A Religious Left: Possibility or Pipe-dream?

The idea of a Religious Left has been floating around in the general thoughts-sphere, as much of a meme as pirate ninjas and celebrity reality TV talk shows are. It’s been hard not to think of a Religious Left as an idea, just because the Religious Right has been so successful a part of the resurgence of the conservative movement in America over the last couple of decades.

A new book, a collection of  essays from folks speaking on the left side of politics on religion, has been profiled on DailyKos. It’s just the sort of thing that gets Kos’ panties in a bunch, because it’s all about the possibility of an emotionally charged and dynamic response to the Religious Right’s attacks on the Great Society. There’s the idea that somehow the Left can create a language anchored in religious cant that will also inspire people to support the creation and sustenance of a government that will pursue liberal aims.

The good intentions behind the dream of a Left-leaning Jihad notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that the underlying contradictions of the idea itself make it close to impossible that this will happen. Religion is by nature a deeply conservative idea, and by that I don’t mean the the idea that people’s lives should not be governed in any serious form by a centralized government, but the idea that tradition is a key force for meaning in people’s lives. Religion searches for meaning by trying to formulate absolute truths and then codifying them into scriptures and theology. People abide by these rules and read the right books and go to the licensed temples and churches and mosques, and they say to themselves, as Browning did, God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the World.

In such a situation, the idea that the society can and should fashion an evolving relationship with the individual and create a theory of welfare that links individual action to the common weal, is always going to be a deeply dangerous and heretical notion. Religion dictates that the ultimate decider is not a social contract but the will of God. The social contract is too susceptible to change to be acceptable to an ideologically pure religious agenda. God doesn’t say, “I will let you figure out, in every generation, how you need to learn to live with each other.” Rather, he lays down commandments and preaches tenets that are clearly understood to be eternal. Any society that rejects the permanence of divine revelation will eventually find that a religious force will arrive to fill the vacuum thus created. (The only exception to this is Hinduism/Buddhism, notably in India and some regions of East Asia, but more on that later.)

When thinking of the “Religious Left,” people point to the possibility of a second Reformation. The target of this Reformation, one supposes, is the unreformed Church of America, which is of course the band of Evangelicals and Baptists that power the conservative revolution. What some of the perpetrators of this metaphor seem to forget is that the Reformation was in fact a profoundly conservative movement, at least as envisioned by Martin Luther himself, a man with a particularly joyless theology, if ever there was one. The idea was not to erase doctrine in religion, but to shift the focus from doctrine controlled by a Church and its wealth, to doctrine that we are all to enjoin upon ourselves. The Catholic Church, mature organization that it was with many political considerations to manage, had constructed a rather liberal view of how Man was to justify his existence: by knowing himself to be righteous through his deeds and knowing that a just God would be pleased with this and reward Man in Heaven.

Lutheran theology contrasted this with placing faith back squarely in God’s court — it was his to bestow on Man, and Man couldn’t buy his way into God’s good books. Naturally, this cut out the middleman and angered the RCC, but that’s not germane to my point — which is that Luther was reaffirming that our destinies lay with the eternal and unknowable ways of God Himself, rather than through what our intellect and reason could tell us. He was giving us back Pure Religion (in his case, Christianity), in its most conservative form. (That the venality of the RCC was the counter-balance in this scenario, thus allowing Protestantism to become essentially the underpinning of individualism, is quite another thing, and not a side-effect that Luther had intended. His hope had been to reform the RCC and create a new version of it, not make a new faith that would develop as a competitor.)

We don’t need a Religious Left, any more than we need a Religious Center, or Top, or Bottom. The Left has to walk away from this dangerous dream, and realize that, while religion has its place in society, the original American ideology that truly deserves revival is the separation of religion entirely from the theories and practice of government, a separation that is, I think, quite cold in its body bag already. Obama too is an ardent church-going man and a believer in faith-based initiatives, even though he’s rightly of the opinion that these ideas cannot have an operational part in the running of the Executive Branch. However, while he might act in the beginning as a reasonable strong bulwark against the encroachment of religion into our polity, I wouldn’t be hopeful without reservation on that score.

The Left has to remind itself of why this division of Religion from State was conceived in the first place. We have to re-affirm this theory in the newer version of the New World that we now live in, where cordoning religion off from the sphere of governance has to take into account religion’s powerful ability to provide meaning in our lives, a need now felt even stronger in our post-modern world, and also take into account all the other religions that have come to exist in these United States of America.

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