The film “Belfast” shows us the beginning of what became known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but the story doesn’t just say something about the past or a particular place. It says something profound about our current political order’s reality, namely that religion is always considered a problem.
Why Secular Liberalism Can’t Stand Real Religion
Jamie Dornan plays the father of protagonist Buddy, a 10-year-old Protestant boy with a crush on a Catholic girl in 1969. In one scene where Dornan and his wife (played by Caitriona Balfe) are skipping church to figure out what they’re going to do with their family amidst all the chaos erupting in Belfast, his son asks why there’s so much violence in their town and on their street. He answers: “Because of religion.” Religion is the problem. But it’s also the solution.
Buddy then asks his father, “Then why are you sending us to church?” His father replies, “Because your grandmother would kill me if I didn’t.”
Therein lies the crux of it all. Only a sentimental spirituality, that is good because your grandmother says it is, remains non-threatening to a political order and other religions. But a real faith that makes real demands is threatening, and that’s partially why The Troubles existed.
Dornan’s character represents the emergence of modernity, secularism itself, that sees politically religious zealots as the problem. To a modernist, religion may be a fine thing but should never be the highest thing. The highest ideal or “virtue” to the modernist is tolerance – kindness, fairness, respect. It’s a world where being Catholic and being Protestant (or Hindu or Muslim) are essentially the same thing.
Jointly, secular liberalism and individualism water down religion and make it a private faith that makes no public demands and does not govern the foundation of society. A community or country’s common good is not after an actual “good” at all, for there is no aim, but just a shared physical existence, not a spiritual reality.
‘Belfast’ Captures Community, Just Not A Unified One
The common life portrayed in “Belfast” is still quite beautiful and shows how communal society used to be. The street life — the community of working-class families in row homes (with toilets in the backyard and couches dragged to the front stoop) — leaves you nostalgic for a simpler, more connected time where in-person play was standard and there were few technological distractions to human interaction.
Belfast reminds one of “Cheers,” a place where a kid could grow up and everyone knew his name and looked out for him. In part, his neighborhood was an extension of his family.
The film also captures the special inter-generational relationship between a grandfather and his grandson. Buddy’s grandpa is the sage old male character in the film constantly offering his advice on love to the young lad with the best lines:
“The way to handle a woman is to love her.”
“People think when you’re gray your heart doesn’t skip.”
“Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”
Despite the film’s black and white nostalgia, young Buddy’s earnest desire to be good, and the natural chemistry between Dornan and Balfe, I couldn’t shake the subliminal messaging and the obvious realization that individualism goes against human nature.
Without Religion, We Will Never Agree on Reality
Despite the coexistence of Catholics and Protestants in “Belfast,” there remained a misunderstanding, a spirit of tribalism, and a lack of social cohesion. Buddy’s parents had major misconceptions about Catholicism. These showed that even in a pluralistic society, there will always be ideological sects and a lack of total unity because human nature is drawn to community. And authentic community can only really exist with a shared mutual end or aim.
One obvious issue that arises between different groups of people with different confessional beliefs is a disagreement upon objective reality. There is no agreed-upon objective authority by which to measure sin and moral law, which means that moral questions devolve into relativism and never get answered, and the illusion of neutrality becomes the social norm. And the tragedy of neutrality is that saying there are no absolutes becomes an absolute, an absolute nihilism.
Cardinal Manning once said that “all human conflict is ultimately theological.” Religion is always the problem, but it’s also the solution to our polity’s problems. Yet instead of having the real debate on theology, our society has a million little debates on the issues that stem forth from theology. I think we’re just all a little too “tolerant” to address the real one.