Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Defense of Religion in Politics

By Garrett FitzGerald
September, 29 2011

There's an article up over at AlterNet this week in which author Tana Ganeva explores the "5 Signs That America is Moving Away From Religion" through the follow five-point proof:

1. American religious belief is becoming more fractured
2. Non-belief - and acceptance of non-belief - is on the rise
3. Growing numbers of young people who do not identify as religious
4. Hate groups that exploited religion to bash gays are hemorrhaging funds
5. [More people are] Getting married by friends

Ganeva's article is an interesting read, and seems to offer a good bit of corroboration for each of the five claims it stakes. And while folks more interested in the sociology of religion than I might want to revisit some of these claims - is it possible to say, for example, that the fracturing of religious organizations and decreased identification with specific religious institutions are symptomatic of new, more individualized ways of being religious - I would like to dip a bit further into some of the other, more subtly problematic assumptions upon which Ganeva's article rests.

The subtext of Ganeva's article revolves around the correlation between an apparent overall decline in American religiosity and a corresponding decline in the more pernicious forms of conservative Christian political activism. As with a lot of progressive commentary about religion, I agree with many of Ganeva's points in terms of the specifics discussed. "GOP pandering to the Religious Right" makes my skin crawl, and I am proud to stand with "secular Americans" in condemning climate change deniers and the teaching of the bogus pseudo-science of Creationism in public schools. These are just some of the many troubling examples of conservative Christianity's projection into public life and politics that inspired me to start in the first place. And if Ganeva's article had limited its critique to the elements of conservative Christianity that promote these deeply problematic trends in our society, I would have been happy to sign off on its other conclusions.

But Ganeva, like many other progressive commentators on religion, roundly fails throughout the article to distinguish between these highly objectionable public manifestations of conservative Christianity and, well, all other forms of religion. The article's lone nod to moderate Christians - never mind religious progressives or adherents to other religious traditions - comes comes under the fourth claim, in which Ganeva immediately contrasts the assertion that "many practicing Christians live their faith without trying to impose their values on others" with more tales of the hateful excesses of conservative Christianity.

This regrettably common reductionistic reading of religion is not only intellectually dishonest, but it is also counter-productive to moderate and progressive agendas, both religious and political. Using the Religious Right as a rhetorical stand-in for all religion does an immense disservice to religious non-Christians and Christian non-conservatives alike, and has the additional negative consequence of helping to further entrench the hold of conservative Christianity on public and political discourse in the US. Any time the category of "religion" is reduced as a signifier to identification solely or even primarily with conservative Christianity, it only serves to legitimize the same intolerant strains of conservative Christianity whose declining influence on American politics Ganeva is (rightly, in my mind) celebrating.

Similarly problematic are the conclusions this reductionistic rendering produces regarding the broader role of religion in politics. Since Ganeva routinely uses the word "religion" interchangeably with highly specific trends within politically and theologically conservative Christianity, it should come as no surprise that Ganeva warmly embraces the prospect that diminished overall religiosity plays into the "hope [that] one day religion will reside in the realm of personal choice and private worship, far away from politics -- something like what the Founders intended hundreds of years ago." 

Even if we bracket and set aside Ganeva's oversimplified claim about the intentions of the "the Founders" regarding the role of religion in politics, Ganeva's attitude still belies a truly lamentable inclination among non-religious progressives toward fundamental mischaracterization of the nature of religious influence on politics. 

It's not that I'm unsympathetic to most of Ganeva's critiques about the inappropriate level of influence of conservative Christianity over our national politics. And if I understood religion to be synonymous with conservative Christianity, I would be justifiably nervous about its prominence in American public and political discourse as well. But as an individual whose own sense of religiosity is fundamentally linked to my progressive politics, and as someone who has invested significant time and energy in promoting the proud history of progressive religious contributions to social justice in the US, I take serious issue with Ganeva's underlying assumption that the influence of religion on American politics is necessarily negative, and that the country would be best served by the complete separation of politics from religion.

One telling influence on Ganeva's uncharitable views on the impact of religion on politics can be found in the article's frequent use of quotes from Annie Laurie Gaylor, the founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. While the language on the FFRF's website is fairly consistent in naming the Religious Right as the primary perpetrator of inappropriate religious incursion into politics, the FFRF's messaging and tactics belie a history of fairly obvious disdain for religion in general. During the holiday season, for example, the FFRF maintains a sign at the Wisconsin State Capitol that reads in part: "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." The FFRF website also subtly hedges its bets against less conservative forms of religion by downplaying (read: completely ignoring) the historical contributions of progressive religious groups and individuals to centuries of struggle for social justice:
The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion. In modern times the first to speak out for prison reform, for humane treatment of the mentally ill, for abolition of capital punishment, for women's right to vote, for death with dignity for the terminally ill, and for the right to choose contraception, sterilization and abortion have been freethinkers, just as they were the first to call for an end to slavery. The Foundation works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church.
Without getting too much into the historicity of the claims in this paragraph (although I would love to see some of them corroborated), I would just like to point out again that FFRF wholly ignores the invaluable contributions made to literally every single one of the movements they mention by religious progressives in the US and abroad. While religious arguments were certainly made against some of these movements for social justice, in each of the cases listed about we find religious progressives struggling for justice and standing on the right side of history.  I consider this omission particularly galling on a personal level given the immense contributions made by my own spiritual ancestors in the Society of Friends to nearly every single one of the causes listed by the FFRF. 

So how does a celebration of the waning political influence of conservative Christianity translate itself into a desire to see all of religion, even the demonstrably beneficial progressive strains, entirely excluded from political processes? I personally situate the blame with the progressive penchant for overreaching the constitutional protections regarding religion, perhaps exemplified nowhere more clearly than in groups like the FFRF. On this score, a small but vocal minority of secular progressives routinely fall into the Pharisaical trap of crying foul on religious trespasses that stop short of actually violating the letter of the law.

As Ganeva's article points out, atheists, skeptics, and non-believers have every right to feel defensive about their social and political positions relative to the many politically power religious groups in the US. Until very recently, atheists polled as one of our country's most reviled groups, an obviously unjust position that is thankfully being slowly remedied by incremental progress in the visilbility and acceptance of atheism. Personally, as a religious individual, I do not feel in the least bit threatened in my social or political situation by the rise in self-identification among atheists, skeptics, and agnostics. I could not begin to express the richness that individuals who identify with these categories have added to my life, and I long for the day when atheists, skeptics, agnostics, and individuals who identify with every stripe of religious and non-religious affiliation can freely claim these mantles without fear of condemnation from their fellow citizens.

But Ganeva's article and the FFRF dramatically overstate the case for the "separation of church and state" when they argue this phrase to mean the complete absence of religion from politics. Austin Cline, a former Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism and a former Publicity Coordinator for the Campus Freethought Alliance, quite nicely sums up the situation thusly:
Freedom from religion does not mean, as some mistakenly seem to claim, being free from seeing religion in society. No one has the right not to see churches, religious expression, and other examples of religious belief in our nation — and those who advocate freedom of religion do not claim otherwise.

What freedom from religion does mean, however, is the freedom from the rules and dogmas of other people’s religious beliefs so that we can be free to follow the demands of our own conscience, whether they take a religious form or not. Thus, we have both freedom of religion and freedom from religion because they are two sides of the same coin.
When it comes to the letter of the law on judicial assessment of laws and governmental actions suspected of violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the current standard for evaluation can be traced back to a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Via the Freedom Forum's "Education for Freedom" resources:
The Lemon test, based on the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, is the standard of judicial review in cases involving the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Lemon test involves three criteria for judging whether laws or governmental actions are allowable under the establishment clause. A negative answer to any of the three questions means the act is unconstitutional.

* Does the challenged law, or other governmental action, have a bona fide secular (non-religious) or civic purpose?

* Does the primary effect of the law or action neither advance nor inhibit religion? In other words, is it neutral?

* Does the law or action avoid excessive entanglement of government with religion?

If the answer to all three is yes, the law passes the Lemon test.
So, while legislation and governmental actions are explicitly prohibited from functioning as vehicles for the furtherance of religious groups and their rules or dogmas in lieu of a 'bona fide secular...or civic purpose," there is absolutely nothing that constitutionally proscribes appeals by politicians or non-governmental organizations (or the occasional progressive religious blogger!) to the values engendered by religious belief and practice in the debates that generate these laws and actions. And unlike conservative Christianity, which attempts to mask religious values in civic purposes, more progressive forms of religious expression routinely use religious values to promote laws and government action with specifically secular, civic purposes.

Let me offer you an example. My own religious beliefs stress the absolute preciousness of each and every human person, and are therefore quite commensurate with the promotion of basic human, civil, and constitutional rights and liberties. So when I take a position arguing from a religious perspective that same-sex couples should absolutely have the same rights and protections as heterosexual couples, my arguments are religious in form, not purpose, as I am using the moral and theological resources of my own tradition to apply normative pressure in support of legislation and governmental action that would breeze past the constraints of the Lemon Test. 

Conversely, attempts to legislate conservative Christian beliefs are doomed by their lack of secular, civic purpose, as such attempts are often found to be wholly lacking in any sort of civic value when removed from the moral contexts of their conservative theological frameworks. As our own Matt Redovan has pointed out in the context of the legal challenges to California's Proposition 8, when conservative theological objections to same-sex marriage are removed, the arguments in support of such blatantly discriminatory legislation are forced to straddle a wholly unconvincing line between faulty empirical claims about the social consequences of same-sex marriage and vague quasi-religious metaphysical claims about the very purpose of marriage as a social institution. 

But aside from their overreach of constitutional limitations on the role of religion in public and political life, the pervasive desire among progressives to divorce religion from politics also strikes me as counter-intuitive from a strategic point of view. What about the scores of religious organizations committed to progressive advocacy and work for social justice? Does Ganeva's distrust of religion run so deep as to desire these groups to take down their shingles and leave the work of progressive political advocacy to explicitly secular organizations?

On the rhetorical level, regardless of how non-religious progressives feel about religion, the fact remains that the use of religious language and imagery remains an incredibly potent normative tool in the context of political discourse and debate. To the extent that religious language and imagery continues to function as a moral lingua franca for groups and individuals across the spectrum of the American political affiliation, the temptation among non-religious lefties to downplay the potential political contributions of religion only serves to alienate progressive efforts from a powerful resource of meaning in terms of how we conceptualize - morally, theologically - our work for social justice.

That being said, religious progressives must never, never presume any sort of superiority regarding the moral and theological resources from which we make political meaning. Our beliefs represent only some of the myriad strands that comprise the progressive movement and the American social and political landscape. And while I reserve the right to judge any and everyone's politics, religious progressives would do well to respect the moral processes that lead those who do not share our beliefs to the same political conclusions. Similarly, in approaching political issues from a religious standpoint, religious groups and individuals must assume the additional burden of ensuring that their moral and theological arguments may be translated effectively into policy proposals that respect the inviolable tenets of our Constitution. 

When it comes to working through our nation's incredibly precious pluralism of belief, I continue to favor the notion of John Rawls' "overlapping consensus." To manage the internal pluralism inherent in a healthy liberal democracy, Rawls advocated a collective effort among groups with dramatically different mechanisms for moral meaning-making to search for points of common moral overlap. And when I read an article like Ganeva's, or come across the work of a group like the FFRF, I am reminded of the continued need for progressive groups within our own democracy to honor the moral traditions of the others with whom we labor toward our common goals, even if we struggle to understand the processes by which our comrades reach our shared conclusions.

To reduce the political contributions of religious groups and individuals in the United States to the harmful excesses of the Religious Right is to ignore the centuries of struggle and sacrifice for justice undertaken by religious progressives in the name of their faiths. Trust me, religious progressives are painfully aware of the truly problematic ends to which our faiths are being bent in the world today, just as they have been bent to justify past horrors. But, as discussed above, religious progressives have been an integral part of the solution in each of the watershed movements for social justice in the course of our national history, and we're doing our damnedest to stay that way.

We cannot legislate religion. That is written, clear as day, in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. So by all means, let's adhere to Jefferson's admonition that the "legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions," and let us keep the promotion of religion out of our public policy. But let us not pretend that this also necessitates taking religion out of political discourse.

Update:  Received a really positive tweet in response from Tana Ganeva this morning. It's all about keeping these conversations going.


  1. I think you like words too much, but I think I followed you, and I think I agree. Thanks, I think.

  2. Thanks for this. It's really hard for me sometimes to talk to my friends about politics because they think all Christians are like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann.