Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Doctrine versus lifestyle

In the car the other day, I listened to John Danforth sounding forth on the Fresh Air show. Danforth, an Episcopalian minister, was extremely proud of his stand against the fact that more and more religious Christians are becoming active in the Republican party. He pointed with particular pride to his op-ed piece on that subject, which first appeared in the New York Times. (As an aside, what particularly amused me was how he stated to Terri Gross that he was surprised at what a positive response his piece elicited. This "surprise" was either the produce of profound ignorance or an ingenuousness embarrassing in a seasoned politician. He must know that, by publishing in the NY Times on this subject, he was preaching to the choir.) Anyway, to get back to his point about conservative Christians, versus the more appropriate "moderate" Christians, Danforth has this to say:

People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring their values to bear in politics. Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God's truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda to do so. Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgment of the limitations of human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the Bible and say our prayers. But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws. We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators.
Aside from the flabby theology inherent in his argument (last I read the Bible, God was a rigorous authority, not a little Cupid), Danforth's point, is that conservative Christians are trying to turn the U.S. into a theocracy. The subtext, obviously, is that conservative Christians, by bringing their too-strong beliefs to politics, are violating the Establishment clause. I think Danforth's text (and subtext) are huge logical fallacies, and bespeak a real ignorance about the Establishment clause. (And, by the way, I'm Jewish and I'm definitely not in line with the entire belief system that motivates the more conservative of the conservative Christians. Indeed, I doubt I would agree with a bunch of the initiatives they'd like to see pass through the federal and state legislatures.) It seems to me that the big flaw in Danforth's premise, as is the flaw in most arguments the Left voices against the rise of conservative Christians in politics, is the fact that they routinely conflate faith and doctrine, on the one hand, with lifestyle, on the other hand. To explain my point, we need to take ourselves back to the end of the 18th Century. The Founders were functioning during the Englightenment, which reacted to the Reformation, which in turn had responded to the dominant Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. Thus, in the Middle Ages, the only acceptable European religion was the Catholic Church, which was indistinguishable from European religions. Monarchs jockied for power with the Pope, but Europe was a Christian community, owing allegiance simultaneously to its "secular" monarchs and to Rome. Heresy -- that is, any deviation from religious doctrine -- was vigorously and violently quashed, as were the few pockets of non-Catholic religion (in the form of Jews and Muslims). The Reformation, when it came, started, not by attacking the secular governments, but by honing in on faith and doctrinal issues. The battle lines were drawn over understandings about God (that's the faith part), and over the procedural devices for approaching God, such as transubstantiation, purgatory, indulgences, etc. (that's the doctrine part). These were matters of faith, conscience and religious practice. Because Church and State were inextricably intertwined in those days, monarchs had to chose sides, and woe betide those of their citizens who did not chose the same side. Within kingdoms, much blood was shed over a priest's conduct at the altar. There is a reason Mary I is called Bloody Mary, and the St. Barthlomew's Day Massacre was quite a bloody mess, indeed. Doctrinal differences eventually went beyond martyrdoms and massacres, and spilled into lengthy, debilitating wars. (The examples that spring most readily to my mind are the English Civil War, which while not purely a religious war, reflected major religious splits in society, and resulted in Britains version of the Taliban; and the Thirty Years War, which intermingled territorial and religious disputes.) The Enlightenment was, in part, a fantastic leap in scientific thought (think Newton) and, in part, a reaction to the religious discord that had characterized the preceeding centuries. People were faithful, but they were no longer willing to fight and die for their faiths. And so we're back to the Founding Fathers. As many people have pointed out, with the exception of the somewhat deistic Jefferson, the Founding Father's were, for the most part, believers in traditional religion. What distinguished them from their forebearers, though, was that the bloodshed of the preceding centuries, whether the medieval State was assisting the Church's inquisitions, or whether the State was acting against its own heretical citizens or the heretical citizens across the border, left them deeply suspicious of state involvement in matters of faith and doctrine. It was in this context that the Founding Fathers drafted the Establishment Clause. They did not want to outlaw religion, or religious belief, or religiously informed decisions. They wanted to make sure that the State did not attempt to interfere in each citizen's direct relationship with God. Once one understands this, one can understand that the Supreme Court has been correct in the past when it has said that, even if a community is primarily Christian, the school board cannot dictate prayer. Prayer is a pure expression of faith, and it is not for a government to dictate the hows, whens and wherefores of that expression. Understanding this point, however, also means that Danforth and his kind are wrong when they say, essentially, that the religious must withdraw from the political arena, whether as voters or actors, because their decisions are informed by their faith. Whether I dislike the idea of homosexual marriage because my God tells me it's wrong, or because a Martian spoke to me, or because I hate change, or because my father would have opposed it, I'm still allowed to express that factual conclusion at the ballot box. I recognize that my position -- distinguishing between attempts to impose pure religious belief and doctrine on citizens and between matters of policy grounded in religious belief -- is the beginning of a slippery slope. One can imagine a situation in which a majority of American voters agrees that, based on the Bible, not only is homosexuality wrong, but all homosexuals should be stoned to death. And they do this, not by appointing the President as Chief Priest of their "New American Fundamentalism" and doing away with all laws but the Bible (which would clearly violate the Establishment Clause), but by electing legislators to go to Congress and pass laws to that effect. However, the fact that any Constitutional right can be taken to extremes doesn't vitiate the existence of that right. In any event, that extreme would presumably be balanced by the Constitutional proscription against cruel and unusual punishment. Ultimately, we have to accept that this is a Democracy, with the majority of the people allowed either to vote directly on initiatives or to elect legislators who will carry out their wishes. And if the majority of Americans are leaning to the conservative side, for whatever reason, the Establishment Clause cannot be used to block their votes or their legislator's otherwise constitutional initiatives. If we ever get too far down that slippery slope, and the stonings and witch burnings begin, well, we'll hope we can cross that bridge when we come to it. But we can't use the possibility that such extremism might occur as a reason to raise the Establishment Clause as a bar to religious people from engaging in the political process -- even if we disagree with some or all of the conclusions they reach as a result of their faith.