Friday, November 16, 2012

Insulting Narratives, Civic Virtue, and the Truth about Democrats and Republicans

In the election aftermath there has been extensive analysis, by both Democrats and Republicans, over how and why Romney's bid failed so decisively to unseat an incumbent that everyone acknowledged was vulnerable. Much of this analysis, from both sides of the aisle, has been spot-on, I think.

But there is one particularly popular narrative that is not. It is a narrative that favors divisiveness over accuracy, and it revamps tropes used to attack Obama and the Democrats. Ed Whelan offers a good example of it when he says the following: "As the Framers understood, self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. Instead, we have a growing mass of citizens seemingly wedded to dependency on big-government spending."

I'm not sure if Whelan means to include a vibrant system of public education under the rubric of "big government"--because if he does, then big government and what it hands out (in this case a basic standard of education for all citizens) is integral to creating the kind of citizenry who can meaningfully participate in deliberative democracy. So I'll assume he doesn't mean this. Rather, he's playing to the notion, not of a government that provides people with the resources to achieve success if they're willing to work for it, but of a government that provides handout to those who are unwilling to care for themselves.

If this is what he and others making similar comments are talking about, their analysis of the election amounts to this: Obama won by securing the vote of government moochers, who are supposedly such a large part of the American electorate that they could outvote those who work for a living.

Let's just be clear about this. This is not a substantive analysis of why Romney lost. More than 50% of Americans are slackers and moochers who don't want to lose their government handouts? Really?

If so, I haven't met any of this 50% of the American electorate. And if it's 50% of the electorate, it's gotta be a higher percentage among Democrats, right? Funny, then, that of all my Democratic-voting friends, not a single one fits this moocher label. Instead, they look like this:

A woman who works as a freelance journalist, whose husband is an engineer, and who does not rely on government assistance.

An assistant pastor of a large church who drives an hour every day to teach multiple college courses at a university in a neighboring town.

A college professor who spends a bit too much time at work because he's over-committed himself to too many professional projects at once.

A hard-working librarian married to a church secretary, raising three children on limited resources, and not pursuing government handouts--but grateful that Obamacare ensures that health insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage for their daughter with juvenile arthritis based on her "preexisting condition."

A hard-working psychologist and loving father who, among other things, treats veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A special ed teacher at an elementary school who loves working with the kids but is frustrated by the bureaucratic regulations and mandated testing that sometimes get in the way of doing her best for her students.

An honors student at a public university who is constantly busy with student organizations, serving as an officer in several of them, and who is thinking of going to law school.

I could go on. But the point should clear enough. The "moocher" story may make some of those who dislike the outcome of the election feel better, but it does so at the expense of all the hard-working people who are inaccurately slapped with the moocher label. And the moocher story won't help the Republican party move into the future. To the extent that it takes hold, it will only succeed in magnifying animosity across party lines, further polarizing our electorate.

Ed Whelan is right that self-government depends on a virtuous citizenry. But among the virtues essential for self-government are those that call for a fair and honest assessment of our political rivals, an appreciation of their strengths as well as of their weaknesses, and a willingness to accept the results of the democratic process and work productively within them--perhaps as a voice of loyal opposition--even if one is disappointed by those results.

Civility--especially across party lines--is a crucial virtue for a people who hope to practice "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." To that end, I want to say something about those I know who voted against Obama. Here's what some of them look like:

A painter who struggled for years just scraping by, never giving up, until his remarkable talent finally began to be recognized and he was able to go on to be highly successful.

A young woman raising two children by herself, not relying on government handouts, and maintaining good humor and kindness during even the most trying periods.

A special ed teacher who works tirelessly with some of the most emotionally disturbed students and who volunteers every summer to help build homes for the needy.

An insurance salesman who is one of the warmest, most devoted fathers I have seen.

A Vietnam veteran who, in his retirement, is a devoted grandfather and an equally devoted parent to a pair of happy dogs, and who works tirelessly to maintain a meticulous home and property.

A neurologist fighting the last stages of cancer, who always has a laugh and a warm smile for his friends.

A retired high school principal with a big laugh and a big heart, who loves his kids and grandkids, and who openly wept when his father-in-law died.

When I wrote Is God a Delusion? I did so in part to challenge the idea that the divide between theists and atheists is somehow a divide between decent human beings and defective ones. I wanted to make the case--both in the face of the New Atheist vilification of religion and (to a lesser extent in that book) the fundamentalist vilification of non-believers--that reasonableness and moral decency are not the sole province of atheists or theists. There are human beings on either side of that divide who display all of the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of which human beings are capable.

Likewise for the divide between Democrats and Republicans, between the political right and the political left. And keeping that truth clearly in our minds--even as we vigorously disagree with one another, even as we criticize each other's policies and practices--is one of the most central virtues of any society which hopes to practice self-government.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Secular vs. Religious Values: Reflecting on the Meaning of the Election

In her recent reflection on the results of Tuesday's election, writer and blogger Greta Christina touted the outcome as a "Victory of Secular Values."

To support this perspective she focused on several outcomes in particular: The success of marriage equality initiatives--and the defeat or an anti-same-sex marriage amendent in Minnesota; the election of the first openly gay or lesbian senator; the success of marijuana-legalization initiatives; the sound trumping of misogynistic rape-apologizing candidates; the defeat of a Florida amendment that would have allowed taxpayer money to support churches; and the failure of the Republican effort to win votes by demonizing birth control (and hence sex-for-pleasure).

As Greta Christina sees it, "the Republican Party tried to win, in large part, through religious fear-mongering about gays and drugs and sex and abortion and women who don’t know their place," and the effort failed big-time. Thus, she concludes, "This election was, to a great extent, a referendum on secular values versus the values of the theocratic religious right — and secular values won."

Now in casting the outcome of the election in these terms, Christina is in danger of playing into the very same narrative that is fueling the religious right in this country. The narrative, in short, is that our nation and the world confronts a conflict between the forces of faith and the forces of secularism, and any victory for the latter is a defeat for the people of God. We find elements of this narrative starkly displayed in Todd Akin's concession speech, when he says "that life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness come from almighty God not almighty government." We find it in those persistent religious-right warnings of the dire consequences of rejecting "God's values" (which, surprisingly, seem to be largely about sex and gender relationships) in favor of the secular ones touted by political liberals.

Now it's not uncommon to find that some of the more polarized atheists have the same basic assumptions about the relationship between the secular and the sacred that are rampant among those in the religious right. Dawkins and Ken Hamm agree that science and religion are fundamentally opposed--what they disagree about is which needs to go. But it is just this sort of polarization, this either/or division, that I think warrants serious critical scrutiny.

To be fair, Greta Christina frames her view as a victory of secular values over those of the "theocratic religious right," not over religion in more general terms. What was defeated was "religious fear-mongering." But she makes no mention of any other form of religion--a religion not rooted in fear--that might also declare victory in Tuesday's election. And this means some important points get missed. Two in particular are in danger of being overlooked, I think, unless they're made explicit.

First, and most obviously, this week's election was not merely a victory (on many fronts, at least) for secular values over the values of the religious right. It was also, on many fronts, a victory of progressive religious values over the values of the religious right. When I reflect on the states that voted for marriage equality, and on the evidence of the waning power of the prejudices that would have prevented an openly lesbian woman from gaining a senate seat, what I see are trends in America fully harmonious with the love ethic I and other religious progressives discover in the life and ministry of Jesus--an ethic that stands with the marginalized and oppressed and against the sort of legalism that's invoked to exclude, to create in-groups and out-groups, us and them.

Within Christianity today there is a struggle among rival ethical understandings, and homosexuality has become a central battleground. Any quick gloss on the nature of this struggle would oversimplify it, but one thing is clear: While many on the religious right want very much to paint progressive Christian opponents of the traditional condemnation of homosexuality as sell-outs to secular culture, the effort to do so fails to acknowledge how consistently Christian progressives root their case in terms of the most central Christian value of all: neighbor-love. Conservatives would like it to be otherwise--their case within the Christian community would be stronger if their opponents were simply buckling to secular forces. But this is not what is going on--it is a false characterization that impedes real dialogue.

It is important that secular voices not only remember this, but that they not reinforce--wittingly or unwittingly--this false characterization.

The other point that gets lost when we represent this week's election as the triumph of secular over religious values is this: There are some serious questions that need to be asked, not only about what should properly be called "secular," but also about what deserves the label "religious." On the former question, I think there really are such things as secular values--and I think they are best understood in something like the terms laid out by John Rawls, as found in this shared set of principles of fairness that everyone, regardless of their sectarian values, would embrace if they didn't know what position and privileges they and their sectarian community would enjoy within the social structure. And it may well be the case that the values Greta Christina highlights as having triumphed on Tuesday fall within this class.

But if so, that doesn't preclude them from also being religious values. On the contrary, the idea that you should abide by principles that you would like to live under even if you are not the one in power, even if you are not positioned as you are--this idea is the essential heart of the Golden Rule. Freedom of religion--including freedom from being subject to the mandates of a religion whose contestable sectarian doctrines you don't embrace--is arguably an expression of the Golden Rule, a rule enunciated with clarity by Jesus and repeatedly endorsed in Christian history as a way of living out the ethic of love. And it is a striking fact that the Golden Rule finds recurring expression in diverse religious traditions, so much so that it almost qualifies as ubiquitous. If this is right, than the core perspective that gives rise to "secular" values is also a deeply held religion one. Theocracy violates the Golden Rule--and hence violates religious values.

More significantly, I think there is a real problem with uncritically attaching the term "religious" to the values that Greta Christina takes to have been defeated on Tuesday. In other places I've argued that the religious right, to the extent that it relies on fear-mongering (and it isn't defined wholly by fear-mongering), puts itself outside the boundaries of any sort of religion or faith that is intellectually defensible, morally benign, and attuned to the transformative religious experiences that are the continuing wellspring of the human impulse to connect with the transcendent.

My own inclination, following the division I adopted from Plutarch in Is God a Delusion?, is to refer to the sort of fear-mongering that we saw among many far-right Republicans as superstitious fear-mongering. Religious faith professes to be about trust and love of God--and these things are not only different from but exclude anything that smacks of appeasement. If the divine is defined as a transcendent good worthy of our worship, as opposed to a powerful tyrannical force that demands our fawning subservience on pain of retaliatory strikes, then fear-mongering by its very nature is divorced from the divine. And if religion is about connecting with the divine, then "religious fear-mongering" becomes a nonsequitur.

Triumph over fear-mongering is, on this view of things, triumph over something that is by its very essence in opposition to the religious. And so, if secular values did triumph over fear-mongering this week, then those secular values have done religion a service. They have, if you will, cleared away one of those forces that prevents religion from blossoming in the world.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A First Communion Prayer for the Election Aftermath

On Sunday my son, who is nine, had his first communion. This is a significant milestone in the life of a member of the Lutheran church, as it is in a number of denominations. In the weeks leading up to this event, my son met with our pastor to talk about the meaning of holy communion, he helped to make the communion bread which was served that day, he made a banner that was hung on the Church wall during worship, and he composed a prayer that was read aloud during the part of the service devoted to the prayers of the people.

In composing that prayer, he was told simply to say what was in his heart. And so he prayed for three things. Or rather, I should say that all of us in worship on Sunday prayed together the three petitions that were in my son's heart.

The first was for wisdom as we confront global warming and the increasingly severe storms and other problems that it helps to fuel.

The second was for those who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy, for those who have suffered losses and those who are working to respond to its aftermath.

The third petition was that God should be with the people who would be upset by the results of Tuesday's national election.

My son didn't know who would win or lose the election, but he knew that whatever the result there would be those who were deeply unhappy. And he wanted God to be with them in that time of disappointment and distress.

In the immediate wake of the election results last night, my facebook newsfeed gave me an immediate sense of just how upset some people were. As someone who believes that Obama has done a number of good things for this country, and who thinks that our economy is on the road to recovery in part because of the policies and choices that Obama made early in his first term, I wasn't personally upset by the result last night. But I know what it feels like. I remember in the past the disappointment and the worry that can come when someone you don't think is the best choice for the country is elected.

But what I glimpsed last night, through social media, was not just disappointment and worry. There was a level of fear and outrage that sobered me. And I know enough to know that had the election gone the other way, there would have been similarly sobering expressions of outrage and fear.

And I know this: Deep and widespread fear, outrage, and polarization is far more dangerous to a country's health than any Democratic or Republican policy agenda. We don't elimiate such fear and outrage and polarization by electing the right person. We do it by turning our eyes to something that transcends our divisions, that rains down love and grace, that stands opposed to hatred and fear and offers in its place the hope of reconciliation and redemption.

And so, with my son, this is what I pray for today. For all of us today, and especially for those who look at the election results with fear for the future, may the God of grace and love be felt within each of us as a source of comfort and hope. May the peace that surpasses understanding fill us and help us to move forward, seeking ways to build cooperation, to overcome division, to carve out pathways for mutual understanding and healthy compromise in the face of enduring disagreement. Let us remember that last night's election was not the triumph of good over evil or of evil over good. It was the victory of one well-meaning man over another. And while good people can disagree over the best path to take, good people can also work together in the face of disagreements to find a path that works, and to work together when--as inevitably happens on any human path we choose to take--we stumble or fall.

Let us remember that what divides us is dwarfed by what unites us, that our value differences seem so sharp in part because of how vivid they appear against the backdrop of our common values. We all love our children. We all want a world in which each of us can make a living by making a meaningful contribution, where no one is a freeloader but where everyone gets the help they desperately need to lift themselves up again when hardship strikes them down. We all want safety and good health and economic prosperity, methods of responding to natural disasters that are effective, education systems that prepare the next generation for success, infrastructure that can sustain our lives and our welfare. We all want to find ways to meet current needs that don't compromise the ability of the next generation to meet theirs. We all want the sense of rootedness that comes from having traditions and culture and communities with a shared history. We all want to love and be loved.

Be with us, God of grace, this day and every day, as we strive afresh to rehearse the Kingdom of God with our neighbors and our communities, that we may reach for the beloved community here and now even amidst our differences and disappointments and fears.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

To Vote, to Pray

I just posted the following on facebook, and thought it should go here as well. It may be the shorted blog post you will ever find on this blog.

When I voted this morning, the "high" tables with the privacy shields were all full, so I knelt at a low coffee table to fill out my ballot. When I was finished and walked up to put my ballot in the machine, the man standing there commented, "I wasn't sure whether you were voting or praying."
This struck me as oddly appropriate. In a world where some are politically silenced, in a country where people have had to struggle for the right to vote because they were the wrong sex or their skin was the wrong color, casting a ballot has an almost sacred significance. To have a vote is to have a voice, however small and seemingly insignificant, that can help shape history. As in prayer, we lift up our voices. What we ask for and hope for may not happen, but saying what we have to say matters still.