Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's God Problem

Barack Obama is set to deliver some sort of mea culpa on race today. For my part, I think it's a shame that he has to apologize for someone else. But I suppose all candidates end up doing it for one reason or another. It is a tired song and dance routine, so devoid of substance and meaning that it scarcely seems worth mentioning. Do members of the media think that they are doing their jobs by airing someone else's angry sound bite? To me this kind of "news" is akin to push polling.

When you ignore Jeremiah Wright's admittedly fiery rhetoric for a moment, what you are left with is a preacher. A man of god. A leader of a group of people who share some beliefs. He collects money from his community, pays no taxes on that money, and directs it where he sees fit. So why are these people so crucial to a presidential hopeful's chances? If Obama didn't feel the need to have a spiritual adviser in the first place, this would not be happening to him.

Wright's position of privilege in Obama's campaign is not unique. Many, many "religious" leaders use their resources and their pulpit to speak on temporal matters, on matters of the state, on civic matters, on matters of public policy, and align themselves with candidates who represent their interests. They do not confine themselves to spiritual matters, nor limit themselves to matters of private morality among their own constituents. When they do so, they cease to be merely spiritual figures and become agents in the political sphere. But because they are cloaked in the mantle of religion, they enjoy special financial status in the United States, and yet receive every deference with regard to questions of morality.

Now, religion has played a central role in political struggles throughout history. It would be foolish to argue otherwise. But does it really have to be so anymore? Knowledge and understanding of the natural world have advanced far beyond the capabilities of the Christian Bible to answer modern moral questions. What can the Bible tell us about stem cell research? About genetic engineering? About space exploration? About global warming? I say our political sensibilities need to evolve to a point where we do not lean on such an antiquated crutch as the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

If religious figures want to continue to advise, lobby, and persuade their candidates and their congregations on political matters, and we all know they do, then it is time to abolish the tax exempt status of religious organizations. Then their political designs and ambitions will seem less like the height of hypocrisy. Let them join the fold of other lobbyists and special interests, where they belong.

I am so tired of hearing about the religious views of the candidates and the ugly rantings of their spiritual advisers. When I do see them loudly proclaiming their faith, I am reminded of nothing so much as the Pharisees, whom Jesus himself so frequently and sharply criticized for their false displays of holiness. Please keep your god to yourself! And if they start talking about religion, reporters, turn your microphones elsewhere! Someone somewhere must have something well-reasoned and intelligent to say.

The private religious views of a candidate should remain private. Let us forever put an end to reporting on the religiosity of political figures. It's time to take god off the political table. If a candidate needs to resort to god to explain a position on some issue, he should be ignored, criticized, and lampooned.


J G-W said...

A couple thoughts... This is something I've thought about more deeply, now that I am teaching a course on American religious history.

There are a few basic principles that are key to maintaining the separation of Church and State in America. One of them is the principle of avoiding "excessive entanglement" between Church and State. The U.S. has considered proposals to abolish the tax exempt status of churches on several occasions, and ultimately decided against it on the grounds that taxation created a form of "excessive entanglement." In order to tax, you also have to have the right to examine books, analyze expenses and salaries, etc. We all know the power the IRS has to make life miserable for a person or an institution. Now imagine the IRS giving a free ride to Evangelical Christians and harassing, say, Jewish or Muslim or liberal Christian organizations. (Or vice versa!!) You can see why it is perhaps wise that the American people and American judicial system have consistently said, "Let's just not even go there."

Another is the principle of granting all people equal access to the government regardless of religious affiliation. To say that a minister can't be an adviser to a political candidate is essentially to limit a person's participation in the political process because of his religious beliefs or status. Again, throughout our history there have been numerous attempts to pass laws that would have prohibited ordained ministers from participating in the political process in one way or another and, thankfully -- to my way of thinking -- they have all been defeated. Barack should have the right to choose anyone he wants as an adviser, be that person religious or not, ordained minister or not.

The one point I agree with you on is: to the extent that problems flow from a candidate's affiliations, he (or she) has no one to blame but him (or her) self.

But ultimately, it will be for the voters to decide whether such an affiliation should damn a candidate or save him. (Pun intended!)

Knight of Nothing said...

Hi John! Thank you for your response. It has been a while since I've heard from you in the blogosphere. Welcome back.

Regarding tax harassment, you make a good point. But ultimately the argument doesn't stand up. For exactly the same reason - unfairness - an uproar would be made, and rightly so, if a certain class of people were singled out for audits by the IRS for political, economic, or social reasons. Why should a religious organization be exempted from bearing their part of the costs of a civil society, just because such a potential for unfair treatment exists?

By your reasoning, political organizations should not be taxed, because someone in the IRS with an opposing view might audit that group differently.

Moreover, John, the granting of tax-exempt status is in itself a political issue! Some groups claim to be a religion, but the U.S. government denies their claim to tax-exempt status. That should not sit well with those who advocate freedom of religion. It doesn't sit well with me, but I think in order to address the issue of fairness and equal access, we should remove tax exempt status for all religious organizations. That way even Scientologists and followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster cannot claim that their religion is discriminated against by the tax codes.

I did not say that religious affiliation should bar someone from political discourse, though I am weary of such persons. What I am saying, a bit crudely perhaps, is that religion should have no special place in that discourse. And it should not be a very controversial statement that our tax laws and our media do more than a little to uphold that special place. Let's put a stop to it!

J G-W said...

Well, the reason for the special treatment is... The first amendment.

Our constitution does provide for special treatment of religion... For the very good reason that -- unlike in every constitution that had existed in the world up to the point our constitution was drafted -- it was determined to be desirable to separate church from state.

The "excessive entanglement" doctrine as it has evolved in our judicial system is intended to create a protective zone between church and state that effectively allows the two to co-exist in non-overlapping spheres. I understand the logic behind your argument, and I have even at one point or another endorsed the notion of ending churches' tax exempt status. I don't any more, however, largely because I'm afraid that, as good an idea as it might seem in some ways, it has the potential of eroding that all important zone of separation. I'd rather not tinker with our constitution in this way...

Actually, my understanding is that it is pretty easy to get tax-exempt status as a church. The Church of Scientology does have tax-exempt status just like all other churches -- though there are those who would like to end it. As distasteful as I find Scientology, I disagree with those who want to pick and choose which organizations are protected by the first amendment. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not have tax exempt status because it is not a church, it is a popular web-based satire. But if it became a bonafide church, I would support it's receiving tax exempt status along with Scientologists and everybody else.

J G-W said...

I should add that, for the same reasons I've cited above, I am vehemently opposed to Bush's "faith-based initiatives." That I see as an absolute violation of our constitution.

What's interesting is, when Americans are polled about whether they support faith-based initiatives, they respond in something like 60% majorities that they support it. But when the question is rephrased in such a way as to include Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist groups, support dwindles to 30%.

This is one reason why I don't want to scrap constitutional protections of church state separation. Once we do, the treatment of religion gets thrust back into the political sphere of majority-based politics.

Hello, religious civil war.

Knight of Nothing said...

I am well aware of the separation clause in the first amendment; it is actually one basis of my argument. There is no disagreeing that the Constitution is an interpreted document; it has been re-interpreted many times on different issues. And I contend that one could read the first amendment, and look at our existing laws, and witness the power of religious figures to influence political contests today, and say, "this isn't working as intended."

The problem as I see it is that what you call "coexistence" in "non-overlapping spheres" is nothing of the sort: neither harmonious nor separated. There is an incredible overlap in the political and religious spheres in our society. It is ironic that in other Western democracies with official state churches, one does not see nearly the overlap and entanglement of the religious and the political spheres. It is ironic because of the U.S.'s explicit attempt to not establish a state church.

Apologies! I actually did know that scientologists enjoy tax exempt status in the U.S., though in other perhaps more enlightened countries they are regarded as a cult. In my haste to formulate a reply, I mentioned them in a sloppy sentence. But my point is the same, even if my example was poor.

In fact, a cursory search of the web yielded a much better example: the Christian Coalition. In my mind, and in the IRS's, they are a nakedly political group. But they associate with one another on a religious basis, they believe that their work is religious in nature, and certainly the platforms they advocate are overtly inspired by religious fervor. They fought a losing battle for almost ten years to receive tax-exempt status.

I am certain that you find the Christian Coalition's political and religious beliefs to be repugnant, but since you express with conviction that one cannot pick and choose which religious organizations should be tax exempt, do you argue that they should be granted such status? And if you do not think so, do you really see that big of a difference between the works of the Christian Coalition and Mac Hammond's endorsement of Michelle Bachmann's campaign, or Ted Haggard's participation in the Bush Administration? The risk of tinkering with the Constitution and of selective enforcement of rules seems greater from your side of the argument than from mine.

You allude to an important zone of separation, but what is that zone really good for? Individual liberty is the central theme of the Bill of Rights. How is an individual's liberty at risk when a quasi-political organization is treated like every other organization that participates in political life? I think bad law and bad public policy and bad power dynamics emerge from this tax-exempt privilege. My reading the first amendment calls for it to end.

You raise a very interesting point in your third reply about the potential for a "religious civil war." You state that you don't want to scrap the constitutional protections of church state separation. I am saying that I want to shore up church/state separation, and that the wall between the two is in desperate need of repair! Witness France, currently being overrun by fundamentalism. Not home-grown Christian fundamentalism, as the U.S., but immigrant Muslim fundamentalism. How France weathers this onslaught without scrapping religious freedom or devolving into a hotbed of nativism and racism remains to be seen. But one thing seems clear - that fundamentalist groups operate under the protections of a tolerant, secular, civil society to build a decidedly intolerant, non-secular society, and they do this in the political arena. In that sense they are no different than a fringe political party. So maybe they should be viewed by the government as such, at least for tax purposes. And if all religious organizations were treated equally in this regard, what harm would come of it? I think it would quiet the rancor and reduce the political power of these groups.

Religion is an ancient, unique, and energetic form of social participation. But that doesn't make it the best answer to our political or societal problems. Before Copernicus, people used to believe that the earth was the center of the universe, and we did not conceive of a different model. My overarching point is that there are other sources for a healthy society and for collective morality that do not spring from a religious well. For many reasons, I am finding that religion has been a hindrance to a moral and just society. I think the Constitution tried to recognize the dangers of religious entanglement in political life. I am advocating the next step.

J G-W said...

But the Christian Coalition is a blatantly political organization... If they failed to get tax-exempt status, that means the system is working.

The political theory behind tax exempt status is to keep government out of the affairs of the Church. This is a keystone of religious liberty in this country. The power to tax is the power to interfere. What you're talking about is a pretty radical overhaul of the church-state relationship in America, with potentially devastating consequences for both. I'll need a lot of convincing to sign on to what would amount to a complete revolution of the current church-state system.

The first amendment -- and the principle of church-state separation -- does not prohibit churches from attempting to influence the political process. Again, it could not, because to do so would deny individuals political rights on the basis of religion.

What the first amendment does prohibit is the passage of any law that has the effect of establishing a religion or favoring one religion over another. How the constitution is enforced in practice is more or less a political problem. And it hasn't always worked out the way it ideally should. But I'm not sure how taxing the churches would solve that problem...

In the American system, yes, religious views and values have influenced and will continue to influence legislation. But that is inescapable in a society where 93% of the population identify themselves as believing in some type of organized religion. In a democracy, the government will reflect the values of the people. If it didn't, it wouldn't be a democracy.

If you don't like religious influence in the political system, you have two options. Option A: A Soviet-style coup where religion is legally banned and suppressed. Option B: using convincing arguments to persuade people that their religious beliefs are false.

I hope we're all agreed that option A is off the table. As far as option B is concerned, to paraphrase Voltaire, I might not agree, but I will defend to the death your right to pursue it.

Knight of Nothing said...

I have to admit, I'm a little put out by the glibness of your latest reply. How about option C: re-interpret the Constitution and re-write a few laws to reduce the influence of organized religious groups upon the political process? That's what I've been advocating in this post and this entire thread.

Certainly an intention of the Constitution was to limit concentrations of power. One can argue about its effectiveness in attaining that goal, but it doesn't seem a "complete revolution" or a "radical, Soviet-style coup" to think about legal, all-American ways to limit the power and influence of religion.

My original point, from which we have run far afield, is that while Obama is making apologies for the racial politics of his pastor, no one questions the presence of a pastor in the first place. But to me, one can and should reasonably ask, "what value does any pastor add to any political candidate's campaign?"

J G-W said...

I wasn't trying to be glib...

I was hoping you'd respond to my point about excessive interference in religious affairs by the state. That is why the Supreme Court developed the doctrine of "excessive entanglement," which is what the tax exemption is based on. Leaving churches alone and free of state interference is the all-American solution! It's based on a consensus that was achieved in the early decades of the Republic. Obviously we have to agree to disagree about the desirability of overturning that consensus.

You also didn't respond to my point that religious influence in the political system is a product of democracy! It means that religious people are participating in the process. You act as if "religious influence" has been an unmitigated evil. But the two arguably greatest political achievements in American history -- the end of slavery, and the achievements of the civil rights movement -- were products of "religious influence" on the political system. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist Minister.

To return to your original point, that's the political tradition that has influenced and that continues to influence Barack Obama -- for good or for ill, with both its strengths and its weaknesses. It's very unlikely that you'll find any black political candidate who does not find his or her faith a major resource for his or her political convictions. Should Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have been prohibited from running for president?

Knight of Nothing said...

You asked that I respond to the comment, "religious influence in the political system is a product of democracy." This is a given to me, and my original post wished to ask, "Is there another way? Can the U.S. become a more secular democracy?" My essay was a reflection upon some steps that might be taken toward achieving this goal.

As to your wish that I respond to your thoughts about excessive interference, the entire Bill of Rights is about preventing excessive governmental interference. But no right-minded person would say that after it was written the matter was settled. Our laws change and evolve over time to define what acceptable levels of interference are. There are some pretty appalling levels of governmental interference that the Bush Administration deems acceptable. On the other hand, I for one do not think that asking religious groups, who all participate on the political stage on one level or another, to pay their share of taxes amounts to "excessive interference." We'll agree to disagree on that.

Since you brought it up, let us speak of slavery. Everyone now agrees that slavery is a moral abomination. But it is theologically defensible in both Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition. While many who opposed slavery did so on religious grounds, it is also very clear that many if not all who fought to preserve the institution were some of the most religious people this country has ever seen, and that those people, not the abolitionists, had a stronger foundation in scriptures for their position.

Regarding Martin Luther King Jr., I would stand in agreement that he is one of the greatest and most influential Americans who ever lived. And yes, he was a Baptist minister. But what set him apart from his theological peers was the doctrine of non-violence, which has its genesis halfway across the world, among the Jains. My point about slavery and about Martin Luther King Jr. is that Christianity is not the only operational locus for morality in the U.S., and that in my opinion we might be better off politically and socially if we found a more universal, secular one.

I wrote about Obama because everyone is talking about his "race problem." But this "God Problem" is really every candidate's problem. There was a lot of flap recently in the news that Obama had been given a free ride by the media. But basically, every Christian candidate is given a free ride on the subject of religion. I think reporters could serve the public interest more effectively if they avoided the question of religion all together. Ask candidates to defend their platforms using reason, history, and precedent. If they bring up god, then call them all the way out on it. "God said so" is not a good rationale to deny stem cell research, tamper with science education, block AIDS relief, or prevent access to birth control and reproductive rights.

You seem intent on misrepresenting what I am saying. I have never once said anywhere in this thread that religion must be prohibited from politics. Quite the opposite! I expressed a preference that we treat religious organizations like any other interest group acting on the political stage. I find it problematic that one who wishes to walk a middle road in his personal life would offer me only the extreme positions of banning religion altogether or convincing everyone to be atheists. I advocate neither.

J G-W said...

OK, maybe I misread you. I'm not willfully trying to misrepresent you. All along it's sounded to me like you were insisting that Obama's pastor shouldn't be allowed to advise him and that religious views have no place in political discourse... I've gone back and re-read some of your comments, and I guess I see how I misread you. It feels like this has escalated to a really angry, personal level, and I'm a bit bewildered. It's certainly not where I ever want conversations between us to go.

I could comment more on religious history, particularly as it applies to slavery. I think the picture is far more complex than you suggest. But I don't want to go there until I'm sure things are OK between us, and the conversation can be a friendly one!

Knight of Nothing said...

I too am in favor of friendly exchange! I find this and all of our conversations to be very stimulating. Thank you! In this particular thread, however, I really was beginning to feel a good deal of frustration at the apparent lack of understanding of my basic points, which I repeated several times, and seemed clear enough. I am sorry I wasn't more precise.

Thank you for calling time out for a sanity check. Things are OK between us! If you have additional thoughts on religion and slavery that seem relevant, by all means, please share.

J G-W said...

OK -- about slavery and Christianity.

There are a handful of texts in the Bible -- both in the Old and New Testaments -- which mention slavery. Some texts merely mention it peripherally. Others texts actually provide for its mitigation, putting limits on how masters should treat slaves or how long slaves may be kept. There are no texts explicitly justifying, condoning, or commanding slavery. On the other hand, the general thrust of the central Biblical narratives -- the Exodus narrative of God liberating the Hebrew slaves, and central Christian texts stressing the equality of all human beings before God -- totally contradict the notion that slavery can possibly be acceptable to God. Slave owners did not have the Bible on their side.

And they knew it. By the time the British were colonizing North America, Christians simply took it for granted that Christianity and the Bible were anti-slavery. This is why -- for most of the colonial period -- slave masters forbade Christian missionaries from converting their slaves. It was widely believed that conversion of the slaves would require them to be freed. In the 18th century, Christian evangelists believed that the Bible opposed slavery, and that is what they preached. More importantly, the slaves themselves universally saw the Christian message as utterly out of harmony with the institution of slavery. Why else would the slaves themselves embrace Christianity so enthusiastically beginning in the 1740s?

The pro-slavery reading of the Bible was constructed after the 1780s -- after slave masters in the South began converting en masse to Evangelical Christianity. The rise of a southern pro-slavery reading of the Bible occasioned violent controversy, and ultimately ended with the largest denominations splitting into Northern and Southern sections over it.

The movement to end slavery was overwhelmingly a religious movement. There was no parallel religious "pro-slavery" movement. There was no secular anti-slavery movement.

As for Martin Luther King, Jr.... He frequently quoted Gandhi, but the movement he built could not have succeeded if it had not been based African-American Christian organization, community and theology. Come on, give the Black Church its due!

The role of religion first in abolishing slavery and then, in the twentieth-century, realizing the promise of abolition is so well documented, there's literally a whole library of sources I could refer you to, but a good start would be Raboteau's Slave Religion. West & Glaude's anthology African American Religious Thought has plenty of material on slavery, its aftermath, an the twentieth-century civil rights movement. The anthology is especially helpful in documenting the central role played by the black church in politically empowering African Americans.

My point is not that religion hasn't been a terribly destructive force at times... It has been. I see religion as an expression of the human spirit that is likely to be as diverse as humans themselves are, sometimes positive, sometimes negative.

My point is, I don't think its helpful to uniformly condemn religious influence in the political sphere. Let's just judge all participation in the public sphere -- whether it is religiously motivated or not -- on the quality of that participation. If it is anti-intellectual, if it denigrates other human beings, if it justifies war, torture and violence -- condemn it on that basis, not just because it is religious. Because there are religious view points that value science, that see equality, justice and love as the highest values, and that abhor war, violence and torture under all circumstances.

In the case of Barack, far from giving him a free ride, the media have turned this incident into a feeding frenzy (as the media are wont to do). Barack is the most progressive, most anti-war candidate in the race. He deserves to be judged on the basis of his own views. I'd feel that way whether the stumbling stone were his pastor, or whether it were some secular campaign manager...

Knight of Nothing said...

Great post! Thank you for your thorough and informative reply.

I have a number of thoughts...

I think the evidence you cite demonstrates that Christians of that era recognized that they couldn't in good conscience enslave other Christians. Hardly the pinnacle of moral reasoning. And the fact that there could be a pro-slavery reading of the Bible at all should be deeply troubling to Christians then and now.

You would know the answer to this question – is it possible the moral precepts that governed Christian abolitionists were inspired in part by the ideas of the Enlightenment, and then fused with the better parts of Christian theology? That seems at least possible to me. Certainly it was part of their cultural inheritance as early Americans.

The first four of the Ten Commandments place humanity in servitude of god. Many, many passages demand that children on pain of death be the thralls of their parents. The Bible has much to say about power, domination, blood sacrifice, and hierarchy, and a lot of it is not pleasant. I say this only as counterpoint to your claim that the general thrust of the Bible is liberation and equality. I don't agree that there is a general thrust to the Bible at all. In the end it is a collection of tales, laws, prophesies, and aphorisms - some repulsive, some inspiring, some poetic, some silly, and some utterly boring and contemporary. What one would expect of a text collected over a vast expanse of time.

I give a lot of credit to Martin Luther King Jr. and the black churches whence he came and with whom he worked. But I think his movement was as successful as it was because he had a moral philosophy that was informed by something other than Christianity alone. He did not merely quote Gandhi; he was able to fuse the teachings of the Jains with Christian theology and create something new. I think it is wonderful that Christianity has "cross-pollinated" with other religious thought to produce such luminaries as Dr. King. But not every Christian thinks so.

I am in total agreement that we ought to "judge all participation in the public sphere -- whether it is religiously motivated or not -- on the quality of that participation." Where we part ways is that I think that participation in politics on the part of any group, religious or otherwise, should be in this age a taxable offense. There has been a concerted effort at all levels of government by religious organizations to set the agenda and control public policy. In the interest of fairness and full disclosure these groups should be treated like any other politically-motivated body.

It is true Barack Obama has been faced with a lot of difficult questions about his associate, but not because of his associate's Christian faith, but because of his racially-charged remarks. Similarly, Obama has also been repeatedly asked to condemn Louis Farrakhan. On the other hand, John McCain, who has as a friend and staunch supporter Rev. John Hagee, whose sermons in my mind are more outrageous than Wright's, has had no such similar treatment. I contend that Obama is not facing questions because of religion; he's facing questions because of racism. While it is good and right to counteract this blatant double standard, I am calling attention to the fact that all of these men are religious men participating on a political stage, something that should call into question their tax-exempt status.

You have given me a lot to reflect upon. I hope I have done the same for you. Like you stated in your very first reply to this now-long thread, we can agree wholeheartedly that Barack Obama, and everyone else, should be judged by their own statements and platforms, not on the utterances of their associates.

J G-W said...

It is true that slaveholder's fear of having to emancipate Christianized slaves implies that it was considered acceptable to enslave non-Christians. However, there were Christians who, from a very early period, protested against the enslavement of anybody, Christian or non-Christian.

The rationales in support of slavery were convoluted. Europeans justified it on the grounds that they were merely purchasing slaves who had already been enslaved by fellow Africans. Some also rationalized it on the grounds that by buying already enslaved Africans, those Africans could be Christianized. Africa was considered a barbaric land, where even a free man was worse off than a slave in America, etc., etc. No one ultimately had a particularly good conscience about it. On the other hand, as a religiously inspired abolition movement built steam, the movement clearly saw as its goal the emancipation of ALL slaves, not just Christian ones.

The Enlightenment indirectly influenced attitudes toward slavery, in that Enlightenment thought was crucial in inspiring the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. In the wake of the American revolution, many Americans saw it as inherently problematic to wage a war for liberty, only so they could enslave millions of fellow Americans. Abolitionists frequently cited the principles of the nation's founding in their arguments against slavery. But it is worth noting that they did so in a way that was distinctly religious. Frederick Douglass, for example, called for July 4th to be celebrated as a day of repentance and mourning for the sins of slavery.

Also, keep in mind that just as the Christian response was mixed, so was the "Enlightenment" response. Slavery was written into the Constitution and Africans were defined as 3/5's of a person.

It is certainly possible to see the Bible as a hodge podge of contradictory writings lacking any central theme or "thrust." But none of the "people of the book" have ever viewed it that way -- neither Jewish nor Christian. Each book in the Bible was selected for inclusion in the canon because it was seen as affirming certain basic theological principles. Similarly, many books were excluded because they failed to affirm those principles. And certainly, the "people of the book" in slavery times saw the Bible as having clear themes and a message that had to do with sin and redemption, love and equality. In evaluating the historical impact of the Bible on American slavery, you absolutely must consider how it was read by those who used it and believed in it.

The consensus among King scholars is that Gandhi had little to no impact on King's theological thought. The main influences for King were (white) liberal theology (which he picked up in seminary) and black social gospel evangelicalism (which he inherited from his Baptist minister father, and from the National Baptist Convention to which he belonged). Scholars generally agree that King's use of Gandhi was opportunistic, because he knew how much white Americans admired Gandhi's tactics and rhetoric. In other words, Gandhi was King's way of reaching a white audience that had a tendency to see nothing good coming out of African America. I can point you to an article or two on this if you wish...

In any event, Gandhi was a religious leader, who drew on his own Hindu faith, but who also drew on principles of Islam and Christianity. :)

Knight of Nothing said...

All of your points demonstrate an amazing breadth and depth of thought and knowledge. But you aren't commenting upon the basic problem as I see it: that religious groups enjoy unexamined advantages and privileges over other political organizations in the political sphere, and they use them effectively.

All of my arguments stem from a desire to remove this unfairness, and do so within the bounds of U.S. law. Admittedly the power of religion in politics is not as glaring a problem as say, the power of defense contractors. But it still is a problem.

Historically speaking, I would tend to agree: a case can be made that religion is, on balance, a force for good. But I think that the net balance of its impact is actually diminishing now, and approaching a zero-sum gain. When a train has reached the end of its line, it's time to transfer.

J G-W said...

I deliberately avoided re-commenting on that because I thought we'd kind of flogged that horse to death.

However, for the record, as a concluding statement... :)

Religious groups get special treatment and special protection under our constitution in a way that other interest groups (like Haliburton) don't. The special class status that religion gets in our system is by design. The Founding Fathers were very aware of the bloody, violent history of religious conflict (which was still very recent in Europe as of the founding of the U.S.). But we could certainly look all around us in other parts of the world, and recognize how easily religious difference devolves into religious bloodshed. That is why they deliberately designed our constitution with a DUAL approach to religion. Both approaches are vital to the detente they hoped to achieve:

1) No law will be passed that would have the effect of creating "an establishment of religion."

2) No law will be passed that will interfere with the totally free exercise of religion.

This is special. There's nothing in the constitution that protects Haliburton from interference in the same way that religion is protected.

You go a bit further than I would in evaluating the overall impact of religion on the course of human history. My gut says says, on balance, "Neutral." I'm not sure the good outweighs the bad.

But it can be a force for good!!!

I think the American system is designed in such a way as to restrain as many of the bad effects as possible (which usually manifest themselves most intensely when religion is established as an official state church), while allowing it to prosper in its best, most dynamic, most positive form (as voluntary societies which individuals are free to support as they wish, and which can use their freedom to try to improve the society in which they live).

The relative religious peace we experience in America is a result of that special constitutionally designed treatment -- which guarantees their freedom, and allows them to lobby and influence, but never to dominate. For me punishing religious groups for participating in the political process by taxing them violates the constitutional design.

But now I'm starting to repeat myself...

Knight of Nothing said...

I guess we are going in circles again. :-) While the U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document, it is not without flaws, and its interpretation has not been static in the face of changing societal values. I think two things that could stand some reinterpretation are the establishment clause and the bit about the right to bear arms.

The "relative peace" you describe shows a lot of signs of erosion. Hello, American Taliban.

J G-W said...

Here, I'll throw you a bone... Let's compromise.

I would support legislation that would make receipt of "Faith-based Initiative" money contingent on whichever church or religious organization receives it losing its tax-exempt status.

Otherwise, please put me in the camp of folks who prefer not to mess with the 1st Amendment. Bush has done enough of that already.

You act as if the 1st Amendment is antiquated and we don't need it any more!!

Knight of Nothing said...

Thanks for the bone! But hey now, I'd never say the First Amendment is antiquated (though I would argue that the science and the morality and the law in the Bible is, and terribly so). I'm in your First Amendment camp!!

I only want to point out that First Amendment protections were not set in stone the day they were put to paper. And also to point out that I am unsure, in the face of the present growing tide of religious political power, that my individual rights to say, free speech and a free press, are fully compatible with unfettered religious influence on public policy. This shows the flaws in the Bill of Rights - which right has precedence? My feeling is that individual rights have precedence.

SMS said...

Wow, an amazing discussion. I'm sympathetic to both sides here.

I can understand the excessive entanglement argument, but does separating "real" religions from cults for purposes of granting exemptions not also count as entanglement? Which is worse? I'm not sure of the answer, just asking.

I read Sam's argument (and I think he's made it more explicit later in the thread) as more of a lament that we the American people, and more importantly, the American press, actually gives a crap about what Obama's pastor says, or that Obama has to profess a religion at all (although I suspect that he actually he is a believer). I think we were all nauseated at the spectacle of John Kerry feeling forced to pretend that he was actually religious, and having to calibrate a lame position on gay marriage as a result. It shouldn't be this way.

John, you wrote: "There are no texts explicitly justifying, condoning, or commanding slavery."
I am about to make a fatal mistake by treading on your home turf, but what do you make of this?

Leviticus 25:44-46: "Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly."

J G-W said...

SMS - It's interesting you should mention John Kerry feeling he needed to pretend to be devout in order to run for public office. One of the main arguments in the debate over church-state separation in the aftermath of the Revolution was that religious tests would merely force candidates to be hypocritical. Obviously, even in the absence of formal tests, there can still be informal public/cultural expectations.

(Though I'm still at a loss to see how undermining the zone of separation by taxing churches would eliminate this problem...)

To answer your question about cults vs. churches... As far as the law is concerned, there's no such distinction. As far as I'm aware, there's no Grand Poobah somewhere deciding who or what qualifies as a church, and therefore who or what communities are protected under the 1st amendment. Most states have statutes under which a church can be formally organized. All you have to do is meet those minimum requirements.

The Leviticus text you've cited is an example of what I was talking about earlier. This text allows slavery; even limits it (slightly) by banning the holding of fellow Israelites as slaves. What it does not do is offer any sort of theological rationale for slavery. The Exodus story provides a powerful anti-slavery narrative, putting God on the side of slaves and against slave masters. There's nothing in the Bible that offers a comparable theological support for slavery.

Furthermore, the language in this text is "you may" and "you can," not "you should" or "you must" or "it is good for you to..." The text is essentially an acknowledgment of a practice that was universal in the ancient world. It was only a matter of time (and repeated experience of conquest and captivity) for Jews to see that these texts allowing slavery made no sense in light of the logic of Passover...

J G-W said...

OK -- I guess I do need to offer a big caveat here. Exodus does provide us a rather horrifying narrative of divinely commanded conquest and genocide. All that stuff about slaying men, women and children, not to mention cattle...

What's odd about this is, no one -- to my knowledge anyway -- has ever used those texts to justify conquest or genocide, despite plenty of opportunities to invoke them. On the other hand, a good many believers have tended to regard these texts as distinctly uninspired. Gnostics even went so far as to explain them as inspired by the Demiurge (the evil god who rules the world we live in). Some have tried to rationalize these texts as a "special case" by arguing for some special wickedness on the part of the Canaanites that required that they be destroyed. But even to argue that was to argue that only God could give such a command under very unique circumstances; humans could not arrogate to themselves the right to do so on their own authority. In other words, these texts never acquired normative status in the way the Passover narrative did.

That doesn't reduce the special kind of horror those texts inspire. But I've always disagreed with folks (like Richard Dawkins) who want to dwell on those texts and treat them as if that was the central moral of the Bible (i.e., "Kill all unbelievers"). I stand by my earlier point that believers have always read the Bible as a collection of texts, and read texts like these in light of more humanizing narratives about freedom and redemption.

Knight of Nothing said...

1) It is difficult to rationally and objectively distinguish "cult" from "religion."

2) There are many abridgments to religion's practice. Some examples: polygamy, still condoned by some faiths, is not legal; parents against medical intervention may not allow their children to suffer and die. I'm sure there are other examples.

Given (1) and (2), I have a hard time seeing how paying taxes amounts to "excessive entanglement." To me, my proposal merely amounts to treating one politically-active body like any other. I am of the opinion that paying taxes neither respects an "establishment of religion" nor prohibits "the free exercise thereof."

I think this discussion has run its course. Thanks guys!

GeistX said...

I've been struggling to formulate a good response. After watching MLK's speeches today (4/4), I was reminded of his message. I had numerous abortive attempts at trying to compose a relevant to this discussion post about we as a society are missing the forest for the trees. We've forgotten, or maybe never learned, respect and love for the multitude that comprise this whole. To acknowledge, and embrace our differences, separating faith from spirituality from morality from religion from politics. Returning to rationality and consequences. I think what bothers me most about religion (or cults such as Scientology), is the people. And not that they have faith, or their beliefs are different than my mine, its that they don't seem to understand or respect that others do not share theirs. They don't and worse they attempt to use the sword and shield of government, the entity to which was laid down by the people, for the people, to protect those without or with small voices. To recognize all as equal. These concepts have been twisted and interpreted poorly.

I dunno, I'm not contributing to this post with this comment, I just felt I needed to say these things for some reason.