Monday, August 29, 2011

Words and Deeds

Ross Douthat this morning says some things about candidates' religions and how he thinks journalists should deal with those beliefs. James Joyner recounts a Twitter discussion that centered on two questions:
First, how should one apply the term “extremist” in the context of the American religious debate? Second, what are the contours of “mainstream” religious thought in America?
Those are, I suppose, interesting questions, although I'm concerned that they distract from the issues he seems to be addressing when he evaluates Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry in the terms of those questions.

The issue of religion in politics is whether religious beliefs should be imposed on nonbelievers by political means. Both Bachmann and Perry, and likely most of their adherents, seem to believe that this is essential. Whether this counts as extremism is an argument I'll leave to others. Certainly it is what many on the right accuse Islam of in the anti-sharia laws that are being proposed across the United States. If it's wrong for Islam, it's wrong for their version of Christianity, too.

So in one sense, that's all I have to say about this great debate. But I'll add a bit about "mainstream" religious thought in America. It's hard to find what the mainstream is these days. If we take numbers of adherents, Catholics plus mainstream (old-style?) Protestants probably still outnumber evangelicals and charismatics. The numbers are hard to figure out, because many people will tell pollsters that they belong to a particular church, but they seldom attend. Catholic and mainstream Protestants have developed a body of theology that has been checked and rechecked for consistency with the Bible, their foundational document. There are disagreements among them, but there are also large swathes of agreement.

The "new-style" Christians disagree with a great deal of this theology. They need to make arguments that go beyond "God told me so" in order to convince the rest of us (well, me, anyway) that their cruelty and selfishness is justified. There is a tradition of prophecy in Christianity, and they may be right that God has spoken to them. But they have an obligation to explain themselves better, especially in their zeal to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

They certainly are louder than the old-style Christians, who I would like to hear more from them too. But is loud mainstream? Would a majority holding a clear set of views be mainstream? And even if they were a majority, one of the things the Constitution tries to protect against is the tyranny of the majority. But they seem to think that God has told them how to deal with that, too.


Karen Street said...

While I agree that what we learn in Church or other religious body can inform and intensify our beliefs, it's also true that we all begin with strong distortions in our understanding. See

Groups reinforce these distortions, whether it be Sierra Club or the church we attend. Interestingly, we apparently use our intelligence more often to justify these distortions than to understand reality.

A number of beliefs can be considered faith-based, even if attached to no religion, such as the importance of "natural" food or the relative safety of "natural" pesticides. (Natural food is apparently what existed when we first began paying attention to the issue.)

I am uncomfortable with evangelical beliefs, as almost all non-evangelicals are. This is in part because such a large number see themselves fighting a war, and anyone who is not with them is against them. This really became clear to me when I saw how they treat people with human flaws (such as children out of wedlock, or adultery) so differently, depending on whether they are part of us (showing our humanity), or them (showing innate decadence).

According to the cultural cognition folks, people of every worldview (cultural outlook) get the science wrong a lot of the time, often incorrectly assuming that scientific consensus agrees with us, or if that is impossible, that scientists are divided.

For a look at fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Moslems, I recommend Karen Armstrong's Battle for God. She looks at the fear of physical annihilation (in the case of Egyptian Moslems and Israeli Jews) or cultural annihilation (eg, US Christians) as a motive for beliefs and actions.

troutsky said...

Still an opiate for the masses and I am sympathetic to the plight of any addict. But if democratic politics is a conversation, notice what an absolute truth claim does to any conversation.

If the Bible or my blog makes a decent argument, quote it. But don't expect it to stand on any "authority" per se.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Karen -

What you're saying about evangelical beliefs (should be capitalized?, mainstream?) is what I encapsulated in "cruelty." I simply don't see how this can be justified on the basis of what Jesus is reported by the Bible to have said, or his entire life in that book. A strong word, but they seem to be proud of their equally strong beliefs and desire to impose them.

Troutsky - I agree. "Opiate for the masses" is perhaps a bit stronger than I would put it, but I'm dubious about the foundations of any religion.