Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Republicans and Religion

I happened to see an article in the March and April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs called “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics Is Bad for Both.”  Find it here.  Authors Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame explain in the article that the identification of religion with Republican politics in this country is a relatively new development.  In the 1960s, regular churchgoers were actually more likely than nonchurchgoers to be Democrats. As Putnam and Campbell point out, even into the 1980s, there were still plenty of progressives in the pews on Sunday morning and plenty of conservatives who stayed home.

Somehow or other, over time religion became identified with conservative politics.  In the last election it was much more likely that, if you were a churchgoer, you voted for McCain.  Curiously, this trend is not due to religious people or secularists switching parties.  Rather, as religious polling shows, formerly religious Democrats (except African Americans) are leaving their religion, and formerly unobservant Republicans are finding God.  What Putnam and Campbell discovered is that today religion doesn’t dictate your politics; your politics dictate your religion.

The irony here is that the evangelicals are victims – as so many of us are – of the doctrine of unintended consequences.   They set out to gain converts but, by identifying Christianity with political conservatism, they ended up driving people away from the fold.  From 1989 to the present, polls show that the percentage of those who say that they are not affiliated with any religion has more than doubled from about 7% to 15 %.  (In the 60’s only two percent of people polled said that they belonged to no religion.)  Most of the defections are from Democrats who hear a message from religion that is increasingly hostile to their own political views.  As Putnam and Campbell put it:  many of those who “might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I'm outta here.’”  Indeed, “[t]o them, ‘religion’ means ‘Republican,’ ‘intolerant,’ and ‘homophobic.’ Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves – or wish to be seen by their peers – as religious.”

Evidence of this trend showed up in some recent conversations with my own kids.  Not too long ago, I was discussing Jesus Christ Superstar with Ellen.  I was telling her that I’ve been listening to the recoding since I was in high school and I still find it moving.  Ellen, however, complained that her friends are surprised and even a bit dismayed that she listens to it at all.  They wonder why would anyone want to listen to a “Christian” musical?  She lamented that all her efforts to convince them otherwise fall on deaf ears.  Ellen didn’t say this, but I suppose that her friends were convinced that Jesus Christ Superstar is “Republican,” “intolerant,” and “homophobic,” simply due to its subject matter.

And then recently, Tom met the minister we’ve managed to get on-board for his wedding.  This fellow is an old friend of mine and a good Presbyterian who was very much involved in anti-poverty efforts back in the 80’s.  Anyway, we all talked over lunch, which included some discussion of religion and politics as well as the wedding service.  Afterward, Tom said to me, “That’s so weird: a liberal minister.”

I was also reminded of the dramatic change since my younger days when I recently heard a radio interview with William O'Rourke, another academic from Notre Dame, who just published the 40th edition of The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left.  It’s actually an incredible story about nothing much (almost perfect for “This American Life,” but that will have to wait for another blog effort).  I mention it because I was struck by the title.  When was the last time anyone was identified as “the Catholic Left?”

I guess what bothers me is this:  why are we letting our opponents determine our own religious practices?   Why do they get to define Christianity?  I say that it’s high time for good Democrats to return to their houses of worship.  By walking out, they left the conservatives in charge and free to distort Christianity in some pretty horrifying ways.  Recall Woody Allen’s well-known line:  “If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.”  (Not that a purely Democratic church would be any closer to the truth – when you find yourself staring into the heart of the Mysterium Tremendum, words like “liberal” and “conservative” cease to have much meaning.)

I’m reminded of the climactic scene in Bend It Like Beckham, when Jess’ father finally comes around and supports her decision to play soccer.  He points out the mistake of his accepting the judgment of others:

When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club like a dog, I never complained. On the contrary, I vowed that I would never play again. Who suffered? Me. But I don't want Jess to suffer. I don't want her to make the same mistakes her father made, accepting life, accepting situations. I want her to fight. And I want her to win.

When we let the political right define Christianity, who suffers?  For one, we do.  We deprive ourselves of the riches of a religious tradition which reaches back two millennia.  Christianity also loses its luster and for that the world suffers.  Religion is far too important to be left in the hands of a few narrow-minded Republicans.    


James R said...

Nicely written. It is amazing, even shocking really, how even the definition of religion for many has changed in the last few years. Thomas Merton, the Berrigan brothers, Romero, and hundreds of others often led the way for the rest of us. Can you imagine that today?

James R said...

King, of course, is included as "hundreds of others" [religious clerics], but he deserves specific mention. I didn't mean to exclude non-catholics. Freudian?

Big Myk said...

You mention Oscar Romero. Can you imagine anything like the following being said by an archbishop today?

The great need today is for Christians who are active and critical, who don't accept situations without analyzing them inwardly and deeply. We no longer want masses of people like those who have been trifled with for so long. We want persons like fruitful fig trees, who can say yes to justice and no to injustice and can make use of the precious gift of life,regardless of the circumstances. (emphasis mine)

Anonymous said...

I am not sure if people, especially liberals, have emptied the pews because they have been “forced out”. Organized religion is inherently conservative. It is inherently conservative because each major “modern” religion had a starting point that defined that religion and those basic beliefs cannot be altered over time. One believes in the basic principles and traditions or not. If you are a Christian you cannot be a Jew at the same time or if you are, you are neither.
As noted the religious liberal of past generations have, for the most part, been marginalized by their present leaders and conservative faithful. It should be noted that conservatives felt marginalize and left the main stream churches at the liberal zenith – ie. Liberals caused the consolidation and rise of fundamentalist by marginalizing them in the ‘60’s. Liberals are making that same move now but they are not going to new churches, they are leaving them.
Actually, I do find it surprising that so many “liberal Catholics” remain in the pews despite the fact that many do not believe in the doctrines put forth by their church. More than half of all Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics” who pick and choose what they like regardless of the actions and words of popes, bishops and priests. Many of these Catholics reject the church’s teaching on birth control, divorce, the pope’s infallibility on religious matters, the church’s stand on gay marriage and life style and find the idea of having an all male hierarchy not only anachronistic but abhorrent –especially after all the sex scandals and cover ups. Those who have left the catholic and other churches have done so not because they were pushed out but because the find the messenger irrelevant and their message dangerously offensive to the humanistic and religious beliefs they were taught as a child. And, of course, to their secular life style.
To answer Myk’s questions: why are we letting our opponents determine our own religious practices? Why do they get to define Christianity? Your opponents are those who run the church(s) and determine what you should practice and they have always run the church. I have a question for you. Which of the above church teaching would think the Catholic Church would ever change? Since most of the church’s teaching are based on Natural Law I see it a long, well beyond any of our lifetimes, that the church would change any of these doctrines.
I am not sure the two millennia of Christian tradition and theology have made the world a much better place and I cannot think of too many traditions and beliefs that are worth keeping that have been supported by the Church especially after 400 AD. Most of our religious traditions are cultural and can be observed regardless of the theology and still can retain the same meaning. Like any political system its main purpose seems to keep itself in power and most reformers from Francis to Pope John have been moved to the edges of relevancy.

Anonymous said...

Oscar Romero.
As a matter of fact i do believe there are bishops who would say this but not in reference to gays, abortion,family planning, etc. I am not not sure Romero would have agreed to these items either.

James R said...

Anonymous presents some interesting and reasonable points. I definitely agree with the ideas he/she is making, but would like to add some "color" (as the financial analysts say).

I agree that conservatism is a powerful force, if for no other reason than what you say at the end—any organization over time sees its main goal as keeping itself in power. The Church is conflicted in this role, since the message it is trying to conserve is often one of change. I'm not sure what you mean by "Natural Law", but the Church was started on the principle the the natural order of things should be turned on its head. What appears to be low should be raised and what is high should be, well, razed. It's a continuous struggle for the Church to institutionalize change. I think Myk is trying to once again reconnoiter.

And it is not necessarily true that one believes the basic principles and traditions or not. Jesus was a Jew and, most say, he was also a Christian. So, you can be both, at least in his eyes. Religion is so full of history and tradition (conflicting tradition) that "cafeteria Catholics" has been a major message of the church. Witness the Oscar Romero quote. Granted, you would not get many today to agree that Catholics are supposed to, nay, required to pick and choose, but many of the great traditional church leaders have promoted that idea for a long time.

I'm not sure Oscar Romero would have promoted gays, abortion, family planning, etc. either, but I know he would want each person to analyze the question inwardly and deeply.

And I'm by your side in questioning whether "Christian tradition and theology have made the world a much better place". I guess Myk wants to start swinging the balance so in the future there will be more arguments to the positive.

Big Myk said...

Usually, generalizations about anything are risky and generalizations about religion are especially risky. And why's it so difficult to make sweeping statements about religion? The major religions have been around for millennia and count 100’s of millions and even billions of people as followers. That's a lot of time and people to make blanket statements about.

Sometimes small examples are most telling. Anonymous says, “Organized religion is inherently conservative.” Is not the fundamental test for conservatism today in this country opposition to Obamacare and universal health coverage? Yet, since 1919, American Catholic bishops have called for comprehensive provision of health insurance. Recently, the bishops spelled out that they seek a single payer system: “The federal government should … ensure adequate funding for this basic level of [medical] care through a national health insurance program.” What conservative would ever agree to this?

Meanwhile, religion been in the forefront of every major progressive reform in the 19th and 20th century: abolition, the labor movement, reform in the care of the mentally ill, child labor laws, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, to name a few.

Religions tend not only to be amazingly diverse among its members but change over time as well. Let me give you another a small example. One of the hot button issues for Christianity that festered from, say, 500 to 1000 was whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son or just from the Father. It was an important enough matter to be a major contribution to the schism between the eastern and western churches in 1054 (the Franks’ sacking Constantinople also helped). But few Christians today would have any idea what you were talking about if you brought up the issue, much less get bent out of shape over it.

For a slightly bigger issue, Christianity for much of its history believed that it was better to silence the heretic than risk the spiritual well being of the larger community. In 1965, the Catholic Church totally repudiated this article of faith in its Declaration on Religious Freedom.

I have discovered that the more one looks at religion, the more complex and resistant to definition it becomes. Just a few thoughts from what people consider the more narrow-minded faiths -- Islam and Catholicism – just to show how surprising religion can be.

First, a few words from Mansur al-Hallaj (858 – 922), a Persian Muslim mystic, writer, poet and teacher:

"I have meditated on the different religions, endeavoring to understand them, and I have found that they stem from a single principle with numerous ramifications. Do not therefore ask a man to adopt a particular religion (rather than another), for this would separate him from the fundamental principle; it is this principle itself which must come to seek him; in it are all the heights and all the meanings elucidated; then he will understand them."

A more modern representative for the Catholics: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (Umberto Eco’s friend), from his recent book "Nighttime Conversations in Jerusalem.” I share three separate passages, the first being his most famous:

“You cannot make God Catholic. God is beyond the limitations and definitions that we establish. We need these in our lives, that's obvious, but we must not confuse them with God."

"We must learn to live the vastness of being Catholic. And we must learn to know others. [. .. .] God leads us outside, into the immensity. He teaches us to think in an open way."

“I am not so much afraid of the defects of the Church. What disturbs me… are people who do not think… I want individuals who think… Only then can one pose the question of whether they are believers or nonbelievers.“

I think that it’s too bad that so many so resolutely reject something they know so little about.

Anonymous said...

In terms of the Christian faith being “inherently conservative” this is not meant to imply that they do not support some liberal causes but it means that at the bed rock of their beliefs they will not change. The Pope would never put Buddha as the center of the Catholic faith, making him a co equal- a fourth person in the blessed “quatraity” It would no longer be Christianity nor would it be Buddhism . And I would say that Christ was not Jewish and Christian as you mentioned but only Jewish as I think he would have thought.
Your quotes are well and good but if put to the test, for instance the idea of gay marriage, words spoken are not always words practiced. Most people who believe gay marriage is ok and who are not gay have come to their conclusion through thoughtful introspection, it is not something that “straights” come to without some thought. This follows the demands of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Now, I ask you, have I come to my conclusion through thoughtful contemplation? If I have then has the CC? Whose thought process is correct? The CC bases their belief on the philosophical constructs of Natural and Devine Law. If I come to the conclusion that Natural and Devine Law is flawed and the CC says it cannot be flawed then who it thinking and who is not. I guess it come down to “is there a god particle” that reveals the ultimate truth and if there is then has the CC discovered it in “Devine Law” and it is not to be questioned or denied? The CC is conservative in that it will never change is fundamental belief in its “god particle” nor will most religions. I can change my fundamental beliefs, through thought and introspection but most religions cannot.
As for the Catholic Church embracing liberal practices I can point out any number of repressive and oppressive actions the church took over the millennium that would more than counter balance their “liberal” stance. The hierarchy is often much more conservative than the flock. If the CC would put as much effort in to universal health care as it does for anti gay and anti abortion activities we might have universal coverage today. It is one thing to say something and another to put it into action. This is clearly evident in Rome’s chastising in the ‘rebellious’ American nuns for caring too much about health care and poverty and not enough about the gay life style and birth control. I agree that religion as been in the forefront of every major reform, but hardly the church leaders and I dare say that religion, at the same time, has fought the same reforms with almost equal vigor as clearly exampled by the sermons emanating from southern white churches during the mid twentieth century. And the condemnation of liberal policy by churches today –see recent movie posted on “in progress”.
I find your example of Catholic reform, i.e. repudiating the policy of silencing heretics, as being a good example of Catholic failure. Silencing, which for hundreds of years meant murdering and torturing heretics, should have never been a policy in the first place (so much for thinking Catholics) and to take until 1965 to repudiate this activity is shameful. That a liberal act it is just moving away from violence, hate and intolerance.

James R said...

Again, I think your arguments are valid. I would emphasize Myk's first paragraph. Religion and especially the Catholic Church embrace a huge amount of ideas, movements, and participants.

As you point out, however, there must be a bedrock of belief, some "god particle" as you call it.

There is a "god particle" with which, I think, Cardinal Martini and Oscar Romero and countless others would agree. The bedrock idea is that you must feel it is important to have these discussions. The "god particle" is that one must believe the endless search for meaning is important.

The idea that religion must have a set of core dogma is a relatively recent notion. Karen Armstrong in her book The Case for God explains that Western monotheisms concerned themselves primarily with practice, not doctrine. Even the words "faith" and "belief" have changed their meanings. They used to mean trust, engagement, and commitment—not intellectual assent.

Religion was never intended to reveal the ultimate truth. That would be folly. In fact, religion developed as we realized that we were not Gods, but separate is some fundamental way from what is.

Of course, that doesn't keep some people from embracing a particular set of dogma in order to feel more comfortable and secure. They pay a huge price however. As you point out it is not so easy for those people to change "fundamental beliefs through thought and introspection."

And the Catholic Church has been most guilty of often embracing dogma rather than thoughtful reflection, and the results, as you point out, have been horrific.

Big Myk said...

To Anon: I have absolutely no disagreement with the proposition that the Catholic Church and other religious organizations have behaved very badly in the past and still behave badly. As anyone who knows me can attest, I have plenty of complaints about the Church.

Let me, however, just add to the discussion the thinking of my newest guru, James Carse, former long-term chair of the religion department at NYU. I've blogged about him before, so I will not long detain you.

Carse goes one step further than Karen Armstrong. He says that not only is belief not the main aspect of religion, it’s the very opposite of religion. Hence the name of his book: The Religious Case against Belief. He says that belief systems like communism or fascism are always short lived because they are closed systems which do not permit you to think "outside the box" (as he says, they tell you where to stop thinking), and once their invalidity is exposed, they are done.

Carse says that the essential element of religion is what Nicholas of Cusa calls "learned ignorance," a recognition that humans do not have access to the final truth. Carse recognizes, however, that, because religions are so fluid they are often taken over by belief systems. These take-overs tend to be short lived and religion, aware that no system can contain the truth, moves on.

Carse argues that the proof that religions are not belief systems is their longevity and that they are constantly changing.

Let's take your one example: the Catholic notion of "Natural Law," the basis for its teaching against gay marriage and birth control. Go to a web site that allows you to search the Bible and, regardless of the translation, you will not find the phrase "Natural Law" anywhere. It is a concept entirely foreign to Scripture. The principle of Natural Law was developed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and later embraced by the Church. So, for over 1200 years, the Church existed without the benefit of the idea of Natural Law. Religion's flexibility and open-endedness allowed it to adopt the concept, but you can't really argue that the idea of Natural Law is somehow essential to Catholicism.

As stars can turn into black holes, religions can also turn into belief systems, which mean their end as an opened-ended religion. The jury is still out on Catholicism and whether its embrace of the conservative side of the culture wars (again, something incomprehensible to Christians of past ages) is the beginning of the end. I'm just hoping that people like Martini will prevent that from happening.