Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Religion. Politics. Morality.

August 31, 2011

Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of The New York Times opined last Sunday that he would like to ask candidates for public office (and particularly the Presidency) tougher questions about their faith than have been asked in the past. He shows understanding of the complexity and interweaving of the evangelical right among Christians in this country while wanting to ask the same kind of questions that were asked of John Kennedy when he ran for public office as a Roman Catholic. Are you going to follow the Pope or the Constitution? Keller also wants to know whether or not a candidate will allow her or his religion to lead them to beliefs contrary to “serious science and verifiable history”, and whether or not she or he will serve as a “Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.”

I wish him well in the task of sorting out the role of religious faith in the public square. Phrases and ideas that are common parlance among large swaths of conservative Christians can sound like fanaticism to those outside those circles without in fact revealing the speaker as a religious fanatic. In general I prefer leaders who have convictions about God that give rise to a degree of genuine humility. That is what I listen for, along with a genuine concern for the poor and downtrodden that includes at the moment and in particular the jobless and the uninsured. I think debates about the role of government and economic policy are useful, but not as a smokescreen for what appears to be fear-based and selfish greed. There is a joke that is told in the mountains that ‘an environmentalist is someone who has already built his mountain home.’ “I’ve got mine and I’m going to protect it from the likes of you (who might mean that I will pay higher taxes)” is ugly-think and not worthy of those who would be followers of Yahweh, Jesus or Allah.

In this regard we must note that tea party sweetheart and republican Presidential ‘hopeful’ Michele Bachman has referred explicitly to the recent earthquake and hurricane on the East Coast, saying “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.” She said that this was God’s way of underlining the “roaring of the American people”. She later said that she was speaking in a “humorous vein” about serious matters. The humor eludes me. The ‘roaring’ does not.

While I disagree profoundly with the solutions of the political right, I share the sense that much of the West has gone off the rails when we think that we can fight wars and leave our children to pay for them, when we spend and spend on ourselves and then justify doing nothing in the near term for the jobless in a recession which requires a measure of government spending calling it ‘austerity’ and so on. I share the sense that we have somehow lost our way and that it is a moral issue.

The chief rabbi of England (technically chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) and a person whose thinking I have long respected is called Jonathan Sacks. He has argued persuasively in The Wall Street Journal that we have lost a sense of “self restraint and pursuit of the common good”. He believes that in much of Europe and even the United States, religion is a thing of the past and there is “no counter-voice to the culture of buy it, wear it, flaunt it, because you’re worth it.” I don’t agree with him in every detail (Niall Ferguson, now an historian at Harvard, far from being “one of our great British exports to America”, is someone I would be more likely to put in the embarrassment column based on some of his unfortunate articles in Newsweek,) but will be thinking about his argument and insight in particular as we prepare for the reflection that must come with the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001.

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