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21.4.04

The Secular Left

There's been a flurry of discussion around the blogosphere (centered around this post by Allen Brill citing examples of Air America mocking religion) about the disrespect that the secular left shows for the religious left. Though I've by no means read all the commentary on it (my aversion to entering long comments threads is kicking in), I felt like offering my (disjointed) opinion.

First, I think that "secular left" is a broader term than most people realize. It's not just the lefties among the 10 or so percent of Americans who are atheist or agnostic. It includes a large number of people who are nominally Christians or Jews. They may even go to church/synagogue with some regularity. They may believe that God exists, and their ethical system may be largely rooted in Judeo-Christian teaching. However, as an identity issue and a political issue, they leave their religion at home. Except as a tactical move to reach out to (usually black) religious voters, they speak in terms of Rawlsian "public reasons" or a religion-neutral comprehensive doctrine. (I should note that there's also a substantial secular right that's larger than just the Randian contingent. I'd say that most of the top members of the Bush administration, with the exception of Ashcroft and Bush himself, are secular rightists).

To some degree, the secular left has accepted the need not to alienate the religious left. It's standard for diatribes against the religious right to end with a note that they're only talking about the fundamentalists, who give good Christians a bad name, and some of my best friends are religious people. It's hard to tell how often these statements are sincere, and how often they're tactical (if you can't convert them to secularism, convince them that good Christians are liberal). I've heard about how Jesus was a hippie and the "profound" observation that conservatives don't love their neighbor too many times to think that the secular left doesn't recognize the possibilities of a nod to religious values.

There's a segment of the secular left, though, that seems to see the idea of a religious left as illegitimate. After Kevin Drum echoed Brill's call for secularists to show respect for the religious left, many of his commenters seemed to interpret that as a call to show respect for the religious right, and responded that those people were either beyond hope, or in the grips of an ideology so vile and dangerous that it deserves no respect (and even if it did, the religious people disrespected atheists first with their evangelism). They agree with the religious right that real Christians (you rarely hear about the Pagan left or the Buddhist left) ought to be conservative, and are leery of the presumed hypocrisy involved in being a religious liberal. (It echoes, in a way, one of the conservative arguments against Islam -- "though many Muslims are in fact peaceful, my interpretation of the Qur'an says that Muslims are obligated to slaughter the infidel, therefore those supposed peaceful Muslims are just fooling themselves.")

UPDATE: I accidentally published this before it was done, so if you read it when it was fresh, you may have missed this part (as well as a few minor changes to the above portion):

But that's just the extreme version. Most members of the secular left, I think, aren't anti-religious as such. They're more than happy to have the Martin Luther King Jr.'s on their side. They may find religion silly or try to argue you out of it, but they won't begrudge you your Sunday mornings. What they're unhappy with is religion as a defining political identity, religion outside the house and on Monday, Tuesday, etc. Arguments against the religious right focus not so much on the wrongness of their principles as on the inappropriateness of bringing religion into the public sphere. Again, this is not an aversion to public displays of religion (aside from the few people who are oversensitive about the possibility of being proselytized -- a problem perhaps stemming from the same psychological mechanism that makes some people think that gay PDA is "forcing homosexuality down my throat"). It's an aversion to the idea that your religion has anything to do with me. The secular left doesn't want to hear that they ought to incorporate your religion into their private life (and most are good about not reciprocating). And they definitely don't want your religion being imposed on them even indirectly by inspiring any public policy.

This kind of tension is bound to happen whenever a movement has competing philosophies. For centrist political coalitions, the peace is largely kept by the lack of a fully articulated doctrine on the part of most participants -- when was the last time you heard the utilitarian and Kantian factions of the Democratic Party going at it? (The converse of this is the fractiousness of extreme political movements, where their divergence from the mainstream means that they have fewer positions taken unsystematically and out of habit, thus setting the stage for the vicious battles between the premillennialists and the postmillennialists, or the Trotskyists and the Kropotkinites.) Religion, however, represents itself as a comprehensive doctrine -- and what's more, a comprehensive doctrine adopted wholesale on the basis of faith. There seems to be less room for reconsideration and engagement. This, I think, may be an important reason why the religious-secular split can become such a hot point even when the people involved agree on policy.

UPDATE II: Reading the comments thread on Brill's post, I think JRClarkIII has a point about part of the problem being the religious left not being assertive enough. Given that the secular left is often privately religious, it's easy for members of the religious left to slide into that position, adopting the secular norms of the left's political discourse. Without any system for supporting the use of religion for progressive causes and bringing together members of the religious left, they can be left isolated and become politically secular. This is especially easy on the left because liberal theology (at least within Christianity) places more emphasis on acting in accordance with God's will than on professing one's faith. When getting progressive results becomes the highest priority, it's easy to let maintaining a politically religious identity fall by the wayside, and eventually atrophy from lack of use.

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