From Liberty Street: God's Party

Kevin Phillips, who became famous as an analyst for Richard Nixon, says that the Republican Party has become the first religious party in American history. It is not a development he likes. He sees it as fraught with danger for the nation.

His analysis of the GOP as a three-part thrust, made up of the oil hungry national-security complex, the religious right, and the debt-driven financial sector has become the standard explanation for Republican presidential success over the past decades. But it is the religious underpinning of the whole ramshackle alliance which Phillips thinks is the most threatening.

He's right, but he falls short in explaining why religion has been transformed from a search for personal meaning into a ravaging political movement. And where he falls short, the rest of what we call the media is pathetically inept.

The liberal solution for dealing with religious issues -- erroneously called a separation of church and state -- has been to seal religion into a box. What goes on inside the box is of concern to nobody on the outside. As long as the box prevents leaks of religion into politics everything will be okay. This is an asinine and unworkable policy.

If religion is actually an important part of life, as almost everyone asserts, then it will have an effect on life, all aspects of life, including the political part.

In a genuine democracy any issue that can influence public affairs needs to be brought into public discourse.  It needs to be examined in the same way anything else is examined, to determine what is foolish about it, what is wise, what will work, what is futile.

This is the way we deal with economic theory, with foreign policy, with environmental concerns, with education, with health care, with the social infrastructure. But, somehow, religion has become exempt from public discourse. And why is that? Because religion is said to be a matter of faith, and faith in America is taken as the uncriticizable right to believe any damned thing you want to, no matter how foolish it might be. Religion, in short, has become a haven where stupidity can lurk, safe from any touch of the critical mind. Is it any wonder that, as a consequence, it has become the tool of manipulative politicians?

Here's just one little example that came to my attention recently. A relative sent me a rambling commentary by Ben Stein, the right-wing TV personality, which he delivered on CBS last December. Among the things Stein noted was a remark from Ann Graham, the daughter of the famous evangelist. She was asked during an interview why God would allow something like hurricane Katrina to happen. And she gave what Stein described as an extremely profound and insightful response. He's what she said: " I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

I'm sorry to have to disenthrall Mr. Stein but this is neither profound nor insightful. It's more accurately described as idiocy. I say so bluntly here to make a point. If I were actually in dialogue with Ms. Graham, I wouldn't call her an idiot but I would ask her to explain what her concept of God is, and whether within that concept every natural disaster down the ages has come about because of God's gentility. What can that possibly mean?

The political implications in the statement are astounding. What she is saying, in effect, is that unless we as a polity get in line with her simplistic notions about the almighty, we can expect to be visited by a great number of natural disasters. It would do no good to try to protect ourselves in other ways.

Yet, when people say things like this in public they remain unchallenged. And why? Because they are said to be speaking from faith, and faith is a thing inside the box. The box as we have conceived it has been extremely porous in allowing preposterous ideas to leak out while being very effective in preventing sense from leaking in.

Unscrupulous politicians, seeing that they have a sanctuary from which they can fire fusillades at their opponents while never having to fear examination of their own positions, naturally seize on phony religion to advance their interests, helped along by the general consensus that anything which calls itself religious  should remain free of criticism.  That's nonsense.

A society which really took religion seriously would be debating it vigorously in all the arenas where public discourse occurs. Notions of God, and what God does, and what God wants would be subject to the same examination that any other powerful idea is.

To keep concepts of the deity outside our public conversation is to make God into what he or she or it has become, a tool of the Republican machine. And there's nothing more contemptuous of God than that.

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