Religion and conservative politics got married in the American media back in the 1970s. Now they are wedded indissolubly, or so we are told. Divorce seems unthinkable. Nevertheless, since the 2004 election, the left has been looking for ways to annul this marriage, so that we can start courting religious Americans too.
As in any courtship, confidence counts for a lot. We’ve got to believe that our potential sweetie is available and that we have what he or she wants. On the left side of the political spectrum, too many of us don’t have that confidence because we buy into the myth of the marriage of religion and right.
In fact, religion was, is, and always will be single. Maybe religion has been going steady with the right for a while. But it had a long, intimate relationship with progressive politics for most of U.S. history. There’s no reason why the left shouldn’t try to woo religion and get intimate once again.
But do we have what religion wants? Can we make a marriage work? Here, too, we are stymied by lack of confidence. Look, for example, at liberal stalwart Eric Alterman repeating the old but wrong-headed cliché that conservatives have “natural advantages when seeking to marry religious devotion to politics.” The truth is that liberals and progressives have just as good a chance to wed their politics to religion. We need to understand that and believe it.
Alterman (citing another influential liberal, E.J. Dionne) worries that political conservatives “own the word ‘tradition.’” True enough. But are religious people more bound to tradition than the non-religious? In any religion, most people do indeed do the same thing week after week. However, that doesn’t mean they all want to be enslaved to tradition in their politics.
After all, most people tend to cook their favorite food the same way week after week. Most people fold their laundry the same way week after week, or arrange their desk the same way, or maybe even kiss their lover the same way. That’s not a sign of political conservatism. It’s just as true wherever you go on the political spectrum. My local left-wing group goes to the same coffee shop at the same time every Saturday afternoon, and most of us order “the regular.” That hardly makes us more likely to vote Republican.
If we think that religious people are more likely to want to keep things the way they are in every walk of life, that doesn’t tell us anything about religion itself. It tells us only about our particular view of religion. We’ve been taught to see religion this way by the media -- and often by religious leaders. In any social structure, many leaders have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.
We’ve been taught by conservative pundits, too. Of course they define religion in a way that makes it seem their natural ally. Why shouldn’t they try to score political points that way? But Alterman concedes this point too quickly to the right-wingers. He notes that they believe in "a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience." He seems to think that believing in transcendent order or natural law has to make you a conservative.
Wrong. Thoreau committed civil disobedience precisely because he believed in a transcendent order. Martin Luther King was sure of a natural law (he called it a “moral arc”) in the universe that bends toward justice. Dorothy Day believed in a transcendent order. So did Rabbi Heschel and Father Merton. So do millions of Americans who work hard for peace and justice every day.
Alterman goes on to explain the key idea that wedded conservatives to a particular view of religion: “Custom, convention and old prescription provide a check on ‘man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.’" That’s the old devil “original sin” -- the religious right’s ultimate (and most successful) scam line. Sure, if your religion tells you that human desire is just plain old lust, innately anarchic and dangerous, you may very well end up pretty conservative in your politics. But “original sin” is just one particular view within one particular religion. And it’s going out of fashion, even among Christians. Of course, it’s never been in fashion for many non-Christians who lead religious lives. Again, Alterman seems to take the conservative line on religion as if it were the only line in town.
He does see one bright spiritual light amidst this gloomy picture: “Luckily, we happen to have Christianity's deity on our side.” God on our side? Uh-oh, Eric. Dangerous move. The Nazis once said it too: “Gott mit uns.”
Alterman finds out that God’s on the liberal side by reading the Bible. He likes E. J. Dionne’s reminder of “a few of the texts that liberal politicians and pundits might wish to commit to memory.” They’re juicy lines from the Bible about justice and righteousness and taking the side of the poor. You can find lines just as juicy in the Koran or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Buddhist sutras.
But even the most reactionary right-wingers can cite scripture for their purpose, too. As soon as one group says, “God’s on our side. Just look at the sacred text,” that gives every other group the right to make the same claim. Then you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Way back in the 1960s, Bob Dylan taught us that if God’s really on our side He’ll stop the next war. But He can’t do it until someone stands up and insists that God is not on anyone’s side. The Bible is not on anyone’s side, either. They are neutral, single, waiting to be wooed by anyone and everyone.
I’m always happy to read great writers like Alterman and Dionne when they write about their areas of expertise. Of course, religion (like politics) is an area that everyone feels entitled to write about, because everyone thinks they’re an expert. But there are some people who do understand better than others how religion works. The right wing listens to those people and uses their expertise quite effectively.
Fortunately, we’ve got plenty of religion experts on the left, too. Some of them come from communities where religious tradition really is important. Some come from communities that believe in "a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society.” They can teach us how to make tradition and transcendent order effective vehicles for progressive change.
Some of our experts can adeptly interpret other forms of religion—they’re more likely to call it spirituality—that don’t care much about tradition, or even actively oppose it. They can teach us how to see religion as the yeast that breaks up tradition and generates ferment in the body politic.
We need to listen to both kinds of experts on religion (sometimes they turn out to be the same people). Surely, we’ll hear them all agree that religion is not wedded permanently to conservative attitudes of any kind. Religion was, is, and always will be available to any political persuasion that can offer it love and respect. As in any courtship, though, you can’t fake it and get by. The love and respect have to be genuine.
There are plenty of people on the left side of the aisle who can offer religion real love. Let’s let them do their work. Everyone else can offer respect. And that’s enough. Most religious people don’t ask to be loved by the non-religious. They ask only to be respected. They deserve it.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. email@example.com