way it is doing now.

  • Vinnie

    “The question is whether civilizations can “outgrow” religion, stripping their public squares of religious beliefs and practices without descending into anarchy.” What will be left after anarchy? The religion, not the society.

    • DE-173

      “stripping their public squares of religious beliefs and practices without descending into anarchy.”

      They won’t descend into anarchy, but the tyranny of relativism.

    • publiusnj

      The Soviet Union outgrew religion.

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