The 1992 Republican Convention was a virtual orgy for the Religious Right. George Bush spent so much time talking about morality and values that it was difficult to remember that he was not running for Pope. (He might, of course, have had an easier time if he were. Certainly the campaign would have been cheaper, aside from the extra transatlantic airfare and the cost of intensive Italian lessons.) Patrick Buchanan declared “cultural war” on everybody who disagrees with his religious and political opinions. He proclaimed that this is a “Christian country” because the majority of its citizens are Christians. [Presumably by the same reasoning, this is a female country, since the majority of its citizens are women.] This spectacle raises two questions for those of us outside the religious right: does a political party, or a government, have any business telling the American people what values they should espouse? and, if so, are the values dictated at the Convention the ones most in keeping with the founding ethos of the American polity?
My instinctive response to the first question is a ringing no. I get my values from my religious tradition, my congregation, and my own spiritual search. As a member of a minority wing of a minority religion, I share none of these with the majority of the American people. What we Americans do share, in answer to the second question, is a history of flight from persecution and exclusion by majorities in other countries. Most of us are still committed to not duplicating that behavior here. We sometimes trip over the practicalities of this commitment, since we find it so easy to believe that all Americans are members of the Protestant mainstream. Generally, once the multidenominational facts are brought to our attention, we will gladly clean up our act and stop doing things that treat people who are not mainstream Protestants like outsiders or second-class citizens. Buchanan and his ilk believe that commitment is itself violative of what they define as the American ethos, which they like to call the “Judeo-Christian” ethos, “family values”, or “biblical morality.”
“Biblical morality” is not biblical
Two things need to be emphasized here. First, despite its recurrent invocations of the “Judeao-Christian” and “biblical” ethos, the agenda the religious right is pursuing is not a biblical agenda. The Bible has absolutely nothing to say about when an unborn child becomes a human being. It says nothing whatever about birth control except, possibly, the story of Onan being divinely punished for “spilling his seed” and thereby refusing to carry out his divinely-ordained duty to beget sons by his brother’s widow. Since not even the most literalist sector of the religious right now considers the levirate marriage a divinely-imposed duty, the sin of Onan has become moot in that quarter. Similarly, the Jewish scriptures are quite clear that male homosexuality is to be punished by death, and the New Testament states that male homosexuals shall not inherit the divine kingdom. So far, no respectable voice on the religious right has advocated capital punishment for sodomy. But the Bible has nothing to say about whether, if these reprobates are allowed to live, we are obliged (or even allowed) to discriminate against them in housing, employment, and public accommodations. It provides us with even less guidance as to the proper treatment of lesbians.
The most politically articulate speakers for the religious right not only are not drawing on the Bible, they have not even bothered to familiarize themselves with the relevant passages, much less to notice how few such passages there are. With few exceptions, a speaker for the religious right who says “the Bible tells us”, or uses the phrase “biblical morality”, is referring to the morality of his grandparents’ generation, roughly what 19th-century Unitarians would have considered proper morality. By the standards of biblical Israel, that morality would be appallingly lax in some areas, and outrageously restrictive in others. The religious right, by and large, finds divorce more acceptable than fornication or adultery, defines adultery as sexual infidelity committed by or with a married person of either gender, and has a really hard time deciding whether abortion is worse or better than unwed motherhood. None of this has anything to do with the morality depicted and taught in the Jewish scriptures, nor that taught in the New Testament.
Biblically literate Christians and Jews know how really difficult it is to extract a coherent moral code, sexual or otherwise, from the scriptures. It can be done, but it requires a lot more study, subtlety, and ingenuity than the religious right has so far applied to the task. Whether such a moral code, once extracted, can meet the needs of a technologically advanced and socially fragmented society, is a whole separate question. The point is, the religious right has not done its homework and is not even trying.
The cultural war is not a religious-vs.-secularist war
Second, by their silence, the religious left and center have allowed the “cultural war” in which Patrick Buchanan says we are now engaged to be characterized as a dispute between religious people and irreligious people. It isn’t. There are religious people on both sides of these controversies. (There are also secularists on the side of the religious right, like many of Ronald Reagan’s friends.) There are committed, believing, religious Jews and Protestants who believe, individually and collectively, that abortion is not merely permissible in some circumstances, but may in some cases be morally and religiously required. They believe, based on the religious and philosophical doctrines of their own faiths, that the fetus is not a human being until it is viable or born, and that it can, and in some cases must, therefore be sacrificed to the welfare of the mother and the whole family. Similar religious groups believe contraception not only can but must be taught to young people. And an increasing number of religious bodies believe that lesbians and gay men have the same divinely-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as heterosexuals, and that those rights ought to be protected by civil law. (And, in fairness, many individual Catholics share these beliefs, despite the official position of their church.)
A Closet is not a Tent
Indeed, Buchanan’s “cultural war” is not even a conflict between people who engage in homosexuality, get abortions, and commit fornication and adultery, and people who don’t. The response of the Bushes and Dan Quayle to the question “What would you do if your daughter/ granddaughter decided to get an abortion?” (roughly, I’d object, but I’d support her), and the surprising number of gay men who turn up on the religious right, tell us that the goal of that coalition is not to stamp out sexual misbehavior, but to make sure that those engaged in it feel guilty and ashamed. Above all, they want to make sure that “l’homme [femme] moyen sensuel[le]” feels obliged to lie about it and is vulnerable to being blackmailed. The religious right is willing to accept, support, and even collude with the closeting of upper-class sexual miscreants–like Bush’s hypothetical granddaughter, Quayle’s hypothetical daughter, and the late Roy Cohn. But it reserves the right to discriminate against or even viciously attack the “lower orders” who stray from the straight and narrow. They want no laws barring them from doing so. All of which suggests strongly that the Republican Party is not a “big tent” but a gigantic closet.
The “secular realm” is not secular
On the other hand, the religious center and left, and especially religious people who are not mainstream Protestants, should be clear that secularists do not speak for them. The courts, and most notably the Supreme Court, have decided that most of the public observances of mainstream American Protestantism are “secular”–most notably not working on Sundays or Christmas, and Christmas decorations–and therefore can be imported into the public realm without violating the First Amendment’s “no establishment” clause.” And so, incidentally, can the more pagan-derived observances such as Halloween, Santa Claus, and the Christmas tree, to which even some Christian fundamentalists object. On the other hand, the courts have also decided that the observances of religions outside the American Protestant mainstream are religious and therefore cannot be accommodated in the public realm (even in the name of the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause) without setting up an “establishment of religion.” So not only can an observant Jew be required to close his business on Sunday, but he may have to use his “personal” or vacation time to avoid reporting for his job on Saturday or Rosh HaShanah, and can legitimately be forbidden to wear a yarmulke to work, school, or court.
The religious right is taking the position that there is no neutral ground. If the public realm is not explicitly suffused with their values and rituals, they claim, it is dominated by the “religion” of “secular humanism.
In fact, the public realm sanctioned by the courts is not “secular humanist”–it is mainstream Protestant with a tincture of Nordic/Celtic paganism. The courts have gone further than many Americans who are not mainstream Protestants are comfortable, in bringing mainstream Protestant observances into the secular realm. They just haven’t gone far enough for the religious right.
Multiculturalism misses a major culture
Similarly, I would not argue that our schools are teaching the “religion” of “secular humanism.” But they do do a poor job of teaching about the role of religion in American and world history, cultures, and literature. Likewise, our entertainment media portray a world in which the role of religion in the lives of ordinary people is ignored even more severely than the prevalence of sound marriages and two-parent families. In their efforts to avoid imposing a morality or a tradition on a public which may not share it, the entertainment and educational establishments have bent too far in the opposite direction. We Americans, in varying degrees, espouse multiculturalism because we believe people have a need and a right to see themselves, or people like themselves, in the cultural artifacts around them; but by ignoring the role of religion, we are flagrantly violating that right.
Not a spectrum, but two opposing creeds
Americans tend to assume that morality is a continuum, from those who believe in no morality, to those who assume an entire catechism of obligations. We also assume that the more morally observant people may be offended by the conduct of their looser brethren, but that the latter cannot possibly be offended by the uprightness of the former. Therefore, we assume, we can safely skew public life and morality toward the stricter end of the spectrum, if we wish to offend the fewest people. The timidity of the religious center and left has a great deal to do with the popularity of these assumptions. They have allowed themselves to be perceived as less moral than the religious right because they do not share the latter’s moral beliefs and will not attack those beliefs on their merits. The things the religious right does and believes which are profoundly offensive to the religious left and center never get into the discussion. A search for “neutral ground” under these conditions will end by defining neutrality as just short of everything the religious right wants. The only serious countervailing force will be the inexorable demands of the consumer economy, with whom the religious center and left have their own disagreements.
Teaching a “Moral Core” in Public Schools
For instance, can we, under these conditions, come together in teaching public school students some core of universal moral basics, like honesty, respect for the rights of others, self-control, and the “golden rule”? I’d like to think so, but I doubt it. How would the religious right view “respect for the rights of others” or the “golden rule” in the context of dealing with a gay or lesbian student in a mostly-straight class? Suicide among gay teenagers is enormously more prevalent than among teens in general, precisely because people at that age have less tolerance of deviance–in themselves or others–than they will ever have in the rest of their lives. What gay teenagers need from their fellow students is precisely respect for their rights and a good dose of the golden rule. But the religious right would be appalled at the mere thought of teaching such values to their children (or ours.) And many of the rest of us–religious center and left, and secularists, would be appalled at the thought of not teaching and practicing such values. Similarly, the religious right is likely to believe that “honesty” (and the golden rule, for that matter) impose the obligation to inform sinners and unbelievers that they are headed for hell. Which is hardly what I want my children subjected to.
We all can probably agree that public schools have a right and an obligation to codify and enforce a code of student behavior on school grounds, during school hours, and at school functions. Such a code can legitimately forbid physical abuse of students and school personnel, cheating, plagiarism, lying, drug use, drinking, smoking, reading pornography, libel, slander, and theft. But, while both sides can probably agree on these rules, they would have trouble agreeing on the rationale and authority behind them, and probably ought not to try.
Avoiding religious wars–can we? Should we?
The genius of the American polity has shown itself in our ability to go two hundred years without a religious war. The only other nations to have done nearly as well are those whose citizens have pretty much quit taking religion seriously, e.g. in Western Europe, China, and Japan. But Americans as individuals take religion very seriously, far more so than most Europeans, Chinese, or Japanese. We have kept out of religious wars (so far) by keeping our religious differences out of the public realm.
That tactic may be losing its usefulness. It can work only when all sides abide by it voluntarily. The religious right has now ceased to do so. This puts its non-secularist opponents at an unfair disadvantage.
So far, the opponents of the religious right have argued only that theology and religiously-sponsored morality do not belong in the public realm. No one has taken the position that the religious right’s theology and morality are theologically and morally wrong.
The secularists, quite reasonably from their point of view, don’t care about the substance of the religious right’s doctrines. And the religious center and left have allowed themselves to be intimidated from both sides–by the secularists, who oppose any theologically-based discourse in the public realm, and by the religious right, who believe they have a monopoly on such discourse. Which puts the religious left and center in the position of being secure in their right to promulgate their beliefs only among those who already share them.
It is time for the religious left and center, and those religious Americans who are not mainstream Protestants, to declare themselves and publicly distinguish their beliefs from those of both the religious right and the secularists. The public silence of one side can no longer prevent religious wars–it can only guarantee the defeat of the silenced.