The Difference Between Holy and Nice: The Religious Counterculture

There could be no more scathing indictment of a religious institution than the one I heard recently from the mouth of a fourteen-year-old named Jasleen:

When I was little, my family used to belong to a Seventh-Day Adventist church. I always looked forward to Saturdays when everybody was together all day, eating together, hanging out, calling each other “hey, brother,” “hey, sister.” When people talked to you, it felt like it was real, like, religious love. But here at this church, it’s different. Here when they talk to you, it feels like they’re being polite.

Most religious communities succeed in feeling “nice” or polite. A harder task is tapping into the radical inclusivity and transformative love at the heart of “Beloved Community.” Credit: Jay Hariani

Polite. What could possibly be more antithetical to the heart of religion than the cool reserve of social propriety implied by that word? Politeness and its close cousin “appropriateness” more aptly describe the selection of the right fork for the salad course than anything religious. This girl was talking about a Unitarian Universalist congregation, but she could have been talking about any one of thousands of liberal religious communities. We’ve all seen it—the chilly, respectful friendliness; the ginger embrace that somehow reminds us of our separateness; the newcomers ignored at an Oneg Shabbat or coffee hour. We try to solve the problem through deputizing official badge-wearing “welcomers” or offering trainings in “hospitality” and, while some progress is sometimes made, the congregation is rarely transformed by these ex post facto measures into a community as religiously loving as the one described by Jasleen.

Worshipping at the Altar of Freedom

The problem of politeness opens a window onto one of the larger contradictions in liberal and progressive thought. We want community to be available to us—warm, nurturing, unconditionally embracing community—but we also fiercely defend our personal right not to join in. We want spiritual depth but we want to cherry-pick from our religious traditions and evaluate each community practice and article of faith on its own merits. We insist that we choose our communities and retain the right to leave at any time.

This is a legacy of the Enlightenment and of seventeenth-century thinkers like John Locke and Rene Descartes who valorized individual liberty. They asserted the primacy of the individual as a rational, choosing actor who exists complete unto himself (masculine pronoun intended) and enters into voluntary contracts with the larger society. Culture and tradition became subject to independent evaluation by the individual. The rights of the individual vis-à-vis the community became of greater concern than his obligations to that community. Clearly this was and is a necessary corrective to the institutional violence of oppressive religious traditions and social structures. We can trace a happy evolution from this thinking to the feminist and civil rights movements 300 years later.

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