Moving the Ancient Boundaries – IV

This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
 ♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries

 ♦ Part 2 — The Rebel & the Victim
 ♦ Part 3 — Undermining Civil Authority

stone walls

Do not move the ancient boundary stone
   set up by your forefathers.

        — Proverbs 22:28 —


 ♦ The Assault on Religious Authority

Undermining the legitimacy of civil authority and mutating the role of government into an instrument for protecting personal licentiousness — while endlessly chasing solutions to the incorrigible problems thus generated — is a key element in the secular postmodern pursuit of a utopian dream of unbridled freedom without consequences. But it is not sufficient; other centers of authority must likewise be transformed to serve the individual over the common good, or neutralized to overcome their resistance to such trends.

Religion, which promotes transcendent values, and strives to restrain destructive individualism and promote the common good through the development of character strengths such as service, charity, self-restraint, and accountability, is a prime alternative source of authority to government — and serves to restrain its excesses and aberrant tendencies as well. As such it is a prime target for the individualist committed to promoting an unrestrained and unaccountable utopia, enforced by the levers of government power.

The assault on religion takes place on two fronts: from within and from without. Where religion proves vulnerable to such influences, its tenets must be reinterpreted to foster individual gratification and personal fulfillment at the expense of longstanding enduring principles which form its core teachings and traditions. This can be seen in abundance in mainline Protestant churches and liberal Catholicism and Judaism, where there is no longer mention of sin, no calls to personal righteousness and upright moral character, but instead a steady diet of the cheap grace of the social gospel, embracing nebulous but nice-sounding nostrums of social justice, peace, love, and tolerance — while eschewing the individual moral transformation without which such broader social goods are impossible to attain. The end result of this enucleation of core principles and their replacement with the social cause du jour results in religion indistinguishable from its government sibling: Mother Church and Father Bureaucracy pander to the profligate while raging endlessly yet emptily against the growing social evils sprouting from the very self-centered individualism they foster and promote.

But liberal religion is not alone in its inner assault on the moral beacon of transcendent and traditional faith. Equally corrosive is the influence of materialism and prosperity — a corruption found far more commonly in conservative fundamentalist churches. While maintaining an important emphasis on personal morality and character development, such churches pander perilously to greed and the delusion that faith is primarily a means to personal and financial comfort. Rejecting centuries of emphasis on the deep spiritual value of sacrifice and suffering, ignoring ages of warning about the spiritual dangers of wealth, they turn God into a cosmic vending machine, delivering tasty snacks, nutritionally vacuous — if only the proper coinage is inserted into the divine slot. Suffering from an illness? Just have enough faith, and you will be healed! Financial problems? God will make you wealthy — if you give generously to our ministry. Church pews empty? Rock bands and rejection of hard moral teachings will have them flocking to your doors in no time, with ears eager for tickling. When the promised healing fails to take place; when the assured prosperity doesn’t materialize, or doesn’t satisfy; when greedy, bejeweled ministers rape the poor and fleece the gullible, the salutary influence of the church on its culture and citizens is greatly depreciated. And in the process, the self-centered individual waxes strong, wandering adrift with diminished moral compass and warm emotionalism, while the church’s moral authority wanes and withers through frivolity and fecklessness.

The third way which religion itself can foster an erosion of respect for moral values and traditions is — paradoxically — by its involvement in politics. Western democracies, with varying degrees of success, have managed to separate the office of government from the orbit of religion, achieving — more so in the United States than in other Western democracies — a degree of separation of church and state highly unusual from a historical perspective. In its ideal form, citizens are free to practice the faith of their choosing without undue government intervention or censure. Religion, for its part, may opine on political matters, and people of faith may participate freely in the political process, but religion may not directly dictate government decisions or process.

But the line between free political expression of religious values and the attempt to impose religious values and virtue through the power and authority of government can prove treacherously vague for some. Frustrated by what is (accurately) perceived as moral decay in the culture, and the seeming impotence of individuals or government to stem this adverse tide, some religious leaders and their followers pursue the paths of political pressure and the enactment of legislation which attempts to enforce morality from above.

Such efforts, while often well-intentioned, invariably prove counterproductive for several reasons. The secular, post-modern culture is driven by a philosophy of imposing its ideas through power. This takes many forms: from the coercive effects of false consensus (as seen in politically-correct multiculturalism or environmentalism); to the mouthpiece of media, largely sympathetic to its aims and broad in its reach to a culture heavily influenced by sound bites and flashy graphics, eschewing thoughtful, in-depth, balanced analysis; to a judicial system where judges, themselves guided by relativism and subjectivism, find in the “emanations and penumbras” of the law and the constitution novel interpretations which undermine broadly-accepted cultural morality, traditions, and ethics. But above all the postmodern mindset seeks the power of government itself: a blunt club to enforce the tyranny of ideas through law and coercive regulation.

When religion moves into this political arena, where ideas are enforced from the top down through power and rule of law, it plays directly into the hands of postmodern culture

When religion moves into this political arena, where ideas are enforced from the top down through power and rule of law, it plays directly into the hands of postmodern culture, undermining religion’s own moral authority by becoming, in the eyes of secular culture, just another power center, forcing its will and control on others. It sacrifices the power of transcendent ideas, spiritual renewal, and eternal principles to the temporal goal of seeking behavior change without personal moral transformation. What religion in its highest form offers — the radical personal change, transmitted virally from one soul to another, percolating through the culture one soul at a time from the bottom up — is sacrificed on the altar of seeking cultural change without personal conviction. Top-down morality doesn’t work — it cannot work — and attempts to reform the culture by changing laws without changing hearts destroys the very power which religion offers to heal an ailing society lost in the pursuit of happiness through hedonism.

The nature of religion, however, when not co-opted and corrupted by culture, is to stand fast with beliefs and convictions of an eternal and enduring nature. When it resists the influences of dissipated society, countering the selfishness and depravity endemic in a morally-adrift culture, the invariable response is a full-fledged counter-assault on its institutions and values.

The attack may come in many forms, the most common being open antagonism, ridicule, pseudo-intellectual dismissal, and claims of hypocrisy.

Open antagonism toward religion is increasingly common in contemporary Western society. It is often manifested with the projection of ill motives — character traits highly visible in religion’s most vocal detractors — onto those who espouse moral stances against cultural erosion and decay. The correction is ill-received; the resulting hatred is palpable, vicious, and unrelenting. To speak out about the dangers of moral turpitude from a religious standpoint is to be a “hater,” “intolerant,” “ignorant,” “Puritanical,” an “extremist.” The narcissistic culture is tolerant of everything — except being called to task by anyone espousing moral absolutes or the importance of societal restraint and traditional value systems and ethics.

Relentlessly, by every medium — TV, film, music, print media, marketing — the message is driven home: moral relativism; sexual license; the insignificance, dysfunctionality, and oppressiveness of marriage; the sexualization of children; the cynicism about and depreciation of authority, government, religion — the secular culture pounds home its message, day and night, an inescapable barrage which normalizes the perverse and erodes the common traditions which are fibers binding and protecting the social fabric.

Yet dare to question the morality of sacrificing the unborn on the altar of sexual license; or challenge the wisdom of replacing the institution of marriage with the vast social experiment of gay and polyamorous unions; or express caution about giving physicians the power to terminate the sick, you will receive the inevitable response:

“Stop shoving your values down our throats!”

Whose values? Whose throats?

To kill the prophet justifies the profligate, restoring the requisite self-righteousness required to quench the fading embers of a dying moral discernment.

When the culture and its constituents react so, with hyperbolic hysteria and foaming-mouth maliciousness, it is a sure indicator that the heart of darkness has been seared; that there remains — while vastly diminished — some thin wisp of conscience and moral consciousness in the midst of burgeoning barbarism. The extreme reaction serves but one purpose: to destroy the messenger. To kill the prophet justifies the profligate, restoring the requisite self-righteousness required to quench the fading embers of a dying moral discernment.

Ridicule of religion also serves to undermine its authority, and its chief promoters live in the arts and popular media. Rarely a week goes by without some “controversial” artist displaying their “edgy” work of “art” — creative genius the likes of a crucifix in urine, or dung on a Madonna, or a naked chocolate Jesus, or video games shooting homicidal Jesus Christs. That such displays of artistic incompetence stopped being controversial long ago is perhaps the culture’s greatest condemnation, evincing a joyless, vapid, vacuous society amused only by its own fecal fetishes, and shocked by nothing, nothing at all.

The bread and circus crowd finds endless amusement as well in depicting religious people and clergy in the most cynical light possible; in sit-coms and movies, standup and media, the religious play the fool: always uneducated, always hypocritical, always priggish, always bigoted, always self-righteous. Profanity replaces comic proficiency; such tired tirades lost their ability to shock and amuse long ago, leaving only a weary, joyless irony, a sad self-satisfying cynicism playing laugh tracks to drown out the dying moans of their empty souls.

The pseudo-intellectuals come next behind the shouters and the clowns, their furrowed brows creased with the burden of finding new “discoveries” which cast “serious doubt” on old dogmas. They receive as their just deserts some few minutes of fame, enshrined on the cover of Newsweek or expounding their tautological tactates in the pages of Time. They are treated with nodding reverence by all who share their unspoken biases, their conviction that the spiritual is specious, that faith is foolishness, that religion is ridiculous. And thus the culture marvels to discover, yet anew, that Jesus was married to Magdeline, that Judas was a just man, that the Church’s martyrs and crusaders died for a secret conspiracy, that bizarre ancient Gnostic texts hold the real truth which the religious hierarchy expunged to protect their power and privilege. That such libel defies logic, that many lights infinitely brighter than our current “scholars” have utterly shredded their threadbare theories and feeble facts, is lost on a culture too indifferent to care, too lazy to check, and too intellectually ill-equipped to refute.

Bringing up the rear in this insane clown posse are the hypocrisy-mongers. Theirs are the eyes of eagles, ever scanning the landscape for evidence of hypocrisy among the righteous. Of this there is no shortage, of course — especially among those who have traded the quiet strength of personal faith for the center stage of political activism or prosperity ministries. But true hypocrisy — the closet gay minister preaching hellfire for homosexuals; the televangelist preaching chastity by day while chasing whores by night; the embezzler who exhorts the flock to honesty and integrity — need not be present to merit the crooked finger of accusation from these vigilant guardians of secular integrity. For hypocrisy is in the eye of the monger. Straw men abound; the religious are “haters” when they point out that homosexual behavior poses grave risks to body, soul, and spirit — and how can they then speak of “love”? The religious are “judgmental” to say that all men are sinners — and hypocrites when they themselves sin. They are prudes when they reject sexual immorality — and hypocrites when a sex-saturated culture lures them to fail. They are hypocrites when they oppose feel-good social programs which bind their recipients in poverty, and failure, and broken families; hypocrites when they oppose womens’ “health” by opposing abortion; hypocrites when they “put teens at risk” by opposing condom distribution in schools. Those who charge such hypocrisy are themselves never guilty of it, of course; you cannot be a hypocrite when you have no principles to begin with.

There are those who wish for the end of all religion, finding in this passionate longing the hope of a world of peace, and harmony, and brotherhood. There are many more who work towards this goal, tirelessly, chiseling away at its foundations, hoping to crumble its ancient towers. They may yet succeed — at least insofar as a culture sterilized of all traces of religious influence and speech embodies such success. And they then will cast about in blind fury when crushed by the falling stones of the artifice they have worked so diligently to destroy.

The heart of darkness is bound by the chains of churches and the fetters of faith. Woe to those who break those shackles to unleash the savage monster which dwells within.