Is it possible for those of us in the progressive ranks to have a conversation about religion as it relates to politics without getting into some huge flame war? I hope so. Because I saw an exchange on this week's Real Time with Bill Maher that I think everyone should read and at least consider. After considering it, perhaps it is possible to simply discuss it without decrying this point of view or that dogma. Let's make an honest effort at civility, because if we can't talk amongst ourselves about religion and the importance of its presence or absence in some of our lives, I fear we will be severely hamstrung by this weird brand of emotional hysteria (both for and against) surrounding progressive discourse on the subject of faith.
First let me tell you that the exchange I'm going to reference involved primarily Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan. Benn Affleck and Salman Rushdie were also on the panel and some comments of theirs may be featured. I know that opinions about Andrew Sullivan among progressives can be harsh. Let me just set the stage a bit and highlight a comment he made prior to the one that most caught my attention. The comment is on the subject of Sullivan's support for George W. Bush:
I will tell you I trusted him. I endorsed him in 2000. I trusted him that there were stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I trusted him that he was a conservative President who would restrain spending. He's increased spending more than anybody since FDR. I trusted him when he went into Iraq and said "we've got to get this right" and he would send enough troops to actually get it right, and he didn't. I'm never going to trust this guy again. And any conservative who has principles who hasn't just sold out to the Republican establishment would have said last November "we're voting for Kerry. Because we can't trust this guy" and they all went along. And I'm sorry but I have no pity for them anymore.
Now those of you who are unfamiliar with Mr. Sullivan may not know that he is a conservative gay man of faith. He took an enormous amount of shit on some of Maher's past shows for supporting the anti-gay Bush administration. I never got comfortable with his reasons. I disagree with him on the vast majority of the positions he takes politically, though I think he's no hack and he is definitely a smart guy.
So now to the interchange that has inspired this diary:
[ MAHER ] I have to tell you what offends me most about this nomination [Miers] is that there's no diversity of religion in this country. George Bush does have a diverse cabinet when it comes to race. They've done a pretty good job - Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and so forth - but, you know, I don't think race makes someone as diverse nowadays as how you think about religion. And there's no secular voice - there's no voice of me in this cabinet. Everyone who gets appointed has to be not just Christy but Super Christy - double-dog Christy - twice born Christy - and you know what? That - people of faith - and when I hear 'people of faith' I think, well those are people who suspend rational judgment for nonsensical bullshit that they believe. Where is the diversity of the people who think like myself and perhaps you [indicates Rushdie]?
[ AFFLECK ] I... I think that's oversimplifying it and probably a little bit insulting. You know, people of faith aren't stupid by dint of their being of faith. I mean, I just disagree. I think that's stupid, in fact, to suggest that. I think that ultimately you have...
[ MAHER ] It's a mental block...
[ AFFLECK ] ...well, there may be on some ends of the extreme of whatever religious spectrum you want to look at. But there's certainly a gamut and just saying 'well, somebody who is religious whether they are Jewish of the temple or Orthodox Jew or a Christian who goes to church once a week or four times a week or believes that every word that's in the bible is literal or like the President thinks 'well, it's not all literal but I believe in it' doesn't inherently make them stupid.
[ SULLIVAN ] Bill, I'm a person of faith and I rather resent being called stupid.
[ MAHER ] I'm not calling you stupid. I'm saying...
[ SULLIVAN ] Yes you did.
[ MAHER ] No I'm... I'm saying it's a mental block. Because I know...
[ SULLIVAN ] You have a mental block when it comes to people of faith.
[ MAHER ] No - I had a mental block when I was a child when they taught me this nonsense and when I got to be an adult, I got over it.
[ MAHER ] This week - let me just expand on why I feel this way - this week it just happened that God pulled off a hat trick. On the same day... the same day there were three major holidays. The feast of St. Francis of Assissi for the Christians, Ramadan started, and Roshashana all fell on the same day. Now if all three groups feel so fervently [Rushdie chuckles] - you know where I'm going - isn't it obvious somebody's wrong? And if somebody's wrong, aren't they all wrong?
[ SULLIVAN ] Bill, they actually have drug tests to be in the cabinet for President Bush. That's one reason why some people aren't represented there. [laughter and groans] People of faith are not talking about what is known. They're talking about what is not known and what we cannot know. And genuine people of faith are not going to make these assinine statements like Franklin Graham or these nutcases you point out. They're going to be humble in front of God. They're going to recognize that there are some things that science cannot tell you. The meaning of the universe, the point of our lives, what morality is, what happens to us after death, how we should treat our fellow human beings... Those questions, I think in true people of faith who don't seek to impose it on other people are just trying to find a way to live their own lives in a good way. And by demonizing all people of faith, you.. you.. what you do is you play into the hands of these fundamentalists. The United States is based upon a separation of church and state and that's why religion is so strong in this country [my emphasis added]. The Republican party has betrayed that tradition and you're rigvht to call them on it. But don't - don't conflate that with the greatness of many religions and the greatness of many people of faith.
[ MAHER ] I'm sorry, but they are - excuse me - they are your fellow travellers. They - the people who believe in miracles and - and you know - impregnating people from a God and flying up to heaven - you either...
[ SULLIVAN ] And the people who are visiting prisoners in jail and the people who are feeding the hungry and the people who are caring for abandoned children and the people who do good every day of the week are also my fellow travellers - and they're YOUR fellow travellers.
That was literally one of the most thought-provoking and interesting exchanges I have ever seen on teleivison. Just for the record, I believe in God and consider myself a Christian (though it has been suggested to me that my worldview fits more with Hinduism). I am not indoctrinated, however. Rather, my "faith" is something I just feel and isn't something I can readily explain. I suppose that puts me somehwere in the mid-spectrum of the breadth of religious beliefs and disbeliefs across progressives.
Maher started with a very interesting point - he is an atheist and he feels totally unrepresented in his atheism. I think that that's a legitimate statement that holds true across the history of American politics - if there's a well-known atheist or politically atheistic group that has ever weilded influence as to atheistic values and concerns, I can't name them (not that that means anything).
Yet Maher, who I think is brilliant and with whom I generally agree, is quite arrogant in his atheistic rhetoric. He does routinely impugn "people of faith" as being somehow unintelligent or, at best, woefully misguided. He lumps religious extremists in with all people who believe I think that's a HUGE mistake, especially if progressives and Democrats want to reclaim the "big tent" supremacy.
For once, on this subject, I agree with Sullivan. His statements about what is unknown ring true with me on an emotional level, and I didn't feel that he was trying to impose his point of view on people who don't share it. He seemed, to me, to speak for the majority of "people of faith" who are totally drowned out by extremists of their ilk. Moreover, I thought his observation about playing into the hands of fundamentalists was absolutely spot-on. Perhaps, just perhaps his statement about religion being so strong in this country is because of the separation of church and state is one where we can find some common ground. Perhaps it is a winning message, one that welcomes the diversity of religious beliefs out there in the wonderful American democratic experiment yet also reinforces the legislative necessity of protecting religion by keeping it out of government and public institutions. It doesn't seek to impose a particular viewpoint of any variety yet reinforces the Constitutional imperative of the separation. Freedom of religion is freedom from religion. Sullivan may have just hit upon what can unite us in our differences around this incendiary topic.
A disclaimer: I am not a proponent of Andrew Sullivan's views, generally speaking. Moreover, I think it's important to note that I don't equate his comments on religion with a broader discussion of religious extremism and the damnable creep of religiousity back into our government.
Is this not a point on which we can have some discussion and reach some semblance of common ground? I fear an religious split in our party that will substantially weaken our ability to accomplish the one thing to which we all are so dedicated - winning elections in the future.
Comments are welcome. Please be considerate even if you don't agree.