06 November 2006

Religion and Politics

Newsweek has devoted this weeks issue to the relationship between religion and politics. In one article they discuss the growing discontent among evangelicals with the "Dobsonite" wing of Christian movements in the United States. I find it heartening to see a vocal movement emerging, intent on emphasizing the Gospels and, well, "silly" and challenging messages such as loving one's neighbor (i.e., the stranger, the one who isn't like you, precisely the one whom it's hard to love-- this would include, above all, the non-Christian), turning the other cheek, and devoting onself to acts of charity, rather than messages of the Law, such as those found in the book of Leviticus (strangely I haven't noticed any concerted efforts to stone people to death for eating shellfish, but apparently one can pick and choose). Indeed, one of the central problems I've had with Christian movements in the United States is their strong tendency towards group identifications around the signifier "Christian", that tends to promote the primacy of imaginary rivalry and struggle. I think this diary over at Dailykos does a good job explaining the dangers of this rivalrous logic and the injustices that have been produced as a result of "faith based initiatives". Very quickly any group identifications surrounding signifiers degenerate into what Freud referred to as the "narcissism of minor differences" or the rivalry between Shelbyville and Springfield on The Simpsons. Sometimes I suspect that the only way to be truly Christian is to forsake this signifier altogether, erasing one's desire for identity.

Sam Harris has an interesting editorial as to why religion and politics don't mix. Of particular interest, I think, is his observation that it is considered impolite to question the religious beliefs of another or that questions of evidence are out of bounds, off the table, where religion is concerned. This essentially entails that the religious have a free pass where public discussion is concerned, despite the fact that their actions and votes affect everyone else. From my perspective anything that enters the public square is entirely open to debate and being questioned, so this implicit or unspoken rule should be abolished. If people are going to mess with my life and the life of my family in friends with how they vote and act, with the policies that they enact, then these policies and the grounds of endorsing them should be brought before wholehearted public scrutiny.

Increasingly I find myself deeply perplexed as to how sex became the central focus of talk about morality and values. When I teach ethical theories derived from the Ancients (Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, etc), for instance, sex is hardly discussed at all. I have to do all sorts of footwork to de-suture the signifier "morality" from what one does in the privacy of their shower or with someone else's body, emphasizing that for the ancients the question was one of human flourishing or living well, eudaimonia, not with what one does with one's organs. As Foucault somewhere points out in his later writings, the ancients seemed more concerned with how one eats (Epicurus gives admonitions about eating fish and foods with sauces as they create indigestion) than with what one does sexually (I haven't found any references to sex in Epicurus or Epictetus, and find little or no reference in Aristotle). This holds true of the Gospels as well. Jesus seemed more concerned with hypocrisy (the money-lenders, the Pharisees, etc) than sex, and certainly was far more concerned with social justice than with what people do with each other's bodies. The same holds true of later ethical theories as well. In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Kant has a brief and amusing passage on the dangers of masturbation and goes so far as to suggest that marriage amounts to turning the body of another into private property and vice versa, but in The Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals he has little or nothing to say about sex. So too in the case of Mill's Utilitarianism. How, then, did sex come to be the central focus of ethical sittlichkeit in the United States? In his later writings, Luhmann suggests that moral communications are a symptom that something is not working (and also that they should be avoided as they tend to promote conflict, rather than diminishing it). What, then, would be the series of social "problems" that generated the predominance of this sort of discourse. I confess that I would be very heartened to see the emergence of a strong Christian movement focused on social justice, though my friends over at Weblog aside, I'm not holding my breath.

3 Comments:

Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

Your comment on the Harris editorial touches on something I've been discussing with various people here, but have thus far posted about only very indirectly: the protection offered to religious speech by the common feeling that it would be rude to call religious beliefs into question in the same way that we might contest, for example, a secular policy stance that we think is without empirical foundation...

I agree with the princple that this sort of politeness properly applies only to religious speech in a strictly private realm. Unfortunately, none of us individually controls the social convention that treats attacks on religious convictions as rude - a convention that doesn't currently seem to recognise the distinction between assertions of private belief with significance only for personal practice, versus attempts to restrict public practice by appealing to religious principles...

Until this distinction (or some better formulation of it - it's still early here: someone must be able to say what I mean more clearly than I've managed to do... ;-P) has a stronger grip on standards of public discourse, criticisms of religious thought in the public realm face an unsavoury choice: draw censure for "rudely" holding religious thought to the same standard as secular thought, or accept a kind of argumentative handicap in public debate...

November 07, 2006 3:43 PM  
Anonymous Sinthome said...

Thanks for the comment! I agree that a single individual cannot change conventions, but I also think that conventions can and do change, that they are essentially fragile, and that that change takes place through discoursing about them.

November 09, 2006 9:45 AM  
Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

I agree - apologies if I sounded as though I thought there was no alternative to acquiescence to the current state of affairs... Yes: the way to open a wider discursive space is absolutely to begin speaking explicitly about the issue - and then to begin pushing some of the current boundaries.

November 10, 2006 1:37 AM  

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