Tuesday, April 26, 2005

'Bad Religion, Bad Politics'


'Bad Religion, Bad Politics'

Katrina vanden Heuvel

I'm writing this on the eve of "Justice Sunday"--a telecast being promoted by evangelical Christian conservatives who charge that Democrats opposing President Bush's judicial nominees are acting "against people of faith."

The Senate Republican's Defender of the Faith, Bill Frist, who supports a "culture of life" but not lively debate, is scheduled to join in this televised show--designed to smear those who have honest differences over policy issues as religious bigots. As the Boston Globe asked in a tough editorial attacking Frist's intolerance: "Will every political difference now open opponents to such accusations? And whose definition of 'faith' is in use here?"

These are scary times. The nation is in the control of extremists who want to merge church and state. A line is crossed when religion demonizes politicians of certain religion--or no religion--and when the church-state separation is breached by people believing that their God is better than another God.

Extremists are attacking an independent judiciary and checks and balances, both fundamental elements of a democracy. Earlier this month, as Max Blumenthal reported for The Nation online, conservative activists and top GOP staffers are likening judges to communists, terrorists, and murderers. One so-called scholar invoked one of Stalin's favorite sayings, "No person, no problem," suggesting this was the preferred way of dealing with out-of-control courts. (By the way, according to the Alliance for Justice, 55 percent of the Circuit Court judges are GOP appointees. Republicans advocating killing Republicans?)

Will we allow Republican mullahs to create a country where religion dictates policy in a democratic country? As Sidney Blumenthal recently wrote in Salon, "The election of 2004 marks the rise of a quasi-clerical party for the first time in the US....Ecclesiastical organizations have become transformed into the sinew and muscle of the Republican party."

With debates raging about issues that mix religion and politics, it's worth paying heed to the words of a scholar who has written eloquently on the relationship between Americans' religious beliefs and political actions.

Princeton Professor of Religion Jeffrey Stout, in "Democracy and Tradition," has some sharp observations about a public political discourse that embraces rather than stigmatizes a variety of religious viewpoints.

In an interview last year, Stout argued that "political officials should refrain from presuming to speak for the whole nation on religious questions. Kings and queens used to make a mockery of religion by presuming to be its caretakers. What most of them really wanted was a kind of religion that would justify their rule while pacifying the populace. Our elected representatives are prone to the same temptations. The religion that our politicians practice in public often smells of sanctimony, manipulation and self-idolatry. Its symbolic gestures make for bad religion and bad politics...Neither will it help to scapegoat secularists, nor to imply that atheists and agnostics, let alone Muslims, are something less than full-fledged citizens.

A country that has preachers, prophets, poets, houses of worship and open air does not need politicians expressing its piety collectively in public places. Individual citizens can be trusted to find their own appropriate ways to express their own religious convictions and train the young in virtue. What the people need from political leaders are the virtues of truthfulness, justice, practical wisdom, courage, vision and a kind of compassion whose effects can actually be discerned in the lives of the poor and the elderly."

Think of these words as Frist and other Republican extremists join evangelical leaders to smear people of good faith. And stand with people of good faith who believe that we need to save our democracy.