I have been listening to Reading Lolita in Tehran during my drives to Episcopal Divinity School. One of the author's observations about the veil got me thinking about the dangers of establishing an official religion and other less official entanglements of religion in a society. Azar Nafisi's grandmother had always worn the veil in public and had objected to an earlier regime's banning of it and objected to the Islamic Republic of Iran's making its wearing mandatory. For her it was an expression of her faith and not something that government should prohibit or require.
When religious expression or membership in religious organizations becomes mandatory or even socially expected, religious faith is at risk. Both de jure and de facto establishment of religion is dangerous. Even the current political squabbles about candidates' religious faith is dangerous, as it tends to make religious faith, or its semblance, a requirement for political office. I don't care whether a candidate's ethics are based on religious faith or on some other foundation. What I care about is whether or not a candidate has ethics with which I have substantial agreement and whether I agree with a candidate's policy positions. An atheist with whose ethics and policy positions I agree is for me a better candidate than a Christian with whom I have serious disagreements. My faith informs my politics, but it is a candidate's politics that matters to me.
We are living in a time when, with few unfortunate exceptions, most Americans are quite happy with the disestablishment of religion. While the US has never had an officially established religion, Christianity in its various expressions has been our de facto established religion. That is no longer the case and that is a very good thing for religious communities. Religious faith and practice is becoming counter-cultural and faith communities have increasing freedom to be faith communities and not simply defenders and supporters of the status quo. For Christians this means new freedom to be disciple communitites sharing in Christ's mission in and for the world. It means rejecting, as Luther did, an establishment theology of glory and embracing the theology of the Cross. Far from being nostalgic about the good old days when churches were full because going to church was what we did in America, we can rejoice in the freedom that comes with disestablishment and be about the business of being Church.