De-mangling political religion, Part One

November 25, 2012


Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for harmony and understanding — and I hope dreams of genuine good-faith dialogues are fulfilled. Maybe humbled Republicans and gracious Democrats will embrace; maybe they’ll hear the call to “get things done” and steer us from fiscal and environmental cliffs; maybe they’ll even walk hand-in-hand through meadows, whispering sweet nothings about how our revered founders abhorred political parties. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Charles Krauthammer is already speculating on new conspiracies and Senator Lindsey Graham has been downright churlish — and then there’s Franklin Graham. Let’s all make sure we sling some mud before Christmas.

Herbert Hoover

There is a failure here, and it is not just to communicate. Our breakdown runs even deeper than this year’s campaign oratory, which evoked memories of Herbert Hoover’s 1936 Republican Convention speech. The former president drilled the New Deal with the subtlety of a spinal tap: “The march of Socialist or Fascist dictatorships and their destruction of liberty did not set out with guns and armies. Dictators (in Central Europe) began their ascent to the seats of power through the elections provided by liberal institutions. They flung the poison of class hatred.”

Hokay, Mr. I’m-not-resentful-because-FDR-drubbed-me-four-years-ago…

We’re beyond the mere need for civil discourse. Our minds are askew. We actually believe our own rhetoric as an article of faith. We no longer know how to talk because we no longer know how to think. We’re thrusting religious categories onto politics, and that’s true of both pious and secular fundamentalists. Classical politicians are pragmatists in their heart of hearts. They’ve wended their way through local and state governments, where the grand debates center around zoning regulations, potholes, sewer lines, schools and budgets. Old school city pols made sure Mrs. O’Leary got her groceries and medicine. It was practical vs. impractical and useful vs. unworkable, all under the umbrella of the law and agreed-upon values. We’ll compromise with our opposing “friends” because the people elected them as well. Sure we have ideals, and we’ll salute Old Glory with relish, but that’s because Old Glory symbolizes our practical approach. Political ideals serve people, not vice versa.

No longer. We’ve forgotten something subtle and yet crucial, articulated well by Dutch theologian/statesman Abraham Kuyper: Politics and religion occupy two distinct, although sometimes overlapping, spheres. Our religion can and should inform our political beliefs (remember Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Martin Luther King: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”), but the two categories cannot be confused. They’re linked but not enmeshed. Otherwise, we view fundamentally practical questions (should we repair that bridge?) through a spiritual grid. Everything is moral vs. immoral and evil vs. good. We demand Messiahs, not effective representatives and administrators. We insist our presidents become pastors.

Nowhere is this enmeshment more apparent than in Paul Ryan’s oft-quoted Facebook homage to Ayn Rand. Here it is, once more: “The issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America — and Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.”

Ryan’s moral-vs.-immoral language betrays religious thinking. Anyone who disagrees is suspect of an “attack” on the American way (I’m so glad he didn’t say Mom and apple pie).

Paul Ryan

Imposing such spiritual categories on an essentially pragmatic enterprise warps both our understanding of politics and religion.

First, no contemporary American elected official now assails capitalism. Even the most liberal Democrats are moored in the New Deal, which sought to bolster free enterprise with a safety net. That’s why Franklin Roosevelt frustrated Norman Thomas and the Socialists and why the New Left of the late ’60s scorned liberals. Second, arguments for capitalism rise and fall on its utility, not its virtue. Sales managers do not cite Philippians 2:3 in their pep talks (“consider others better than yourselves”), and the redistribution of wealth in Leviticus 25 rains wet weather on go-get-’em competition. Arguments for capitalism’s morality always sound like mothballs smell: “Love is great, but dog-eat-dog American competitiveness is superior because … uh, this is America, and … uh … Take two, please?” Stumble back to pragmatic ground, Congressman. Argue for capitalism’s effectiveness — and don’t even think of Ayn Rand. You’re twisting morality off its spiritual foundation. Rand was an anti-moralist, an unapologetic cynic, religion’s self-proclaimed enemy. You’ve stirred morality and spirituality into an essentially pragmatic endeavor and boiled them down to toxic intellectual glop. Don’t go away mad, John Galt. Just go away.

I doubt we’ll whisper sweet nothings in meadows as long as we drink the glop. Some on the right view the election results as a call to verbal arms: America sinned; the Constitution (which, incidentally, was chiseled in compromise) is endangered; “we” must use all legal means to guard our nation against “them” (and “they” are endangering us with “liberal” theories of human-induced climate change). Meanwhile, some on the left will employ their own enemy-centered jargon: All conservatives are “unenlightened” and “we” must protect ourselves against the ignorant — even if our nation plunges off cliffs. That’s the price of holy war.

Such enmeshed thinking blinds us to legitimate overlaps and King’s wisdom — but that’s for Part two.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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