Continuing The Chart Project, this third installment looks at religion in society. In the past month or so, religion has been a hotter topic than usual in the liberal blogosphere. (My own feelings and beliefs regarding religion are pretty irrelevant to this post, but perhaps I’ll get to them at some later point.)
Of course, there is a difference between people who are simply religious and authoritarians with a religious bent. Obviously not all religious conservatives share the extreme authoritarianism that characterizes “the religious right” as a political and social force (and most religious liberals and moderates do not). I imagine most readers of this post will be familiar with the tenor and actions of the religious right in America, and to a lesser degree the authoritarian branch of the religious left in America. If that’s not the case, or a refresher is desired, let me provide some links.
Here’s a key Talk to Action post on Democrat Jim Wallis, who does care about social justice, but also works in the Counter-Enlightenment tradition. In this sense, he’s the same as most of the religious right, with whom he shares many policy goals, such as a total ban on all abortions. Here’s the Talk to Action home page; they follow the political activism of religious groups quite closely.
Here’s a recent post by Digby, ”The Screaming Minority,” that gives a taste of the hypocrisy and ambition of James Dobson, one of the leading figures of the religious right. (Digby and Tristero have many great posts on the religious right.)
If you look through the Mike’s Blog Round-Up archive for his “Holy Crap” entries, you’ll find a wealth of links.
Here’s Blue Herald’s wealth of material on everyone’s favorite reformed homosexual evangelical, Ted Haggard.
Here’s a piece by Orcinus’ Dave Neiwert on the ”Bigotry and Subversion” of Bill Donohue and his far right Catholic League. Meanwhile, if you want a real scare, Sara at Orcinus linked a piece about geocentric Christians. Yes, these people are not only “young earth creationists,” they actually believe the sun and all planets circle the Earth. They’ve even built mechanical models for it. Holy crap, indeed.
Here’s a Media Matters post on Bill Donohue of the far right Catholic League defending some of his anti-Semitic remarks. Here’s the Crooks and Liars archive on Donohue.
One of Atrios’ posts from his series on religion is here (from 2/10/07).
Finally, how can we overlook the divine Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
I know there’s much, much more out there. But let’s get started.
As noted in ”The Chart That Explains It All!” a great deal of political discourse is hampered by false dichotomies. A favorite one of the religious right may be graphically depicted like so:
Of course, this dichotomy is silly and inaccurate. Pitching it works to rile up the religious base or play politics, but there are relatively few “anti-religious” people out there. Instead, there are plenty of “non-religious” people out there, but that’s not at all the same thing, as much as James Dobson and his ilk claim otherwise. Furthermore, religious and non-religious groups are not truly oppositional. As we discussed in ”The Social Tolerance Charts,” one group, the religious activists, is attacking those not in their group, while those not in their group primarily just want to be left alone. (Considering they’re the aggressors, it’s highly ironic that the religious right still preach a persecution complex as a central tenet.)
On this note, a more subtle false dichotomy deployed by religious activists is this one:
Democrat Jim Wallis employs this false and misleading dichotomy, as do many on the religious right (“secularists” is a favorite epithet). Here, they’re trying to classify non-religion as a religion. Of course, it’s not. This move is not only a political ploy, it’s also deeply narcissistic. Not everyone needs or wants religion or a belief in divinities in their lives. This is a false dichotomy on a few levels. For one, when figures such as James Dobson speak about "religious people," they're not talking about or fighting for the rights of Hindus and Muslims. More importantly, this dichotomy also suggests that everyone who doesn’t believe in a god — or let’s be real, in their god — shares the same set of beliefs. Actually, it's not so much that Dobson and his ilk truly think everyone outside their group literally shares the same beliefs, but this is operationally the case because they treat all belief sets besides theirs as having the same value — little to none. The rhetoric and actions of the religious right betray a classic “Us versus the Other” mentality, where everyone who is not part of the defining group is lumped together. Again, this is highly narcissistic. Furthermore, when religion, atheism and morality are discussed on television, it is horribly common for guests and hosts to equate religion with morality and posit implicitly or explicitly that atheists are amoral or immoral. It’s practically an article of faith, rarely questioned. Of course, morality is not dependent on religion in the slightest, and many immoral acts have been committed in the name of religion. As alluded to above, there’s heliocentrism, there’s geocentrism, but the religious groups that employ any of these false dichotomies are egocentrists and dogmacentrists.
What’s particularly amusing and ironic about this false characterization is that Wallis and others actually use the word “fundamentalist,” intending to use it as a pejorative! This silly maneuver of targeting “secularists” has been around since at least the 80s, only then religious activists labeled their opponents “secular humanists.” (I was amazed as a high school student to learn that Isaac Asimov and others had been so labeled by the religious right.) I imagine that, like “Democrat-ic,” “humanist” sounded too good, so they changed it. The “secularist” label is more polite than “anti-religious,” but it’s still a calculated mischaracterization, and we still hear claims of persecution from people who have organized aggression against people mostly just wanting to be left alone.
The egocentrism and narcissism of these groups appears in almost every issue they raise. Christian religious activists do not press school boards to teach the Sufi or Hindu creation myths in school, for instance. They create a false equivalency between the book of Genesis — to be taught as literal fact (in opposition to the practice of many Christians!) — and the scientific record of the planet Earth (the "Intelligent Design" camp is more subtle about this, but the agenda is the same). It’s also a false dichotomy because one can certainly believe in both science and the Bible. For that matter, these people would not want someone to take over their Sunday service to preach a physics lecture, yet they want Genesis taught in science classes. On a related note, no statutes outlaw prayer in school — try telling that to the many religious clubs across the nation. The statutes outlaw mandatory, teacher-directed prayer, as well they should. Authoritarians also never seem to have the imagination to conceive that they might be in the minority someday, or would be somewhere else. The religious right would be apoplectic if their children were forced to pray to Mecca in their public schools. I can imagine a religious right figure saying, ‘well, Iran is a Muslim nation and America is a Christian nation.’ However, this is false in the sense they mean it. America contains many religions, but can be fairly called a “Christian nation” on a descriptive, demographic level only. In terms of our Constitution, our government, our laws, we are most certainly not a Christian nation and were specifically and deliberately set up not to be one.
A far more accurate description of out government and society would be this:
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Or, to take it one step further, to allow for those nasty “anti-religious” people, this:
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In this chart, non-religious, religious and anti-religious people all have equal protection and rights under the law, as is the case in America. (I’ve used a right-hanging design partially for practical layout reasons and also for equality of religions.) Religious people are protected from anyone who is truly “anti-religious.” Different religious groups, and different sects within those religions, are all protected from one another. Most importantly, perhaps, the non-religious are protected from the religious folks. In some countries, Christians can still claim persecution, but in America, no Christians are being fed to the lions are anything approaching that. In fact, atheists and agnostics are far more persecuted, marginalized and ridiculed in the national political discourse (although they still possess legal rights, of course).
Combine the above system with both ”the chart that explains it all,” and the social tolerance charts, and we get something like this:
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Here, “authority-driven” becomes specifically the push for a theocracy, in opposition to the American system outlined in the Constitution and other founding documents for Freedom of Religion and the Separation of Church and State. These are competing paradigms, more important than the faith (or supposed faith) of those supporting them. The members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, for example, support the system on the right. Ah, but what of religious “principles”? As with our earlier charts, there’s nothing preventing a Christian from worshipping in the fashion he or she chooses in the system on the right (beyond other laws, of course), the American system. In contrast, while the dominant religion of a theocracy of course has “principles” and tenets, on a systemic level it is not principle-based in the same manner. Instead, it’s structured as a social and governmental hierarchy, where truth, justice and power are determined by those on top, who may or may not rule wisely. In a theocracy, other religious groups may or may not be more favored or persecuted than the non-religious, but anyone opposed to the dominant religion is clearly at the bottom. None of this is to say we have wise leaders now, but we’re speaking of the overall systemic design and what it allows (or even encourages). Put another way, the American system, pictured on the right, is neutral on the issue of religion and the relative merits or any given religion. Obviously, a theocracy is not, and is on a systemic level intolerant. In America, authoritarian Christian organizations are performing a diagonal attack against the foundations of our government and society.
Despite the attempts at historical revision by the religious right, America was not founded as a theocracy. The founding fathers were not all of one mind on anything, but they nonetheless reached a consensus on many essential issues, and among these were Freedom of Religion and the Separation of Church and State. For example, Thomas Jefferson was a deist, not a traditional Christian, and re-wrote the Bible to preserve its moral teachings while removing all supernatural aspects. Jefferson also worked with James Madison to remove religious tests in Virginia, and to craft the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the three accomplishments mentioned on Jefferson’s tombstone (President is not one of them). This highly influential law helped shape First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bans the establishment of a national religion by Congress.
Tristero outlines all of this very well in his short piece ”Faith and Reason”: “By conscious decision, the Founders of the United States intended that there be NO place for religious privilege or argumentation in the decision-making process of government. None. As in zero, zip, nada.” He follows this up with the post ”Cold Reason” quoting some thoughts of Lincoln’s on the essential role in government of “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” and “a reverence for the constitution and laws,” both of which serve as a bulwark against what Tristero calls “the lynch [mob] mentality.”
These principles are so central to American government (and covered in any average education) it raises the question: why the hell do these conflicts over religion in politics occur at all? One reason is that when religion is involved, people can get very emotional, and irrational. The other explanation is that the leaders of the religious right aren’t suffering from poor understanding, they’re simply acting in bad faith.
The essential point to remember is that the religious right and other theocrats are not seeking justice, fairness, or equality. They are seeking privilege and power. Furthermore, religious right leaders already possess privilege and power over their followers. They are seeking to expand that power over those not in their group, and over the government and society itself.
Anyone is free to take pride in their religion, beliefs, or community. Nothing prevents that. Meanwhile, authoritarians are free to preach to one another, or believe in their heart of hearts, that they are superior to those who do not share their beliefs. They may even believe that God views them as superior (doubtless some authoritarian Christians do, although it makes me question their understanding of Christianity). However, the realities of American society and political campaigns aside, on the legal level, claiming allegiance with a specific religion does not make one superior.
Let’s take a closer look at the left half of the chart above (based on the third of our social tolerance charts), and use an extreme example to do so. The dogma held by any such group is, on a systemic level, as arbitrary as it is absolute for them:
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This oversimplifies life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, but there are clear systemic parallels, because the structure is hierarchical, with a high priest class or party leaders calling the shots. (Being a Trotskyite at one point was an advantage and represented a mostly complementary dogma, but later it became extremely dangerous. Artists’ stock with the party rose or fell under Stalin, but many of them tried to pursue their art separate from political pressures, with varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, anyone actually opposed to Stalin in even a remotely overt fashion was in a horribly dangerous position.)
The merits of the dogma, ideology or philosophy are completely irrelevant to the systemic structure. It also does not matter whether the leaders of the religious right are as bad as Stalinist leaders or not. Even if they’re mostly swell guys (or even gals), the system is inherently unjust, and prone to abuse.
In America, member of religious groups are of course free to vote, submit petitions and push for laws, but their religion does not give them greater standing on a legal level. As an article I read long ago argued, religious groups should remember that the sacred is best honored in greater society in a secular fashion. Christian groups are free to work on anti-poverty measures, for example, in accord with the Gospels. However, they are not free to require students to read the Bible in public schools or pray to their group’s conception of God. They are free to oppose the legality of abortion, but if they cite God as the basis for their opposition, then their religious belief is fair game for criticism, and criticizing it is not anti-religious (even if it’s wise to be sensitive). Many religious activists are certainly well-intentioned, just as are many proselytizers. Some are trying to be generous, — ‘I’ve found this thing that’s so wonderful, I want to share it.’ That’s fine, and they’re free to exercise their First Amendment rights. But those efforts must remain in the social versus the systemic realm. Handing out religious pamphlets is fine; requiring anyone to read them is not.
On this note, the authoritarians of the Christian religious right are not merely trying to share their faith. Their approach seeks to strip others of choice, even though this contradicts their own faith’s tenets about the primacy of human choice (choosing the good, choosing God, choosing to do good works, repentance, etc.). As noted in our social tolerance discussion, they feel people cannot be trusted to choose anything for themselves, because then they might choose something the authoritarians don’t want. Part of the social contract in America is that other people are allowed to do things you may not like, just as the reverse is true. Many of the religious right believe in American exceptionalism and would consider themselves patriots. The central lie of the religious right is that anyone who opposes them is anti-religious. In truth, on a systemic level, the religious right are anti-American.
One’s religion is completely irrelevant under the American legal system. Meanwhile, one’s religion can certainly play a rich, important role in one’s interactions in society and in one’s personal and inner life. The religious right would do well to understand the difference.
(Honestly, I really don’t think any of this should be news for anyone who’s had a basic education in civics and U.S. history. For that matter, one could argue to the religious authoritarians that the American system regarding religion is essentially the very embodiment of the Golden Rule — you don’t want to be oppressed, and you don’t get to oppress anyone else. The only crucial thing a religious person can’t do in America that they could do in a theocracy is decide how someone else should live his or her life. They can worship God all they like, but they don’t get to play God. Ironically, intolerant, religious authoritarians use their freedom to try to strip it from others, and seek to destroy the foundations of the very system that grants them freedom (as noted in ”The Social Tolerance Charts”). Again, when religion is involved, emotions cloud matters. Sadly, it seems most religious authoritarians have rejected all civics/history lessons and don’t practice the Golden Rule. “Bad faith” probably applies to them in more ways than one.)
This is one of those line-in-the-sand issues. The belief that America was founded as a theocracy is completely false, flatly inaccurate, wrong. The desire to make it one by the religious right has no bearing and no standing whatsoever on the conduct and constitution of our government and laws. While freedom of religion must be protected, no one is really attacking it. Instead, religious groups are attacking the separation of church and state that is a core, immutable, divine aspect of our laws and society. Liberals, independents and moderate conservatives are taking essential, defensive action. All theocrat activists are misguided at best, dangerous at worst, and must be vigorously challenged. Conservatives used to love to say, “America — love it, or leave it.” Religious activists seeking to undo our wonderful Constitution should either study it and learn to respect it or perhaps go off and found a theocracy for themselves on a remote island somewhere.
Update: After I wrote this piece, I was reading more posts at the Talk to Action site, which I’d only perused occasionally. I came across a few posts that directly speak to some of these issues. Here’s ”Secular Baiting: The Final Exam” and ”Meaning What We Say and Saying What We Mean: Taking a Vacation from Secular (Part 1 of 2)” both from the ”Demonizing Secularism” category.
Additionally, I wrote this post on Sunday to post today. On Monday, Poputonian wrote a post titled ”Free To Think” which quotes Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. Jacoby makes some great observations about the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom mentioned above, and touches on its influence on the United States Constitution. (And earlier today, Shakespeare’s Sister wrote a thoughtful piece ”On Christian as an Adjective.”) Good stuff.
Update II: While figures like James Dobson might present cleaned up, false dichotomies for political purposes such as "religious-anti-religious" or "religious people-secularists" (did you attend the latest "Secularist" meeting?) there's another dichotomy underneath that they observe, practice and seem to believe in their heart of hearts. While I've alluded to it above, it's worth making it explicit. That attitude can be summed up as:
"Heathen" and "pagan" are sometimes used interchangeably, and can have different meanings depending on the user, but at their essence they are pejorative. Sometimes "heathen" or "pagan" is used to refers to someone who does not practice any religion, sometimes it means someone who is not a Christian, Jew or Muslim, and sometimes it means anyone who doesn't share the user's specific religion. "Heretic" is sometimes employed as well, but that tends to be a pejorative for those not sufficiently zealous to "The Cause." Regardless, these are labels of "Otherness." "Pagan" especially is still a favorite epithet of the religious right, and although "secularist" is more polite (if still inaccurate), both are often spoken with the same dripping venom.
The website Religious Tolerance has a good, older post by B.A. Robinson on verbal attacks by the religious right in the aftermath of 9/11. As their true attitudes came out, "pagan" was pretty popular. The most infamous statement came from Jerry Falwell as a guest on Pat Robertson's 700 Club on 9/13/01:
On the TV program, Jerry Falwell initially said that the American Civil Liberties Union has "to take a lot of blame for" the tragedy. Pat Robertson agreed. Falwell then continued: "And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.' " Robertson responded: "Well, I totally concur..."
On 9/17/01, James Dobson said:
"I also pray that the Lord will bring a national revival that will sweep through our nation and pull us back from the wickedness and the Paganism that's engulfed us in recent years."
On 12/5/01, Pat Robertson had Caryl Matrisciana on his show to discuss the evils of letting kids read Harry Potter books in school. Robertson then revived the spirit of Falwell's 9/11 comments as he "made a list of the main reasons why a country like the U.S. could invoke divine displeasure," as post author Robinson puts it. Robertson concluded his list by saying:
"We're doing all the things that God said were so repugnant that the land itself would be repulsed and would vomit its inhabitants out. And, if there was ever a time that we need God's blessing, it's now. We don't need to bring in heathen, pagan practices to the United States of America. We need to call on God and ask him for revival."
Falwell did eventually apologize, although it's not as if that's the only time he's spouted such intolerance and bile. The same post also features some very intelligent dissections of Falwell and some very welcome dissents from other Christian leaders who rejected his message of hatred and irrational assigning of blame. Yet the examples of such intolerant or even eliminationist rhetoric could go on and on. This is not the language of people who just want to practice their faith and live their lives in peace.
The religious right may complain about rights for Christians, but they already have rights, the same rights as everyone else. Again, what they're really after is privilege and power. It would be a grave mistake to think these authoritarians are operating in a paradigm remotely similar to that of everyone else. For Americans defending the Separation of Church and State, these political struggles are about civil rights, justice for all, and preserving the freedoms explicitly designed into our Constitution. For the religious right, this is a Crusade, a holy war, to instill a hierarchy with themselves on top, and woe to all the heretics who dare oppose them.