Friday, November 9, 2012

Secular vs. Religious Values: Reflecting on the Meaning of the Election

In her recent reflection on the results of Tuesday's election, writer and blogger Greta Christina touted the outcome as a "Victory of Secular Values."

To support this perspective she focused on several outcomes in particular: The success of marriage equality initiatives--and the defeat or an anti-same-sex marriage amendent in Minnesota; the election of the first openly gay or lesbian senator; the success of marijuana-legalization initiatives; the sound trumping of misogynistic rape-apologizing candidates; the defeat of a Florida amendment that would have allowed taxpayer money to support churches; and the failure of the Republican effort to win votes by demonizing birth control (and hence sex-for-pleasure).

As Greta Christina sees it, "the Republican Party tried to win, in large part, through religious fear-mongering about gays and drugs and sex and abortion and women who don’t know their place," and the effort failed big-time. Thus, she concludes, "This election was, to a great extent, a referendum on secular values versus the values of the theocratic religious right — and secular values won."

Now in casting the outcome of the election in these terms, Christina is in danger of playing into the very same narrative that is fueling the religious right in this country. The narrative, in short, is that our nation and the world confronts a conflict between the forces of faith and the forces of secularism, and any victory for the latter is a defeat for the people of God. We find elements of this narrative starkly displayed in Todd Akin's concession speech, when he says "that life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness come from almighty God not almighty government." We find it in those persistent religious-right warnings of the dire consequences of rejecting "God's values" (which, surprisingly, seem to be largely about sex and gender relationships) in favor of the secular ones touted by political liberals.

Now it's not uncommon to find that some of the more polarized atheists have the same basic assumptions about the relationship between the secular and the sacred that are rampant among those in the religious right. Dawkins and Ken Hamm agree that science and religion are fundamentally opposed--what they disagree about is which needs to go. But it is just this sort of polarization, this either/or division, that I think warrants serious critical scrutiny.

To be fair, Greta Christina frames her view as a victory of secular values over those of the "theocratic religious right," not over religion in more general terms. What was defeated was "religious fear-mongering." But she makes no mention of any other form of religion--a religion not rooted in fear--that might also declare victory in Tuesday's election. And this means some important points get missed. Two in particular are in danger of being overlooked, I think, unless they're made explicit.

First, and most obviously, this week's election was not merely a victory (on many fronts, at least) for secular values over the values of the religious right. It was also, on many fronts, a victory of progressive religious values over the values of the religious right. When I reflect on the states that voted for marriage equality, and on the evidence of the waning power of the prejudices that would have prevented an openly lesbian woman from gaining a senate seat, what I see are trends in America fully harmonious with the love ethic I and other religious progressives discover in the life and ministry of Jesus--an ethic that stands with the marginalized and oppressed and against the sort of legalism that's invoked to exclude, to create in-groups and out-groups, us and them.

Within Christianity today there is a struggle among rival ethical understandings, and homosexuality has become a central battleground. Any quick gloss on the nature of this struggle would oversimplify it, but one thing is clear: While many on the religious right want very much to paint progressive Christian opponents of the traditional condemnation of homosexuality as sell-outs to secular culture, the effort to do so fails to acknowledge how consistently Christian progressives root their case in terms of the most central Christian value of all: neighbor-love. Conservatives would like it to be otherwise--their case within the Christian community would be stronger if their opponents were simply buckling to secular forces. But this is not what is going on--it is a false characterization that impedes real dialogue.

It is important that secular voices not only remember this, but that they not reinforce--wittingly or unwittingly--this false characterization.

The other point that gets lost when we represent this week's election as the triumph of secular over religious values is this: There are some serious questions that need to be asked, not only about what should properly be called "secular," but also about what deserves the label "religious." On the former question, I think there really are such things as secular values--and I think they are best understood in something like the terms laid out by John Rawls, as found in this shared set of principles of fairness that everyone, regardless of their sectarian values, would embrace if they didn't know what position and privileges they and their sectarian community would enjoy within the social structure. And it may well be the case that the values Greta Christina highlights as having triumphed on Tuesday fall within this class.

But if so, that doesn't preclude them from also being religious values. On the contrary, the idea that you should abide by principles that you would like to live under even if you are not the one in power, even if you are not positioned as you are--this idea is the essential heart of the Golden Rule. Freedom of religion--including freedom from being subject to the mandates of a religion whose contestable sectarian doctrines you don't embrace--is arguably an expression of the Golden Rule, a rule enunciated with clarity by Jesus and repeatedly endorsed in Christian history as a way of living out the ethic of love. And it is a striking fact that the Golden Rule finds recurring expression in diverse religious traditions, so much so that it almost qualifies as ubiquitous. If this is right, than the core perspective that gives rise to "secular" values is also a deeply held religion one. Theocracy violates the Golden Rule--and hence violates religious values.

More significantly, I think there is a real problem with uncritically attaching the term "religious" to the values that Greta Christina takes to have been defeated on Tuesday. In other places I've argued that the religious right, to the extent that it relies on fear-mongering (and it isn't defined wholly by fear-mongering), puts itself outside the boundaries of any sort of religion or faith that is intellectually defensible, morally benign, and attuned to the transformative religious experiences that are the continuing wellspring of the human impulse to connect with the transcendent.

My own inclination, following the division I adopted from Plutarch in Is God a Delusion?, is to refer to the sort of fear-mongering that we saw among many far-right Republicans as superstitious fear-mongering. Religious faith professes to be about trust and love of God--and these things are not only different from but exclude anything that smacks of appeasement. If the divine is defined as a transcendent good worthy of our worship, as opposed to a powerful tyrannical force that demands our fawning subservience on pain of retaliatory strikes, then fear-mongering by its very nature is divorced from the divine. And if religion is about connecting with the divine, then "religious fear-mongering" becomes a nonsequitur.

Triumph over fear-mongering is, on this view of things, triumph over something that is by its very essence in opposition to the religious. And so, if secular values did triumph over fear-mongering this week, then those secular values have done religion a service. They have, if you will, cleared away one of those forces that prevents religion from blossoming in the world.


  1. Eric, I realize that there are many different narratives and goals under the rubric of religion. But you may be interested in some poll numbers that indicate that, in broad strokes, religiosity in America was more or less precisely inversely related with progressive voting and values (i.e voting for Obama in this data, especially in the vote by religious attendence table).

    1. These results don't surprise me. One of the issues I'm trying to raise here, however, is how we define "religiosity"--and whether part of the problem we face in this country is that we are too often defining religion in a way that favors the polarizing narrative.

  2. As long as fundamentalists are allowed to define what Christianity is and is not, I think we progressives will continue to lose the debate. Even I, upon hearing the word "Christian", picture Jerry Falwell or some well-groomed bible thumper before I picture Martin Luther King or William Sloan Coffin.

  3. Hi Eric,

    Is there really a hard distinction between religious and secular values? To be sure, I suppose one can identify some values that only make sense in one context or the other (“obedience to God”) but, it seems to me, these would be the exception rather than the rule.

    There are religious beliefs, of course, and these really characterize the difference between the religious and the secular. But I would think that, by and large, the dimensions of beliefs and values are orthogonal to each other.

    This is not to say that some values are not more prevalent in some religions than others. Religions certainly are efficient at transmitting or reinforcing values but these values can be anything from the most progressive to the most retrograde.

    1. JP--I think this is largely on track, with one caveat: Religious beliefs might serve as the basis for a distinctive theory of values (a theory of what values are and whether value statements have truth-makers and if so what those truth-makers are), and one's theory of values might have implications for the content of one's value system. But, of course, different theories of value can generate substantial overlap in the content of values...and some theories of value (e.g., subjectivism) have no specific implications for the content of one's values.

  4. Hi, Eric,
    This is a bit off the topic, but I'm currently reading two books by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland on Christian Universalism (If Grace is True and If God is Love). Philip Gully is a progressive Universalist Quaker and he has also written a couple of books on progressive Christianity (If the Church were Christian and The Evolution of Faith). Are you familiar with these, and if so, what are your thoughts?

    1. I'm actually not familiar with these books. Thanks for the heads-up. I will keep an eye out for them.