Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Religion and Liberalism

Jacques Berlinerblau, writing recently for the Washington Post, provided a list of topics worth watching by those interested in the interplay of religion and politics. While it is an insightful list and the author’s knowledge of religious trends can’t be disputed, his first item seems to rely on a misunderstanding of activism coming from the political left. Berlinerblau anticipates what I believe is a very unlikely scenario – the union of Occupy movements with progressive people of faith. He writes:

“Ever since the rise of the religious right… observers have been wondering when (or if) the religious left would ever re-mobilize as a political force to be reckoned with.”

That parenthetical is important. I think that the question is indeed if it will, and that the answer is no. Religious institutions and religious people will not find a welcome place in liberalism, at least not without a major breaking point. It’s not as though there is any fundamental incompatibility between liberalism and religious belief, but virulently anti-religious atheists do comprise an extremely vocal minority of the liberal wing of American politics. Their input makes the landscape of liberalism very inhospitable to religion.

As a person who tends toward liberal thinking but also holds a degree in religious studies, I find this to be one of the more unfortunate elements of the modern liberal movement. I’ve heard liberal commentators flatly state that there’s no God, as if they had personally taken a complete tour of the cosmos and found it empty of a spiritual realm. Self-aggrandizing atheists tend to hold themselves up as being exceptionally resistant to the self-delusion of religionists, while failing to acknowledge that such a cock-sure rejection of so much as the remote possibility of the existence of a god is dogmatic in equal measure as religious belief.

And such brusquely dismissive attitudes also strike me as markedly illiberal, especially in light of the often annoying tendency of liberal movements to show no discretion in what voices it invites to contribute to its aggregate monologue. Berlinerblau for some reason entertains the possibility that the heirs to the Occupy Wall Street movement might allow “the progressive faith communities that eventually joined its ranks [to] come to play a pivotal role in [their] leadership or activism.” But why would a group that is actively shunned by a portion of the liberal movement come to have a managerial influence when no other has ever done so? Religious institutions are the last things I would expect to give direction to the movement, and I don’t expect anything whatsoever to do that.

Yet Berlinerblau continues his remarks by saying : “Were they to do so, fairly obvious synergies would develop around issues such as poverty, corporate greed, the environment, and health care, to name but a few.”

I have no doubt that that would happen, in theory. But synergies, no matter how obvious, are quite alien to liberal activist movements. They are characterized instead by a series of disjoint voices jostling together, generally being permitted their own agendas. Religion alone would tend to face a unique uphill battle as an exception to that trend, so if it aspires to a pivotal role, it will have enough difficulty contributing its own voice, let alone attempting to synthesize with those of other groups.

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