A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

My Photo
Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

In Search Of The American Judeo-Christian

How do I begin when the news brings such surfeit? A darkness shades my heart, a deep stain of ennui and disgust. My fellow Americans are a bore, hyperactive as a troop of stirred-up monkeys, incapable of emotional balance and generosity to those with whom they disagree, and possessing adrenals squeezed to the hysterical max.

We fight our own shadow and our own reflection in the mirror. What values do we hold that we cannot truly see others because of their beliefs or ours? I have definite values and definite political views [my repeat readers will, no doubt, be shocked by this] and I know that striking out at a shadow and hitting a real person with real feelings is always a moral danger.

I routinely set myself the task of reading people who disagree sharply with me, far more, actually, than I read blogs that generally agree with me. This is a pleasure, you put the sharpest edge on a knife against the hardest stone, but it is also a moral reality check.

I wonder at most of us, trapped as we are in our garrison mentality. Does anyone really think Christianity is under attack in America? Apparently some do. Does anyone really think that most Christians, or even most politically conservative Christians, want to establish a Christian theocracy? Apparently some do.

They are all fighting with an army of ghosts, they are all suffering the torments of the demons of the imagination. Really.

"I am me and you are he and we are they and they are all together." We live in a pluralist culture. This is a fact, and a fact that simply is not going to go away. There is general agreement about 85% of our social customs, personal mores, and political laws. The other 15% we simply have to negotiate among us. People who are secular are going to remain so, people who separate Christian and secular life are going to continue to do this, people who are overtly Christian will continue to be overtly Christian, and everybody else will continue to be everybody else. Okay?

We need to remember that, however sharply we disagree about the 15% [and I, for one, see no reason why we shouldn't differ quite sharply about it--I am no "let's all make nice" mollycoddle], it is only 15%. We share far more than we usually will admit. And we have no business mutually savaging each other with personal charges of being morally bereft merely because our agreement about customs, laws, or morals is not complete.

There is, however, one issue we have to be absolutely and totally clear about where we stand in order to preserve the boundaries and contain the scope of our disagreements, and that issue concerns the nature of our collective American culture. This question is usually framed by the assertion that America has a Judeo-Christian culture.

I clearly disagree with many of my fellow citizens about this. I think that the assertion is false, and I think so for specific reasons, and not just because I wouldn't like it if it were true. I am going to state my rational case against the assertion, not because I need to convert those who think differently, but because we cannot understand how we disagree about the rest of the 15% unless we understand why we disagree on this issue.

First of all, how many of you have ever met a Judeo-Christian? I know I haven't. Catholics have a Catholic culture, Jews have a Jewish culture, Baptists have a Baptist culture, Mormons have a Mormon culture, and so on. A religious culture is a cluster of beliefs, attitudes, and priorities shaped by dogma, doctrine, or philosophy.

We all have a religious culture even if we are indifferent to or reject religion as such, because we must live with those who are religious, and define our views accordingly. In that sense, there is even a "secular" religious culture, which generally an implicit version, these days, of the philosophy of Logical Positivism.

So what is Judeo-Christian culture? Is it every component of all aspects of every Christian or Jewish variant? Does it include The Book of Mormon, the Levitican dietary laws, and praying the Rosary? We clearly all don't share these things.

Maybe it's everything that overlaps all Christians and all Jews. But is there truly that much that is a core of culture, shared by the Hassidim, the Unitarian Universalists, the Amish, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and the Eastern Orthodox? I would be hard put to make a reliable list of what it would include, wouldn't you?

Moreover, a religious culture is clearly not just a random cluster of attributes any two people share. Two Catholics can recognise one another without having to explictly state the church they belong to. They not only share beliefs and doctrine, they also share a history and tradition of a specific logical organization of those beliefs and doctrine, and even a common specialized vocabulary about them. If you are a Judeo-Christian, and I am a Judeo-Christian, how do we recognize that fact?

Next, there is a considerable amount in our culture that is most emphatically neither Christian nor Jewish in its origins. The concept of Democracy comes from pagan Greece. The concept of a Republic comes from pre-Imperial pagan Rome. The foundation of most of our mathematics, most of our science, and a large part of our various philosophies, also came from that pagan world, from the Indian subcontinent, and from beyond, via Islam.

To gain a sense of this you can investigate briefly just who really invented the mathematical zero, distilled alcohol, paper, and gunpowder.

Moreover, many of the most important things concerning religious relations in this country are completely novel and a total break with any of the religious past. Popular sovreignty and inviolable human rights, for example, have their roots in the deliberate anti-clericalism of 17th century France. There is no tracing them back to the religions from Jerusalem. The Catholic Church, for example, explicitly and doctrinally opposed both concepts in 1881 and the encyclical promulgated by Pope Leo XIII, On the Origin of Civil Power:

Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers, say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.

And, even today, Pope Benedict XVI is quite equivocal about these issues:

In turn, relativism [which, by the way, Benedict generally opposes] appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy. Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way, and it is enriched by the fact that all roads are mutually recognized as fragments of the effort toward that which is better. Therefore, all roads seek something common in dialogue, and they also compete regarding knowledge that cannot be compatible in one common form. A system of freedom ought to be essentially a system of positions that are connected with one another because they are relative as well as being dependent on historical situations open to new developments. Therefore, a liberal society would be a relativist society: Only with that condition could it continue to be free and open to the future. In the area of politics, this concept is considerably right. There is no one correct political opinion.

This is, at best, one cheer for Democracy. I seem to be picking on Catholics a lot in this post, but they have the supreme advantage of consistent clarity and logical expostion in their doctrines. They have a grand tradition of really working at it. So their example is always useful.

The single mention of religion in our Constitution, where there is no mention of either Judaism or Christianity, is the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. They are purely American in content, with no prior precedent anywhere else in Christendom, or even the world at large, except for some, but not all, of our own states, such as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Prior to 1789, there were only three political possibilites for Christian belief: any specific church was either "established", by law, as the official church of the country; or in dissent from the Established Church; and, consequently, either persecuted or "tolerated" by the State. Jews, of course, were established nowhere and either persecuted or tolerated everywhere.

Dissenters in every Christian country with an Established Church were not "free to worship", but were merely "allowed to worship", where tolerated, usually with both political restrictions on the worship, and legal restrictions on their political participation in the State. The last such restrictions on Catholics and other dissenters in England, the Test Act, dating from 1673 and with prior law back to 1661, was repealed only in 1829.

Both a legal guarantee of free exercise, and an explicit prohibition of "establishment" were absolutely novel ideas of the American experiment. The prime mover behind them was James Madison, with the tacit support of George Washington:

Washington believed strongly in the separation of church and state. In an address to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, he said: "It is now no more that tolerance is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgenced of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. . ."

Because of these two, and the general consensus of the framers of the constitution, America's real start as a country was quite self-consciously secular, religiously plural, and culturally plural, as pointed toward in our country's original official motto: E Pluribus Unum or Out of Many, One.

In part because of this, America became the refuge of many a dissenting sect from Europe, as well as the country with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel. One of the most famous, and one of the most spectacular success stories of America's pre-Mexican War golden years, was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. We know them as the Shakers, and our culture owes them many things.

The real political attempts to Christianize the United States have their roots in the American Civil War, and did not begin in earnest until the McCarthy Era of the 1950's. In 1861, Rev. M. R. Watkinson, of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania was the first to suggest placing an explicit reference to God on our coinage, and the phrase chosen, In God We Trust, was coined (in both senses) by Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. It first appeared on our coinage in 1864.

Lincoln himself was unquestionably personally devout, and the phrase which so controvertially decorates our Pledge of Alliegance, "under God", had its origin in the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln added them extemporaneously to his written text. But the political pressure to explicitly Christianize America, and deny our secular and pluralist heritage, began in 1948, and continues to this day:

The Republican Party of Texas affirms that the United States of America is a Christian nation….Our Party pledges to exert its influence to restore the original intent of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and dispel the myth of the separation of church and state.

This assertion about the United States of America and its Constitution is simply false and the people who assert it are self-deceived. The evidence above is perfectly plain on this point. There. I told you I was no mollycoddle.

"Under God" was added to the Pledge in 1954, the official motto, E Pluribus Unum, was replaced with In God We Trust by law in 1956. One of the most prominent partisans for these changes was the Catholic fraternal organization, The Knights of Columbus.

There is a certain irony to this, since the official Catholic doctrine is still that which the above quotation from Leo XIII delineates so clearly and unequivocally. In this view, sovreignty devolves to the State from God and not from the people, and the duties of a Catholic citizen are patriotism and obedience exclusively, where these duties do not conflict with the God, the Church, and the Pope. Government, in short, is not "of the people, by the people, and for the people" as long as it remains, "under God".

Insofar as we can determine the "intent" of any part of the Constitution, it is perfectly clear from the Preamble that it's philosophy is totally irreconsilable with the notion that the sovreignty of the State and its rulers is absolute and derives from God:

We the People of the United States of America, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Generally speaking, the arguments for the view of American culture as Judeo-Christian, boil down to the following fact: As of 2000 about 77% of Americans self-identified in the United States Census as Christian. The reasoning from this consists of the notion that the religious identification of so many must inevitably dominate the culture with their views. I have argued against this reasoning above.

The Republican Party of Texas disagrees with me about the nature of our nation, Pope Leo disagrees with me about the nature of political rule. I stand in agreement with James Madison, George Washington, and the view embodied in the Preamble of our Constitution. My national motto is still E Pluribus Unum--from many, one. And, from where I stand, whether or not all of this takes place "under God" is a matter of religious faith and so a matter also of religious doubt. The free exercise of religion is the exercise of doubt, as well as faith, and the self-restraint of the State in the matter of religious establishment is what makes such freedom more than mere toleration.

As an American, and as a Buddhist, I demand more than mere toleration from the Christian 77% who think differently than I do about the nature of the world. I demand freedom, and I demand it for all. If it is not for all, then it is not for any.

You can delineate the standpoint of virtually anyone, concerning the truly divisive and factional issues of our day, by which side they take and why in the above philosophical disagreement. Why we disagree about that determines how we disagree about almost everything else. Try it yourself and see. The dovetailing is exact.


Post a Comment

<< Home