Monday, January 30, 2012

Privileges of the Majority

Peter Beinart had an interesting post about American Jews' religiosity, in which, among other things, he noted that American Jews tend to vote liberal because statistically, "U.S. Jews practice their religion far less than their American Christian counterparts."

I think this also ties in with why American Jews have traditionally been wary of people being or becoming "too" religious. Part of this is that there can often be a correlation between personal religiosity and carrying that over into the public sphere. Particularly in America, people tend to be very bad about keeping their personal faith off of others.

This often seems to be something that's very hard for non-Jews, particularly Christians (even "cultural" ones), to understand. I once had a very animated discussion with a college friend about the issue of prayer in public schools-- and even though she identified as a religious minority (Unitarian Universalist), I found it very hard to communicate the discomfort and frustration that that issue, and ones like it, raised in me. Since she still very much associated with the majority culture, it was hard for her to understand how threatening or offensive the idea that we are a Christian nation, or an inherently religious nation is, when you're in the minority.

For a religious minority with a long history of persecution, I feel that Jews are particularly sensitive to issues of majoritarianism, and it's part of the reason so many Jews on the more liberal/secular end of things are so cagey about bringing religion into public discourse. As soon as we start having a more religious public society, we inevitably get into the dicey questions of how and what to include and what to exclude. Frankly, it's something that is hard to do well.

Things also aren't helped by the fact that as the evangelical population in America has become more vocal  in their religiosity and desire for a more publicly religious society, it becomes increasingly clear that they haven't worked out all the sticky parts that would come with this new dynamic-- and particularly, what acceptable roles for non-Christians would be in a "Christian" country. One place this has popped up is with Mitt Romney's candidacy.

While I have little in common with Romney politically, it's been rather disconcerting to see the evangelical Republican population publicly debate whether his faith should prevent him from being "allowed" to be the GOP candidate. There's an incredible amount of hubris and privilege present here that for me, really exemplifies why I and so many other liberals, particularly liberal Jews, much prefer to have an American political sphere that is as secular as possible.

First example comes from the Christian Post, where columnist Jim Denison felt the need to defend the argument that candidate's faith should be a consideration by voters.

are there religious commitments that affect these "pivotal points" to the degree that they should be considered by voters? I believe there are. My position does not relate specifically to Romney and Mormonism; it applies to any candidate from any political party.  
Let's consider some examples. Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley nearly 30 years ago. If he had been a faithful Jehovah's Witness, he would have died – his church's teachings would have forbidden the massive blood transfusions that saved his life. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, which caused a rapid irregular heartbeat and atrial fibrillation. Drugs were effective in returning his heart rhythm to normal. If he had been a practicing Christian Scientist, would he have refused medical treatment? Do we want presidents whose lives could be endangered by their religious beliefs? 
How would a Sunni president have prosecuted the war in Iraq? Would a Shiite view Iran more sympathetically? Would a chief executive who was a Tibetan Buddhist be more sympathetic to the Dalai Lama in his ongoing conflicts with the People's Republic of China? 
Admittedly, none of the current presidential candidates espouse religious commitments so contrary to mainstream America. But would their policies be influenced by their religious beliefs? I would hope so.

And this is an area where we have a foundational disagreement. I want elected officials who either share my political philosophy, or at least have a view of government, country and society that won't be actively harmful to them. Their religious beliefs are far less important to me than their political beliefs, and it doesn't particularly matter to me what they are as long as they don't impair their ability to do their jobs well. And I don't really buy Denison's claim that he really wants all presidential candidates to make decisions based on their religion regardless of whether he agrees with those beliefs.

Would Mormonism's distinctive beliefs influence a Romney or Huntsman administration? Would evangelical commitments affect Rick Perry's presidency? Would Catholic moral positions gain consideration in a Gingrich or Santorum White House? Would Baptist convictions influence Ron Paul's policies? Do the United Church of Christ's theological positions alter Barack Obama's worldview and leadership? 
You and I may disagree on the answers to these questions, but we should agree to ask them.

First, this is really funny given how irritated conservatives got when liberals bashed Bush for saying God talked to him and gave him foreign policy advice. Second, sorry, no. Asking random questions to yourself is not a particularly useful activity, and given Jim's stated beliefs and biases, it comes off as poisoning the well. This is like all those people who kept questioning Obama's patriotism or eligibility but claimed they were "just asking questions." If you're curious about the effect Romney's faith might have on his administration, do some journalism. Don't just sit around going, "Hey, Mormons don't drink, do you think he'll repeal the 21st Amendment?"

Second example is from old friend Dennis Prager, playing, of all the things, the role of sage voice of reason. He can do this, he informs us, because,"as a Jew, I have no religious pony in this race," though he does want us to know how awesome Christianity and Mormonism are.
I believe that American Christianity has been the greatest force for good in the modern world and that evangelicals are at the core of America’s backbone. And I have enormous respect for Mormons. 
As he so often does in his columns, Dennis doesn't believe in showing examples or anything, he just states the facts and moves on before anyone can argue with him. A sort of drive-by op-ed, if you will.

Dennis has three take-aways he wants evangelicals to know. First of all, Mormonism isn't a cult, because Dennis says so.
Over the course of time, as a religion establishes itself and its members act more or less like members of the older religions, the charge is usually dropped... After nearly 200 years, Mormons are an integral part of American society, with impressive reputations for family life, integrity and other values. The “cult” label just doesn’t seem appropriate.
Got it, Christians? It used to be a cult. Now it's cool. Get with it.

Second, evangelicals need to get over labels.
in the view of most evangelicals, if people wish to believe in the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the prophecy of Joseph Smith, that is their business, but to call these and other distinctive Mormon beliefs “Christian” bothers many evangelicals. Of course, Mormons respond that a religion that calls itself The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can hardly be dismissed as non-Christian. But it is not my interest here to adjudicate this debate. I only wish to offer one reason that evangelicals might be disturbed by Mormonism calling itself Christian.
Well, that wasn't very decisive. Not taking a position on something? Live and let live? It looks like Dennis is getting all wishy-washy and liberally in his old age.

Last, Mormons can still be conservative without being evangelical.
Traditional Jews and evangelical Christians have quite different theologies, but they often have virtually identical values. (That is why this Jew is so supportive of evangelicals and why evangelical Christians syndicate my radio show.) Conservative Catholics and evangelicals differ on theology but share virtually every important value. The founders differed on theology but rarely on values.
A- Duh?
B- Nice weaseling by Dennis here. I know he went to Yeshiva day school, but he just had a column on how he isn't Orthodox, and he's publicly spoken about not keeping kosher. Exactly who is he kidding with this line about being a "traditional" Jew? Dennis is a liberally observant Jew with conservative politics. "Traditional Jew" implies something very specific, particularly to a non-Jewish audience, and it seems misleading.
C- Have you read anything the Founders wrote? They totally had different values, that's why they had different political parties!
D- I like how Dennis, judgmental crank par excellence, is telling the Christian right that they need to get over themselves and ratchet their righteous indignation down.

Last example comes from WND writer Jane Chastain, chastising her Christian brethren for their anti-Romney fears.

For too long, people of faith, and Christians in particular, have been lulled to sleep politically by anyone who claimed to be a member of the “right” church. He or she, in effect, had their religious ticket stamped. We elected them, hit the snooze button and they robbed us blind. How is that working out for you? 
...It wasn’t that long ago that many Protestants were afraid to vote for a Catholic for president for fear that the pope would be the de facto ruler of the country. Now, we are hearing the same kind of thing about Mitt Romney and the LDS president or prophet of the church. 
Another concern is that a Mormon president may mean more Mormon converts. Was there a surge of Catholic converts after the election of JFK? 
...There is no perfect candidate in the Republican field. However, short of a brokered convention, one of the four men still standing will be the GOP nominee. Let’s not rule one of them out simply because he is not a member of our faith.

Like Dennis, Chastain makes decent points here, but for me what's amazing is that these arguments have to be made in the first place. No kidding, you should elect someone who shares your values, even if you don't overlap with them 100%! That's how voting works. That evangelical voters are struggling with this just illustrates how much majoritarian privilege they are used to holding. It bothers me as a Jew that these folks are so culturally sheltered that the concept of voting for a non-Christian has never even crossed their minds before.

I guess it's nice that evangelicals are having these discussions, but for me it also shows just how large the gap is between my cultural and political experiences and theirs-- and the fact that this makes them so uncomfortable underscores why, for me, a specifically "Christian" America is one I do not want to live in.


tesyaa said...

Good post.

Friar Yid said...

Thanks for reading, tesyaa!