Thursday, December 13, 2007

Paglia on Romney and religion

I was impressed by this passage from a recent Salon article by Camille Paglia, which covers a lot of ground in only a few paragraphs:

Mitt Romney may have been breathtakingly presumptuous in commandeering the flag-bedecked forum of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library for his long-anticipated speech on religion, but on balance, I think the event was a success for him merely by demonstrating his idealistic, bouncily upbeat character. Rudy Giuliani, dogged by tacky ethics questions, seems in contrast like a shadowy, hard-bitten wheeler and dealer, like Hillary Clinton a ruthless pursuer of power for its own sake. True, Romney's had a million positions on any question, but who's counting?

Romney's move may have been tactically necessary to counter evangelical Protestants' rejection of Mormonism as a cult, but the speech wasn't as conceptually developed as it should have been. As an atheist, I wasn't offended by Romney's omission of nonbelievers from his narrative of American history. On the contrary, I agree with him that the founders of the U.S. social experiment were Christians (even if many were intellectual deists) and that our separation of church and state entails the rejection of an official, government-sanctioned creed rather than the obligatory erasure of references to God in civic life.

But what does Romney mean by the ongoing threat of a new "religion of secularism"? The latter term needs amplification and qualification. In my lecture on religion and the arts in America earlier this year at Colorado College, I argued that secular humanism has failed, that the avant-garde is dead, and that liberals must start acknowledging the impoverished culture that my 1960s generation has left to the young. Atheism alone is a rotting corpse. I substitute art and nature for God -- the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe.

But primary and secondary education, which should provide an entree to great art and thought, has declined into trivialities and narcissistic exercises in self-esteem. Popular culture, once emotionally vibrant and collective in impact (from Hollywood movies to rock music), has waned into flashy, transient niche entertainment. The young, who are masters of ever-evolving personal technology, are besieged by the siren call of materialism. In this climate, it is selfish and shortsighted for liberals to automatically define religion as a social problem that needs suppression or eradication. Without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs -- including the tranquilizers that seem near universal among the status-addled professional class of the Northeastern elite.

Europe, which has settled into a comfortable secularism, is no model for the future. The great era of European achievement in arts and letters seems to be over. There are local luminaries but no towering figures any longer of the stature of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Ingmar Bergman. Europe is becoming a museum and tourist trap, as people from all over the world flock to see the remnants of Europe's royal and religious past -- the conservative prelude, in other words, to today's slack liberalism.

Searching, for example, for online news about Italy in recent years, I've been dismayed by its near-total domination by soccer, with archaeological discoveries and the restoration of Old Master paintings coming in second. The pope flits hither and thither, but that's it. Is there nothing new in post-Fellini Italian culture? It's as if Europe, struggling to incorporate massive Muslim immigration, has retreated into a bubble where the beautiful artifices of the past float like a mirage. Secularism evidently cannot stimulate creativity as profoundly as religion does -- whether in the artist's soaring affirmation or angry resistance.

Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of religion in American politics is becoming a tedious distraction from urgent social problems like healthcare. I detest sanctimony in any form -- from the unctuous piety of smarmy televangelists to ostentatious badge-wearing (such as the gold-cross necklace that Hillary Clinton was regularly flaunting around Capitol Hill). Religious protestations are now a rote formula for asserting family values and opposing moral relativism, with which the Democrats have been tagged since the hedonistic '60s. One reason religion is so intrusive in the United States is because of the mammoth institutional power of our mass media, which is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Religion has become a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness against our Hollywood Babylon.

Paglia's take reflects a comfortable ambivalence that I appreciate. While I'm not an atheist (I am, more precisely, a nontheist-- cf. the differences between rational, irrational, and nonrational), I too see religion as something that should not be completely eradicated. I am, however, a bit confused by what Paglia is trying to say in her final paragraph; the last sentence in that paragraph appears to be a non sequitur, which makes me wonder whether it survived previous drafts simply by having been overlooked.

One of the basic themes of the religion/politics issue is the degree to which church and state-- by which I really mean religious life and sociopolitical life-- are intertwined. While I'm in complete agreement with the principle of separating church and state, I think the reality, even in America, is that such a clean separation is impossible. Consider: a politician with strong, traditionalist Christian convictions might never once mention Jesus from the podium at the Capitol, but he might still act on those unmentioned convictions by consistently advocating anti-abortion reforms, laws that bar homosexual marriage, and so on.

The nature of religious belief makes a clean separation difficult, if not outright impossible. What use is it, after all, to subscribe to a notion of ultimate reality and then to bracket one's view of how that reality influences or applies to certain aspects of public life? As much as religious folks in an avowedly secular society might claim that their religious convictions remain personal, I think it is safe to infer that, insofar as one's religious beliefs inform one's conscience, a religious person who votes according to her conscience will, of necessity, have been influenced by her religion. The same would be no less true of a politician with strong religious views.

I don't know, exactly, where this leaves us. While I've pointed out that the separation principle is not reflected by reality, I nonetheless believe the principle needs to be respected and adhered to. Despair about the principle's ever being perfectly realized-- a sentiment rooted in pragmatic empiricism-- needs to be counterbalanced with the idealistic optimism that the principle, however imperfectly implemented, improves us all by creating a kind of neutral ground in which metaphysical and religious pluralism can thrive. Maintaining the paradox of such despair and optimism, a paradox I see at least partially reflected in Paglia's stance, leads to a healthy dynamic tension in public life.

To sum it all up, then: metaphysical convictions, be they explicitly religious or not, are by their nature hegemonic. If I have certain views about the fundamental nature of reality, I am not justified in claiming that those views are applicable only to myself ("religion is a purely personal matter") or to certain groups of people ("this is just for us Christians"). This explains why it is only natural for one's fundamental orientations to influence one's thoughts and actions in both the public and private spheres, and why, therefore, religion and politics can never enjoy a neat separation.

At the same time the separation principle, however impractical, provides us a sort of neutral ground, a forum in which a multiplicity of views may come together and interact in an atmosphere of maximal civility and minimal threat of hegemony. We see the practical benefits of this stance in the still-thriving nature of Western society; we also see what happens to human freedom in societies where this paradox is not cultivated.

One final point: an aspect of the religion/politics discussion that should not be overlooked, especially in the American context, is that elected politicians are not merely chosen to lead: they are chosen to represent their constituencies.* Knowing a politician's religious convictions is not a reliable guide to knowing how well that politician will represent his diverse electorate. A politician is often expected to put aside his own convictions in order to do what is best for the people. This adds an interesting wrinkle to the overall discussion; it leads us to questions about the relationship between personal integrity and the need for compromise, and the extent to which the public itself may be confused about what, exactly, it wants from its elected officials. Perhaps a post for another time.

*An interesting contrast to this is Presbyterian polity in which active elders, who hold no special spiritual authority, have the right to vote on matters affecting the church at the congregational, presbyterian (a presbytery roughly corresponds to a diocese in Catholic polity), synodic, or national level. Elders must vote their conscience, which may or may not include a consideration of what those they "represent" are thinking. In other words, nothing in the PCUSA Book of Order mandates that an elder must first consult the laity before voting on a given issue.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent point about bracketting one's overall stance toward reality. For some reason, it reminded me a lot of Raimundo Panikkar's crticism of phennomenological epoche in the context of intrareligious dialogue. Even assuming such a bracketting is possible (and he doesn't think it is), "we should be discussing exactly what we have bracketted." I tend to agree with you and with him; we can brackett some things, but our "total reaction upon life" ain't one of them.

The good I see in the "seperation of Church and State" is that while our metaphysical convictions may differ, we can still support the same basic principles, i.e. a certain kind of democracy, certain freedoms, etc. Rather than focusing on where we will inevitably disagree, it makes more sense to focus on what we agree on. We will no doubt agree on these points for different reasons, but the important thing (?) is that we do in fact agree...