Someday, We Can Have a Serious Political Discussion of What God’s Presence Means

It is Christmastime again in America, and that means the usual round of quarrels over what right a national government of 330 million people has to oversee the content of Christmas displays on Anytown’s public commons. It also, now, means that mockers and scoffers come out, choosing Christmas for playing the spoil-sport, whether it’s to set up a papier-mache figure of a Satan they don’t believe in, or, as in a city nearby us, to show Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington gathering at a crib with a copy of the Constitution in it, born to save the sons of earth from faith and hope, and, if the motives of the spoil-sports are to judge by, from charity and common courtesy too.

I don’t want to broach, here, the tiresome matter of a “separation of church and state” that is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, nor do I want, here, to discuss what an “establishment of religion” means, or get into the history of state establishments of religion that post-dated the Constitution for several decades. Instead I want to look at the word “religion” itself, because our failure to understand its older meaning is diagnostic of a broader problem – the loss of any grasp of objective human realities, and thus the near impossibility of any serious public discussion concerning human affairs generally.

For “religion” did not mean what some individual happened to believe about the origin of the world, or good and evil, or life after death. It named a virtue and a duty: the virtue of rendering to God what is God’s, namely the homage, praise, and obedience that God is due. For the purposes of the question at hand, the boundaries of this definition can be set to include, under the name of God, all that men have sensed about what transcends man, whether they call it the Tao, or the Logos, or the One; the ultimate ground of existence, and the ultimate good.

Religion, thus defined, has ever been of momentous importance to man, with power to bind together nobleman and beggar, craftsman and scholar, old man and child, male and female, stranger and native. And if someone should give us the canard that religion is uniquely responsible for division and war, we must reply that, with the partial exception of Islam, almost every war that man has ever fought has had nothing at all to do with religion, but with the usual things men fight for: power, glory, wealth, land, vengeance. Sometimes they fight because they fear to lose what they have; sometimes, because they are bored and restless.

Now, it should be obvious that if you do not believe in the divine, you cannot believe that man owes any duty to it, and therefore you do not practice the virtue of religion. If I deny allegiance to any nation, I cannot be a patriot; if I refuse to read books, I cannot be a scholar; these are contradictions in terms. So if you acknowledge no duty to the divine, you have no religion to display, and your use of public grounds to throw cold water on a Christmas scene is merely puerile and peevish.

But there is something else in play here. It is a basic assumption of unreality or at least of unknowability. Matteo Ricci could approach the Chinese mandarins because both he and they believed that the divine was of man’s ultimate concern.  They were serious men. Not serious is the notion that you can make up your own religion to fit your taste, or that it does not matter what you believe, since right and wrong do not enter into the matter.

Turn now from religion to moral philosophy, and take the issue of abortion. I have asked people to affirm or to deny this fundamental premise, that it is wrong, deliberately and directly, to take an innocent human life. When I put it that way, people grow angry, not because they disagree with the particulars of the premise, but because they do not wish there to be any premise at all. The whole process of arguing from premises to conclusions is denied. Underneath this denial is the notion that good and evil are not objectively real. That is not to say that people give up the language of good and evil, especially when it comes to imputing evil motives to their political opponents. But it is impossible to persuade them that you can have pleasant and kindly and politically unexceptionable motives and still be doing evil, to your own harm and that of others, just as you might serve peach schnapps laced with cyanide at your party, quite knowingly and also quite insanely insisting that cyanide is good for what ails you.

All the great sages, east and west, pagan and Jewish and Christian, have agreed that the first and worst victim of evil is the person who engages in it, so that it is of great moment to learn to see it aright and to avoid it, and not to pretend that it is whatever you wish it to be. To say, then, that my premise is merely my opinion, is to imply that your own opinion has no firm ground to it, either. And that is to make moral discussion impossible, replacing it not with decent silence but with shouting. When reason retreats, the passions surge, and the loudest, most violent, most obnoxious, and most heedless usually take over.

Or go from moral philosophy to what ought to be a calm commitment to the common good. Again, it is Christmastime, so the American Civil Liberties Union is out with their bells and their upturned hats, seeking contributions. They are, again, appealing to a typically American agnosticism and irresponsibility regarding moral good and evil, and, in the television commercials I have seen, they do so by a failure to take terms seriously. Whether this failure is intentional, or the predictable result of fuzzy thinking, I do not know. But they bring forth that old novelist for teenage girls, Judy Blume, to complain that “book banning” is everywhere among us. Banning? We are talking about the choices that public libraries make, as to what books to include in their holdings and where to place them. I assume that the library does not put copies of Hustler next to Winnie-the-Pooh, even if they are so foolish and wicked as to buy Hustler in the first place. Choices must be made, and they are made all the time.

The argument the ACLU puts forward for inclusion of sexually-charged books aimed at children is no argument at all, but a stamp of the foot, a demand, now accompanied by the pious suggestion that certain parents want such books, and to deny them is to deny their sacred rights as parents. All of this is to evade the public issue, which, book by book or magazine by magazine, has to do with the moral character of the work in question and the beneficent or malign effect that may ensue, or in some cases must ensue, if children are exposed to it. But if we take up that issue, we must accept realities: what boys and girls are, what they are meant to be for one another, what is good or evil in the matter of sexual relations, and so forth. Then we can have a serious discussion. But if we do not accept realities, we can have no serious discussion at all, only shouting back and forth, or shouting on one side, and on the other, a cowed and shrugging concession that the shouters are right at least in this sense, that there isn’t any reality to argue about, so why bother?

But enough of this, dear readers. My mind returns to that child in the manger, let all the darkness roundabout be what it is. Someday, people will once again be capable of a serious political discussion of what it means that God should be in our midst, even ours, such as we are, when we deserve no such grace; the still small voice, when all the world cries out. And may God’s blessings be upon you and yours.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: (Original Caption) The American Civil Liberties Union vowed to challenge the response of Dearborn city officials to a court order banning a publicly financed Nativity scene on City Hall property. After a federal judge ruled the creche violated the U.S. Constitution, the Dearborn City Council sold the manger scene and the land it sits on to a charitable trust to preserve the display in front of city hall.