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No room for signs and symbols here

21 December 2012

In the US, public religious displays are regarded with suspicion, says Harriet Baber

MY CHURCH choir once did an elaborate choral evensong, followed by a reception, and invited the neighbours. We thought all had gone well, until, a few days later, we got an irate letter from a woman who lived across the street from the church. She had come, she said, to what our flyers suggested would be an innocuous secular concert - a performance of evening songs -but was furious to discover that she had been lured into a "full-blown church service".

Her irritation was understandable. In the United States, Evangelical churches regularly advertise concerts that turn out to be evangelistic programmes, where "pastors" and choral ensembles, maintaining ecstatic glazed expressions, croon into microphones to the accompaniment of gooey Christian rock. And then there are the testimonies.

It is a semi-soft-sell - like those invitations to tour resorts that turn out to be promotions for time-share properties. If you get bamboozled into one, you soon realise that the programme is a hook to make you sit through the sales pitch.

The idea that religious symbols, practices, or ceremonies, such as evensong, might be cultural goods that everyone can enjoy, regardless of their theological convictions, rather than promotions of religious belief, is alien in the US. Cultured despisers, in particular, regard every public display of religiosity as a sales pitch: an attempt to "force religion down people's throats", or, even worse, to mark territory - to stick it to non-Christians that they are on sufferance in a Christian country. So, crusading secularists complain that religious displays in schools, parks, or other publicly owned properties are exclusionary, and violate a constitutionally mandated separation of Church and State. And everyone sues.

This holiday season, the epicentre of litigation is Santa Monica, a California town that, for the past 60 years, has hosted a display of Christmas dioramas at its seaside park. Last year, atheists managed to win 11 out of the 14 available slots in the city's auction, and erected displays ridiculing religious belief, including a large banner, sponsored by the organisation American Atheists, which featured pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus, and a leering devil in coat and tie, announcing that "37 million Americans know myths when they see them." The displays were vandalised; so this year the city cancelled the programme in order to avoid a repeat. A Christian group has sued.

There is no room in the US for the enjoyment of outward and visible forms of religiosity for their own sake rather than as means to some ulterior end: peace of mind, personal effectiveness, or good behaviour. Evangelicals want religious symbols in public space to promote their moral values; secularists, who want no part of their moral agenda, insist that religion be confined to the private sphere - ultimately, to the head, as disembodied "spirituality".

But bare spirituality is a dull, meagre thing. It misses out art, music and architecture, ritual, poetry, and all the material expressions of spirituality that make religion fun, and that believers and atheists alike can enjoy. Christianity, in particular, needs incarnation. To survive, it must be embodied in material things and public ceremonies: in church buildings and their furnishings, choral evensong, and nativity scenes in parks.

Our Puritan forebears and their Evangelical successors have destroyed religion: first, by suppressing the material symbols and public ceremonies of folk religion, and now by poisoning what they could not suppress by linking every religious display to their moral agenda.

This is the way that religion ends - shrunk into a moral programme, and sloughed off.

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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