A Debate About the Hatred, Intolerance, and Misogyny in the Religious Right

My friend Scott, commenting on my dissemination of an article critical of the role the Religious Right is playing in our country's politics, challenged the assertion that the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. He acknowledged the zealotry of fringe elements, but challenged the notion that the mainstream of the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. This is an excellent illustration of a kind of inside-the-bubble thinking that is causing the conservative movement to lose touch with the American mainstream.

I do not believe that right-wing evangelicals, conservative Catholics, conservative Mormons, or conservative Jews hate gay people. I don't think they hate African Americans or Hispanics. I don't think they hate women. But if they can't see that their marriage to the Republican Party and its platform will cause them to be associated with policies that are hurtful to those groups, they will not be able to build a winning coalition on a national level.

Back in the days of slavery, masters did not necessarily hate their slaves. Even in the days of Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws, conservatives who wanted to "preserve traditional marriage" did not necessarily hate black people. Now, I know these examples will immediately infuriate conservatives who don't want to be compared to slaveholders or racists. I'm certainly not saying that opposing gay marriage or immigration reform are one-to-one equivalents to slavery. But the comparison is fair in the sense that modern conservatives look back at that kind of racism and see it as hateful and intolerant, but cannot see their own policies in the way they will be perceived by the effected parties now, or by the way they will be viewed by our grandchildren in generations to come.

To the gay couple who wants to be married, the personal feelings of a right-wing Christian are irrelevant. The policies advocated by the Religious Right are themselves hurtful. Furthermore, because they are based on a view that an important part of a gay person's self-identity is immoral, the policy is hateful.

To the Mexican-American (or any other Latino mistaken for a Mexican American), policies of self-deportation that cause them to be harassed, that cause employers to hesitate when considering them for employment, that cause them to worry that their government is going to be rounding up millions of people who look and speak like them and send them over the border... These concerns are far more relevant than the personal feelings of the religious conservative. The objective fact that vitriol towards Mexican immigrants has led to a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes directed at Mexican Americans, regardless of their documentation, is far more real and immediate than some distant pastor's hedging from the pulpit about how we should love our brothers and sisters while trying to round some of them up in cattle cars and send them over the border.

To a woman who is told that, if she is raped and decides not to keep that child, God wanted that to happen (or at least allowed it, though it's an unfortunate tragedy), that good can come from that pregnancy, that because someone else believes this she has no choice in the matter, and that her rape probably wasn't really rape since she allowed herself to get pregnant, that right-wing evangelical's love for her is less than meaningful. More insidiously, when she’s told she doesn’t need any legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to assure her a chance to get into the courthouse if she’s discriminated against because she can depend on the goodwill of CEOs, she knows she’s being dismissed. And when she’s told that her desire for birth control makes her a slut, and her desire to have a health clinic nearby which offers affordable medical services is unacceptable if that facility also offers abortions, she knows her concerns are not valued. Finally, when she’s told that the religious affiliation of her employer trumps her own judgment about what healthcare she needs, she knows the party defending some religious board members does not care about her. That’s hurtful. And the notion that she can’t evaluate these things properly because she’s a woman, and a man or a group of men should get to decide is a textbook example of misogyny. (Oh, and then there's this.)

As for intolerance, not only is the religious right intolerant, but it should be. Intolerance is not always wrong, and tolerance is not always a virtue. Religions get to be intolerant. Furthermore, they get to be intolerant regardless of popular opinion. If a religion dictates that abortion in a sin, it should refuse to tolerate it within its own membership. While American Christianity is busy pulling that mote out of its own eye (because there are a lot of Christians who have had abortions) it might also want to take a hard look at Jesus’ teachings about wealth. He wasn’t a big fan. I would be very interested to see how the Religious Right would implement a systematic intolerance of the service of Mammon within its own ranks.

The problem with the Religious Right's intolerance isn’t that it’s drawing lines in the sand and deciding to take a stand based on its particular interpretation of scripture. That’s the prerogative, if not the responsibility, of religions. The problem is where they’ve drawn those lines. Nations states also have a responsibility to be intolerant to some degree, but they must look to a different authority than a religion. While people of faith can look to a text or a religious leader to tell them what or who to tolerate and what or who not to tolerate, democratic governments must look to their voters. In this country, that means the government will be responsive to Christianity in proportion to the voting habits of Christians and non-Christians. But the Religious Right has so wedded itself to the Republican Party that it dictates the party’s platform. Even that is fine. If a large enough constituency of any party draws its lines based on a shared religion or principles which join the members of its party, that party’s platform should reflect those principles. The problem pointed out by the article is that the Religious Right’s principles are out of step with Biblical Christianity and the American electorate.

Now, since I’m no longer a Christian, I can’t really weigh in on the debate about the principles of the Republican Party and their relationship to Biblical Christianity. When I was a Christian, they didn’t seem to fit the Bible I was reading. I’d hear the claims made by religious figures speaking in the name of the religion I claimed, and, no matter what translation they cited, I felt like they were reading a completely different book. I kept on trying to redefine Christianity, pushing back against the right-wing version I couldn’t square with the version of Jesus I found in the Gospels. More and more, I felt like I was saying, “I claim the label X, but I redefine it as Y. X means something completely different for me, but I hold on to it and believe all those who don’t accept Y are wrong.” People who do this are either dynamic leaders who move organizations to their positions, or they are crazy people. I felt overwhelmed, and it pushed me out of a feeling of brotherhood with the larger Church, or at least the American variety. I stuck around because I attended a wonderful church (shout out to the greatest congregation and greatest pastoral staff in the world at Newberg Friends). Eventually I abandoned the claim to the label for theological reasons. (To be more precise, it was for epistemological reasons.) The loss of a firm belief in an all-mighty deity and in an afterlife, and my reluctant embrace of agnosticism, was quite a blow. The loss of my congregation still hurts. But losing the broader American church? No skin off my nose. They kicked me out. Or maybe I pulled away. Ultimately, that’s six of one or a half a dozen of the other. If the church would recognize the kind of loving, tolerant Christianity described by Frank Schaeffer in the article in question, I think that would be great for our country. That’s why I posted a link to the piece in the first place. Whether it would be good for Christianity is now a debate from which I have recused myself.

But Schaeffer’s second point, that the Religious Right’s positions are out of touch with the American mainstream, is clearly true. When polled, Americans do favor comprehensive immigration reform over policies of forced or self-deportation. We have come around when it comes to gay marriage. And we want to leave reproductive choices up to individual women, especially in cases of incest and rape, which means the Republican Party’s stated platform (not just some fringe kooks’ poorly worded statements in debates) is out of touch. And while the conservatives convince themselves that they are not in the thrall of the Religious Right because they nominated a (conservative) Mormon, their willful ignorance of the way their policies will be received by the American mainstream aren’t just a lesson for religious leaders who want to be politically relevant, but for the whole conservative movement. Conservatism, according to William F. Buckley, is the political philosophy that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop[.]” Unfortunately, in marrying itself to right wing Christianity, it’s held hands with people who demanded that it stop in a place where the majority of the country does not want to be. It can stand there and reject the idea that it’s hateful and intolerant all it wants, but if the majority of the country says that’s a hateful and intolerant stand to take, the conservative movement will soon find itself standing on the fringe, trying to redefine the term “American” as the vast majority of Americans wander off toward progress, shaking their heads and shrugging about the crazy guys they are leaving behind. Trust me. I know how that feels.

William F. Buckley also warned that, “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” As a progressive liberal who wants a great deal of change, I firmly believe in the value of conservatives. We need the intellectual counterweight to make us stop and consider and we push toward progress, even if it means we push more slowly. But, as they protect the status quo, if the conservative movement can’t recognize that its intransigence will open itself up to charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny until the day when we achieve a society devoid of systematic injustice, that’s a kind of intellectual sloth that will prevent them from doing the job this country needs them to do. The degree to which those charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny stick relates to the movement’s willingness to shift its priorities and focus, but ultimately it’s just not up to them. When America wants to move, it will move.

No Ideas vs. No Guts

The Washington Post has two thought provoking pieces on the state of the conservative movement. Steven F. Hayward's "Is Conservatism Brain Dead?" asks if the movement has lost the equilibrium between populist rabble-rousers and intellectuals. Stephen Stromberg, in his PostPartisan Blog post "Palin 'Catastrophic' for GOP?", (besides making a compelling case that Palin is exactly that) references a Micheal Gerson piece which conceded that many Republicans are hostile "to the very idea of ideas". These are conservatives saying these things, mind you (well, I don't know about Stromberg, but he doesn't seem excited about a Republican self-immolation). One the other hand, I'm watching the Democrats cow-tow to this notion that this is a center-right nation. Um, didn't we elect a liberal to the White House? Isn't that a pretty reliable poll of political opinion? Obama certainly isn't as liberal as the far right would like to make him out to be (or as liberals like me would like him to be), but he's center-left. Why can't the Dems, when confronted by an opposition party that acknowledges its own intellectual bankruptcy, behave like they have a mandate to enact the changes the majority of Americans want? I have to think it's due to a lack of courage. So that's where we're at: No Ideas vs. No Guts.

Hayward recounts G.K. Chesterton's line about how "it is the business of progressives to go on making mistakes, while it is the business of conservatives to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." As a liberal, I'm perfectly willing to admit that the risk of progressivism is that a willingness to embrace change includes a willingness to make mistakes. The more dramatic the change, the more frightening the possibility that the change is a dangerous error. But we believe that the alternative, an aversion to change and a kind of conscious mythologizing of the past, leads to an even more dangerous regressivism. This is a genuine debate, with people of intelligence and goodwill on both sides, and liberals and conservatives have to continually weigh not only specific policies, but how much change they are willing to fight for, and how much they are willing to fight against.

But it seems both this country's political parties are actively avoiding this debate. It makes me wonder, how does fomenting outrage help the cause of conservatism, in the long run? In the short run, it gets ratings for your show on Fox News or AM radio, and it may even get you on the cover of Time Magazine, but people who've been whipped into a frothing rage about the state of the country generally won't appreciate the central drive of conservatism: To conserve the status quo. I think one of the reasons President Carter's latest remarks about the recism directed at President Obama struck such a cord was not because the prominent voices in conservatism are racists, but because those very leaders have good cause to be worried about their strategy: If you tell people the lie that we need to go backwards to the halcyon days of "family values", beyond the sound bite there's not a lot of substance. Go back to the days when a man could get away with beating his wife and children? Go back to the days when a woman couldn't vote? Go back to the days when taxes were higher (like they were under Reagan)? Go back to the days when politicians observed more civility than Joe Wilson? What past are they directing us to? I think those leaders, regardless of their own mixed feelings about the mechanisms we've put in place to achieve full civil rights for ethnic minorities, have reason to be concerned that too many conservatives might fill in the blanks by saying we should go back to the days when white men had first crack at jobs, more authority in their own households, more faces on TV, etc. Conservatives don't want to hold on to this present, when they are out of power and people are disenchanted. But how can they be conservatives without clearly articulating what to conserve?

On the flip side, liberals in the Democratic party are loathe to encourage real change because, let's face it, they're doing pretty well sitting right where they are. Why risk the presidency and two houses of Congress by enacting real change? What if you get it wrong? What if you create a situation where conservatives can say "let's go back to the moment before that blunder". The status quo, that of the majority desiring to change the status quo, serves the party identified with changing the status quo. As long as they don't actually do it. Of course, it's even easier to be a status-quo-maintaining faux-progressive when the conservatives are intellectually bankrupt.

Political pundits like to talk about the benefits of "gridlock". I think the term is misleading. There are benefits to "gridiron", as in the situation when conservatives and liberals put on their helmets, line up, and play some smash-mouth political football. Progressives move the ball while their ideas are good, but they are slowed down, made more calculating and deliberate. And if they err too greatly they turn the ball over and we move back down the field a bit. The political arc of this supposedly "center-right" nation has been liberal in the long-term. The progressives keep scoring (abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights). But "gridiron" politics has made the game exciting, and almost always kept the teams on the field. What we have now really is "gridlock", in the sense of traffic: Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have clogged the freeway and slowed each other to a near standstill, but they are headed in the same direction. I fear this freeway does not head to the best of our past or the promise of our future, but to something worse. I don't want to be an alarmist or some prophet of doom, but whether the American experiment ends tomorrow or in a hundred years, and whether it ends in fire or ice, the current concoction of gridlock is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, as a liberal, first and foremost I want the Democrats to gird their loins, grit their teeth, and make some change. But I also want the Republicans to identify the values they want to preserve and pick coherent and productive strategies to defend the best of our past. I've never been so concerned with the health of the opposition before, but I'm realizing just how essential real conservatism is for the health of the country. And to progress.

The Narcissism of Great Powers

This last week I read an article in Slate about how as much as 6% of our population has NPD, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and rates for our children may run as high as 10%. I also listened to one of the Sunday morning talk shows where three prominent politicians went on and on about how great America is and how we'll come through this economic crisis better then we were before. Essentially they said we should all adopt the position of the thief on the cross next to Brian in Monty Python's The Life of Brian and "Look on the bright side of life" simply because we're American and we've got this great history which dictates our invincibility. I found myself wondering, without that history, did the founding fathers believe that Americans could weather any storm by the simple virtue of their nationality? In contrast, did the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, The Romans, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the British all go through periods late in their empires where their leaders told them they needn't worry about looming disasters simply because of their countries' respective histories? And, if so, is it likely that, had the diagnosis been available, some 10% of those countries' populations might have suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Now, for the record, I'm not saying the American Empire is doomed. Or, to be more specific, I'm not saying it's necessarily doomed quite yet. Maybe we've got another three hundred years left in us, maybe a thousand. But empires come to an end. If we're going to take heart from the history of America's rise to prominence, we have to temper that with a recognition that history also teaches us about the inevitable demise of empires.

More specifically, if our own history is going to tell us we're great, it should tell us why. If America rose to become the global super-power because of its people's industry, I fail to see how narcissism will take the place of hard work. Personally, I'd like to believe that what has made the United States special are our ideals of liberty, our respect for law, and our progressivism. These seem to be the forces which called people from all over the world to cross oceans to become Americans. If this reading of history is correct, then looking on the bright side of life will not make up for a bullying foreign policy, the use of torture, or the doctrine of preemptive war. Too many of us have become too fearful; we're afraid of everything from terrorism to immigration to socialized medicine to stem cell research to gay marriage. William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism, famously described the job of modern conservatives as standing "athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!'" If "Stop!" is our only answer to this crisis, or if that is only qualified with Bill Kristol's advice to Republicans, "Obstruct and delay," then the past victories of the United States will not compensate for our current intellectual and moral weakness.

I take no joy in watching the people of my country suffer, regardless of their political stripes. Schadenfreude quickly comes to an end in times like these. But where derision provides no solace, at least there's the consolation of this accidental camaraderie. I'm at that age when a person discovers that his favorite athletes are younger than he is, that he is now older than some of his favorite musicians were when they killed themselves in one way or another, and that some of his dreams might be just as dead as those rock stars. I take a perverse comfort in the fact that life tries to beat some measure of humility into individuals and nations alike. Whether we prefer our comeuppance in spoonfuls or inundations, the universe gives us our medicine in the quantities it sees fit.