Thursday, December 30, 2004

Religion as a political icon

Somebody going by the name Pericles put up ten ideas that "Democrats should think about for 2008" at Daily Kos back in late November. I've only just found the post through Dissect the Left. Pericles isn't dumb but a lot of what he says is foobar. I want to address two of them (it's too long to go argue point by point, but I do recommend giving the whole thing a quick lookover). I think the root of most of Pericles' errors is that he thinks that people are inherently good and rational (wrong) and that the government is (in some way that really isn't clear), synonymous with the people (wrong again), making it virtuous too. He also seems to have no understanding or appreciation for the kind of distributed decision making (think Linux) that small government minded people favour, or how such a system could create benevolent societies to support the poor morally (teaching and example), and provide money well spent (as opposed to just spent). His big government approach has Microsoft written all over it - top down, one size fits all. Pericles' comments are in blue. Mine are black. 2. Morality is not sex. Sex barely scratches the surface of morality. If your moral code instructs you to bring honesty, integrity, and compassion into all your human relationships, it's not clear that you need any special rules about sex at all. When Jesus listed the admission standards for Christians to get into Heaven (Matthew 25), not one of them concerned sex. The key idea was "Who did you help?" not "Who did you sleep with?" I dunno about this. Sex is one place where a good set of public expectations can do a lot of good. It's true there is more to morality than sex, but it is also true that if you get sex right you cut off a lot of potential problems. The traditionalist view is that sexual modesty is liberating. It is preventative because it attempts to give kids two parents to learn from, two people who can attempt to model restraint, morality, modesty and, yes, how to deal with failure in those areas. In my thinking I try to leave as many things as I can manage to an individual person and God to sort out. I don't like drugs but I think this is something people have to find out for themselves. Sex isn't like that. Sex affects everyone; the bedroom is no barrier to disease, abortion, or the social corrosion of infidelity and divorce. Inviting someone to let it all hang out sexually is like inviting them to put on a millstone and run the marathon of life. The restraint learned in sexual issues better enables people to restrain themselves in other issues as well - such as saying no to useless products that are constantly paraded before us. People with less of a millstone around their neck are people who have a greater the potential to help others. People enslaved to lust are too helpless and self absorbed to help anyone. They'd rather use them for their gratification. Warning people about this, that might qualify as helpful, don't you think? You're also blatantly overlooking the teaching that even looking with a lustful eye is sinful. This Frankenstein-like 'Christian hedonism' is just not going to hold together. 4. The Religious Right are Pharisees. Christianity belongs to us. For those liberals who don't read the Bible -- that's part of the problem, by the way -- I'll explain. All through the gospels, Jesus is being heckled by the Pharisees, a group that promoted a strict interpretation of Mosaic Law. Again and again, Jesus sides with the spirit of the law against the Pharisees' loyalty to the letter of the law. (For what it's worth, the Pharisees look much more reasonable in Jewish versions of history, where they are not foils for someone else.) The law, Jesus argues, needs to be tempered by compassion and common sense. In the Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), for example, the priest and the Levite who cross to the other side of the road (rather than help the injured man) aren't just being jerks. They're obeying the letter of the law. They're maintaining their ritual purity by not coming into contact with blood or possibly a corpse. But the Good Samaritan ignores all that in favor of a higher law: Love your neighbor as yourself. The difficult thing here is the assumption that God fits into our little box labeled left or right, ideas that only go back to the late 1700's. I doubt very much that he fits in either. Furthermore, it is simply false to say that all of the religious right subscribes to a rule based morality. It would be simpler for the left if they did, but if you want to make progress you need to move beyond cartoon characterizations of your opponents. This kind of political demonization afflicts both left and right. I might appear to do this on my own site from time to time, but I try to do this only on positions that I see as inordinately ideologically skewed. In other words, I don't demonize people who are centrists or sympathetic to soft leftists because I think we all want good things for this world. What I will try to draw attention to in people like that is ill conceived policy, policy that won't have the result intended. Often that will mean arguing in favour of less policy, so I don't think the "right wing rule obsession" accusation sticks. There are people who call themselves Christian who do subscribe to a more rule centered life but I've never considered them the last word on anything much. Liberals seem to love red tape and rules in the economic sphere, and somehow they are the ones who are "in the spirit and not the letter?" I'm not buying it. Furthermore, secular people have their own unwritten rules and can be cruel in enforcing those. Marriage and the rules surrounding it is a fact in the bible, but economic regulation is not to be found. You have in some ways turned teaching on 'the spirit and the laws' on its head. Charity and kindness belong to the public realm and steadfastness to the rules is more appropriate to sex and marriage.

When he's not talking about sex, the Pope is actually a flaming liberal.

It is one thing to argue that employers ought not to abuse their workers, it is something else again to move from that to a noose of economic regulation. Oh, sure there are voices in the Vatican that sound almost socialist. There are also voices who do not. The Vatican belongs to neither. Pericles goes on to say that Jesus is a cultural icon and that Dems must learn how to use it. Oh, that'll go over well: "use the cultural icon." Insincerity is a huge Dem problem on matters of religion and this cultural anthropology thinking certainly won't improve things. It is also hard to reconcile the party's hard line pro abort policy with Christianity. You need to do, not just say. As it stands, Christians are not comfortable with the Democrats. You need to ask them what's missing and listento what they say. Trying to fool them isn't going to cut it. *********

I was going to say more, but it's just not worth it. 'Jesus the cultural icon wants to you to pay a lot of taxes' is too stupid to bother with. Most people, for most of history, have understood The Faith to say that we are to give, not take. We don't do evil, that good may come of it. We are to give freely our own time, and our own money to those in need, whoever they may be. That is how we learn and grow. Paying taxes and saying, 'well, I guess I'm off the hook' is hardly the Sermon on the Mount, and neither is "Hey you! You need to give more." If it isn't freely given it isn't worth a can of beans. Grace is not at all the same thing as coercive taxation. In fact, I think there might be something in that old book about abusive tax collectors...

No comments: