Unholy Alliances and the Monolith

Edit: Hello hello, visitors from Pharyngula! Take your shoes off, make yourselves comfortable, take a look around. We just vacuumed, so try not to spill.

A significant chunk of the recent debate among Democrats (or, more accurately, among non-Republicans) has been about how exactly we should be dealing with religion—specifically evangelical Christianity—from a political standpoint, which is to say from a public relations standpoint. With midterm elections rapidly approaching and campaigning for 2008 off to an early start, questions of policy and principle are, as is usually the case, taking a back seat to political maneuvering to satisfy the religious majority. Amy Sullivan’s Washington Monthly article a while ago about the interaction between evangelicals and the Democratic party was the catalyst for the most recent round of debates on this subject. Professor Myers and others came down hard on Sullivan (justifiably so) for what they saw as her willingness to abandon the principles of secular government for strategic purposes that almost completely miss the point. In particular, Sullivan and others have left the impression that atheists and agnostics ought to sit down and shut up for the sake of the team, a suggestion to which a number of us don’t take kindly. With little to no concern for self-preservation, I’d like to dive into this little debate.

Who Leads, Who Follows?

The conflict seems to me to have two separate, though obviously related, components. On the one hand, it is the same intra-party clash that’s been playing out for a couple decades at least, between so-called pragmatic strategy (move to the center, chase the voters), for which I can’t help but express a certain amount of disdain, and the more idealistic tendency to stay true to certain principles regardless of their perceived lack of popularity among the electorate. The obvious point to be made about this component is that ideology (in our case, very roughly corresponding to the constitutional part of constitutional democracy) and public opinion/vote-chasing (the democracy part) are the two competing and often conflicting impulses at the heart of our political system—and, more importantly, both impulses are and seem likely to remain both central and necessary, barring any massive, fundamental changes to the political system itself. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be subject to whatever the bigoted whim du jour happens to be, the point of constitutional law being to protect us all from such tyranny, and it’s certainly possible to provide just and principled leadership even when the impulses of the electorate are not so just and principled. Anyway, I digress.

The One True ______

The other component is more complex and tends to express itself in a variety of ways. Broadly speaking, it is the conflict between the simplicity of a monolithic culture and the complexity of multiculturalism, secular values, and differing individual identities. This complexity is, if we are being honest with ourselves, much more integral to our political and cultural heritage, and certainly more consonant with the values upon which the nation was founded—the actual values, e.g. an ultimate respect for individual freedoms and rights, not the “Christian nation” label that’s so dishonestly and inaccurately applied centuries after the country’s founding. More on values in a bit. This particular conflict often manifests itself as secular values vs. religion, primarily because of the way religious traditions (and, accordingly, religious leaders) seek dominion over not only ‘spiritual’ matters (i.e. the conjecture of theological narratives) but also political, philosophical, ethical, social, and (much to the dismay of many of us) even scientific matters. Whereas religion can be seen as a valuable source of cultural narratives and community identity, even by those of us who find the concept of faith contra reason to be repugnant, it cannot function as an appropriate set of philosophical and moral boundaries, due to its fundamental irrationality—even when it’s not explicitly contradicting logic and empirical evidence, it has no particular rational basis (that being the nature of a faith belief, whether the belief persists in the face of contradictory evidence, or merely in the absence of affirmative evidence). Only a system founded on human reason can serve as an appropriately universal barometer for human interaction, and therefore also a set of fundamental guidelines for law and government.

One + One = A Bigger, More Powerful One

Interestingly enough, conservatism is at the very deepest level similarly concerned with the establishment and preservation of some sort of monolithic national identity. This is especially true of modern social/cultural conservatism, wherein social and “moral” norms (scare quotes intended to separate these from purely rational moral values) are part of an attempt to establish an unassailable societal oneness, firm in the face of change and diversity. It’s unclear which is the cause and which the effect, but this certainly must be causally connected, in one direction or another (or both), with the increasingly religious brand of conservatism that dominates so much of the discourse these days. Within a political ideology based primarily on the establishment and preservation of tradition, there is a natural tendency to ally with that most ubiquitous and monolithic of cultural phenomena, religion. And so, with a bizarre cooperation between politicians who want to use the religious and religious figures who want to take advantage of politics, religion (very carefully and intricately connected to rightist politics) becomes the catchall term for values, for morality, for all that is good in human nature, even those characteristics to which religion can make absolutely no claim. Never mind that each entity is calculating in its use of the other—Republican politicians reap the rewards of their partnership with the religious contingent even as they express their scorn for the religious voters who swept them into office, just as religious leaders/power brokers are rewarded in such a way as to gain power over their congregations (but not as much over political affairs, as they have Business to contend with for the affections of the GOP). The relationship may not be perfectly cozy, but it’s certainly working its magic on the affairs of the nation.

Fine Then; Now What?

Back to the questions of logistics, then. What are we to do about all of this? We must start with the things we have to do, and in this case, the first thing we have to do is preserve without a doubt in anyone’s mind the sanctity of the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness, freedoms of speech and conscience—these things are not negotiable. Neither is the separation of church and state, or the necessity for a government founded upon secular, rational principles, those being the only principles responsive to change and to differences between individuals. Such a government does not have to disrespect the religious beliefs of its citizens, and in fact there are specific measures in place to avoid doing so. We must, however, be clear, consistent, and unapologetic about the need for a secular government. As PZ puts it:

How about if we reassure the evangelicals that they will always be free to worship as they please, there will be no interference by the government in their religion, but that in a nation with so many different religions floating around, we must and always will be a secular state and religion must stop interfering in government. Your belief in Jesus or Odin or the FSM is not a qualification for service in government (nor is it an obstacle), and isn’t even a testimonial to the quality of your character.

From there, we must disabuse people of the notion that religion = values, and that no religion = no values. Values are, on a fundamental level, the things that we decide to care about so as to establish a coherent and cohesive system of morality. Without any sense of value, a rationally-based system of morality has nothing to get it started. We assume first that human life is an appropriate value to apply universally; hence the moral prohibition against murder, because we ourselves don’t want to be killed, and the world would be a better place if we could assume a universal agreement that taking human life is a Bad Thing. We place value too in autonomy, for reasons that would be better explained by Locke or Mill. From this notion of autonomy we derive our concepts of the various human freedoms, and so on and so forth. At no point in this process is divine revelation or church doctrine necessary or even particularly illuminating; values as discussed here transcend religious belief, because they are more fundamental entities even than religion, which has become foundational for so many people. As Josh says:

Right now, with Democrats fumbling in expressing their values, it’s easy for Republicans to use religion as a proxy for values. “I’m a Catholic, so I oppose abortion,” is a cheap way of avoiding a discussion of personal values. There are pro-choice Catholics and pro-life Catholics (no abortion, no death penalty), anti-abortion/pro-death penalty Catholics, and anti-death penalty/pro-choice Catholics. They all justify their policy positions on the basis of religion and personal values.

And later:

It means that an atheist should be able to speak to a local interfaith council and convince a group of ministers to back him, and a congregation of believers shouldn’t be unreachable by an agnostic candidate. I can derive the Golden Rule as an evolutionarily stable strategy in game theory, or I can derive it from Jewish Law, or I can bring it from the words of Jesus. The value is still one of fairness to others, and I can talk about it in different ways, and show how it produces my policy positions. Religious freedom and freedom of speech are easy to derive from the Golden Rule: I don’t want others to restrict my religious expression, so I won’t restrict theirs. I don’t want others to evangelize me, so I won’t evangelize them.


Like all things political, this comes down to framing. More accurately, I suppose, it’s a matter of breaking down the frame that’s been so carefully constructed and allowing people to see that values are not and should not be dependent on church membership. From a purely immediate tactical standpoint, it’s difficult to argue with Sullivan’s assertion that Democrats’ perceived hostility to religious voters has a harmful effect at the polls. She misses the point, however, in offering Band-aid solutions instead of addressing root causes. Where she advocates setting up a new frame, one that aligns religiosity and moral values more firmly with Democratic politics, I would prefer to do away with the misleading conflation of theology with politics and morality. We should not apologize for maintaining a separation between religious orthodoxy and governmental policy, either from a principled point of view or from a pragmatic point of view. We need to do away with deception and oversimplification; we need to preserve freedom, individuality, and variety in the face of cultural monopolization; we need to get back to making people’s lives better, rather than trying to make them the same.

Freedom is a wonderful thing. Freedom to say, freedom to think, freedom to feel, freedom to believe, all regardless of what the neighbor may happen to say or think or feel or believe. Surely we can all agree on that.



4 Responses to Unholy Alliances and the Monolith

  1. Filthy Habit says:

    Nice article. Looks like we are on the same page, again (*sigh*).

    Anyway, just a few quick things:

    First, I don’t know if you caught the latest installment of “Real Time w/ Bill Maher,” but one of his panelists was Sen. Biden (a guy who I could get behind for president…if he’s got the cajones to continue saying what he was on the show the other night). Anyway, he perceptively noted that one of the fears expressed by the religious people is that they want respect…some form of acknowledgement. While it’s true that the hard-core, far-right leaning, fundamental evangelicals are not so inclined and demand much more than simple respect, they are also a tiny minority, and are hardly representative of the mainstream Xtian base. I saw the validity of the point he made in this regard. While we atheists, too, want respect, I sense that a little pulling rather than pushing on this debate may win some people to our side. I think your article expresses that sentiment.

    Second, I enjoyed this quote (from PZ?), mostly because it’s similar to something I’ve been working into my discussions with TCCIWW(tm):

    How about if we reassure the evangelicals that they will always be free to worship as they please, there will be no interference by the government in their religion, but that in a nation with so many different religions floating around, we must and always will be a secular state and religion must stop interfering in government.

    My own recent discussions have been mirroring this sentiment. When one fundie recently decried the “secular” people trying to remove all religiousity from the public, as in removing the TXC from the courthouse a few years ago, I replied:

    I think the founding fathers were very wise indeed to allow religious
    freedom and at the same time forbid the government to meddle in matters
    of religion. It’s strange that the people who benefit the most by this
    law want to go out of their way to break these laws and then cry about
    being victims when the laws are enforced. (Emphasis added after the fact.)

    I have found this very effective at cutting to the root of the problem. On the one hand, I grant them a sense of entitlement in that I imply that the First Amendment is for their benefit rather than mine (even though I do benefit), and at the same time I address the issue of their false victimization. This has been very effective at bringing the discussion down to a more human level, rather than my older, more confrontational tactic of insisting on a secular government. Sometimes, it’s a little bit better to go sideways rather than head on, if you know what I mean.

  2. blagermeister says:

    Some constructive criticism? Break this down into more manageable (shorter) posts and address your arguments one at a time. Just my two cents since you weren’t asking. You have a lot of interesting debate topics here, but most people won’t take the time to read something so lengthy.

    My take on why the dems want you to shutup: you are the fringe of your group and are keeping them from regaining power. They are slowly realizing that evangelical christians just might vote democrat if they’ll take abortion rights off their platform. Taxes, crime, military size, etc. are all swing issues. Give me some assurance that you aren’t going to let the bad guys bomb me at the mall and that my taxes aren’t going to go up too high, and I’ll vote either direction. I am the average, middle-of-the-road voter. But stick to what (in my mind) amounts to the legalized murdering of babies, and you’ll never get my vote. Never. I don’t care how many arab countries the republicans want to invade, it’s far away and not my immediate concern. Call me heartless, ignorant, naive, or any four-letter expletive you like. I’m telling you how it is, not how it ought to be. Abortion is the sticking point, plain and simple. When they change that and can promise me relative safety, they’ve got my vote. Then we can discuss the other issues.

    For the atheists and agnostics, check out the Libertarian party. It fits more in line with your ideology. And it is about purity of political ideology, right? I mean, having criticized the dems for vote chasing, you wouldn’t stick with them just because a third party has little chance of winning seats, right?

  3. Urizen says:


    I don’t recall particularly wondering why Dem pundits have expressed a desire to marginalize non-religious voices—in fact, it’s pretty obvious. My point is that this is both wrong in a principle sense and misguided in a pragmatic sense. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that embracing theological justifications for policy within a government that is constitutionally set up to be secular is just plain wrong, the reality is that attempting to coopt religion isn’t a viable strategy for long-term political success. I’m finding it difficult to answer your allegation that atheist and agnostic voices are “fringe,” because it’s just so blatantly unfounded that it boggles my mind. One doesn’t have to be an atheist to recognize the necessity of a government in which religion doesn’t hold political sway, and indeed a lot of theists have been good enough to realize this and step up for separation of church and state. At any rate, that one is an atheist or an agnostic in no way implies that one holds “fringe” political positions. If anything, the opposite is true, since atheists and agnostics tend to be more responsive to reason and new information than to extreme orthodoxy.

    As far as the abortion thing goes, single-issue voting strikes me as really missing the point, at least when the single issue is one that, while important, doesn’t have any particular bearing on other policy positions. And especially when that issue is so complex. The question at the heart of it is what makes us human, or at least what qualifies us for the inalienable rights we hold to be self-evident. Pro-life dogmatism is, more often than not, a matter of ducking this question in favor of “life begins at conception,” because it’s the easy answer. There isn’t necessarily an ironclad argument as to why life doesn’t start until birth, and the most reasonable answer is likely somewhere in between the two, but in the case of restricting a person’s own freedom with respect to her body, the burden of proof must fall on those doing the restricting (one of the guiding principles behind the Constitution/Bill of Rights is that rights are assumed to belong to the people unless otherwise specified constitutionally). At any rate, the idea that someone who is opposed to legislation restricting abortion couldn’t be a fantastically good leader, even if you happen to be against abortion, is manifestly wrong. Hell, there are quite a few people who are themselves opposed to abortion, having arrived at a belief that human life and therefore human rights begin earlier on the conception->birth timeline, but who still oppose legislation preventing abortion, because they recognize that their belief is not substantiated well enough to be imposed by law.

    My overall point here is twofold. 1) Most of the people for whom abortion is the single deciding issue when voting are making an error in assuming that opposition to government prohibition of abortion is the same thing as personally being in favor of abortions. 2) One’s personal view on abortion does not have any particular impact, in and of itself, on other policy positions or on abilities to govern. If there were a candidate who you genuinely believed could solve the problems of environmental, economic, foreign, governmental, and educational policy (which is to say that he or she could make the lives of everyone in the country substantially better along every axis government deals with), can you honestly say you would be able to justify voting against him or her exclusively due to his/her opposition to making abortion illegal? What if the other candidate had a demonstrably bad track record on economic policy (say, raising taxes and using the money wastefully), manifested a belief that black people and Jews should be executed, or advocated throwing away Congress and the Supreme Court and establishing a monarchy? Granted, both of these candidates are purely hypothetical and likely don’t exist, but I’m using them to make the point that voting only based on the candidates’ positions on abortion is a really, really bad idea, no matter how strongly you may believe that human life starts at conception. With all that said, a majority of Americans are still, despite the increased influence of religious orthodoxy and its conflation with conservative politics, in favor of Roe v. Wade. The Dems’ distrust of non-religious voices is not about abortion, certainly not exclusively about it anyway.

    As for “checking out” libertarianism, I’m well aware of it. On social matters, I often agree with libertarians. I profoundly disagree with the fundamental libertarian notion that free markets solve everything, however. It doesn’t fit more in line with my ideology, in fact. Libertarians do a lot of phenomenal work in protecting negative liberties—freedom from coercion/restriction, as opposed to positive liberty, which is the right to something, like education or health care—but as a whole they tend not to believe in positive liberties, whereas I do. These are profound differences, so no, I’m not voting Democratic out of pure expediency, even if the Democratic party the last few years leaves something to be desired. And no, my post was not about “purity of political ideology.” It was about representing contentious issues as they really are, rather than distorting them with false metaphors, manipulative rhetoric, and the conflation of decidedly separate issues.

    All that said, I do appreciate the comment.

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