Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Varieties of Religious and Political Experience

Pastor Dan is contemplating the short-term political future of the Democrats vis a vis religion, here and here. And I don't disagree with his observations, or even have a problem with them. But in some idle Google searching I came across these comments on a post by Eric Alterman, where he in turn picks up on a bit of wisdom via E.J. Dionne that we would be wise to keep front and center in our considerations:

Quoting Peter Steinfels, Dionne noted, "American liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice.... Once trade unionism, regulation of the market, and various welfare measures were the litmus tests of secular liberalism. Later, desegregation and racial justice were the litmus tests. Today the litmus test is abortion." Liberals, as Michael Kazin put it, have morphed in the public imagination "from people who looked, dressed and sounded like Woody Guthrie to people who look, dress and sound like Woody Allen."
Not that I have anything in particular against Woody Allen, but Alterman makes a deeper point, one also worth keeping in mind: to most people, religion = conservative politics in American culture:

In a less flamboyant though more revealing episode last year, CNN's star anchor, Wolf Blitzer, questioned traitorous right-winger Robert Novak and liberal Paul Begala about the death of Pope John Paul II. Blitzer opened the segment by suggesting that while "I am sure Bob is a good Catholic, I am not so sure about Paul Begala." Novak converted from Judaism to an Opus Dei form of Catholicism, while Begala was raised in the faith, remains devout and even named his eldest child John Paul. When he asked Blitzer, "Well, now, who are you to pass moral judgment on my religion, Mr. Blitzer...on the day of my Holy Father's funeral?" adding, "I don't think anybody should presume that a liberal is not a good Catholic" and "The Holy Father is liberal.... The Holy Father bitterly opposed President Bush's war in Iraq. He came to St. Louis--and I was there--and he begged America to give up the death penalty. President Bush strongly supports it, as did President Clinton and others. Many of the Holy Father's views, my church's views, are extraordinarily liberal. I mean, the Pope talked about savage, unbridled capitalism, not Bob Novak's capitalism." The CNN anchor instructed Begala, "Don't be so sensitive," as if he had unflatteringly critiqued Begala's makeup.
I happened to be watching that day, and Begala was very insulted by Blitzer's remark. Can't say that I blame him. But, as Alterman says:

The moronic level of cable discourse notwithstanding, missing from almost all discussions of the role of religion in public life is what William James famously termed the "varieties of religious experience." The right-wing hijacking of religion's public role in our political discourse is as undeniable as it is inappropriate, and represents one of liberalism's most serious problems.
The problem for liberalism is what I discussed in the earlier post; and I still think it's a valid critique. The variety of religious experience, of course, is usually lacking in left blogistan, too. Eschaton seems to have gotten better about it, at least among the commenters, but Huffington Post is a vicious place to raise a religious point of view, and generally around the web, unless you're at a "religious" blog, politics is one thing you can discuss, religion one thing you cannot discuss. Interestingly, left blogistan still seems to think the only way "forward" toward a progressive politics is by leaving religion in the Jeffersonian closet of private matters. But then, no one ever accused left blogistan of being historically or culturally astute. As Alterman notes:

This, in so religious a nation, is not only politically self-defeating but historically atypical. For contemporary liberal rationalists who feel discomfort with the spiritual realm, we have no less an authority than John Dewey, who termed the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan "the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education." As Kazin notes in his brilliant new biography of the Great Commoner, Bryan "transformed his party from a bulwark of conservatism...into a bastion of anticorporate Progressivism." Indeed, he notes, "American progressive reform has never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have us do."
Not to mention the abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights movement, both of which were impossible without the moral core provided by religious beliefs.

Religion, properly, is about community, about others, not about yourself. Mega-churches seem to have made their living telling people "We Believe in You!" (the motto of Lakewood Church here in Houston, for awhile), which, as Bill McKibben has noted, is the self-as-center-of-the-universe principle that drives American capitalism: "This is for you!" The problem is, of course, that's a message about as satisfying as a lollipop; not bad at first, but not something you can really live on. Which is why mega-churches advertise, and constantly evangelize: they need the people. The largest church in Houston now boasts 5 "campuses" (being a mini-denomination is apparently the next frontier in mega-churches), but they emphasize being "a family." "You'll feel right at home," their smiling pastor assures TV audiences, and the jingle is two words: "Come home." It is always, in some sense then, about community.

Which is part of the reason left blogistan rejects Christianity, or sniffs curiously at it. Partly it's the caricature of religion presented by James Dobson and Pat Robertson (let's be honest). Partly it's because religion represents another community, one not centered on politics or social philosophy. But religion is not about being with like-minded people. In Christianity, at least, it's supposed to be about being with God's people. And they may speak Spanish, or Armenian, or French, or Mandarin. They may eat strange foods or wear strange clothes. But they are all supposed to be received as the Christ, especially the poor ones, the sick ones, the wounded and destroyed by the world ones. That's what it's supposed to be about. That's why the abolitionists cared about strangers on the Amistad. That's why civil rights marchers could stand up to dogs and firehoses in Selma without resorting to violence themselves. These are not small considerations. Religion, properly understood, is about the community of humanity. It is about people welcoming whoever comes to the door.

It is, first and foremost, about hospitality. It is also, of course, about where that impulse to hospitality comes from, what makes it possible for believers, what motivates them to act, and to recieve, in such willing vulnerability. So there is a short term benefit for the Democrats if evangelicals are turning against the GOP. But beyond that, what is the purpose of religion in politics? To appeal to the angels of our better nature, and make us use government as it should be used, to help each other? Or to let us take up the club they were forced to lay down? Nobody wants that latter result, so it's going to be up to us, those of us who are both religious and political, to do something about restoring this historical tradition of which recent political history has been a sad and gross aberration.

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