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November 19, 2004


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Ignoring the social issues is not the answer. The answer actually is to find the Christian rationale for the progressive agenda. It may take a little smoke and mirrors since the progressive social and economic agenda is not primarily motivated by religion, whereas the conservative social agenda is, but it can be done. I don’t even really believe welfare is very Christian, but the case can be made. Barack Obama can pull it off. He’s successfully showed strong support for progressive issues while at the same time appearing genuinely devoutly Christian. Though you may not have taken Alan Keyes very seriously as a senatorial candidate, it is true that Obama dealt very well with his ultra-conservative attacks, and I could see him being equally successful in this area in a national campaign. Reason number 172 why I think he’d make a great presidential candidate.

Unfortunately, though, right now, you won’t win political power by trying to convince people that religion should play less of a role in our government, because the majority of people won’t be convinced of that at this time. As long as Congress makes no law respecting the establishment of religion, politicians are free to use all the religious rhetoric they want. You start talking about how the founding fathers wanted separation of church and state, and your opponent will unleash the quote from Washington's farewell address stating that morality cannot exist without religion. Of course, I feel that Congress has passed legislation respecting the establishment of religion and yes, I would like to see “the Year of our Lord” stricken from Article VII, but most of the conservative social agenda can be rationalized in non-religious ways. A gay marriage ban, for example, they say, is not necessarily rooted solely in a religious belief that homosexuality is a sin. And just as conservatives need to un-religious-ify the rationale for their agenda to appeal to centrists and progressives, progressives need to religious-ify their rationale to appeal to centrists and conservatives.


I'm unconvinced that the left needs to find a means of approaching Red State Christians. "Christianity" in the United States usually means membership in a church and dedication to that organization's ideals, not any true understanding or even thoughtful approach to scripture. To follow your line of reasoning, Isaac, would mean offering to these so-called Christians an alternative lock-step theology-based ideology, not a new interpretation of Christ's message. Fundamentalist Christianity is no more imbued with the spirit of the Judeo-Christian tradition than, say, fundamentalist Islamists are beholden to the tradition of the Koran. It is in their _perception_ of this tradition, rather than the tradition itself, that dictates their sociopolitical agendas.

The key, in this case, is to argue even more assiduously for a citizen's ability to privately follow the dictates of one's beliefs rather than have these dictates form the basis for state-sponsored community activity. The penumbral right to privacy is a wall that divides the private and the public spheres, with religion firmly rooted in the former sphere. Christians as individuals, of course, can be an amelioric influence in culture; as an organization, like fundamentalist Baptists, they rarely contribute anything but oppression.


--Jesus' contradictions about the parables are part of the parables themselves and integral to Jesus' teaching. The confusion and ambiguity of the parables is central to their truth: they require consideration and dialogue for interpretation. Jesus' "definitive statements" make sense but how we are supposed to live by these statements is far from clear.

--Atheists are a minority, as you point out. All minorities in America are persecuted unless they have some power on their own. Many atheists hold high positions among the intelligentsia, so that gives them a certain amount of power but also invites a lot of hostility. Also, many atheists are devout and seek converts, and that's always risky.

--Everyone in America is a victim, not just atheists. Every group is a minority because the country is so large and diverse, and every minority feels victimized. At the same time, 8% of the country is still a huge amount of people, and many of those people are powerful, so anti-atheists feel victimized by atheists, and so on.

--The Founding Fathers were ambiguous when it came to the secularity of government. They didn't agree on everything; our government is a product of their debates, not their consensus. A good argument can be made that their idea of religious freedom was the government can't interfere with the way people worship (or not worship): government PROTECTS religion. In order to do this, government must then protect itself FROM a specific religion, because then that religion can interfere with others. At the same time, several state constitutions in the 1700s were explicit that officials could only be practicing Protestants; Jefferson and Adams were vehement about not letting Catholics in; etc. America's founding documents were produced by a culture that was very Christian (i.e., Protestant), thus/but very tolerant.

To get to your overall point, I don't think progressives would do well to tell people that "real" Christianity is helping the poor and rendering unto Caesar. You don't have to tell people they're wrong. Part of Bush's skill is he rarely attacks frontally. He just does what he does and says it's Christian. I think progressives should do the same. They don't have to tell people they're wrong. They should just say, "Here's what I believe." If a progressive is Christian, then he/she can say, "As a Christian, I believe..." or "Christians in the audience will understand me when I say that..." That puts the onus on your opponents to go negative.

I think the gay marriage debate could go forward if progressives talked about it as a debate, not as a settled issue. They should be sensitive to the other side. I think they could say, "We want this to be legal because America is a free country. We will never force your pastor to perform any marriage he does not want to perform. If he/she wants to do gay marriage, or if your congregation decides that gay marriage is okay, then that's great. In the meantime, homosexuals should have the right to go to Justices of the Peace or sympathetic religious officials and have a marriage ceremony. You have a right to your way of life--and so do homosexuals. America allows for a diversity of opinions, and right now many people, including many religious people, think that marriage is a beautiful thing and should be available to any two consenting adults who aren't related to each other."

I think progressives would win fights more often if they didn't treat them like fights.


Perhaps religious things need to be defined very specifically, and everything else belongs in the secular category. For example, Catholics believe in the sacrament of marriage. That means you aren't really married before God unless and until you get married by a priest. You can have your paper from the town hall the day before, but your "real" marriage takes place when you recieve the sacrament. Other faiths have their own traditions. Now noone expects the catholic church to administer the sacrament to gay couples. So if you really believe in the sacraments, and your church is not going to give or be forced to give the sacrament to gay people, then WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM? Getting married is two separate events - it's the secular part and the religious part. But people keep blending these things together and thereby diluting the meaning of the religious rites in the process. The leadership of the catholic church has led the charge to render meaningless it's own sacrament by meddling in this secular issue!! These people are harming secular society, but they are also harming religion. Progressives need to champion the bright line for the sake of religions as much as for secular society.

Isaac Butler

Good points, Marley, here's my follow-up question:

Would social conservatives accept the idea that the State shouldn't be regulating something called "Marriage" at all, that it is best left to churches?

Perhaps we should eliminate "marriage" from our lawbooks altogether, and replace it with "civil unions" which are bonds between people that for legal reasons the state does have an interest in regulating. For immigration, adoption and transfer of assets purposes, for example. Of course, the immigration status thing would be different than the others, but that's a long story. Anyway... That way people regardless of how they come to wish to be in civil unions could be in them, be they gay couples, straight couples, or lifelong roommates.

While I think that this is the correct public policy (I really do believe that government should get out of the marriage business in general) I can't imagine that advocating this would be politically expedient. But then again, that could be my own prejudice against socially conservative religious people. Anyone have any ideas?


In theory I agree, but what you suggest is akin to putting the genie back in the bottle.

The first step would be to get socially conservative religious people to acknowledge the difference between civil and religious marriages. That's probably most easily accomplished by appealing to vanity. The religious rites are more exclusive and discrimination is allowed and even encouraged, so therefore a religious marriage must be more desirable than a civil marriage. After all, anyone can get a civil marriage; but only people who meet certain criteria can be married in the XYZ faith.

Yet the actual benefits are intangible, or faith-based. If you don't believe you are actually getting married before God, then what's the point of a religious ceremony? If you do believe the religious rite makes your marriage binding before God, then why worry about people who aren't willing or able to make that same committment.

Sadly, I bet the religious satisfaction alone wouldn't be enough for many people. There would probably have to be some tax benefit available only to religious marriages before we could pry them apart from the lowly civil unions.

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