Friday, April 18, 2008

Flag pin campaigning and countering Christianist politics

It's at least a sign of progress that so many Democrats are now articulating their outrage at some of the real failings of the national news media. The Reps have made it a basic part of their understanding of the world, it seems, that the national media is part of a gigantic Liberal Press Conspiracy. The fact that no living, breathing liberal thinks that anything remotely like that is the case doesn't dissuade them a bit, it seems.

Two veteran observers of press dysfunction weighed in today on the sad state of our press corps as illustrated by ABC's debate on Wednesday, Bob Somerby in his Daily Howler post of 04/18/08 and Joe Conason in Obama, get ready for the "Clinton rules" Salon 04/18/08. Both observe, among other things, that the Great American Maverick McCain rarely wears an American flag lapel pin himself. Why our press lords (following the GOP lead) consider that failing a sign of insufficient patriotism from Barack Obama but think it's - what? - a sign of maverickness on the Straight Talker's part, it's a bit difficult to see.

Tankwoman pointed out this essay by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the left-leaning Jewish magazine Tikkun. Obama's Error--and What It Would Really Take to Rectify It 04/16/08. Lerner discusses some related considerations in The Obama Phenemenon Tikkun Mar-Apr 2008. The main point Lerner makes in "Obama's Error", the "error" being his now-famous "bitter" comment, is that the need for and function of religion in the lives of many people involves an affirmation of very real, important human needs for community and for consistency between the lives we live and the values we hold.

In discussing his research and that of others at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health, he writes:

... we found that it was not only material, but spiritual deprivation that was at the heart of much of the pain that Americans experience today. That's why even at the height of American prosperity in the Clinton years, a powerful resurgence of right-wing religious forms was providing an avenue of expression for people whose needs were being ignored by the liberals in the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party, and even in parts of the liberal churches.

Similarly, the revival of a religious Left has not gotten much traction to the extent that it adopts the liberal political and economic agenda and makes it "religious" by finding some useful Bible quotes to back up the peace and justice planks of the Democrats. Valuable as that may be, it too misses the deeper pain that has led people to embrace right-wing religions.

What we discovered in groups that we ran for over ten thousand middle income working people is that most people spend their days in a work world governed by the "bottom line" that judges institutions and social practices to be efficient, rational or productive to the extent that they maximize money and power. Day after day, people breathe in the message that to be rational in this society is to "look out for number one" and treat other people instrumentally - that is, as valuable to the extent that they help us achieve our own goals and desires. People learn how to treat each other as means to our own ends.

We were struck, however, by how bitter many people feel about this way of life. Over and over again, middle income working people told us that they felt they were wasting their lives because their economic survival required them to do work that in no way connected to their hunger for a higher meaning to their lives, what Rev. Rick Warren correctly described as a desire for a purpose-driven life.

Moreover, as people bring into their personal lives the values of "looking for number one" and believing that getting their own needs met is the highest possible good, they find that their families and friendships become increasingly unstable, as more and more people switch from one relationship or marriage to another, imagining that the next one might satisfy yet more of their needs. No wonder people feel lonely, afraid, and deeply troubled by a society in which the narcissism is bred not by some peculiarities of one generation or another, but by the fundamental notions of rationality that predominate in all of the major economic and social institutions. (my emphasis)
In terms of its theological meaning, religion involves a relationship between people and God, a supernatural deity that exists outside our normal, day-to-day material reality. (I'll specify here I'm talking about Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the group that theologians sometimes call the "transcendence series" because of their conception of the relation of God to our material reality.)

But few of us see visions like Saul of Tarsus experienced on the road to Damascus. The Archangel Gabriel may have revealed the Qu'ran directly to the Prophet Muhammad, but most of us have to rely on other, less celestial intermediaries. Not many of us get to quarrel in person with God on a regular basis the way Moses did.

And the kinds of experiences Lerner talks about in that article are all part of the ways people connect to religion. Churches and religious groups are social organizations. People are social animals and that is one avenue in which many people realize that need. Religious ceremonies like church services and prayer give people a chance to step back from the noise of daily life and reflect their situations in terms of where they want to go and what they really value in life.

None of these experiences exclude the more mystical aspects of religion. The fact that someone can use prayer as a time to reflect on their lives doesn't exclude their experiencing it as a special communication with God, and vice versa.

Now, we all have our ways of framing these things for ourselves. I'm a big fan of the ecumenical Swiss theologian Hans Küng and the German psychoanalyst theologian Eugen Drewermann. And I have a lot of sympathy for the notion expressed by that old Deist Thomas Jefferson to his nephew that he should question even the existence of God because if God does exist, He surely respects honest disbelief more than unthinking faith.

Küng encourages Christian thinkers to engage with the work of thoughtful atheists, like Frederick Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud. Few believers have as much respect for and understanding of religion as the atheist, philosophically materialist Freud did. I know a French theologian who researched Freud's childhood family Bible, which was a full Christian Bible (Old and New Testament) with Jewish commentary throughout. This was a book Freud had studied carefully, and this researcher discovered that a lot of Freud's understanding of psychological symbolism was stimulated by this particular Jewish edition of the Christian Bible.

Drewermann tells a story about a British group that scheduled an event in St. Andrew's Cathedral in London to commemorate Freud on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1954. (Freud died in England in 1940.) Some critics objected to the notion of putting a church at the service of honoring a man who was a convinced atheist. The group responded with a statement that they were quite sure that Dr. Freud was no longer an atheist.

How does this rambling relate to Lerner's article? Lerner makes a big deal about what he calls the "the anti-religious culture of the Left". In fact, his useful observations about the appeal of religion are made within an argumentative framework that basically accepts the Republican accusation that liberals are anti-religious. It's a common pitch from some prominent figures associated with the "religious left", including Lerner, Jim Wallis, and Amy Sullivan.

It's perhaps a measure of the problem of that argument that up until a week or so ago, I would have included Barack Obama in that list. Because one of the things that has worried me about him as a candidate is that he was way too willing to play the Republican game of scolding the Democrats for not reaching out to "people of faith", as our current odd phrase for "religious people" has it. Now Obama is being lectured in much the same way he previously lectured those unnamed Democrats who he said were insufficiently appreciative of "people of faith".

My basic response to this notion that Democrats are anti-religion is, since when? Who are these nasty Dems who sneer at religious people? Some of the most prominent liberal Dems of the last 30 years have some kind of notably religious background. Gary Hart studied theology in college. George McGovern had been a Methodist minister. Jerry Brown was a Jesuit novitiate (meaning he lived in a monastery) for four years, and after he was Governor he did a stint working with Mother Theresa in India and studying Zen Buddhism in Japan. And has anyone ever heard of a labor union that was hostile to religion or sneered at religious people? Maybe there is one, but I couldn't tell you what it is.

That's one of those issues where I sometimes wonder if I haven't crossed over into some alternative universe. Because in the one that I remember living in all my life, the Democrats have not been anti-religion or contemptuous of religious people.

Are non-believers more likely to vote Democratic? The polls tell us that this is so. But are non-believers anti-religious? If we look at it as in a "those who aren't for us are against us" way, yes, they're anti-religious by definition. My own experience tends to be that non-believers don't much care what others believe about the supernatural as long as they don't hurt anybody in pursuit of those beliefs.

I try to keep in mind a few key things in this particular discussion. One is that religion is good for some people, and it's bad for others. Some people find religious faith helps them affirm positive things in life. Others find religious faith out of desperation. Some embrace forms of religious practice that provide them an authoritarian psychological structure in which to operate. Chris Hedges in his very unfortunately titled, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America (2007), provides some excellent case studies of people who embrace fundamentalist religion out of fear or desperation. The title is unfortunate, because it is likely to make many people brush it off as an "anti-religious" tract, which it is not. I would expect to see his case studies of individuals cited in future studies of Christian fundamentalism.

Another thing is that freedom of religion, including separation of church and state, is an essential element of democracy. This is an area in which the fundis may well come to wish that they had been more careful in what they prayed for. They haven't achieved a merger of church and government quite yet, but they have achieved the merger of fundamentalist Christianity with the Republican Party. For instance, we can no longer discuss US Middle East policy without some understanding of the crackpot apocalyptic theories of the "premillenial dispensationalists". Since it's based on bad Biblical interpretation and reeks with anti-Semitism, the advocates of that theology may find themselves more exposed to public scrutiny than they would prefer.

The fact is that most of what the fundis call "anti-religious" on the part of Democrats ("the Left", as Lerner puts it) are actually church-state issues: Christian prayer in schools, public funding for religious proselyting, stem-cell research, abortion rights. The latter two are very much church-state issues. Because the notion that Christians once called "ensoulment", i.e., at what point a fetus becomes a human life in the eyes of God, is very much a religious judgment. Despite the imaginative claims of the anti-abortionists, my understanding is that no medical development has changed the biological and medical reality that existed in 1973 when Roe v. Wade was decided, which is that the fetus cannot survive independently of the mother's body until around the end of the second trimester. There is no clear Christian position on this. Jesus himself in the Bible doesn't mention a word about abortion - and a form of abortion was practiced in Roman times.

Which brings me to another point. The Democratic Party is not going to be able to make itself a "Christian left" party in any parallel sense to the Republicans and the Christian Right. Because the whole idea of the Christianist movement involves Christian dominionism, though many Christianists don't like the marketing sound of that term yet. If "left" is going to include meaning defending democracy, then defending freedom of religion and the secular state, i.e., the separation of church and state, will have to be a part of it. And the Christianists like the Liberty Regent University law graduates who apparently put the higher values of Christianist politics above following the law in their prominent role at the Justice Department under this administration are going to attack any movement that believes in democratic freedom of religion and separation of church and state as "anti-religion".

Finally, Democrats should have any illusions about the heavy overlap between the group we call Christian Right voters and white people who just don't like blacks very much. There's nothing new about the fact that this is a touchy topic in many ways. But it's real.

Political campaigns aren't the place for religious revivals or reformation movements. For those, religious or not, who believe in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that society needs to care about the weakest and most vulnerable, to protect the rights of women and to respect the dignity of all people, to not steal from others (through crony-capitalist contracts or otherwise) the Democrats can find ways to express their shared values with them.

Not even many Christians fully embrace what would seem to be the radical pacifism that Jesus expresses in the Gospels. But plenty of us think it's a violation of the Christian Just War doctrine to make up lies to justify attacking Iraq and to keep the war going when any reasonable possibility of the gains exceeding the costs have long since past. For Christians who believe the religious doctrine that Jesus was God Incarnate who was tortured to death by an unjust government, most will not find torture an acceptable practice.

The Democrats can speak to the religious values of those "people of faith" without turning themselves into a Left Christianist party.

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