Monday, November 15, 2004

Culture and Religion in America’s 2004 Election

Traditionally, the split between Roman Catholics and Protestants in America has been not much different from the historical struggle between the two groups in Europe. There are substantial differences in theology. Christ, according to the Catholic narrative, is the Son of God, and therefore divine. He was born to Mary, whom the Church has turned almost into a goddess, although they insist she is not "worshiped" but merely "venerated." (The distinction is lost on most non-catholic observers.) Many other theological differences exist as well.

The differences between the Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations today lie much less in doctrine, however, than in political organization and cultural ideology. Where there is doctrinal difference, it is less over the nature of God, sin and salvation and more over who has the authority to speak for God and interpret God's will.

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther was motivated by the corruption among the church hierarchy, especially at the top, to push for a rethinking of Church authority and their claim that they served as intermediaries between us and God. Luther settled on a “priesthood of all believers” and laid emphasis on direct and individual personal communication with God. The importance to history of this point cannot be underestimated, because it led to the focus in Western Civilization on the individual, and helped foster the human rights notions of the Enlightenment tradition. The point illustrates nicely how religion can influence culture. Today, when culture is returning the favor and influencing religion, secular people have no trouble, generally, with Protestants who leave it up to the individual to decide good from bad, right from wrong. They have a lot more problem with the Churches who claim authority to dictate an individual’s beliefs.

The Roman Catholic (RC) Church insists it has the authority to speak for God. Pope Pius IX presided over a Vatican Council in 1869-70 in which the doctrine of infallibility was promulgated. This doctrine asserts that one enters heaven through the (Roman) Catholic church only, that only the pope can determine doctrine, and that the pope's decisions are absolute and binding on all believers.

The two views, the RC view and the view of Martin Luther, couldn't be farther apart. There are lots of other Protestant groups, and lots of other differences, but this one will do to illustrate how it came to be that Protestants and Catholics remained polarized within the world of Christianity.

Recently, in America and elsewhere (but I think especially in America) something interesting has happened to this polarization. When John F. Kennedy became president in 1960, he was the first Catholic president the U.S. had ever had. Many Protestants worried the U.S. would now be "governed by Rome." Many Catholics voted for him strictly because of his religion; many Protestants voted against him for the same reason.

In the 2004 election, once again we had a Catholic candidate in John Kerry. Only this time, a majority of Catholics voted against him and for a man who was not only a Protestant, but a "born again" Protestant -- one who believes just as firmly that one has to be "born again" to enter heaven (and that leaves out Catholics) as traditional Catholics believe one has to be Catholic to enter heaven. The question is how could so many Catholics (I believe the figures were 55%) vote against a Catholic and for a Protestant.

The answer lies in throwing out our assumptions that Catholics will only vote for Catholics, and Protestants for Protestants, obviously. And here is where it gets interesting. Within the RC Church there has always been a split between people (let's call them 'traditionalists') who believe in strict adherence to church authority and doctrine and people (let's call them 'progressives') who believe there is truth in the church, but it is not always clearly manifested in everything the authorities claim, because they are obviously beset with human limitations.

Within Protestant denominations, too, there is a split between so-called 'fundamentalists' (the terminology is problematic, but for the sake of simplicity, let's use that term) on the one hand, who believe in the absolute authority of Scriptures (the Old and New Testaments of the Bible) in the same way RC traditionalists insist on obedience to the authority of the RC Church hierarchy.

With RCs and Protestants dividing less over issues that troubled Europeans historically and more over present day political ideologies, specifically the line between absolutism and liberalism, things now look like this:

Roman Catholics I:

The “traditionalists,” followers of the spirit of Vatican I and the doctrine of infallibility. All the popes except John XXIII; Cardinal Ratzinger and the “Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as “The Inquisition”)

Roman Catholics II:

The “progressives,” non-authoritarian, liberal-minded, followers of John XXIII and the spirit of Vatican II; ecumenicalists; theologians like Hans K√ľng; liberation theologists

Protestants I:

authoritarian, absolutists, “fundamentalists,” those who insist on a strict literal interpretation of the Scriptures, including an Old Testament view of God as Vengeful

Protestants II:

The “progressives,” non-authoritarian, liberal-minded mainstream churches with a diversity of interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel, but stressing the New Testament and the Beatitudes as representative of Christ; ecumenicalists

If you take a look at the two groups in depth, you realize very quickly that there is a resemblance among the absolutists across the religious divide, and a similar resemblance among the progressives. What are we to call this division? It is clearly a question of attitudes, values and beliefs. In other words, it is a manifestation of culture.

For that reason, let me add another dimension to the mix and call it the cultural values dimension. And then add the three issues the political right has used to rally its conservative forces, both Protestant and Catholic: abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research. Note how neatly this has joined Protestant I group with the Catholic I group, and given them Bush as a “values” leader. And notice too that Kerry has "values" (even if the right has attempted to co-opt that word pretty much for themselves) which reflect Protestant II and Catholic II people, as well as the large majority of secularists.

The presence of the modern secularists (i.e., the non-religious) in the picture creates a three-way split, with Religion I people standing at the hard right, the Secularists at the hard left, and the Religion II in between, sharing faith with their co-religionists, and cultural ideology with the secularists.

If you accept this division, you have a tentative answer to the question, “How could so many Catholics vote for Bush, even though their church dictates that only Catholics are “saved,” and that Kerry was “one of their own”? The answer is that they voted their “cultural” and not their “religious” values. Counting the “Catholics” and “Protestants” who voted for Bush and those who voted for Kerry will not reveal the real categories hiding behind those surface religious groupings and not present us with very interesting information. If, on the other hand, we devise ways to identify whether they see themselves in what I have called the “authoritarian” column or the “progressive” column, we will have much more usual information because it will bring us up to date and help us live with the fact that religion no longer calls the shots. For all the hoopla about religion in America, we're fighting not a religious war but a culture war.

80% of American Roman Catholics admit to using birth control, even though the Church forbids it, and even though going against the Church’s teachings supposedly puts one’s soul at risk. Many have had abortions, but continue to say confession and take communion in the mass. Many have been divorced, despite the Church’s absolute condemnation of divorce. The reason the percentage of “freethinkers” within the church is this high may be attributed to the fact that so many Catholics see themselves in the “progressive” column. They have pretty much taken on the cultural values of their Protestant liberal progressive fellow citizens.

It is being asserted that those who claim to be representing “true American family values” (i.e., the so-called “religious right”) voted against Kerry and for Bush because of their stand on abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research. While this may be an oversimplification, there is probably considerable truth to the claim the trend is in that direction.

If religion and culture are seen in this light, then we should stop talking about the “religious right” and identify that group in terms of its cultural values of strict adherence to an absolutist way of thinking. We should see the “culture wars” polarization in America not so much in terms of religious vs. secular, north vs. south, urban vs. rural, or even urban vs. exurban – although these shorthand labels for the division often seem to make sense – but as a division between authoritarian (usually called ‘conservative’) and progressive (usually referred to as ‘liberal.”) mindsets.

It would be foolish to suggest that the differences between Bush and Kerry and their supporters come down to nothing more than a division between absolutists and free-thinkers. Obviously there are major differences in economic policy, in approach to foreign policy, in ideological differences over the role of America in the world which go way beyond these issues I have limited discussion to the place where religion and culture intersect. But I would suggest that each time religion is brought out to explain how America votes and how America is to be compared with Europe and the rest of the world, that we not lose sight of the fact that much that is understood under the rubric of religion might be better understood under the rubric of culture.

Saturday, November 6, 2004

Feinstein’s Regret

A colleague and I got into Monday-morning quarterbacking the election on Thursday and she said to me, “I know it’s going to be painful for you to hear me say it, but I think the gay marriage issue might have made the difference.”

Diane Feinstein is in the news for saying the same thing, much to the chagrin of a lot of her California supporters. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is now taking gas for his decision to take such a strong pro-gay stand and force the issue onto the national and international stage.

Diane isn’t alone. Massachusetts’ gay congressman Barney Frank took issue with Newsom’s stand, urging him to try the Massachusetts approach instead and do the work through the courts and not through the media.

My colleague needn’t have worried about trampling on my sensitivities. I have a pretty tough skin when it comes to gay liberation. It comes from growing up at a time when the stock response to gays was, “I thought people like that killed themselves.” When you live in poverty in your youth, you don’t require fabulous wealth -- a house with walk-in closets will often do.

For about the first twenty-four hours after the news sank in I was fighting against the sense that my house, walk-in closet and all, had just been burned to the ground. Now I’m starting to look for remnants of things to start over on, and there’s a little voice nagging at me to stop with this hyperbole and get as fast as I can into reconstruction. And it’s saying something about compromises.

There’s a book just out by Thomas Frank entitled, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank addresses the fact that all sorts of red state folks voted for Bush despite the fact that they were in effect selling their birthright to economic equality, social welfare, education, decent jobs, healthcare, housing, and keeping the farm, simply in order to slow down the move toward a more relativist approach to sexuality. I say “simply” obviously because I think they’ve got their priorities very wrong. To them, obviously, it feels like a rational choice.

Feinstein and Barney Frank and my colleague are right, I think. This is going to take some time. People come up with some very funny ideas. Like the injustice of segregation is justified by your fear of what might happen to your white daughters if they have to share a classroom with little black boys. Or allowing women to haul their husbands into court for beating on them and forcing sex on them weakens the institution of marriage. Or having a gay fellow soldier gaze at you with lust in the shower is an insult to your manhood.

All of these fears have to be processed through the brain and filtered through a sense of justice and fair play, and that all takes time.

Asking me to wait on same-sex marriage while you work on this, Mr. and Mrs. Red State Person, strikes me as similar to asking black folk to wait another fifty years to end segregation. And asking women to wait a few years before we stop punishing them because a condom broke.

Democracy has taken a couple centuries since the French and American revolutions to reach this stage of evolution. Compared with that, waiting for Americans to catch up with their Canadian and European brothers and sisters on the concept of same-sex marriage is nothing. It will all happen. Gay people will come out one day from under this cloud of fear.

I have a sense of connection with the religious right and their fears of sex. I look at Jerry Springer and I see some woman getting into a fistfight with her daughter because she’s been sleeping with her daughter’s boyfriend. Or the Dating shows where some prancing rooster of a twit has three girls fighting each other in front of a TV audience for a one-night stand with the guy. These programs leave a nasty taste in my mouth and I wish they weren’t on TV. I imagine this is the feeling some of the religious right might be having when they think of two men or two women in the throes of sexual ecstasy. As a good friend said to me once about homosexuality, “I have no trouble with it in my head; it’s my stomach that has problems with it.”

That seems primal, just as the fear some whites had of black skin seemed primal and just as greed and the merging of sex with power seem to be primal. Look a little closer, though, and you are likely to find it isn't primal at all; it's simply conditioned thinking. Prejudices are learned. If I'm wrong, and it is primal, fine. Get over it. Some people feel sick at the sight of fat people, short people, children with cleft palates. Calling something primal is not an explanation; it's a description of a pathology. You don't turn aside with a "nothing can be done; it's primal..." You look at yourself in the mirror and say, "What's with you, jerko!" And you get your facts sorted out.

During the late 60s, California battled over the Briggs initiative to put all gay teachers out of a job, and Anita Bryant achieved notoriety for her campaign to “Save Our Children.” Both these movements were operating on the primal fear that gay people’s sexuality was child-focused. Nothing hurt gay people like that degree of misrepresentation. It was so obviously blatantly totally wrong. And yet people could hold that position and act on it from public office.

The left is faced now with developing a strategy for dealing with the fears of the religious right that our cultural attitudes about sex will send us all to hell. It’s not the only challenge, but it’s one of the big ones.

Some people are well down the road. I personally am just beginning to get my head around the challenge. How does one face what appears to be a circling of the moral wagons when they see you as an Indian?

Already I’m reading pleas that we learn to compromise. That’s not my inclination. One compromises when you want to spend fifty bucks on dinner for two and your partner wants to spend a hundred. You eat for seventy-five.

But when people say to you, “Give up your civil rights to equal access to justice” and you say nothing doing, the compromise is not to surrender half of them.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” was the shorthand of the black civil rights movement. Senator Feinstein and Barney Frank and my colleague and countless others, in feeling the pain of loss in this election, are suggesting we might have done better to delay justice. I know the appeal of practical realism -- get what you can now and save the rest for another time.

If that's the way things are going to go in the immediate future, I won't fight it. But I hope people will not allow compromise to cloud the fact that it is still justice denied.

November 6, 2004