Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey fellow of the Nation Institute. Her book Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon) was published in 1999.
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The following is a forum on Ellen Willis's "Freedom From Religion," which appeared in the February 19 issue.
I am a spiritual man. I believe politics must arise from a spiritual source as well as an ideological one. The great movements in our history have been spiritually motivated, at least in part. I also want the religious institutions engaged in the questions of justice and morality every day of the week.
But there are problems with the new politics of religion about which Ellen Willis writes. One is the danger of the private religious sphere replacing the public sector, a new kind of privatization that is not accountable. The second is that these religion-based projects will be charitable in nature and will not express political rage--because they will be tax-exempt, dependent on government. Third, social programs and movements should be independent of any pressure to adhere to a religious doctrine to qualify.
What is needed is Old Testament rage, not a clerical seizure of the public sector.
Tom Hayden is a former California State Senator.
Ellen Willis makes two intertwined arguments. The first is a forthright defense of the separation of religion and the state, inflamed by George W.'s plan to fund "faith-based" service agencies. The second is a sweeping attack on those liberals and leftists who speak kindly of churches and devout churchgoers, ignoring their undemocratic beliefs and arrogant practices.
Anyone who truly cherishes the First Amendment should indeed be wary of Bush's desire to use tax money to proselytize Americans who are short on money and hope. But it's not only secularists who are concerned. Liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis and faithful conservatives like Kate O'Beirne worry that manna from the Feds will compromise what Wallis calls the "prophetic voice" of religious bodies. Early in the nineteenth century, the very absence of a state-sanctioned church encouraged Americans to create and follow a wildly heterogeneous variety of creeds (and none at all). People who take their faith seriously would be foolhardy to give up the independence that served them so well in the past.
Willis's broader polemic against "religious orthodoxy" reveals how little she understands the spirituality she abhors. In challenging all manner of received authority, the rebellion of the 1960s also transformed the rituals of many churches and synagogues--and started many young people on a personal search for "meaning" that social movements by themselves could not satisfy. Today, the conflict between the devout left and the devout right--over economic issues like a living wage as well as an acceptance of homosexuality and support for abortion rights--is as intense as the one in which Willis does battle. And it's probably a more significant fight, given the minority of Americans who articulate their moral beliefs in strictly secular ways.
Strangely, Willis never seems to wonder why the "alternative moral vision" grounded firmly in the Enlightenment (which we share) captures few contemporary hearts and minds. The secular left has found nothing to replace the socialist dream and struggles to mount a persuasive challenge to the far-too-worldly gospel of free markets. Karl Marx, no friend of organized religion, nevertheless understood that, for ordinary people, religious faith was "the heart of a heartless world." If Willis hopes to build a more humane society, a bit of empathy for the spiritual choices of ordinary Americans might come in handy.
Michael Kazin's latest book (with Maurice Isserman) is America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. He teaches history at Georgetown University.
Ellen Willis is right but does not go far enough. Even without Bush's faith-based initiatives the Catholic Church not only demanded but received exemption after exemption from providing the most unexceptional forms of reproductive health. No emergency contraception for women who have been raped. No voluntary postpartum sterilization for women who are having what they hope will be their last child. No fertility treatments for women who would like to have a child.
These services are legally denied by Catholic hospitals and they are often eliminated in secular hospitals that merge with Catholic institutions. Catholic Charities of California has sued the state, seeking an exemption from a state law that requires employers--other than religious institutions engaged in narrowly defined religious activities--to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees. At the same time Catholic Charities nationally receives about 75 percent of its income from government sources. Catholic hospitals receive the bulk of their funding from government sources and tax-exempt bonds.
But the simple claim of conscience by a Catholic institution or the assertion of "church teaching" is enough for most legislators to just give the church whatever it wants as well as tax dollars. There was no national interest in protecting women's consciences when the Clintons included in their health reform package a conscience clause for healthcare provider institutions allowing them to deny any service they deemed immoral and still be eligible for government grants and contracts. Catholics are against this. Eighty-two percent believe that if a Catholic hospital receives government funds it should be required to allow its doctors to provide any legal, medically sound service they believe is needed. But for most legislators the power of the 300 US Catholic bishops is much more important.
For the bishops to try to have their cake and eat it too is politics as usual. For ultraconservative Catholic groups to claim that any criticism of the Catholic Church is Catholic-bashing is part of the game. For our leaders, Democratic and Republican, to keep serving them more cake is unconscionable.
Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
New York City
The First Amendment was enacted not merely to keep the state off the back of religion. One of its prime functions was to keep religions off one another's back and to stop them from using the state as their agent.
Let us not imagine that this problem has long vanished. Two or three years ago, I was supposed to share a platform with John Cardinal O'Connor on the subject of Jewish/Catholic relations at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. The Cardinal was so ill he sent his speechwriter to read his remarks. I responded then, and later in an Op-Ed in the New York Times, by asking a very direct question: What would happen to my religious liberty as a rabbi if the campaign by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the evangelical Protestants to outlaw abortion completely and under all circumstances passed into American law? As a rabbi, I am commanded--not permitted, but commanded--to advise a pregnant mother whose life is in danger that she must have an abortion. On the question of who comes first, the mother or the unborn child, Judaism, even its most Orthodox versions, insists that the mother's right to life is pre-eminent. The ultimate aim of the "pro-life" believers is to outlaw abortion completely. It is thus an attack on my religion. The First Amendment of the Constitution was enacted to make sure that I would not meet a triumphant collection of cardinals and bishops, and evangelical preachers, celebrating a victory of "natural law," as they interpret it, over the Talmud.
Even more fundamental, the notion that morality is safe only in the hands of the religions does not stand in the face of historical evidence. No society in which a church was dominant has ever emancipated the Jews. In the past two centuries or so, Jews have achieved political equality in the West, but everywhere, without exception, the forces that granted this freedom were fought by the majority religions. The major faiths of the world have learned, or are still learning, to live with one another as equals, but not because they have had new revelations from on high. On the contrary, this kinder and gentler aspect of their natures has been evoked by mercantilism and then by the Enlightenment, that is, by the very secular forces from which we would supposedly be saved by the major religious traditions in the name of their superior morality. In our day Roman Catholics and Orthodox have been slaughtering one another in the Balkans, and joining in the murder of Muslims, in the name of religion, and Muslims in the region have been no kinder. It is not self-evident that we will be cured of our ills if there is more control of public life by the various faiths.
In my ears, a recent statement by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the contemporary keeper of orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church, continues to ring. He pronounced non-Christians to be "defective people." Pope John Paul II, despite some urging, did not disavow this assertion. I would suggest that those who want to cure our ills by asking for a return to "that old-time religion" need to be made to examine very closely what they are calling on our society to affirm.
Arthur Hertzberg, Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University, is the author, most recently, of Jews: The Essence and Character of a People. He is currently working on a memoir.
Ellen Willis and I share much in common: our disdain for the religious right, our distrust of the Bush Administration's motives behind its new "faith-based" solutions--and our complete and unbending opposition to those religious claims that, when acted out, bring real and substantial harm to those whose views are not the same.
But Willis can't stop there--and yet should have, because taken as a whole her essay is so utterly lacking in historical understanding of religion's roles in America, so devoid of nuance in recognizing the immense varieties of experience, belief and religiously inspired political action, and ultimately so intolerant that she ends up willfully blind to the freedom-, justice- and equality-creating contributions religious ideals, language and actors have made to American life. Bereft of that, she disqualifies herself from being taken seriously. Her ideas, for example, that American religion perforce relies on "absolute truth" while "democracy, by contrast, depends on the Enlightenment values of freedom and equality," and that democracy has thrived here because it has "preserved relatively clear boundaries between public and private," and thereby kept "conflict between secularism and religion...to a minimum," mean she's never read Tocqueville or Perry Miller or Gordon Wood or Sydney Ahlstrom or Kevin Phillips's recent Cousins' Wars on religion's centrality in creating and sustaining our democracy, nor even vaguely begins to understand why and what divides American Christianity over literalist, inerrantist and historical/critical readings of the Bible itself--or why it's important to American politics.
Telling us that unless religion stays a chastely private "matter of personal conscience," it almost always and everywhere breeds intolerance that threatens democracy itself means Willis has never read Eugene Genovese on evangelical Christianity's emancipatory and sustaining role in the lives of African-American slaves. Certain that any religiously based assertion of a public voice serves power and bigotry means she's never read Herbert Gutman on faith's role in the lives of early industrial workers and how it helped them fight for unions and fair treatment before the law. Busy doing other things, apparently she's never picked up Lincoln's Second Inaugural or ever glanced through the private journals of Union soldiers who in their faith found the courage and reason to destroy slavery. Convinced that religion enforces only sexual and gender orthodoxies, she can't imagine why religiously organized colleges were the first to admit women or provide them advanced professional training.
In seeking to assure us that the best of all possible democratic worlds is one in which we enjoy "freedom from religion," she leaves us with no coherent explanation of what inspired the abolitionist movement, or early suffragists, or the temperance movement, or how the Progressive Era emerged. She gives us no way to understand why US Catholic bishops endorsed extensive worker ownership of the means of production in 1919 or why Father John Ryan was known as "Father New Deal," or how as Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, Jewish and mainline Protestant leaders worked together successfully to transform the then-common references to America as a "Christian nation" into a "Judeo-Christian" one, or how theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr led the early homefront mobilizations against Hitler well before Kristallnacht, let alone World War II.
Closer to the present day, Willis leaves us no way to affirm how the Kings and Abernathys and Lewises as well as the Berrigans and Coffins and Coxes and Hines--and the millions of white and black Americans--who found in their religious faith the reasons to battle racism and segregation or the horrors of the Vietnam War. Nor does she help us understand what, in the 1980s, sent Catholic nuns and Quakers and thousands of other religious Americans to Nicaragua and El Salvador and Guatemala, or inspired the Catholic bishops' pastoral letters on nuclear arms or on economic justice. Nor can she tell us why it is religious groups today that are in the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement, or living-wage campaigns, or massive debt relief for impoverished Third World nation campaigns, or why they were the principal supporters of reuniting Elián González with his father.
Nuanced when it comes to explaining the aesthetic behind Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Ellen offers only unnuanced contempt to those she derides as "the earnest centrists and liberals who are doing [the] dirty work" of Bush and the Christian right by thinking religion has an important role to play in America's public and political life. Wrong in her history, wrong in her analysis, she is wrong in her judgments.
But how could she not be wrong? Living in a country where more than 90 percent of its citizens have always told pollsters they believe in the existence of God, Willis cannot see which traditions therein speak for justice, and those against, which seek freedom, and which do not, which love democracy and which do not--let alone how to build a progressive politics that can build on the shared values of the secular and religious alike. Blind, Willis cannot see; deaf, she cannot hear.
Led by this kind of thinking, progressivism should stop pretending even to be political--and settle permanently into the sort of dinner-table rant Willis's essay represents.
Richard Parker teaches on religion, politics and public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Ellen Willis refers to a Joe Lieberman speech in which he mentions an incident after a talk I gave at Harvard on religion and public life. I don't know where Lieberman heard the story, but he got it wrong. Let me give the true account as a way of responding to Willis's piece. At an informal gathering of left intellectuals in the Harvard/Boston community discussing faith and politics, I was asked, "But Jim, what about the Inquisition?" I was a little surprised by the question, after laying out the history of progressive religion's contribution to myriad movements for social reform. I replied, "Well, I was against it at the time--and I am still opposed to it. Now unless you want me to raise Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge every time you bring up national health insurance, why don't we move on to a better conversation." The questioner smiled, got the point, and we did move into quite an intelligent discussion between religious and nonreligious progressives about common concerns. It's too bad that Willis missed the opportunity to do that.
In my own religious upbringing, I heard many people equating anybody on the liberal left with the most oppressive and totalitarian of regimes. But when I became involved in civil rights, antiwar and other social-justice movements, I discovered many people on the left quite committed to democracy, pluralism and human rights. It was quite comforting. Apparently, Ellen Willis hasn't yet figured out that there are religious people committed to the same things. She thinks we are all committed, instead, to special privileges for religion in the political arena. I guess she doesn't get out much, or hasn't bothered to read her history, or just can't bear realities that don't fit her pre-conceived ideological agendas.
It is tedious the way that "secular fundamentalists" like Willis continue to caricature and belittle religion and people of faith. Ellen, we are indeed motivated by our faith to seek justice and peace. But in the public arena, we don't make arguments based on others' accepting the "absolute truth" of our faith. We make cases appropriate to a pluralistic society. King's vision of the "beloved community" came directly from his biblical faith, but he argued for civil rights and voting rights on the basis of what was good and right for a democracy. Many of us make similar claims in similar ways all the time, even if it is faith that compels us to do so.
It's also very old and, frankly, politically stupid, to keep repeating the abuses of religion as if religious people didn't know or even agree. Yes, their owners gave the Bible to black slaves to turn their eyes toward heaven and away from their earthly plight. But in that same book, the slaves found Moses and Jesus, who helped inspire their liberation struggle. Some of us have been among the chief critics of oppressive religion for years but, at the same time, have lifted up its progressive practice and potential. Do we really need to keep reciting that progressive religious history? I think the Ellen Willises must know it and just choose not to pay any attention. Nothing will keep the secular left more irrelevant in America. Martin Luther King Jr. neither hid nor imposed his religion but rather used it as a social resource to transform America. That's exactly what many of us are doing today. And you know what, we don't need The Nation's permission to do so.
Jim Wallis is editor of Sojourners magazine, author of Faith Works and convener of Call to Renewal, a federation of faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty.
New York City
I applaud Ellen Willis's smartly reasoned critique and agree heartily about the dangers such politics present to democratic and feminist values. Two points that Willis neglects, however, show a more complicated view of the bipartisan, pro-religion landscape we face in the Bush II era.
My first point has to do with the link between the culture wars and macroeconomics. It is surely true that religious groups and politicians across the spectrum (from Jim Wallis and Floyd Flake to the Christian Coalition and the Vatican) are rushing to legitimize public support for "faith-based programs" in order to reclaim moral authority and "a privileged role in shaping social values." But the struggle over sexuality, gender definitions, parental control and popular culture is also tied to the struggle over public resources. At the macroeconomic level, the newassertiveness of religious institutions as stakeholders in the polity takes place in the larger context of globalization and the rapid privatization of social services formerly provided by the state.
Privatization wears many faces, including those of the so-called nonprofit as well as the corporate profit-making sector. In the United States, for example, Catholic/non-Catholic hospital mergers have proceeded at a nearly geometric pace since the mid-1990s, according to a series of studies by Catholics for a Free Choice. The result is that in numerous counties across the country, Catholic hospitals that systematically deny essential reproductive health services are the only provider hospitals in town. Likewise, with the attack on public schools and universities and erosion of their resources, parochial schools come to be seen--and advertise themselves in full-page New York Times ads--as a better-quality "choice" for poor black and Latino as well as middle-class children. All this is about not only control over social and sexual values but also the grab for tax dollars and the marketization of religious institutions. The strategic implications are clear: Progressives fighting for "freedom from religion" need to ally with groups opposing privatization in education and health.
My second point has to do with the potential constituency for such an opposition movement and carries a more optimistic note. I was the daughter of an observant Reform Jewish family who grew up in the heart of the conservative Christian, anticommunist Bible Belt in the 1950s. When I try to trace the roots of my liberal and left radicalism in later years, I find their earliest core in the alienation and anger I felt in public schools where Christian symbols and "Athletes for Christ" were compulsory fare and religion not only defined who you were but was itself defined in evangelical Christian terms. The resurgence of religiosity in politics today may pretend to be stylishly multicultural, but if the sanctimonious Joe Lieberman is any indicator, we can be sure that "correct" religion--and correct "faith-based programs" for the public coffers--will represent the Judeo-Christian mainstream. Even Willis neglects to mention Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, Buddhists and so on in her comments about devaluing the citizenship of "others." And her persistence in using "church" as a generic substitute for religion only underscores the ubiquity of certain exclusionary assumptions in the dominant political discourse.
My optimism comes from my childhood experience in a similarly conservative era. I predict that the movement to institutionalize and fund "faith-based programs" by the state will create its dialectical opposite. Not only secularists and Jews but a whole generation of immigrant young people--Indians, Vietnamese, Egyptians, Pakistanis--will become radicalized toward secular antiracist feminisms and the left. The sexual dimensions of religious politics (e.g., funding for "abstinence-only" sex education), whose importance Willis rightly emphasizes, will only intensify their fervor.
ROSALIND POLLACK PETECHESKY
Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, professor of political science and women's studies at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, is the author of Abortion and Woman's Choice and the forthcoming Women and Global Power.
As an ordained Baptist minister and former pastor, I largely agree with Willis's principled and spirited defense of democratic secularism. But I've got a few bones to pick, only a couple of which I'll address here. While both left and right critics in their arguments about religion and politics often use the example of the black church, few ever get it just right, including Willis. She charges Stephen Carter with rewriting history by equating "the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and the black church." To be sure, a lot of folk outside the black church were involved in that movement, but the central, even defining, influence of black religion on the civil rights struggle can't be missed. Counterposing "secular activists" like Rosa Parks--a devout Methodist--and John Lewis--an ordained minister--to black church activists is a serious misreading of just how much the gospel of freedom influenced many religious blacks who were leaders and foot soldiers in the NAACP, CORE and SNCC.
Unlike the Christian right, black Christian activists have mainly resisted the impulse to make ours a Christian nation. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black Christians were inspired by their religious beliefs to fight for equality and freedom for all citizens, even those who did not share their religion. That's why King opposed school prayer. He didn't want the state telling anyone that they had to pray, or whom to pray to, even if it turned out to be the God he worshiped. King understood the genius of secularism: It allows all religions to coexist without any one religion--or religion at all--being favored. Plus, King had a healthy skepticism about the white church, which lent theological credence to slavery and Jim Crow. He sided with the state against the church when the former intervened to keep white Christians from bombing black churches.
But Willis could also learn the skepticism that King and many black Christians had for the Enlightenment. Reason proved no better than religion in regulating the moral behavior of bigots. And proclaiming a devotion to freedom and equality meant nothing if black folk weren't even viewed as human beings worthy of enjoying these goods, either by religious whites or enlightened secularists. For many black folk, it wasn't whether white folk were religious or secular that mattered; it was whether they were just or not. To paraphrase Jesus, Willis and the rest of us should not only see the bad trees in religion's eye, but spot the forest that plagues the secularist's vision as well.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON
Michael Eric Dyson, the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University, is the author of I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Touchstone).
New York City
Richard Parker, Michael Kazin and Jim Wallis all ignore what I actually said and impute to me views I don't hold--some of which my article explicitly disclaims. I did not write a broadside attack on religion or religious people but an argument against the current broadside attack on secularism and secularists, particularly the claim that secular society is antidemocratic and violates believers' rights. While quarreling with the notion that religion is the sole or primary inspiration of social movements--which writes secular activists out of history--I acknowledge the political contributions of the religious left, the common interests of religious and secular leftists, and the fact that many religious progressives oppose the antisecularist politics I criticize. Far from expressing abhorrence of spirituality, as Kazin charges, I note that in our postpsychedelic age many people who favor a secular society and are not religious in the conventional sense have their own conceptions of the quest for transcendence. (I include myself in that category.)
I do not, as Parker suggests, claim that religion has had no influence on American democracy--or American democracy on religion. Nor do I argue that religious and democratic sentiments are mutually exclusive. My contention that there is "an inherent tension" between the two is a response to the argument made by Stephen Carter and others that a democratic government should make special accommodations to religious belief because of its absolute nature. To recognize a tension, however, is not to deny the existence of efforts to transcend or reconcile it. In an odd misapprehension, Parker has me saying democracy has thrived by preserving clear boundaries between public and private, thereby minimizing conflict between secularism and religion. My point is essentially the opposite: that minimizing religious-secular conflict depen ded on confining the practice of democracy to a narrowly construed public, political sphere, and that the spread of democratic principles to "private" life--especially sex, gender and childrearing--has greatly intensified the conflict. Parker ought to do a better job of reading before presuming to lecture me on the supposed gaps in my bibliography.
I don't dispute Michael Eric Dyson on the centrality of the church to the civil rights movement, but would argue that secular ideas and organizations were also important. In fact, one laudable function of the Southern black church during the civil rights era, as with the Catholic Church in Poland in the 1980s, was to give shelter and space to a diverse assortment of dissidents, religious or not. I agree that secularists have no monopoly on morality or clear vision. As part of another group not considered fully human, I've experienced the gap between the profession of Enlightenment principles and their practice. But it's only because the principles exist that I can demand that they apply to me.
Pace Tom Hayden, I believe the only truly radicalizing force is people's desire to change their own lives for the better. In my experience, moral outrage all too quickly becomes self-righteous authoritarianism.
Thanks to Frances Kissling, Rosalind Petchesky and Arthur Hertzberg for their valuable additions and to Wallis for supplying the context of Joe Lieberman's use of his remarks.
What's at stake in faith-based politics