The Spine

The Religion Of Secularism

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Boston has always been a city of religion. Or of religions. It began with the Puritans or, to be more precise, with the Puritan ultras, the Plymouth Brethren. But since it was a part of the king's venture into the new world it also had a deep strain of Anglicanism. And then of other Protestantisms, like the Congregationalists. Roman Catholicism followed and, with the immigrations from Ireland and Italy, exploded. Then, of course, the Jews.

Unitarianism had its home in Boston. The Unitarians, it was said, believed in their own trinity. The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighborhood of Boston. Years ago, I attended a funeral at the First Unitarian Church in Cambridge. The minister was commending the soul of the deceased to...well, whom? He said, "And if perchance there is an afterlife..."

When I was at college I had my radio-alarm clock set for the station on which the Kennedy family priest would recite the "Hail Mary..." every morning at the appointed hour that I wished to wake. Of course, the priest was Bernard Cardinal Cushing. I meant no disrespect for Cushing or his faith by this little behavioral curiosity of mine. The real reason my wake-up "call" was set to him is that he had a very gravelly voice through which it was literally impossible to sleep.

Around the same time, there was a recalcitrant priest, Father Leonard Feeney, who led a weekly procession of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary from his little cloister across from Adams House at Harvard down the Charles to the Boston Commons. There on each Sunday morning he would inveigh against the Jews. No, not because they had done wrong to the Palestinians. But because of the Jewish plot, encapsulated in the Salk and Sabin vaccines against polio, to "kill good Catholic children." Cushing finally had Feeney excommunicated, but he survived with his fanatics for a few years until his little posse collapsed of its own madness. And his hostel became the Cafe Pamplona.

Now, of course, Greater Boston has become a center for "the religion of secularism." That's the phrase that Mitt Romney put into the campaign today as a hostile characterization of that faith that knows no faith...and often derides the faith of others. Michelle Cottle has posted a Plank taking him to task -- in a very gentle way -- for doing this. But, in Boston (where for decades as a reputable citizen and then as governor Romney has practiced his religion with barely anyone noticing) and elsewhere around the country, the name of God seems to give a lot of people the creeps.

Without some wrestling with the angel, lives tend to get spiritually desiccated. When religion was seen as an enemy of the intelligent and the intellectual the culture itself lost some of its richness and complexity. Yes, religions themselves took on a more hostile character and so now we have two hostile camps facing each other.

I do not like Romney. I did not vote for him in Massachusetts. And, since I'm a Democrat, I will not have even the opportunity to vote against him (at least in the primary). But I hope that his speech will explain to fervid religious people who disdain Mormonism and to fervid secularists that faith is no impediment to service.

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