Friday, November 12, 2010

Does Religious Speech Belong in Public Discourse?

The sudden spurt of suicides related to anti-gay bullying has shocked our country. What is more shocking to me, however, is the vast difference between the responses of the secular communities and those within the Christian community. There are Christian voices that have spoken out in defense of the marginalized, bullied, mentally and physically tortured, gay children. But it is impossible to ignore the often louder voices on the Christian right backed up by their own interpretation of Christian

What we have in the wake of these tragedies, then, is an example of two dangerous trends in modern American society: the inability for the Christian religious right to engage in productive conversation with the left and the impossibility to create public discourse between the religious and non-religious due to a lack of common language.

For example, in response to the outcry against anti-gay bullying, Tony Perkins, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, wrote an article in The Washington Post entitled, “Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of homosexuality.” Perkins, who was a member of the Louisiana legislature for eight years before becoming president of the FRC (whose slogan is, according to their website, is “Advocating Faith, Family, and Freedom), argued a shift of blame from the teachings of Christian conservatives against homosexuals to the conduct of the bullies themselves. The root of the problem, according to Perkins, is not the fact that society is still violently resisting homosexuality, but that homosexuals innately experience higher rates of mental health problems in general, unrelated to “society’s general disapproval.”

So far, any right-wing anti-gay politician, regardless of religious conviction, could have written this public response. There is no religious language; it is intelligible to the entire American public. But the problem for productive public discourse arises in the undergirding religious language in his argument. After citing scientific evidence for his position, he continues to write, “The most important thing that Christians can offer to homosexuals is hope-- hope that their sins, just like the sins of anyone else, can be forgiven and their lives transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.” This sentiment only communicates to Christians, leaving all non-Christians and those unfamiliar with Christian theology oblivious to its meaning.

With respect to open, inclusive public discourse, however, the religious left is not a better alternative. For example, in his article “Why Anti-Gay Bullying is a Theological Issue,” Cody Sanders offered these comments by Boston College professor Dr. M. Shawn Copeland to the anti-gay bullying conversation:

“If my sister or brother is not at the table, we are not the flesh of Christ. If my sister’s mark of sexuality must be obscured, if my brother’s mark of race must be disguised, if my sister’s mark of culture must be repressed, then we are not the flesh of Christ. For, it is through and in Christ’s own flesh that the ‘other’ is my sister, is my brother; indeed, the ‘other’ is me…”

The point is clear – even the language from the religious left can hope only to converse with the opposing language of the religious right, and vice versa. They are not engaging with the wider American public, and if they are, the majority of that public is most likely not receiving the intended message. Certainly, when, on a national quiz of basic Christian and Biblical knowledge given by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the highest scoring denomination gets 60% of the questions correct, one can hardly expect any type of theological argument to be understood by more than small percentage of religious Americans.

However, on the basis of free speech, it is impossible for me – and, ideally, for any other American – to claim that these voices should be silenced. Nevertheless, when the language of these personal ethical convictions becomes unintelligible to the secular community, it can be destructive. My concern here is not the destruction of public morals or discourse. Rather, the involvement of religion – specifically, Christianity – in political discourse threatens its sacred integrity.

My concerns are rooted in the admonitions by two monumental political philosophers: James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville. In a remonstrance against a bill proposed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia entitled, “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” Madison argued for the separation of church and state not only to protect the personal religious convictions of the people from the meddling of the state, but also to protect the state from religion, condemning employing religion “as an engine of Civil policy,” claiming that such an act is “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” Likewise, in his book Democracy in America, de Tocqueville examined the roll of religion in American culture, warning:

“when a religion chooses to rely on the interests of this world, it becomes almost as fragile as all earthly powers… Hence any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in order to live, and in serving them it may die” (298).

Such profound admonitions, therefore, should encourage one to condemn the use of religious language in public, and specifically political, conversation.

Still, as the predominant Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out in his essay “A Christian Critique of Christian America,” “our religious convictions cannot be relegated to one sphere of our lives and our social and political activities to another” (462). Nevertheless, he maintains the same fear that excessive participation in the secular community threatens to degrade the prophetic and salvific power of Christianity. One partial remedy to this problem, according to Hauerwas, is that Christianity shed its Constantinian status and permanently relegate itself to a position as a “diaspora religion,” where it can speak prophetically about social and political problems without corrupting its traditions as a means to personal salvation.

It seems, therefore, that American Christians have a choice. The first is to continue religious discourse in the public conversation. The second is to restrict it to the private sphere. The first solution risks continued association due to common opposition, as in when matters of social morality become national topics of heated contention simply because of their inherent nature to be argued (i.e. gay marriage and abortion, as opposed to poverty rights and widespread hunger that rarely experience the level of heated national conversation), and the secularization and corruption of religion. The second risks complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere where it may be needed to provide both an opportunity for common association and a tool for moral action, such as in advocating for the rights of the poor or alleviating neighborhood violence.

I cannot hope to offer a cure-all. I can only hope that the religious left and right can find a way to speak to the greater American society without risking their own unique positions as prophetic Christian voices.

1 comment:

  1. I think a solution is found when we ask fundamental questions about religious discourse in public conversation. First, what is the purpose of it? And second, how is that purpose then met? In my opinion, today the purpose of religious discourse within a secular context is at least twofold- to represent Christian theology, and to serve the community by reminding them what is right (preserve "prophetic Christian voices"); however, these two purpose should actually be one and the same- traditional theology and doctrine should align beneath 'what is right' instead of declaring the Church's stance on specific, political issues. This opinion leads to an answer for the second question, now phrased as: "How do we teach the general public what is right?" I propose the fundamental guideline to what is right is unconditional love.

    Unconditional love, rather than hope for salvation, is more effective in solving the problems being addressed today. Salvation in an afterlife is useless to homosexuals that are "violently" resisted and apparently suffer from a higher rate of mental health problems than other groups. Salvation on Earth is what is really needed, and religious voices crying out against bullying and advocating compassion can actually give someone real hope and demonstrate he or she is not alone in their struggle. Someone needs to stand up for those being bullied. Sadly, offering hope for forgiveness to homosexuals does just the opposite- it adds weight to bullies' taunts. Now is clearly not the time to re-iterate crusty theology on a person's sexuality; rather, these incidents should prompt the Church to remind us to love unconditionally. Had the individuals who killed themselves been loved, they would have learned to love themselves, and then others- perhaps even their bullies.

    To this end, Perkins- and others adding to religious discourse in public light- would serve the religious community he represents and the public one he addresses best by reminding everyone that bullies need to be loved, too. It is ironic that bullies and those being bullied are very alike at the core- they both need love desperately to learn to care for themselves.

    Lastly, it is a myth that religious discourse is sacred- nor should it be. God himself is sacred, and anything uttered by man surely falls short. Moreover, religion should bring humans closer to God, and is thus fundamentally rooted in human issues! I agree religion should not 'rely on the interests of the world' or make alliance with any political power- but it should absolutely proclaim its own ideas to influence the former. The Church- and all people claiming to be religious- should be the MOST involved with humans, especially those in need! Who else is here to care for others? Who else has responded to a call to love? Who else was Jesus referring to when he said you are the "salt of the Earth" and the "light of the world?" (Matthew 5:13-16)Ours is a distinct voice that has the right to discuss virtue and ethics because it is religious. No other voice has the right to give guidance like this. I think the Bible makes our purpose clear with the story of Jonah and the whale- sent to Nineveh to speak, ran away, swallowed up, and spit back out to share good news!

    I think this discussion leads to larger questions- what is religion? What is its purpose? How is it different from but related to culture? politics? Where are religious trends headed, and how is theology changing? Or is it? Should it? I think so- obviously there is great danger in getting bogged down with doctrine, and the point of Christianity can be missed completely. I think reference to religious right and left (while certainly accurate!) underscores this problem- the Body of Christ is to have one head...