Friday, May 06, 2005

If it's Friday, must be Culture Wars

Actually, I don't know if it's just me, but the debate over religion-in-politics seems to be coming to a head recently, so I have a number of things to comment on.

David Brooks's latest strawman argument is that liberals are up in arms (or would be if they only knew) that Abraham Lincoln prayed and tried to discern God's will before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The NYT letters page is full of great dope-slap replies, all to similar effect: political leaders are welcome to pray privately on a decision. They just can't express or justify or limit discussion of the decision on grounds that it's "God's will." I don't mind that Bush prayed before deciding to take us to war. But when he (to Ariel Sharon) or his military officers claim that our invasion is divinely sanctioned, I mind.

Two other things. One, if there was ever a decision to pray over, Emancipation was it: a momentous, unprecedented moral course correction. A "no atheists in foxholes" kind of thing. Lincoln, as Brooks knows but won't say clearly, wasn't particularly pious--if HE prayed over it, it was big. Brooks is asking us to equate freeing the slaves with appointing a judge to the Third Circuit Court. Two, Lincoln's choice was defined for him in political terms, by events and by economic and religious pressure groups on both sides He saw a course of action, he felt it was right but knew it would be hugely difficult, and he prayed for resolve. And of course, there was plenty that was practical, not absolute, about the Proclamation. It freed only slaves in the South, not the North; it was timed right after a midterm election; etc. If it was a prayerful decision, it was only in a very narrow sense.

With a spate of op-eds in March and April warning of a "Christian jihad," John McCandlish Phillips (who was an evangelical in the New York Times newsroom, a thing rarer than an albino alligator) protests that evangelicals are being unfairly caricatured by the liberal punditocracy. His case would be stronger if he even mentioned Terri Schiavo or the nuclear option or anti-abortion legislation, instead of leaving us to think that this anti-Christian sentiment came out of nowhere. He finishes with a tangent about religious language in government--"ceremonial deism," in the Bush Justice Department's phrase--that's rather disingenuous. Issues like right-to-life are about a lot more than that. Also, while I'm ambivalent about stuff like the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, things were a lot different in 1789, when the spectrum ran from Anabaptist to Anglican and "God" pretty much covered everyone equally, than today, when Americans include Muslims and Hindus and believers and non-believers of many stripes.

Phillips also completely misrepresents Paul Krugman's views of suposed liberal bias in academia. Krugman, in Phillips's account, says that belief in God makes one unable to do valid scholarly work. I read that Krugman column, and that's not what it said at all. It pointed out, rightly, that the GOP leadership is hostile to academic freedom, to scholarly work that reached conclusions that were politically incorrect for GOP ideology. If you have a scholarly bent, and academic freedom is a priority for you, conservatism is announcing that it doesn't want you.


We got into a discussion of religious fundamentalism vs. the science of evolution over at PeoplesForum yesterday, and I found myself in the position of the beleaguered conservative in the discussion, which I hate. Let me expand here. Yesterday's chat focused on a recent Salon interview with Richard Dawkins. I posted a while back about Kenneth Miller of Brown University. Miller is one of the leading authors of high-school biology textbooks in the US, so his interest in the evolution-creationism debate is pretty damn concrete. Unlike Dawkins, sitiing in a hotel suite in his "crisp white shirt and soft blazer," uttering provocative bon mots to the delight of Salon readers, Miller goes to lobby the Kansas State Legislature, he goes to offer expert testimony in Georgia, and he speaks to audiences of divinity students in North Carolina. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak. He's not a bomb thrower, he's an infantryman. Miller is no less committed to the struggle over creationism than Dawkins, and he will get a lot more accomplished. For what it's worth, Miller was very much on my mind when I was criticizing Dawkins.

My beef with Dawkins, in sum, was that he lumps all religious folks together under the most unflattering label. The funny thing is, in some of his comments Dawkins comes so close to what I believe. Dawkins describes the wonder that scientists take in the natural processes that they understand so well, with terms like "almost transcendental" and "quasi-religious." Well, take off the weaselly modifiers and you have my view. I think Dawkins's problem with religion boils down to (1) the idea of divine intervention in nature or history, and (2) the notion of an afterlife. Well, I'm an agnostic on those things myself, yet I identify (a little uncomfortably) as a Christian. Religious categories are not as simple as a checklist of doctrines one affirms or denies. These are culture groups, somewhat fluid but somewhat persistent, which is why it's easier to speak of a Catholic child than it is to speak of a Keynesian child.

The Ludic Kid had a post yesterday about Dawkins, and I'm guessing that I'm one of the Dawkins "revilers" he's picturing. I didn't mean to come off that way. I'm no expert on the history of American evangelicals, but I'm pretty sure the Kid is leaving out some things in his analysis. The 1960s, Billy Graham, the shrinking economic pie, the fraying Protestant consensus--I suspect those things deserve a mention.

This shit makes me angry, too, this rampant yahooism. For one thing, I worry for my kids and the kind of education, the kind of economy, the kind of country they're going to grow up to. But I'd like to invoke the spirit on Tom Frank and say, progressives are not going to get far treating our opponents as idiots or children. I agree, Ted Haggard is not persuadable, but Ted Haggard's (the megachurch movement's) power is organizational. He's got 10,000 worshippers (or whatever, maybe more). You suppose 10% of them are persuadable?

The answer to so much about the predicament of the American left, I'm more and more convinced, is to organize. Nothing is going to change quickly. The great successes of liberalism in this country, like civil rights and the labor movement, took decades to build. That's got to be our time frame.

In general, there are quite a few voices on the left whom I respect, but who are pretty clueless about religion, particularly as it's actually practiced. I read Atrios, uh, every day like clockwork, but every time he comments on religion I want to throttle him. He just gets things wrong, and while he's usually humble in the face of a subject outside his expertise, he'll mouth off about religion with no compunction. He's done it recently, about Barbara Bradley Hagerty of NPR (not as bad as Atrios says) and this Baptist church that expelled members for voting for Kerry (well, that's bad, but there must be a whole lot more going on there than we can learn in a 40-second TV news clip, plus there is already some backlash against that church and there may be more to come).

I'm still working my way through the issue of Harper's that Ludic and Mr. Obscurity have been praising. The Gordon Bigelow piece was very enlightening, and all new to me. (That old crone Cora Nelson, who taught me Econ 101 freshman year--probably a Baptist! No wonder I got a C-minus!) The piece on the Colorado Springs megachurch is by Jeff Sharlet, whom I read regularly at The Revealer, and I think I can say something about his account compared to my own reading and experience. More later.

Speaking of Jeff Sharlet, here is a review he wrote of a new biography of Jonathan Edwards, that sheds a little light on the history of evangelicals in this country.

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