Friday, February 23, 2007

A Religious Left?

Last night I spoke at the "America's Future Foundation," a group of young movement conservatives who meet regularly in D.C. I was invited to speak as part of a roundtable addressing whether there could be a "Religious Left." Hoping to steer the conversation in a less strictly partisan direction, I offered the following comments:

I’m pleased and honored to be invited here tonight, but since I’m not being paid to be here, I feel under no special obligation to address all the questions in their specifics. I know that a number of the panelists have problems with the questions as they’ve been framed, and I do as well, though my problems result more from a theological perspective than necessarily a political one. As a believer, I believe it is misguided to adjudge religious belief in light of political stances – that puts too much pressure for religious belief to conform to a particular political platform, or even to the perspective of a particular city. As one of the questions on the letter of invitation intimated, at the heart of the matter lies the proper relationship of the City of Man to the City of God. From the standpoint of the believer, the former should be judged in light of the latter, and not vice versa.

From this perspective, I’m hesitant to engage in a partisan debate about the legitimacy of the views of the Religious Right or the Religious Left. The views of any political party should be judged first from the position of religion, not one’s adherence to the party line. And above all, we shouldn’t forget that, as a Christian, we are instructed not to feel too at home in the world. We are most essentially to be pilgrims, not citizens; to use a title from a book by my friend Peter Lawler, we are “aliens in America,” or wherever we happen to be.

But, that said, we should notice that religion has made a good home in America – as Tocqueville observed, in America, the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion are mutually reinforcing. In contrast to Europe, where religion seemed to be the opposite of liberty, religion in America – and especially disestablishment as a general rule – prevented any Church from becoming too immersed in the necessary compromises and everypresent immoralities of everyday politics. Religious liberty is good for religion, a truth we need to recall when we consider Church attendance in the United States compared to that in Europe.

Tocqueville’s analysis went further, however: not only is liberty good for religion; religion is good for liberty. This relationship is more complicated, because it turns out that religion acts as much as a restraint upon the worst tendencies of liberty as much as it undergirds the idea of human dignity that underlies our endorsement of modern liberty. Religion chastens the American propensity toward “audaciousness,” or, toward the temptation to use liberty for personal or political self-aggrandizement. Tocqueville wrote that “nature and circumstances have made the inhabitant of the United States an audacious man; it is easy to judge of this when one sees the manner in which he is pursuing his fortune. If the spirit of the Americans were free of all impediments, one would sooner encounter among them the boldest innovators and the most implacable logicians in the world. But revolutionaries in America are obliged to profess openly a certain respect for the morality and equity of Christianity, which does not permit them to violate its laws easily when they are opposed to the execution of their designs… Up until now, no one has been encountered in the United States who dared to advance the maxim that everything is permitted in the interest of society. An impious maxim – one that seems to have been invented in a century of freedom to legitimate all tyrants to come” (DA, I.ii.9, 280).

Tocqueville – rather ironically – describes what one can only conclude is a kind of benevolent tyranny of the majority, a felt pressure even by revolutionaries and people lacking any grounds for restraint to pursue whatever they deem would be necessary to achieve the good of society. The “spirit of religion” is good for the “spirit of liberty” because, to a significant extent, it puts some restraint on our liberty. We retain our liberty, but a chastened liberty that recognizes a law beyond humankind and checks our inclination to rampant forms of political utilitarianism or expediency. Tocqueville understands religion as a kind of check on our tendency toward unrestrained liberty – recalling that the root of the word “religion” is “religare,” or “to bind.” This chastened liberty preserves liberty because it prevents the rise of tyranny (anyone who has read the “Republic” knows what Tocqueville is talking about here – the regime that follows democracy, where we desire to rule but not to be ruled, is tyranny).

For this reason, I think that there are some grounds for the skepticism behind the questions posed tonight about the plausibility of a Religious Left. In the years since 1960, the Left as affiliated itself closely with a liberationist political philosophy, one that has placed human autonomy and freedom of human will at the center of its aims. Mainstream political philosophers of the Left have urged the cleansing of the public square of religious language and justification, and leading politicians – even believers – have insisted that personal religious views have no bearing on political decisionmaking. For young people growing up in your generation, it seems almost a fiat of nature that people on the Left are secularists while people on the Right are more inclined to be believers.

There is an undercurrent in the questions, and the very title of the roundtable, suggesting that the existence of a “Religious Left” is anomalous. As a student of American history, among other things, I think we need to be aware that quite the opposite is true: the recent history of the Left’s repudiation of a religious standpoint is the anomaly, not the norm. Indeed, historically, evangelicals were aligned with the Left, from time of the American Revolution in their opposition to the King, to their support of Andrew Jackson’s democracy party, to the populist movement and its standard-bearer William Jennings Bryan, and even in support of Franklin Roosevelt. As Tocqueville observed, secularism has been largely non-existent as a party in American history. The story of America has been debates within religious traditions, not between a Party of Religion and a Party of Irreligion. So, if we are indeed returning to a time when the Left lays claim to religious belief, it is a return to the norms of American history, and not a departure.

This would be a healthy outcome, because it would allow us to move beyond the easy assumptions that our side is religious while their side is not, and to begin to ask questions about what it means to be religious in politics. One preeminent question we should ask – in light of Tocqueville’s observation – is whether the belief in Liberty embraced by either political party in America reflects what Tocqueville called “the spirit of religion.” For, from the standpoint of a believer, it’s my view that both parties are complicit in a deeply problematic and disordered belief in Liberty, differently expressed.

On the Left, as I’ve suggested, the belief in Liberty takes the form of a libertarian personal morality that allows its adherents (in Tocqueville’s words) to “conceive and dare everything.” The utilitarian calculus that my liberty allows me to remove obstacles to that pleasure has led to the endorsement of a thirty year abortion regime, in which the cessation of the life of unborn children is undertaken as a form of birth control. Framed in terms of a political right, this practice has been defended as a non-negotiable basis of individual liberty without acknowledgement that a human life may be in the balance. If the Left seeks to promote a religiously inspired agenda that seeks to extend care to the least among us – our poor and indigent – then surely it must begin to question whether that care doesn’t extend to our very weakest and most vulnerable. Anything less is unadulterated ideology.

But, the religious scrutiny of our motives ought not to let those on the Religious Right off the hook. Much of the Right has worked tirelessly to defend a culture in which choice reigns, particularly the myriad choices that are extended to us through the free market economic system. Can we possibly believe that there is no connection between a culture of choice in everything we see, buy, touch and hear, a culture that urges upon us at every turn the admonition for self-gratification, to be a “consumer,” to “just do it,” that offers us an endless stream of barely veiled pornography and innuendo, and a culture that places “the right to choice” as its paramount virtue? Can we really believe that our insistence upon “a right to life” (notice the terminology – a RIGHT, not a duty or obligation) is all that is required? Our religious tradition teaches us not to be secure in our own sense of complicity, our own insinuation in the sins of our age. The one verse of the Bible that most students now know seems to endorse an easy-going kind of non-judgmentalism, but in fact urges a deep introspection about our own tendency to sin just as deeply as those we would regard as sinners. Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-3, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take out the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

My basic argument is that it is wrong for any side in the current political debate to become too self-satisfied or complacent about the ultimate rightness of its worldviews. The great social critic Christopher Lasch came late in life to understand that religious belief was a Hard Thing, far harder than unbelief. Against the disparaging view of religion by its liberal opponents, Lasch wrote that such a false understanding "misses the religious challenge to complacency, the heart and soul of faith. Instead of discouraging moral inquiry, religious prompting can just as easily stimulate it by calling attention to the disjunction between verbal profession and practice, by insisting that a perfunctory observance of prescribed rituals is not enough to ensure salvation, and by encouraging believers at every step to question their own motivations. Far from putting doubts to rest, religion has the effect of intensifying them. It judges those who profess faith more harshly than it judges unbelievers. It holds them up to a standard of conduct so demanding that many of them inevitably fall short….. For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. Self- righteousness, indeed, may be more prevalent among skeptics than believers. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion. "

I think for those of us who have grown up in an age when you have to pick which side of the line in the sand you stand on – belief or unbelief – Lasch’s words are a helpful reminder that belief is only the beginning of a groping toward belief. As the father said to Jesus when Jesus told him that all things are possible to those who believe, “I believe Lord – help my unbelief!” If we seek to understand how best to be believers in the City of Man, we do best to begin to interrogate our own failings and the shortcomings of our belief as a necessary prelude to interrogating the belief of others

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