Sunday, May 21, 2006

Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: the "religious left"

Firedog Lake is one of the better blogs in the left blogosphere and this weekend there was a long post by Christy Hardin Smith on the "religious left." One of the great things about lefty blogging is it doesn't all march to the same drummer. We debate, we disagree, we argue -- and in the end we work together to try to make this a better world. This is by way of preamble to disagreeing with Christy's post. Since my disagreement doesn't prevent me from winding up in the same place she does I don't know whether to call it a strong disagreement, but I think it is a fundamental one.

What did she say? She begins by registering (appropriate) discomfort with the politicization of religion on the left, noting that for most of us religious faith of whatever stripe is a private matter, not to be forced on others and to be lived out in our lives. Some of us have no religious beliefs, however, and I believe she not only mischaracterizes us but commits the same error against us she accuses "ivory-tower liberals" of: condescension. She also reinforces a right wing meme that liberals are secular boors without respect for people of faith,. This is a failure to distinguish our views of "faith" and "religion" from our views of the persons who practice them.

She begins with a long excerpt from a 2005 essay by Van Jones, an African American who writes feelingly about the importance of religion in his life growing up in the days of American apartheid. Here is some of it:
I literally have had liberals laugh in my face when I told them I was a Christian. For awhile, I felt self-conscious about telling other activists that I preferred not to meet on Sunday mornings, because I wanted to go to church.

It is still commonplace to hear so-called radicals stereotyping all religious people as stupid dupes — and spitting out the word "Christian" as if it were an insult or the name of a disease. I thought progressives were supposed to be the standard-bearers of tolerance and inclusion. (Alternet)
I rather doubt this. It is reminiscent of the stories of anti-war protesters spitting at returning Vietnam Vets. I won't say that never, ever happened but if it did, no one has been able to find an example of this urban myth and if it ever happened it hardly ever happened. I'm guessing the same is true of "literally laughing in his face" upon declaring he was a Christian. This is hyperbole. All I can say about anyone -- left, right or center -- who literally laughed in the face of another person who said they were a Christian is that they are monumental boors whose rudeness knows no political stripe. This is a red herring and an extremely harmful way to depict the left. The same for the claim that "so-called radicals" stereotype religious people as stupid dupes. People say many things about those that disagree with them (consider what we say about the right wing), but there is no special singling out religious people as stupid dupes. Stupid dupes exist and some of them are religious and some of them are Democratic candidates duped by their consultants. So what?

The Jones piece goes on to give a moving rendition of the importance of the Black church in the civil rights movement. No argument there, of course, but the context is significant. The Black church was one of the few social institutions capable of organizing the black community. It is worth noting that outside of the Black clergy the churches and synagogues of America were silent, or worse -- actively racist -- in the civil rights years, (with some notable but rare exceptions).

Jones goes on to draw the inevitable conclusion:
The implications are clear for those who seek today to rescue and redeem U.S. society. The facts are simple and profound: The last time U.S progressives captured the national debate and transformed politics, people of faith were at the center of the movement, not stuck in its closet.
This zeroes out the subsequent anti-war movement, the woman's movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the environmental movement, etc., etc. It is an understandable conceit, but a conceit nonetheless. Again, with a few notable exceptions, churches played a minor role in those movements and when they were important it wasn't because of doctrine but because they transcended doctrine.

As a progressive, what should my attitude to religion be? To the extent it is someone's private affair, it doesn't matter. It is none of my business. But to the extent it is advanced as a political principle that we should embrace "good" religious arguments and support them, I reject it. As a public health professional I believe washing your hands is good hygiene. This doesn't mean I must approve of and support the arguments of a handwashing obsessive. I don't say, yes, there are germs everywhere. I am glad you are washing your hands every five minutes because I think hand hygiene is good. Or if someone tells me they will vote for someone because they are of the same religion, I am not required to say, good, that's a sufficient reason. Whether it makes sense to try to convince someone pathogens aren't everywhere, or that voting for Joe Lieberman isn't good just because he's a Jew is a tactical question. I might just keep silent. But agreeing with either is wrong. One shouldn't violate the truth for political expediency and that's just what an embrace of the "religious left" qua religious (or spirituality or whatever else you want to call it) would be.

Unfortunately Christy goes further and reinforces right wing canards about the secular left.
Yet liberals, trapped in a long-standing disdain for religion and tone-deaf to the spiritual needs that underlie the move to the Right, have been unable to engage these voters in a serious dialogue. Rightly angry at the way that some religious communities have been mired in authoritarianism, racism, sexism and homophobia, the liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has both marginalized those many people on the Left who actually do have spiritual yearnings and simultaneously refused to acknowledge that many who move to the Right have legitimate complaints about the ethos of selfishness in American life.
Disdain for religion? Yes. What do you want me to say. I think it's good? Because I don't. Engage them in what kind of serious dialog? Certainly the dialog cannot be in the arena of a faith in a God I don't believe in or in the virtues of religious institutions that have been overwhelmingly vicious, hateful and reactionary. This is what this strategy leads to:
[Michael] Lerner, the California-based rabbi who founded the [Network of Spiritual Progressives], said the conference is partly aimed at countering an aversion to religion among secular liberals and "the liberal culture" of the Democratic Party. "I can guarantee you that every Democrat running for office in 2006 and 2008 will be quoting the Bible and talking about their most recent experience in church," he said.

The Democratic Faith Working Group, made up of 30 members of the House and scores of aides, has begun meeting monthly on Capitol Hill to discuss faith and politics, opening each session with a prayer. Its purpose is to "work with our fellow Democrats and get them comfortable with faith issues," said its chairman, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a preacher's son who was raised in the fundamentalist Church of God. (WaPo)
Is this what the country needs? I don't think so.

Christy uses Ned Lamont as an example of someone who launched a successful political challenge on the grounds of values. Fine. But where was religion in this campaign? Nowhere. The business of equating "religion" with essentially secular values runs throughout Christy's post. It is wrongheaded.

Yes, let's embrace the secular values she enumerates. If some people want to consider them spiritual or religious values that's their business. I don't have to agree nor should I be asked to any more than I would agree with the premises of a handwashing obsessive. Nor should we suggest we should in the interests of "dialog."

Because none of the values she promotes depend in any way on religion, she finishes up just where I would:
What we need is language that speaks to the hearts of these voters — to the things they hold dear, which, coincidentally, are also the things we hold dear: family, children, safety, pride, our own lives and pursuit of happiness and respect and decency.


What I do see, however, is an oppotunity for the Democratic party to speak to the values that people of faith have always held to be important and sacred duties: peace, respect for all of humankind, lifting up those who need a helping hand, nurturing those who have little or nothing, giving hope where there is currently none, shining a light in the dark places.

This was the Democratic party in which I was raised — perhaps it was a naive view of the world, but it was a wonderful lesson in the might of our souls and the ability to triumph over the darkness of selfishness and meanness.


Let us work together — instead of picking each other apart — and wherever that well of faith comes from that propels you forward, let’s harness that strength instead of squabbling amongst ourselves and trying to marginalize one faction or another. In order to right this severely listing ship of state, we have to all pull on the oars together — one nation, one people, one faith in our ability to do better and to do right by all.
If that's what she means by faith, even I can say "Amen."