The Private Passion

Posted: Mar 29, 2004 12:00 AM

The founding fathers had very definite views about keeping a proper distance between government and religion. Thomas Jefferson worried that if our leaders could punish sin, the law could become a straightjacket to individual liberties. Conversely, John Adams worried about the corrupting influence government might have on religious practice.

Both were right. Religious practice is one of the most personal and profound decisions an individual can make. If our right to liberty means anything, it means a freedom to practice religion free of government interference. This ethic has been ingrained into our culture.

Ironically, in the struggle to preserve a private sphere for religious practice and to shield members of the public from being inculcated with others religious beliefs, we've relegated religious worship to the private sphere. Recent case law is replete with examples of how our courts have pared back protections for religious customs. Just this month, the California Supreme Court ruled that Catholic Charities in California had to provide their employees with medical coverage for birth control. The church is opposed to contraception you say? It doesn't matter. The dockets are littered with countless examples of how the courts retreat from weighing the relative virtues of church and state issues.

Such is the state of things, over two centuries after the founding fathers penned the first amendment. We've reached a point where those practices essential to our worship no longer merit legal protection, and in fact are largely marginalized. The results are plain to see: our decadent, humanistic, culture lacks any immutable moral foundation. We are carried by our whims, neither toward nor away from anything, finding enjoyment in transient moments of vanity and decadence.

But then something happened on the way to the fall. Mel Gibson actually had the audacity to produce a blood-soaked movie about the last day of Christ, as related by the Gospels of the New Testament, then stick it on a blaring billboard in your home town.  And members of the public actually have the audacity to see it.

I spent the last two weeks in Israel and was surprised to learn that some locals are boycotting the Passion. Some worried that it might cause anti-Semites to feel justified in their beliefs. Such sensitivity is understandable in a country that is being pounded at home with an infatata, and alienated abroad with anti-Semitic vitriol.

Other protestors were less sensible in their opposition to the film. In an article in the Jerusalem Report, David Horovitz decried the film for "oozing anti-Semitism . . . from almost every frame into open?." He then offered an impassioned defense against religious bigotry, which concludes with him trashing Christianity as something akin to a death instinct. "For the devout Christian, to be human is to be evil," snarled Horovitz. "On this anti-man approach, to remain alive is to sin. To fully purge oneself, one must die. Only such an account of man can begin to explain the charge of collective guilt for the death of Christ, whose undeserved suffering at man's vicious hands is, somehow, supposed to help alleviate our innately 'sinful' nature."

In other words, Horovitz is railing on Christianity for placing God-as opposed to man-at the center of the universe. The "death" Horovitz alludes to is the purging of one's mean personal vanity, so that he may do good in return. This is the pattern embraced by all religious leaders. They must first remove themselves from society, before finding reconciliation through faith and acts of love. This is not death, it is redemption.

It would be nice if our most vigorous defenders against anti-Semitism could talk about the beautiful possibilities of faith. Instead, they seem incapable of doing more than labeling and dismissing all public displays of religion. Folks, this is not religious liberty, it is prejudice (precisely the sort of prejudice that people like Mr. Horovitz claim to be fighting against).

For those who have not been conditioned from a young age to quiver at public displays of religion, there are other possibilities. I sobbed silently in the theater while watching the Passion. I left the theatre with the realization and reminder that Jesus suffered and died for us, for you and me. He willingly accepted his crucifixion because it was the will of his Father - our Lord. And as I left, tears streaming down my face, I realized I was not alone. Hundreds of other people weeping, clapping, praying, and stumbling out of the theatre with similar thoughts: How can I thank God for giving us his Son? How can I live a better life? How can I give more of myself, reach out to more people, and help rid the world of hatred and bigotry? How can I live more like the man who died for me?

This is the point of the movie; a point that is sorely missed in a society where public displays of worship are marginalized and religious faith is twisted inward.