The Ceremony of Innocence

The title is a line from a 1920 poem by W. B. Yeats. I’ve often quoted it before and applied its post WW1 angst to our day. But this phrase jumped out at me as I was listening to the news. The line, in full, goes like this: “And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Today’s news in a nutshell!

I don’t remember World War I—way before my time (or my father’s, for that matter)—but I’ve read about it. And it seems plausible, as many have posited, that the modern cynicisms about religion can be dated from that first time the modern world was turned upside down.

But curiously, the Holocaust aside, World War II did not evoke the same spiritual world weariness—in fact, the end of the war was the beginning of a great period of optimism. And for the United States this post-World War II surge was also a time of resurgent religiosity. With the rise of godless Communism, the United States answered with unparalleled declarations of religiosity. Ten Commandment monuments sprang up all over the country. “Under God” was on every child’s lips. Popular preachers trumpeted our moral superiority and goodness.

It’s a dynamic worth remembering, as a backdrop to the Red Scare of the early 1950s—which I sort of remember in a childish, Tom Sawyer way—and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the antics of Senator Joe McCarthy and his legal sidekick Roy Cohn. They orchestrated a purge of many public figures who were accused of being Communists or moral degenerates (there was, after all, the Red Scare and the Lavender Scare). To be Communist was to be godless and un-American and likely grossly immoral. Lately the Supreme Court has dodged the often stone memorials of that time as “ceremonial deism” or religion drained by time and neglect of any real hazard to a separation of church and state. But they ignore context and the raw Jacobinism of the times.

Times that have not quite left us, and are circling back “in the widening gyre,” as Yeats put it symbolically. More literally for our times, he remarked that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Indeed, all too many cherished norms are going, going, gone. We pray that the fail-safes of our experiment will work even as the scythe cuts down old growth norms. And as before, a sort of religious motivator is at work.

Today religious leaders who should be conscience points and moral guides have embraced the logic of the 1950s in supporting, ironically, the most un-American religious activities and the most contradictory methods. One wonders what stone monuments will be put down this time around!

Political slogans do move minds, even though they may at times seem caricatures. And “Make America Great Again” worked just fine, even if some wags wonder when it ceased being great. More important: that the slogan itself is what it really means to those who crafted what is a perfectly fine aspirational slogan. So far as religion: Is greatness found in a time when church and state became dangerously conflated? Is it found again in loyalty tests based on some sort of religio-political affiliation? Is it found in a religion that plays identity politics, but is unconcerned with the inner man and the higher values that were so bruised globally after World War I?

The twenty-first century was bound to be a confusing maelstrom for the mass of humanity. Why did we expect the United States to be exempt? I often read world histories that are titled “The Age of Revolution.” The United States and much of modern Europe emerged from that era. But it is to misunderstand the present to think the revolutionary dynamic has dissipated. If anything, the forces are at cork-popping intensity.

The recent few decades of computerization have shaken up normality far more than the Industrial Revolution, which produced the modern era. The social media dynamic exists alongside credit cards, iris scanners, planes that fly halfway across the world and can land automatically, smart weapons, drones, GPS (maps, anyone?) smartphones, and CGI—and hackers!

A global economy and interconnectedness vie with a latent protectionism. Perhaps the financial house of cards will collapse into a black hole of—a new world order or a new world war!

Demographic forces seem unstoppable by edict or walls. In prehistory, tribal movement made the various European peoples. We are living in a time of demographic transformation, with all its attendant tension.

“The old order changeth,” spoke Tennyson’s King Arthur in what might be a commentary for our times. The old -isms have either gone or lost their vigor. Strong men and movements appear on the stage in the most unexpected places.

And there remaineth religion: arguably the most powerful marker of human identity and itself an engine of action. Will we allow it to be the subtext for a new loyalty test? Will we allow religion, stripped of its ceremonies of innocence--the life lived according to inner values--to become the handmaid to a brave new world?

Religious faith has been the subtext to the best of what has happened in the United States. The First Great Awakening gave a moral sense and unifying sense of cause to the American Revolution. Under the protection of the First Amendment, religion flourished in the new republic—a religion more personal and dynamic than that of the Old World. The religious sensibilities of the United States had much to do with its readiness to help other peoples and nations when no one else could.

But we are at the crossroads of faith initiative. Jesus Christ in a darker moment wondered whether He would find faith in the world when He returned. Religion, like the poor, will always be with us. But will true faith—a true religion that heals the inner person and distrusts the siren call of political power—survive as an active part of the American experience? Stay tuned!

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."