Thursday, May 05, 2005

Culture Clash

Two sides of the issue

Janes Taranto wrote
Why I'm Rooting for the Religious Right
Secular liberals show
open contempt for traditionalists.

I am not a Christian, or even a religious believer, and my opinions on social issues are decidedly middle-of-the-road. So why do I find myself rooting for the "religious right"? I suppose it is because I am put off by self-righteousness, closed-mindedness, and contempt for democracy and pluralism--all of which characterize the opposition to the religious right.
One can disagree with religious conservatives on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, creationism and any number of other issues, and still recognize that they have good reason to feel disfranchised. This isn't the same as the oft-heard complaint of "anti-Christian bigotry," which is at best imprecise, since American Christians are all over the map politically. But those who hold traditionalist views have been shut out of the democratic process by a series of court decisions that, based on constitutional reasoning ranging from plausible to ludicrous, declared the preferred policies of the secular left the law of the land.
I agree completely, and it is driving people whose faith may not be as strong as it should, to embrace those with more faith.
For the most part, the religious right has responded in good civic-minded fashion: by organizing, becoming politically active, and supporting like-minded candidates. This has required exquisite discipline and patience, since changing court-imposed policies entails first changing the courts, a process that can take decades. Even then, "conservative" judges are not about to impose conservative policies; the best the religious right can hope for is the opportunity to make its case through ordinary democratic means.
The legislature is where laws should be made. Judges should not make laws, they should follow them. As I blogged here I did not oppose the Connecticut legislature creating civil unions for gays and lesbians, or here, when the Vermont legislature moved to allow doctors to prescribe suicide drugs for terminally ill patients who request them, because those changes were being made in the legislature, not in the courts
In the past three elections, the religious right has helped to elect a conservative Republican president and a bigger, and increasingly conservative, Republican Senate majority. This should make it possible to move the courts in a conservative direction. But Senate Democrats, taking their cue from liberal interest groups, have responded by subverting the democratic process, using the filibuster to impose an unprecedented supermajority requirement on the confirmation of judges. That's what prompted Christian conservatives to organize "Justice Sunday," last month's antifilibuster rally, at a church in Kentucky. After following long-established rules for at least a quarter-century, they can hardly be faulted for objecting when their opponents answer their success by effectively changing those rules.
I agree. The Left lost both the Legislative Branch and the Executive branch, and a minority were trying to control the Judicial Branch by blocking judges deemed Well Qualified by the ABA
This procedural high-handedness is of a piece with the arrogant attitude the secular left takes toward the religious right. Last week a Boston Globe columnist wrote that what he called "right-wing crackpots--excuse me, 'people of faith' " were promoting "knuckle-dragging judges." This contempt expresses itself in more refined ways as well, such as the idea that social conservatism is a form of "working class" false consciousness. Thomas Frank advanced this argument in last year's bestseller, "What's the Matter With Kansas?"

Liberal politicians have picked up the theme. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, in a January op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, mused on a postelection visit he made to Alabama, wondering why people from that state "say 'yes' when the increasingly powerful Republican Party asks them to be concerned about homosexuality but not about the security of their own health, about abortion but not about the economic futures of their own children."

Assuming for the sake of argument that Democratic economic policies really are better (or at least more politically attractive) than Republican ones, why don't politicians like Mr. Feingold adopt conservative positions on social issues so as to win over the voters whose economic interests they claim to care so much about? The answer seems obvious: Mr. Feingold would not support, say, the Human Life Amendment or the Federal Marriage Amendment because to do so would be against his principles.
Balderdash. It is because he would lose the support of left wing special interest groups.
It's not that he sees the issues as unimportant, but that he does not respect the views of those who disagree. His views are thoughtful and enlightened; theirs are, as Mr. Frank describes them, a mindless "backlash."

This attitude is politically self-defeating, for voters know when politicians are insulting their intelligence. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, recently framed the abortion debate in this way: "What we want to debate is who gets to choose: Tom DeLay and the federal politicians? Or does a woman get to make up her own mind?" He also vowed that "we're going to use Terri Schiavo," promising to produce "an ad with a picture of Tom DeLay, saying, 'Do you want this guy to decide whether you die or not? Or is that going to be up to your loved ones?' " Many voters who aren't pro-life absolutists have misgivings about abortion on demand and about the death of Terri Schiavo. By refusing to acknowledge the possibility of thoughtful disagreement or ambivalence, Mr. Dean is giving these moderates an excellent reason to vote Republican.
That is certainly true for me. I thought congress was wrong to do what it did regarding Terri Schiavo, and can accept abortion in cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother, but I hate abortion on demand and particularly abortion as a means of birth control.
Curiously, while secular liberals underestimate the intellectual seriousness of the religious right, they also overestimate its uniformity and ambition. The hysterical talk about an incipient "theocracy"--as if that is what America was before 1963, when the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools--is either utterly cynical or staggeringly naive.
No it stems from the Secular Left's fear of anything having to do with Christian Faith. They can even accept observances of other faiths, because they are in the minority, but they have a rabid fear of anything having to do with Christian Faith.
Last week an article in The Nation, a left-wing weekly, described the motley collection of religious figures who gathered for Justice Sunday. A black minister stood next to a preacher with a six-degrees-of-separation connection to the Ku Klux Klan. A Catholic shared the stage with a Baptist theologian who had described Roman Catholicism as "a false church." These folks may not be your cup of tea, but this was a highly ecumenical group, united on some issues of morality and politics but deeply divided on matters of faith. The thought that they could ever agree enough to impose a theocracy is laughable.
I agree
And the religious right includes not only Christians of various stripes but also Orthodox Jews and even conservative Muslims. Far from the sectarian movement its foes portray, it is in truth a manifestation of the religious pluralism that makes America great. Therein lies its strength.

Christopher Hitchens wrote
Why I'm Rooting Against the Religious Right
Save the Republic
from shallow, demagogic sectarians.

I hope and believe that, by identifying itself with "faith" in general and the Ten Commandments in particular, a runaway element in the Republican leadership has made a career-ending mistake. In support of this, let me quote two authorities:
  • The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100%.
    And which left wing interest group is only looking for government leaders following their position 50%, or even 75%, of the time?
    If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. . . . Just who do they think they are?
    American citizens
    And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
    Probably the same place as you have for presuming to have the right to force Abortion on Demand on a state where the legislature would never think of passing such a law.
    And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some god-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism."

  • "Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother." And he said, "All these have I kept from my youth up." Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, "Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me."
The first citation is from Barry Goldwater, moral founder of the Reagan revolution, who, when I interviewed him on his retirement from the Senate, vowed to "kick Jerry Falwell in the ass."

The second citation is from Luke 18:20-22.

I am neither a Republican nor a Christian, and I don't propose that there is any congruence between Sen. Goldwater's annoyance and the alleged words (which occur in similar form in all four gospels) of the possibly mythical Nazarene.
I realize you are not a Christian, but do you realize how offensive it is for you to refer to a "possibly mythical Nazarene"
Yet two things are obvious. The first is that many conservatives appreciate the value of a secular republic, and do not make the idiotic confusion between "secular" and "atheist" that is so common nowadays.
i favor a secular republic, in that I agree with the first amendment that there should not be a single official state church. But I do not agree that means that we have to stop school children from singing Christian songs at Christmas time (Christmas time, not "Winter Holiday" time), or praying to God in schools (you can pray to your God, I will pray to mine), or having a copy of the 10 commandments displayed on government property.
The second is that no "Moral Majority" type has yet proposed that the most important commandment, the one underlined by Jesus himself, be displayed in courtrooms or schoolrooms.
Not sure which of Jesus's statements you refer to, but I have no objection to any of the things Jesus said being displayed in courtrooms or schoolrooms.
It turns out that the Eleventh Commandment is not "Thou shalt speak no ill of fellow Republicans," but is, rather, a demand for the most extreme kind of leveling and redistribution.

I have never understood why conservative entrepreneurs are so all-fired pious and Bible-thumping, let alone why so many of them claim Jesus as their best friend and personal savior. The Old Testament is bad enough: The commandments forbid us even to envy or covet our neighbor's goods, and thus condemn the very spirit of emulation and ambition that makes enterprise possible. But the New Testament is worse: It tells us to forget thrift and saving, to take no thought for the morrow, and to throw away our hard-earned wealth on the shiftless and the losers.
What do you object to in any of those thought?
At least two important conservative thinkers, Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, were unbelievers or nonbelievers and in any case contemptuous of Christianity. I have my own differences with both of these savants, but is the Republican Party really prepared to disown such modern intellectuals as it can claim, in favor of a shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity?

Perhaps one could phrase the same question in two further ways. At the last election, the GOP succeeded in increasing its vote among American Jews by an estimated five percentage points. Does it propose to welcome these new adherents or sympathizers by yelling in the tones of that great Democrat bigmouth William Jennings Bryan?
Perhaps by supporting the state of Israel?
By insisting that evolution is "only a theory"?
The book of Genesis is a part of the Torah, as well as the Christian Bible.
By demanding biblical literalism and by proclaiming that the Messiah has already shown himself? If so, it will deserve the punishment for hubris that is already coming its way. (The punishment, in other words, that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson believed had struck America on Sept. 11, 2001. How can it be that such grotesque characters, calling down divine revenge on the workers in the World Trade Center, are allowed a respectful hearing, or a hearing at all, among patriotic Republicans?)
Should they have praised what the terrorists did?
Then again, hundreds of thousands of young Americans are now patrolling and guarding hazardous frontiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is there a single thinking person who does not hope that secular forces arise in both countries, and who does not realize that the success of our cause depends on a wall of separation, in Islamic society, between church and state?
I certainly hope for secular governments, respecting the rights of all faiths and ethnic groups in their country, but I would be very surprised if they had a government that was as nasty to Islam as the Secular Left expects our government to be toward Christianity.
How can we maintain this cause abroad and subvert it at home? It's hardly too much to say that the servicemen and -women, of all faiths and of none, who fight so bravely against jihad, are being stabbed in the back by the sunshine soldiers of the "crusading" right. What is one to feel but rage and contempt when one reads of Arabic-language translators, and even Purple Heart-winning frontline fighters, being dismissed from the service because their homosexuality is accounted a sin?

Thus far, the clericalist bigots have been probing and finding only mush. A large tranche of the once-secular liberal left has disqualified itself by making excuses for jihad and treating Osama bin Laden as if he were advocating liberation theology. The need of the hour is for some senior members of the party of Lincoln to disown and condemn the creeping and creepy movement to impose orthodoxy on a free and pluralist and secular Republic.

Dan Levine blogged There are three good articles today staking out different positions that secular conservatives take with respect to the religious right: in the WSJ, dueling columns between James Taranto, the often offensive but occasionally witty author of the journal's Best of the Web Today blog, and Christopher Hitchens, and in the Times, David Brooks's piece.

Hitchens is the most critical, and Taranto the least--though Taranto's sympathy does not lie with the substance of the RR's movement, but with its process (as a slow but determined democratic response to a generation of anti-democratic judicial activism). Brooks is in his classic two-handed ("on the one hand, on the other hand") NYT columnist posture, which here may not be so bad.

For all of us who resist the moral and religious absolutism of the RR, each of the articles offers some sage advice:

1. From Hitchens, (for thinking conservatives or those trying to appeal to them) to remember the conservatism of Barry Goldwater and to see nutso bigotry for what it is.

2. From Taranto, to remember that positive social change only sometimes comes through the courts; and that the rest of the time is the opposite.

3. And from Brooks, to remember that much of what we now consider obviously rational and secular sprung in part from religiously-influenced moral inclinations in its origins.

And from all, to realize that secular conservatives exist, and that they are the swing voters to whom the Democrats and the Republicans should appeal.

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