Monday, February 19, 2007

The Political Relevance of Religious Belief and Unbelief

Last week, playing off both the Edwards Blogger kerfuffle and Mitt Romney's presidential launch, Atrios spurred a bit of blogospheric controversy with a series of posts on religion in the public square.

His basic argument, with which I basically agree, is that once "people of faith" inject their religious views into public discourse, the content of those views is fair game for commentary, dissent and even mockery, though mockery may be politically inadvisable if you are, say, involved in a presidential campaign.

Romney's Mormon Problem provides the perfect foil for Atrios' secondary point, which is that the tendency of political observers to divide Americans into "believers" and "unbelievers," or on occasion, between "Christians" or "Judeo-Christians" and everybody else, is intellectually dishonest because it (a) obliterates the very meaningful differences in metaphysical, moral and political viewpoints within the broad "believers" category and virtually every subcategory, and (b) disrespects the metaphyiscal, moral and political viewpoints of people who subscribe to unconventional religions or no religion at all.

On Atrios' first point--presumably motivated by the talk of Amanda Marcotte's "offensive" blog posts about the Virgin Birth and so forth--I would offer one important qualifier to his general take: mocking the religious underpinnings of some political position is one thing; denying their sincerity is another.

Here's how the regression from mockery of politics to mockery of religion to mockery of religious sincerity tends to work: Some people hold abhorrent political positions that they justify with religious principles you happen to consider a bunch of atavistic Hooey. You attack the positions on their dubious merits. You then go over the brink and attack the underyling Hooey. But since you think it's Hooey, you go on to suggest that the Hooey, being Hooey, is just a mask for very different motives (e.g., misogyny) that can be deplored without discussion of religion. Not being a regular consumer of Amanda Marcotte's blogging at Pandagon, I can't say for sure this is her pattern, but it is common in criticisms of religious-based opposition to equal rights for women and/or gays and lesbians.

Now this habit of dismissing the explicit underyling principles of political positions is hardly limited to irreligious people. Its mirror image is the belief of many "people of faith" that atheists and agnostics haven't reached their metaphysical stance through thoughtful reflection or observation, but are instead motivated by moral or intellectual laziness, or are simply slaves of some all-powerful Secular Zeitgeist.

Moreover, claiming hidden motives is a regular stock-in-trade in intra-religious controversy. Lord knows I have on more than one occasion suggested that Christian Right leaders have sold out their ministries for a mess of secular pottage, and have wilfully and illegitimately conflated cultural conservatism with the Gospel.

But maybe that's the lesson here: challenging the sincerity of religion- (or for that matter, atheist-) based political positions is work best left to those who share the ostensible world-view of the challengees. Or, to be more pointed about it, if you think Christianity (and/or its central tenet, the Incarnation) is Hooey, then you might want to defer to Hooeyites in making the claim that Hooeyite-based opposition to abortion, birth control, or equal rights reflects misogyny rather than sincere Hooey.

And that, of course, leads me to Atrios' secondary and most politically relevant argument: the artificial suppression, at least in MSM discourse, of intra-Christian disagreements over doctrine and their political implications.

There are plenty of historical reasons for the contemporary muting of doctrinal differences in this country. Most obviously, the constitutional and civic traditions--and the religious diversity--of the United States have forced a remission of the more Triumphalist claims of various Christian theologies. And there's been something of a convergence in theology itself, at least in terms of the controversies that used to lead Christians to repress and kill each other in Europe. Catholicism abandoned its no-salvation-outside-Rome position during Vatican II, and more recently, modified positions on Limbo-and-Purgatory, and on Justification-by-Faith-Alone, that were among the touchstones of the original Reformation. Actual, Sunday-to-Sunday, American Catholic worship is very difficult to distinguish from Episcopal or Lutheran worship, and in some cases, Methodist and Presbyterian worship.

And among Protestants, theological (in the sense of formal and liturgical differences) have declined, with the sole and crucial exception of Biblical Infallibility (usually defined by Protestant Fundamentalists as demanding the subjugation of women and gays), and the cultural and political differences that divide dictates.

To sum it all up, few Christians these days dissent from the Nicene Creed; or worry a lot about the pagan origins of church seasons; or fight about the precise nature of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But they do fight a lot about the cultural and political implications of their common faith, and particularly about the Bible, and these fights should be made explictly religious fights.

So Atrios' call for an open season of everybody's religious or irreligious beliefs in politics is spot-on. And Mitt Romney's candidacy does indeed bring this issue to a head. Mitt would like to draw a line between "unbelievers" and "believers" in politics in order to avoid examination of the specific nature of his own beliefs, which many "believers" would find as abhorrent as those of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews or even atheists.

But as Atrios suggests, you can't have it both ways. If you want credit for your "belief," you must let your "beliefs" stand the test of scrutiny.
-- Posted at 4:53 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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