No Place for Religion: On Jeremiah Wright and Our Culture of Disbelief

With the Bill Moyers interview, Jeremiah Wright is back in the news. And with the exit polling showing that Barack Obama's race was a factor for one out of six voters in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, there is no doubt that Obama's association with Wright is a significant political liability. I cannot help but think this is a sad state of affairs, not only for Obama's political fortunes, but also for our nation which takes such enormous (though perhaps misplaced) pride in our religious heritage and liberty.

In 1993 Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter published a bestselling book called Our Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. President Clinton once remarked that the book was one of the most important studies of American culture and public policy that he had ever read.

Carter's argument was a fairly straightforward one, even if it was counterintuitive. Basically the argument goes that anyone who takes religion seriously in today's American culture is automatically deemed a fanatic. He chides the American political culture and legal theory for what he calls this "trivialization of religion." Further, he argues the religiously faithful should not have to bracket out the logic of their religious belief for the sake of public consumption. As it currently stands, the only form of religious expression that is acceptable within the public sphere is that which is worn lightly on the sleeve, a process that Carter terms the "secular leveling" of our culture.

Carter's solution, which at least here in this work from 1993 is less satisfying than his diagnosis, is that the legal culture should strive to be more inclusive to the various types of arguments and rationales that our diverse public employs when coming to decisions and expressing values and deep-seated convictions. As he writes, "What is needed is not a requirement that the religiously devout choose a form of dialogue that liberalism accepts, but that liberalism develop a politics that accepts whatever form of dialogue a member of the public offers. Epistemic diversity, like diversity of other kinds, should be cherished, not ignored, and certainly not abolished."

The reason all of this matters is that if we accept this trivialization of religious devotion and continue to demand that our religious leaders and communities conform to the dominant discourse of our legal and political culture, then we should expect the following: First, the religiously faithful (whom, I remind you, continue to make up the vast majority of the American population) are forced into a state of schizophrenia, holding certain convictions in private while being forced to provide a public rationale that is not truly their own. Second, this moral vacuum in which religion dare not speak its name becomes a breeding ground for an extremist form of religious rhetoric that exploits the sense that traditional religious values are under assault by a hostile secular culture. In short, our political and legal culture of disbelief is at least partly to blame for the political mobilization of the religious right. Third, and most importantly, there would be no room for the moral suasion that characterized the Civil Rights movement as led by church leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, if the only religious voices that were acceptable within the public sphere were those that parroted patriotic themes or that championed America's moral purity and manifest destiny, then not only would the prophetic dimension of religion be precluded, but religion itself would be of no use whatsoever to our nation. It would be confined as a mere redundancy. In this way, instead of a multitude of religious voices serving the interests of a genuinely plurivocal democracy as autonomous intermediaries to the state, the state itself becomes like a religion.

Carter's argument has been echoed more recently by those such as the Reverend Jim Wallis, who is the author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. For Wallis, the Left jettisons religion at its own peril, creating a soulless and cynical politics that the Right easily exploits. This line of thought received much attention in the immediate aftermath to the 2004 presidential election when prominent leaders of the Religious Right took credit for energizing President Bush's base of support and thus providing the critical margin of difference in a tightly fought campaign. The analysis then was that in order for the Democrats to become competitive in subsequent national elections, they could no longer yield the terrain of morality and religion to the Republican party. Like the Republicans, they must learn to speak the language of cultural values and admit how their religious beliefs inform their approach to politics and public policy.

Thus John Edwards repeatedly spoke about his campaign against poverty in the United States as a moral and religious duty. Likewise, Hillary Clinton courted progressive evangelicals by touting her leadership in developing a "compassionate" legislative agenda and by telling the story of the awakening of her political consciousness that was the result of her Sunday School outreach project to the local migrant community.

And then there was Barack Obama: At first there were the unfounded rumors that he was secretly a Muslim. As he countered those rumors by pointing to his longtime active membership in Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, the firestorm surrounding the comments from his former pastor Jeremiah Wright erupted. Suddenly the political terrain has shifted. It is no longer a matter of the Democratic candidate demonstrating the connection between religion, politics, and public policy. Now the real crux of the matter is finally exposed for all the nation to see: As Carter argued over a decade ago, there is only one form of religion that is acceptable within the public sphere -- namely, the religion of patriotism.

We are a believing nation. Study after study confirm that the U.S. is the most religious of all the industrialized nations of the world. The vast majority of Americans believe that the Bible is the authorized, if not necessarily the literal, word of God. Yet when it comes to the religious voice in the public sphere, what the widespread public condemnation of the Reverend Wright reveals is that we do not respect the autonomy of religion. We expect our religion to be palpable and to reinforce rather than challenge our self-image. There is no room for the prophetic voice that speaks the truth of righteous indignation to power. And so long as that is the case, it would be more accurate to say that really there is no room for religion at all.

As John H. Thomas, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, has said in his defense of Reverend Wright (link to the full text of Thomas' defense of Wright: http://www.ucc.org/news/responding-to-wright.html), to the extent that Christians desire to follow the Bible, faithfulness, not respectability, should be the order of the day. Thomas concludes with the following remarks:

Is Pastor Wright to be ridiculed and condemned for refusing to play the court prophet, blessing land and sovereign while pledging allegiance to our preoccupation with wealth and our fascination with weapons? In the United Church of Christ we honor diversity. For nearly four centuries we have respected dissent and have struggled to maintain the freedom of the pulpit. . . For what this nation needs is not so much polite piety as the rough and radical word of the prophet calling us to repentance. And, as we struggle with that ancient calling, I pray we will be shrewd enough to name the hypocrisy of those who decry the mixing of religion and politics in order to serve their own political ends.

Obama's refusal to disassociate himself from his former pastor is a courageous political calculation (and no, courage and calculation are not necessarily mutually exclusive). By the success of his political organization, he has long since proven himself a capable manager. By his honest treatment of the subject of race in America, many believe he has shown himself to be an inspirational leader. And by his involvement in a church that dares to call the nation to task in accordance with the our own high-minded ideals and professed religious convictions, he may very well stem the tide of the trivialization of religion that has so easily allowed the religious values of peace and mercy to serve the misbegotten ends of a perpetual war.

For a nation made up by a vast majority of religious believers, I only wish (and pray) that we could begin to appreciate the positive role independent religious voices like those such as Jeremiah Wright play within, and on behalf of, our democracy. Anything less would not only be undemocratic, but downright unchristian.