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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, January 02, 2006

Religious Values and Reading Lessons

I usually respect Owen, over at the Boots & Sabers, for having a greater level of decency and thoughtfulness than many others I have encountered from the right half of the Cheddarsphere. But over the weekend, Owen perpetrated either a deliberate misreading or a basic comprehension mistake in discussing Bryan Kennedy's post on religious values here a few days ago. I tend to think it was deliberate, since the underlying theme of Bryan's essay is really, really hard to miss. (See Update, below, because Owen continues to deliberately lie.)

Owen's misreading begins when he deliberately truncates and misrepresents a quote from Bryan:
Bryan Kennedy [. . .] starts out by slamming conservatives as “zealots” who “tell me how to live my life” and spout “hatred.”
How is it that conservative religious zealots have seized my Savior and determined His values? Why do they try to tell me how to live my life and how to follow Him? How did they come to the conclusion that Christ was pro-war, pro-business, and that He spouted hatred for people who were not like Him? These questions have puzzled me for quite some time.
Please note this sentence, which follows immediately after Owen stopped quoting: "I was raised to believe that Christ was the peacemaker, he cast the money changers out of the temple, and he taught us to turn the other cheek." By omitting that sentence, Owen makes it seem as though Bryan's criticisms are baseless. Yet that sentiment--of Christ as the peacemaker and servant--is the basis of belief for the vast majority of Christians in this country and the world over. Why do prominent American religious (and political) leaders present the opposite view?

The omission is minor; what's really deceptive about Owen's use of that quote is that he uses it to accuse Bryan Kennedy of hypocrisy:
Then [Kennedy] goes on to tell us that he is Mormon and that the Mormon faith teaches us how we should run our lives. [. . .] So, he is saying that is it wrong and hateful for other people to use their faith as a basis for their political philosophy, but it’s acceptable if you’re a Mormon.
What I omitted there, in the ellipses, was a quote Owen used from Bryan's essay which says nothing about Mormons telling anyone how they should run their lives. In fact, it was a paragraph in which Bryan eloquently describes the Latter Day Saints' social service and charitible tradition, closing with a line from the Book of Mormon: "When ye are in the service of your fellow being, ye are only in the service of your God." There is nothing in what Owen quotes about feeding the hungry and clothing the poor to suggest that Mormons use their faith as a political cudgel.

In fact, if Owen were more honest about what Bryan is actually saying in his essay, he would instead have quoted these lines:
We also hold as one of the most important tenets of our faith God's gift of agency. We believe that we are saved by grace after all that we can do for ourselves. Being a follower of Christ requires us to give all of our heart, might, mind and strength to keeping His commandments and to emulating His example. In the end, we are human and will fall short. Thus, Christ's grace saves us after all that we attempt to do for ourselves. Our agency is our God-given right to make our own decisions and to chart our own paths in life. [. . .] Our representative democracy promotes religious freedom and tolerance and allows for people to make their own decisions about what to believe and what religious organizations to join. We also allow the freedom to not worship at all, if an individual so chooses. Essentially the "agency" that is so central to Mormon doctrine is written into the guaranteed freedoms of the United States Constitution.
You can tell that there is an imprtant term being discussed here, since Bryan Kennedy put it in bold and italics. That's agency. And Bryan freely admits that his concept of agency, nurtured by his faith, defines his political philosphy.

"A-ha!" I can hear you saying. "Isn't that exactly why Owen is right to call him a hypocrite?" Well, no. Because to be a hypocrite, you have to do something you criticize others for doing, and here Bryan Kennedy does not--implicitly or explicitly-- say that other political leaders can't use their faith as a basis for political belief. That's just something Owen made up out of thin air.

Go back to Bryan's first paragraph:
How is it that conservative religious zealots have seized my Savior and determined His values? Why do they try to tell me how to live my life and how to follow Him? How did they come to the conclusion that Christ was pro-war, pro-business, and that He spouted hatred for people who were not like Him? These questions have puzzled me for quite some time. I was raised to believe that Christ was the peacemaker, he cast the money changers out of the temple, and he taught us to turn the other cheek.
Here, Bryan lays out the difference between his understanding of Christ and others'. He never says that others cannot hold those beliefs; rather, he says they do not match his beliefs, his background, and the personal religious faith that drives his political philosophy.

When conservative political leaders demand a political reality that forces their own morality on others, they violate the principle of agency. I will not speak for Bryan Kennedy, but I see examples of this all over the national and state political landscape. Some say we need a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage because they believe God said homosexuality was wrong. Some want "intelligent design" taught in lieu of evolution because they believe God created the universe in six days. Some want to force individuals to say "Merry Christmas" throughout the holidays because apparently the dominant religion in this country doesn't get enough respect the other 11 months a year. The US Congress rushed to pass a bill--and the President interrupted his vacation to sign it--forcing one man to keep his brain-dead and physically withering wife connected to the machines that prolonged her existence, such as it was. I can't go down the street and buy a car on Sundays. Abortion, school prayer, school vouchers, "faith-based initiatives"--the list can go on and on of issues in which religious conservatives demand that all Americans follow their own version of morality rather than exercise any kind of agency.

I just finished reading Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, a great study of Shakespeare and the political and social context of his life. It reminded me of the religious struggles in sixteenth and seventeenth century England--the kind of strife people came to this continent to escape. Every time the official state religion shifted from Catholic to Protestant to Catholic to Protestant (it was really quite the era!), thousands died for having the wrong belief--a belief that was the right one just a year before. Weekly church attendance was compulsory, and lists of "recusants" were published and violators punished. We have a First Amendment to prevent exactly this kind of thing: I don't want some blabbering politician telling me I have to do x, y, and z because his version of God demands it of me, whether the blabbering politician be conservative or liberal.

And this is why I like Bryan Kennedy, would vote for him if I could. He is not interested in creating stricture that would make me live by the rules of his faith--or any faith--but rather in creating opportunities for me to live my life well and successfully. Owen sees this liberality (with a lower-case L) as a threat to, I don't know, something:
I think it’s funny how so many liberals love to wax moral over the virtues of tolerance and acceptance while rejecting as intolerable a philosophy held by a large portion of the population. As for Mr. Kennedy, I would suggest that he is never going to win the conservative 5th CD as long as he continues to disparage the philosophy held by the vast majority of the people held in the district.
Again, I urge Owen to, you know, read. I do not believe that "vast majority" of voters in Wisconsin's fifth district believe, as Bryan writes, "Christ was pro-war, pro-business, and that He spouted hatred for people who were not like Him." No; I believe that the good people of the WI-5 know Jesus as "the peacemaker [who] cast the money changers out of the temple, and [. . .] taught us to turn the other cheek." Maybe Owen is willing to sacrifice his agency to the "Justice Sunday" crowd, but his neighbors surely are not.

Update: In comments to his own post, Owen writes, "And yes, he [Bryan Kennedy] did accuse Republicans of hate and of being zealots." The word Republican does not appear in Bryan's essay, and Bryan ascibes the "hate" to the Christ of the zealots' fevered imaginings. Owen continues to lie deliberately about Bryan Kennedy.

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