Freedom From Religion

Freedom From Religion

What’s at stake in faith-based politics


George W. Bush’s creation of a federal office to coordinate public financing of euphemistically labeled “faith-based” social services is a bold assault on the separation of church and state; it is also, ironically, a triumph of bipartisanship. During the presidential campaign, the religious right’s long-running crusade against “secular humanism” achieved its Nixon-in-China moment. Rushing headlong from the mythical anti-Clinton backlash, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman did their best to outdo the Republicans at religiosity. Gore made a point of his born-again Christianity, rejected “hollow secularism” and declared his support for “charitable choice,” a policy that would loosen the rules for allotting public funds to faith-based programs. Lieberman was even bolder: He responded to what he called the “miracle” of his nomination with repeated public professions of faith in God, along with declarations that religion is the basis of morality and that the Constitution provides “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” In a speech at Notre Dame, he linked secularism to a “vacuum of values” that had been filled by–what else?–“our omnipresent popular culture.”

As a Jew and a Democrat, Lieberman was able to say things no Christian Republican could get away with. While the ACLU and a few other usual suspects voiced objections, the overall response from liberals was distinctly muted. Non-Orthodox Jewish organizations are normally staunch defenders of secularism, yet the only major spokesperson to criticize Lieberman’s rhetoric was Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. No doubt the dearth of protest had something to do with reluctance to hurt the Gore campaign, appear hostile to a noble experiment in diversity or, in the case of Jewish groups, rain on the parade of the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate. But it’s also true that Lieberman’s views are common among centrist Democrats and have gained increasing legitimacy in progressive circles. Eleanor Brown, a fellow of the neoliberal New America Foundation, defended him on the New York Times Op-Ed page. E.J. Dionne, Garry Wills and Christian minister and antipoverty activist Jim Wallis were among the left-of-center commentators who concurred.

For a year we had been hearing that cultural politics were passé. The flameout of the ultraright’s crazed jihad against Bill Clinton left chastened conservatives gearing up for a presidential campaign in which abortion would be relegated to a footnote and the Republicans’ most loyal supporters would be the Christian who? On sexual issues we seemed to have arrived, for the moment, at a standoff (not to be mistaken for a resolution). But the battle for the culture never really subsided, only shifted its rhetorical ground. The use of “family” as a metaphor and catalyst for cultural conservatism is now being rivaled by a newly popular catchword: “faith.” And just as “pro-family” ideology is not confined to the political right but has influenced liberals, leftists, even feminists, what might be called “pro-church” sentiment cuts across the political spectrum.

This is bad news. I believe that a democratic polity requires a secular state: one that does not fund or otherwise sponsor religious institutions and activities; that does not display religious symbols; that outlaws discrimination based on religious belief, whether by government or by private employers, landlords or proprietors–that does, in short, guarantee freedom from as well as freedom of religion. Furthermore, a genuinely democratic society requires a secular ethos: one that does not equate morality with religion, stigmatize atheists, defer to religious interests and aims over others or make religious belief an informal qualification for public office. Of course, secularism in the latter sense is not mandated by the First Amendment. It’s a matter of sensibility, not law. Politicians have a right to brandish their faith and attack my secular outlook as hollow. That they have such a right, however, does not mean exercising it is a good idea. Politicians also have a right to argue that Christ’s teachings are essential to public morality, but few would dare devalue the citizenship of Jews in such a fashion. Why is it more acceptable to marginalize the irreligious with appeals to God and faith?

The issue for the left is not religious participation in politics per se. As antisecularists are fond of pointing out, churches have played a significant role in left movements for peace, civil rights and abolition of the death penalty. But for the most part, religious liberals and leftists have allied with their secular counterparts on matters of common concern, rather than working to promote the power of religion itself or taking issue with the secular left on specifically religious grounds. In fact, many religious progressives, including some whose community organizations would be eligible to receive public funds, oppose the erosion of secularism in general and measures like “charitable choice” in particular.

There has been one important, if numerically small, exception to this community of interests: the antiabortion movement among liberal and left Catholics and some religious pacifists. There has also been a good deal of tension within the secular left between feminist and gay activists committed to abortion rights, equal protection for gays and sexual liberalism generally, and progressive organizations unwilling to take stands that might jeopardize alliances with Catholics or black evangelicals on labor, poverty or racial issues. Moreover, since the 1970s, when the anti-’60s cultural backlash took hold, a significant portion of the left has argued that criticizing traditional values–whether familial or religious–abets the right by alienating middle America.

But what’s happening now is new: Some liberals and leftists, both religious and secular, are defending or actively supporting efforts to dilute the separation of church and state and increase the power and influence of religion in American life; and those efforts increasingly invoke the language of multiculturalism, tolerance and concern for the poor. In a Nation article last year, Dennis Hoover endorsed charitable choice: “Progressives can’t afford to ignore realistic opportunities to help poor people,” he argued, and so long as government funding does not discriminate in favor of Christianity or directly support religious activity, it “advances social justice and a robustly impartial pluralism in the relationship between religion and public life” [see Hoover, “Yes to Charitable Choice,” August 7/14, and Letters, November 6]. Similarly, advocates of vouchers that can be used at parochial schools, such as former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador Andrew Young, have contended that nit-picking about church and state should not stand in the way of educational opportunity for poor black and Latino kids.

Beyond specific policy issues, pro-church arguments aim to shift progressive sympathies from secularists battling the political power of churches toward the claims of churches and believers that they are victims of a biased and rigid secularism. In part, those claims reflect the anger of religious intellectuals who feel marginalized in the secular cultures of the academy and the media and personally insulted by stereotypes that assume Catholics mindlessly take orders from the Pope, evangelical Christians are superstitious ignoramuses and “religious intellectual” is an oxymoron. Believers have also complained of protests that go beyond targeting church officials and their politics to take aim at worshipers themselves, like ACT UP’s widely (and in my view rightly) criticized disruption of services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

But charges of discrimination have also taken far more problematic forms. Consider the 1989 crisis over the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, which depicted Mohammed in a manner that scandalized the Islamic world. Censorship, book-burning and riots in Islamic countries reached a climax in Iranian dictator Khomeini’s call to Muslims around the world to execute Rushdie for blasphemy. A clearer case of religious oppression would be hard to come by; yet the writers and civil libertarians who protested on Rushdie’s behalf (myself included) were criticized from the left–by columnist Juan Gonzalez and liberal theologian Harvey Cox, among others–for their supposed cultural imperialism and insensitivity to devout Muslims’ feelings.

Most such sentiment probably had more to do with reflexive pro-Third World attitudes than with concern for religion as such. But parallel arguments have surfaced in home-grown controversies about art deemed sacrilegious and offensive to Christians–such as Andres Serrano’s notorious depiction of a crucifix immersed in urine, Piss Christ, and Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-encrusted Virgin Mary in the 1999 “Sensation” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. These works have repeatedly been characterized as expressions of anti-Catholic bigotry; that Serrano received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Brooklyn Museum gets support from New York City have been cited as evidence of state-sponsored hate. As liberal Catholic and Commonweal editor Margaret O’Brien Steinfels put it in a New York Times Op-Ed, “Elephant dung smeared on a church, synagogue or mosque would get the perpetrator arrested.”

Yet both these artists have chosen to engage with their own religious tradition, through images that to my secular eye are designed not to insult believers but to question the disgust with the body and materiality embedded in orthodox Christianity and endemic to our culture. In Piss Christ, the radiant, sensuous liquid that surrounds the cross is not identifiable as urine unless you read the title. It seems clear–especially in the context of other Serrano works involving equally gorgeous, abstracted images of blood and semen–that the artist is invoking the idea of piss as desecration to challenge it with another possibility: that bodily fluids are holy. Similarly, Ofili’s sweet-faced Madonna, with its dung (which is not “smeared”) and little pornographic cherubs, is an earthy rather than ethereal figure. If these images are bigoted, then so by implication is any art that refuses a conventional reverence toward religious icons or invests them with idiosyncratic meanings that contradict orthodox beliefs.

Critics of organized religion who call attention to its history of persecuting dissenters have also been charged with bias on the grounds that modern secular regimes have committed even more murders. In his Notre Dame speech Lieberman recalled, as an illustration of antireligious intolerance, that when Jim Wallis gave a talk at Harvard on religion and public life, a member of the liberal audience asked, “What about the Inquisition?” Is it then intolerant of anti-Communists to bring up the gulag, since after all Christianity hardly has clean hands? Some commentators have even implied that opposition to the sexual politics of conservative churches is tantamount to discrimination. In the Times, religion columnist Peter Steinfels, also on the Catholic left, scoffs at Democrats’ criticism of Bush for speaking at Bob Jones University; as he sees it, Bob Jones’s anachronistic version of anti-Catholicism is innocuous compared with the way Catholic Democrats have been made to feel like “pariahs” by their party’s “unqualified support for abortion rights.” (It’s not as unqualified as all that, but never mind.) On his list of anti-Catholic prejudices held by America’s supposedly enlightened opinion-makers, he includes the notion that the Church’s sexual standards are “unnatural, repressive, and hypocritical.” I concede that “hypocritical” is a presumptuous judgment, and “unnatural” a philosophical can of worms. But the belief that proscriptions on sex outside marriage, homosexuality, masturbation, birth control and abortion are repressive (and, I would add, sexist) is not a prejudice–it represents a basic disagreement with the Church about the conditions of human well-being.

Just as the family issue migrated from the precincts of the Christian right into the political mainstream via neoconservatives, communitarians and New Democrats, the faith issue has followed a similar route. The Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, with their influence on the Republican Party–a Justice Department run by John Ashcroft would be their biggest prize yet –opened up political space for attacks on secularism. But the biblical rhetoric of right-wing evangelicals, with its invocations to a “Christian nation” and sectarian campaigns like the fight against teaching evolution in the public schools, have little popular appeal outside the South; nor do they speak to the centrist elites in the media and the governing class, let alone the left. Ashcroft is the nose-thumbing choice of an accidental President; if confirmed (as this issue goes to press the Senate has not yet voted) he will no doubt do real damage, but he will also excite constant opposition, and his influence on the larger culture will be minimal. Before pro-church views could make real headway, they had to be translated into a less parochial language.

Two Christian intellectuals have been key figures in developing that language. Richard John Neuhaus, now editor of the “theocon” journal First Things, wrote what might be considered the pro-church movement’s canonical work, The Naked Public Square, which appeared in 1984; Yale law professor Stephen Carter published his influential book The Culture of Disbelief in 1993 and recently came out with a new polemic, God’s Name in Vain. While their politics are different–Neuhaus is firmly on the right, Carter a cautious mixture of socially conservative and liberal impulses–they agree that a public role for religion is essential to American democracy. Both argue that secularism thwarts the will of the great majority of Americans who believe in God, that there needs to be a prominent place for institutional religion as a check on state power and that the main purpose of the First Amendment’s establishment clause is to protect the church from the state, not vice versa. Together they have changed the debate by challenging secularism on its own moral ground, as the defender of democratic values.

The Naked Public Square was Neuhaus’s response to the emergence of the evangelical Christian right and the resulting liberal panic: He agrees that the movement is dangerously authoritarian but proclaims it an inevitable reaction to the relentlessly antireligious program of the secular elite. Secularism, he maintains, is itself an antidemocratic, indeed potentially totalitarian pseudo-religion whose institutional form is an ever-expanding state that confuses its own aims with transcendence. Carter’s complementary view is that secularists, in opposing any government accommodation to religion, trivialize people’s religious convictions by treating them as a matter of choice rather than an absolute commitment. (His examples range from the Supreme Court decision that Native Americans cannot violate drug laws by using peyote in religious rituals, to rulings that Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot prevent hospitals from giving their children transfusions, to the voiding of a law that denied civil divorces to Orthodox Jewish men who refused to give their wives religious divorces so they could remarry.) As he sees it, defining religious freedom as purely a matter of private conscience rather than public recognition forces the believing majority to suppress the most essential part of themselves in their public lives. This trivialization, he argues, hinders the church’s proper role as an independent, prophetic voice challenging the hegemony of the state.

These arguments confuse democracy with populism and show little concern for the rights of the minority of unbelievers, who are regarded not as dissidents but as powerful agents of the state. For the neoconservative Neuhaus, what’s oppressive about the state is precisely its intervention on behalf of individuals–like homosexuals objecting to discrimination or opponents of publicly sponsored Christmas trees–who do not want to be subjected to “the beliefs, symbols, and rules of the majority culture.” Carter, meanwhile, proclaims religion to be the source of movements of the oppressed: In a rewriting of history characteristic of antisecularists he equates the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and the black church. (What about A. Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Jim Forman–secular activists all–and such non-church-run organizations as the NAACP, CORE and SNCC?)

But in demanding that state and society defer to the absolutism of religious devotion, Carter gives the game away, for as many devout believers will admit, there is an inherent tension between religion and democracy. The authority of the biblical religions–which are the main subject of this debate–is embedded in sacred texts, religious laws and ecclesiastical hierarchies that claim to transmit absolute truth and serve the will of a Supreme Being. Democracy, in contrast, depends on the Enlightenment values of freedom and equality, which are essential to genuine self-government. In a democracy, truths are provisional and subject to debate–which doesn’t mean arbitrary, only arguable. A society grounded in democratic principles can neither restrict people’s choices because they don’t conform to religious truths nor give them privileged treatment because they do.

The democratic spirit does encourage respect for acts of conscience–whether by recognizing them legally, as with conscientious objection, or by limiting penalties for nonviolent civil disobedience–but it can’t extend respect only to acts mandated by a belief in God or condone acts that violate others’ rights (like denying one’s child life-saving medical treatment). Nor, even with the laudable intention of helping desperate Jewish women, can it threaten men with loss of their civil right to a divorce because they refuse to participate in a religious ritual. As for laws that capriciously interfere with personal freedom, the answer is to fight the law, not to carve out a religious exception: Members of the Native American Church should be permitted to alter their consciousness with peyote, but so should everyone else. (In this regard, Carter makes a valid point: It’s usually minority religions whose pleas for exemption from burdensome laws get brushed aside; laws that would burden mainstream religious practice don’t get passed in the first place.) If believers feel that their faith is trivialized and their true selves compromised by a society that will not give religious imperatives special weight, their problem is not that secularists are antidemocratic but that democracy is antiabsolutist.

Insofar as religion is a matter of personal conscience and identity, a means for individuals and congregations to pursue life’s ultimate questions and their vision of a transcendent reality, religious freedom is not only compatible with democracy but essential to it. Among those who favor a secular society, many are believers. Many other secularists, in an age influenced by psychedelic drugs and Eastern spiritual disciplines, value the freedom to pursue their own versions of transcendence, which they may or may not define as religious. The conflict with democracy arises when organized religion pursues its interests as a social and political institution.

Apart from its relationship to the state, the church is an independent source of social control, exercising authority through the culture and first of all through the socialization of children. Like the church itself, the family is not a democratic institution, and freedom of religion in this society applies only to adults; parents have a taken-for-granted right to impose on their children their own religious beliefs and associated moral–especially sexual–prohibitions (the Jehovah’s Witnesses case is the rare exception). While some people choose their religion, in “free acknowledgment of that by which we are bound,” as Neuhaus puts it, most absorb it at an age when parental authority is what counts. In fact, it’s doubtful that adults who reject religion can truly escape the influence of a religious upbringing–a proposition that explains a lot about Americans’ ambivalence on moral and cultural issues.

So long as American society preserved relatively clear boundaries between public and private and applied democratic ideals to a narrowly defined political realm, conflict between secularism and religion was kept to a minimum. (Even a notorious incident like the Scopes trial had more to do with the conflict between mainstream Protestantism and fundamentalism.) But the movements of the ’60s destabilized that détente. Now issues of sexual morality, male-female relations, childrearing and education–the very issues on which the institutional authority of religion is most at stake–are politicized. The democratic quest for individual autonomy, equality of political power and a strict interpretation of the establishment clause now extends to all cultural institutions and norms, challenging religious orthodoxy on issues that range from school prayer to censorship, nonmarital sex and childbearing, abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage. Secularists tend to see religious opposition to social liberalism purely as an attempt to impose church doctrine on unbelievers, but this is too simple. Believers’ complaint against a secular culture is above all that it exposes their own children to powerful–and as they see it disastrous–temptations to choose a different way of life.

One need not trivialize the fears of religious parents to recognize that this is at bottom a complaint against democracy itself. The devout cannot have it both ways. Pro-church arguments have made headway on the left by purporting to defend the democratic rights of the religious, but this is not really a debate about rights. Rather, what pro-church militants are demanding is exemption from challenge to, or even criticism of, their claim to a privileged role in shaping social values. With no sense of contradiction, they presume the right, even obligation, to attack secularists’ worldview while feeling entitled to unquestioned “respect,” which is to say suffocating reverence, for their own beliefs. In a democracy, however, organized religion has no more right to be shielded from opposition than the state, the corporation, the labor union, the university, the media or any other institution.

Pro-churchers will object that religion is different, that even those who reject its truth need its morality. But the conflation of morality with religion is exactly what secularists contest. The secular stereotype of the devout as irrational has its counterpart in the pro-church assumption that secularists are devoted to a “value free” relativism and derive whatever morality they happen to retain from vestigial religious influence. Into this “vacuum,” it is supposed, enter the nightmare inversions and perversions of morality that characterized the totalitarian secularisms of recent history. It’s true that the basic moral proposition of secularism–that social norms should be grounded in the imperatives of earthly, human happiness–can lead to morally obnoxious ideas, depending on one’s understanding of happiness. (Of course, so can the proposition that social norms must be grounded in God’s will, depending on one’s understanding of that will.) But a democratic secularism, which regards personal freedom and social equality as underpinnings of the good society, offers an alternative moral vision that coincides with religious morality in many respects, yet sharply departs from it in others–particularly in matters of sex.

Antisecularists argue that left critics of religious intrusion into politics have a double standard: We don’t mind when churches take a stand against racism or poverty, only when they oppose legal abortion, homosexual rights and related sexual-political causes. But racial and economic issues do not provoke a clash between competing religious and secular moralities; believers and nonbelievers can be found on all sides of these debates, and religious as well as secular liberalism has been shaped by Enlightenment principles. Conservative sexual morality and antifeminism, on the other hand, are rooted in premodern, patriarchal religious ideology, while the logic of secular morality supports gender equality and a view of sexual fulfillment as a human right.

Unlike parochial-school vouchers, charitable choice and George W.’s new federal office, the right’s sexual-political agenda, however religiously motivated, does not violate the establishment clause; religious morality and religion itself are not the same thing. But it does undermine the spirit of secular democracy. Although there are atheist right-to-lifers, the militant leadership, organization and financial sponsorship of the antiabortion and “pro-family” movements are religious. Without the conservative churches, those movements would not exist. Furthermore, these churches display a unique passion and commitment when it comes to sexual politics: The Catholic Church attacks Catholic politicians who stray from Church teachings on abortion–not capital punishment. For in fighting to enforce sexual orthodoxy, organized religion is also fighting to salvage its own authority. Sexual guilt, instilled at an early age, makes people feel sinful and reinforces their need for the church. Belief in their right to sexual freedom drives them away.

For democrats, it’s as crucial to defend secular culture as to preserve secular law. And in fact the two projects are inseparable: When religion defines morality, the wall between church and state comes to be seen as immoral. This is what we’re facing now–not only from Bush and the Christian right, but from the earnest centrists and liberals who are doing their dirty work.

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