07 September 2012

Twin blunders

This week, the Democratic National Convention made two egregious (related) blunders in the constitution of their party platform. The first, removing the word ‘God’ from the party platform, was (thankfully) swiftly corrected. The second, affirming Jerusalem (in its entirety) as the capital of the secular state of Israel, has not yet been.

The Democratic Party, the party which has traditionally had my support in elections past, appears to be stuck in a mode of thinking which is becoming anachronistic as a result of its intrinsic contradictions, partly out of reaction to the contradictory fusionist stance of the Republican Party. The question of what the public function of religion ought to be, combined with the normative and political content of religion, is a pressing question elided in the current Democratic (and Republican) worldview in a way which may not be sustainable in the near future. It is an uncomfortable question, true: the easy (and therefore false) answers provided by the Religious Right and the evangelical wing of the Republican Party made it easy for the Democrats to adopt a sort of soft laïcité as a winning strategy, making an effort to welcome those who benefit from a secular platform into the big tent.

Unfortunately, secularism does not sit easily alongside the rest of the Democratic platform. The most aggressive proponents of political secularism (that is to say, the disciples of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) tend, as a rule, to adopt a hardline hawkish view of foreign policy. Backed (in their view) with an ironclad logic from which even the slightest dissent is an indication of either childish wilfulness or mental illness, they likewise see dissenters from the Washington Consensus on the international stage as either childish or mentally ill. As such, they see little value in reaching across the aisle to religious folk, particularly in the Middle East, Africa (even sub-Saharan Africa), Eastern Europe, Latin America and Central Asia whose values may not always overlap with modern neoliberal secular democratic capitalism, but who nonetheless abhor political violence, war and terrorism. They are the natural allies of the neoconservatives (as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris were explicitly), whose likewise Manichaean, crusading worldview tends to view the international realm in similar terms. Though the Democrats would obviously do well to retain as many reasonable atheists and agnostics as they can, they oughtn’t bend over too far to accommodate these nouveau atheist hardliners – particularly if they wish to disavow the Bush-era foreign policy which has proven so disastrous.

On economic issues as well, those Democrats who value a populist model which supports safety nets for the nation’s poorest, which advocates economic patriotism and a set of basic protections for US jobs, which supports the necessary role of organised labour and which asserts a muscular and positive role for government in the nation’s economic life generally, would do well not to adopt a line which bends too far in the secular direction. The mainline Protestant churches have historically served as the nation’s conscience, whether on matters of economic justice, women’s rights or civil rights for people of colour (though it is worth note that they had to be prodded very hard in that direction by the black churches). The splintering of the churches after the civil rights era led to the rise of the Religious Right as a force in American politics, the retreat of the mainline churches from the public consciousness and the onslaught of ‘privatisation’. As went religion, so went government: the privatisation of religion led to the steady erosion of the gains of the New Deal (itself drawing strong support from the religious mainline, notably Monsignor John A Ryan and Dr Reinhold Niebuhr). Those calling for a rollback of welfare and social security on the grounds that it should be the job of the Church to care for the destitute, the infirm and the elderly, are usually the same people who want to rewrite the Gospel to support laissez-faire economics (as parodied here). For this reason, those wishing to further restrain or remove the Church in its public and political life should be courted with caution (if at all) by the Democratic Party. Certainly they should not be courted at the expense of the Catholics and mainline Protestants whose politics (both economic and social) are informed by the Gospel and by the Epistles of St Paul. The fact that the language of God, especially in the context of the dignity of labour and the status of working people, was reinstated ought to be a great comfort: it was and should remain an homage to the labour movement, supported as it was by mainline Christian (particularly Catholic) activism.

Unfortunately, the same President responsible for correcting and reaffirming the status of God in the Democratic platform (with the aid of Ohio governor Ted Strickland), with the same breath prevented another error from being fixed, namely: that of unequivocally recognising an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of the secular state of Israel. This explicitly goes against precedent US policy in Israel and may actually undermine the peace process. The territory of what once was British Palestine (itself historically part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem) is home not only to Jews but also to Christians and Muslims, and the city of Jerusalem is holy to all three faiths. It has been forcibly claimed in its entirety as a capital under a law which to this day goes unrecognised outside of Israel; and Israel’s claims that there is no basis in international law for the Corpus Separatum status proposed by the UN show that the State of Israel’s logic – and now, apparently, the logic of the Democratic Party platform – devalues the importance of Jerusalem. It is seen merely as a political instrument for the prestige of Israel as a nation, rather than as holy ground for each and every one of the Abrahamic faiths.

If the selection of Paul Ryan as the vice-presidential nominee by the Republican Party should have taught the Democrats anything, it is that the political realities are shifting. Paul Ryan’s religiosity is not particularly deep – though he pays lip service to Catholicism in his speeches, the values of Catholicism are not reflected in the Republican political value-system. Is it to be honestly believed that Paul Ryan’s commitment to Catholic social teaching is any deeper than Mitt Romney’s commitment to his newfound pro-life positions? For the Republicans, God is a tool – mention him often enough, the logic goes, and more and more religious people will swing their way at the ballot box. To their credit, the Democrats do not as often resort to this sort of sacrilege, but they more often run the risk of damming up the fountainhead (yes, the wordplay is intentional) of the principles many of their habitual voters, including myself, hold dear. They would do so at their own political peril. As the religious right falls into an increasingly petulant obsolescence only to be replaced by the Tea Party (with their emphasis on economic and personal libertinism), and as serious philosophical questions arise over the role of the American government both at home and abroad, the debate is no longer the traditional one between left-liberal ‘progressives’ and right-authoritarian ‘conservatives’, but between communitarians and libertarians. A debate which in philosophy is now entering its thirties has begun to surface in the broader public imagination.

At this point, what remains to be said is that as a traditionally Democratic voter, my support for aggressively generous interventionist economic policies; for a more humble and realistic foreign policy; for a society which supports communities and healthy two-parent families; for a public mythology which favours charity toward the destitute, the infirm and the elderly, rather than positing a meritocracy where none exists and blaming the poor for their own conditions – all of that comes out of my Christianity. The danger of my voting Republican is infinitesimally slight, but if the Democratic Party wishes to retain me (and others like me – you know, ‘social justice Christians’ and Jews and Muslims), they may be well-advised to tread carefully.

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