Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Reimagining the Beloved Community

Kevin Drum and Ed Kilgore both had intelligent posts up today about Sen. Barack Obama's recent speech on the use (and abuse) of faith in politics, and what progresive believers should consider. There is also a pretty shocking article up on Salon (watch the ad, it's worth it) about the Mormon breakaway sect FLDS in Colorado City, Arizona, and their abuse of their own children.

The Salon piece is almost a perfect case study of the instrumental use of religious structures and practices to consolidate and enforce wordly power. It is, without exaggeration, an American Taliban. It has little to do with faith and everything to do with control. I would hope that any person with a scrap of morality, whether believer or secular, would condemn what this cult is doing to its members, especially the children.

Kevin Drum does his usual common-sense job and points out the glaringly obvious - Obama didn't say much that you can really object to, and that (as I said) a few sentences are being pulled out and exagerated to allow bloviation to flow. Kevin ends with his trademark wondering out loud about more of the glaringly obvious:
It's a funny thing. When I post about religion, I usually get two kinds of comments. The first is people telling me that I'm falling into a conservative trap by even entertaining the idea that some liberals are contemptuous toward religion. The second is snarky liberal secularists telling everyone else to take their stupid myths and shove 'em where the sun don't shine. Do you think both sides will show up in this thread as well?
And darn if he wasn't right. Most comments walked right into that one and didn't have enough self-awareness to know they'd just tripped the "doh!" meter. And "some" posters even disparaged religion. Imagine that... NEWS FLASH - The left has a small but vocal minority of anti-religious zealots, committed beyond reason to assaulting not just idiocy like Intelligent Design, but every expression of faith. Major bloggers like PZ Meyers, for example, who enjoy wide readerships. Mind you, some of the take downs can be fun to read, but the "You Are Stupid Bozos" theme gets real old, real fast.

I'm a secular humanist. I also have a truckload of believing friends and family. And I know jerks, and deal with the occasional JW knocking on the door, and think that fundamentalism is a very real threat to human existence. I can also admire the Dalai Lama and get the giggle fits over Rev. Desmond Tutu reminding us that God isn't a Christian. In short, the existence of religion doesn't offend me (though it often confuses me) and that the left is allowing itself to be sidetracked by the god-baiting of the right.

The danger of the rules-bound left is, as I said in an earlier post, that they will not acknowledge that people are divided on progressive issues and consider their religious teachings valid guides for political decisions. I think my father is a great example. I also have friends in a very strict Christian family who are mostly liberal, but who are under enormous social pressure from family and church to conform. Lots and lots of love for toeing the line, lots of ostracism for not. These are people who do require some strong outreach because they will be outcasts.

The anti-religious faction will not or cannot understand the courage it takes to defy the beloved community. Read the Salon article. Understand that this is not religious behavior, per say, but the actions of tradition bound communities for securing order, obdience and stability.

I think Ed Kilgore's post was one of the most interesting I have yet read because he speaks about what the religious message was. Many of the things he says reminds me of Garry Wills' op-ed piece Christ Among the Partisans. I have excerpts of that here. (My father enjoyed the piece quite a bit, I might add.) Kilgore's post is worth an extended quote:
Obama was fighting something of a three-front battle in this speech:

(1) against conservative claims that God's Will is easy to understand, dictates culturally conservative positions, and requires nothing more than obedience;
(2) against Christian Left claims that progressives of faith should simply counter their Law with our Gospel; their sexual moralism with our social-justice moralism; their scriptural authorities with our scriptural authorities;
(3) against secularists of the Left or the Right (encompassing, BTW, most of the political chattering classes) who reduce religious faith to entirely secular political and cultural positions, without having any clue of the ambiguities involved in believing in a transcendent God who reveals Himself in history and human action as well as in scripture.

The political import of Obama's speech is that he is engaging in an intra-Christian debate that is already undermining the Christian Right every day. In essence, the James Dobsons of the religious world have sought to lead their flocks into a prophetic stance that stakes their spiritual lives to a series of specific and highly questionable political commitments. More and more, even the most conservative evangelical Christians are chafing against this bondage, while the less conservative faithful, including the largely apolitical attendees of rapidly growing non-denominational megachurches, never bought into it much to begin with.

This is an enormous potential political constituency that is waiting to hear from Our Side, not with Conservative Lite policy prescriptions; not with Christian Left counter-prophetic-absolutism; but with credible and authentic appeals to the holy fear that the faithful should respect when confronting those who make exclusive claims to represent God's Will on Earth.

This post took on particular resonance as I was reading it immediately after having read the Salon piece. The point that Kilgore (and Obama) make about the danger of "prophetic" activism is both subtle and unsettling, because it is a two edged sword. It warns against the prophetic mode of rule, which is not always a religious stance. If you are a humanist, you understand that the structures of religion are human patterns of thought and interaction, and that secular instiutions and movements too can be afflicted by this mode of power.

As with the fundamentalists who thunder about the certainty of fire and brimstone for those who stray from the path of righteousness, the message about the dangers of conceptual certainty appear to be going right over the heads of the most agitated critics of Obama's speech.


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