The Savoyard Vicar Can Have His Religion, but…

It’s been a week with very little time to sit down so until now I hadn’t yet responded to Greg’s very persuasive post concerning the religiosity of the religious nones. He writes:

“If our goal is to figure out how moral consensus could be rebuilt among people of diverse religious belief and practice in our society, it seems to me we would be well advised to adopt a definition of “religion” that tracks with what our society would treat as a religion. The practical problem before us is that the nones are treated as having a right to live as nones – to live in accordance with what Karen calls their “ideology.” And I do not see how we can maintain religious freedom without granting that right. So isn’t their ideology a religion at least for our practical purposes, even if it might not be one for other purposes?”

Two things here. First of all, as I mentioned in the post Greg is responding to, the question of what is or is not religion is, I think, probably not the most important. Greg would like to include what I would term “ideology” as religion, and I’m quite happy to go along with what he suggests – to treat ideology as a religion for some purposes, even if it might not be for other purposes. Again, I don’t claim any sort of access to the Form of Religion (and I don’t think anyone is trying to claim such knowledge, if it exists), and in any case I think none of us wants to get caught up on semantics, which I’m in danger of leading us straight into.

Second, as concerns Greg’s question of whether the religious nones should be treated as having a right to live as nones: Absolutely yes. Religious freedom must grant the right to those who practice was I was calling ideology to live according to whatever religion or non-religion one believes (within limits that, as far as I’m concerned, the Supreme Court has so far been quite good at identifying, though in upcoming years that could change). I would simply call that “secularism” or “atheism” or “agnosticism,” but here, too, I think the semantics are probably not the central issue.

But where the semantic distinction does matter, I think, becomes clearer when we examine our understanding of religious liberty. It has historically comprehended both “libertas personae” and “libertas ecclesiae”, or the freedom of both the individual and the freedom of the church. The distinction has been lost in our very individual-belief-oriented religious culture, but as religion is increasingly being called into question, I think we are starting to see that religion has perhaps always been more than a matter of just what one person believes; he or she is always standing on the shoulders of giants who have, very often, worked as members of a body (ecclesia). With or without formal members of the clergy, churches and other religious institutions have established some sorts of structures and corporate identities that bear on but are not synonymous with the religious identities of their members. And I think it is important that we grant religious institutions the freedom – the libertas ecclesiae – to continue to do so. (Thankfully, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld this right in last year’s Hosanna Tabor case.)

Granting libertas ecclesiae to religious institutions does not in any way lessen the libertas personae of those whose religion or ideology is less formal. In other words, on the individual level, both a Mormon and the Savoyard Vicar are equally religious in the sense that they both are protected by the right to religious freedom qua individuals. But corporately, they are quite different. Mormonism has a unifying structure in its church – which is not to say that all Mormons agree on what it both does say and should say, but rather that that is a matter internal to the Mormon church as  a matter of libertas ecclesiae. (This is why I included “unifying figure” in my very rough operative definition of “religion”: there is something, not necessarily a god but something sharing in divine characteristics, which an institution most certainly can be thought to do, that unifies its members more tangibly than shared sentiment.)

This, incidentally, is something that has at times gotten lost in the furor over the HHS contraception mandate. The mandate to provide contraceptives and abortion services is so offensive to us not only because it would require individual employers to act against their individual consciences – which is bad enough – but also because it requires members of a religious body, or ecclesia, that officially forbids the use of contraception – minimally, the Catholic Church – to choose the state over the church.

I’m not sure that Romanticism merits the same type of corporate protections as do the Mormon or Catholic churches. But maybe it does, so I’ll stop here and hope Greg will bite!


2 Thoughts.

  1. This is exactly the right issue for us to talk about next. Whatever words we use to describe it, there is a critical difference between beliefs that do or don’t presuppose institutional embodiment. The “nones” often fail to comprehend what it means for a religion to presuppose institutional embodiment. They end up denying us our rights to religious institutions (including profit-making businesses!) not so much out of malice as out of failure even to understand that anything important is, or even could be, at stake.

    Much more I’d like to say about this – too much for a comment thread. I’m not only biting, I’m biting off more than I can chew! New post on this coming up.

  2. Yes yes – exactly. Also, it bothers me a bit that my first reaction to reading your comment was to “like” it.
    Looking forward to the new post!

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