Friday, December 30, 2011

The Romney Paradox (and the Crybaby Bishops)

cross-posted from Dagblog

Mitt Romney used to be Governor of Massachusetts, a commonwealth which has at various times been A) the closest thing to a theocracy America has ever had and B) the poster child for tolerant secular liberalism. Many vocal religious conservatives now insist that the tolerant secular liberalism is an infringement on their religious liberty, and that they can only fully exercise their religion when the state actively endorses and promotes their religious values for them.

Back in the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of course, the government did actively promote religious values, and the official magistrates were under the indirect supervision of the ministers. (Massachusetts was never such a theocracy that the ministers were directly in control, but the religious leaders could make and break the politicians; they weren't officeholders, but they were political bosses). This is the closest resemblance that any historical fact bears to the Christian Nation narrative popular with today's religious right.

Here's the thing, though: none of the people currently demanding a Christian Nation would have been able to exercise their religion under that system. Virtually without exception, today's right-wing religious activists belong to denominations that were banned in colonial Massachusetts (or would have been, had they been founded in time). Mitt Romney, likewise, would not have been allowed to practice his faith or even to remain in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The Massachusetts authorities in the 17th century were given to expelling members of dissident religious groups, such as the Baptists, with an instructive public whipping to hasten them on their way. They executed people for the crime of being Quakers. (Those executions led the English government to tyrannically curtail Massachusetts' religious freedom by forbidding the colonists to hang people for being a different flavor of Protestant Christian.) After the King outlawed religious executions, the God-fearing colonists had to content themselves with whippings, expulsions, and breaking into to private homes to see if anyone was holding a Quaker service inside.

Baptists were outlaws; the Pentecostalists and other later evangelical denominations would surely have been outlawed too. Practicing Catholicism was out of the question; Massachusetts Puritans looked on the Catholic Church as a diabolic organization headed by the Anti-Christ. The Catholics didn't enjoy religious toleration in England, let alone Puritan New England, and as late as the 1830s a mob burned down a convent in greater Boston, because it was full of, you know, nuns.

And as for being a Mormon, if there had been any Mormons yet, forget it. Groups that got driven out of 19th-century Illinois wouldn't have stood a chance in theocratic Boston. If Mitt Romney had shown up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony he would have been immediately thrown in jail, publicly flogged, and (if he caught a few bad breaks) hanged. In fact, every single Republican candidate for the presidential nomination, including Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty, belongs to a church that would have been criminalized in early colonial Boston.

On the other hand, "Godless" liberal Massachusetts, that terrible threat to religious freedom, has treated Mitt Romney remarkably well. Not only did he get two degrees from Harvard (whose Puritan founders would have never admitted anyone of his faith), and he was actually elected to John Winthrop's old job as Governor! (We're still trying to harness the original colonists spinning in their graves to make green electricity.) He didn't do any of that on a wave of religious support from his fellow Mormons, of whom Massachusetts has approximately none. He did it with the votes of people who don't believe in his religion and have no particular sympathy for it, even some people who view Mormonism as slightly crazy. Those voters disagree with Romney's personal religious choices, but respected his right to make them and did not penalize him for them. Tolerant liberal values gave Mitt Romney the maximum freedom to practice his faith.

The people of Massachusetts did expect Romney to live up to the traditional separation-of-church-and-state deal, in which the elected magistrate represents the interests of the whole commonwealth and not his private religious convictions. If Mormon Governor Romney felt that, as a Latter-Day Saint, he had to close down all of the state's bars, liquor stores, and coffee shops, he wouldn't have been Governor Romney for even a week. In fact, Romney signed the repeal of the old Puritan-inspired Blue Law against selling alcohol on Sundays. He acted on behalf of the voters who had delegated him his authority, rather than using that authority to express his own religious concerns or impose them upon the public.

Was this a limitation of his religious freedom? No. It was a recognition that an elected leader is a representative of the public. If Romney had insisted that his freedom of religion entitled him to use his office to promote his specific values, he would have been barred from that office, because under that system no reasonable voter would ever choose to empower any candidate whose religion differed from their own. If we all agree that the President of the United States will keep his religious practice separate from his public duties, then anyone can be President. But if we considered the President of the United States free to use the powers of office to promote his or her own faith, then no one who doesn't share my particular faith, or yours, would be acceptable to me or to you. We can have, say, a Quaker president (like Nixon), because we know that the president won't simply disband the armed forces to keep with his Quaker faith. If Nixon had undergone a (spectacularly unlikely) crisis of conscience and decided that he had to be true to his religious upbringing he had to abolish the army and navy, he would have been impeached faster than he could resign.

Today's religious right complain about the separation of church and state as a hindrance to their religious freedom. Most recently, some Catholic bishops have complained that they can now longer receive taxpayer funding for adoption-placement services that exclude gay couples from adopting. They are free to run a Catholic adoption agency, and free to turn away gay couples if they choose, on the principle that children are better off orphans than raised by two men or two women. What they view as "government-backed persecution" is that the taxpayer will no longer underwrite this. Apparently, the bishops feel the government is obligated to fund an adoption service that deliberately limits the pool of adoptive parents, rather than giving its money to adoption services that accept more potential parents and therefore place more kids. “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” one of the bishops has told the New York Times, which reports that these bishops fear "an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom."

To those bishops, I can only say: get over it. If you feel that it is important to keep orphans from being adopted by gay couples, and want to run a heterosexual-only adoption service, you can do it with donations from like-minded donors. You're not being "persecuted" because the government won't fund it for you. Taxpayers don't want their money spent to keep orphans from being adopted. Keeping orphans from being adopted because your religion currently teaches certain ideas about gayness is also not a public benefit. And as far as intolerance for the Catholic faith goes: baby, if this feels like persecution to you, you have clearly arrived. Nobody's set fire to a nunnery in this town for a long, long time.

Today's religious right defines "freedom of religion" as the freedom to use public resources, and public authority, in order to further the goals of their own specific religion. But almost without exception, the groups who feel "persecuted" by the government's religious neutrality are the groups who would never have been tolerated in the United States under the kind of arrangement they're currently agitating for. The Catholics, evangelicals, and Latter-Day Saints, for example are all traditionally disfavored religious groups who have only managed to thrive in this country because the Establishment Clause defends their religious freedom through tolerant neutrality. Their attacks on "tolerance" and "liberalism" as a kind of persecution is an attack on the very things that have shielded them from persecution in this country. It's like watching people trying to tear the roof off their own house. They might succeed in leading this country into a new period of deep religious intolerance. What they won't succeed in doing is escaping that intolerance themselves. It wouldn't just be the people that the religious right dislikes who would become targets if they ever got their way. And God forbid that they ever do.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Other Shoe Dropping

Cross-posted from Dagblog

Last night, thanks to Annie Laurie from Balloon Juice, I finally understood what the Republicans are about to do to themselves.

I've been thinking of primary voters choosing whether to run Mitt Romney or to run an undisciplined crazy person.

Of course, they will end up running Mitt Romney and an undisciplined crazy person. Of course they will. They're just working out which one.

Now I don't feel well.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nostalgia for Hypocrisy (and the War on Christmas)

cross-posted from Dagblog

It's Christmas time, which means "War on Christmas" time, which means a whole bunch of bizarre complaints about persecution by members of an overwhelmingly privileged religious majority group. This bad behavior is often understood as part of the most intense and fire-breathing American Christianists' fire-breathing intensity. But that's only half the story, or maybe less. The support for more public displays of Christianity comes from two very distinct groups: one group of very intense church-goers and another group that spends little or no time in any kind of formal worship. (Flavia got me thinking about this second group with a great post about Rick Perry's appeal to the people who aren't "in the pew every Sunday" but who nonetheless feel uncomfortable with gays.) If that seems paradoxical, the thing to understand is that the second group wants more public religiosity precisely because they have no particular religious practice of their own.

The familiar Christianist groups take the position that they can't exercise their freedom of religion unless they can exercise it everywhere, and for them exercising their religion means constantly attempting to spread it by any means necessary. Those believers cannot tolerate any religiously neutral public square, because they feel obligated to claim everything they can for their particular version of Christ. That's a coherent but wrong-headed position, which basically insists on the bitter sectarian struggles that the Establishment Clause is designed to prevent (struggles that the Founders could picture all too clearly). These groups want school prayer, public Nativity displays, and monuments to the Ten Commandments because they want to establish their (very, very specific) version of Christianity and disestablish the rest. As part of that process, they want to turn every inch of the public square into a site of red-hot theological controversy.

But the other group who's interested in public displays of religion is interested in an extremely bland and unobjectionable Christianity, with no religious controversy or debate at all. They want religious displays that are specifically Christian, but not specific to any group of Christians; the goal is something that 90%-95% of self-identified Christians can sign off on without feeling bothered. Yes, that excludes and marginalizes all of the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and so forth. But it turns out that excluding only the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews without also excluding more than 5 or 10% of the Christians is a very complicated proposition. It demands minimal content and superficial symbolism; since Christian groups agree on so little, you can absolutely not afford to get into even a limited discussion of what any of this means. The question of how to be a good Christian, of how to put Christian moral values into action, is right off the table. There's a reason that so much Christmas and Easter symbolism is not actually religious; Christians don't have centuries-old disagreements about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But we can't talk about Mary for more than five minutes before hitting some deep-seated differences. Santa Claus is a much safer topic of conversation. The need to avoid controversy makes America's public Christianity so watered-down and superficial that it's really religion in name only, symbolism without content.
Now, taking away those nominal and minimal expressions of Christianity, the Nativity scenes in front of Town Hall or the little rote prayer in home room, doesn't change anything if you actually, you know, go to church, or read the Bible, or pray. If you have an active faith life, you're going to get plenty of chances for devotion without needing to have a cross displayed in the airport around certain holidays. I don't need a big Nativity diorama in the public square.There's one in my church. My spouse and I own one. If I needed to see one on my block, I'd buy an outdoor version and put it in front of the house. I have no need for little gestures of public piety because I actually go to services, which (unlike the little gestures), involve genuine religious content and require genuine religious thought. But you really miss those empty and trivial religious gestures if the empty and trivial gestures are all you have. It's not a blow to me if the staff at Target don't say "Merry Christmas," because Target is not my primary place of worship.

There are plenty of Americans who like to think of themselves as Christians without actually doing anything about that, who don't go to services, don't read or think about any religious writings, and certainly don't do anything so outrageous as to give to the poor or follow any of Jesus's directives about mercy or compassion. But they like to think of themselves as Christians, and taking away the token gestures makes them face the reality that they don't even have a church to go to. The "War on Christmas" bothers them because it impinges on their no-cost, no-effort religious identity. 

What many of these Christians-in-their-own-minds miss is the sense of an established national religion that those lame and superficial Christian gestures helped to create. They're not longing for America as a Christian Nation, in the current idiomatic sense: they don't want a society where religious hard-liners set the agenda for the rest of us. They want a strictly notional but national "Christianity," a shared recognition for a lukewarm and nearly content-free faith. They want Christianity as a badge of social cohesion and a symbol of tradition. In fact, they like public expressions of Christianity precisely because it excludes Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. But they don't actually want any public practice of Christianity. The actual teachings of Christianity are irrelevant, because they're not using Christianity as a religion per se; they're using it as a way to promote social solidarity and in-group identity and other goals that are not religious in nature. It's very common for national religions to become more national than religious. That's another reason that the Founders didn't like them. National churches bury the genuine believers inside a crowd of conformists and hypocrites who are there to get along or get ahead instead of getting to heaven. (You may have heard a claim that no one can serve two masters at once. That never gets mentioned in those vague and nominal expressions of public Christianity.)

When you read conservative pundits, especially "moderate" or "centrist" pundits bemoaning our secular age and the loss of our civic religion, etc. etc. etc., remember what they're pining for is an era of meaningless lip service to a vague and denuded parody of Christianity. In essence, those pundits are feeling nostalgia for hypocrisy. And I suppose that hypocritical expressions of loyalty to a lukewarm religion have their uses, but I don't want any part of them. National and civic goals should be pursued by national and civic means. Religions, on the other hand, should be left to their own goals, thinking about their followers' spiritual and moral development rather than serving sociological cohesion. It's a pretty simple principle really: give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God's what is God's. And no, that's not from the Federalist.

Season's greetings, all. May you each keep the winter holidays in your own ways, and prosper in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Free Advice for Hate-Mongers (About Those Gay Troops)

cross-posted from Dagblog

Hey there, conservatives. I know a bunch of you have had a good ride bashing on gays in the military for most of the last twenty years. (If you're a conservative who hasn't, good for you. You can ignore the following advice, with my hearty compliments.) And I know those of you who've been doing the public hating also hate to give up a good thing. Now that gays are openly serving in the military, I understand that it feels like time to double down. The issue's always been a winner for you before. Why wouldn't it be a winner now?

Here's your problem. For the last twenty years, you've been arguing against the idea of gays serving our country in the military. And since no one could be in uniform and out of the closet at the same time, you could serve up all the scary fantasies you could imagine; you do have a talent for serving up those fantasies. But now that our gay soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are openly gay, you aren't arguing against a hypothetical policy any more. Now you are publicly attacking real people. And the people you're attacking are American soldiers and marines during a war.

When you were attacking imaginary gay soldiers for doing vague imaginary bad things, you could pass yourself off as guardians of tradition. But when you are attack American servicemen and women who are serving in a war zone, it makes you look crazy, unpatriotic, and mean. That's not a coincidence. It really is a crazy, mean, and unpatriotic thing to do. And that's what it looks like.

If you want to make this a central campaign issue, that's fine with me. You'll get pummeled, and I'll enjoy watching. If that seems impossible to believe, let's put it this way: there have always been gays in our military, but they could not admit it. That allowed you to say whatever vile thing you liked about them without being contradicted by inconvenient facts. Now those same gay soldiers and Marines can speak up for themselves, and even more importantly, they can let their service to our country do the talking. Some of those people have served three or four tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, your main contribution to the war effort has been attacking the character of the guy who served those three tours. I wouldn't call attention to that if I were you.

Merry Christmas. It's a good time for kindness and decency. And it's never too late to start.