For about forty years, the public high school in my home town did not have a basketball court. They finally supplied the lack when they and two towns got together into the fourteenth plague of Egypt, the Consolidated School District, and built an enormous complex in no man’s land, inaccessible by foot to all but a handful of the district’s fifteen thousand people.
But that didn’t mean that the school lacked for a basketball team. They had one. They simply had to use someone else’s court. In my town, the someone else was the Catholic parish.
An iron-willed old priest, Father Comerford, had determined to build a parish hall, largely with funds from his own relations. The hall had three stories. On the first two were meeting rooms, a billiard room, a library, and a place where you could enjoy mild refreshments. The third floor was a basketball court, with bleachers along one side, and a large stage at one end, so that the court could also be used as a dance floor or as an auditorium for concerts and plays.
Some years later, an order of nuns petitioned the pastor to come to our town and to turn the first two stories into a Catholic grade school. They did so, and the school, Saint Thomas Aquinas, persisted until about twenty years ago, when declining enrollments compelled them to merge with the Catholic school in the next borough. It was the school I attended as a child. At its peak, it served four hundred children, about fifty in each of the eight classrooms, for grades one through eight. It was located cater-corner to the public high school. A few lots to the left of both schools were the rectory, Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, and the convent.
That proximity was more than happenstance. There was a strong sense that, with some differences, what went on in one school was what went on in the other, with the similarities going in both directions. There were real bonds between them; certainly, at the least, a bond of genuine good will. As I’ve said, the public school’s basketball team made free use of our court. When my mother attended that high school, the teachers would make sure, once a week, that the Catholic students trooped on across the street for religious instruction. It was taken for granted that religion was a personal and a public good. Had there been a Hebrew school across the street, and had there been Jewish children in my town, they would have trooped them on over for their instruction too.
None of this was controversial. Why should it have been? The textbooks in use all across the country still bore the strong imprint of a religious culture. You didn’t have to go to a religious school to read the twenty-third psalm, or Milton, or any of the dozens of other writers our language has produced, who spoke about God and man. When Christmas came around, they too sang carols. Nobody would have thought it offensive in a valedictorian to give public thanks to God. Why should they have? Why should such a thing be treated as worse than an obscenity? For obscenity now lays claim to greater protection than piety can.
I experienced some of this friendship myself, for a few months, when I attended the public grade school after we moved back to our hometown in the middle of a school year. Mrs. McAndrew sometimes sat at the piano—we had a piano in our classroom—and played the hymn, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. An excellent Protestant hymn it is, which any believer in God can sing, because it doesn’t refer to Jesus. Nobody thought that that was strange.
And of course, for two centuries in American life, it wasn’t strange. Why should it have been? If you look at one of the nation’s founding laws, the Northwest Ordinance, you see the lawmakers providing for public education in the new territories, precisely on the grounds that religion and piety are to be promoted. To believe that the same men who wrote that law wanted what Richard Neuhaus called “the naked public square,” scoured blank, empty of any common devotion to God, or even of any timid reference to Him in such public settings as a school or a court, is not to believe that they were merely inconsistent or inattentive. It is to believe that they were quite insane, all of them. And it is to believe that Americans for generation upon generation did not understand the most fundamental law of their own country, the Constitution.
That strains credulity. The more obvious conclusion to draw is that in America, as opposed to the atheistic salons of revolutionary Paris, there never was a felt conflict between religious faith and the common good. Rather, the common good was unattainable without religion; and we can find statesmen of varying degrees of piety, and in various words, saying as much: Washington, Adams, and Madison, for example. The first amendment’s only clause, grammatically, is simply “Congress shall make no law,” and what follows is meant to tie the hands of Congress, not the hands of the people in their localities, with their devotions and their customs. It is a veto on one kind of legal action, and a franchise for ordinary local and cultural action.
Well, from that time until this, much juridical water has gone under the manholes, so that we must now defend in national courts the right of some high school football players to stitch a cross to their uniforms in memory of a deceased teammate. Madness—but where has it come from?
The Founders did not want Congress to establish a particular denomination as a national church, like the Church of England; though they allowed the individual states to keep such establishments if they had them. That was attributable to their memory of the English civil war and the so-called religious wars in Europe in the early seventeenth century. (I write “so-called,” because religion was usually a mere pretext for what were wars of nationalism; and that explains why Catholic France fought alongside the Protestants and not the Catholics.) But where is that strife now?
It’s been more than two centuries since Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and our more or less peace-loving country has fought many wars, including the extraordinarily pointless World War I, and the extraordinarily bloody and destructive World War II. In which of these wars was strife between Christian denominations of any moment at all? Or think of what the whole world has been through. With the important and perennial exception of Islam, all of the world’s wars have had to do with the usual things that men fight for—land, wealth, glory, power, vengeance, fear, and bloodlust.
And maybe there is one more exception: doctrinaire secularism. The “faith” of no faith moved Stalin to murder his millions in the Ukraine, and Mao to murder his tens of millions throughout the vast rural territories of China. Secularism is a bloody business, because, without God, man is affixed to the terrible adverb “only,” and there is very little you cannot do to someone who is “only” a counter in an economic tally, or a pawn in a vast historical battlefield, or an organic machine consuming food and water, or whatever.
Yet, for all that, our elites, our culture-stranglers, somehow still behave as if the next war is going to break out between southern Baptists and Roman Catholics; and this, when Christian denominations are friendlier to one another than ever, and people of all faiths except one practice tolerance to a fault.
What is the explanation? Don’t they see that only God can really unite people, and only religion can really teach the difficult virtues?
Perhaps they do see that. I’m now persuaded that secularists fear and despise religion, and want all traces of it obliterated from public life, not because they believe that religion teaches vice, but because they know that it can teach virtue. They throw the word “theocrat” around very freely, because they sense that the least return to sanity will put their monopoly of power in jeopardy. They are the theocrats, and see all things accordingly. He that is giddy thinks the world goes round.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” was painted by Robert Walter Weir and commissioned by Congress in 1837. The painting of this religious scene has hung in the U.S. Capital rotunda since 1844.