Turn With Me Now to the Mind of a Great Philosopher as He Muses on the Issue of the Political Religion

What follows is a very long quote by the standards of length I intend for quotes in this space. My rules are violated in this instance because of my intense interest in the troubling issues produced by the increased commingling of church and state in America today.

The speaker is the philosopher George Santayana. The passage is from his essay, “The Ultimate Aim of Politics,” and appears in Physical Order and Moral Liberty: Previously Unpublished Essays (1969, Vanderbilt University Press):

“Religion, in a stable and harmonious civilization, must either cease to be political at all or else must catch the political inspiration of the house and drape it in some half traditional poetic vesture.

“I am afraid that the images in which nations traditionally Christian can clothe their inspiration will not soon be fresh or poetical.

“A deadly positivism and a gross vaniety possesses them; and people who have any taste or any spiritual sensitiveness will simply sit silent and shudder. This may help traditional Christianity to survive or even to revive as a private or mystical solace: the believer, when he enters a church or turns his thoughts to religion, will simply feel that he passes into another world, leads a separate parallel life, as if he were already half dead, and half risen again. Yet this would itself be an unstable and local state of things.

“Politics, like physics, is a compulsory pursuit. You cannot live or act without virtually making assumptions and taking sides in those matters. But spiritual religion is not compulsory. It visits a few souls in the beginning. It suggests hidden harmonies or invisible powers; and reverence for these imagined presences gradually establishes certain pauses and certain causes or ceremonies in performing daily actions.

“These habits, without the original visitations of the spirit, are imitated by the vulgar. They seem to presuppose complexities in nature and in morals which remain mysterious; and a vast net of superstitious practices and mythical notions may come to entangle the practice of life. When the incubus becomes unbearable, or too obviously absurd, scoffers will ridicule the whole thing, and bold men will defy pious opinion in their actions. Such rebellion is restringent; it tightens and dries up the soul that is compelled to reject and criticize and condemn everything beautiful. A long winter may intervene before the mind can awake again in its vernal innocence, exercise its originality without fear, and fashion its poetic world while keeping its foothold sure and free upon terra firma.

“Perhaps political religion has been a mistake biologically. Like an amphibious animal, it is reptilian, ugly, misbegotten. It had better divide into its two potentialities, and limit itself in each to a special function; then both halves of its soul may create perfect bodies and live happy lives. If politics and morals and hygiene understood their natural principle, they might take classical naked forms, humble in their perfection. And if religion understood its poetic and passionate essence, it might expand through the heavens and in the heart, without deceiving the natural man about his natural status or his political good.”

There endeth the reading this day.

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