I got up this morning determined to find something political to blog about, because I’ve spent most of the last couple of days first writing and then defending the religion post at Unclaimed Territory. By last night, after repeating the same couple of simple points for the five hundredth time, I had a throbbing headache and was veering perilously close to the “kiss my ass” stage of Rogerian argument.
The most frustrating part of the effort was that a great many people did not base their criticisms of the post on what I actually wrote. I don’t mind — well, maybe I mind a little, but only in an ego-attached way — those who expressed disagreement with something I did write. But a large part of the criticisms were from people who assumed what I must think and attacked me for opinions I do not have.
For example, a couple of self-described atheists attacked me for being anti-atheism and opposed to the separation of church and state. In fact, I have on occasion chided the religious for their intolerance of atheism. (I wish I could say I have defended atheism a lot, but the fact is most religious people don’t exactly, um, respect my opinions, either. I don’t belong to the majority tribe.) And there’s no other civil liberties issue that I care more passionately about, on a personal level, than protecting the separation of church and state.
I was both fascinated and frustrated by the commenters who assumed I am Christian even though I explicitly said I am not. Obviously, something in their heads caused the adjective religious to override “not a Christian.” Several complained that I didn’t understand how dangerous religion is, even after my rhetoric about “warring religious whackjobs” and “a genuine threat to civilization on this planet.” Others were dismissive of the post because I didn’t address their pet religious agendas. In some of those cases I actually agreed with the agendas, but they were way outside the scope of the points I was trying to make in the post.
And then, of course, my defenses of the post pushed buttons, too. Although I hadn’t wanted to write about my personal religious adventures, when one commenter complained that he didn’t understand what religion I followed, I provided a simple explanation as devoid of proselytizing as I could make it. Then another commenter complained because I was making “religious declarations.” I wrote that not all Christians are James Dobson zealots and was called a “Christian apologist.” When I expressed alarm at the dangers posed by James Dobson zealots I was told I was bashing religion.
I suppose now I’ll be told I’m whining.
If there’s one point that was driven home to me, it’s that some (adj., a portion or an unspecified number or quantity of a whole or group: He likes some modern sculpture but not all) on the Left really do harbor a palpable hostility toward religion per se. I know this is not true of the entire Left, but until this weekend I would have said the hard-core religion haters were a minority and not representative of the Left. I still think they’re a minority. Probably. But they’re sure as hell a big and assertive minority, and representative of something.
Bloggers before me have hit the same flame wall. This post by Steve Waldman at Washington Monthly discussing hostility to religion on the part of some liberals drew complaints that he was spreading GP talking points, interspersed with comments that were hostile to religion.
I’d like to clarify that I did not make a request for tolerance of religion because I’m worried about the rightie mythos that “The Left” hates religion. You know that righties are going to claim “The Left” hates religion as long as they can find even one leftie who hates religion. This doesn’t have anything to do with their concern for religion; they’re just looking for reasons to hate lefties. One stumbles onto rightie bloggers who admit they aren’t religious themselves but who still beat lefties over the head with the “they hate religion” meme. Libertarians tend to be unreligious, yet the Right thought the Libs were just peachy until the Libs turned against George W. Bush.
On the other hand, many UT commenters who denied there is a liberal bias against religion would, in the next paragraph, make some knee-jerk, narrow-minded comment about religion. I’d find you some examples except that I’m afraid to go to UT today. By now they’ve probably got me pegged as a paid agent of Jerry Falwell.
In an ideal America, voters wouldn’t care about a political candidate’s religious proclivities. Well, unless those proclivities involved human sacrifice or a belief that URLs are coded messages from another galaxy, in which case some concern might be warranted. But a vast body of empirical evidence shows us that just because a politician says he’s found Jesus doesn’t mean he can find his ass with both hands. And I doubt, sincerely, there’s even a slight statistical correlation between public declarations of faith and private virtue. Even Jesus told his followers that displays of devotion do not constitute quality assurance. (See, for example, Matthew 7:15-23.)
But many Americans live a culture that combines a crass religiosity with jingoism and nativism and several varieties of bigotry, simmered together in a toxic, psuedo-fascist soup. And appeals to reason, tolerance, social betterment, prosperity, or good government do not get soup-dwellers to the polls nearly as well as waving the Bible and promising to uphold God’s Law. (God’s Law being a nasty, repressive business that no god worthy of respect would have any part of.)
This culture has existed in one form or another throughout American history. However, in my lifetime I’ve seen it get worse. The marriage of the GOP and the Christian Right, combined with the power of mass media, has made it both more powerful and more widespread.
The power of the Christian Right has hurt the Dems, no question. Political pundits tell Dems they have to get “more religious” to appeal to Christian voters if they’re going to win the White House in 2008. Maybe, but there are good ways to do that, and there are stupid ways to do that. The stupid way is for candidates who are uncomfortable with Bible Belt culture to try to “fit in” by talking about Jesus. Even if the Jesus talk is sincere, the politician will still transmit the message “I’m an alien to your world” in a thousand subtle ways. Trust me on that.
The smart way, IMO, is to enlist the help of native religious moderates to persuade other religious moderates that it’s OK to vote Democratic.. See, for example, “When Would Jesus Bolt?” by Amy Sullivan in the April 2006 Washington Monthly. Even better, right now the Dems should be searching for presentable and articulate liberal evangelicals (not an oxymoron, believe it or not), to take guest bobblehead gigs on political talk shows. The public face of Christianity doesn’t have to be a right-wing one.
As I said, the hard-core Right is a lost cause, but they aren’t the only voters in red states.
We must break the grip of the Christian Right’s political power, but the way to do that is not for secularists to wage war against religion. The way to do that is for the non-religious, and the religious who want to maintain religious liberty, to make common cause against the theocrats.
I’d like more religious Americans to understand that a “secular society” is not hostile to religion. Rather, a secular society is one in which citizens are free to explore many religious paths, or none, without coercion or interference from government. It is a society in which religion can remain free of the corruption of worldly political power and flourish according to its merits.
Maybe someday we’ll see a society in which an atheist can be elected President of the United States. Well, I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, but eventually.
And in the far distant future, maybe secularists will stop spouting knee-jerk, narrow-minded views about how all religious people are knee-jerkers with narrow minds. Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath on that one.