Sunday, March 13, 2005

Religion and Reconstructionism

Church, Mammon and Flesh in Quebec
As promised, thoughts on the cultural agenda. One of the most difficult things about the evolution controversy is the way religion gets mixed into the debate. When I get into an argument with a creationist, and point out that IDC is bad science and even worse religion, the creationist will often assert that I have no right to talk about religion, since an evolutionary biologist obviously knows nothing of religion.

Here's my response to one such jerk:
And don't presume to tell me what my religious beliefs are. I have no problem integrating my religious sense with my scientific work, and neither do any of the biologists I know, including a Mormon who did his mission in Poland and teaches in his Sunday school, and a friend who teaches in her Episcopal church. I know Catholics who send their kids to Catholic school because they'll get a better education in evolution there than in the public schools here in Kansas. So step waaaaay back.

I think of my religion as private, and I don't blog about it. Other people do things differently, and that's cool.

One thing that I feel strongly about is that religion should not dictate policy. Morality and religious teachings can point us in a direction, but policy should be based on analysis as well. Religious sensibilities can help break ties, and can help us choose what problems to tackle first. But it can't be the beginning and the end of the conversation.

And this isn't just me. Here's an interview with retired U.S. Senator Dave Durenberger (R-MN) “They talk about freedom and values, but they really don't believe in representative government”:
CP: How durable is that [the What Would Jesus Do platform] as a political platform?

Durenberger: It's not. It won't last. It can't last. It's not foundational as far as America is concerned; it's not foundational as far as representative democracy is concerned. You can bring your faith to your life and your work, but that should also include respect for other people and respect for other opinions. You know, love your fellow man and all of that. But what you see [from religious conservatives in politics] are the dictates, and the things those same people are doing to people they consider to be their opponents.

I think the kind of evangelical politics we're talking about finds it much easier to raise money and define politicians on black-and-white issues. Other issues are a little more difficult. Health, education, welfare--you don't debate whether people should have access to health care. That debate is about how to get people there. Abortion, on the other hand, or the death penalty: very clear. You are either with us or against us. You're with What Would Jesus Do, or you're not.

Of course, Fafblog offers a different vision of history.

The debate over evolution in science classes has always been less about science than about putting some people's religion first and last in every aspect of everyone's lives. I think there's a lot to be said for religion and Christianity. “Love your neighbor like yourself.” “Turn the other cheek.” Our nation would be very different if a few people followed the commandment (Matt. 5:42) “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”

That said, I'd hate someone to force that on me. Religion is about choices. A person chooses to believe when faced with all the evidence of the world. That's why I've always been deeply bothered by the ideal of proselytizing. You can't force someone to believe, so let someone discover their faith on their own.

Some religious people are like that. They talk about their religion in a way that shows how they think without insisting it's the only way.

That's not the strategy of certain conservatives. There is a movement, Reconstructionism, which I discussed when researching Kris Kobach. This is a movement that is rewriting history to claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. While they can find various small quotes, or twist logic in bizarre ways, the considered statements of the Founding Fathers is unambiguous. Consider Hamilton's statement about the president in Federalist 69: “The [president] has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” Or Article 6 of the Constitution, which states: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

In order to achieve their goal of a Christian theocracy, the Reconstructionists want to rebuild the nation in a new mold. Since proposing a revolution and a new nation would be a bit much, they proceed incrementally. Border militias, anti-abortion protesters, anti-science school boards, and anti-gay activism all build a loose movement that saturates the public with a message about a Christian nation.

James Dobson, Fred Phelps, Jerry Johnston, Bill Donohue and other religious leaders play a role in this movement. When we oppose Reconstructionism, it's easy to focus on the religious aspect of it, and to wind up attacking religion. That's wrong. I doubt that there are many Democrats, progressives, liberals, etc. who have a problem with religion. In the ongoing debate about how to reach out to religious voters, I think the first step has to be changing how we talk about religious extremists. Reconstructionists call themselves Christian Reconstructionists, I call them Reconstructionists. I don't care about their religion, I oppose them because they want to reconstruct the nation.

I don't care that IDC is a stealth attempt to insert Christian theology into science classes, I care that they are trying to pervert the definition of science. I don't care that the anti-abortion movement wants to impose Christian morality on everyone, I care that they want to impose their morality on everyone. That's why Senator Durenberger says “They don't really believe in representative government.” I oppose them because they are authoritarian, not because of the brand of authoritarianism.

I oppose Nazism, fascism, Stalinism, and Reconstructionism on the same basic grounds. Each imposes one morality on everyone. I doubt that there's a philosopher in the last 200 years who would see anything remotely plausible in that proposition, or the proposition that a perfect morality can be determined. No political philosopher with any modern credibility would claim that there's any consistency in the notion that an authoritarian moral police state is superior to democratic diversity of ideas.

The standard liberal position is that “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.” Let's defend that. Let's remind people that teaching good science doesn't hurt anyone, but imposing perverted science on kids does. Gay marriage hurts no one, but forbidding lovers from visiting one another does. That's the game.

More later.

That's The Punch Line” by The Walkmen from the album Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone (2002, 3:14).