Thursday, November 18, 2004


The calls for the democratic left to address religion are increasing. (See discussions in the NYT, Tikkun, and NPR among other venues.) This religious project has several components:

1) Increasing the volume of progressive believers and clergy, having them voice dissent about the prevailing interpretations of punitive religious orthodoxy and strengthen a kinder, gentler Judeo-Christian (Muslim?) flank. This has been a project for pro-choice and pro-gay forces for a while.

2) Changing the discourse about values, compassion, and ethics. Stress the failure to attend to the poor, the Vatican's objections to the war in Iraq, the religious devotion to peace and charity. Recognize a widespread anxiety about materialism and consumerism.

3) Develop the spiritual, religious cast to the left. Dilute the Marxist opiate, or secular elitist tones. Convey the connection between spirituality and progressive politics.

One problem for the general program is its ecumenicalism. Religion, the abstract noun, is an artifact of modernity, the result of colonialism and state management of diverse populations and forms of intellectual categorization. Many fervent believers don't see their faith as "religion," if we mean one form of spirituality among many. As one feminist evangelical Christian told me, "Religion is what other people believe. What I follow is The Truth." Fundamentalist belief is not ecumenical -- there is One Way. The rest is superstition or satan or heresy. At most, the orthodoxy of the hegemonic faiths will recognize the people of the book, the few established religions. They recognize religiousity through established signs -- through these signs, Bush, who oversees the execution and torture of prisoners and the killing of civilians, is a good Christian. Expresident Jimmy Carter, who attempts to live a life of good works, is not.

Appealing to the critics of progressive politics by stating one's spiritual path, immersion in Buddhism, Bahai, Sufism, or the like is not going to work.

Using spirituality or religion to appeal to the fundamentalist evangelical Christians who voted overwhelmingly (but not completely) for Bush will also not work -- satan takes all kinds of forms, and attempts at connection might be a sign of his presence.

Our aim should be a secular state with a clear separation from religion (or the euphemism, faith-based organizations). This is the only possible mechanism to coordinate peoples of different, mutually exclusive and at times hostile beliefs.


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