Friday, January 4, 2008

Lacuna: Religion & Politics

Consider this a mid-winter cleaning.

For most of my life (i.e. all those years I was "in school"), the time just after the holidays served as a transition into a new semester. The projects and papers of the previous semester's classes were finished and turned in (for better or worse); the themes and (con)texts of those classes were, if not forgotten, at least rounded out in a kind of momentary resolution. January was a time for starting over again, kicking back and easing into the beginning of a new semester.

It seems that, though I'm no longer in school, my mental circannual rhythm is still adjusted to this pattern of intense exertion and then sudden rest around this time of year. Instead of feeling guilty about it, I've decided I might as well embrace it. So this is an intellectual lacuna, so what? That's not so bad. Some people's entire lives could be characterized as such. No need to fret.

Meanwhile, so as not to leave readers hanging, these next few posts will be a few random pieces and excerpts which I had intended, at one time or another over the past year, to develop into full-fledged blog posts, but never did. Think of these posts as "Ali Uncensored," with all the sloppiness of a widely-engaged mind.

Is America Ready for a [Insert Type of Religious Zealot Chosen by Church Leaders Here] President?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the concept of "Separation of Church and State" is about the separation of religious institutions from political institutions, in order to preserve the sovereignty of both in their respective realms. It is not about demanding individual government officials renounce all religious beliefs and behave in their public role as if they were all materialist atheists. If you'll notice, this is the very specific bent of Kennedy's speech--he denounces the imposition of religious institutions on the government and on the general public, but he never says that a religious or spiritual worldview is an inherently dangerous or unhealthy one from which to make moral or political decisions.

This is a subtlety in distinction that few people bother to notice these days, it seems. Religious believers themselves often assume that a religion is synonymous with its socio-political institution, rather than a worldview out of which that institution arises but which may also have other applications. They relinquish their capacity to act as thinking, moral agents so that, while in Kennedy's day a Catholic might have been able to make decisions about policy based on his beliefs without the need for priestly dictation, today believers not only want to learn about "laws of love" and whatnot while they sit in church, they want their priest to work out the complicated application of such beliefs and endorse a particular candidate or policy so that they, the believers, don't have to do that work for themselves. Couple this with the media-obsessed Information Age in which politicians are assumed to obfuscate and pander, and selling public policy and political candidates has become a matter of who can put on the most convincing act of sincerity and urgency, and you have a public making political decisions based on the illusion of "good character" instead of on the actual work accomplished and policies pursued. In such a situation, it's only natural that candor about religious beliefs is mistaken for a sign of honesty, as well as a covert message that here is a leader who, like the local minister or the Pope, is willing to do the work of moral decision-making that the public has given up.

This does not mean that all religious believers are inherently less intelligent than their secularist counterparts (this is, perhaps, the lie that has so convinced them they are not capable of making moral decisions themselves in the first place). It is perfectly possible for religious individuals to function as rational, moral participants in the political domain, making decisions that affect public policy without imposing on others the worldview from which those decisions were made--given that they are willing to do the work of analysis and application in the context of an infinitely complex and unpredictable world. The "fairy tales" of a given religious faith, however, are no more inherently ridiculous or a sign of intellectual weakness than are the "fairy tales" of Descartes (with his thinking ego eating its own tail, which gave birth to a worldview in which matter and mind are irrevocably severed) or of Locke and Hobbes (with their mythologies of the "State of Nature" in which man is an isolated individual whose only social connections are that of imagined abstractions imposed out of convenience or fear). If anything, perhaps, religious believers can attain to a certain intellectual honesty (if they try), because they at least acknowledge the roots of their worldview and continue to explore the myths and stories that serve as its foundation, whereas most secularists are so entrenched in their own worldview that they rarely revisit their own founding philosophies and mythologies, and instead think they can get away with making bigoted statements about large segments of the population without being challenged.

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