Monday 12th June, 2005

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Awakening of religious left

A culture is always a contested matter, with different groups striving to make their vision of life prevail. Within recent weeks, analysts in the US have spoken of “the quickening pulse” of “the religious left.” An awakening is underway from being overshadowed by the religious right.

“As religious people, we’re offended by the idea that if you’re not with the religious right, you’re not moral, you’re not religious,” says Linda Gustitus, founder of the Washington Region Religious Campaign against Torture. Views like that of Ms Gustitus are becoming standard.

The pendulum was destined to swing, I suppose. The left got badly knocked about, the right crowed and ruled the day, the left awakens from their coma.

It is said that the French regard the influence of evangelicals in Mr Bush’s administration with amazed bemusement. They should look more closely at American history. President Bush’s outlook is no novelty.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower assured the nation that belief in God was the first principle of Americanism. Before him, Theodore Roosevelt had advised that the President should go to church regularly to set an example for the nation. And long before either, Thomas Jefferson had to fight off allegations during his presidential campaign that he was an atheist. He was a deist, which was really no improvement, but it was an issue.

I have never agreed with the tendency of the religious right to move directly from the Bible to moral or political prescriptions for everyone. In America, unlike France, religion may still be a matter of importance to significant numbers of people, but there is no theocracy in the West, and one cannot make biblical injunctions (or for that matter, injunctions from the Koran or the Gita) normative for everybody in a secular society.

What the left has misunderstood, what they keep misunderstanding, however, in the US, as elsewhere, is that not everybody has bought into a view of life dominated by the rationality of the Enlightenment. A prevailing legacy of the Enlightenment is that only the scientific is rational and real. All other views are essentially pre-modern and backward. In this light, as former Governor Thompson of Minnesota once said, religion remains an option for the weak-brained.

This is the kind of arrogance—and folly—that breeds fundamentalism. It certainly worked to rally evangelicals. Analysts in fact trace the resurgence of the Christian right to the ridicule they experienced after the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925.

Scopes is traditionally viewed as a clash between science and religion (evolution pro and con), which science won. At a deeper level, however, it was a clash, as it still is, between differing visions of culture and society.

The religious right thought they could halt civilisational decline in America, if they ensured that politicians after their own mind were elected to office. With such politicians at the helm, the national agenda would reflect their own religiously-inspired programme, and the transformation would begin. Laws would codify their vision.

It hasn’t happened as the evangelicals wanted, and disillusion has begun to set in. They feel used. When re-election comes around, politicians make the appropriate noises. Everything then is about “values.”

Mr Bush, for instance, on the ropes with the war in Iraq, Iran, Katrina, rising gas prices, corruption, and wild spending, has returned to pre-election strategy. These days it’s the need to amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Even the most blinkered values-voter sees through it.

Where did the right go wrong? For many people they were wrong to bring religion into politics, to begin with. The separation of church and state exists for a reason—to prevent just this kind of improper intermeddling.

In fact, the separation of church and state, an idea with original roots in Luther, not in Jefferson, was as much to protect the church from state interference as to protect the state from religious sectarianism. The idea was never to keep religion out of politics, in the sense of keeping religious people from expressing their views in the public square.

It’s unjust, and in any case an impossible undertaking, to try to prevent religious people from bringing to bear their deeply held convictions upon major issues of any day.

As every serious student of religion knows, religion is not amenable to being pent up. It sneaks through cracks, creeps through half-open doors, and it flows over walls. No religion preaches its allocation to a particular sphere. None of them conceives of a world as divided into what God created and rules, and what God did not create and therefore does not rule.

Religion always loses its critical freedom, however, when its political alliances are conformist, or when it becomes too settled in the political sphere, amassing and securing influence. It becomes likely then not simply to lose its vitality but its very soul. There’s nothing new about this possibility. We are always warned about what results from preferring to “gain the whole world.”

The left in the pride of their day often suffers a diminishment on the other side. Their cultural sympathies often tend to be so much against traditional culture, that they lose the ability to be critical of anything new. About that, too, there is the correlate warning about what happens when salt loses its savour.

Religion, at its best, is subversive. This is not its only but certainly its wisest political intervention. It gives the believer a transcendent reason to question the power of the state and the messages of the culture. As theologian David Tracy put it:

“Despite their own sin and ignorance, the religions, at their best, always bear extraordinary powers of resistance. When not domesticated as sacred canopies for the status quo nor wasted by their own self-contradictory grasps at power, the religions live by resisting.”

Which means, of course, that they die by conforming. And therein lies the cautionary tale for the religious right—and the left.

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