Dangerous Dan Thoughts and musings on the world

5/1/2005

The Religious Left? Is There One?

Filed under: Politics,Society — Dangerous Dan @ 4:51 pm

Captain Ed points out this story (subscription required) of liberals meeting to discuss the growing American theocracy. I've always been a little mystified by this idea. The fact that religious groups would try to use their collective clout to influence politics shouldn't be an issue. They're citizen groups just like any of the secular variety. The separation of church and state does not mean that religious activists should be ostracized from political debate, nor does their involvement in politics entail that they want America to become a society straight out of a Handmaid's Tale. Besides, as Captain Ed agrees, I'm not exactly sure what a Christian theocracy is supposed to look like. There's none currently in existence and I would hesitate to call any past kingdom, empire, or government of Christendom a true theocracy (you may disagree with me on this point, but you’ll have to explain to me what a ‘theocracy’ is, how they fit it, and how we’re progressing towards fitting that model). Unlike, say, Islam and Judaism, Christianity has no template for what a religiously-based state would be.

Religious groups aren't trying to take over government, they're merely trying to slow down what they perceive as the radical liberalization of society. It is, after all, a little hard to argue that we're on a slippery slope towards modeling the Taliban when cable TV lineups feature porn pay-per-view, homosexual relationships are being normalized, public cursing is commonplace, casual sex is portrayed as an accepted part of growing up, and women's couture recently went through a phase in which thong straps and ass cleavage were fashionable. Society, as if propelled by some sort of cultural entropy, is increasingly becoming more liberal. Conservative religious groups are merely saying, "Maybe we shouldn't do this or at least let's think and talk about it first." This sort of caution, though, is perceived by liberals as a deviance from their headlong plunge into social liberalization that has unfortunately taken on the defining characteristic of amoral hedonism, where the only social more is that one shouldn't have social mores. Wanting to slow down or question such progress is not wrong and the religious groups are, quite honestly, playing their designated role in the cultural debate. They are necessary to temper the worst liberal inclinations and vice versa.

Now, one on the left may endorse a weaker version of impending theocracy. It's not so much that some kind of Preacher-King is in the offing, but rather that congressmen and other government officials are relying too much on religious beliefs in making their policy decisions. Again, I don't find this terribly troubling. Biblical teaching has always been a foundation of American government, but it's never been the overarching end-all-be-all of policy formation. Secular concerns have nearly always played the primary role. Even if one makes the claim that religion in government is bad due to such examples of religious support of slavery, segregation, etc., they'll also be forced to admit that religious groups played a pivotal role in overturning those nasty practices. It's no accident that most abolitionists were Christian or that Martin Luther King had a 'Rev.' in front of his name. Since MLK was using religious tenets to help transform society, should we assume that he too was attempting to impose theocratic rule?

Interestingly, I oppose church groups getting too involved in politics, not because I think they'll corrupt government, but because government will corrupt the churches. Political power does funny things to people and, when religious conviction conflicts with political power, you'll almost universally see a rationalization for eschewing the conviction in favor of the power. It usually runs along the lines of that it's necessary to gain further influence and to do more good in the future, and that the broken conviction isn't that significant anyway. It only goes downhill from there.

There's also this quote:

"This may be the darkest time in our history," said Bob Edgar, general secretary of the left-leaning National Council of Churches and former six-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. "The religious right have been systematically working at this for 40 years. The question is, where is the religious left?"

I find the idea of a 'religious left' rather striking. I don't know that there is one. Certainly, there are liberal religious people, but I don't know that they are truly analogues to conservative religious people. I think there's a difference. Conservative Christians tend to have their outlook of the world shaped by religious conviction. That is, their religious beliefs inform their political beliefs. I'm not sure this is the case with liberal Christians, however. Their political beliefs tend to precede and take precedence over religious considerations. As such, they take the opposite path of their conservative counterparts in that their political beliefs inform their religious beliefs. They have preordained what society should be and what justice is, and then squeeze their religious beliefs around this core to make them fit it. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, start out with what they perceive religious tenets demand and form their political beliefs off the religious, not political, core. Now, of course this is not a hard and fast rule and there are going to be exceptions on both sides, such that some liberals start off with religion and some conservatives start off with politics. Still, though, I think this is generally the way the two sides develop.

Given this, then, I don't think there really is a 'religious left,' per se. Those who are liberal and religious are the former prior to the latter. Their liberalism takes primary standing and their religious beliefs aren't so important, or at least don't inform their politics enough, that they’re of any use to them in the political sphere. Why draw in religion when conventional liberal arguments are sufficient? For the liberals whose political beliefs truly are informed by their religious beliefs, many are becoming increasingly uncomfortable in current liberal thought as religion isn't welcome or encouraged and is increasingly disparaged as irrational and threatening. It will be interesting to see where they see themselves in the future.

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