The week was dominated by the news of the Supreme Court decisions, particularly that amazing one on the last day of the court's term (all discussed here), and the current invasion of Gaza by the Israelis with them taking parts of the Palestinian government into custody, blowing up lots of infrastructure so as the week ended there was no water available there at all, and buzzing the government buildings in the Syrian capitol with the fighter-bombers we've sold then over the years, all to get that one soldier back. Things are a bit hot there. Then there were the calls for the New York Times to be charged with treason for printing a story about how we traced the terrorists' financial transactions, which the administration had actually boasted about doing some years back. It was supposed to be a secret? Guess so (discussed here along with the flag-burning business). And the week ended with this - "The American military is investigating accusations that soldiers raped an Iraqi woman in her home and killed her and three family members, including a child, American officials said Friday. The investigation is the fourth into suspected killings of unarmed Iraqis by American soldiers announced by the military in June. In May, it was disclosed that the military was conducting an inquiry into the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha last November." We are the good guys, we really are.
And those were just the major stories. We live in turbulent times, and just where this all is heading is unclear. This country seems to be disintegrating before our eyes, or seems so to some, and you even get discussions of whether our president can be charged with war crimes - see this and this - theoretically possible but politically quite unlikely, even implausible. That's new. War crimes? That's unprecedented.
But the Fourth of July is fast approaching, and we can use the day to feel good about things - or not. Are you patriotic? Yeah, maybe you are. But are you godly?
Why should that come up now? Well, under the major stories there's some disagreement about core values that's getting nasty.
Things used to be different. Susan Jacoby is quoted here on the matter of church and state -
Yep, there are those of unchanging moral principles - Jesus is their savior and they know in which parts of the New Testament he was just kidding about tolerance and loving your neighbor and all the rest - and the rest of us just have no values. And the government should operate on those unchanging moral principles - and deal harshly with gay folks and those who would let other religions be and all the rest.
Those who cherish secular values have too often allowed conservatives to frame public policy debates as conflicts between "value-free" secularists and religious representatives of supposedly unchanging moral principles. But secularists are not value-free; their values are simply grounded in earthly concerns rather than in anticipation of heavenly rewards or fear of infernal punishments. No one in public life today upholds secularism and humanism in the uncompromising terms used by Ingersoll more than 125 years ago.
Robert Green Ingersoll on July 4, 1876, the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence - "Secularism teaches us to be good here and now. I know nothing better than goodness. Secularism teaches us to be just here and now. It is impossible to be juster than just. Secularism has no 'castles in Spain.' It has no glorified fog. It depends upon realities, upon demonstrations; and its end is to make this world better every day - to do away with poverty and crime, and to cover the world with happy and contented homes."
These values belong at the center, not in the margins, of the public square. It is past time to restore secularism, and its noble and essential contributions at every stage of the American experiment, to its proper place in our nation's historical memory and vision of the future.
And there's no "making the world better." Life nasty, mean, brutish and short, and people need to be kept in line - and anyway the end is coming with its Rapture, and improving things thus seems kind of pointless.
But why would the issue of church and state and basic values come up this week? Well, someone stirred the pot again, and that would be the rising young star of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois. He gave a speech at a conference of Call to Renewal, a religious group that wants to reduce poverty in America if they can. That speech would have been harmless enough, but he called for Democrats to embrace religious rhetoric from public platforms, and for the party to just lighten up about school prayer and all the other faith-based issues. It was, maybe, a "get religion and give in" speech. It raised some eyebrows. Liberal politics can be fused with religion? Really? For liberals religion was always a private matter, not political.
From a quick survey the reaction were mixed. From the left Michelle Murrain said this - "In the end, I think that this is very positive. He is right, most people in this country have some sort of faith, and Republicans have exploited this to forward their basically immoral agenda. He's not saying, and I'm not saying that we need to do the same. What he is saying, and I agree, is that politics and religion do mix, and we (that is, progressives) ignore that at our own peril." But another staunch Democrat said this - "I would agree with Obama that Democrats need to reach out to the Evangelical community, but let's not be stupid about it. Let's not compromise our principles and our beliefs in the basic humanity of ALL Americans in a cheap, transparent effort to woo a few more votes come November."
The widely-read lefty Duncan Black said this - "If you think it's important to court evangelicals, then court them. If, on the other hand, you think it's important to confirm and embrace the false idea that Democrats are hostile to religion in order to set yourself apart, then continue doing what you're doing. It won't help the Democrats, and it probably won't even help you, but whatever makes you happy."
In response to that there was this - "What nonsense! Obama's speech was far more critical of the cynical use of religion by the religious right than an attack on Democrats."
Maybe it was, but that's not how people saw it.
On the other side, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, thinks Obama offers "secularism with a smile," that he "seems to believe in the myth of a universal reason and rationality that will be compelling to all persons of all faiths, including those of no faith at all. Such principles do not exist in any specific form usable for the making of public policy on, for example, matters of life and death like abortion and human embryo research." That's here - there's no such thing as universal reason and rationality, as those two things never did anyone any good (the Enlightenment and all the science and political theory that arose from it was a crock, it seems). And anyway, you cannot be rational about abortion and human embryo research - you can only be right, or wrong. Rationality has nothing to do with it.
Michelle Goldberg, the author of the new book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, thinks something even deeper is at play. She's a bit alarmed about what she has named, probably rightly, Christian Nationalism. That's what her book is all about - all the organizations with the explicit aim of creating a Christian nation, not exactly a theocracy, but a government that is run on purely Christian principles, allowing those of other religions and values only limited rights and little say in things. There a whole lot of these folks.
But she understand them, as she explains here -
Ah, it's the existential despair thing. Since the secular left offers no comfort for "the absurd" - just fixing this policy or that and repairing roads or whatnot - the party that offers "meaning" in this sorry world gets their support.
When I was in Dover, PA during the intelligent design controversy, a preacher's wife told that if evolution is true, life has no meaning. "Where's this universe heading?" she asked. "What's the purpose of it all? There's no standard, no guidelines." Obviously, Democrats should not join Republicans in pretending that they have a lock on divine truth, but they can speak to people's anxiety, their hunger for community and purpose. The religious right offers people a narrative arc, not just about their own lives, but also about America's decline and imminent resurrection. Democrats need a mobilizing vision as well, one that speaks to the despair that underlies so much of our politics.
Now THAT'S hard to counter. And she says that the trouble with Barack Obama's recent speech about religion and the Democratic Party is not "his embrace of religious language in the service of liberalism" -
Yeah, the other side really should take the religious right's rhetoric seriously, and should engage and argue with the movement's ideas and not just scoff at it all as fanaticism. There is a "spiritual void at the heart of American life" - social movements that offer people meaning and "existential solace along with practical policy solutions" are a good thing.
Religious speech can be transcendent, and genuinely Christian ideals about justice and mercy can inspire even non-believers. The right has successfully convinced much of the country that the Democratic Party is hostile to people of faith, and speeches that work to counter that myth are valuable.
Unfortunately, Obama's rhetoric ends up reinforcing Republican myths about liberal Godlessness instead of challenging them.
Yeah, he gets it. People do have a problem with that nothingness scenario. Those of us who have made our peace with it are just too smug. And he suggests keeping the God words in the Pledge of Allegiance is no big deal, or voluntary student prayer groups using school property to meet, and certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - are fine, as they fix things.
Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.
They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.
But Goldberg contends this is silly, as there really is no battle at all -
You do notice that no liberal anyone knows and not one Democrat is fighting against the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance. What's the deal here? The left did what, exactly? They should be asking why the government is funding specific religious education, but they're not even doing that.
It is a common right-wing talking point that liberals want to take the phrase "under God" of the pledge of allegiance. Undoubtedly, some of us regret that, during a moment of Cold War panic in 1954, our government amended the historic pledge to put the word God in it. However, there is now no organized movement to take it out. The California man who sued over the pledge a few years ago represented no one but himself, and in 2002, when the 9th Circuit voted in his favor, many ardent defenders of church/state separation groaned. "This is a godsend for the religious right," Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State told me that day. "They're going to raise millions of dollars on this issue. I'm sure even as we're speaking, there are presses running overtime printing fundraising letters saying, 'Save the Pledge of Allegiance!'" Meanwhile, the Supreme Court had recently ruled that public money could be used for religious school tuition. "We're on the verge of tax-supported religion in this country. It's a startling change of policy, and instead of taking a hard, serious look at that, we're going to spend a couple of months arguing about the Pledge of Allegiance."
It's all a myth -
So the problem here is that Obama is basically saying the left and the progressives, and the major players in the Democratic Party, should stop doing what they're not doing.
Similarly, no one is stopping religious kids from gathering together to pray at school. Last year, when I was writing about the myth of the War on Christmas, I interviewed Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and an expert on religion in public schools. He's presented as a heroic voice of sanity in John Gibson's ridiculous book "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought." This is what he told me: "The big picture is that there's more religion now in public schools than ever in modern history. There's no question about that. But it's not there in terms of the government imposing religion or sponsoring it, and that bothers some people on the right. They miss the good old days when public schools were semi-established Protestant schools."
In the last two decades, Haynes said, "religion has come into the public schools in all kinds of ways ... many schools now understand that students have religious liberty rights in a public school, so you can go to many public schools today and kids will be giving each other religious literature, they will be sharing their faith. You go to most public schools now and see kids praying around the flagpole before school." In this evangelical climate, I suspect many students who practice minority religions, or no religion at all, are made to feel far more alienated than when I was in school during the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, when schools have stopped kids from engaging in religious speech - say, not letting them hand out religious tracts at lunch - the ACLU has stepped in to defend them, and they've been correct to do so. Liberalism, at its best, stands for free speech, even when that speech is annoying.
What should be at issue these days? Goldberg has some ideas -
Yeah, it's all upside-down.
The relevant argument, then, is not about whether there will be prayer in public schools. It's about whether there will be government-mandated prayer in public schools. The argument is not whether religion can do good things in people's lives. It's whether the government should fund religion. The argument is not even whether religious groups should contract with the government to provide social services - Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and others have been doing that for decades. It's whether religious groups that do receive taxpayer funds should be permitted to proselytize on the public dime, and to refuse to hire those of the wrong faith. The relevant debate is about government-financed religious discrimination. The rest is just a smokescreen to make it seem like defenders of the First Amendment are the ones on the offensive.
But what should the government be doing?
One of the contributors at Firedoglake says it seems so simple -
It that same existential despair thing - and the votes you can generate from it. Mix it with nostalgia for the good old days that never were, and you win, big time.
Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press;
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The first amendment puts the free exercise of religion right next to the freedom of speech and the press, and both of these next to the freedom to participate in the political realm shared by all. For over two centuries, society in general and the courts in particular have struggled with how to hold these three in tension. ... We all want our own beliefs respected, and part of that respect is the freedom to express them in public.
One big aspect of the whole "separation of church and state" discussion is generational. In the early 1960s, the Supreme Court made two major rulings that causes the TheoCons to scream for the heads of the Court. In 1962, the Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale (370 US 421) that the "Regent's Prayer" used in the public schools of the state of New York was unconstitutional. This prayer said "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country." (Students forced to pray for teachers: was this what Jesus had in mind when he said "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you"?) The next year, the Court ruled in School District of Abingdon Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (374 US 203) that the practice of a daily Bible reading led by the teacher followed by a recitation of the Lord's Prayer by the class is similarly unconstitutional.
Maybe it's because I never went to school in NY prior to 1962, but I like letting schools be schools, churches be churches, mosques be mosques, holy groves of trees be holy groves of trees, and so forth. But for some of a certain age who DID attend such schools, the loss of these prayers and practices felt like having a part of their school heritage cut out. The TheoCon leaders tapped into this pain, turned it into anger, and have used it ever since to fuel a "return to God" movement against the Court and all who agree with these rulings.
And the "return to God" things is really working (emphases added) -
But that's the way it is.
Some of the more recent cases have cut into this protection of the religious rights of those in the political minority. In Employment Division of the State of Oregon v. Smith in 1990 (494 US 872), Justice Scalia wrote for a 5-4 majority that the state was within the law when it fired a Native American drug rehabilitation worker for using peyote as part of a Native American religious ritual. The most disturbing part of Scalia's opinion was this, because he accurately assessed the import of his ruling: "It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs." (p. 891)
In other words, Scalia says that those who practice minority religions or those with practices rooted in opposition to prevailing religious beliefs only have such rights as the majority deigns to give them politically. This worries me greatly, because I break the laws of California (and at least 22 other states) every Sunday by providing alcohol to minors, some only just old enough to walk. It is part of a Sunday morning conspiracy of lawbreaking that goes by various names, including Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord's Supper. According to a compilation of state liquor laws as found in the Alcohol Policy Information System, run by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the NIH), at least 23 states provide no exception in the law for alcohol used in religious ceremonies. The only thing keeping me and my co-conspirators out of jail is the willingness of the various district attorneys and police departments to look the other way. (It's just a sip, officer...) That's not very comforting.
But the real issue in this item isn't "the protection of beliefs of those in the political minority" - or the rights of those who just don't believe. You can make an argument for the church - any church - to support the separation of church and state. This doesn't have to do with the courts and all - it has to do with the question of "who speaks for the church?" You want these clowns in Washington speaking for your church? Have you no pride?
The idea is that the separation of church and state because it protects both church and state -
Yeah, but the Christian Nationalists got a taste of political power - having the force of the government behind you to make everyone else do what you think is right - and that's pretty heady. Bush may be an embarrassment at times - a bit dim-witted and inarticulate - but the power is intoxicating. It's a trade-off.
Bush has wrapped himself in the cloak of Evangelical Christianity. He ran for office twice on a platform of Christ guiding his policy. Check that knee before it jerks. However, we are now a global community, many people are being introduced to Christianity through this overtly faith branded administration and ... the current administration is giving Christianity a bad name. Which is the ever-loving point behind the separation of church and state.
... It's one thing to have to clean up my own sins and (as a pastor) the sins of my church. My mess, my problem. But having the sins of the White House attributed to me and my beliefs is more than I want to deal with. (It's bad enough that I have to take them as an American, but as a Christian? No thanks!)
... Think about it: who do you want speaking for your beliefs and your church (or whatever your collection of like-minded folks might be called)?
Some don't like it, of course. See Andrew Sullivan from early May - My Problem with Christianism: A Believer Spells Out the Difference Between Faith and a Political Agenda.
He does not use the term Christian Nationalists. He prefers Christianism. He explains it this way -
That may be overly clever, but it captures what's going on - you have specific values and beliefs, and if you get enough political power, you can insist others subscribe to those particular and specific values and beliefs, and behave appropriate to them, or face the penalties under the laws established by the political system. How could you resist the tempatation?
Christianity... is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque. Not all Islamists are violent. Only a tiny few are terrorists. And I should underline that the term Christianist is in no way designed to label people on the religious right as favoring any violence at all. I mean merely by the term Christianist the view that religious faith is so important that it must also have a precise political agenda. It is the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.
But then, when "the discourse about faith is dominated by political fundamentalists and social conservatives, many others begin to feel as if their religion has been taken away from them."
Who would that be?
The list -
Sullivan claims a clear majority of Christians in this country fall into one or many of those camps. The evangelical right would say they're not "real" Christians.
The number of Christians misrepresented by the Christian right is many. There are evangelical Protestants who believe strongly that Christianity should not get too close to the corrupting allure of government power. There are lay Catholics who, while personally devout, are socially liberal on issues like contraception, gay rights, women's equality and a multi-faith society. There are very orthodox believers who nonetheless respect the freedom and conscience of others as part of their core understanding of what being a Christian is. They have no problem living next to an atheist or a gay couple or a single mother or people whose views on the meaning of life are utterly alien to them - and respecting their neighbors' choices. That doesn't threaten their faith. Sometimes the contrast helps them understand their own faith better.
And there are those who simply believe that, by definition, God is unknowable to our limited, fallible human minds and souls. If God is ultimately unknowable, then how can we be so certain of what God's real position is on, say, the fate of Terri Schiavo? Or the morality of contraception? Or the role of women? Or the love of a gay couple? Also, faith for many of us is interwoven with doubt, a doubt that can strengthen faith and give it perspective and shadow. That doubt means having great humility in the face of God and an enormous reluctance to impose one's beliefs, through civil law, on anyone else.
And there's the political tidal wave -
So what can the majority of "not good enough" Christians do about it? The idea here is the worst response, would be to construct something called the religious left, no matter what the junior senator from Illinois thinks -
... the term "people of faith" has been co-opted almost entirely in our discourse by those who see Christianity as compatible with only one political party, the Republicans, and believe that their religious doctrines should determine public policy for everyone. "Sides are being chosen," Tom DeLay recently told his supporters, "and the future of man hangs in the balance! The enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won, and if we put our trust in Christ, they never will." So Christ is a conservative Republican?
Rush Limbaugh recently called the Democrats the "party of death" because of many Democrats' view that some moral decisions, like the choice to have a first-trimester abortion, should be left to the individual, not the cops. Ann Coulter, with her usual subtlety, simply calls her political opponents "godless," the title of her new book. And the largely nonreligious media have taken the bait. The "Christian" vote has become shorthand in journalism for the Republican base.
So Sullivan is having none of this mix of church and state -
Many of us who are Christians and not supportive of the religious right are not on the left either. In fact, we are opposed to any politicization of the Gospels by any party, Democratic or Republican, by partisan black churches or partisan white ones. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus insisted. What part of that do we not understand?
Good luck with that. It may be too late. No one believes there is any "quiet majority," anymore than they believed Richard Nixon when he said there was a "silent majority" behind him all the way, agreeing with everything he did, who just didn't say a word for some reason. It's pretty to think so. And it's foolish.
That's what I dissent from, and I dissent from it as a Christian. I dissent from the political pollution of sincere, personal faith. I dissent most strongly from the attempt to argue that one party represents God and that the other doesn't. I dissent from having my faith co-opted and wielded by people whose politics I do not share and whose intolerance I abhor. The word Christian belongs to no political party. It's time the quiet majority of believers took it back.
So July Fourth will mark two hundred and thirty years of getting this church and state thing settled. The "Founding Fathers" probably thought they made things quite clear. And they sort of did, actually. But after all these years people still don't like the idea. The transitory news of the day comes and goes. This pesky issue is always around.
And for those of us who have embraced the absurd, who are "destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness" and are fine with it - that's the way things are, and you do your best to do good things, be kind and tolerant, and inquisitive - look at all this and smile ruefully.