The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Fearing the Faithful, Pt. 1

I meant to post a response to Arianna Huffington’s post, titled “Fear of Faith”, when it was originally posted, but an already busy life suddenly got busier, and now two weeks later I find myself sitting in New Jersey—sleep deprived, and so busy making bottles and changing diapers that I still haven’t posted a response.

Not that I need to. Arianna’s readers’ have taken her to task for having posted stuff like this.

So for many the price of escaping from the prison of damnation-drenched religious conventions has been to lose touch with the spiritual truths from which they originally sprang. When that happens, our new reality is the fear-filled and barren terrain of sterile secular humanism. It’s a false world in which the spiritual either gets taken over by fanatical fundamentalism or explained away by psychoanalysis as the residue of a damaged childhood. Indeed, one of Freud’s most famous books about religion is entitled The Future of an Illusion.

Without faith in a higher order and the existence of something outside ourselves and our everyday lives, life can become emotionally unbearable and filled with fear. And this anxiety, even if we’re not aware of it, will surface in other parts of our lives. Bernard Levin described it as “the gnawing feeling that ultimate reality lies elsewhere, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, sensed just beyond the light cast by the campfire, heard in the slow movement of a Mozart quartet, seen in the eyes of Rembrandt’s last self-portraits, felt in the sudden stab of discovery in reading or seeing a Shakespeare play thought familiar in every line.”

Leaving aside trotting out the rather tired right wing harping about “sterile secular humanism,” I think Arianna misses the point. It is not faith that some of us are afraid of. Nor does a lack of faith cause most of much in the way of fear. (After all, hell does not yawn before us, and paranoia over being left behind in the Rapture isn’t a problem.)

What we fear is not faith, but—and with good reason—the faithful. One look at the presidential race, and the field of leading candidates, bears that out.


I was too busy with family to comment on Mitt Romney’s speech when he gave it, and I realize I run the risk of blogging about “yesterday’s news” at this point, but his speech is a pretty good example of why fear of the faithful—not necessarily faith itself—isn’t entirely unreasonable. What to make of a serious presidential candidate who makes pronouncements like this?

Romney said religion is essential to freedom, without pointing to any specific faith.

“Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone,” the GOP contender said.

His—which aren’t that different from Arianna Huffington’s in some ways—words may comfort some religious people, but they should be a cause for concern to the 12% of secular Americans who don’t identify with a religious tradition. Indeed, it ought to raise eyebrows among those Americans who are neither atheist or agnostic, but who belong to or identify with religious traditions outside the mainstream, which some religious conservatives declare are not “real religions” and thus not entitled to the protections afforded “real religions” and their adherents in this country.

…When Chuck Colson said Paganism isn’t a “real religion,” and questioned whether it should be recognized by the government as such (and thus treated as equal to any other faith), it piqued my interest. Kip questioned just what “court tests for religion” would consist of, and I wondered just a legal definition of religion would consist of. So I went looking.

… I see no reason why Wiccans or pagans generally should have the services of taxpayer-paid chaplains. It is perfectly appropriate, if a group meets court tests for religion, that outside priest/ministers be allowed to come into federal facilities and minister. But historically, with standards that have been spelled out carefully by the courts, chaplains are appointed to represent mainline religions.

I wondered what “court tests for religion” Colson referred to, and why he thought they favored, or should favor, his own above others. And if anyone should know about tax-payer funded religion it’s Colson, given that his proselytizing prison program is funded by the Bush administration’ s faith-based initiative. Plus, he’s pretty up front about it.

Romney is less up-front than Colson, in his claim that “”religious tolerance would be a shallow principle, indeed, if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree,” and perhaps this is because he wants people like Colson to forget that he to a religion that many evangelical Christians consider to be outside of their tradition. And probably for that reason, like any outsider longing for mainstream acceptance and the power that comes with it, he is willing to brush aside a concept like separation of church and state, which has long protected both the non-religous and the non-traditionally religious.

Kennedy told the ministers in Houston, “‘I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Romney tried to say something like that, but he didn’t dare speak so bluntly. Too concerned about offending evangelical conservative voters – who don’t believe that separation of church and state is absolute and are abandoning his campaign for cynical crusade of wily Southern Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee – the former governor could only muster a self-serving pledge not to offend those who do not share his Mormon faith. “If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest,” Romney squeaked.

Instead of promising the “absolute” separation that Kennedy pledged, Romney attacked those who would follow the lead of the 35th president and, for that matter, of the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who argued that the purpose of the Constitutional reference to freedom of religion had been to build ” a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Romney told his friendly audience at the presidential library in College Station, Texas, that, “No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God.”

That last statement is rather Obama-esque. (Indeed, much of the speech could have been given by leading Democratic presidential contenders, but I hope to come to that later.)

The irony is that Romney declared that there should be “no religious test” for presidential candidates, during a speech designed to place him within the religious mainstream, and thereby make him a viable candidate for the Republican nomination, by appealing to the very people who ardently believe that there should be a religious test. And not just the 53% of Americans who would never vote for an atheist candidate, but the 37% who say they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon either. (More people, about 55%, actually said they would

In that sense, Romney’s speech can be pared down to it’s bottom line message.

The take-home message of Mitt Romney’s recent speech on religion and politics was pretty clear: I may be a Mormon, but at least I’m not an atheist.

…Romney sought to strengthen his advantage as a presidential candidate known for being religious while assuaging the concerns of Americans who are reluctant to vote for a Mormon. He did so by reinforcing the public’s longstanding prejudice against unbelievers, arguing that religion — any religion — is preferable to no religion at all.

In that sense, Romney’s point isn’t all that different from Huffington’s, and both reinforce the “longstanding prejudice against unbelievers.” The difference is that while Huffington’s point might encompass non-traditional or—let’s just say it, non-Christian beliefs—Romney’s draws a circle that shuts out a sizable minority of Americans, like the the prayer at George W. Bush’s first inaugural.

The very first act of the new Bush administration was to have a Protestant Evangelist minister officially dedicate the inauguration to Jesus Christ, who he declared to be “our savior.” Invoking “the Father, the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ” and “the Holy Spirit,” Billy Graham’s son, the man selected by President George W. Bush to bless his presidency, excluded the tens of millions of Americans who are Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists from his blessing by his particularistic and parochial language.

The plain message conveyed by the new administration is that George W. Bush’s America is a Christian nation, and that non-Christians are welcome into the tent so long as they agree to accept their status as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens. In effect, Bush is saying: “This is our home, and in our home we pray to Jesus as our savior. If you want to be a guest in our home, you must accept the way we pray.”

But the United States is neither a Christian nation nor the exclusive home of any particular religious group. Non-Christians are not guests. We are as much hosts as any Mayflower-descendant Protestant. It is our home as well as theirs. And in a home with so many owners, there can be no official sectarian prayer. That is what the 1st Amendment is all about, and the first act by the new administration was in defiance of our Constitution.

Or the National Day of Prayer.

Far from being a day to bring people of various faiths together, the National Day of Prayer has been hijacked by intolerant Religious Right groups who seek an officially “Christian nation,” says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The National Day of Prayer (NDP) takes place tomorrow. By federal law, the commemoration occurs on the first Thursday of every May.
Most events around the country are coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right leader James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family. The task force instructs its volunteers to allow only conservative Christians to speak, and its events are often laden with “Christian nation” rhetoric.

…An application for prayer coordinator volunteers on the NDP Task Force Web site claims that its events are “Judeo-Christian” but then goes on to require that applicants sign a statement affirming belief in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus and his resurrection.

The application also requires coordinators to “ensure a strong, consistent Christian message throughout the nation” and “commit that NDP activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians….”

By that very definition a Hindu chaplain wouldn’t qualify, nor would a Buddhist member of Congress, let alone an atheist member of Congress or a Muslim congressman.

That’s because, and here’s perhaps the final irony, the principle Romney invoked as a basis for his entire speech—“religious tolerance,” which he said should not be “reserved only for faiths with which we agree”—is one he or the Republican base (the same people who drive families like the Dobriches out of town, drag families like the Smalkowskis into court, drive Wiccan army chaplains out of the service, drive Wiccans to keep their beliefs under wraps, deny Wiccan soldiers the symbols of their religion on their headstones, and deny Muslim soldiers a place to worship) he wants to reach could ever have never have given us.

Liberty can survive religion, especially a multiplicity of religions within the nation. Because that way there is not a central faith that imposes itself on everyone, as Catholicism used to in Ireland or Buddhism used to in Tibet. But organized religion would never ever have produced the First Amendment to the US constitution, and the 19th century popes considered it ridiculous that the state should treat false religions as equal to the True Faith.

Deists, freethinkers and Freemasons–the kind of people that Romney was complaining about– produced the First Amendment. When Tom Jefferson tried out an earlier version of it in Virginia, some of the members of the Virginia assembly actually complained that freedom of religion would allow the practice of Islam in the US. Jefferson’s response to that kind of bigotry was that other people believing in other religions did not pick his pocket or break his leg, so why should he care how they worshipped? And that’s all Romney had to say. But he did not want to say that. Romney said the opposite. He implied that it is actively bad for a democracy if people are unbelievers or if there is a strict separation of religion and state.

It is not a principle that they could ever have given us, but it is one that they’d like to do away with or at least weaken. And, according to their logic, it would be for our own good, and even for the sake of Democracy; for the sake of freedom itself.

The “faithless” among us may not be “with it” according to Huffington, and she may be right that we need not fear faith or religious belief in and of itself. The faithful, however, we may have good reason to fear.

One Comment

  1. Been away from here a few days. Crossing my fingers.

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