Friday, May 13, 2005

Good Faith Compromise

Kevin Drum links not once, but twice, to posts dealing with religion in the public square.

The latest is a Los Angeles Times editorial by Amy Sullivan criticizing the Republican party for trying to monopolize faith. Sullivan, a Baptist herself, has very strong grounds to make the claim:
The charge used to be that Democrats were godless, a party of secularists run amok. That changed somewhere around the time when Barack Obama boomed, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states!"; progressive minister Jim Wallis became one of the best-selling authors in the country; and Americans began to reconnect with their history, including centuries of religiously motivated political causes such as abolition, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.

So having failed to prove that Democrats are all secularists, conservatives now assert that liberals are not religious enough. U.S. senator and former Sunday school teacher Hillary Clinton is accused of faking religion when she talks about faith. Pope Benedict XVI talks about a smaller, purer Catholic Church and the first to be counted out is Father Thomas Reese, a liberal Jesuit who was the editor of America magazine until he was forced to resign last week.

Conservative leaders use the phrase "practical secularists" to describe believers who they feel are inadequately observant. CNN host Wolf Blitzer buys into the spin and suggests on-air that conservative columnist Robert Novak is a better Catholic than the devout Paul Begala, presumably because Begala is a Democrat.

This is a debate that conservatives are going to lose. Because you don't have to be liberal or conservative to be offended by the idea that a political or religious leader can decide whether your faith is good enough.
Faced with real, believing Democrats, Republicans have shifted their rhetoric and now claim that Democrats aren't "real" "people of faith." I find that to be a personal assault on my dignity as a Jew who very much has "faith," and whose faith is what guides him toward a polity of liberalism, equal rights, and human dignity for all citizens. What it comes down to is that my faith isn't true because it isn't Christian (and more specifically, a particular brand of Christianity), and thus is just grandstanding. Why not call me a Christ-killer too while you're at it? Such a viewpoint is wholly incompatible with American principles of democracy.

The other one was a post (and now a follow-up too) by Matthew Yglesias, wondering if Democrats can't cede a few inches on church/state issues in order to gain a few miles of credibility in the culture war deal. The biggest problem, as Ezra Klein notes, is that it is not institutional liberalism that is protesting the "minor" church/state infractions, but rather organizations associated with liberals like the ACLU. It's not really possible for the Democratic Party to reign those groups in, so we really can't stop it.

But technical objections aside, my support (and I speak on this as a virulent church/state separation zealot) for such a plan really hinges on what particular things we are talking about. Creationism in public schools? Forget about it? Prayer in the classroom? Yglesias says he had to do it and was fine, but for every story like that there is another one of Jewish (or even dissident Christian) students being harassed, beaten, insulted, and threatened for opting out. Kevin Drum says that we've won 98% of this battle and we should let the last 2% slide, but I'd suspect that the 2% is in places where minority religions are most cowed and have most reason to fear school prayer. The practice is inherently exclusionary, and I draw a redline on it. 10 Commandments? Perhaps the toughest question of all (except in public schools, where I again say absolutely no-go). On the one hand, the commandments, as part of broader historical referencing, don't seem too inflammatory. There is a difference between Roy Moore's "submit to God, bitches!" granite slab and a more low-key, contextual representation. So long as the religious message is not central and the presentation is not too "in-your-face," so to speak, I don't think the latter has too much potential for harm.

On the other hand, the 10 commandments are not even close to being religiously neutral. The amicus brief filed by an alliance of non-Judeo-Christian religions makes that abundantly clear. Furthermore, there are different versions of the 10 commandments depending on whether you are Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish--so there is an internal denominational bias as well. Nor is there, in reality, a historical defense for their presence. And finally, it ratifies a disturbing tendency in American law to regard "religion" as only "Judeo-Christian religions." Those faiths which do not believe in principles that can easily be subsumed by the Christian paradigm (Hinduism or Buddhism, for example) are intrinsically seen as subordinate and lesser, faiths to be "tolerated" (at best) but certainly not seen as equal. Worse yet, the rhetoric of the commandments itself justifies this. "I am the Lord thy God, you shall have no other Gods before me." What message does that send? The school (state) is proffering a religious COMMANDMENT (because remember, these are, after all, commandments) to not have other God's beyond the (Christian or maybe Jewish) God. Would anybody be all that surprised if this spawned sectarian violence? As Rita Steinhardt Botwinick wrote, "Ethnic minorities have always served as a convenient target for concealed antagonism," but "[w]hen prejudice is elevated to patriotism, to doing one's duty for the Fatherland, then excesses of behavior are possible, even probable." [A History of the Holocaust: From Ideology to Annihilation. Third Edition, (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004), pgs. 2-3]. I'm willing to make compromises here and there, but this is a path we must tread on very, very lightly.

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