Last week, Oxford College freshman Sid Raju wrote a column on religion in the modern era. He argued that while religions may have been valuable in ages gone by, many of the loudest religious voices today are backward at best and harmful at worst. Today’s nation-state, he claimed, should move to minimize religion’s role in politics and in the public square.
I thought that his piece was well thought-out and that he made a noteworthy case. I also disagree entirely with his assessment.
Raju’s concern seems to focus predominately on the actions of those he believes to be in problematic or extreme minorities. When involved with political processes, those groups can exercise power in ways he views as completely out of line.
Few would disagree with that assertion, or with the assertion that religious conflict is a major issue in the Middle East. And politicians like Todd Akin, the man responsible for the now-infamous “legitimate rape” comment, are completely indefensible.
But even though Raju differentiated between the extremist minority and the benign or positive majority of religious believers and practitioners that, he wrote, can offer real good, he then seems to advocate a position that treats all religion in ways based on his view of the extremists.
For example, he wrote that clergy should be urged to “not focus so much on the nuances of the scripture and the literal interpretation of the text, but to adapt the teachings into a modern context.”
If the majority of religious adherents are, in fact, harmless or beneficial to society as Raju claims, why should clergy adapt their teachings to modernity when it would seem that they’ve already been doing a good job? It would be unnecessary.
Raju, in my opinion, maintains a perspective that is all too common in the modern progressive age: because something is old or traditional, it either no longer holds the same value or will inevitably outgrow its usefulness. This view would diminish the value of anything, including religion, that is not frequently “updated” to the modern context.
But what of historic secular philosophers and thinkers like Plato, Socrates or Confucius? If their writings are old, why are those authors still so influential today? These writers inspire because their words speaks to larger ideas, truths, and questions that transcend mere moments in history.
The exact same thing is true of religious texts and practices. They have survived and flourished for millennia because they address greater ideas, truths, and realities about God and the world, and seek to help explain how mankind should best go about relating to that God and that world.
Matters of scripture and tradition and the task of relating faith to the modern era are not polar opposites, as Raju seems to suggest, but are part of the same process of moral instruction. By probing scriptural nuances and lifting interpretations up for consideration, religious leaders bring larger truths into focus for their followers and offer direction for how best to engage with the modern world.
This isn’t an easy process. Literalism can arise in undesirable ways, and religious conflicts can become brutal. But those bad events cannot outweigh the good done in the name of religion in the public square. Religious hospitals, homeless shelters, community legal clinics and food pantries serve cities and towns around the world. Aid organizations like World Vision and CARE send billions of dollars overseas annually in the name of relief and development. Religious leaders worldwide care for the oppressed, the hopeless, and the downtrodden every day.
King. Gandhi. Mother Teresa. Bonhoeffer. Their work, too, was done in the name of religion. Would we lose their contributions as well if religion were excluded from politics or the public square?
Those exact forms of good are the reason religion has been such a major force in America. They are why Thomas Jefferson, in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, advocated the separation of church and state: Jefferson sought not to protect the state from the church’s involvement, but the church from the state’s encroachment.
Almost all the Founders, even if they were not themselves religious, knew how powerful churches were as morally formative institutions and wanted to foster that moral strength in American society.
David Giffin is a second year Masters in Theological Studies student at Candler School of Theology from Charleston, Ill.