Friday, October 14, 2011

Separation of religion and Republican Party politics

Amanda Marcotte, who is generally an interesting and perceptive political writer, surprised me with It's 2011 -- Why Is God Still Involved In American Politics? AlterNet 10/12/2011. I actually agree with her dismay at state of religion in American politics today. Unless her I worry about the mutual corruption of both in the process, where she's more focused on the distortion of democratic principle of the separation of church and state.

She indulges in some polemics:

As an atheist and a liberal, it’s been tempting for me to simply laugh at Republicans fighting each other over the issue of whether or not Mitt Romney, a Mormon, gets to consider himself a Christian. From the non-believer point of view, it’s like watching a bunch of grown adults work themselves into a frenzy over the differences between leprechauns and fairies. ...

We're a long way from the days when John Kennedy assured the public that he respected the separation of church and state and would keep his faith separate from his policy-making decisions. Now, even mainstream reporters take it as a given that politicians will let religion govern their actions, and the only thing left to debate on theology is how many angels any single politician believes dance on the head of a pin.
Being a Catholic Christian who actually takes some interest in theology, I find some of that irritating because it sounds like a sophomoric, third-hand rendition of 18th-century rationalist philosophy. If you get into the 19th century at least to Hegel and Schleiermacher, I can handle that. Eighteenth century is a little musty for me. That line about angels dancing on the head of a pin, by the way, is a successful slogan of rationalists who used that to mock the scholastic philosophers and theologians. As embedded in the English language as it is, how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was not a major topic among pre-Renaissance Christian theologians. (The Thomistic scholar Mortimer Adler did a readable 1982 book written for a popular audience, The Angels and Us, that discusses the roles angels did play in medieval philosophy, for those who bother about such things.)


I've seen an heard some whining lately even from mainstream Christian authors about the more militant atheists whose books have gotten some large circulation in recent years. My advice to believers on this: get over it. Some people aren't religious, don't want to be and don't miss it. Christianity has been facing openly atheist arguments in the West on a fairly regular basis since those 18th-century rationalists. The religion has survived, though it is tending to decline in popularity. Most Christians hate to see that. On the other hand, religion makes some people meaner, less tolerant, dogmatic and fearful. Some people are almost certainly better off without it.

Christians can learn something from sophisticated atheists. Your standard village atheist, normally not so much. But they're nothing to get all grumpy and self-righteous over.

But on the more secular side of things, I have to ask myself, is Amanda Marcotte really just now focusing on the fact that religion plays a big role in Republican politics? Because any decent Reagan biography or political history of the 1978-84 period would explain how the organized Christian Right in the form men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their organizations and even in the form of the occasional female leader became a major force in American politics during the Carter Administration.

And in the decades prior to that, religion had been an important element in the two strands of conservative thought and attitudes that came together and now dominate the Republican Party: Deep South segregation and paranoid anti-Communism.

Amanda is right to worry about the merger of politics and religion, which is related to but not quite the same as the merger of church and state. Having major players in the Republican Party nominating process be hardline anti-gay fundamentalists and demon-chasing loonies like Rick Perry's fans in the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) is not going to produce the sense of realism one would prefer in candidates for President.

But her conclusion seems to reflect less of an understanding of what the role of religion in the Republican Party means than a wish that it would all just go away:

People like Robert Jeffress, when they propose religious tests for office--even ones held privately by voters--should face more challenges than reporters simply asking if they consider Mormons "real" Christians. They should be confronted with [John] Kennedy's words [in 1960 affirming his committed to church-state separation] and asked directly why they disagree with our former president about the separation of church and state. They should be asked why they believe only a certain breed of Christians should hold office, and asked why they think it's appropriate to demand that politicians put religious dogma before evidence-based and rational approaches to policy. Anything less than that is aiding the religious right in its mission to remake our secular democracy into a theocracy. It shouldn't be tolerated.
Directing those questions to people like Jeffress only serve their purpose of injecting sectarian issues (Mormons aren't real Christians!) into the political debate while allowing the politicians to act as though they are above such tactics.

As I wrote a couple of months ago in connection with Michele Bachmann's submission theology, I wonder if some liberals aren't so wedded to the idea that religion shouldn't matter in politics that they fell compelled to pretend that it doesn't matter. Even in the face of a political movement that dominates today's Republican Party and has clear theocratic goals. But the democratic tradition of separation of church and state didn't evolve over centuries by advocates of democracy pretending that actual clerical grabs at secular power just weren't taking place.

Questioning Bachmann's own public statements about her religious beliefs in the course of her political campaign is perfectly legitimate. Voters and reporters should be pressing candidates on the publicly expressed Christian dominionist beliefs of prominent religious figures who support them.

Fundamentalist fears in 1960 that John Kennedy would be taking political order from the Pope may have been founded on polemical misunderstandings of the Catholic Christian faith. But given the role that the Church had played in relation to the Italian Fascist and German Nazi regimes, and then its intense conservatism in the postwar period, together with the Vatican's position that the Catholic Church should be state church, had also produced considerable criticism and valid skepticism among liberals in the period between the end of the Second World War and 1960 as to the Catholic Church's role in politics.

Kennedy in that famous 1960 speech complained about his Catholicism being used against him politically. But he addressed the issue, publicly and clearly. It's worth noting that when Mitt Romney ran for Senate against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Kennedy raised the issue of the Mormon Church's stand of the equal status of women. Whether that was tactically the smartest thing for a Catholic to do, given the Catholic Church's position on various women's rights issues, is a separate question. Whether Jack would have agreed with him or not, he didn't consider the issue of Romney's religious affiliation completely out of bounds. And Ted Kennedy won the campaign.

But if any of the Republican candidates were to "be confronted with Kennedy’s words and asked directly why they disagree with our former president about the separation of church and state" as Amanda wants people like Jeffress to be, I can predict with great confidence that none of them would give as clear a statement of their belief in the separation of church and state as John Kennedy did in 1960. And that's not a good thing.

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