On Being Liberal and Religious--Part 3 and Last
So what, then, of being "liberal"?
The "values" issue in our politics has to be disentangled from the "purpose of government" issue in order for any examination of where American Liberalism stands today to make much sense. For the whole "purpose of government" issue has been stood on its head by the practical politics of the Bush Administration and the "values" issue has been pivoted to horizontal by the social changes in this country over the past forty years.
The disentanglement of these two is a difficult task for one simple reason: the overwhelming majority of liberal and progressive voters are also strongly on the side of a secular, rather than a religious, attitude toward "values" in the public and political arena. Unlike the conservative camp, there is little in the way of a Religious Liberalism that would be the complete mirror image of the Secular Libertarianism found among a significant plurality of Conservatives.
Even when Liberals are religious personally, they tend to embrace a secular attitude which compartmentalizes politics and religion into completely different realms of discourse--a kind of "disestablishment" of religion in the mind with equal or greater force than it actually has in our own Constitution.
Consequently, when one meets Liberals of very strong religious views, (yes, they do exist, I run into them fairly frequently in my circle) they tend to be extremely hazy about the details of political philosophy, supporting cotton candy like Dennis Kusinich's proposal for a cabinet-level "Department of Peace", and not having a lot to offer in the way of practical political solutions.
Conversely, the secular Liberal seldom has thought hard enough about the problem of what, besides sheer egocentricity, is a clear, coherent, and defensible basis for secular ethics. They have seldom thought fundamentally about what "values" they do cherish and support, and tend to act is if the answer to this question is far more obvious than it actually is.
One of the people who has probed this more tellingly than many is John Zogby. Unlike most who discuss "values" in politics, he is not a partisan stalking horse. He is genuinely interested in the facts of what the word "values" actually means to the various segments of the political spectrum, and questions them shrewdly to find those facts out.
"Where is the Middle Ground?
"According to the Zogby International/Williams Identity poll, more than half (54%) of likely voters want a president who shares their personal values. On this much they can agree; it's the values they can't agree on. For Americans this election represents an either-or choice between the candidates leaving little room for compromise.....
"The roots of this trend may be found in what voters do on Sunday morning. When asked what was more important to them, their religion or their ethnicity, Bush voters overwhelming selected religion, by a 56% to 3% margin, with 41% choosing neither option.
"Three-quarters (73%) of Kerry voters, meanwhile, were not keen on either choice, breaking more heavily for ethnicity (17%) than religion (10%). The undecideds seemed to take a somewhat less intense version of the Bush voters worldview, with 36% choosing religion, 8% choosing ethnicity, and 57% opting out of both....
"Undecided voters are perceived to fall somewhere between the more conservative Bush-Cheney voters and the more liberal Kerry-Edwards voters. But on [specific] social issues, [such as gay marriage or abortion] in question after question they actually trend more closely to the position of Bush voters....
"If social issues play a large role in how undecided voters cast their ballots in November, the Bush camp has reason to feel buoyed by these results....
"While more than half (58% of all respondents) agree that religion is largely a private matter, the results are once again deeply divided. Three-fourths (76%) of Bush-Cheney supporters say a president should put an emphasis on his religious values, while nearly all (96%) of Kerry-Edwards supporters agree with John Kerry that religion is a private matter." [Emphasis mine]
There, in a nutshell, are the three politically motivated groups I outlined in the first of these posts:
Religious Conservatives--76% of Bush supporters, Secular Libertarians--24% of Bush supporters, and Secular Liberals, who remain secular in politics whatever their private beliefs,--96% of Kerry supporters.
So what about someone like me? A part of the forlorn 4% who are left on the Kerry-Edwards side? What do we think? What do I think as a committed Buddhist and a political Liberal?
I ended the last post with the following question:
"What is the true moral nature of the world, and why should we conform to it?
And it does seem to me that the question inevitably is as political as it is religious. Whatever answers we give to it must be the same answers for our religion, or lack of one, as for our politics."
As a Buddhist, I view the true moral nature of the world as that of "karma, cause, and effect" playing out over multiple lives, with "unskillful action" in the present leading to personal suffering in the future, and "skillful action" in the present leading to personal happiness in the future. The terms in quotation marks are translations of quite explicitly defined Buddhist ideas which have no exact terminological equivalent in English. Skillful action is not exactly "virtue", unskillful action is not precisely "sin".
The broad point, however, is that Buddhist ethics is result oriented and pragmatic.
As an American liberal, I find this ethical view to be perfectly conformable with a philosophy of government which is widely proactive in securing "the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity" rather than merely being reactive to the most gross and obvious of external threats.
The men who founded this country, those largely deist gentlemen--with their clay pipes, their Roman and stoic attitude, and their exceptionally clear minds--left us with the precisely justifying concepts for such proactive, results oriented, government: "ensuring domestic tranquility", "providing for the common defense", and "promoting the general welfare". They also left us two rock-solid standards for securing the proper relation of government to the individual: "due process of law" and "the equal protection of the law".
From these, as a liberal, I infer that there really does exist a broad "public interest", a commonweal that often requires setting legal limits to the private interests of specific individuals, parties, or factions. I also infer that these primary concepts justify limits to the license of any actions of private interest which interfere with the maintenance of a "level playing field" where the private interests of ALL of us compete in relative liberty. And I finally infer that proactive government is necessary to establish such a level playing field where it does not exist.
This, then, is the credo: Proactive legal regulation, in the public interest, with end of fundamental fairness and justice, but restrained by the standards of due process of law and the equal protection of the law.
Where such limits lie and what specific proactive government action is required, must always be decided on a case-by-case basis and an evaluation of pragmatic results: judge the tree by its fruits and do not meddle overly with the roots.
And there is nothing incompatible with my religious views, at least, in any of that.