Blogs > Cliopatria > More on liberalism and the religion problem

Apr 26, 2004 11:10 pm


More on liberalism and the religion problem



This went up early today at my blog, and I meant to publish simultaneously here. My bad. Atrios wrote this:

I'm tired of liberalish Christians telling me it's my job to reach out to Christian moderates who feel that"the Left" is hostile to them. Screw that. It's time for liberalish Christians to tell their slightly more right-leaning brethren that those of us who fight to maintain the separation between Church and State do it to protect freedom of religion - not destroy it.

I'll just throw in a few of my own thoughts:

My politics are derived from my faith, not the other way around. When I was younger, and a secular liberal, my politics were the only faith I had! Since coming to Christ (and yes, I do call myself"born again" without embarrassment), I have had to rebuild my politics from the ground up. When I consider political questions, I am forced to ask myself what position I believe Christ calls me to. This isn't easy, for any number of obvious reasons, starting with the fact that the New Testament is not a modern political manual. This is why I can't merely allow myself to hunt and peck through Scripture, finding passages that support my already-in-place suppositions about justice. (Many liberal and conservative Christians alike do this; it's an understandable habit, but a bad one). Rather, I have to be open to what the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and my church community are telling me about right, wrong, peace and war and so forth.

I belong to a church that embraces pacifism as the fullest understanding of the Gospel. I belong to a church that opposes the death penalty and abortion, seeing them both as fundamental evils even while recognizing that the latter takes far more lives than the former in this country. Some Mennonites are Republicans, largely because (while pacifist by doctrine) they see abortion as the number one social evil of our age. Most Mennonites lean to the left, building coalitions with pro-choice secular liberals on issues ranging from capital punishment to Iraq to immigration to poverty, all the while willing to gently but firmly diverge from our non-believing friends on issues like abortion and therapeutic cloning.

I have to say that most secular liberals whom I meet impose a double standard on me. When I quote Scripture on the subject of war and justice, ala Martin Luther King, they applaud. When I quote Scripture to explain my position on abortion, they are enraged at my effort to"impose my personal beliefs on them." Obviously, I am as guilty of"proof-texting" as the next person, but I am tired of the double standard.

I've often recommended this First Things article by Stephen Carter, Liberalism's Religion Problem. It's a brilliant piece, I agree with virtually every word, and I love his summation:

Liberal theory continues to be unwilling to accommodate itself to the systems of meaning preferred by the most religiously committed citizens of the nation. Instead, liberalism has grown ever more muscular, pressing theories about education and the public square that few religious citizens will ever support. That is a flaw in liberal theory, not a flaw in religion. For serious religion understands that the life lived without attention to the basic question is life not worth living. In traditional Christianity, discerning God’s will and doing it is prior to everything else. If God’s will is that we suffer, the Christian must suffer. If God’s will is that we change, the Christian must change. If God’s will is that we fight, the Christian must fight. Even when, in secular terms, the battle the Christian is fighting seems to be an appealing one, the Christian’s motive for the struggle must always be to glorify God—and the Christian must never be afraid to say so.

There will be times when this leads us into coalition with liberals. But there will be times when we are far, far apart. The Christian left must be faithful to Christ first, not secular dogma. Where our agendas and our understandings coincide, so much the better. But at times, we will stand with our Christian brethren on the right of the political spectrum, not out of sectarian loyalty but out of a sense that, as Carter said,"discerning God's will and doing it is prior to everything else."

It is no easy thing to claim to have discerned God's will. No wise Christian tries to do it alone. We do it in the light of (thanks Wesley) Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience; above all we do it prayerfully, humbly, and together.

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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 5/1/2004

I think Hugo is conflating disagreements with the left based on the type of christianity that he and some but not all other christians follow, and standing with "our Christian brethren on the right" for theological reasons.

Left anti-abortionists disagree with the Left majority on a political issue, so I don't see how christianity plays into it in any important way, given that many (and perhaps the majority of) christians are pro-choice.

And if Left christians share with Right christians some kind of christian motivation for their politics, well, so what? Why is it necessary to "stand with" people whose motivations are the same but whose resulting politics are different? Are we talking about persecution of minority political tendencies or the persecution of christians on the left?


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/30/2004

My 4:45 reply above was truncated by about 4 paragraphs.

I'm not sure how I did that (and as I have never heard of that happening before I assume I did do it). Unfortunately I don't have time tonight to replicate my brilliance.

Stay tuned.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2004

Josh, Do you need to be reminded that on one issue you are allied with people with whom you are generally in radical disagreement?


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/29/2004

That "we will stand with our Christian brethren on the right" quote concerned me as well. Why are you standing with them if christianity leads you and them in different directions politically?


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/29/2004

"For instance, I don't quite believe Hugo when he says lefties that he works with on other issues object to his christian verbiage in opposing abortion."

I should have written that differently. When I mean is that I find it hard to believe that Hugo means that he gets grief for using christian verbiage, rather than for opposing abortion at all. But Hugo, if you meant exactly what I thought you said, I might be missing something here.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/29/2004

Probably you have trouble figuring me out because I don't always express myself clearly. I certainly did not in this case.

I do see the difference in vision, a difference I find crtically important in many ways. Still, there is something in common that is also important. Let me try to state it.


1. The visions are different but the stated paths to the visions are similar. Let me quote from Hugo:

>>But at times, we will stand with our Christian brethren on the right [because] "discerning God's will and doing it is prior to everything else."

It is no easy thing to claim to have discerned God's will. No wise Christian tries to do it alone. We do it in the light of (thanks Wesley) Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience; above all we do it prayerfully, humbly, and together.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2004

Oscar, I really have trouble figuring out where you are sometimes. Here you are not a Christian, but the other day you were trying to convince me that it was o.k. to write history as if God were an agent in it. Surely you can distinguish the radical right stuff that Reeves posts from Hugo's religious progressivism. I don't bother to comment on Reeves's blog. He apparently doesn't read or respond to the comments there. He's apparently handing down dogma with no intent to discuss it.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/29/2004

The veiling seclusion of women was part of some of the cultures surrounding the Arabs at the time of Muhammad, in particular Byzantine and Sasanid urban cultures. How these customs crossed over, or if they developed separately, I do not know. However, much of the early spread of Islam was through traders, and therefore through cities.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/29/2004

Chris,
Surely the Jewish community at Medina was not offended by Muhammad's monotheism. Extolling the virtues of women is a quite different matter than securing an equal place for them in society. ML could roll his eyes and be quite eloquent about the fine qualities of some women. Read the biographies. Bawdy humor at SCLC was about as sexist as it gets. The problem with identifying values universally shared is that one often has to frame them in such general terms that they have little particular specificity.


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/29/2004

If you wonder why those of us who are not Christian sometimes get testy, read this. http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/4903.html


chris l pettit - 4/29/2004

to be partly offended and partly in agreement?

TO explain...I find the first sentence of the Atrios comment to be highly offensive...especially the intolerant reaction. But the explanation of the second sentence I find very agreeable...particularly about separating church and state in order to protect the right to religion. I guess my above posts explain why I think that way.

So I share the offense and understand where it comes from...but also see the kernal of worth that comes out of the otherwise offensive rant.

CP


chris l pettit - 4/29/2004

I just noticed I wrote "detrimental" in the above post...I meant deferential...but to associated as a colleague of mine may be detrimental in a lot of circles...hahaha.

From my studies in world religions...and Armstrong comments extensively on this as well, Judaism, Islam and Christianity all gave women quite a lot of equality in their earlier periods. For Christianity this disappeared when some dolt decided women were to blame for all evil in society because he couldnt interpret the Pentateuch properly...and women still haven't worked their way all the way back. In Islam I can't give you a specific period and would have to look up when and why the feminist structure disappeared...but one thing to remember when you see the Qu'ran cited is that you ahve to figure out the historical period when it was written, as Mohammed did not write it all at once, but over his entire career (actually he did not write it at all since he couldn't write). For instance the "anti-Semitic" passages only appear after the Muslims reached Medina, were originally accepted by the Judaic community there, and then were persecuted after the Judaic community changed their minds when Mohammed tried to enforce the monotheistic aspect of the faith, which to that point had not been that stringent. Indigenous faiths throughout Africa and the Americas built their civilizations along matriarchal lines. The ancient Egyptians had a well-developed system of law that ensured women's rights. Buddhism and Hinduism are famous for guaranteeing equality and giving women power to be major players in societal action. So I am not sure what you speak of when you say look in world religions for a lack of protection for women...it is only recently (in a world history sense) that world religions have been used to oppress women...and Christianity led the charge. Dr. King is a bit of a different story...i tried to qualify the statement in the above post knowing that it would be the biggest point to jump on...but there are instances in King's teachings when he extolls the virtues of the female gender...his widow made a point of including some of them in her collection of his essays (intentional i wonder?). but I admit King is not the one to be quoting in support of the feminist cause.

In reply to your universal truth nervousness...does this mean you are uncomfortable with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The Conventions on Civil and Political Rights and Economic Social and Cultural Rights? Convention Against the Discrimination Against Women? Convention on the Rights of the Child? I do not ask to be a pain...i just wonder. I know that many don't acknowledge the conventions or think they are meaningless or not enforceable or followed...but that does not do away with their universal acceptence in the international community. You would be hard pressed to find an individual who does not agree with the principles articulated within them. I think we are discussing whether principles are univeersal and are professed by all faiths...not if they are followed...to me an important difference...at least in this discussion.

CP


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/29/2004

"Josh, What Atrios said was offensive." It didn't offend me. But it obviously offends some people, particularly some christians.

What's missing for me in this whole discussion are examples of christians supposedly abusing "secular" left people, and examples of "secular" left people abusing christians (other than Atrios' rant, which may not be representative of anything other than his own bile). I still don't really understand what either side is complaining about.

For instance, I don't quite believe Hugo when he says lefties that he works with on other issues object to his christian verbiage in opposing abortion. I think they don't like him expressing opposition to abortion! Does anyone here seriously believe that if Hugo switched to non-religious language in opposing abortion, all those lefties that he's talking to would suddenly relax and become happy about it?

Ralph, I absolutely agree with you on the stupidity of offending people who can help with your cause.


Hugo Schwyzer - 4/29/2004

Oh, but I was hoping to be loved too. In the absence of that hope being fulfilled, I will settle for this splendid ongoing discussion.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/28/2004

Josh, What Atrios said was offensive. Hugo isn't claiming anywhere that he is "oppressed." There are too many claimants to that honor already. He's not even asking to be "loved," so far as I can tell.
Atrios makes a strategic blunder: it's simply an error to kick your allies -- especially while the battle is on.
You have causes you care about. You know that it is simply stupid to unnecessarily offend people who can help your cause.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/28/2004

I don't know Virgil Woods well, though I have interviewed him via telephone for the Vernon Johns Papers Project. Ask Woods to tell you about Vernon Johns sometime.
You'll need to go back and read documents on world religions, as well as read Dr. King. You'd be pretty hard pressed to come up with a big women's rights agenda from either of them. Proclamations of "universal truth" make me nervous - they are either so platitudinous as to mean very little or they aren't universal.


chris l pettit - 4/28/2004

I am your humble student and colleague...not to sound too detrimental...haha. I am in this to learn and give to my students as much as to offer my perspectives on things. i figure I still have a few years to work up to any sort of authority.

Congrats on the nomination by the way...I am impressed.

I am wondering if you are familiar with Dr. Virgil Wood...a close confidante of Dr. King's? The reason I ask is that my uncle works very closely with him at the University of West Virginia (psychiatry - Dr. William Pettit). I have had the chance to sit with him on a couple of occasions and speak with him about his experiences with Dr. King and he has had an effect on the way I look at things. I am just curious if maybe that helps you with where I come from in this debate.

I should also acknowledge that, although I do not mean it, i can see why my comments could be taken as implying it is easy to separate King's preaching from his activism. They were very much intertwined. I think my point is more about the forcing of religious values on people...which brings me to my next question/dilemma...

How exactly do we rate what qualifies as "pushing" one's viewpoints one another? Do we state that it is simply when someone has a religious point we don't agree with? I know that (like pornography in the old Supreme Court case) I can tell you something is universal to all faiths because "I know it when I see it." I can offer a general list, much of which MLK preached in his religious and activist sermons. Pacifism, equal human rights, non-violent civil disobedience, religious tolerance, women's rights (not that he practised what he preached...but no one is infallible), etc. For me these are universalised and when someone makes the argument that their religious beliefs do this when they clearly do the exact opposite (Falwell, Robertson) this is pushing their beliefs...as is pushing an issue such as abortion (pro-life religious argument). Do we disqulify an individual just because they state some particular religious views? No...but if it is the core of their whole message and is restrictive to one faith and not universal...we should. I think that is consistent. For instance, if MLK had interjected a hardcore baptist message into his speeches (which granted he was fervant at times)...i think one could make the argument that he should not have had as much thrust as he did. However, the examples that you raise with white southerners and the British towards Gandhi are both cases where the groups perception of the protagonists directly affected how they viewed what was being said. We must ask ourselves whether what is being said is religion being pushed on us...or whether our perception of the meaning behind the message is what is causing our irritation. It may be that we are (in the examples you list) hearing what we don't want to hear, but what is actually a universal truth. Or it may be that we may be misconstruing what is actually being said according to our own belief structures. There is a lot of stuff that could be going on.

I am curious that, historically...the further you get right, the more fundamentalist and religious you get...also the more intolerant and less universal. This is not always the case, but if we wanted to make a general rule i think that would be it. Of course I count atheism (totalitarian communism) and certain Buddhist Marxist groups here in SouthEast Asia as exceptions on the far left that also don't seem to get it. I agree that we should exclude those trying to impose their beliefs but who makes the decision and why?

I feel as though I ramble a bit and hope this is not too convoluted as I am trying to do about three things at once...none of which are remotely similar (this, sustainable development and mercenaries). let me know if this was too confusing for its own good or if I make any sense.

CP


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/28/2004

"But on an issue like abortion, I won't retreat to a kind of benign relativism that is afraid of making judgments. I do think abortion is -- in some very real sense -- homicide. That is rooted in my faith, though I can marshall various scientific arguments for it as well. If the price of admission to the secular discourse is to promise not to use my faith as a tool in the argument on a subject as personal and moving as abortion, than that is a price that I am simply not willing to pay. Most evangelicals won't pay it either."

Hugo, are you claiming that there are non-religious anti-abortionists, and that they object to your use of religious arguments against abortion? Didn't think so.

So your problem is only with pro-abortion people, isn't it? If you are saying that you work on some issues considered liberal or "leftist" by most, but that when conversation among those working on these issue shifts to abortion, you speak up against the pro-abortion majority-think, and you are treated uncivilly by your fellow activists, then I can understand your unhappiness.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/28/2004

Chris,
Not to pull authority on you or anything, you understand, but I co-edited the first two volumes of the Martin Luther King Papers. Volume I was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. So you can be reasonably confident that I've read a very large share of what Dr. King published. The business about pushing one's views on other people is a tricky one. There were certainly white Southerners who believed that King was rather aggressively pushing his views on them; and the British had similar thoughts about Gandhi, etc. It does seem to me that, if the objection is to religion in the public sphere, we need to be consistent and say that it should be excluded left and right. If we want to make exceptions for it, what exceptions and why? If we want other people to say only the things with which we agree, we need to be clear that that's exactly what we mean -- and, if we succeed, we will have created a much less interesting world.
Like Jonathan, I'm a big fan of Karen Armstrong's book. Oh, and by the way, it's really much more difficult to distinguish a King sermon from a King speech than you imply. He really didn't restrict his preaching to the pulpit.


chris l pettit - 4/28/2004

Exactly how much MLK have you read?

While his religion was a large part of his message at times, he never discriminated against other faiths or pushed his message on others. his was a message of universal human rights. I must caveat this by stating that I am a huge fan of King's writings and have studied them extensively, so my impressions of them may be slightly my own take on things. From my studies, King intertwined his human rights stances in his preaching, but also had many speeches when he did not mention the Christian faith specifically or spoke of a universal "God." He stated so in interviews and other writings. his pacifism stemmed not just from his religious attitude but from his philosophical studies as well. I concede the argument can be made that philosophy cannot be separated from religious beliefs, but don't think that any of us are in the position to question King's position.

Another thing...would you claim that Gandhi was accepted because he was Hindu? Mandela because he was Xhosa? it is the message, not the faith. That is why we must keep them separate...that is my point. Universalism...human rights...those things that all religions share. Christianity has long been much more elitist and closeminded in may ways than the the other 4 major faiths...due to the dangers inherent in the Trinity approach and seeing Christ as the "Son of God"...something totally unintended by those originally writing the Scripture. I was raised Roman Catholic and...like George Carlin, I like to say that I reached the "Age of Reason" and decided that it was wrong for me and in its institutionalized form was a cause of many of the problems in the world. Hugo...when one reads St. Thomas Aquinas, one sees that human reason and heavenly reason are supposed to work in unison...not be mutually exclusive.

The abortion example is a perfect case in point. Morally...spiritually...I would consider myself pro-life. But that is not enough...I must bring human reason into the equation. When I do that, the fact is that there is a great deal of ambiguity about when "life" begins. For instance...if you are anti-abortion and want to say that life begins at conception, do we prosecute all women for murder due to the fact that 80% of fertilized eggs are flushed out during "that time of the month"? A life is being ended according to pro-lifers. I would like to think that the more rational way of doing things is to go with the definition that science has come up with and is agreed upon by the majority at that point. At this point, in my opinion, the case can be made that it is either after the first trimester or second. Science for me is similar to law in a lot of ways. One of the main reasons they exist is because of the recognition that there are many different belief structures in the world and individuals will interpret them in their own ways. instead of having a bunch of individuals running around enforcing their own versions of god and morality, society created law and science to help us answer many of the questions raised by religion in a rational and reasonably objective manner. Is law or science totally objective? No...but how much of that is the fact that religious extremists (read Scalia, Rehnquist, Thomas) are appointed to courts and how much of it is the intertwining of Aquinas' human reason versus godly reason? This is a debatable point, but it can be shown that in systems where judges are not politically appointed (South Africa), the judiciary has been shown to be much more objective, much more consistent, and much more progressive. There seems to be a reason for this.

Ralph, the difference between MLK and Falwell is that Falwell forces his faith on people and preaches intolerance and denial of universal human rights to those who don't agree with his viewpoint. He blatantly contradicts much of the faith he pretends to espouse. That is his right to be able to interpret Scripture as he chooses...but he has no right to push that on others. MLK, for the most part, kept his preaching to the pulpit and included his universalist message in those homilies. When he spoke as an activist, most of the time (there are no certainties in life) he spoke of universal human rights and those issues that all gods and faiths agreed upon. THis difference is key...there was no forcing of his belief on his activist supporters. Was he helped by the fact that a majority of those following him were of the same faith? Yes, but this does not change the fact that when he spoke, he spoke in universalist terms most of the time, not in explicitly Christian ones.

Ralph...I respect your viewpoints greatly and consider you a fine scholar. I would just suggest you read MLK, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, etc. in a bit different light. i don't remember whether you said you have read Armstrong, but I think you would benefit from reading her as well. I think that the argument is very strong for keeping ones faith out of the secular realm and that those who do not are taking a very selfish view of things. If this is their "faith" that is fine and they are entitled to that...I just think that one can show that they are misinterpreting much of their own Scripture if they do so without considering historical, cultural and sociological contexts.

CP


chris l pettit - 4/28/2004

Exactly how much MLK have you read?

While his religion was a large part of his message at times, he never discriminated against other faiths or pushed his message on others. his was a message of universal human rights. I must caveat this by stating that I am a huge fan of King's writings and have studied them extensively, so my impressions of them may be slightly my own take on things. From my studies, King intertwined his human rights stances in his preaching, but also had many speeches when he did not mention the Christian faith specifically or spoke of a universal "God." He stated so in interviews and other writings. his pacifism stemmed not just from his religious attitude but from his philosophical studies as well. I concede the argument can be made that philosophy cannot be separated from religious beliefs, but don't think that any of us are in the position to question King's position.

Another thing...would you claim that Gandhi was accepted because he was Hindu? Mandela because he was Xhosa? it is the message, not the faith. That is why we must keep them separate...that is my point. Universalism...human rights...those things that all religions share. Christianity has long been much more elitist and closeminded in may ways than the the other 4 major faiths...due to the dangers inherent in the Trinity approach and seeing Christ as the "Son of God"...something totally unintended by those originally writing the Scripture. I was raised Roman Catholic and...like George Carlin, I like to say that I reached the "Age of Reason" and decided that it was wrong for me and in its institutionalized form was a cause of many of the problems in the world. Hugo...when one reads St. Thomas Aquinas, one sees that human reason and heavenly reason are supposed to work in unison...not be mutually exclusive.

The abortion example is a perfect case in point. Morally...spiritually...I would consider myself pro-life. But that is not enough...I must bring human reason into the equation. When I do that, the fact is that there is a great deal of ambiguity about when "life" begins. For instance...if you are anti-abortion and want to say that life begins at conception, do we prosecute all women for murder due to the fact that 80% of fertilized eggs are flushed out during "that time of the month"? A life is being ended according to pro-lifers. I would like to think that the more rational way of doing things is to go with the definition that science has come up with and is agreed upon by the majority at that point. At this point, in my opinion, the case can be made that it is either after the first trimester or second. Science for me is similar to law in a lot of ways. One of the main reasons they exist is because of the recognition that there are many different belief structures in the world and individuals will interpret them in their own ways. instead of having a bunch of individuals running around enforcing their own versions of god and morality, society created law and science to help us answer many of the questions raised by religion in a rational and reasonably objective manner. Is law or science totally objective? No...but how much of that is the fact that religious extremists (read Scalia, Rehnquist, Thomas) are appointed to courts and how much of it is the intertwining of Aquinas' human reason versus godly reason? This is a debatable point, but it can be shown that in systems where judges are not politically appointed (South Africa), the judiciary has been shown to be much more objective, much more consistent, and much more progressive. There seems to be a reason for this.

Ralph, the difference between MLK and Falwell is that Falwell forces his faith on people and preaches intolerance and denial of universal human rights to those who don't agree with his viewpoint. He blatantly contradicts much of the faith he pretends to espouse. That is his right to be able to interpret Scripture as he chooses...but he has no right to push that on others. MLK, for the most part, kept his preaching to the pulpit and included his universalist message in those homilies. When he spoke as an activist, most of the time (there are no certainties in life) he spoke of universal human rights and those issues that all gods and faiths agreed upon. THis difference is key...there was no forcing of his belief on his activist supporters. Was he helped by the fact that a majority of those following him were of the same faith? Yes, but this does not change the fact that when he spoke, he spoke in universalist terms most of the time, not in explicitly Christian ones.

Ralph...I respect your viewpoints greatly and consider you a fine scholar. I would just suggest you read MLK, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, etc. in a bit different light. i don't remember whether you said you have read Armstrong, but I think you would benefit from reading her as well. I think that the argument is very strong for keeping ones faith out of the secular realm and that those who do not are taking a very selfish view of things. If this is their "faith" that is fine and they are entitled to that...I just think that one can show that they are misinterpreting much of their own Scripture if they do so without considering historical, cultural and sociological contexts.

CP


Stephen Kamm - 4/28/2004

Odd, I work for a major public university and am VERY reluctant to indicate my religious beliefs; I'm looked out rather warily for a bit before I am accepted as part of the fold again. There is apparent concern that I may try to thump someone with a bible or use awkward language like salvation, Christ or redemption . . . always a conversation stopper.

The trouble with a purely secular foundation for public policy is that it hasn't been found. The last best effort was Rawl's Theory of Justice and his veil of ignorance. It's largely discredited now. Arthrr Lef (a deceased legal scholar) wrote a widely read essay on the topic tilted "The Grand Sez Who." An agnostic, he had come to conclusion that all law must, in the end, appeal to a law-giver or it is open the the rejoinder "sez who." He didn't like his conclusions and concludes with intentional irony "God help us."

I'm not advocating a theocracy; who'd want a world in the guise of the Handmaid's Tale. (It lives in Islamic countries.) But, most American's profess some belief in God and this belief was (is?) used to promote the intrinsic worth of every person, the foundation of our system. Witout it, we're left on very thin ground.


Hugo Schwyzer - 4/27/2004

I'm not at all offended, just frustrated. The liberal impulse, so often, is to tame faith to render it innocuous. In order to function in the academy as a Christian, I play by certain rules that I respect. But as a political person, I come to my politics through the prism of my faith. Of course I acknowledge that others have different faiths.

But on an issue like abortion, I won't retreat to a kind of benign relativism that is afraid of making judgments. I do think abortion is -- in some very real sense -- homicide. That is rooted in my faith, though I can marshall various scientific arguments for it as well. If the price of admission to the secular discourse is to promise not to use my faith as a tool in the argument on a subject as personal and moving as abortion, than that is a price that I am simply not willing to pay. Most evangelicals won't pay it either.


Hugo Schwyzer - 4/27/2004

Oh, good thread, boys! I prefer "Christian left" to Anabaptist left because modern Anabaptism does see itself very much as part of a larger Christian body. Our leading "lights" of the Christian left (Stanley Hauerwas, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis) are not Anabaptists, but we share much with them.

Coalitions among folks of different faiths (or no faiths at all) are likely to be most successful when they are focused on specific issue where agreement is certain: ending the war in Iraq, or getting a moratorium on capital punishment. We can put aside our different reasons for joining the coalition and focus our energies on achieving a common goal. But we all do ourselves a disservice when, for the sake of harmony, we refuse to acknowledge that we are fundamentally ideologically and theologically very different. What matters is that we find ways to talk about those differences without denying them or being unnecessarily hurtful.

Ultimately, Anabaptism knows that the kingdom needs to be built within the church so that the church can be a witness to the world. We know that trying to remake the world without first focusing on that task of kingdom-building isn't going to be blessed with success.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/27/2004

I'm a big fan of Armstrong, as well. I don't understand Chris's point about faith and politics. The left was quite welcoming of King's intrusive faith; not so of Falwell's. Fine that's just a political choice. But the Movement, arguably the Left's last substantial success, was far more the creature of the religious left than the secular left. Deal with it.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/27/2004

Jonathan, I'll still object loudly when someone gratuitously offends you, even if you don't object loudly when someone gratuitously offends me.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/27/2004

With regard to the first question, it doesn't seem to me that the vulgarity in Atrios' article is directed at anyone, but at the position articulated ("this", not "them"). I'm not big on vulgarity, but he's entirely within his rights to suggest that the discourse is unreasonably skewed, which is what he's doing.

It doesn't seem inherently offensive, but then, I'm not the one he's criticizing.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/27/2004

Why now? Well, I wasn't alive at the time.... But there's a difference between faith as motivation and faith as justification, and social justice is not unique to Christianity. Actually Judaism and Islam have deeprooted traditions of "charity" (and the Hebrew and Arabic really translate more closely to "justice") as a duty rather than a virtue, and nearly every secular political theory (aside from the radical individualisms) takes social justice as a starting point.

So, as Chris Pettit points out, if Christ wants social justice, he's tapping into something more universal than Christian salvation.

And the Anabaptists may well be unthreatening, politically, but Hugo was not making a case for an "Anabaptist Left" but for a "Christian Left." How are we supposed to make the distinction, when he doesn't?


Jonathan Dresner - 4/27/2004

I'm a huge fan of Armstrong's book, but as an Asianist, I haven't taught a class in which I could assign it. It should be required reading in World History programs, though.


Benjamin Keen - 4/27/2004

It seems to me that there's a confusion about just where religious faith comes into the political process. I find it hard to criticize someone who uses their faith to decide what issues they want to support - pacifism, limitations on abortion, what have you. But then to move on to use exclusively the moral vocabulary and justifications of one's own confession in a wider sphere, and to expect that this is going to have traction seems unreasonable.

That is to say, there's no problem with using religion to settle on policy goals: I support X because Christ says X is good. That's not objectionable. But using Christ's authority or one's own faith as a reason in an argument for *me* to support X *is* objectionable. So there's a collision, perhaps, between people feeling that they can't talk about the source of their moral compass and those unhappy about the notion of framing a political discussion in terms of 'what does Christ want'.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/27/2004

Hey, look at what Hugo correctly quotes Atrios as having said. It's offensive. Anybody disagree with that? It's intentionally offensive. Anybody disagree with that? One of the things I try repeatedly to explain to the secular Left is that the anabaptist tradition is the _only_ major religious tradition anywhere in the world which has never (since Muenster, at least) claimed establishment. So much for Ophelia's fears of theocracies. Anabaptists don't want establishment because it corrupts genuine faith. My sense is that the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and, increasingly, the whole Southern Baptist Convention represent the anabaptist tradition very poorly because they don't understand that. And the burden's on Hugo and me to say that loudly and clearly, but our secular allies on the Left (when we are allies) need to allow us space in the public sphere to make our case. No need to go ranting about prayer meetings and revivals. I didn't hear my secular friends complaining when King led such public affairs. Why now?


chris l pettit - 4/27/2004

I understand the feelings expressed by Hugo about his faith...and I totally respect his right to have those beliefs. On the other hand, I think that Jon and Ophelia are right when they speak of keeping one's faith out of politics and what is good for humanity and the world as a whole.

I think the topic turns on the fact that beilefs and a belief structure are, in the end, individualized. I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's "History of God" for what must be the 8th or 9th time. Tracing the history of how humans look at God is probably an impossible exercise, and I admit that even though I admire her efforts. What I take from the book is much more than that...it is a realisation that if one is going to have "faith" that is fine, but one must understand the history of the faith and where it came from, what others believed, and that, although their belief may be best for them in this given place and time, their ideas regarding scripture and its meaning are probably completely different than the ideas when they were first written. When I was studying for my COmparative Religion degree, I couldn't help but notice how all religions share the same basic fundamental tenets at their core...that is my "faith." It is also why I chose human rights law as a profession. "Once Buddha died, the schools were born." Another thing all religions have in common is the acknowledgement of human fallibility, thus the reason we screw religion up as soon as we touch it.

While I am not a huge fan of secularism or atheism, at least the way I would define them, I do believe that a type of universalism is needed in terms of secular discourse and politics, which is why I would worry when I heard Hugo say that his faith dictates his politics. Its great to vote your conscience for things that affect you, its quite another to push a cause because it helps you and is what you believe. Unfortunately, we have to realize that we are not the main characters in this story and that all of us are playing very tiny roles in life. What we believe may be fine for us, but that gives us no right to impose it on others, or violate the beliefs of others because we think it is good for our belief structure. We have to approach social issues and political secular issues with a view to what is good for humanity as a whole, believers and non-believers alike.

As historians, i would expect us to have a greater respect than most others for the fact that everyone will have their own "faith" that will likely have nothing to do with the interpretations original intended purpose. We can trace the development of religions and their interpretations and examine the sociological, cultural and historical patterns that influenced drastic changes in Scripture. I guess I am just trying to show why the separation between church and state is so important, and why taking the stance that faith should drive political thought is a dangerous and, in my opinion, rather selfish stance...I mean no offense Hugo, please forgive me if I offend. I do realise that my "faith" even plays a role in what I say, as everyones does.

By the way...if you have not already...read the text by Armstrong...it brings a lot of insight to the table

CP


Name Removed at Poster's Request - 4/27/2004

I'm wondering why the "christian left" people are making such a big deal of this, but I realized that I didn't quite understand what they are making a big deal of. And that's because they aren't being clear.

It's a standard gambit of some christians, especially aggressive evangelicals, to complain that they are oppressed precisely when they are trying to force themselves further onto others. I've seen some of that kind of language in this "debate."

I think the complaining christian left people want others on the left to be more accepting of their religious rhetoric, because that will make things more comfortable for these christians.

I think that's really just tough for them, because when they're in a non-religious political milieu, they're there to serve the politics of that milieu. These christians may have christian reasons that motivated them to be involved in a political cause, but all the non-christians, and the christians who don't make a big deal of their christianity, have their own motivations for political activity, and no one's reason is superior to anyone else's. So why should everyone else in a non-religious political organization have to spend much time listening to these christians' theological concerns? I haven't seen any of these complaining christians wanting to make time to listen to religious, philosophical or personal motivations for political action that differ from theirs.

Sure, if there's bigotry expressed in a non-religious cause milieu against religious people, particularly against religious people who are participating in the milieu, bring the bigotry out into the open, discuss it and stop it, insofar as it affects the political effectiveness of the milieu. But stop at stopping the bigotry, and don't insist that everyone love you for your religion.

Thanks, Jonathan, for your posts.


Hugo Schwyzer - 4/27/2004

Which is why my primary expenditures of time and energy go into living out what I hope is an authentically Christian life (albeit one with tons of room for growth) rather than trying to engage in the public sphere. I'm willing to dip my toe in, but I am not willing to treat my faith as if it were a coat I am asked to remove before I am allowed into the conversation.

I'm not offended in the least by Ophelia's comments, and I hear her fear of a theocracy as a valid one. White men like me have a different history under theocracies in the West, and I honor that. At the same time, we will have to find space for folks who do have strongly held beliefs to work in the public sphere unapologetically. That includes atheists, but it also includes devout Christians, and anyone else.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/27/2004

Hugo: You can't make a religious argument without getting into a religious argument. How do you make religious arguments about public policy without people saying "well you believe that, but you believe that because of your religion and I don't follow that religion so there's no reason I should believe that, too?" You can try to convince fellow Christians, I suppose, but that's not everyone. You can try to convert us, but I'm not a huge fan of that aspect of Christianity, either.

Religious faith is a perfectly good reason for proposing legislation. But it's a bad argument for supporting legislation and it's highly likely to produce unconstitutional legislation as it enshrines a religious perspective in law which applies to everyone, religious or not. Maybe not on issues of war and peace, but we're not just talking about issues of war and peace. We're talking about the theory and practice of American politics.

Sure, religious values are important. I have them too. But at some point, particularly with regard to modern policy, religious values are both too vague and too absolutist for a diverse and secular society (and, though the vast majority of the members of that society are religious, the society itself is secular, so far).


Ophelia Benson - 4/27/2004

There's more than one double standard though. There is for instance the double standard which causes some of us secularists to be extremely reluctant to say exactly why we think the public realm should be secular - especially one on one as opposed to saying it in articles or otherwise for a general public. But religious people don't seem to have a matching inhibition.

The reason secularists think the public realm should be secular is that it seems at best illusory and at worst dangerous (and very dangerous at that) to call on an imaginary being, to talk about the will of an imaginary being, to make an imaginary being that which is prior to everything else. Secularists tend to think it's wiser and safer (and more rational) and also more publicly discussable to refer to things that are there as opposed to things that (in the view of secularists) are not.

That's a taboo thing I just said. But that's my point. That's a double standard too. It's not taboo to talk about what Jesus wants and about God's will, but it is taboo to point out that secularists don't even think those two people exist, let alone think it's possible to know what they might want.

And another thing. If there's anything on earth I don't want, it's to live in a theocracy. Any theocracy. Not even a theocracy of nice people. Theocracies scare the hell out of me. What if it suddenly turns out that it's God's will that women should all be imprisoned at home? I don't want to have to rely on the niceness of nice people for the hope that that won't happen until I'm safely dead. I don't want there to be a ghost of a chance for that to happen. I don't see how it can be ruled out if politics is handed over to humans who know what God's will is, even if they do do it with humility.


Hugo Schwyzer - 4/27/2004

Thanks, Jonathan. One question: What does it matter if we are both working together to stop the war in Iraq, if I do so because I am following Christ my savior and you are led by an utterly different motivation?


The idea that our public policy should be based on secular arguments is one that troubles me. I have no problem assenting to secular arguments that don't contradict faith, but I can't assent to the notion that in the public sphere, secular arguments should have greater weight than religious ones. The very assumption behind that presupposes that religious faith is an insufficient argument for proposing legislation.


The problem is, for most of us faithful Christians, our faith is the lens through which we see everything else -- as Carter says,it is PRIOR to everything else...


Jonathan Dresner - 4/26/2004

I've been trying to find something useful to say on this subject since Ralph posted the initial links, and all I can think of is this: the whole debate is silly, except where it's sad.

No politically active group is going to be uniform in motive or belief. But there are limits to the diversity possible within a single group beyond which the group becomes meaningless (I think our current major parties passed this point years ago, particularly when you consider the "single-issue" voters like the Mennonites Hugo mentions. Side note: I understand Mennonites voting Republican, but I can't imagine them being active party members, as Anabaptism traditionally rejected secular politics. Are there Mennonite political operatives?).

Being in coalition does not mean being in total agreement, and that is true both on an organizational level and an individual level. Being part of a tradition or organization does not mean accepting that ideology whole: we have individual minds and wills and we all pick and choose, even if we are not conscious of it.

We have to be able to articulate our beliefs, sure, but we also have to be able to articulate our disagreements. It's fine that Hugo thinks he's discerned the will of God: I respect that, though I don't believe it. But the arguments he makes on policy and history better be secular, or I'm not going to be convinced of anything except that he's a very religious fellow. That's not disrespectful. He doesn't have to be convinced by my Jewish-rooted secular humanistic arguments, either.

But the double standard cuts both ways: secular beliefs are deeply held and are legitimate. I have a right to insist that I not have to accept someone else's view of God in order to participate in public policy discussions. I don't want to have to identify myself as a Jew every time I make an argument, nor do I think it should matter in most cases. I think it's entirely appropriate, highly desirable, that our public policy and our scholarship be based primarily on secular arguments with falsifiable postulates and commonly held sourcetexts.

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