Wednesday, February 21, 2007

separating the sheep from the goats

Damn you people! I haven't been posting lately, obviously, but I can't stand this religious conversation in the blogosphere anymore, so I'm going to have to add my $.02 (since this is sort of a pet issue of mine).

In case you've missed it so far, Bill Donahue, wack-ass nutjob from the Catholic Alliance, threw a fit over Amanda Marcotte from Pandagon's posts about the Immaculate Conception and got her fired (sorry, "she resigned"). Then Atrios exploded the whole issue with a series of long (for Atrios) posts about the role of religious people in the Democratic party vis-a-vis the netroots, as in "Why do the netroots hate Christians so much?" etc. (see here on "people of faith", then on Romney's Mormonism, then on religious people as "the heart and soul" of the party, then fighting about it with Kleiman, then on Atrios' own perspective on religion generally, then on Mormonism vs. atheism). Then everyone linked to Atrios' points, as is the general practice, then Digby jumped in, then all the Kossack diarists started throwing pies at each other, then Kos jumped in, then Jim freakin' Wallis jumped in, then DLC guys like Ed Kilgore jumped in. Ed, by the way, links only to Atrios' front page, while most others don't link to him at all; really helpful, guys, thanks.

I hate this fight because it pits a lot of people I otherwise deeply respect against each other on a subject heavily fraught with political, emotional, and philosophical baggage. But I do have opinions on this matter and I feel like I have a fair amount of "expertise" on it, being someone who encounters both sides of the debate on a virtually daily basis. Hopefully when this is all said and done, I will have at least helped some of you to untangle not only the conversation itself, but your own beliefs on the matter by tracing my own reactions.

First of all, the Pandagon thing. So here's what Amanda Marcotte, the proprietor of that establishment, said that got Donahue all riled up:
Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit?

A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.

So, looking at that quote honestly, I want to side with Marcotte, and on the issue of the post (birth control), I think she's right about the Church's ridiculous stance. The Catholic Church's opposition to birth control has certainly, in my opinion, done more harm than good. But I can't; there's just no context in which the quote above isn't offensive. Much as I hate to say it, Donahue was right to be offended (not right to gloss over the substance of her post or right to try to get her fired, mind you).

And I noticed afterwards, reading posts by Atrios and Kos and Digby and Glenn Greenwald and John Aravosis, I realized that, as a practicing Christian, I've never been offended by any of them, even when they talk about religion from the standpoint of being agnostics or atheists or just pissed off at some religious group. And I think, on some level, maybe that's what has differentiated the "big blogs" from everyone else. Yes, Marcotte is a good writer, as are many bloggers, but perhaps too often they offhandedly offend some group and end up alienating lots of potential readers, whereas Atrios' "don't be an asshole needlessly" approach has helped him retain many of the people who visit his site, thus becoming regular readers. It's at least had an effect on the blogs I read; I've been turned off of more than one blogger because they make insulting generalizations about Christians, or religious people, or southerners, or Texans, or meat-eaters (yes, it can get that petty), or even conservatives (I'm not, but I have family and friends who are, so it still offends me). Eyerolling generalizations about people irritates the hell out of me and often demonstrates a huge flaw in one's thinking.

Interestingly, on this issue there was one notable exception: Tristero, who writes on Digby's blog and has offended my religious sensibilities on a number of occasions, totally nailed the issue with people attacking the people or politics they don't like by attacking religion:
To attack the religious beliefs of someone like Donohue is to completely miss your target. That's right, to mock Donohue's religion is tactically useless. Because his christianism, not his Catholicism, is the danger. And it is a very, very grave danger.

Stated another way, the argument is that Donohue's religious beliefs and practices are none of my, or anyone else's business other than those in his church. His political actions most certainly are, and they deserve our full, uninhibited, and completely withering contempt. As for his craven hiding behind the skirts of priests to deflect criticism, Donohue and his fellow christianists, whatever their denomination, deserve widespread denunciation from the larger Christian community.
There's something about religion informing politics that often historians are the only ones to really "get": it's usually the reverse of reality. Donahue uses his Catholicism to shield his anti-semitism and misogyny, and he views Catholicism through the prism of hate, but he doesn't need Catholicism for them. If he lost his faith tomorrow, he'd still be a bigot. Similarly, even as Christianity recedes from the European landscape, racism and anti-semitism persist; hyper-nationalist political parties in France and elsewhere are polling better than ever before. And there are plenty of secular misogynists in American society.

Moving on. I want to talk a little bit about Atrios. First of all, I would strongly suggest that you go back and read his posts that I linked to above. You'll find that Atrios is thoughtful, respectful but not "pc," and fair in his estimation of the role of religion in politics (for what it's worth, I'm of the opinon that he is quite possibly the single most insightful political observer in our entire national discourse; the fact that Atrios and Digby write on free, low-publicity little blogs while Joe Klein and David Brooks have columns in some of the nation's most prestigious news publications and Bill Kristol appears on marquee news shows on a weekly basis signifies more than perhaps anything else how decrepit and dysfunctional our current journalistic system is. Talk about "failing upward!").

Atrios is right on a point with which I've only slowly been reconciling myself, and he's largely the only one saying it:
I tend to try to have a "don't be an asshole needlessly" attitude when it comes to dealing with religious beliefs that no one is trying to impose on me, but there's no requirement for people to share that attitude. Beliefs cloaked in religion shouldn't be granted automatic immunity from scrutiny, and nor should the sometimes powerful institutions run by people, not angels or saints, around which the various religions are organized. While genuine bigotry exists against people of various faiths which is the equivalent to the kind of bigotry which exists against gays or African-Americans (involving unfair symbols or stereotyping rooted in historic oppression, assigning unshared beliefs to an entire group, etc...), mocking or having contempt for actual religious beliefs isn't by any reasonable definition "bigotry." It's simply heated disagreement, and as with disagreements about politics, or sports, or whatever, sometimes people who disagree with each other use mockery and insults in their discourse. Religious people may think that their beliefs about religion are on a different level than these things, but, you know, I don't really agree with that.

And that's the basic issue. We disagree about things. We don't all share a belief in God, or the supernatural, or the spiritual plane, or whatever. Those who believe in these things don't agree on the details. There are a tremendous variety of belief systems in this country and across the world. The tendency to divide people into "faith" and "non-faith" has, as I wrote, obscured these differences, but the fact is that disagreement within "communities of faith" is no different than disagreement between religious and non-religious people. While I think there are those who genuinely believe in a "many paths to God" kind of worldview (and I have no opinion on whether that's theologically sound within the Christian or any other tradition), plenty of people don't actually share that worldview. They believe "other" beliefs are wacky, or stupid, or nuts, or contemptible, or immoral, or likely to lead to eternal damnation, etc.
Having religion is fine and having your religion inform your politics (a la rightwingers, and even progressives like Wallis) is fine. But when you do that you essentially make your religion a political philosophy, which is also fine, but that means it's open to criticism and even ridicule just like any other political philosophy. For religious people to take fringe and dangerous views, as they do on birth control, abortion (remember, many American religious fundamentalists also support terrorism-- in the form of abortion clinic bombers), Israel, or global warming, associate those views with their religion and then take offense that anyone would dare criticize their "religious views" is a pretty dirty political trick that, to everyone else, reeks of moral cowardice and hypocrisy.

For religious people to claim "persecution" based on this tactic is similarly hypocritical. There are entire radio and television stations dedicated to damning agnostics and atheists to Hell, street preachers screaming at them as they go to work and unwind at any of the nation's party districts, and mainstream politicians like Mitt Romney talking openly about how only "people of faith" should be leading this country. Secularists are tacitly banned from the elected office: aside from one Muslim and a handful of Jews, pretty much the entire elected government of every state is composed of Christians. And remind me again how many avowed non-Christians have been president?

This is why I'm bothered with the neologism "people of faith." Besides the Atriotic argument that different religious belief systems are, in fact, quite different, both in means and in the goals themselves, this term is similar in tactic to "pro-life" and "pro-choice": it's designed to bring a particular group together by alienating another group. It's triangulation. In the latter examples, it's understood that the others are "anti-life" or "anti-choice," which in most cases is simply bullshit, while in the former case, it's meant to bring together Catholics and Evangelicals and Jews by isolating agnostics and atheists.

Alienating non-believers is something of which Jim Wallis, whom I otherwise love, is one of the biggest offenders (no pun intended). His constant sneering at "the secular Left" besmirches what are often otherwise valid points (read his post linked above and you'll see what I mean). Yes, it's true that the left and the Democratic party often have trouble dealing with religious people and, in particular, pointing out the religious motivators for liberal or Democratic viewpoints, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's because they hate religion or don't think it's a valid philosophy. In the case of his skirmish with Kos above, it seems like he wants so much to maintain balance by shitting on the "secular Left" and the Christian Right equally that he attributes to Kos an opinion he quite simply doesn't have and didn't exhibit at any point: namely, that religion can't be the prime motivator for a good Democrat's political views. All Kos said was that religion's only one of many possible motivators, and Kos is exactly right.

So now, unfortunately, I have a problem, and you may have picked it out en route to this paragraph. How can I say Donahue was right to be offended by Marcotte, and then agree with people saying that, when you have dangerous/fringe political views, you can't hide behind your religion and call foul when someone turns their guns on it? This is the part where my opinion is still in motion, but to me it turns on Atrios' "don't be an asshole needlessly."
Keep firing, assholes!
Marcotte failed in her jab at the anti-birth control crowd because, in bombing Donahue's car, she sprayed a lot of undeserving people with shrapnel. Cue Tristero and his point that attacking one's religion is sloppy rhetorical targetting. Atrios is still right that it's not morally wrong to attack someone's philosophical/theological underpinning for political views, but you have to be precise about it and aim for the part that really is objectionable and that doesn't alienate vast tracts of the American people that you really don't want alienated. If we're talking about a basic religious tenet shared by the vast majority of the populace, in all likelihood the tactic will prove ineffective and quite possibly counterproductive, as your attacks may well hit lots of bystanders and even allies.


tristero said...

El Ranchero, Thanks for your comments. When, and if, I offend your religious sensibilities again, please let me know. I have no intention of so doing, ever, and try very hard to make sure I don't.

El Ranchero said...

Wow, it's like blogging royalty! I don't know if you're going to read this, but don't worry about offending me. You have your viewpoints and shouldn't answer to mine. We often don't agree on issues of religion, but really, I have a thick skin, and you shouldn't water down your opinions as long as you come to them honestly.

Anonymous said...


the only problem with this post is the fact that it is not surrounded by lots of other traffic-generating posts and will therefore just kind of flick away into the night.

Post more. :)