Monday, September 15, 2008

Losing My Religion

Arthur has a new post up linking to the new campaign merchandise rolled out by the Obama campaign today. My reaction to all of this is mixed. The Left has been far too facile in its rejection of faith (as Arthur does in the rant that ends the post), which provides the Republicans too much manuevering room in that arena. The attempts to reach out and be inclusive about faith, however, are worse than the original sin, indulging in vacuous pandering and (worse to my mind) reinforcing the American practice of religion as a fashion statement. There doesn't seem to be any recognition that blasting Palin for her faith while selling bumper stickers linking voting for Obama with being an Xtian is the actual expression of hypocrisy.

I look back wryly at posts I made two years ago in defense of Obama, when he was under attacks from the netroots sites that now sing his praises like choirs of angels. They attacked him because he had made a speech about the relationship of religion and public life, pointing to it as sign of his retrograde beliefs and sneering at his DLC connections. Their attacks were also, frankly, racist. It seems that Obama read the reviews and has reimagined himself quite thoroughly.

The attacks on Obama over his speech on religion were of the same temper and in the same mode as the attacks upon Hillary in support of him this year. I discussed these attacks in depth in this post, Adopting the Frames of the Right, where I tried to talk about how the violence of the attacks upon those who are not seen as part of our tribe alienates people who would otherwise be on your side, such as my father. Indeed, as a result of the speech Obama gave, my father decided on him as a candidate and (as far as I know) still supports him. I still think Obama's speech is a good one and for the right reasons, even as he himself has sold that vision short.

Ed Kilgore went into greater detail than I did in analyzing the speech, picking up on elements that I, a secular humanist, overlooked. What struck me most Kilgore's analysis was how thinking about modes of religion can help us think more clearly about modes of politics. I wrote then:

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, obedience and stability. ...

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.

Perhaps Obama should listen to his own words more often. Maybe we all need to watch Pan's Labyrinth and ponder the lure of obedience when wrapped up with desire for belonging and fear of being singled out.

But in response to Arthur's challenge that people send in definitions of God that stand up to analysis, I keep thinking back to my father and his faith which I do not understand but I most certainly perceive as something integral to this person whom I love so deeply. I can only point to Garry Wills' Christ Among the Partisans as an oppositional view, that any attempt to conceptualize this mythic and historical figure from a political perspective (see also Kilgore's arguments), whether from the Left or the Right, whether to praise faith in God or to debunk it, simply uses the wrong language for the argument. Christ-as-Nietzsche, in Wills' forumulation, strikes me as about right, which is probably why, when Obama recast himself as a political messiah, I could not support him as a candidate.

To be political means to lose one's religion, to set it aside and live in the mundane and mortal world upon its terms and for the rewards it offers.


1 comment:

Bookhorde said...

Such a good point about the community aspect of faith groups.

This rush to be (can't help myself), holier than the Republicans-- I wonder if it will work or if it will backfire? Aside from the political can of worms religion raises for Obama (Wright et al), the way that Obama has been packaged as a messiah (ex. "Jesus was a community organizer") might be making Christians nervous about heresy. Most Christians think that He will come as a thief in the night, and the one with all the pomp will be the anti-Christ. Waving the "messiah" flag is a very provocative and dangerous, act.