Thursday, July 13, 2006

"When force is gone, there's always Mom..."

This is an interesting, but inherently incorrect, analysis, in no small part because the conflict posited here, is not a conflict.

The reigning assumption in left blogistan (and never let it be said we don't do herd mentality as well as anyone) is that religious people all agree that morality can only stem from religious conviction. Therefor, any mention of morality in the context of religion means the two are linked and can never be separated. This is, of course, offensive to non-religious persons, and therefore any discussion of ethics quickly devolves into name-calling and the hurling of wild accusations like so much monkey feces ("Welcome to the Monky House").

Now this is an old argument, one that goes back at least to the early days of the Enlightenment. Religion and morality were intextricably bound for centuries among most cultures, although Aristotle made us think of the Greek word "ethics" (which simply meant "custom" to him) in a new way, and Aristotle distinctly did not ground his consideration in religion (considering the Greek gods, that was a fairly reasonable choice). But the argument (or fear) that any acknowledgment of the "death of God" would liberate the populace from the constraints of public morality was an old one, and it is only recently that philosophers have tried to ground ethics in something other than an all-powerful and judgmental deity.

Most of those attempts try to reconstruct the community of Aristotle (he relied on the customs of Athens) either by appealing to human selfishness (Utilitarianism and its offspring, John Rawls' "Theory of Justice") or to the fact we are "all in this together (even though we are apart)" (Sartre's existential ethic). Ethics, in other words, has to be grounded in some appeal to universality if it is to have any force. Otherwise, it's just me imposing my ideas of right and wrong on you; and that's where most of the opposition to a religiously based ethic comes from.

Enter, then, the dream of a "forceful new religious left." This is not actually a dream that is only 20 years old, as Adele Stan imagines. This is a "dream" that goes back as far as the thinking of any ethicist, philosopher, or theologian who first realized that a unitary societal agreement on religiously controlled behavior was no longer possible. And it is a dream that has been critiqued relentlessly over the years. Although the idea of the Social Gospel can't, perhaps, be called a "forceful new religious left," it was in it's day as much a response to the inherent "conservative" nature of American society and public religion as anything called for by Tikkun or Jim Wallis. And yet it ran aground for reasons rather precisely detailed by Reinhold Niebuhr, not the least of which are several principles now identified by sociology (and one identified on the basis of Niebuhr's critique of the assumptions of the Social Gospel).

Niebuhr's basic insight was that nations are groups which must act to preserve the group, and morality is the business of individuals (this, it is to be noted, turns Aristotle's analysis of ethics on its head; but that wasn't Niebuhr's doing. Ethics and morality can actually describe two very different things; the problem here is Romanticism, not historical confusion over terminology.). Nations cannot put the demands of a moral code above the survival of the group; so, while people may behave ethically and sacrifice their own ends and means for the benefit of other individuals, nations (and institutions) must act on behalf of all its constituent members to preserve the group's identity and function. It's a fairly simple point, but also a virtually irrefutable one, which comes close to what Stan is saying, but not quite close enough.

Niebuhr's analysis is, interestingly, the analysis of a Christian theologian and minister; yet, he does not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Adele Stan would have us abandon all pretense to a connection between religion and morality, the better to be moral persons. But moral persons on what grounds? There has to be an overarching narrative at least, a theory the group assents to, a doctrine all have agreed with, some sort of common understanding as to what behavior is allowed, and what is not allowed. This takes us right back to the observations of Aristotle in Athens. Ethics, said Aristotle, is what we do to get along with the community. His understanding of their importance was very simple, and very utilitarian: ethics is simply the behavior which leads to happiness for the individual. This behavior is discerned by observing how happy individuals interact with the community, the group. Do as they do, and you, too, will be happy.

Morality (or ethics) may be an individual matter, but it cannot be wholly individual, otherwise it is just my personal predilections, and why should you give a wet snap for those? Eventually you either decide mine are better than yours, and adopt them; or, more likely, you simply walk away from mine because you don't really like them, after all. As Aristotle observed, those who are happy are doing what the community expects of them, and not just what they prefer to do at any given moment.

I actually agree with Stan that "We have the right -- dare I say the duty? -- to express ourselves as moral agents without the imprimatur of ecclesiastical authority." But even such a Catholic as Thomas Merton would say the same:

In those days [the 4th century C.E.] men had become keenly conscious of the strictly individual character of "salvation." Society--which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of "this world"--was regarded by them [the Desert Fathers, living as hermits in the Egyptian desert] as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life. We need not stop here to discuss the fairness of this view: what matters is to remember that it was a fact.
Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions 1970), p. 3

There has always been a tight connection between church and society; so there has always been a tight connection between morality and society. It is our post-Romanticism world-view that leads us to imagine individual character and ethics trump any system, whether ecclesisatical or culturally founded. But we are not the creators of our own ethos; we are not the source of our own moral code. If we lived in the desert wholly apart from human contact, we would have not need of ethics at all; our desires would determine our behavior, and our happiness. Living among other human beings, however, we have to decide how to behave toward each other; and we have to do it based on what is acceptable within a defined community. The issue eventually returns to the "consent of the governed." Still, the question remains: on what do we base our morals? Church teaching? Or societal principles? Either way, you have to accept some institution's imprimatur. Some source of authority has to be the source we agree has set the standard which we should all follow.

What is the fundamental problem in America of forming a consensus based on an ecclesiastical imprimatur? Well, aside from the fractious religious nature of American public life (which goes back beyond Thomas Jefferson to the people who first came to this land, and why), or the overwhelmingly Protestant nature of American religious culture, there is the issue of America as an immigrant culture.

Immigrants are, by their nature, conservative. We have always imagined them as "progressive," as the brave pioneers who leave the strictures and restrictions of society behind, and set out toward an unknown land to establish a wholly new way of life. Of course, if that were true, the American pioneers would have traveled on horseback and imitated the very successful way of life of the Native American tribes. Instead, we packed up as much of our European culture as we could carry, and brought the rest along as quickly as we could manage it. Immigrants brought something else, too: they brought their customs. Immigrants didn't "abandon" the Old World for the new; by and large, like the Irish immigrants following the potato famines, or the "German" immigrants (there was no modern "Germany" in the 19th century) who fled forced military service or harsh economic conditions, people came from Europe to this country out of necessity, not abandonment. They brought as much of "home" with them as they could carry. And when they left, they imagined that "home" stayed just the way it did when they last saw it. Imagined it, and insisted on it, and preserved, as much as possible, the "home" of their memories in the "New World" where they now had to live.

No man is an island, in other words, and we are never washed away from the culture and country of our childhood. We carry it with us, and the desire to conserve runs deep in people who remember, and work hard to remember, where they came from. The other conservative strand is American business. The American Revolution, after all, was largely a merchant's revolt. The Boston Tea Party wasn't a demand for tea for all; it was a protest of taxes by tea merchants. "No taxation without representation" is the cry of a people concerned about money, not inviolable human rights. The Enlightenment that inspired Jefferson and Franklin and Washington and Adams was not the individualistic movement of Romanticism, which came in the 19th century, and didn't really get a foothold in this country until the middle of that century, with the works of Walt Whitman (who was much more radically individualistic than Thoreau).

Why won't there be a "forceful new religious left"? Not for the reasons Stan thinks, but for the very simple reason that there has never been one; not in this country. The abolitionist movement was a movement of the "forceful new religious left." So was the Civil Right movement. But how many people today note that Dr. King's letter from Birmingham jail, or his "I have a dream" speech, or even his opposition to the Vietnam War, were deeply rooted in his religious faith, in his Christian morality? We all know it; we just don't say it. How many of us remember that the abolitionist movement was fundamentally a Christian movement? How many of us connect it to the trial of the slaves aboard the Amistad? How many of us remember that Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were founded, long before Thomas Jefferson, precisely to promote religious tolerance and freedom? The very nature of religious movements, anyway, is that the come from individuals, not from institutional leaders. What we have not had in America is a Francis of Assisi, a Martin Luther; and when we do have them, we forget as quickly as possible that they were, initially, fundamentally, and wholly, religious figures. The fact is, we have have always divorced religion from public morality. The one time we didn't, we count as the most profound legislative and Constitutional failure in our country. I mean, of course, Prohibition. Our Jeffersonian heritage runs deep. We honor it even as we vilify it, and call it the source of all our problems.

Religion and ethics don't have to be connected (but one could argue that religion and morality inextricably are; and it is more than a philosopher's conceit to insist on the connection). But here is the problem: to accept the connection between religion and ethics is to accept the frame of the Religious Right, which is still what Adele Stan is doing in her argument. Consider:

Spoken the right way, arguments for the embodiment of these values in our civic life can ring with the divine provenance granted to them by believers. And indeed, religious activists -- especially our ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams -- are vital to our movement. But to expect them alone to create a moral counterforce to the destructive fear mongering of the right is not only unrealistic, it’s an expectation rooted in abdication of our own role as moral agents.
"Spoken the right way" is precisely the problem: the Religious Right speaks in the accepted frame of American culture. The Religious Left, although it has been responsible for or a part of most of the positive social change in this country, never speaks in "the right way." And it never will; that is a cultural blind spot which no amount of argument or rhetoric will overcome. The fundamental issue, which she hits on almost unknowingly, is the distinction between the Religious Right and the Religious Left: the question of the consent of the governed.

The Religious Right favors a powerful central voice which answers certain (but not, as commonly assumed, all) questions. The Religious Left prefers to put that responsibility on the individual ("Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling," as Paul puts it). It's the difference between the Church of Meaning and Belonging, and the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, which is a subtle but important difference from the usual frame of "authoritarian" v. "libertarian" (which, again, feeds back into the Religious Right's frame of "liberal churches" as the equivalent of "libertines.") The former requires a great deal less energy than the latter, but those on the Religious Left prefer the expense of energy in pursuit of the latter. That does not make them superior (as I will try to point out later), merely different. In fact, the most disarming thing the Religious Left can do is to celebrate the difference! A primary effort of the Religious Right is to define itself against the Religious Left (or the Left in general), thereby generating a great deal of energy for its cause as the opposition to the other is not only from everlasting to everlasting, but is also definitional: without an enemy to oppose, to be a victim of, what is my purpose? (This is precisely why I think the Religious Right is losing political power now; especially in politics, that kind of energy can only be sustained for so long. It is clear to everyone that the Religious Right has caught the car they have been barking after; but, like a dog, they don't know what to do with it now. They were never concerned with governance, only with control, or rather complaining about their lack of it. Now that they have it, they don't know what to do with it.)

The attempt to create a "powerful new religious left" did indeed play into the frame erected by the Religious Right (and by American culture; the two are inextricably bound together); but that doesn't mean the Left inferred "that moral authority proceeds only from religion." It simply means the Religious Left tried to sell its birthright for a mess of pottage. It simply means we can do better. And we can do it, as I say, by celebrating the differences.

When Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were established, it was by people in flight from Puritan (and repressive) Massachusetts. These colonies were established as places to celebrate difference, not create a counterpart to Puritanism. They were, of course, products of their day; whatever we do will be a product of ours. Christian theologians call this an aspect of "fallenness." It does not mean nothing can be done; it only means that we will always "sell ourselves short." But if we decide we will be the moral agents for change, with no more grounding than in whatever political power we can acquire to back our cause, we will do worse than sell ourselves short: we will become what we most oppose. Because that, after all, is the only justification left to the Bush Administration, one on display yesterday in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee: "The President is always right." Why? Well, because he's the President. He's got the Presidential seal; he's at the Presidential podium.

And besides, his momma loves him like a rock. O Superman

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