Religion v. Religion

For the past several years conventional wisdom has said that Republicans/conservatives were “more religious” than Democrats/liberals. A report from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released late in 2003 seemed to back this up. The Pew poll used three questions to measure “religious”; 81 percent of self-identified conservatives scored three out of three, whereas only 54 percent of self-identified liberals hit the religious trifecta.

I’ve been complaining about the Pew poll since it was released. Pew’s questions for determining who is religious were (1) belief in the power of prayer, (2) belief in a final Day of Judgment, and (3) belief beyond doubt in the existence of God. These criteria reflect an understanding of “religious” common to the People of the Book — Jews, Christians, Muslims. But if you are, for example, Hindu or Buddhist, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press you are not religious at all.

Considering that His Holiness the Dalai Lama would possibly score zero for three on the Pew religion test (no better than one out of three, I’m sure), I submit there’s a flaw in the test.

The question about a final Day of Judgment seems especially problematic. Many conservative, evangelical denominations are essentially eschatological sects keenly focused on preparation for the End Times, which they expect any minute now. But liberal Christians are more likely to think the fire-and-brimstone stuff in Revelations is just a metaphor for something. (Exactly what is a matter of opinion. I’ve heard it argued that Revelations was not a prediction of the End of the World but of the fall of the Roman Empire.)

The older Christian denominations mostly teach that there will be a Second Coming of Christ. However, they also take the view that no mere human can predict when this will happen. So while one should always be prepared, don’t quit your day job. My understanding is that there are diverse views on the End Times within Judaism and Islam as well. Some religious people don’t spin their wheels over Judgment Day all that much, even if they believe there’s going to be one.

One major distinction between conservative and liberal Christians (and, I suspect, conservative and liberal Jews also) is that liberals are more likely to consider scripture to be metaphorical rather than literal. This may tie back to the psychological makeup of people prone to conservatism — conservatives don’t like ambiguity and are more likely than liberals to be dogmatic. I postulate that people who are drawn to conservative religion are also more likely to adopt a conservative political view. Both religious and political conservatives tend to be more rigidly dogmatic, more deferential to authority, and to see the world in black and white terms. Political and religious liberals, on the other hand, tend to be less judgmental, more tolerant of ambiguity, and more fluid in their beliefs.

Thus, a test of “religiousness” based on adherence to doctrine will be skewed in favor of conservatives. But adherence to doctrine and religious devotion are not the same thing. Some religions place a higher value on religious practice and on the spiritual journey than on blind faith in a belief system. It’s not what you believe, but what you do, that matters.

I bring this up because of an article in today’s New York Times, “Religious Liberals Gain New Visibility” by Caryle Murphy and Alan Cooperman. If you are as old as I am you remember a time when religious liberals were visible and politically active, but for the past twenty or so years conservatives have pretty much taken over the religion franchise and obtained a copyright on Jesus. But, say Murphy and Cooperman, “religious liberals across a wide swath of denominations are engaged today in their most intensive bout of political organizing and alliance-building since the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, according to scholars, politicians and clergy members.”

Rightie blogger reactions to this article are dismissive. The Left is hostile to religion, they say. “The more Democrats try to appeal to religious voters, the more they’ll alienate a big chunk of their base,” says one. This guy may have a point, sort of. I think it would be a huge mistake for Dems to copy the crass religiosity of the Right in order to win the evangelical vote.

Those alien to Bible Belt culture (Howard Dean, I’m talking to you) often can’t talk about religion without visible squeamishness. This has nothing to do with lack of devotion, however. Many genuinely religious people are uncomfortable talking about their religious experiences for the same reason they’re uncomfortable talking about their sexual experiences — some things are too personal and intimate to flaunt in public. And I say, if that’s how you feel, honor that.

For some, religion is a kind of tribal identity, and their religious talk is a code to let others know they are one of your people. But that same rhetoric will alienate those who recognize the tribe doesn’t include them. This is, I think, where a lot of the Left’s so-called hostility to religion comes from. Most of the time it’s not religion lefties are hostile to, but the exclusionary implication of much religious talk — if you aren’t one of us we don’t like you and you’re going to hell. It’s a tad off-putting.

I will be very surprised if the religious Left makes the same kind of alliance with the Dems that the religious Right made with Republicans. I suspect the religious Left is less interested in electing Democrats than in taking religion back from the fundies. They may be very happy to work with Dems on certain issues, but I don’t see the religious Left becoming an auxiliary of the Democratic Party. Or vice versa. And that’s OK; only the most rigidly conservative seem to think everyone has to join the same tribe.

Speaking of tribes — according to Frank Rich, the marriage between the Christian Right and the Republican Party may be on the rocks.

Politicians, particularly but not exclusively in the Karl Rove camp, seem to believe that voters of “faith” are suckers who can be lured into the big tent and then abandoned once their votes and campaign cash have been pocketed by the party for secular profit.

Nowhere is this game more naked than in the Jack Abramoff scandal: the felonious Washington lobbyist engaged his pal Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition, to shepherd Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson, Gary Bauer and the Rev. Donald Wildmon and their flocks into ostensibly “anti-gambling” letter-writing campaigns. They were all duped: in reality these campaigns were engineered to support Mr. Abramoff’s Indian casino clients by attacking competing casinos. While that scam may be the most venal exploitation of “faith” voters by Washington operatives, it’s all too typical. This history repeats itself every political cycle: the conservative religious base turns out for its party and soon finds itself betrayed. The right’s leaders are already threatening to stay home this election year because all they got for their support of Republicans in the previous election year was a lousy Bush-Cheney T-shirt. Actually, they also got two Supreme Court justices, but their wish list was far longer. Dr. Dobson, the child psychologist who invented Focus on the Family, set the tone with a tantrum on Fox, whining that Republicans were “ignoring those that put them in office” and warning of “some trouble down the road” if they didn’t hop-to.

As I wrote here, Republicans face an agenda impasse. For years they’ve been making promises to social and religious conservatives to get their votes. This was grand as long as Democrats controlled at least part of the federal government so that the Republicans didn’t have to keep those promises. But now they don’t have an excuse, and appeasing the base will mean alienating the large majority of Americans who are not homophobic and misogynistic knuckle-draggers.

Unfortunately, some among the Dems aren’t learning the right lessons from the Republican experience. Rich continues,

The Democrats’ chairman, Howard Dean, who proved his faith-based bona fides in the 2004 primary season by citing Job as his favorite book in the New Testament, went on the Pat Robertson TV network this month and yanked his party’s position on same-sex marriage to the right. (He apologized for his “misstatement” once off the air.)

Not to be left behind, Senator Clinton gave a speech last week knocking young people for thinking “work is a four-letter word” and for having TV’s in their rooms, home Internet access and, worst of all, that ultimate instrument of the devil, iPods. “I hope that we start thinking some very old-fashioned thoughts,” she said.

Dear Lord, how can smart people be so stupid?

Update: See also Pastor Dan.