Faith of our fathers

By Daniel Stratford


This Sunday, I sat in Saint Brigid’s Church in Amherst Center for Mass, contemplating the nature of God and Man. It was a humbling sight, indeed – the morning sunlight dancing through the stained-glass windows made for a visage that could only be described as florid, with the multitude of Latin inscriptions on the walls invoking the ancient history and ecumenical scope of the Church.

Though I am more often than not less than consistent in my attendance of Mass and not particularly extroverted about any piety that I do possess; there is something that is comfortingly grandiose, and even hauntingly beautiful, about the entire affair. It is impossible to say whether the time-honored rituals of the Church are intrinsically captivating, or whether I have come to believe so after decades of ingratiation, repetition, ambivalence, inquiry, skepticism, and finally, acceptance. My individual piety is irrelevant in this matter, however. Any meditation on religion cannot merely be restricted to the Catholic Church, because organized religion has been and is still an agent of immeasurable power and unquantifiable influence in our lives.

In our contemporary world, there is relatively little thought given to the myriad monuments to the influence of religion that lie all around us. As the world has become more industrialized, globalized, and commercialized over the past two centuries, religion as an institution has not merely been decried as oppressive, but, more dangerously, altogether neglected. Especially amongst the college-aged, religion is seen either as the exclusive province of the superstitious, or as an institution devoted to the outright oppression of the masses. Especially amongst our generation, religion, to the empirical observer, seems to be regarded with equal parts contumely and hostility. Religion has been deposed from its own altar in the dominion of modern thought. More people than ever now subscribe to the notion that religion is merely a popular opiate.

To view religion as a mere tool of oppression or as an archaic coping mechanism of epochs past is, however, simultaneously fustian and fatuous. Organized religion, for all of its structural ills and human frailties, has and continues to provide a solid bedrock upon which the prosperity, continuity, and, indeed, very stability of the world is established.

As it is now, it has been since the darkest days of yore.

Niccolo Machiavelli, no fan of the corruption endemic in the Renaissance-era Roman Catholic Church, wrote of the Romans that, “It was religion that facilitated whatever enterprise the Senate and the great men of Rome designed to undertake.” In the same paragraph, he chronicles a trend that has evinced the transcendental value of religion throughout time: any observer of Ancient Rome, he notes, “…will see that its citizens were more afraid of breaking an oath than of breaking the law, since they held in higher esteem the power of God than the power of man.” What the Florentine was saying was, as it is now, absolutely revolutionary: that religion, far from being a pestilence loosed on the state and its ability to function, is a partner to government, spoken or unspoken. Religion is government by alternative means.

Though this is a concept that would not only shock the multitude, but throw into a furor those purists who favor a complete, absolute and rigid “separation” of “church” and “state,” a note must be made of the inability to separate culture, and therefore religion, from government.

Culture, much like government, serves as not only a reminder of the achievements and failings of past generations, but also as a reminder of their struggles, their trials and their tribulations – of methods of social organization that are tried and true, but also those that were also tried and failed. One cannot appreciate where they are if they cannot appreciate from whence they came.

Religion, much like government, is an exercise in continuity, stability, and happiness. William F. Buckley, Jr. said as much with his typical mordancy and insight when he asserted that, “Failure to mention religion [at an event] where other cultural inheritances are mentioned is unexplainable.”

There is even a legal dimension to this glorious partnership between the governments of man and the Kingdom of God.

As government bestows laws, so too does religion bestow morality, and what is morality if not the timeless, unwritten acceptance of certain extralegal precepts? Indeed, it is the promotion of a moral order devoted to stability, tranquility and harmony that we can look to as a monument to the timeless value of religion. The duty of the state to not root out religion for the sake of promoting putative “fairness” and “equality,” but to allow for accepted morality to augment enumerated laws. Orestes Brownson, in his magisterial analytic work The American Republic, elucidated upon this fact more eloquently than this columnist ever could: “The religious destiny [of the United States] is to render practicable and to realize the normal relations between church and state…as consecrated in the life of the nation.”

It is self-evident that in any society that respects balance, harmony and fairness, it is unpalatable for the government to be turned into a seminary, and its servants made to aspire to the pulpit. However, though government may make laws, it is the morality bequeathed by theology that provides the necessary impetus for their maintenance and enforcement. When Presidents are sworn in upon a Bible, it is not for mere quaintness; it is a recognition of the joint trusteeship over society by law and morality.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]