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Some more nuance

Monday, June 28, 2004
First of all, I would like to apologize for not writing this weekend. On the one hand, I was being lazy. On the second, my wife and I were spending a lot of time together, and how could anyone fault me for that?

Now to the main subject. I don't know if Amy Sullivan wrote her post a few days ago in response to what I wrote (forwarded my blog to her), but whatever it was she apparently has been attacked a lot.

Here's how she responds to her critics:

For starters, here is what I'm not suggesting.

I do not think that we should have a Christian government. There are currently in Congress legislative proposals that would make this country a theocracy -- you might want to direct your ire toward them instead.

I do not think that a political candidate has to be personally religious. (We do know that Americans do not seem to be terribly open to electing avowed secular or areligious candidates, but that is another matter.)

I do not think that we should trample on the separation between church and state -- the wall is just as important for protecting churches from the state as it is keeping the state free from the influence of religion.

I do not support the Administration line that religious individuals and communities have been discriminated against and are oppressed.

And, no, I'm not suggesting liberals do what conservatives have and use religion as a political tool. That merely weakens political discourse and undermines the prophetic power of religion.

So where does that leave us? With my basic point: You cannot dismiss the 87% of the population who say that religion is an important part of their lives. Some of those people will always vote with the Republican Party, no matter what Democrats say or do -- that's fine. Some of those people are true-blue Democrats and vote with the party despite its traditional hostility to religion -- great. But in the middle is a group of conflicted voters.

What they care about is inequality (whether issues of poverty or corporate greed or globalization), about stewardship (using our economic and environmental resources wisely), about the morality of war and treatment of prisoners. Their concern for these issues often springs from their religious beliefs. And yet when they go to the polls, their choice is between a party that tells them that it's okay to be religious and a party that says they need to divorce their faith from their political decisions. So they vote, more often than not, with the Republicans. Or, they vote uneasily for the Democrats -- as I'm writing this, I've just received a message from a reader who says, "The Bush presidency is such a disaster that the Dems will not lose me, even though they do not make me feel too welcome in their party."

(By the way, plenty of readers write with variations of, "Well, if they don't feel comfortable or welcome, they can leave." They do. That's why the Democrats are in the minority. Thanks very much for that helpful and oh-so-tolerant thought.)

I understand that a lot of people are uncomfortable with the religiosity of Bush and Ashcroft and many religious conservatives. I am, too. But it should go without saying that they are not representative of all people of faith, that you can oppose how they have co-mingled religion and politics without decreeing that religion should never be mentioned in the context of politics.

Martin Luther King Jr. rarely talked about religious values without connecting them to democratic ideals. He understood that you cannot appeal to people purely on the basis of a specific religious tradition. But he also understood how powerful religion was in influencing the way that so many people think. To wish it wasn't so is not useful.

To end on a personal note, I write about this subject not -- as some have suggested -- because I, as a person of faith, feel harrassed and discriminated against. I use myself as an example only to say that if I (a former Daschle and Bonior staffer with a half dozen Democratic campaigns under my belt) sometimes feel alienated by the way that liberals and Democrats talk about religion, then countless people slightly to the right of me on the political spectrum feel that way as well. Again, you can pretend that isn't so and you can say that you don't need those voters anyway -- I hope you're comfy in the minority party.

Now I certainly hope that she isn't including me in the group accusing her of trying to impose a theocracy. And here arguments on the practical advantage of reaching out to moderate evangelicals is absolutely correct. What I was suggesting in my post was that while the political calculus certainly pointed in the direction of incorporating spiritual arguments into the liberal agenda (which we did all the time before the 1960's), this strategy is morally suspect from the perspective of democratic theory and institutional stability. I'm looking at Amy's plan from a philosophical and moral point of view, rather than a prudential one.

So what am I saying, as opposed to what she's saying? Well, as far as I can tell, Amy thinks that liberals are only going to be able to build a political majority if they accomodate themeselves to the religious character of American life. And I respond by stating that using ANY religous justification from ANY religious tradition violates the terms of democratic discourse. So I'm siding with those who Amy claims want to exclude religion from the public square. Amy seems to think that we can use religous arguments to support liberal policies without inviting the problems involved with mixing church and state. All I'm saying is that I don't think that's really possible. Employing religious justifications into politics, even in the most general terms, is to introduce religion into politics. And we aren't supposed to do that.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:11 PM
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