Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Democrats and Religion

The Emerging Democratic Majority points to a study in the Boston Review by Mike Gecan arguing that:
the contempt of the progressive elite for ordinary people—for their faiths, their speech patterns, their clothes, their hobbies, their hopes, and their aspirations—has driven scores of millions of Americans out of the Democratic Party and into either the Republican Party or a no man’s land between the two. The willingness of many Republicans to simply show respect for the habits and interests of these mixed and moderate Americans has paid growing political dividends. The Republicans have understood that communicating respect is more important than offering programs or incentives. The Democrats have failed to realize that multiplying programs or policies designed to meet people’s needs is doomed to fail unless and until those people sense a fundamental level of recognition of who they are, not just what they need.
Now, I think that "contempt" is far too strong, but I'm torn between two poles on the broader thesis. Yes, the inability of many progressives to clearly tie their politics and voluminous policy proposals to a succinctly stated and widely shared religious, or at least moral, beliefs, has markedly undermined the movement.

Read Bill McKibben's The Comforting Whirlwind for a fascinating and beautifully written justification of environmentalism from a religious perspective. He takes his inspiration from the Book of Job, especially God's oration from the whirlwind.
The speech is notable for many things, not least among them the ferocity and beauty of language ("Have you ever commanded morning or guided dawn to its place – to hold the corners of the sky and shake off the last few stars? All things are touched with color; the whole world is changed").

Even more notable, however, is the setting. God is describing a world without people – a world that existed long before people, and that seems to have its own independent meaning. Most of the action takes place long before the appearance of humans, and on a scale so powerful and vast that we are small indeed in the picture of things. Almost the only reference to our species in this species-filled speech makes the point absolutely clear:

Who cuts a path for the thunderstorm
and carves a road for the rain
to water the desolate wasteland,
the land where no man lives;
to make the wilderness blossom
and cover the desert with grass?

The first meaning, I think, of God's speech to Job is that we are a part of the whole order of creation – simply a part.

And that is of course a radical idea – far more subversive than Marxism or Leninism or Maoism or any of the other seditions we've grown up fearing. Those radicalisms are of course deeply human-centered; the radical voice from the whirlwind seems to assign us a less exalted role.
That vision of a radical God is not so far from PZ Myers's reverence for those who have gone before. I think it probably originates from a similar part of the psyche, and the same factor is at play in the people who insist on "saving" every life, no matter what anyone else thinks. It's a broad respect for things bigger than ourselves. Some can't extend it past the human race, and demand to reinforce that inability, others insist on that extension. I bet there are piles of swing voters to whom the McKibben formulation would be very appealing.

It's a vision that is pro-science, including evolution, but also deeply religious, though it can be derived from almost any religious tradition. Environmentalism is the obvious aim in McKibben's writing, but the same logic means being philanthropic, helping the poor, sick, elderly, pregnant and meek. It's secular and it's Biblical. It's liberal and conservative. It's coherent, inclusive, and deeply held by many people.

I can see either of our Presidents Roosevelt articulating that message, and I have trouble believing that the Gettysburg address isn't a call for precisely that ethic. It's the City on a Hill, the vision of St. Augustine, the Pilgrims, and even Ronald Reagan. There's nothing more American than believing you're part of something bigger than yourself.