Gods and Democrats

Ken AshfordDemocrats, GodstuffLeave a Comment

Reprinted from The American Street (PZ Myers):

Amy Sullivan has a pet peeve: “the seemingly reckless way in which terms like ‘values’ and ‘religion’ and ‘morals’ are being tossed about in the press.” She’s an outspoken liberal Christian, and I’m an outspoken liberal atheist, and I have to say that I agree completely. I also somewhat agree with this comment, but I have one reservation. A major reservation.

You’ve heard me say it before, but apparently it needs repeating: A good many people are Democrats not despite their faith but precisely because of their faith. I don’t want to read “religious” when what you mean is “right-wing.” I don’t want to read “evangelical” when what you mean is “conservative evangelical.” And I don’t want to read “moral values” when what you’re really referring to are hot-button, right-wing sexual morality issues. The conflation of those terms with those specific definitions is NOT a neutral decision; it’s part of a very conscious strategy. It’s understandable that some news outlets have been taken in by the spin. Repeating the spin, however, is irresponsible.

This is a good point—there is a common, grossly mistaken assumption that one can equate morality with a very specific subset of Christianity. I can see why Sullivan is annoyed by it, since it drives me up the wall, too. It’s offensive and exclusionary, because it implies that all of us who aren’t right-wing Southern Baptists are out there wallowing in a cesspool of depravity with Caligula.

Here’s where Sullivan and I part company, though: she blames the media. I blame religion.

Religion has always claimed itself to be the ultimate arbiter of morality and the steward of public values. The Old Testament is extraordinarily nit-picky, right down to telling you what you’re allowed to eat and wear under punishment of death for violations; it advocates murdering, raping, and enslaving people who worship different gods. Fortunately, the New Testament is a bit more tolerant, replacing murder etc. with conversion, but still…an invisible god and his busy little priests continue to be the source of moral values. One can hardly blame the media for their attitude; they are merely parroting the howling claims of the loudest, most absolutist, most certain representatives of religion in our country.

I’m willing to grant Ms. Sullivan the word “religious.” I would like to see it broadened to include and value people of a liberal Christian bent. But “moral values” is a term that does not belong to the tolerant, open-minded individuals who follow the egalitarian teachings of Jesus, even when they share them. Moral values are secular. Freethinkers have them too. I don’t want to read “moral values” when what you’re really referring to is piety and prayer and church attendance and missionary work, and I definitely don’t want to see morality conflated with religion. While replacing the primitive fundamentalism of the right wing with the liberal theology of the left would be a distinct improvement, it doesn’t address the root cause of the problem: that human values should be founded on humanity, not faith in some unseen supernatural being.

The Democratic party should be the party of tolerance and diversity. We should welcome Christians and Moslems and Buddhists and Hindus and Deists and pagans and agnostics and atheists, and the only way all of them can be encompassed is by recognizing that moral values and Democratic values are wholly secular, independent of any particular faith. And one thing we need to get the media to communicate is that “secular” is not inferior to “religious”, but is actually a higher kind of value, better because of its universality.

Myself, I tend to think that the last thing helpful to Democrats is perpetuating the religious/secular dichotomy.  To say that "moral values" are "wholly secular" is to play into a useless schism and prolong a cultural battle that we cannot hope to win, since at any given time, about 50% of the people will disagree.

What is moral is moral on both a religious and secular scale.  There is no need to "choose" on which plane one rides on.