Yesterday was Valentine’s Day in America. Weeks in advance, the shops were filled with red and white cards, teddy bears, chocolates, flowers, and all manner of light-hearted, lacy ways to say I love you. The day was an opportunity and a reminder to pause and appreciate the special someone in your life. It was also a reminder to stop and pick up some massage oil on your way home…
Valentine’s Day is an inherently secular holiday. What it celebrates is not divine or platonic love, but earthly romance and passion. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her famous Sonnet 43, spoke of loving her husband with a love she “seemed to lose with her lost saints”. Her point was that the love she felt for him drowned out her commitment to her religion.
The passion between lovers has always threatened the sway of religion. Religion requires humility, obedience, and self-denial—not exactly the traits exhibited by individuals enflamed by romantic devotion to their lovers. Perhaps this is why religion has always tended to regard sexual passion as a sin rather than a value to be cherished.
Perhaps this is also why in Saudi Arabia yesterday, the color red was outlawed. The Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice symbolically forbade Saudi citizens to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
In Saudi Arabia, Valentine’s Day is a threat because it focuses people on the passions of the here and now, rather than the empty promises of a religious after-life. A man dreaming of his lover’s lips is unlikely to be motivated to submit to Allah.
In a free country, religion must silently take a back seat on Valentine’s Day. An American church or Mosque that forbade its followers from celebrating Valentine’s Day would be ignored by most. In America, those who regard Valentine’s Day as sinful can do nothing to stop the rest of us from enjoying our chocolate and our kisses.
(They can advocate their religious alternative, as these Christians do, but they cannot impose it.)
In a theocracy, however, the religious need not meekly take a back seat on February 14th. They can employ the gun of the government to eliminate the threat of sexual passion—by banning the color red, or executing unmarried lovers, or turning the blind eye to the clitoral circumcision of adolescent girls.
The Saudi government’s actions are yet another demonstration of the crucial importance of the separation of church and state.