State religion, ritual, and faith

Journalist Molly Worthen wrote an interesting piece for the New York Times headlined How to escape from Roy Moore’s evangelicalism.  She makes an interesting point about ritual and its effect on the human psyche, on my mind and yours. The habits we follow every day shape us as much as, or more than Sunday worship, even for those of us who turn up at worship every week.

What daily rituals do we have and how do they shape us? I wake up (at this time of year) before dawn and, weather permitting, catch a glimpse of the stars. I look at Stack Overflow  and try to find a person or two I can help do their programming work.  I look at a cartoon by Randall Munroe if there’s a new one.  I try (with limited success) to avoid too much political news, because I don’t want to allow indignation to be part of my daily life.  Are these the best things I could do? Probably not, but perfection isn’t my goal these days.

In her article, Ms. Worthen suggests that some peoples’ daily rituals include a strong dose of indignation. They consume media that riles them up. This ritual indignation can shape peoples’ hearts, just as ritual gratitude can. Ms. Worthen claims (hopefully with some rigor; she’s a university teacher) that many of us consume material that makes us indignant about the state of politics.  She points to Fox News as the source of the ritual indignation. That’s probably right, but limited. Plenty of people in the entertainment-industrial complex capture our time by exploiting our indignation. This happens to us every day. Is it any wonder that Sunday worship isn’t enough to counteract it?

Is it any wonder that many people have abandoned Sunday (or Saturday, or Friday) worship entirely? In a world full of people trying to capture our hearts by ritual, houses of worship are generally quite upfront about it. Why not resist that capture with every fiber of our being, as a way of preserving our autonomy and sanity?  Why render ourselves vulnerable to an institution that, in the USA anyhow, is strongly linked to so-called “conservative” politics?

A separate, but related, issue is generically known as state religion. When we ask kids to recite the pledge of allegiance, we ask them to engage in a rite of state religion. That rite is harmless in itself (who can argue with “liberty and justice for all?”). Still it inculcates a ritual habit. And, from a Biblical perspective, it’s a ritual of idol worship. (We pledge alliegiance first to the flag, then to the republic of which it’s a symbol.) These words — “idol worship” — are harsh but true. Repetition strengthens the ritual and makes it shape us and our kids.

Then, shaped by that ritual, we find ourselves willing to accept other tenets of state religion. When the leader of a country sends soldiers to war, citizens find themselves swept up by patriotic fervor. That fervor drowns out dissent, especially loyal dissent, about the wisdom, ethics, and costs of war.  It’s a kind of mindless piety. It serves to make all war into holy war.

We’re all caught in the rituals of this state religion. The congregation in which I worship displays a United States flag, topped by an eagle standard, on the right hand side of the auditorium in the place of honor. On the left — the lesser place of honor — is a church flag topped by a cross.  The eagle standard is a sign of the Roman empire. That’s the empire whose emissary publicly washed his hands of Jesus’s blood and allowed a squad of his soldiers to drag him outside the city gates and torture him to death. What is that sign doing in a church auditorium?

Objections to removing come from the sense of taboo breaking. We’re shaped by the daily ritual of pledging allegiance to that flag.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

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