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Thu Dec 6, 2012, 02:17 PM


"To Hell With It" - Reducing Religion to Ethics

by Michael Sean Winters | Dec. 6, 2012

“If it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.” Thus, Flannery O’Connor when it was suggested that the Eucharist was merely a symbolic presence of the Lord Jesus. Of course, we Catholics are not allergic to the importance of symbols. People will negotiate a policy but will die for a symbol, and not just Catholics. Think of the once seemingly perennial legislative and court fights over burning the flag, even though a protester can never truly burn “the flag,” they can only burn “a flag” just as a protester can rip up a copy of the Constitution, but the document continues to govern the political life of the nation.

Flannery was not dismissing symbols. She was, instead, pointing to the fact that at the heart of our faith, beyond the symbols, beyond the intellectual worldview, there is a truth claim: The tomb is empty.

Yesterday, I was speaking with a group of Catholics about the relationship of the Church and politics and stated my belief that the most basic problem facing us is the expectation that to gain access to the public square, we must reduce our religion to ethics. On the Catholic left, this usually entails reducing the faith to social justice issues. On the Catholic right, this usually entails reducing the faith to a congeries of issues – anti-abortion, traditional marriage, anti-euthanasia – that are cast as moral issues. Now, I care about social justice as much as the next Catholic, and I am as determinedly pro-life as I can be. The issue, then, is not whether the Church’s teachings on social justice or life issues are right or wrong. The issue is that when we reduce these – and any issues – to ethics, a couple of things happen that are deeply dangerous to the faith. We set ourselves on a path of self-secularization and find ourselves complicit in the thing that most bothers us, the loss of the religious sense in our time and in our culture.

This can all be a little opaque, so bear with me. The reduction of religion to ethics has been a hallmark of the estuary where religion and politics meet throughout American history. It was commented upon by de Tocqueville. It was evidenced in the Legion of Decency. The Moral Majority, as its name implies, was built explicitly on the premise that people of different faiths can enter the political arena united around a common moral agenda. Americans have always had so many different denominations that many Founders and political leaders since, have warned against the introduction of anything dogmatic into the public sphere. There remains a fear, which I can only label bizarre, that introducing dogma into our public discussion will lead to re-igniting the Thirty Years War. But, the Founders and political leaders subsequently also recognized that the moral fiber of a people must be robust is that people are to be capable of self-governance, and that for most people, moral fiber is derived from their faith. And, so, religion and religious leaders are permitted to enter the public square as ethical authorities, checking their dogma at the door.


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