The curious question is, why would we even be tempted to think that money and material goods are everything? Particularly at Christmastime, we wonder how we get so caught up in it all.
Here is a part of the answer: we don't allow ourselves to speak in public about the things that really do satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Who are we? Why are we here and where are we going? What do we stand for? What won't we stand for? These are fundamentally religious and theological questions. The Western world has developed a reticence about discussing these topics since the Reformation.
One theological principle of the Reformation was that “every man is his own interpreter of scripture,” or “every man is his own pope.” This idea was crucial to many of the more anti-hierarchiacal forms of Protestantism. But today, we are living with one of its cultural corollaries: namely, you can't argue with anybody's interpretation of Scripture, and by extension, anybody's interpretation of what is moral. Anyone who thinks he has an inside line on the Truth with a capital T, is accused of trying to reopen the Thirty Years War.
This idea, of course, does not follow logically from the theological proposition that every person is entitled to interpret Scripture for himself. Nothing in the idea of individual interpretation says that every interpretation is equally correct. Nor does it preclude a vigorous debate about competing interpretations of Scripture and ideas about morality. In fact, many of the great thinkers of the post-Reformation, modern world argued that open debate about ideas would improve everyone's understanding of religious truth.
However, this is the position to which we have evolved in modern America. We aren't allowed to say out loud that God has anything to do with the moral law. It is considered bad manners, and a sign of arrogance to even make this suggestion. In parts of the country, it is even considered poor taste to wish someone a Merry Christmas. We are supposed to say, “Happy Holiday,” as if we had no idea what that holiday might be.
This leaves us with nothing to say about the questions that matter most. We aren't allowed to say that going to heaven or doing God's will is our purpose in life, since not everyone agrees with that. People have talked themselves into believing that even bringing up the subject is to take the first step toward a Crusade to force people to want to go to heaven. So, we are only allowed to talk about the lowest common denominator of human purposes: the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Surely everyone can agree on these things at least. We all want to be more comfortable, live longer, and endure less suffering. Of course, some religious traditions place limits on those goals. There are higher reasons for which one would be willing to sacrifice one's life, health, and comfort. But, being religious reasons, we don't talk about those in public either.
So what is left? Only the material. Most Americans are quite religious. But because we don't have permission to talk about it in public, we end up talking only about money and comfort in public. Since we aren't allowed to “keep Christ in Christmas,” all we have left is an extended binge of spending and eating.
I believe that this is part of the West's Public Relations problem. Other people see only what we talk about in public, which is money and comfort. This is the sort of thing that makes the Muslim world think we are the great Satan. I also think it is part of Capitalism's Public Relations problem. Capitalism doesn't present itself as a substitute religion, claiming that material comfort will provide purpose and meaning to one's life. But with religion pushed out of the public square, commerce fills in the blanks. This may be why so many children of well-to-do, but not particularly religious parents, deride American society as nothing but shallow bourgeois.
Who are we? Why are we here and where are we going? What do we stand for? What won't we stand for? These questions do not simply disappear, even if everyone supports a tacit agreement that it is bad manners to talk about them in public. The American Religion of Perpetual Progress can not adequately answer these questions. We would be better off if we could get over our fear of religion. Then we could allow religion to do what religion does, namely, help people to face life's biggest questions.
So go ahead and enjoy this Christmas season without apology. Send religious Christmas cards instead of generic “Holiday greetings.” Wish your friends a Merry Christmas. And display your own nativity set proudly on your own property.
God bless us every one.
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Markets & Morality.
(This article originally appeared in the December 18, 2002, issue of the Tothesource. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, www.acton.org, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 —.)