Sunday, January 14, 2007

Turning Left at the Cross

Does GOD pick winners and losers on Super Sunday? Does he really favor Republicans in every election? Are Evangelicals alone in their pursuit of morality as they narrowly define it and is this defining the political nature of a nation?

This past week I mentioned the new book from Chris Hedges about the rise of fascist tendencies within the Christian Right. Timely as only the blogosphere can be! - there have been recent posts on the stirring of the Christian Left. Long Sunday/ Jodi Dean (again!) have cited this excellent interview with Jim Wallis at Mother Jones.

Jim Wallis:

[Democrats] forget their own progressive history. Every major social movement in our history was fueled in large part by religion and faith. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, child labor law, and most famously, civil rights. Where would we be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself? Here’s a party that was vitally connected to the civil rights movement, led by black churches, now has driven so far [away], they’re successfully portrayed by the Right as a secular party hostile to religion.

I think people who are religious or, say, even spiritual, have not felt like there’s much of a home on the Left. That’s at least a huge political concern. Even those who aren’t religious need to respect people of faith. The connection the world’s waiting for is to connect the hunger for spirituality with passion for social change. Because spirituality, when it isn’t disciplined by social justice, in an affluent society, becomes narcissistic. We buy the books, we buy the tapes. We hear the guru speaker. Barnes & Noble has a whole wall of how to be spiritual, balanced, healed, whole. Spirituality becomes a commodity to be bought and sold. So spirituality has to be disciplined by social justice.

What I like about Wallis is his talk of current strategies and the emphasis that poverty and by extension environment are the key moral issues of the day. At root these are about stewardship, responsibility, respect and compassion - not gay marriage, not abortion or any other fringe project of the insolent fundies. What I have to take issue with though is his rhetoric that people of faith need to be included because they are people of faith -
You know, you can be who you are, but just respect people who are people of faith and include [them] in the movement.” To the secular fundamentalists who want to exclude any religion, I would say, “Do you want to lose every election for the rest of your life? Get smart.

Look, I hope that there are progressive Christians left and that they are part of the debate and fueling positive action/activism as well, but there is a part of me that screams inside at this. Faith arguably is central to the problem. Faith dictates the "US" vs. the AMORAL THEM - we've got the answer and because of that we're victims of God's enemies. It's a familiar rhetoric from any religious political block that is frankly causing the lack of inclusion problem. I don't see any Christian persecutions my friend - not in this country. When are people of FAITH going to respect everyone else - that's what I want to know? He is correct that morality needs be front and center, and I despise rabid atheism
- but this distinction of Faith still makes me uneasy

Dean says it perfectly.

Jodi Dean:
Are progressive Christians allies of the Left? I'll write this as if the term 'radical left' makes sense used in the context of politics in the US; in other words, I'll use the term 'radical left' aspirationally, wondering about the possibility of a left that could exist, that could be called into being.

One caveat--in the US, to speak of 'excluding' Christian progressives from politics is pretty nonsensical. They have been active in US history, are active now, and are likely to be active in the future. My reflections, then, are of the character of a kind of thought-experiment, wondering if this is something that leftists who are not mobilized on the basis of religious faith should applaud and should seek to ally with.

On the one hand, the politics of affinity groups suggests the importance of broad convergences and overlaps. Just as feminist, anti-racist, and queer groups have had to get over their disagreements and unite on issues of common concern, so should those either hostile to religion generally or hostile to religion in politics recognize their allies and march with them. After all, religious groups have a strong organizational network and committed members, activists who may be much more solidary and engaged than is often the case among the different affinity groups part of the broader left. Among African-Americans, moreover, churches have been key loci of political and social action. Marx's claims to the contrary, there have been and are Christian socialists. And, if progressive Christians are committed to working on a goals in common with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists and others, shouldn't such a broad left alliance be inclusive?

Wallis's points in the larger interview have strategic currency. A Right that takes on religious language falls prey to Christian concerns for the peace and poor, a duty to attend to the suffering of others: "I was hungry and you fed me." They can't ignore the Good Samaritan forever. Additionally, given that the US is such a religious country, speaking to the people where they are, mobilizing the convictions they already have, makes more sense than trying to interpellate them as communists. They won't hear the call, much less answer it.

On the other hand, are their risks in championing the language of religion in politics? Risks that have to do with actually being in power, governing, making laws? Is it possible or likely that the embrace of religious language in politics is in and of itself regressive? My worry is that even in its progressive versions, a religious approach to governance installs in advance an approach to the world linked in faith not reason, a faith that is personal and while possibly shared with millions of others, is difficult to translate into non-religious terms--positions become 'justified by faith' alone.

Likewise, I worry about a conception of politics based on morality. I'm reminded of Schmitt's criticism of liberalism as a doctrine that degenerates into ethics and economics. Encouraging and extending even progressive Christian values into law and the state risks making the state into an agent of moral instruction rather than an agent of fairness and reciprocity (and, yes, I recognize that these are moral notions as well even as they can be defended in non-religious terms). Perhaps more to the point, I don't think the state should be religious (back to "On the Jewish Question"--such a state is not a state). If the left employs religious language, then, is it accepting its own permanent marginalization and failing to take responsibility actually for exercising power?

Read the Wallis article because it is substantial as is this general discussion.


St. Dubiety said...

I don't know if my hurried reading of this posting missed the point, but if I may I should like to say that I think the author is missing a huge reality--that of progressive Christians and, all over the place, of progressive Christian activity! "I hope there are progressive Christians left..."! That one should wonder illustrates what I think to be a major problem. The problem is not whether "progressive Christians [are] allies of the left," as the post asks. The problem is whether people on the non-Christian left will permit them to be allies! The hesitancy of the left to join with religious progressives is massive. The hesitancy of the left to support religious progressives is massive. The hesitancy of secular left funders to fund religious progressives is massive. Of course--absolutely, of course, if one thinks of religious people, people of faith, Christians ONLY in the model of the Christian right wing, then this hesitancy is not simply understandable; it should be turned into militant opposition. But--here is my most important point--progressive Christian people, organizations, initiatives, etc. are all around you, everywhere. Many of them are living by the sheer exhaustion of religious people who won't give up. Some of the projects are dying for lack of funding. Folks on the secular left, awake! "When," you ask, "are people of faith going to respect everyone else?" The vast majority have been for a long, long time, and they will continue to do so. It is a part of their "faith" NOT to try to impose their views on others, via power or legislation or propaganda. And, finally--belatedly, to be sure--they, too, have awakened to the danger coming from the right? For humanity's sake, can't we all work together?

highlowbetween said...

St. Dubiety - thank you for the thoughtful response. Of course.
Wallis is very correct in pointing to the legacy of Christian progressive activism. As someone who is close to several social workers I know that this hard work is still being done. Unfortunately the right wing lietralists have seemingly been able to take control of the budgets, and frame not only the theological discourse of millions but have also framed the national political discourse. What worries me - and this not only applies to Christianity - but all major faiths - is that moderates by their very nature of being moderate and/or progressive are going to be subjugated and trumped by fundamentalists. They will alawys be viewed as back sliders or traitors by the fundies. That unfortunately is an ugly and most likely on going battle within the pulpit. Allies will be needed and I
do think we can all work together for common cause which is simply a little more humanity for everyone. As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist church I can tell you the danger is real and certainly coordinated with in the fundamentalist sectors. Christ would be shocked I think at the perversion of his message and way of life. When I question the word "faith" it's really a question of why isn't faith open to the same kind of accountability and questioning as an other facet of our lives and politics. It should not be a free pass. Let's hope and work towards a coming together for sure!

St. Dubiety said...

I appreciate your reply, both its clarification and its tone. The intensity of my earlier comments stem from my knowledge of the vast numbers of progressive religious and, especially, progressive Christian initiatives, and my dismay that they receive so little in the way of financial and advisory support from the secular left. These initiatives are borne of high energy and their capacity to make a difference is enormous. They are like a huge army of potential allies for the political left and center-left, but--like other good causes in our tech-marketing culture--they will wither away for lack of funds. My experience of the secular left funders leads me to think they don't really believe that religion will continue to play a major causal role in the formation of public opinion regarding social values and goals. That doubt about the social power of religion, stemming from Marx (who was by no means entirely wrong) and continued today by people like Daniel Dennett, the philosopher--that doubt, might be right. But I don't think it is (because it misunderstands the nature of religion) and, in any case, it seems to me foolish to gamble on it now by ignoring the potential efficacy of progressive religion in the public discourse in the US. But enough--thanks for taking my earlier comments so seriously.

highlowbetween said...

the irony of the funding issue is that fact that the Faith based initiative exists. But we all know it's more or less corporate welfare for the likes of Pat Robertson and his various shell entities. Thanks for stopping by again!