Monday, March 06, 2006

Values, religion and politics

Pharyngula reviews Amy Sullivan's bad advice:
Amy Sullivan is not one of the people I want advising the Democratic party…unless, that is I suddenly decided I wanted to be a Republican, and was feeling too lazy to change my voter registration. She's got one note that she plays loudly over and over again: Democrats need to be more religious. Why? So we can get more religious people to vote for our candidates, and so we can steal the Republicans' identification as the party of faith.
And Dr. Myers is exactly right that Sullivan is going about this all wrong. He's even right to say:

Your belief in Jesus or Odin or the FSM is not a qualification for service in government (nor is it an obstacle), and isn't even a testimonial to the quality of your character. The small-minded bigots who would like to see the non-religious effectively disenfranchised are not the solution to the Democratic party's problems: they are the problem.
There is another problem, though. Democrats have a hard time talking about values. I don't know why. Franklin D. Roosevelt had no trouble expressing not just the policies of the New Deal, but presenting the reasoning behind those policies, the vision and values that motivated them, and the values that motivated the war against fascism, his famous Four Freedoms. It was a vision of America, and one that the nation agreed with. I wonder if we haven't been coasting on his success at framing America for decades.

At Washington Days, there was a discussion on "Democratic Faith and Values," and it focused on religious outreach. The state party hired someone to work on helping candidates and the party reach out to religious groups, and she came to talk about how that should work.

Unlike what Sullivan advocates, an inauthentic searching for policies to mollify evangelicals, the presenter stressed authenticity. It isn't about seeming religious, it's about expressing genuine feelings. For a religious person who feels strongly about the separation of church and state, that can be awkward. But think of Bill Clinton. He preserved that wall while being among the most deeply religious presidents we've ever had.

Roosevelt didn't rely on explicitly religious language, but still expressed the values which motivated his policies. The issue, as Dr. Myers rightly points out, is not religion per se. Atheists have deeply held values, and different religious people have different sets of values.

Right now, with Democrats fumbling in expressing their values, it's easy for Republicans to use religion as a proxy for values. "I'm a Catholic, so I oppose abortion," is a cheap way of avoiding a discussion of personal values. There are pro-choice Catholics and pro-life Catholics (no abortion, no death penalty), anti-abortion/pro-death penalty Catholics, and anti-death penalty/pro-choice Catholics. They all justify their policy positions on the basis of religion and personal values. If Democrats come out and say "I'm pro-choice because of my religious views," it forces Republicans to explain why a woman should be forced to bear her rapist's child.

In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama quotes his mother teaching him "if you want to grow into a human being, you're going to need some values." The values he remembers her teaching him are: honesty, fairness, straight talk, and independent judgment, "the virtues of her midwestern past." Democratic values.

He grew up a Muslim, following his father's example, but converted to the United Church of Christ later on. Did his values change when he changed religions? Probably not. Perhaps it reflected a personal evolution, but moreso, I expect that the deep values people have can be found and expressed in nearly any religion. That means that a person who can speak about their own values can reach out across religious boundaries.

It means that an atheist should be able to speak to a local interfaith council and convince a group of ministers to back him, and a congregation of believers shouldn't be unreachable by an agnostic candidate. I can derive the Golden Rule as an evolutionarily stable strategy in game theory, or I can derive it from Jewish Law, or I can bring it from the words of Jesus. The value is still one of fairness to others, and I can talk about it in different ways, and show how it produces my policy positions. Religious freedom and freedom of speech are easy to derive from the Golden Rule: I don't want others to restrict my religious expression, so I won't restrict theirs. I don't want others to evangelize me, so I won't evangelize them.

The religious outreach person stressed authenticity, and I think that's part of the solution to the challenge Senator Obama described in our interview:

don't shy away from the so-called values debate. Being willing to talk about faith and family and the challenges of raising children, those are things that people feel very intimately. I think sometimes Democrats are a little patronizing about those issues, but those are in fact issues that people feel very deeply.
Teaching the Bible in public schools isn't authentic. I don't think it is for conservative candidates, and I don't think Amy Sullivan is being authentic in backing it. There is a genuine concern that people have about their children and families and how to make sure their children are being taught the values that their parents think are important. And teaching the Bible in school is a cheap way of pandering to that concern without really talking about it.

The fight over creationism is the same way. Creationists aren't interested in the science, they are interested in "the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies." So long as the fight is about religion, or about science, the problem they see with the values will go unresolved, and the fight will continue. Character isn't something you teach in an hour a day, it's something you teach every moment. You teach kids not to cheat, you teach them to work hard, not just to do enough to get by. You make them work together and to share, but not to take advantage of others' generosity. And the Democratic Board of Education candidates appreciate that. Kent Runyan (running against Iris Van Meter) said "we need to start talking not so much about what the kids know – filling in bubbles – but the skills and attitudes they come away with. Attitudes such as perseverance, responsibility, tolerance and respect."

Don't you think you've learned something important about how Kent Runyan would handle issues? Values matter to voters, and rightly so. Too many people don't have the time or the skills to analyze complex policy proposals. And I'd prefer to have those people make voting decisions based on their judgment of a candidate's priorities than to guess wildly or choose the most simplistic policy. We express our priorities by talking about values. And we often use religion as a proxy for values.

That's a challenge that Democrats face. Republicans have been allowed to substitute assertions of religious faith to a discussion of the values they'd apply in office. The solution is not to adopt the same insincere and un-American approach the right has adopted, but to do things right. Talk about our values. When those values are based in a candidate's religion, it would be inauthentic and dishonest not to say so and describe how; when they aren't it would be dishonest and inauthentic to say they do. Separation of church and state is a value; it's a religious value. Democrats should stand up for that.