It's a lot easier to talk about sex and money at a Washington dinner party than about religion and spiritual matters.
Religion popped into a discussion of Renaissance art at such a dinner party the other night in Washington. I remarked, innocently, I thought, that certain paintings such as Massacio's Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, Raphael's Madonna and Child and Michelangelo's sculpture of the Pieta, inspired a profound spiritual reflection.
Several guests more accustomed to talking politics than religion seemed shocked to be dining with such a zealot, and argued that many quatrocento artists who created gorgeous "religious" works merely used religious themes as vehicles for sensual color and line because that's where the money was - in churches and rich Papist patrons.
The subject was quickly changed to the safer one of presidential politics, but the next day I received a call from one of the guests, who wanted to continue the conversation on the topic of "spiritual reflection." She remarked, sadly, that many Americans with sophistication and education could only talk about religion in "intellectual" terms.
Pundits mocked George W. Bush when, during the 2000 campaign, he told an interviewer that Jesus Christ was the most influential philosopher in his life, though this was not so remarkable to anyone actually conversant with our nation's history.
Time magazine notes in its current cover story, "Faith, God and the Oval Office," that Thomas Jefferson said the same thing 200 years ago. Spirituality and adherence to certain religions (like "sophistication" and "education") can be faked by artists, politicians and the rest of us for all kinds of reasons, but public religious expression seems to make those without faith particularly uncomfortable.
As this election season unfolds, it behooves all of us to be particularly judicious and discriminating in the ways we interpret what a person says about his faith. Those who criticize George W.'s religious talk fear that his faith determines policy. But a person's faith (or lack of it) is inevitably a factor in making important decisions, personal and political.
Stem-cell research and abortion are issues that atheists as well as the faithful can question because profound and complex issues determine how we value life. Not even a saint has all the answers to every question.