Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Partisan Politics in Christian Guise: Santorum's Disturbing Success

Mitt Romney's win in Iowa may have helped strengthen his case for being the Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination, but the more surprising story is that he beat out Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes. Apparently, Santorum's propensity for attacking same-sex marriage by flapping napkins around struck a chord with conservative Republicans in Iowa.

This bothers me. It bothers me because Santorum's support base undoubtedly self-identifies as Christian, and because, to my mind at least, Santorum comes closest of the Republican candidates to overtly defying the fundamental spirit of Christian ethics. And, more eggregiously, he does so in the name of Christianity.

As I've argued before, Santorum deliberately seeks in his stump speeches to establish an us/them ideology, one that pits the "Christian" in-group against an out-group encompassing, in particular, sexual minorities. He represents the latter's pursuit of social equality as an attack on Christianity, one against which Christians should rally. And he, of course, is the champion of the chosen group, the one around whom the rallying should occur.

Since I've looked closely at these rhetorical moves before, I won't do so again here. The point I want to make here is that, in pursuing this politics of division, Santorum abandons in the most overt possible way any real concern for living out the love ethic of Christianity. He abondons it in favor of using Christianity as a group-category for establishing a form of what, in Is God a Delusion?, I call "religionism." Here's how I summarized this idea in the last chapter of that book:
When one racial group brutally oppresses another, we blame racism, not race. When people of different nationalities go to war out of misplaced pride, we blame nationalism, not nationality. When rival ethnic groups practice "ethnic cleansing," we blame ethnocentrism, not ethnicity.

Likewise, I would suggest that what we should blame for all the violence that has been done in the name of God is not religion but what might be dubbed religionism. Behind each of these "isms" is a common human tendency: the drive to divide humanity into in-groups and out-groups, to define oneself in terms of group membership, and to define one's group against rivals.
In Is God a Delusion?, my purpose for bringing up this distinction was to challenge the New Atheist argument that religion is pernicious because of its propensity to motivate intergroup hostility and violence. My claim was that the source of the problem lies not with religion as such but with divisive ideology--and such divisive ideology can but needn't be built around distinctive human systems of religious belief and practice.

Of course, the line between religion and religionism is blurrier than the line between race and racism, insofar as both religion and religionism involve beliefs and practices. I may say more about this in a later blog post. For now, however, my point is this: Santorum's invocation of Christianity in his stump speeches has the clear markings of religionism. It is about dividing people, defining battle lines, and mobilizing one group by placing it in opposition to another.

And such divisive ideology is the very antithesis, I would argue, of the love ethic that Jesus taught and modeled. In the name of standing up for "biblical" teachings about homosexuality, it seems to me that Santorrum has ignored what lies at the very heart of living out the Christian ethical life.

A claim like that requires some account of what I take to be at the heart of the Christian ethical life. Obviously this is something I can't do full justice to in a short blog post (maybe I'll devote more attention to it in later posts). But the essence of the Christian approach to ethical life is, I think, beautifully characterized by Simone Weil in the quotation that appears at the header of this blog. It's about a lived connection to the transcenden that breaks down distinctions and divisions among each of us "here below." It's about seeing the divine in terms of agapic love, a love that does not wait on worth, that does not distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy...and then deliberately pursuing connection with the divine by loving the creation in this same extravagant way.

When I hear critics of religion talk about the deep moral failings of Christianity or other faiths, it is clear to me that while they are putting their fingers on real problems, they are also missing something fundamental (not only in Christianity, but in other religious traditions that teach very similar things). But it is also clear to me that it is the very public claims and arguments of people like Santorum that make it so easy to miss this fundamental something. When the heart of Christian ethics is missed by those who most visibly thump their chests as exemplars of the faith, who can blame outsiders for missing it too?

Santorum's propensity to do this, however, is not the main thing that bothers me. Santorum, after all, is a politician. And divisive ideologies have been invoked by politicians throughout history. What bothers me the most is that many of those who most visibly wear the "Christian" label in our society are so apparently sucked in by such invocations of faith in the service of partisan politics. It's not just that the spirit of partisan divisiveness in Christian guise is mistaken for the introduction of Christian values into political life. More disturbingly, that spirit seems to have succeeded, again and again, at introducing partisan divisiveness into Christian life.


  1. Hi Eric,

    I'm intrigued by your notion of "religionism." I recently read Dawkins's book The God Delusion, finally... I decided it was finally time to actually read it rather than just read what other people say about it. I'm tending more and more these days towards an atheistic position, despite having formerly described myself as a theist. So I was more sympathetic to Dawkins than I might once have been.

    You write:

    When one racial group brutally oppresses another, we blame racism, not race. When people of different nationalities go to war out of misplaced pride, we blame nationalism, not nationality. When rival ethnic groups practice "ethnic cleansing," we blame ethnocentrism, not ethnicity.

    The way I read one of the main arguments of The God Delusion is that religion, even "moderate" religion, lacks a standard of evidence that sufficiently guards against misuse of its tenets. It is all very well and good, Dawkins seems to be saying, to point out that there is such thing as "moderate" or "liberal" religion, but the very nature of the reasons people give for believing in God/following a certain religion-- such as personal religious experience, Scripture, and so on-- lead to the unavoidable reality that no standard exists by which those who draw unethical ideologies and behaviors from religion can be criticized. For instance, I can say that I have had experience of God and that God tells me being gay is not a sin, while someone else can claim, with apparent validity that they too have experienced God and God has told them that being gay really is a sin. How do we decide between the two if we cannot decide the issue either by logic, science, or some other "third-person" method? All the reasons we have for holding our respective positions with regard to our religion are "in our heads" (the problem of other minds rears its head, I think) so we cannot peer inside each other's brains to figure out who has "really" heard God.

    This, I think, seems to be the point behind the criticism of Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others, that "moderate" religion creates an environment where extremism can thrive, because the epistemological status of religion and "faith' is such that we cannot decide between competing claims for "God's will." Thus even if religion does not really "poison everything" as Hitchens's grandiose subtitle put it, it may very well be that religion leads, in the final equation, to more harm than good.

    So in dialogue with your notion of "religionism" being separate from "religion," I wonder whether perhaps religion might have a strong tendency to develop into religionism, or at least have no defense against it, because it is so problematic to criticize religious claims with other religious claims, given that they all derive from such subjective epistemological foundations.

  2. Hi Evan

    Interesting thoughts. Might the counter argument be that while religion provides no set standard against which say, ethical stances can be assessed, neither does the scientific narrative? Science provides a means of collective discovery in the world of physical modelling, but not in the world of meaning creation. Hence, an atheistic viewpoint may be just as supportive of damaging tribalism. This then might not be an opposition between theism and atheism, but rather one between dogmatic belief, present on both sides, and the liberal viewpoint that allows that consensus can only be built upon curiosity and compromise.

    What do you think?


  3. Eric,

    Interestingly enough one finds in the Gospels “Santorum-like” figures, i.e. people who use religion as a means.

    What I find more surprising is the silence of the American Christian institutions when Christianity is abused for political gain. The hypocrisy is disturbing. Again some parallels with the Gospels here too.

    You might enjoy reading “The Greek Passion” by Nikos Kazantzakis. The original title was “Christ Recrucified” and the story is precisely that: A Christ-like figure appears in a modern setting and the local Christian church moves for his elimination.

  4. Bernard:

    You may be right. I have to admit that the one thing that bothers me most about Dawkins and crew is their occasional (?) descent into the same kind of in-group/out-group, "us vs. them" tribalism they decry religion as a cause of.

    As for the question of where our ethical standards come from, I agree that science has a huge, possibly insurmountable problem here. In fact, these days I have no idea what is supposed to objectively ground our ethical norms, though I still consider myself a "moral realist." This is an area where I am definitely open to suggestions

    Unfortunately, religion, or at any rate some versions of it, tend to shut down ethical discussion in any form, because they tend towards "divine command theory" forms of ethics (which Eric has so effectively critiqued in his book). For many people, including authors I have read, God not only exists, but is the sort of God who could divinely authorize genocide (as in the book of Joshua) and still be considered "good." So certain forms of religiously-based ethics shut down ethical discussions as much as they do scientific ones with "the Bible says so."

    I also think that Christianity has traditionally often resulted in dogmatism, because Christianity from its earliest days required not only right living but right belief, and the church has coupled its insistence on orthodoxy with a paranoid fear of "heresy" which might imperil that orthodoxy.

    So maybe it's not religion per se that's the problem, but religion too narrowly obsessed with orthodoxy and the purification of a "holy society" against wrong belief?

  5. Evan

    Yes, I think that's right, and such traditions of inflexibility deserve to be criticised.

    Does ethical objectivity need to be grounded in reality? I think it is objectively the case that my car is parked outside, insomuch that anybody examining the evidence with full knowledge of the circumstances (so with a concept of car on board, for example) would reach the same conclusion. But as to the reality beneath this statement (is existence any more than a human concept, is time real etc etc) who knows?

    Could ethical truths be grounded in the same way? Perhaps they describe the way we bump up against the world, but not necessarily anything about the underlying structure of that world. Might it be enough to define ethics pragmatically, in terms of those value sets that best allow us to express our human nature in a satisfying way. At this point, as with our description of the physical world, any position is possible, so long as it can be made to work, and if it can be made to work for anybody considering it, we might use the label objective?

    And as in science, reaching best descriptions becomes a process of listening, testing and rejecting nothing purely on principle? Not sure if that works, but it's where my instincts lead me.


  6. I just want to say thank goodness for Jon Stewart. If not for his incredible sense of humor I would be crying about all these issues.