Recently, I had a long email conversation with some friends about an article on gays. Naturally, differences arose and one particular guy voiced his strong opposition to it on the grounds that it is “against God.” I took exception to this. At one point, he made some very personal disclosures and his experiences with “working with gay men” and relatives dying of AIDS. Not exactly trivial stuff or glib commentary.
He rooted his entire argument on the grounds of the dictates of his faith, dictates whose very nature are unyielding and absolute. I knew this to be a powerful means for living a sanctified life “apart from the world”, but very, very dangerous when operating in it, esp. the public square. His arguments elicited accusations of “holier-than-thou” sanctimony and the like, which upon reflection were unfair but typical in today’s political environment of acrimony and bitter suspicion. Here we have a good man taking a position that is God’s as he understands it. Yet, some of us saw sanctimony, arrogance, even hatred in his words. The debate is so pitched and positions so entrenched that they can cause hard feelings among the closest of friends. (Even I fell victim to my emotions getting ahead of my judgment.) I knew that the debate was important, but there had be a better way.
Recently, Barak Obama gave the keynote address at Call to Renewal‘s Building a Covenant for a New America Conference. He spoke on how those committed to their faith can and should work with secular progressives and how both often work for the same values. It was a powerful speech to listen to on my iPod and to read afterwards. It was powerful for me because it clarified how I as a progressive and believer remain integrated and committed to my beliefs. He described much of what needs to be done by progressives and the faithful to forge relationships that work for all.
For one thing, progressives need to be able to authentically appropriate and use religious language that expresses the values of the movement which are deeply held by most faiths. This is the language to can convey the values that both the faithful and secularists hold dear.
Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome – others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.
But secular progressives not only need to reach out, they need to understand that progressivism can’t be divorced from values. For many, their values are best expressed and nurtured by their faith traditions. Progressivism, a movement whose origins come from communities faith, has recently been at odds with those communities in our political landscape. That’s a serious problem.
But what I am suggesting is this – secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
There is tremendous possibility in today’s environment if secularists remember that rich history and tradition. Big tent policies that are inclusive can win support of the majority of Americans, of all political stripes.
Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of “thou” and not just “I,” resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.
But this doesn’t mean a wholesale abandonment of progressive ideals such as the separation of church and state. Rather they need to be affirmed in ways that remember the past and forge a new future.
For one, they [conservatives] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.
When progressives and religious do disagree it has to be about a sense of proportion and fairmindedness to one another. Demonization is ignorant and people doing so a rightly called out of touch ideologues. Speak to people where they are at and with a tone of understanding and respect. Then you can get support from people who disgree with you but respect you and what you stand for.
Re-reading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.
Ultimately, the project has to be about building a better America for all people. The hope is “that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.” Amen.