the political advantages of organized religion

A piece of mine entitled “If Millennials Leave Religion, then What?” was published by the Religion News Service and picked up by the Washington Post yesterday. In it, I acknowledge the drawbacks of religion (viewed from a secular, political perspective), but I also catalog its advantages and argue that we don’t yet have a secular alternative that fills the traditional civic and political functions of churches and other religious congregations.

The piece had to be cut for length, which is fine (and I was able to select the cuts). But here, I would like to share one section that was deleted for length. In the published version, I alluded to the “depth” of religion. This is what I meant:

Mark Warren’s wonderful book about faith-based organizing, Dry Bones Rattling, begins with a vignette of Father Al Jost reading from the Book of Ezekiel to a group of Latina parishioners from poor neighborhoods in San Antonio. He chooses the version by African-American songwriter James Weldon Johnson: “Ezekiel connected dem dry bones.” Those lyrics derive from the Shakespearean poetry of the King James Version: “Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” Father Jost’s listeners might hear those resonances, or some might recall the Spanish (“¡Huesos secos!”) or the Latin of the Church in which they were raised.

In any case, the effects are palpable. The women are nervous before Father Jost speaks, but they respond “with a resounding ‘Amen’ and [stride] onto the stage to the sounds of a mariachi band … exuding confidence and collective determination.”

I propose that the original quality and the long history of Ezekiel’s poetry explain its political power. Secular equivalents must match this depth of resonance.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.