Monday, September 24, 2007

The Demise of Public Discourse

I know I'm picking other people's bones this morning, but Ezra Klein neatly selects the relevant portion of the "60 Minutes" interview with President Ahmadeinejad of Iran, and while he doesn't make anything of this answer, it intrigues me:

PELLEY: Well, Mr. Bush is, without question, a very religious man, for example, as you are. I wonder if there's anything that you've seen in President Bush that you admire.

AHMADEINEJAD: Well, is Mr. Bush a religious man?

PELLEY: Very much so. As you are.

AHMADEINEJAD: What religion, please tell me, tells you as a follower of that religion to occupy another country and kill its people? Please tell me. Does Christianity tell its followers to do that? Judaism, for that matter? Islam, for that matter? What prophet tells you to send 160,000 troops to another country, kill men, women, and children? You just can't wear your religion on your sleeve or just go to church. You should be truthfully religious. Religion tells us all that you should respect the property, the life of different people. Respect human rights. Love your fellow man. And once you hear that a person has been killed, you should be saddened. You shouldn't sit in a room, a dark room, and hatch plots. And because of your plots, many thousands of people are killed. Having said that, we respect the American people. And because of our respect for the American people, we respectfully talk with President Bush. We have a respectful tone. But having said that, I don't think that that is a good definition of religion. Religion is love for your fellow man, brotherhood, telling the truth.
This answer seems to have gone right past Pelley, because his response is:

PELLEY: I take it you can't think of anything you like about President Bush.
I just read that as a perfect example of how we think about "religion" in this country, and how thoroughly we have divorced it from issues of responsibility, or "love for your fellow man, brotherhood, telling the truth." Can anyone read that answer and tell me what is wrong with it? Can anyone tell me how is it a misguided, flawed, or corrupted understanding of "religion"? Not that Ahmadeinejad should be confused with Ghandi or Mother Teresa, but are we so incapable of having a discussion of religion in this country that an answer like this is just so much babble in our ears? The President of Iran raises important, central, burning questions. The journalist responds with: "So, nothing to say, huh?"

Will dragging religion into politics change this? Will arguing over who gets ordained change this? "You just can't wear your religion on your sleeve or just go to church. You should be truthfully religious." It's not exactly shrill, is it? And yet, apparently, even that sentiment is uttered at a pitch too high for reporters to hear. Or even bloggers, for that matter. Ezra wants to know why Pelley responds that Bush believes in God. As Ahmadeinejad points out, acting like a religious person is not the same thing as believing in God at all. Which is really the problem Dawkins and Hitchens have; but it's also the problem of our public discourse of religion.

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