‘The greatest gift which America has received from the Lord is the faith which has forged its Christian identity,” the widely loved Pope John Paul II wrote in 1999 in a document on the Church in America. Here at the end of 2012, his words might be the rallying cry of the season: a reminder, a challenge, a warning; a gift to be pondered, like the child born of Mary in Bethlehem.
And the pope’s message is not just for Christians. As he wrote:
For more than five hundred years the name of Christ has been proclaimed on the continent. The evangelization which accompanied the European migrations has shaped America’s religious profile, marked by moral values which, though they are not always consistently practiced and at times are cast into doubt, are in a sense the heritage of all Americans, even of those who do not explicitly recognize this fact. Clearly, America’s Christian identity is not synonymous with Catholic identity. The presence of other Christian communities, to a greater or lesser degree in the different parts of America, means that the ecumenical commitment to seek unity among all those who believe in Christ is especially urgent.
We used to value this feature of our civic life. We used to encourage the flourishing of lived faith. This year, our “holiday” season has been marked by an array of court decisions on religious freedom as it is challenged by the health-care policy of the Obama administration. Will religiously affiliated charities and schools and business owners who have moral objections to abortion drugs and contraception be able to operate without violating their conscience?
Though the season is rife with busyness and distraction — Black Friday and Cyber Monday, eggnog and iPad purchases, all threatening to drown out the prayerful “Silent Night, Holy Night” — for those of us who are Christians, Christmas still reminds us of who we are. ’Tis the season for news stories on how religious America actually is. These too can be distractions, mere feel-good affirmations that contribute to the softening of our consciences: Frank Newport, president of Gallup, proclaims, as the title of his new book has it, that “God is alive and well,” something I am certainly not going to dispute. He reasons from polling numbers: “80% of all Americans are Christians, and 95% of all Americans who have a religion are Christian,” he reports. Even with the rise of “nones” — people with no religious affiliation — nine out of ten Americans answer “Yes” when asked if they believe in God.
And this rings true, doesn’t it? We see our instinct to turn to God when terrible things happen. God remains a rhetorical flourish on the campaign trail and when lawmakers are seeking to pass legislation.
But is God merely a safe harbor? That’s how God and religious faith were described one Sunday morning on one of our political programs, Meet the Press: “There is a difference,” host David Gregory said to Michele Bachmann, “between God as a sense of comfort and safe harbor and inspiration and God telling you to take a particular action.”
Yes, there sure is a difference. Given all the theological claims that are used to justify evil, given how tenuous our relationship with the Incarnation can be, and given how many of us have been known to choose a secular Sunday routine over a self-surrendering lifestyle choice such as regular church attendance, it’s easy to understand why the host of a political talk show might be skeptical about a public servant’s invoking a source of inspiration rather than merely seeking to satisfy the thirst for power. Decades into a social experiment that has mainstreamed the privatization of lived religion, we find ourselves being required to work harder than ever to preserve our traditional ideas about who we are, where we are going, and how we might get there together.
And it’s not only Christians who will be expected to keep private their putatively archaic notions about sacrifice and penance and redemption. All devout people are at risk ofbeing coerced into relegating their idiosyncratic beliefs — whether these have to do with birth control (and abortion!) or the consumption of pork — to their homes and their houses of worship. All are at risk of being prevented from employing teachers at a school or running a deli while remaining true to their beliefs.
“The fear of religion in the public arena is all too typical of Americans, and particularly the intellectual class, today,” as Judge Robert Bork, who died just days before Christmas, wrote in his book Slouching toward Gomorrah (1996). The man who would have been a Supreme Court justice had his nomination not been so crudely politicized provides us with a reality check:
Religious conservatives cannot “impose” their ideas on society except by the usual democratic methods of trying to build majorities and passing legislation. In that they are not different from any other group of people with ideas of what morality requires. All legislation “imposes” a morality of one sort or another, and, therefore, on the reasoning offered, all law would seem to be antithetical to pluralism. The references to “bigotry” and “demagoguery” seem to mean little more than that the author would like to impose a very different set of values.
Whatever President Obama’s Department of Justice wants to argue in court about a health-care regulation, and whatever Planned Parenthood wants to say to feed a climate of fear about “impositions,” the truth of the matter is that some 2,000 years ago a child was born who proposed something very different from the way of life that most of us follow. A pope in Rome is never going to impose anything on American women or men. But he does protect a gift he believes we have been given. With Christmas comes the offer of a grand, everlasting proposal. Is Christmas for us simply a matter of holly and ivy? Or do we recognize it as the world’s greatest love story, the story that transforms our lives? Our answer to that question is in how we live the other days of the year.