“We need to stand together with people of faith.”

A former Canadian federal cabinet minister received a warm round of applause from the studio audience when he flourished this line during a national radio broadcast.

Others who heard him were not so sure. The idea of a moral consensus based on a common religious framework has a long history in a North America, one dominated by Christians who recited the Lord’s Prayer in public schools and insisted on Sunday closings to facilitate Christian worship.

At least since the middle of the last century, this consensus widened (in sympathetic reaction to anti-Semitism both home and abroad that was evident around the time of World War II) to include Jews. “Judeo-Christian” thus emerged in the 1940s as an adjective its users hoped would describe everyone—except die-hard atheists.

“People of faith” more recently took over as an even more general and inclusive phrase that means “people who see the world mostly as we do, at least in broad terms.” With the religiously motivated violence of 9/11 fresh on our minds, however, and in the shadow of religiously motivated persecution around the world, surely we have learned anew not to treat “faith” as ever and always a good thing.

Bad Religion

Sociologist David Martin (among many others) has demonstrated that religion is rarely the main cause of violence. Land, wealth, security, prestige, and vengeance are the perennial motives for war. Yet religion has frequently been deployed as a validation, fuel, and rewarder of violence on the grand scale.

As any friendly neighborhood atheist also will gladly tell you, religion has been used to legitimize sexual abuse, justify financial scams, and bless the oppression of entire classes of people—women, ethnic and sexual minorities, slaves, children, and more.

The Bible has some fierce things to say about alternative religions when they militate against the will, and the people, of God. One might fairly conclude, in fact, that the primary lesson of the entire Old Testament, learned by the people of God only after suffering centuries of oppression, famine, and finally exile, is that “religion” is a bad thing unless it centers on the one, true God. Mere “faith” of any sort cannot possibly be the sole ground for cultural cooperation.

We of Little Faith

The great historian of American Christianity Martin E. Marty has often pointed out that unlike so many other countries, America has not suffered “shooting wars” over religion. He suggests that this enviable record is due in part to the fact that in a complex democracy, alliances shift as the debates change. Yesterday’s idolatrous papist, for instance, becomes today’s Roman Catholic co-belligerent standing with evangelicals against abortion or same-sex marriage. Likewise, yesterday’s appalling secularist becomes today’s ally standing with Christians against the legalization of polygamy or the institution of religious courts among ethnic enclaves, whether Orthodox Jewish tribunals in New York or Shari‘ah courts in London.

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Consider that most of the atheists and agnostics in North America are what I call “Christian atheists and agnostics,” shaped by the values of a culture deeply rooted in Christianity.

We can be glad for the many respects in which our values overlap with theirs. Poll after poll shows a general moral consensus about, for example, the illegitimacy and immorality of plural marriage, extra-marital sex, and child marriage, or about freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the rest of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights (or Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

“Faith” is descriptive of something much more intentional and specific than “organized religion” or even for “belief in God.” The Theravada form of Buddhism, still the dominant version of that religion in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, does not venerate a deity. The Chinese traditions of Confucianism and Daoism do not, either. Many forms of belief in the supernatural do not require faith so much as knowledge of the divine and of the correct practices to align oneself with it in order to best negotiate the world. None of these hugely popular modes of life involve faith—that is, trust in Someone (Allah, Krishna, Amida Buddha, Jesus) as Lord and Savior.

Polls show that there are precious few outright, self-identified atheists/secularists/naturalists in North America. Yes, increasing numbers of people check the “none” box when it comes to religious affiliation, but most of those people retain largely Christian values and even belief in God, albeit on their own terms and with generally low levels of traditional Christian practices.

In a kind of ironic mirroring, many self-identified Christians don’t practice the faith much, either: low church attendance, Bible reading, and praying are the norm, not the exception. So much, then, for their identification as “people of faith” in anything like a traditional Christian understanding of the term.

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The cry to rally together with “people of faith” must first be questioned and investigated: What’s the issue? Who is actually on our side on this one? We’re not in favor of “religion-in-general” anyhow, so let’s take some time to consider how the lines are falling in this case.

After all, today’s enemy just might be tomorrow’s ally.

John Stackhouse holds the Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. His most recent book is Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism(IVP).

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