Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Public policies and religious arguments for and against them (2 of 2))

Continuing my comments on the discussion between Digby and Sarah Posner from Part 1 yesterday: The parts of their formulations I find problematic are these. Posner: "the debate about the role of government should rooted in policy, not theology." Digby: "using the Bible as the basis of any political argument is antithetical to enlightened democracy."

Okay, I'm an Enlightenment nostalgic of sorts. So I would rather that public debates be framed in terms of values and effects that were rooted in the material world and not directly referenced to religious concepts as such. But that's not the world we live in.

If we look at only the post-Second World War period, it's a fact that important parts of what we think of as liberal activism in the United States were based on religious understandings of social values. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a trained philosopher and a Christian minister, and described his program for civil rights in explicitly religious terms. George McGovern was a Methodist minister. Jimmy Carter was and is even now a very religious Baptist (though no longer Southern Baptist) layperson. Cesar Chavez understood his organizing for farmworkers and the poor in Catholic Christian terms. Jerry Brown is a former Jesuit seminarian who studied Zen Buddhism seriously, worked with Mother Teresa in her hospice services in India, and was heavily influenced by the late Christian philosopher Ivan Illich. Some of the key early activists for legalizing abortion in the 1960s were religious people concerned over the deadly realities of back-alley abortions.


Most Christians are not theocrats. Up until they got heavy into the white private school markets after desegregation in the South, the Southern Baptists made a big deal of the principle of the separation of church and state, not least because they didn't want Catholic schools getting any public funds. Even the Catholic Church in the Second Vatican Council adopted the views of the American theologian John Courtney Murray that embraced modern democratic notions of freedom of religion, though the Church would still prefer Catholicism to be officially adopted as state religion.

And anyone with an adult notion of Christianity - and, yes, I'm passing a negative judgment on Christian fundamentalism in saying this - can understand that the Christian Bible doesn't provide a legislative guide book for particular laws. And they, like most other adults, can understand that there is a difference between personal morality and what law allows. A person can consider smoking cigarettes morally wrong but still make practical judgments about public policy based on what is a legitimate health-related public concern and discuss it with other citizens on that basis. Someone can consider abortion morally wrong and chose not to have it for themselves, but still recognize that public policy has to be dictated by medical realities on the physical survivability of a fetus outside its mother's body, which hasn't changed since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

And the reality of American politics today is that the Republican Party endorses theocratic ideas in practice, though they insist on redefining the English language based on their marketing priorities on a given day and don't like to be called on it. The Democrats have to counter that in ways that disrupt the moral and religious claims of the fundis. The ad trashing Rand Paul over Aqua Buddha as a "heathen idol" didn't seem to work to well. (Although I admit I enjoyed that one!)

The reality of American Christianity today, too, is that most Christians don't want fanatical fundis smearing the Christian brand, either. It's a genuine religious scandal that the most solid block of torture supporters were regular church-going conservative evangelicals. If they believe the general Christian theology that God took human form as a Jewish holy man who was tortured to death by the Romans, then they should worry that the first thing they experience in the next life will be Jesus getting in their face and saying, "What the hell did you think you were doing calling yourself a Christian and supporting torture?" And "hell" in that context would sound a bit more serious than a casual swear word.

Sarah Posner and others are right to call so-called "Christian left" figures like Wallis to account for their lack of support for women's rights on abortion. But both secular Democrats and religious ones needed to disrupt the Christian Right messaging. Including with arguments over the Bible and theology, when appropriate.

Gene Lyons on Facebook recommends this piece by Andrew Sullivan addressing this broad topic: Heightening The Republican Contradictions, Ctd The Lift 06/06/2011. (Standard disclaimer: Sullivan has never to my knowledge fessed up to his disgraceful smearing of domestic critics of the Cheney-Bush Administration's War on Terror and the foreign invasions that went along with it.) It's a decent brief critique of Christian nationalism, though he doesn't use that term. And he has some thought-provoking observations: "The structure of modern America is therefore anti-Christian. Its worship of wealth and fame as the greatest of all things - yes, Palin comes instantly to mind - is the antithesis of Christianity."

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