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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

International Women's Day meditation: Secularism, fundamentalism, church and state

My father was the intellectual in our family. So my mother's answer was as memorable as it was surprising one bright spring morning when she turned someone away from our door who was soliciting for a church--and I asked her why.

I don't remember whether they were raising money for charity or seeking to convert us. But I do remember her answer. She explained in a public vocabulary that was not her natural manner of speech that it was because of the separation of church and state. Jesus, she said, had not gone from door to door. He had said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's." And that was the way she figured it ought to be.

Why do I think of that now?

Maybe it's because an amendment to the 500-page Income Tax bill passed last fall and now before Canada's Senate moved onto center stage of public debate this last week. That amendment, which some attribute to the Christian right, would allow our government after the fact to deny tax breaks to films it deems, in its wisdom, to be quote "contrary to public policy." (Toronto Star Mar 2 08)

Maybe it's because International Women's Day comes again in a few days, and I've been thinking about my mother.

Maybe it's because Charles Jeanes host of CJLY's History's Hour was on about fundamentalism, secularism and , consciousness this week.

He cites a review in January's Harper's magazine by John Gray of a book by Canadian political philosopher. Charles Taylor, called A Secular Age and asks this:

"If societies become less religious as they become more modern, how is it that the United States, which sees itself and is seen by others as the epitome of a modern country with the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution, remains as religious at the start of the 21st century as it was in the early part of the 19th century, at which time Alexis de Tocqueville noted the intense religiosity of American life. How can this be? Is America an anomaly among advanced societies? or is the theory of secularization flawed? If the power of religion can be limited by a secular state, why does religious fundamentalism play a larger role in American political life than it does in the political life of any other developed country?"

Separation of church and state is important today because of the “Christian” part of the new conservative incarnation on one side and political islam on the other side of an explosive dualism.

There are at least two versions of secularism. One comes from Marxism. Marx said, "Religion is the opiate of the people." These are Senator McCarthy's “godless communists,” religious rejectionists. For them, separation of church and state doesn't apply. Church is simply rejected. The state became the religion.

A second type of secularism is what I want to explain to Charles. It's a non-sectarian secularism. Conservatives confuse it with moral relativism. In the US, the separation of church and state is mandated by the Bill of Rights. In personal terms, it means a sanitized public language. There is no prayer in public school. Religion not taught in publicly funded schools. For a long time, people did not refer to God or the gods or any form of divinity or supreme being in public discourse. David A. Fowler.

I think what Charles Jeanes and Charles Taylor both miss about secularism and religion in the United States is its connection with religious freedom. What happened long before the disappearance of "spirits" from the natural world in Europe was the multiplication of protestant religions there, beginning probably some time between Dante (Divine Comedy pub 1321), which shows selected Popes in Hell, and the death of Chaucer (1400), whose anti-clerical portrait of the pardoner and the summoner are well known. The roots of Protestantism are in the anti-clerical literature of that period. In establishing the Anglican Church, Henry VIII put icing on a cake that already included several western popes (one in Rome and another in Avignon), some important reformers (Hus and Wycliffe), and a growing literature of dissent--but not much outright atheism. Wycliffe wrote against papal encroachments on secular power.

When we talk today about the American Empire, we should probably remember that it is a variation of European empires for which the initial vanguard was often the Church.

Unlike other colonial undertakings, the eventual US was made up of non-Catholic believers of numerous varieties (who usually thought themselves holier than their Catholic counterparts). They sought legitimacy for themselves and eventually came to understand that they could only have it by joining other dissenters who differed from one another far more than they did from Rome. So they made a public show of ignoring their theological differences in order to affirm their common political need for space (and land which they were stealing from the newly discovered nations of North America).

The solution was a separation of church and state mandated in the US Constitution. It was a separation the seeds of which did exist during the middle ages when it was debated and invoked as a principle of convenience. However, in the US, the divide was enlarged and enshrined as a fundamental principle of American (archetypal) democracy. Thomas Jefferson once referred to it as the "wall of separation." It is often presented as a principle of the Englightenment or even science. But it is really an accommodation that made religious freedom possible in a more divers context than any single polity I know of with the possible exception of India.

Then Christian conservatives found a voice. Stephen Zunes explained the process in a perceptive article several years ago:
"Traditionally, US fundamentalist Protestants were not particularly active in national politics, long seen as worldly and corrupt. This changed in the late 1970s as part of a calculated effort by conservative Republican operatives who recognized that as long as the Republican Party was primarily identified with militaristic foreign policies and economic proposals that favored the wealthy, it would remain a minority party. Over the previous five decades, Republicans had won only four out of 12 presidential elections and had controlled Congress for only two of its 24 sessions.

"By mobilizing rightist religious leaders and adopting conservative positions on highly charged social issues such as women's rights, abortion, sex education and homosexuality [and calling them ‘family values.’ Isn’t birth control in there too? These are the guys who promote abstinence as the only interpretation of ‘safe sex.’ And would you call these conservative positions or reactionary ones--reactive in the sense of hysterical, and reactionary in the sense of responding to issues that have already been put on the table by someone else. Reactionary and appropriationist. Is the idea that the family will be better off if we are able to use the law and social pressure to coerce people who are gay into traditional heterosexual marriages? -jlt], Republican strategists were able to bring millions of fundamentalist Christians - who as a result of their lower-than-average income were not otherwise inclined to vote Republican - into their party. Through such organizations as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, the Republicans promoted a right-wing political agenda through radio and television broadcasts as well as from the pulpit. Since capturing this pivotal constituency, Republicans have won four out of six presidential races, have dominated the Senate for seven out of 12 sessions, and have controlled the House of Representatives for the past decade" (Zunes Christian right Jul 14 04).

Now the American Christian right, which is sometimes (I think) incorrectly called fundamentalist or evangelical, has invented/discovered a language (and a confidence in its territorial claims and in the elimination of the threat from "merciles Indian savages" as the were called in the Declaration of Independence). This new way of speaking and confidence in its territorial claims allows for a coming out of some Christian elements, sometimes to ignore the biblical divide between God and Caesar. They rail against secularism (identified conveniently with Marxist atheism) and call themselves "Christians"--not Methodists or Baptists or Presbyterians etc. I frequently had students come up to me after the first class of the term and introduce themselves, somewhat belligerently, saying "I'm a Christian."

Later, when I could question them in more detail, it was clear that they did not see the Pope as "a Christian" in this sense. Christians who still believed in the separation of Church and state they described contemptuously as "secular liberals" or some similar deligitimizing formulation. Democracy (modernity) was established in the US to make room for religious diversity. Remember, Ferdinand and Isabella, consolidated their monarchy by evicting both the Moorish Muslims and Sephardic Jews from Spain in the same year they commissioned Columbus to discover a route to India. That failed mission allowed them to export the Inquisition to Mexico and Peru in 1521. Early American Puritans experimented with witch-burning but gave it up to focus their genocidal energies on the Indians.

The same impulse found expression from time to time--in thousands of lynchings (mostly of blacks) during the period of western expansion, in the McCarthy "witchhunts", and now in the crusade of neoliberal conservatives, authoritarian reform Christians, and the paramilitary right against political Islam. It's odd for me. One of the features of Christianity that I respect the most is its foundational commitment to grassroots political issues. As I learn more about it, I realize that Buddhists and Hindus sometimes get forced into social issues. But for Christians--and as it turns out Jews and Muslims--social justice, justice in the real world and not just the hereafter, not just as a feature of some spiritualized abstraction--is a central feature of the original teachings.

But the "Christians" we are struggling with now are the ones who, in the Middle Ages, wanted tougher punishments for the sins of reform, more absolute authoritarianism, more militant crusades against the infidels. I often think that we are fortunate to live in a time when these people have not yet joined with their natural allies--the other self-righteous religious bullies in Islam, Judaism and among scientific marxist totalitarians.

If we don't want to be bullied by them, we will need a robust version of secularism strengthened by clear thinking and vigorous public debate.

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