Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Smoldering Republic (or "The Case against Secularism")

Karl started it!

We've been having an interesting back-and-forth since Pope Benedict remarked that he approved of local bishops denying communion to public officials and lawmakers around the world who supported legalized abortion.

Don't worry - we both definitely agree that this is just the latest awful thing that the Sith Pope has done. Karl thinks this is an irresponsible interference in state affairs by the church (since the Church is attempting to wield its religious influence on legislators in order to change laws), which from his constitutional perspective is a violation of the maxim of Separation of Church and State.

The idea of excommunication is also theologically suspect - ideally, Christians should like to think that the Instituted Sacraments (communion and baptism) belong not to the Church (the human institution), but instead to God. Otherwise why are we coming to church to receive them? [These are called the Instituted Sacraments because they are the only ones performed by Jesus himself, and so they're considered the only ones necessary "for salvation" - whatever that means.] If this is true, certainly it falls outside of human authority to denying any other human that which is God's to begin with. And even more so, it's probably downright sinful to use possessions of God as political leverage!

But Karl goes a bit further:
There is also a difference between actions of a church affecting the entirety of a nation and those actions affecting isolated individuals. If there is a problem with a church harboring undocumented persons, it is substantially different problem than if the church were demanding its standards be imposed on the lives of all persons in the nation (e.g. excluding immigrants).

Might a religion express a view on the rightness or wrongness of an activity? Of course it may, and should, do so. And based on that, might an individual person of faith advocate such a position? Absolutely. But the religion should not compel its members to compel others to act in accord with the religion's teachings, particularly where that violates the member's duties to the state. (I'm vaguely reminded of rendering things to Caesar and to God here...)
I find it a confusing work of legalistic parsing to say that an individual should advocate their religion-based political views without "[compelling] others to act in accord with the religion's teachings]". That's not very good advocacy, now is it? If we're going to allow self-avowed religious people into government, then we're also allowing the judgments and opinions they carry, many of which may be based on their religious beliefs alone, to inform the ways they make and interpret our law and policy.

Karl's problem seems to be with religious leaders who essentially command that adherents behave a certain way, especially when those "adherents" are public officials and that "certain way" contradicts Constitutional principles and duties. But from there he says that the Church should "withdraw from the secular affairs of the state."

I think Karl is giving far too much credit to the Pope and people like him by saying
his remarks (and that's all they were) would "force Catholic legislators to choose between a duty to uphold the Constitution and their very faith." I find that most religious people I talk to understand, amongst themselves, something that many secularists refuse to understand in their propensity for overgeneralization of the religious: faith is so important to individuals precisely because it is so individual. The Bible, the Pope, the bishop, the pastor, the imam, the rabbi, the monk, the nun - sure, these are authorities in religious life, but an individual's faith is a lot more than just what a pastor tells him. A great deal of internal confirmation and struggle and questioning goes into everyone's faith formation - it is important to remember this when we feel to urge to blame "sheep-like Christians" for all the nation's problems.

Catholic legislators have been, are, and will be doing something that religious people through millennia have done: figure out how to live in between what they feel to be right and what they are being told is right. For some, this isn't a conflict at all, and I think it's safe to assume that those people, if they're legislators, were elected to represent exactly those views. For others, they'll be doing the most human part of religion, the part that makes it worth it, the part that brings change and renewal. In fact, it is this process of challenging religious authority that has brought about much of the social change that secular liberals claim as their own morals today.

When Karl supports the Church's complete retreat from public life over what the Pope says, he's giving credence to a frightfully small view of what it's actually like to allow religious values to play out in one's life. It's as if he's validating the idea that Catholics will basically do whatever the Pope says. Or that Evangelicals do whatever the Bible "says". That view, of course, makes for a much bigger target for enlightened academics like ourselves, but it's complete fiction.

Social progress begins with agonized individuals. Always. This is the reality of what it means to be human. Christianity is successful because it gives a way to understand this reality and then continue living and working for justice anyway. Because after torture and death, there is resurrection and life.

Religious leaders have done great harm and great help - but both have only been enabled by the extent to which religious people have reflected upon whether what their authorities say agree with what they themselves feel is right, and good, and a joyful thing.

We should invite this smoldering soul-searching among our religious and our civic leaders, rather than demanding a sterile system where input equals output and nothing ever surprises us. When an individual, upon further meditation, finds that her idea of justice is not what the existing religious and civic authorities are thinking of, that person can be called a citizen and a Christian.


Karl Smith said...

A lovely sermon. Just terrific. But you fail to address the concrete issues or accurately represent my thoughts.

Let's bring this conversation back to the practical and identify the point at which we disagree: The Catholic Church threatens to excommunicate and withhold communion from members of the Catholic Church who, in their sovereign capacities, support abortion rights. Agree or disagree? The threat of excommunication and withholding of communion are likely (and intended) to compel Catholic legislators to legislate in a particular way. Agree or disagree? Such an act is coercive in that it uses the power of the Catholic Church to change the behavior or legislators and those they govern. Agree or disagree? A religious establishment should not wield its authority (divine in origin or otherwise) in a coercive manner to compel legal change. Agree or disagree?

Note in that last step that your post misstates my argument - my objection in the comment was the the Church's use of its authority to compel lawmakers to compel others through legislation. Legislators compel by legislating. Their efforts to compel behavior are unavoidably informed, to some extent, by their moral, ethical, and philosophical beliefs. The problem with a religious institution using coercive methods to accomplish its doctrinal ends through legislation is that it thereby prohibits individuals from being informed by any sources apart from the religion.

Despite the insinuation, I certainly do not find religious individuals "sheep-like" - indeed what I decry is the Church's coercive use of its institutional authority to create such a situation!

Finally, you overstate your case when you suggest I call for a "complete retreat from public life" by the church. I concede that my statement that the church should "withdraw from the secular affairs" an overstatement. And devoid of the context of the rest of the discussion, it might seem to justify your attacks. But in the comments, indeed, in the portion you have blockquoted in your post, I specifically state that a church SHOULD engage in discussions of social issues and their rightness or wrongness. Hardly a "complete retreat from public life" that I'm advocating, no?

The point is, there's a substantial difference between an institution's advocating a result through voluntary actions by its members, informed by their religion and other sources, and the institution's using its coercive power to bring about that action by its members. (For a fun exercise, reverse the roles. There's a difference between a senator advocating that religious Americans should support doctrinal change in their churches - say, to support marriage equality - on the one hand and, on the other hand, the Congress passing a law requiring religious Americans to support doctrinal change under penalty of exile - arguably both would be improper)

Alex Kim said...

The point is, there's a substantial difference between an institution's advocating a result through voluntary actions by its members, informed by their religion and other sources, and the institution's using its coercive power to bring about that action by its members.

Yes, I think I get your point now, and clearly I agree. The objection you have to what the Pope is doing be approving the excommunication of pro-choice legislators is that he is wielding religious authority in a coercive way. And coercion, of any sort, is a very bad thing when applied to the people making and interpreting our laws.

I guess I just had a nasty reaction to the tone of your first post - in light of our conversation, I feel that you weren't accurately representing your own thoughts at first, for what it's worth now. I really got the feeling that you were throwing the baby out with the bathwater. No pun intended. Well, maybe a small one.

By the way, thank you for the compliment on my sermon. I'll pass the collection plate to you later.

Karl Smith said...

Does the collection plate take radically post-dated checks?

On another note, it's nice to see the blog being used as it was originally intended - for dialogue rather than simply patting one another on the back all the time.

Alex Kim said...

Radically post-dated check = radically post-dated salvation. It's your call.

Sarah Bakker said...

Thank you Alex and Karl for having this debate - you have helped me clarify some issues I have been struggling with myself.

My response is not directed to the substance of your conversation as such, but is instead a tangential reflection on the elephant in the room.

I find myself compelled to ask a question of deep heresy (it is my duty as an anthropologist): in our society's hierarchy of authority-sources, the one authority-source that is never questioned, or at least is always nominally deferred to, even by Americans of a completely non-compartmentalized sort of faith, is the Constitution itself. Its seems to inspire a certain religious reverence in the American population that I find surprising. The Constitution is that against which we measure everything else for civil soundness, even when we can't agree on what it even says.

Why is this I wonder? How did this piece of paper acquire such mana? The contents are questioned and argued - but the authority it holds is revered as if it is sacred.

I suspect that the answer is much more than just its association with our founding myth (creation-story) and technologies of citizen-formation required of our imagined community. I think it has something to do with a cultural model of authority, rooted in submerged cosmologies of religious conviction and sensibility in the western traditions of empire. Our faith in the Constitution is downright monotheistic, but we don't know how to think about it otherwise. Alternatives are beyond the edges of reasonable thought.

I know this presupposes an ontological kinship between political being and religious being - but its a presupposition that stands, in my experience.

Just thought I'd throw that out there. Thanks again! Keep having these arguments!