God and Ghosts On the Left

Once again there's a dust-up on the left over religion and politics. The more I re-read a series of recent posts on the topic, the more it seems as if people are chasing phantoms. Readers may disagree about the existence of God, but I'll reverse roles and play Richard Dawkins in this one by insisting: The ghosts being chased in this debate just ain't real.

In fact, once the dust clears I think we'll discover two things: The first is that progressive "believers" and "non-believers" are basically in "vehement agreement" over religion and discourse, and the second is that there are those on both sides who have artificially heightened the conflict.

A few days ago Atrios wrote a series of posts on religion like this one:

I find it really puzzling when people accuse me of being hostile to religion. I'm hostile to the notion that religion should occupy such a privileged place in our discourse. I'm hostile to plenty of beliefs which are associated with religion in this country, and I'm certainly hostile to plenty of self-styled religious leaders. But religious belief and practice doesn't bother me at all.

I agree him, more or less, although I'd be more specific - and would state it positively - by saing that I believe policies and political positions grounded in religious belief should be subject to the same rigorous debate as any others.

All well and good, except that I'm not entirely sure about this "privileged place" Atrios describes. It seems to me that abortion rights and other faith-related issues are debated pretty vigorously in this country. I hear a lot of people say that religious/political speech is protected, but I'm not sure specifically what they're describing. I've written very strong pieces against the religious/political right, especially right/evangelical politics, and haven't felt suppressed yet.

Even in electoral politics, there are a lot of officeholders who disagree with religiously-based policies (e.g. reversal of Roe v Wade), while others defy the teachings of their own religion (i.e. ignoring Pope John Paul's opposition to the Iraq War and the death penalty) and remain politically successful.

If you're talking about the inability to win elected office if you don't claim to follow a religion, that's another matter. But that's not what's being discussing here.

Still, whether or not this "privilege" is as strong as some say, I agree with Atrios: People are free to believe whatever they want, but if you're advocating a policy position that affects all of us then we all have the right to debate freely.

Then Jim Wallis weighed in with an attack on Kos called "Dear Kos, Can the Left Stop Shooting Itself In the Foot?" He writes:

"So Kos, let's made a deal. How about if progressive religious folks, like me, make real sure that we never say, or even suggest, that values have to come from faith - and progressive secular folks, like you, never suggest that progressive values can't come from faith (and perhaps concede that, in fact, they often do)."

I re-read the Kos piece in question several times and, for the life of me, I can't find anything that says what Jim thinks it does. In fact, I agree with Kos' response: I think they're saying the same thing. The Kos that Jim Wallis is debating seems to be a ghost.

(Progressive minister Pastor Dean of StreetProphets.com is more scathing in his assessment of the Wallis piece.)

Then Atrios jumped back in, hitting Wallis for lines like this: "As a progressive Christian, I always wondered why many on the secular Left felt it necessary to cut off potential political alliances with progressive religious people, to alienate most of America with nasty anti-faith diatribes, and to choose to ignore the history of most of the social reform movements in this country, where religion often served as a powerful motivator and driving force."

Atrios responds:

As I always want to scream when Wallis writes, WHO ARE THESE DEMOCRATS and how did they passive voice "manage to appear hostile to faith and to people in faith communities." Perhaps because Wallis keeps writing various versions of that sentence.

Actually, Wallis didn't write about "Democrats." He said "those on the secular left." But Duncan (Atrios) has an excellent point here. Some progressive Christians have the habit of decrying other progressives as anti-religious. These include Democrats like Barack Obama, who have played into the Right's narrative by accusing other Democrats (yes, unnamed) of being hostile to religion.

Who are those progressive Democrats that Obama and others have critiqued from the religious left? Apparently, just more ghosts.

Yet there are those on the secular left who are vocally, even stridently hostile to religion. In my experience, they seem to be plentiful in the comments section of the Huffington Post whenever I or anyone else either criticizes any individual atheist, describes their own form of belief, or writes something favorable about religion. But these commenters, while they're active members of an online community, are not the political leaders one would assume Jim Wallis and Obama are discussing.

Atheist spokesmen like Dawkins and Sam Harris do fit Wallis' description, however. Dawkins, for his part, is committedly progressive in his politics. But how broad is their support in the Democratic Party or among the left in general? It would be interesting to find out.

I'm not even sure Harris can accurately be described as a political progressive, in any case, given his blanket hostility to the world's Muslims and his advocacy of torture.

Which leads me back to Atrios' post of last week, where he also wrote:

"I'm puzzled why some religious people seem to get upset by more outspoken atheists. I can turn on the teevee and be threatened with damnation and hellfire. Who cares if Sam Harris thinks you're stupid? If atheists want to engage in their own brand of proselytizing, good for them."

Duncan, to paraphrase you: WHO ARE THESE RELIGIOUS PEOPLE? Just as Jim Wallis and Barack Obama should name the targets of their ire, so should you. I know plenty of religious people who think that identifying progressive politics with hostility to religion ("Science should destroy religion," ) is bad politics, and that some of their positions are poorly-researched and shallow. But if you know somebody who's upset because atheists "think they're stupid," I'd like to know who they are. Otherwise I suspect that you, like Wallis and Obama, are seeing ghosts.

Meanwhile - as usual - while the left is busy chasing its own shadow, the right is getting busy on the God front. There's a concerted effort out there to convince Christians that their religion is under siege from the left - and its working. The "siege on God" memes ("War On Christmas," etc.) weren't being promoted for laughs, but for strategy, and now most religious voters now believe their faith is under attack. Guess what that's going to do to the '08 election if the left doesn't get its act together?

Most faith-based progressives and nonbeliever progressives seem to agree that religious beliefs are a private matter, but that political debate should be free whether or not the participants are motivated by religious belief. That's the narrative that everyone should be promoting jointly.

I've got no adversaries in this debate - just allies who seem to agree on most substantive matters and don't appear to know it.

It's fine to advocate for atheism if that's what you believe is right, but if you want to promote progressive electoral politics you shouldn't conflate the two in people's minds. If you do, you're playing right into the opposition's hands. The number of people actually doing that is tiny, however, and the Jim Wallises and Barack Obamas - my companions in the progressive faith movement - should be clear about that.

Otherwise, they'll just help the propagandists of the right convince Americans that the left really is filled with ghosts - or demons.