Political Religion

Yesterday, Judith Warner posted an op-ed at the NYT, “Holier Than They,” that has drawn so far 108 comments.  Upon reading the piece and the comments, I came away with conflicting thoughts:  I agree completely, and this is all wrong.  In essence, Warner is challenging Christians–specifically “conservative” Christians–to reexamine the tenets of their faith to see if it really is all about “gays, abortion, and low taxes,” so to speak.  Of course it isn’t, and Warner is right to call out those who want to be seen publicly as committed Christians (and especially those who want to leverage the label for political gain) who cannot seem to commit to the teachings of Jesus.  So I agree completely–this is the right challenge.

But then the irritation sets in.  First, (and I am not finding fault with Warner in this case) what does the word “conservative” mean?  I know who Warner is identifying, so I think I know what she would mean by “conservative Christian.”  But it seems to me that the “conservative” in “conservative Christian” is more a political than a theological designation.  It seems to me, rather, that “conservative Christians” take a lot of liberties with their Christianity, picking and choosing interpretations of Scripture and tradition as it suits the “conservative” political position that appears to be of more ultimate concern.  And what counts as the “conservative” political position is murky, too.  How can libertarians and “social conservatives” both be seen in the same political territory?  They couldn’t agree less, except in the question of the size of the federal government–hardly a central theological concern, by the way.  Political theologies of any flavor are always more political than theological in the practical sense (although let’s not forget that theology, like metaphysics, is inescapable).  So Warner’s challenge is not to Christians per se, but some Christians who seem driven more by political values than theological ones.

Second irritation:  Warner uses rhetorical strategies that won’t help her case.  Here’s an example:

I’m thinking of the now entirely muted issue of whether the basic ethical foundations of Romney, Huckabee et al’s political views truly are “Christian” – in the good-neighborly sense of the word.

I am referring here to the sentiments that lie behind the candidates’ attitudes toward gays, which may have found their most honest and open expression in Huckabee’s recently resurrected 1992 suggestion that AIDS patients should be forcibly isolated. I am thinking too of Christian conservative opposition to progressive taxation, public spending for the needy and government “meddling” in such matters as anti-discrimination policies. And, of course, of the willingness to sacrifice women by genuflecting before a segment of the population that is scared witless by modernity and sugar-coats its fear and hate in the name of the sacred. (As governor, Huckabee, according to veteran Arkansas political journalist Max Brantley, once “stood in the hospital door, at least figuratively, to prevent state funding” for a mentally handicapped teenage girl who’d been raped by her stepfather and needed to have an abortion.)

Warner’s argument starts with the apparent propositions that gays = AIDS patients and that heavy progressive (meaningly progressively higher the richer you are) taxation will solve the problem of poverty.  I believe it is possible for an authentically committed Christian, for instance, to dispute both these views without thereby being a hypocrite. 

Warner’s argument then goes from bad to weird.  Apparently women were (well, okay, one woman was) “sacrificed” out of “hatred” and “fear” (of modernity, by the way), the “sacrifice” being that government funds were not used to pay for an abortion that was “needed” (are you absolutely sure about that?) because this woman was young, mentally handicapped, and a rape victim of her despicable (I added that ’cause it’s true) stepfather.  Should Warner really base her argument on this kind of “reasoning”?

Nevertheless, when Warner writes this:

These days, however, for all the talk of religion, there is little public soul-searching about the absence of care and compassion, love, acceptance and inclusion – the things that many consider to be the essence of Christianity – in the words of our purported Christian leaders.

…she is exactly right.  My point is that Warner is making the same kind of political move she is criticizing in her targets:  She is arguing that religious views necessarily require certain political positions.  “Conservative Christians” say “I am a Christian, so I believe in low taxes.”  Warner (and others who worry about this) say, “You are Christians.  Therefore, you are wrong to believe in low taxes…you should believe in high taxes.”  That’s poor thinking for the “conservative Christians” and it’s poor thinking for their critics.

The third sort of irritation comes from the overwhelming majority of the comments.  Mainly, the give evidence that they didn’t hear a word Warner was saying.  She’s saying (my criticisms on the way she says it aside…) that religious believers should revisit their faith and really ask themselves if their political positions are “walking the talk.”  Her essay is making me, for one, do exactly that.  But almost all her commentators responded more or less like this:  “Amen, Ms. Warner!  We agree!  Religion is evil!” 

But she said nothing of the kind.  She is saying the opposite:  that religion holds a wealth of resources for love, compassion, acceptance, self-sacrifice, and care for the other that are not being tapped in the political theologies of some (not all) religious believers.  She is right to challenge them.

Warner concludes:

It would be nice today to hear a candidate step up and oppose all that is “appalling, brutal and bigoted” in the limited religious views that substitute for spirituality in American politics today. Who knows — it might even be good politics.

It would work for me.  I would just add that opposition to all that is “appalling, brutal, and bigoted” might manifest itself in a variety of political positions and programs.  For us to figure out that, we’ll need political wisdom in addition to theological authenticity.

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