Let me start by saying that I really wasn’t expecting a tennis match with Pastor Dan any more than he was expecting one with me, though I suppose my using the title of his panel at Netroots Nation made it likely. Anyway, here’s his post responding to my last post. While I don’t want to get bogged down in tennis, I both like and respect Pastor Dan, and I do want to take the time to respond to him while moving along with my overall argument. Plus, he keeps providing me with good jumping off points. Here are the two I’m liking right now, one from his response to me:
That churches, synagogues, temples, etc., participate in food pantries, ecological advocacy, restorative justice programs, and whatnot is indeed a not-conservative agenda when measured against the right wing obsession with abortion and homosexuality. But for the most part, it bounces off many people as being not particularly political, but just what churches do. So, give away food or collect donations for AIDS relief in Africa: that’s religion. Issue bellicose statements in defense of a particular vision of family values: that’s politics.
And, from a post on Street Prophets being covered in the news (because of Netroots Nation):
“Some people think that the progressive side of things doesn’t respect religion too much,” said Dan Schultz, known as “Pastor Dan” and host of “Street Prophets,” a diary on the popular national lefty blog DailyKos. “I think that’s really overstated. What I see as much more of a problem are the conservative types who say you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe in these 15 different things, most of which come right off the GOP playbook.”
I think that these two quotes state well the difference between how the right and the left treat religious discourse, and specifically the difference between how the right and the left react to the fact of religious pluralism. The right has formed a political-theological position based on a certain type of exclusivism, i.e.: “[Y]ou can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe in these 15 different things, most of which come right off the GOP playbook”. The right was very successful in making their version of Christianity appear to be the only legitimate one to their adherents and in convincing its adherents that other religious are invalid. The religious right has, in many respects, convinced the adherents of the Christian right that Christianity is identical to Republicanism, and that the tenets of Christianity are the same as the policy positions of the Republican party.
The left went a different route: the secularization of political discussion. Specifically, making religion a private rather than public affair, and thus a non-political one. Giving away food or collecting donations for AIDS relief came to be seen as religious (private) actions, while talking about policy changes came to be seen as political activities and, thus, necessarily separate from religious activities. The religious left, in many ways, appears to have bought into this separation of the religious and the political. I would suggest that it is not so much the media who has hidden our light under a bushel, but we ourselves.
These, of course, are generalizations. Not all of those on the religious right are shills for the Republican Party. Likewise, not all of those on the religious left are so reluctant to speak openly about the connection between faith and politics. That these are issues that face us, however, is well known, and I’m not pointing out anything new by saying these things. What I do want to say that, while not news to the religious left, may be news to those who are interested in the privatization of religion and the secularization of political conversation on the left is that both the religio-political exclusivism of the right and the privatization/secularization of the left are anti-pluralist and undemocratic-with-a-small-d.
Small-d democratic discourse is dependent upon there being an open public square in which ideas can be discussed. A major concept of secularization is that there is some sort of common reason – both foundational ideas shared by all who enter the public square and a universal method of inferring further ideas from those foundations – that all participants in the public square must share. In other words, if a person is justified in holding a commitment (whether metaphysical, ethical, etc.), that person ought to be able to justify that commitment to everyone in the public sphere. Over the past few years, adherence to this rather undefined common reason has become known simply as being rational or reality-based, i.e.: those who do not adhere to common reason can simply be dismissed as irrational, and thus as not being legitimate participants in the public square. Of course, since we appear never to have been able to define or describe the content of this public reason, I’m less than eager to suggest that those who do not adhere to it are deficient and illegitimate participants in the public square. Indeed, I suspect that appeals to public reason are far too often statements along the line of “You disagree with me, so I will assume you are irrational and dismiss you.” It’s a lot easier than actually making an argument.
A small-d democratic society should, I think, be based on the idea that different people from different social contexts may have different ideas that are justifiable within those particular concepts. In other words, that there is a difference between my being able to justify something to myself and my being able to justify that same thing to everybody else, and I am not willing to believe that my inability to justify certain ideas to everybody is the result in a deficiency in either myself or everybody else. What I would suggest is that different people really do have a different history, different stories, different experiences of the world, different ways of organizing core values (and, in some cases, different core values), different ways of making inferences from those core values on out, and different areas in which it is viewed as important to reason out one’s beliefs for one’s self rather than taking another’s word for some belief. A truly small-d democratic, pluralist society must find not a way to determine the common beliefs of all people (and write off the rest), but a way to civilly navigate the real differences that exist among people.
The privatization and depoliticization of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or class would be rightly seen as ridiculous. Similarly, saying that, say, an environmentalist should not argue from their viewpoint as an environmentalist, but only from some common reason that an anti-environmentalist will accept, would also be seen as ridiculous (I hope). This gets me to what I mean when I say that I would like to change the conversation that appears on the left when religion is discussed: that I would like to see political discourse on the left accept the fact of religious pluralism in American society and in the world without privatizing religion. I want to further suggest that this is necessary for Pastor Dan’s own goal of dragging the religious conversation leftward: as long as the conversation about religion on the left is privatized, or, as one person in the Street Prophets Caucus at Netroots Nation put it (to paraphrase), “ghettoized”, shifting the religious conversation to the left is going to have the effect of putting religion in the private sphere rather than changing the religious conversation in the public sphere.
Overcoming this, I think, requires overcoming the idea that public discourse should be secular and moving towards a public discourse and accepts and, I dare say, celebrates actual pluralism – including religious pluralism – in true small-d democratic discourse. This, in turn, requires what I have been calling political theology, by which I simply mean the making explicit of the connections between a community’s theological commitments and its political commitments.