July 09, 2004

Time for something different: religion in politics (v.2)

Religion, as used by the right, is a tool for getting the government into your private life. And I'm not talking just about abortion, which would probably be an item of fierce public controversy even without religious arguments. I'm talking about things like marriage, sex, the social roles of men and women--all those things that social conservatives find so necessary to regulate by means of government surveillance and supervision. Lacking the necessary logical or empirical connections between many of the decisions that consenting adults make as they live their private lives, and any consequences for the community that would ordinarily serve as the rationale for the government to regulate behavior, the conservatives reach for another rationale--morality. Faced with the obvious fact that people disagree about which consenting domestic behaviors are immoral, the conservatives reach for their trump card--it's immoral because God says it is. And who are you to disagree with God?

Perhaps because the social conservatives have the greatest desire to regulate private life, they've also had the greatest need for religion in politics. It's the only justification in an otherwise freedom-loving nation for imposing their particular preferences on everybody else.

The left views religion very differently. Religion is itself one of those very personal commitments that people ought to make without the state's interference. This is why the left is perfectly content with a public discourse that never appeals to, or even acknowledges, religion. It isn't that everyone on the left is anti-religious, it's simply that they think legitimate policy questions can be answered without an appeal to God. Instead, the left would prefer to evaluate public policies on some kind of measurable, secular scale, like income inequality. This allows them to reserve questions of religion to each individual's private conscience. All this is perfectly reasonable and persuasive, but...

I think the left needs to get back into the religion business for strategic reasons.

Liberals and others (agrarian traditionalists, for example) who oppose the modern right-wing agenda cannot forget that public religious rhetoric is a powerful weapon. The conservatives have demonstrated this over the past twenty years, to such an extent that religious people will often vote for the religious Republican even when that candidate's policy positions aren't very palatable.. Even though leftists might prefer that this weapon not be used at all, the right wing's zealotry makes this a pipe dream. Since the best option isn't available, the left should choose the second-best--combat with a rough equivalence of arms and ammunition. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

For one thing, supporters of fair, rule-governed markets could benefit from a religious critique of right wing economic rhetoric. One of the reasons this rhetoric seems so shallow is that it seems to ignore important values:

It is curious that in American politics, "values" issues are always social issues but never economic ones. Yet how the disadvantaged among us are treated is clearly a reflection of who we are as a people. Similarly, how workers are treated on the job -- their safety, their working conditions, their remuneration -- also speaks volumes about our values as a nation. This is also true for child poverty.
A young person born in the 1980s, and raised in a non-religious household, might be forgiven for thinking that religion had no way to make this kind of argument. But thankfully, they'd still be wrong. A good example is the tradition within Catholicism that remembers history, and is capable of offering a critique of "modern liberalism" (economic laissez-faire) without succumbing to the fallacy that the alternative is Marxism:
In the same way, John Paul II has recognized some genuine good in a market-based economy and recognizes it as a potential force for human betterment. But . . . he is no different from his precedessors in recalling, at times with language even stronger than theirs, the philosophical errors that undergird liberal capitalism and the worldly excesses to which the “free market” system is not only prone but, today, utterly abandoned. And it is this overarching and radical Catholic critique of the modern liberal ideology that I have never seen even a slight appreciation of in those who loudly proclaim the virtues of the unregulated free market, of government minimalism and so forth.
Other examples abound. The Jewish tradition in the pages of magazines like Tikkun is one that springs to mind. The commenters on my last post remind us of nuns who chain themselves to fences in civil disobedience; the many African-American Baptist churches that have fought injustice for most of America's history, and the old tradition represented in today's public life by civilized people like Bill Moyers. My own favorite, of course, is the agrarian tradition exemplified by people like Wendell Berry.

These people all have something different to say about religion than we're used to hearing. We should listen to them more often. Most importantly, the left should seek them out and give them a big bullhorn, if they'll agree to take it.

There's an article in this week's New Yorker by David Greenberg that I think reveals a lot about the the religious right:

The problem lies, rather, in the specific ways in which Bush uses religion. Abraham Lincoln, in his second Inaugural address, invoked God, but he did so in a spirit of humility, questioning his own certitude and thus inviting further questioning. Bush does the opposite: his use of religion seems designed to remove any doubt -- first in his own mind, then in the public's -- about his course. It doesn't assist Bush with his reasoning; it substitutes for reasoning. Instead of providing a starting point for careful judgments, it assures him that the instincts on which he has based his policy are unerring.
It's time for something different.

Posted by Carey at July 9, 2004 08:24 PM