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Wednesday, October 17, 2012  

Something Secular Liberals Should Stop Saying

I know I'm one debate behind here, but the commentary on tonight's Obama comeback special led me back to something deeply bad written by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker after the vice-presidential tilt:

But beyond the horseshit something genuinely disturbing and scary got said last night by Paul Ryan that is, I think, easily missed and still worth brooding over. It came in response to a solemn and, it seemed to some of us, inappropriately phrased question about the influence of the Catholic Church on both men’s positions on abortion. Inappropriately phrased because legislation is made for everyone, not specially for those of “faith.” (And one would have thought that, at this moment in its history, the Catholic Church would not have much standing when it comes to defining the relationship between sexual behavior and doctrinal morality. However few in number the sinners might be, the failure to deal with them openly casts doubt on the integrity of the institution.)

Paul Ryan did not say, as John Kennedy had said before him, that faith was faith and public service, public service, each to be honored and kept separate from the other. No, he said instead “I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do.” That’s a shocking answer—a mullah’s answer, what those scary Iranian “Ayatollahs” he kept referring to when talking about Iran would say as well. Ryan was rejecting secularism itself, casually insisting, as the Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan put it, that “the usual necessary distinction between politics and religion, between state and church, cannot and should not exist.” And he went on to make it quietly plain that his principles are uncompromising on this, even if his boss’s policy may not seem so
All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

Our system, unlike the Iranians’, is not meant to be so total: it depends on making many distinctions between private life, where we follow our conscience into our chapel, and our public life, where we seek to merge many different kinds of conscience in a common space. Our faith should not inform us in everything we do, or there would be no end to the religious warfare that our tolerant founders feared.

I can't believe I'm defending Paul Ryan--who among other things shows ample evidence of holding positions not "informed" by his faith--but here goes: this is totally crazy. I agree about the inaptness of the phrasing on abortion; public issues are for the whole public, and no one's status vis-a-vis any faith tradition or community gives their answer more or less importance. And while I'm the first to point out that the sex abuse cover-up is a doctrinal as well as a public-relations calamity for the Catholic Church, surely its position on abortion is not dependent for its philosophical viability on the criminal actions of the hierarchy that promotes it, any more than is their teachings on workers' rights or the virgin birth of Jesus. 

But anyway. The Kennedy pivot was inevitable, and I don't know why liberals cherish it so. It was a speech made to appease anti-Catholic bigotry, not a courageous declaration of independence from a voting bloc Kennedy could count on no matter what. But we may leave the president's bones undisturbed in the end, because Paul Ryan's answer--that faith "informs us in everything we do"--is worthy of an ayatollah! Now it feels pedantic to say it, but really there is a huge difference between holding that a faith tradition or identity "informs" both private life and public citizenship and holding that only a group of clerics may exercise legitimate authority over all politics and culture. I imagine there are American Muslims who choose what they eat and how they manage their domestic lives based on their religion and who, additionally, vote somewhat differently than their average Christian neighbor because of policies that matter to them in a particular way. Many Jewish people, I am reliably told, organize their lives around certain dietary restrictions and rest requirements and may even vote in ways that reflect their identity or their communal values. 

The genius of the American religious settlement is not that our faiths only inform us in some aspects of life and not others--consider an abolitionist or an old-time Jewish labor activist if it helps to think of a friendlier case. Rather, it's that we have managed to "merge many different kinds of conscience" into public life, as Gopnik says, without delegitimizing the results. And in fact, as ugly as it may seem to many of us, the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. has largely followed that script, when its rhetoric and logic could lead quite plausibly to a John Brown-esque insurrectionary scenarios. 

And this whole line of argument is actually even more foolish than it seems at first blush. Let's say I am eager to win the approval of Adam Gopnik with my public reasoning, so I exclude all religious motives when it comes to voting. On what grounds, then, may I make my choice? 

The problem is that try as they might, no one has been able to give a very satisfying account of religious motives that distinguishes them essentially from other kinds of motives. Call it whatever you like: philosophical commitment, ultimate concern, value system, whatever. I might describe my views very differently from my Jewish or Muslim or atheist neighbor, but it is hardly inconceivable that we could come to vote the same way, and perhaps even hold identical views, despite having very different labels for our loyalties (this before considering how difficult it proves to isolate the influence of religion per se on political views and voting behavior). There are no "religious values" and "secular values" when it comes to shaping citizenship; they are all just values, and we get all of them in more or less the same ways: from our families, from books we read, from the things that are repeated and validated in our communities. 

The most annoying thing about this sort of statement, which one hears with dreary regularity, is that it simply inverts the somewhat offensive suggestion behind questions that begin with a "explain how your faith shapes your views." On one hand you have people praising religious faith as an especially important and valid motive for holding views, on the other you have people disparaging it as wholly invalid compared to some other kind of value system. Fortunately or not, neither is true. Religious views deserve no special protection and no special derogation. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:40 AM
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