Religion and Politics: Further Ahead by Losing

One time, I was fighting traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, heading into Manhattan.  I saw an opening and jumped into it.  Another driver felt that this move wronged him.  He pulled up next to me on my right side, yelling and threatening.  I pointed off to the right, past him.  He ignored my gesture and kept yelling.  I pointed again.  Eventually, he looked.  So finally he saw that the lane off to his right was completely clear.  He was so busy worrying about me that he had overlooked a wide-open opportunity.  Instead of being so eager to get stuck where I was, he could have been long gone.

That’s how it is, sometimes, when talking to people about religion and politics.  They get so concerned about winning every battle that they set themselves up to lose the war.  Everybody has to be right about everything, all the time.  But if that’s how it has to be, when are we going to get a chance to make some mistakes, so that we can learn something?

This question comes to mind when I think about evangelical Christians in American politics.  The classic example:  why does Mississippi vote Republican?  You’ve got a state full of people who are dependent on Medicare and other governmental programs, and they consistently vote for politicians who strive to reduce if not eliminate such programs.

The answer seems to be that the very religious voters of Mississippi see the Republican Party as the party of God, and they see it that way for social rather than economic reasons.  In their view, God does not worry about money nearly as much as he worries about abortion and gay rights.  Mississippi voters are going to save those fetuses.  That is the call of God.  Providing postnatal healthcare for them and their mothers is not.

Many consider this to be the kind of thinking that one should expect from the least literate state in the union.  The blunt word is “stupid.”  But I would emphasize a different word:  “proud.”  I would say this is the thinking of the arrogant.  The voters of Mississippi think they know a Truth that others cannot see.

That belief would be understandable if God had plainly said, in the Bible, “protect those fetuses” and “support the Republicans.”  He did not.  The preoccupations with fetuses and Republicanism are due entirely to interpretations that not all Bible readers share.  The illiterate are telling the literate how to construe a text.  Arrogance seems like a good word for this.

Of course, Mississippi’s preachers are not illiterate.  Ultimately, though, they are not the ones with the power.  It is the individuals in the pews who elect the politicians and choose the ministers.  It is they, relatively unskilled in textual interpretation, who know what they want the ministers to say.  We have, in other words, a tail wagging a dog.

The idea seems to be that God has revealed himself to the people of Mississippi, and that they can therefore disregard common sense.  It is no surprise that a state such as this would be dead last in health, poverty, and other social indicators.  There’s probably a story that would make that sound like the work of the God who gave his people a land of milk and honey, and there are may be many who are eager to believe such a tale.

It would be one thing if Mississippi had some rational basis for concluding that its eccentric path were the right one.  But when a state’s people reach the very bottom of the barrel, and respond by striving persistently to stay there, one must wonder whether the result is due to emotion rather than intellect.  It seems that it might be a situation in which a person makes a terrible mistake, and then tries to save face by pretending that this was exactly what s/he intended to do.

Sometimes, as in my Lincoln Tunnel story, people will become preoccupied with fighting, instead of being smart and moving ahead.  It could be embarrassing for Mississippi’s believers, and their ministers, to smell the coffee – to wake up and realize that they have been screwing themselves for decades.  It may be emotionally more tolerable to keep insisting that they were right all along, even as things keep getting worse.

The message to Mississippi is really a message to fundamentalists in every religion.  God has not spoken to you.  You may like to believe he has.  But we know you by your fruits – including those that you conceal or conveniently overlook.  You are as human as the rest of us – no more, no less.  You make mistakes as often as the rest of us do.  And in the case at hand, the people of Mississippi have made some serious mistakes in their mixing of religion and politics, just as the rest of us have done in various ways, at various times.

The question is not whether mistakes have been made.  The question is whether a person is going to learn from them.

In a sense, this post is about the ethical restraint of fundamentalist self-righteousness.  No cause or principle is a law unto itself.  Virtues tend to be counteracted by other virtues.  For instance, justice is important, but so is mercy.  Truth is important, but so is humility.

Virtues do strive for supremacy.  The person preoccupied with truth may think that nothing else matters.  Ironically, such a belief tends to be false.  The reason is that life is complex.  There are always many things going on, on multiple levels.  It is tempting to get on a roll – to treat one virtue as supreme, and to flatter oneself on one’s superiority in that regard.  For instance, a person might like to believe that s/he is more honest than others.  That is the path of arrogance and, at the same time, of ignorance.  Even in that one virtue, we are usually not as admirable as we may wish to believe.  We are less likely to go astray, with an overemphasis on one virtue, when we keep other virtues in mind.

The point is not that virtues overrule the text of the Bible.  They probably do, for people who entertain reasonable doubts.  But even the Bible-believing Christian must recognize the attention given, in that text, to competing virtues.  Jesus provides a number of examples in his complex remarks about law and gospel.  The Bible contains many calls to prioritize competing virtues.  Do this, but also do that.

A crusade that glorifies one principle above all others is very likely to conflict with biblical guidance in multiple ways.  Crusades can be emotionally gratifying, but they tend to result in a great deal of non-Christlike behavior and unanticipated collateral damage.

The people of Mississippi would benefit from greater humility about what they know, and what they do not know.  I recommend curiosity, including a willingness to question what people tell us on either side of an issue.  That is not always the right path.  But it tends to reduce the urge to proclaim one’s rightness in every battle, to the point of precluding actual learning.

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