Thursday, November 04, 2004

Refelctions on the election

"Moral values"(see Cliff's and Justin's blogs for other takes on this) apparently were the key issue of this election. This admittedly freaks a number of Democrats out, and heartens the social conservatives in the Republican Party. The problem is that whether you are for gay marriage or wish to "preserve" marriage for a man and a woman, you have "moral values". There is a conflict of moral values here but there is morality and value on both sides.
Now there is a way to deal with the "red" and the "blue" that gets more closely to the issue than by the label "moral values". Differing interpretations of the role of church and state, religion and politics:
There are two main perspectives on church and state and religion and politics (There are nuances here that I hope to elucidate in the process): There is the version that dominated my university education, for ease of discussion I will call it "secularist" (though there are deeply religious people who hold and have held this view). The secularist position says that given that a democracy and ours in particular is not to be confused with a theocracy the state and public policy should not be directly influenced by religious doctrine or dogma. Decisions about say abortion or gay marriage should be made on things like science and reason, not on some teaching of the soul or dogmatic statement about when Life begins, or the morality of same sex relationships. The language here is social justice and individual rights. Interestingly enough (warning: distinction and nuance) that my upbringing (Lutheran Pietist Christian) pretty much held to this view for religious reasons. The argument was that due to original sin one can only live according to the moral dictates of the Christian faith if one has been "born again." Thus there was deep ambivalence about legal restrictions on abortion even though there was a moral opposition to abortion. I can only guess at what would be the response to same sex unions and gay marriage.
The other interpretation is that this is a Christian nation and that for the democracy to work properly Christian religious values need to remain foundational or else the whole system will fall a part. Church/State separation simply means that there is no official denomination in the US, and your free to be an atheist, or Buddhist etc, as long as you remember that the moral underpinnings of democracy are Christian. A less belligerent position here is simply that you can't privatize religion, and at bottom public policy can't be simply driven by "secularist" standards at some point one simply finds a "religious" or "moral" stance as the underpinning of public policy, religion (Christian or otherwise) simply needs to be let back in on the conversation, re-admitted to the public square (to paraphrase Richard John Neuhaus). Now any number of my "secularist" university professors were more or less in agreement with this position (granted they were also religious studies professors a rare breed in academia I will admit) They saw that religion (tempered by reason and science) not only simply was going to remain a factor in public policy but that it needed to have a place in the discussion, and as long as separation of church and state was preserved, such that no one religious group would dominate the discussion via official state sanction, then "moral values" was not problematic.
What we have emerging strongly to the fore ground in this election, is the reality that the "Christian Nation" folk have with George W. gained in power and strength of voice, and the Democrats have stuck to their secularists guns and have been out gunned. But both sides miss the nuances of what is happening: "moral values" don't mean that one group of people is moral and the other is not, nor does it mean that religion is invading arena's it should not have access to. Rather, there is a clash in the interpretation of the meaning of America and its political traditions. And then there are those who may agree with one side at times and then the other side at other times.
I think Sojourners and Jim Wallis are a good example here: Sojourner’s, as an Evangelical group, believes very strongly that not only should Christian values under gird public policy but that those values are in line with American traditions, however, they also believe that such values need more than simply the force of Christian tradition, there must be a larger appeal than simply to the Christian tradition. As was evident in this election they tend to back Democrats (despite their pro-life stance) due to their belief that the government has a substantial responsibility for the poor and oppressed in or outside the womb. Though as a recent editorial by Jim Wallis indicates this is not a naive belief in the purity of the Democratic Party.
There are then those Christians that attend churches across this country who vote pro-life are enraged at the thought of homosexuals and lesbians marrying who not only don't believe that the government should not be involved in aiding the poor but think also that if you are poor or homeless it is your own fault. Who get divorced with as much frequency as those who seemingly have differing "moral values" and who despite their numbers seem to not affect the ethical landscape of this country. Take a look at the conservative Christian websites and you will rarely here anything about advocating for the poor or homeless, or about the fate of Third world countries and the effect of American and European economic policies on the poor.
It seems to me that justice for the poor and homeless as well as abortion and same sex marriage are all equally moral issues. Also, although our political parties don’t seem to recognize this, those who support gay marriage and even abortion do so often for religious reasons. Also, concern for the poor and the homeless or issues of workers rights and civil rights are in fact religious and moral questions. They have to do with moral values. The question is how do you go about injecting moral and religious values into public discourse in a democratic country in which there is separation of church and state? Also are there times when a Christian in a democratic country may have to admit that for democracy to work aspects of Christian teaching simply cannot be implemented and at the same timepreserve the religious freedom the Christian benefits from?
To engage this issue in terms of “red” and “Blue” I am from and my wife is from those areas who voted overwhelmingly for Bush in the last two elections. The religiosity of a good number of these people is a veneer; the moral values they are so keen to protect go along with prejudice and intolerance of difference. There is both the condemnation of abortion and the intolerance of birthing a child outside of wedlock. Subtle and not so subtle racism persists. Now, I say this not because I think the cities and areas that voted overwhelmingly for Kerry are some bastion of caring and ethics. In fact I abstained from voting in this election because I believe the hypocrisy of our system and the American people is great and unacceptable, and it is about time someone objects to the self serving moralism of the rhetoric of “secularism” and the rhetoric of “Christian nation”. Ultimately whether “red” or “blue” there is an underlying intolerance of difference and the other and a desire in the end not to protect life or work for the poor but to use the unborn and the poor as pawns in the search for power and dominance.
Forgive me if I continue to stand on the sidelines and refuse to aid either side in its pursuit of dominance and mastery, whether it is by the language of "moral values" or "secularism".