Friday, October 05, 2007

Book Review – Non-fiction

Vanity, Religion and Politics
by QiN-Hombre

And without religion, our politics will be nothing – which means, in a democracy, that our nation will be nothing. And without renewal, without a retreat from the wilderness and a return to the garden, without more time spent listening to the voice of God and less time spent drafting position papers or fighting over who will be in charge of what - without these necessities, religion will be nothing too.”

This is the absolutist and 'radical' closing message of Stephen Carter’s 2001 book - 'God's Name in Vain' The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics - an inspired, thoughtful and well-constructed argument for the proper role of religion in American politics. Why review this book in 2007?
With the 2008 presidential election looming - a mere 13 months away - we can feel that familiar warm wind building again. Now - more than a year in advance of our next fall festival of federal democracy - is a very good time for Friends to know about this book.
Every four years of late, in some strange cycle, I’ve felt Quakers start to glaze over and prepare for what has become among Friends, ‘the red hour’ * where everything Friends may have been doing, gets put on hold while The Religious Society of Friends temporarily transforms into a quasi Politcal Action Committee.

Every four years, on the East Coast, in unprogrammed religious meetings, we might notice the increasing din over our sparse assemblies for what others in the wider world should do, and how presidential elections will hopefully go (to the Democrats).
In June 2004 I attended a conference in New York City entitled ‘Inequality Matters’ – it was something of a rah-rah for the Democratic Party come that November. I wrote a report of my experience there to Friends at my former Monthly Meeting who supported my attendance at the secular conference. The partisan nature of the event didn’t enourage me to share with other conference attendees what Friends might believe Equality means. Why waste myself when the goal and outcome of the conference was already decided – to have organized discussions with like-minded liberal people about issues which were already agreed upon? Oh yes, the Democratic Party lost the presidential election in 2004.
Stephen L. Carter, is a politically liberal African-American legal scholar with conservative leanings - yet he has admittedly benefited by affirmative action. He’s no ‘Clarence Thomas’, however Carter is a transparently faithful Christian and an Episcopalian. Carter is a professor at Yale University Law School.
Carter’s book states - “in the late 20th Century, what was once mostly a protector of religion from the state, the wall of separation of Church and State has quickly become an insulator of the state to religious speech – to moral guidance". Some feel that individual humans or electoral politics don’t need religion to be guided in moral issues - for example, those who believe that legal ethics are moral in and of themselves. Carter, however, equates religion with the ultimate shaper of modern morality, even in politics, if done correctly.
The 2007 book Head and Heart - American Christianities, by Garry Wills, is in accord with Stephen L. Carter’s book reminding us about the Third Commandment. Wills’ review caption on the NPR show ‘Fresh Air’ broadcast of his interview states – “separation was meant as "the great protector of religion, not its enemy." Click on the above link to listen to Garry Wills interview, and to read a chapter from his book, which describes how the Quaker, Mary Dyer was hanged.
But, it is difficult for the politically liberal with vivid short-term memories to get their spiritual arms around this important concept when the conservatives’ invocation of God’s name helped the Republicans win the last two presidential elections. So, the conservative, right-wing Christians won then, right?
Carter begs to differ - however, for a reason that the politically liberal might also find difficult to agree with. (Carter does not fit the cookie cutter mold for ‘progressive’ liberal-think.) Carter explains that fundamentalist (mostly referred to in the modern media as ‘Evangelical’) Christians who formed most of the ‘The Moral Majority’ and the ‘Christian Coalition’, in changing American electoral politics, also changed their religion in the process - for the worse. The degradation was in compromise, in muting the radical message of their faith, in order to fulfill ends in the physical world which were achieved through politics.
Politics, Carter postulates, are about winning. Political compromise is utilized by politicians as a tool to domesticate ‘radical’ religious ideas and to co-opt and silence those faithful persons - who might influence large groups of voters in the wrong direction in an election. Professor Carter gives many examples, but cites mostly one example of how religion gets changed when it attempts to affect electoral politics (and the issues that drive them).
Carter's main example in this regard is of Fannie Lou Hamer, an African American Christian who was circumvented and her religious message co-opted and transformed by Hubert Humphrey at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Her message - to alter what she was led to believe was a corrupt system which should be fundamentally changed ‘ to one where Christian love would form the foundation for how humans treated each other’ - was diverted into what is called 'Equality', for African-Americans with whites. (Why would Hamer want to be ‘equal ‘to those who treated her as such?)
Again, Carter, although originally helped by ‘Equality’ possibly in the form of ‘Affirmative Action’ or ‘Equal Opportunity’ programs, is not a cookie cutter advocate for those programs. Which makes Carter, even as an African American, hard for many of all ethnicities, with minds made up, to heartily embrace. Carter, to the horror of some black and to some white, has been quoted in the New York Times, “No weight is added to a position because somebody is black. One has to evaluate an argument on its own merits, not on the race of the person making it."
Carter, comes down on the side that feels that the state has made the original and the ongoing rules between Church and State. He argues that the state allows motions to its courts, and the courts and their judges are not a check on the state, but in fact, another part of the state. The courts and judges decide when the wall separating Church and State is breached. This might be OK now, he says, but what if our government were to evolve into something like the Nazi’s of the 1930’s and 1940’s, or of other equally totalitarian infamy such as the Stalinists or Maoists , for examples? Should the state have the ultimate right to decide when religious speech or action crosses the line? Should the state have the ultimate right to say what is moral and what is not, without any influence by religion? It is going more and more that way, Friends.
Carter theorizes that the primary concern for a state, through politics, is to survive. The United States of America , he says, controls (the wall between itself and) religion by way of the tax code – especially the 501 (c) (3) subsection which describes how a religious community can speak or act and keep its tax exempt status. Oh gee, here we go again with money, money, money. Our religion isn’t affected by money. Think again.
Carter writes that the main role of religion is to resist. Interesting, in that Quakerism, as much as it is supposed to be one of affirmation of the good, or of God, in each human being, is still sometimes a religion of ‘no’, isn’t it? Try describing Quakerism to someone who doesn't know anything about it, and you'll most likely find yourself presenting some of the often heard Quaker rhetoric, as vague as it is, in saying, 'We don’t believe or do this or that'. George Fox began the Peace Testimony with - 'We utterly deny'…. And speaking of rhetoric, Carter is quoted near the beginning of his book:
“And there lies the difficulty when God-talk mixes with the partisan side of politics: More than likely, for too many people with causes to push and desires to fulfill, the name of God will collapse into a mere rhetorical device. Instead of maintaining the sacred character guaranteed by the Third Commandment, God’s name becomes a tool, a trope, a ticket to get us where we want to go.”
So, what’s your point, in writing this review, Friend, you might ask? It takes one to know one. If conservative Christians were changed negatively by their entry into American electoral politics, why isn’t the Quaker faith also sullied, and in danger of losing its true idenity, if it crosses the line, and is co-opted by a large (left-wing) political movement?
Quakers were mostly not mentioned in this book. For example ‘the liberty of conscience’ and its important contribution to the U.S. Constitution, via William Penn’s Frames of Government for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was not mentioned in being a protector of personal and corporate religion against intrusions by the state, or by the majority, for example. The Quaker faith was only mentioned in this book, when it came to abolition in the United States.
Considering that Carter, as an African-American, feels strongly about the issue of slavery and religion’s role in its end in the U.S., read the following section of Carter’s book and replace ‘sentiment’ with ‘conscience’:
“The historian Don Fehrenbacher once wrote that the reason slavery was able to persist for so many decades was that those supporting it were moved by interest whereas those opposing it were moved by sentiment. In other words, the slaveholders would actually be affected in their daily lives by the discontinuance of the institution, whereas the abolitionists, by and large, did not suffer any personal consequences if slavery continued [or discontinued]. It is an uneasy truth of history that materialism tends to trump idealism, even though subsequent events often prove that the idealists were right all along. Much human misery could have been avoided had enough others, at key moments in the past, spun political interest out of idealistic sentiment.
One force that can weave sentiment into interest is religion, for religion, at least in its Western model, tends to point the believer away from the material and toward the transcendent."
Carter evidently does not know of how Quaker businesspersons somehow wove Integrity and the other Quaker Testimonies, into their daily lives, or at least tried as hard as they could. Many Quakers today do not try to reconcile their daily lives or their professions, with their faith. It might be easier for Friends to simply become teachers and social workers, buy fair trade coffee, use low energy light-bulbs, and drive hybrid cars.
But Stephen L. Carter is to this Friend, an inspired writer and clear thinker, who tries very hard, and does very well at dissecting the difference between religion's role in helping elect a particular candidate or political party, versus how religion can and should be solely used to try and change the hearts of those who are elected, no matter who they are or in which party they affiliate. God’s Name in Vain – The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics, is well worth reading, if one can get one’s hands on, and arms around a copy soon.

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* ‘The red hour’ is a reference to the original Star Trek television series episode – ‘The Return of the Argons’. The episode stays with me from childhood, somehow as a prequel to how individuals, even Friends, are ‘absorbed’ into calm mindsets, and who loose their tranquility, and go nuts, in a sort of poltiical frenzy, every so often.