Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bargaining for Disintegration

In the TNR's online debate on Catholicism and politics, Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, proposes that religious people's involvement in politics be conditioned on the following:

Like every other citizen, you must be willing to accept what I call "the liberal bargain." In my book, I describe this bargain as the act of believers giving up their "ambition to political rule in the name of their faith" in exchange for the freedom to worship God however they wish, without state interference. What does this mean, in practical terms? It means that your belief in what the Roman Catholic Church believes and teaches is irrelevant, politically speaking. It simply shouldn't matter whether or not you think that justice has a divine underpinning, anymore than it should matter whether you prefer Jane Austen to Dostoevsky. In a word, liberal politics presumes that it's possible and desirable for political life to be decoupled from theological questions and disputes.

In other words, if I want to participate in civil life, I need to leave my religious beliefs at the door -- they are irrelevant.

But do secularists also take this bargain? I suspect Andrew Sullivan would be on Linker's side in this debate, given his endless prattling on about "Christianists." But elsewhere on TNR's site, Sullivan writes the following about Republicans in the Foley scandal:

There is something deeply sick about a Republican elite that is comfortable around gay people, dependent on gay people, staffed by gay people--and yet also rests on brutal exploitation of homophobia to win elections at the base. These public homophobes, just like the ones in the Vatican, may even tolerate gay misbehavior more readily than adjusted gay people do. If you treat gay sex in any form as a shameful secret to keep concealed, the line between adult, consensual contact and the sexual exploitation of the young may not seem so stark. That's how someone like Speaker Dennis Hastert could have chosen not to know: He was already choosing not to know Foley was gay. In this way, Hastert is a milquetoast, secular version of Cardinal Bernard Law.

Many in the GOP have overcome this shame. The Log Cabin Republicans, for example, have shown how gay people can operate in conservative politics without having to be embarrassed, screwed up, or pathological. Some Republican senators--John McCain, Gordon Smith, Arlen Specter--seem able to deal with gay people and gay issues forthrightly, even if they do not support full gay equality.

But such honesty is scarce in this White House and this Congress. The miserable example of Mary Cheney, Stepford daughter, shows the full force of this syndrome. It isn't pretty. It depends upon knowing when to be silent, tip-toeing around bigotry, and shilling for people who may be personally accepting but publicly so in debt to the religious right that they cannot even formally speak the word "gay" in public.

It is this deeper, more nuanced hypocrisy that this episode exposes. The closet tolerants--and they include both the president and vice president--exist in a party that has built its electoral machine on systematic intolerance and the fueling of populist fear of homosexuals. This edifice cannot stand indefinitely, and the sudden collapse of Mark Foley's career may be a portent of what is to come. The old manners of GOP Washington are being buffeted by the countervailing currents of gay mainstreaming and political opportunism. At some point, Republicans are going to have to choose between the two.

Let's set aside for a moment that what Sullivan means by "equality" is redefining marriage to include same sex couples, and whether that logically flows from tolerance of gay people.

What Sullivan is saying is that there is a sickening hypocrisy for Republicans to privately tolerate gay people but publicly oppose gay issues. Sullivan says that this cannot stand, and will ruin Republicans from within unless they "choose between the two."

But isn't this dis-integration exactly what Linker is trying to sell religious people with the "liberal bargain?" Wouldn't there be a deep hypocrisy in privately believing that legal abortions kill a million unborn children a year, and not using one's political influence to try to stop it? And wouldn't it eventually ruin us from the inside? Is "closet religiousness" any less ruinous than "closet tolerance?"

In the debate, Russ Douthat responded with the following:

This isn't just blinkered, unfair, and contrary to the actual American tradition of how religion and politics interact; it's also dangerous to liberalism, because it vindicates those people--Christians and secularists alike--who have always said that faith and liberalism aren't compatible and that everyone need to choose between Christ and the republic, between God and Caesar. And, if you force Americans to make that choice, I'm not sure you'll be happy with the results.

Secularists like to say that they are proposing no such choice -- merely insisting that religious people compartmentalize their religious and political activities. But this is a ruinous disintegration, and as Sullivan's column exhibits, secularists know that, too.

UPDATE: As I suspected Sullivan has backed Linker's position. So I ask Mr. Sullivan -- why should I accept a bargain that will lead to my ruin?

1 comment:

august said...

"In other words, if I want to participate in civil life, I need to leave my religious beliefs at the door -- they are irrelevant."

I'm not sure this is a fair paraphrase (at least, not of the paragraph quoted). I think the argument is that a religious person can't use the organs of state as a vehicle of prosylization. A liberal argument might add that if your beliefs are likely to conflict with one of the obligations of the job, fine, don't take the job (conflict of interest along the lines of economic conflict of interest). Finally, and most important to me, a liberal would probably argue that the purpose of separation of church and state is to protect the church.

But no, I don't agree that saying that one is constrained in the manner of one's religious practice is the same as asking you to leave your beliefs at the door. Although, it would depend a little on what profession one imagines. I would say that a Senator has more leeway in the public expression of her beliefs as part of her office than a policeman.

It seems to me that the office bit is important. The Quaker New York cop should be allowed to invoke the prestige of his position when giving lectures, writing, etc. But the Quaker cop still has to give directions to the Republican convention, carry a gun when necessary, and arrest participants in the candlelight vigil held on fifth avenue calling for divestment from companies whose directors wear fur.

Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, seems to be arguing that Republicans should fire all their gay staffers. He really is an idiot.

I think you are pointing to something very important: the question of natural rights. As a historical matter, it is clear that the Constitution endorsed certain beliefs (derived fairly clearly from religious impulses) as "rights." Different religions might define rights differently. I think you might be saying (might be inclined to say?) that in its basic claims the Constitution embodies religious principles and to pretend otherwise is poppycock (Scalia rant).

I'm not sure that liberal answers to these questions hold up as (we) liberals seem to think they do.

Another question would be that if the Constitution has a religious basis, why so many conservatives have been so inclined to ignore it lately.