Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Faith and Certainty


(Welcome to this season's Blog Against Theocracy post. My most popular one from last time, on comedy and religion, "How Many Deities Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?" is here. The rest can be accessed through the Blog Against Theocracy and religion categories. Thanks again to Blue Gal and her co-conspirators for setting this up.)

The Gates of Paradise

A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked, "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"

"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.

"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.

"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."

Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."

As Nobishige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"

At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.

"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.

— A Zen story, as told by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Sadly, in American politics the authoritarian religious right seems to have co-opted the term "Christian." Religious liberals don't get as much press these days, and "family values" as invoked on the national stage too often seem to be code for oppressing gays and restricting reproductive freedoms versus helping the poor and hungry, for example. It saddens me that, overall, the most prominent political figures invoking religion are people who urge intolerance and promote a more simplistic, polarized worldview instead of inviting greater reflection and nuance. In contrast to Hakuin and Nobishige, they do not seem to experience moments of realization, insight, or self-recognition. They do not generally change their minds or come to greater understandings. They view the forces of good and evil in rigidly literal terms and view heaven and hell as wholly external of themselves. Faith does not lead them to question themselves or the world more, and does not give them a greater openness and humility. Religion for them means that they are Right, and they are Righteous.

The separation of church and state shouldn't be remotely controversial, since it and the First Amendment's Establishment and Exercise Clauses allow for freedom of religion and freedom from religion. As First Freedom First puts it, it's "the freedom to worship, or not." I view our system as both pro-religion and pro-atheism, although it's more accurate to say that our wonderful Constitution is "religion-neutral." Morality exists independent of religion (despite asinine assertions to the contrary), and certainly independent of religious institutions, who may or may not practice it. Being anti-theocracy is not the same as being anti-religious, and being anti-theocracy is really simple civic duty and patriotism. Theocrats do not seek equal rights, which they already possess. They seek a privileged position, and even if they're the swellest folks on earth (which they're not) and would govern wisely and justly (which they would not), the system they favor would be inherently unjust and unfair (more on this in the earlier posts linked above).

There's nothing to prevent religious folks from living their values and even from bringing them into the political realm. It's solely a matter of how it's done, and the sacred is best honored in the public realm through the secular. Nothing prevents a politician from developing an anti-poverty program, for example. However, a world of difference between saying, "we must create this program because Jesus commands it," and saying, "we should help the poor." I also see nothing wrong with saying, "As Jesus said, we must help the needy," as part of a larger speech on social service, although the politician might want to consider his or her audience. I personally believe that no tradition, culture or people has a monopoly on wisdom or stupidity. I believe that a great deal of beloved religious scripture merely expresses the same underlying truths that can be found in different forms in literature, music, the fine arts, poetry... Most religions and cultures have some version of the "Golden Rule," for example. That's not to say that religious groups don't have important theological differences. Similarly, anthropology shows us that human beings do share many traits and behaviors the world over, but there are often important exceptions, and what we may consider universal "human nature" may not be. That said, in opposing theocracy or achieving other positive political goals, I'm interested in the commonalities. I don't believe in helping the poor because Jesus said to, an authority-based or dogma-based approach. I believe in helping the poor because it's the right thing to do. I also recognize that Jesus said some great things on the subject, and I can work on issues of poverty with a Christian who believes in Jesus' divinity without feeling uncomfortable as long as there's not an outbreak of proselytizing. The point is doing good work, and if my fellow worker thinks of it as "the Lord's work," it doesn't much bother me. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly employed religious rhetoric, but he was not a theocrat, and one did not need to be religious to be moved by his words or support his cause for justice.)

I don't think theocrats, particularly the authoritarian religious right, understand these distinctions. I've certainly read, seen, and met theocrats who are among the most strident, irrational and unpleasant folks I've ever encountered. I also question how well the most ostentatiously "Christian" of these actually know or follow the Bible. Religious hypocrites or "tartuffes" have been around for millennia, and as a general rule I've found the more someone makes a show of their religion or righteousness, the less spiritual they actually are. I view their allegiance as being to organized religion, to an institution, perhaps a community, more than to the religion's actual teachings. That's not always bad, but with theocrats there seems to be very little reflection or tolerance for ambiguity and nuance. I agree with the suggestion that all Biblical literalists would benefit from a good English lit course or two to better appreciate symbolism, metaphor, ambiguity, uncertainty and allegory. In contrast, I consider the religious folks among my friends and family more reflective, thoughtful, kind and humble than the average person — and much more so than any theocrat.

Tom DeLay exemplifies the unwavering theocrat in politics. Writing for The Washington Post, Peter Perl's 5/13/01 article 'Absolute Truth' is a fascinating portrait of DeLay, a recovering alcoholic who constantly uses religious rhetoric but is completely estranged from several family members, with whom he refuses to speak. Perl also reports how DeLay flatly lied in a sworn deposition, hardly a "Christian" act. A specific worldview drives DeLay:

Yet DeLay wants more. Much more. As this day progresses, he tells me "I am still trying to drive the president," George W. Bush, toward a more conservative agenda. Toward a "permanent realignment" that will eternally discredit Democratic Party policies that DeLay considers "socialist." And, most important, toward building a more "God-centered" nation whose government will promote prayer and worship and the teaching of values.

"Our entire system is built on the Judeo-Christian ethic, but it fell apart when we started denying God," he says. "If you stand up today and acknowledge God, they will try to destroy you." His main mission, he says, is "to bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal worldview."

Obviously, DeLay either doesn't know his U.S. history and core American principles, or doesn't care. Bringing us "back to the Constitution" is in complete opposition to making America into a theocracy, since it was expressly designed not to be one. DeLay also implicitly asserts that liberals and Democrats are godless. He seems to believe he is in a holy war with his opponents:

As we leave First Baptist, I ask DeLay about the many citizens who would be quite uncomfortable with the idea that he would mold the government in the belief that his religion – fundamentalist Christianity – had the only answers to society's problems.

DeLay looks me squarely in the eye and shakes his head sadly. "When faced with the truth, the truth hurts. It is human nature not to face that . . . People hate the messenger. That's why they killed Christ."

This incident is far from the only time DeLay has compared himself to Jesus ( although it's been more galling when he's compared his suffering, being prosecuted for clear and deliberate wrongdoing, to that of Jesus). He's also said that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were "close to traitors," and on several occasions has compared liberals to Hitler. DeLay really sees the world in black and white terms:

So the 2000 presidential election was not mere politics to DeLay, but an apocalyptic "battle for souls." In this struggle between good and evil, virtually all man-made government programs, philosophies and "-isms" favored by Democrats and liberals are doomed utopian dreams because they are not inspired by God. As he described the coming 2000 vote in a red-meat speech to the Christian Coalition last fall: "Will this country accept the worldviews of humanism, materialism, sexism, naturalism, postmodernism or any of the other -isms? Or will we march forward with a biblical worldview, a worldview that says God is our creator, that man is a sinner, and that we will save this country by changing the hearts and minds of Americans? . . . We have the House and the Senate. All we need is the presidency!"

In an online discussion with readers on 10/7/05, Perl discussed his handful of articles on DeLay. Several readers noted that DeLay's brand of Christianity was nothing that resembled their conception of it. Perl observed:

Actually, I believe that public figures in our culture become caricatures because of how polarized our media has become. Tom DeLay is a true believer. What struck me most about him was his seemingly complete devotion to a creed that combines fundamentalist Christian values with Republican policies. He is so totally convinced he is right--and his religious values are so blended with the political-- that he regards opposition as really representing the Dark Side. I think he believes on a deep level that the forces of God and the godless are played out in the political arena and that is part of why he is "The Hammer" as he has been nicknamed in Washington.

Later, in another response, Perl wrote:

So, let us just say that Tom DeLay is not a man who usually doubts himself and the possible error of his ways, and he is not likely to feel that he needs to justify his actions to many people.

In my personal view, Tom DeLay is on the very extreme edge of the political spectrum in terms of separation of church & state. But he does not speak publicly on this topic (except to audiences such as the Christian Coalition) because he knows his views are far too extreme.

While DeLay has less influence now, he was a tremendously powerful, dangerous figure and there's no doubt he embodies the mindset of the authoritarian religious right. In the course of Perl's articles, some of DeLay's doubts are also featured, but these doubts never seem to produce a change in DeLay's basic outlook and approach to life and politics.

What may be most alarming is that the Bush White House asked DeLay to temper his rhetoric a bit; it was too extreme for them. However, this advice may have been more due to political savvy than an actual philosophical difference. Consider this early passage from Ron Suskind's seminal 10/17/04 essay, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush":

''Just in the past few months,'' [Republican Bruce] Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .

''This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''

Forty democratic senators were gathered for a lunch in March just off the Senate floor. I was there as a guest speaker. Joe Biden was telling a story, a story about the president. ''I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,'' he began, ''and I was telling the president of my many concerns'' -- concerns about growing problems winning the peace, the explosive mix of Shiite and Sunni, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and problems securing the oil fields. Bush, Biden recalled, just looked at him, unflappably sure that the United States was on the right course and that all was well. '''Mr. President,' I finally said, 'How can you be so sure when you know you don't know the facts?'''

Biden said that Bush stood up and put his hand on the senator's shoulder. ''My instincts,'' he said. ''My instincts.''

Biden paused and shook his head, recalling it all as the room grew quiet. ''I said, 'Mr. President, your instincts aren't good enough!'''

Indeed, Bush's instincts are neither good, nor "good enough." It's one thing to introduce faith, but quite another to shut out all rational discussion, as Bush and Dick Cheney have clearly done, consistently.

Of course, Bush's obstinacy can't be blamed on religion per se, but on how he observes it and his inherent personality and character. As Slate's Steven Waldman put it in a 10/27/04 article: "By most accounts, the president's basic intellectual make-up was formed long before his faith conversion. If Bush is incurious, it's not God's fault." As Waldman points out, Bush's proud anti-intellectualism hardly helps the image of evangelicals. Neither does his appetite for "easy certainty," as explored by Suskind. Nor does his need to reduce everything into simplistic, reductive black and white terms, as analyzed in Glenn Greewald's latest book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency (excerpt here).

As the recent Washington Post series on Cheney confirms, Bush has been almost an absentee president, and has long deluded himself into thinking that history will vindicate him as a great man. The worst threat is that he'll try to bomb Iran in a last misguided attempt at glory. Whether Bush literally believes God speaks to him or not, his approach has been disastrous for America and the world. In "The Incomplete Man," Digby ponders the recent words of Congressman Peter King (R-NY) that Bush shows "a sense of fatalism":

I don't think "fatalism" is something we can countenance in a political leader. In fact, it's downright scary. I have believed for a long time that Bush thinks all these troubles will be "a comma" in his legacy -- that somewhere down the road he will be credited with being a great president --- like Give 'em Hell Harry and Churchill. The problem is that it's the kind of fantasy that leads puny intellects to be easily brainwashed by smart manipulators into doing reckless things, like attacking Iran, for instance. A hundred years from now everyone will look back on those "birth pangs" and be grateful, right?

And for all of his alleged soul searching, he hasn't taken action to actually change anything --- he's just trying to understand why people no longer see him as the hero he really believed he was during those heady days of hyped up bullhorns and codpieces. He still adheres religiously to his (very light) schedule, he refuses to cut Gonzales loose when everyone knows he's dragging him down, and although he's allegedly obsessed with Iraq, he stubbornly refuses to admit that everything he's done there has turned out badly.

With his presidency crumbling around him, he still hasn't taken charge...

Bush's administration has indeed pursued and achieved theocratic goals, but his presidency has more closely resembled a monarchy (with an éminence grise), marked by Bush's obstinacy and complete disdain for honest discussion and public opinion. However, the effect of his "faith" on Bush remains stunning. In "Trusting In God's Judgment," (from 3/14/07, and linked earlier in this post) Hilzoy considers the dynamics of George W. Bush's professed beliefs in God, and the actions of the religiously certain in general:

What is a problem is to have someone in office who claims to care only about what God thinks and how God will judge him, but who doesn't actually take this idea seriously. Someone like that will use the thought that only God's opinion matters simply to dismiss human criticism, without actually worrying about God. He will regard God as a convenient excuse, someone he can assume agrees with him. But to believe in a God who is, in fact, you, or who is so unreal to you that you don't need to bother taking His views seriously, is not faith; it is the opposite of faith.

Suppose you actually believe in God. You believe, that is, in a being who is omniscient, who knows not just what you do, but what is in your heart. Moreover, He cares deeply about goodness; in fact, his opinion of you will be based entirely on whether you are actually a good person. He is generous and loving, and so you don't need to worry that He will judge you in a mean-spirited way, taking what you think in the least charitable light. When you are genuinely trying to do the right thing, He can be counted on to know that.

On the other hand, since God does know your heart, He can also be counted on to see through your excuses. He is not interested in whether you can convince yourself, or even other people, that you are a good person. He is interested in whether or not you really are a good person. And, as I said before, He knows everything there is to know on this subject. You can fool yourself, but you cannot fool Him. Not only can you count on Him to give their proper importance to those things you do that you know are wrong but that other people are prepared to laugh off; you can count on Him to see through all the excuses for bad behavior that convince even you.

If you believed this, the idea of being judged by God would be genuinely terrifying. Even if you think you are basically a good person, you might be adopting too easily the lax standards of people around you, or convincing yourself that you are doing what's right when in fact you are not. And the flip side of the fact that God can be counted on not to be unduly harsh on you is that he can be counted on not to let you off the hook too easily either. He will make all the allowances that really ought to be made, but no more.

I have no doubt Bush's faith is sincere on some level, even if I question his understanding of his own religion's teachings. Religious people obviously have a right to participate in politics. However, the catastrophic actions of Bush, DeLay and other movement conservatives show that theocrats, monarchists, neocons and other authoritarians must opposed.

It's a Zen principle not to tell someone a "truth" before he or she is ready to hear it (or at least that's it's pointless). No doubt if Hakuin were faced with DeLay or Bush, he would not provoke them as he did the samurai Nobushige. Hakuin sensed that Nobushige possessed some self-awareness, whereas Bush or DeLay would have doubtless killed Hakuin. More importantly (and sadly), DeLay and Bush have consistently shown that the realization of the wrong they did would never penetrate. Neither man has acknowledged his grievous faults, at least not in public, and neither has ever adjusted his basic approach.

When one is certain one is absolutely good and foreign foes and Democrats are evil, no diplomacy or negotiation is needed or wanted. When heaven and hell are solely external, and not a state of mind, or present in the way one treats others, reflection is unlikely. When one's belief in God does not invite thoughtfulness, but instead a sense that one's actions are blessed and pre-approved, that one's "instincts" and snap judgments are nigh-infallible, it's trouble. Prayers that our leaders will be wise, and that George Bush will accept reality as one of his sacraments, are most welcome. However, the practical challenge remains how to limit the ills wrought by the "Righteous."

You can sign the First Freedom First petition here.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

7 comments:

Station Agent said...

Men like DeLay and Bush always surprise me because it seems like they really would prefer Iran-style Theocracy, with themselves as the Supreme Leader, to a great system like Jeffersonian democracy. It's such an obvious choice, yet, here we are.

Excellent post.

Dr. Zaius said...

What a great post! You did a lot of research. I was especially struck by the Zen story, though. It took me a minute to understand the meaning.

And Tom DeLay is monster!

Jose Chung said...

Gays in America are being oppressed how?

Bing said...

Excellent. Well researched and very well written.

The permanent conservative majority that DeLay envisioned and that so many theocrats yearn toward is precisely the opposite of the America that the Founding Fathers envisioned.

I think that it would be an interesting study to see the intersection of theology and organization management at the Federal and local level. If I come back as a poli-sci major, I'll get right on that!

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TheCunningRunt said...

Your kind comment over at my place led me here; your excellent contribution to BAT kept me here far longer than I intended to stay.

Well done! I'm so pleased to be entering this whole new (to me) world of clear-thinking, conscious people!

Kvatch said...

And Tom DeLay is monster!

More accurately, DeLay is an exterminator...on many levels.