Sunday, October 16, 2005

On Liberalism and Christianity

From a discussion I had in a seminar on democracy. It holds some truth, I think, though it is perhaps a bit rambling:

In reading the print media and in discussions with fellow students on the campus of this university, I am struck by the fact that at least among some of us, there is an antipathy towards religion interacting with public policy. Indeed, the statement has been made by some who call themselves liberals that generally speaking, 'religion is too dangerous to allow it to influence public policy' and it must be opposed at all costs. This is an argument without merit, and I am, I must confess, quite bothered by such a blanket condemnation of religion in the public sphere. While I may not be as liberal as some, I do consider myself a progressive. A hallmark of liberalism and progressivism, at least in my admittedly limited view, is tolerance and a willingness to consider a variety of opinion and influences if such opinions and influences can provide solutions to the problems of the day. To blanketly reject the idea that religion can have a positive and beneficial impact on public policy and democracy is, simply put, illiberal and close-minded. While there are obvious examples that some have cited of the negative influence of Christianity in public policy, of the 'atrocities done in the name of Christ,' it would serve us well to examine the long and positive tradition of religion in the public sphere, and how it has influenced democratic matters for the better. I speak from the perspective of one who is not a currently practicing Christian, though I was raised Catholic and my own wife is a semi-regular church-goer of the Protestant stripe. Please note that I focus on Christianity because of its great impact on American democracy, and no disrespect of other faiths is intended.
Examining the expanse of American history, one cannot help but note that much of the Progressive movement and the effort to create a more socially progressive public policy in the late 19th century was influenced by Christian thinking. William Jennings Bryan stands as the liberal lion of this era, and modern liberals err in ignoring his
contributions to the progressive cause, emphasizing instead his unfortunate last days and the fiasco that was the Scopes trial. And yet, it is Bryan's strong Christian beliefs that led him to advocate for causes that today might classify him as socialist. His 'Cross of
Gold' speech is a stirring call for relieving debtors of their unfair burden, placed on their backs by a system that increasingly ignored the needs of the working man. Throughout his career, he argued in favor of the so-called 'Social Gospel', supporting female suffrage,
anti-imperialism, regulation of business for consumer and worker protection, and even his anti-evolution crusade, while unfortunate, was a progressive response in its own way. Doug Linder has argued that Bryant fought evolution less from a literal interpretation of the Bible but because it "...provided ammunition for those who, calling it "survival of the fittest," would sterilize the abnormal or forget the weak. Given a choice, Bryan said, "I would rather begin with God and reason down than begin with a piece of dirt and reason up." " Bryan, Linder argues, was almost single-handedly responsible for turning the Democratic Party toward an embrace of the working classes and the suffering classes (with certain unfortunate and obvious exceptions that would not be dealt with until the mid-20th century).
To reject the role of religion in public policy is to reject the efforts of Jewish reformers in the late 19th and 20th centuries to create a stronger, better America. It is to reject their call for Social Justice as demanded by God, which insists on the freedom of man
to make his own choices unfettered by the constraints of inequality.
To reject the role of religion in public policy is to reject the demands of the Social Gospel. It is to reject the driving force behind abolition, the belief that the Creator created all men equal, and that to enslave a man is to create an abomination before God. These men and women, these lovers of freedom, certainly sought to create a public policy where democracy mattered, and they did so not in spite of their religious beliefs, but because of them.
To reject the role of religion in public policy is to reject the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. It is to reject the very foundation which inspired such men as the Christian Martin Luther King and Muslim Malcom X (as he thought and spoke upon his return from the Hajj).
To reject the role of religion in public policy is to reject public education. It is to reject the common schools of Horace Mann, himself a Christian Socialist, which were centered around a vague, amorphous, but very present Protestant morality. Mann and other public
education advocates did not separate the need for a Christian morality from the obligation for positive public education for all students. Dewey himself, while rejecting the idea of an all-knowing Creator and a true Christian outlook, accepted the universality of ideals and the demand for justice, embracing education as the means to ensure social justice and democratic education. He was influenced, in part, by his own association with the Unitarian faith and his early liberal Protestant background.
Ultimately, I believe that religion and democracy go hand in hand. The Christian Religion in particular, with an emphasis on the Divine call for justice and equality, is a natural partner to democracy, which demands an equal voice for all peoples. Democracy untempered by Christian charity is the tyranny of the majority; Christianity untempered by democracy is theocratic foolishness. A true lover of democracy, a true believer in liberal principles, will not reject the important contribution that religion can make to formulations of public policy. To do so is simply foolish, and again I say that it rejects
many of those liberals and progressives that came before us.
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