What You Should Think About Hope

October 13, 2008

“I steer my bark with Hope in my head, leaving Fear astern.  My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”

–Thomas Jefferson

Virtually all Americans desire a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation.  I can say this with confidence because virtually all <insert nationality here> people desire a peaceful and prosperous future for <insert nation here>.  This is universal human nature.  Even in time of war, opposing forces are each mobilized by concern for the security of their homeland.

The most insidious sort of combatants, terrorists, can be distinguished by life-changing experiences in parts of the world devastated by constant violence.  Unable to imagine a secure homeland, their desperation drives them to undermine the security of strangers and neighbors alike.  Yet even they harbor the twisted hope that shocking violence could raise awareness and bring an end to the brutal oppression in which their darkest tendencies were forged.

Away from the insanity of a place like Belfast during the Troubles or the Gaza Strip today, hope and malice are less likely to intersect.  From the yokels responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing to the killers who lash out at abortion clinics, our homegrown terrorists have clearly lost all hope.  Consumed and deranged by a potent blend of fear and hatred, they lash out despite having no coherent vision of a better future to follow from those actions.

Responsible civic discourse is always degraded by appeals to fear and hate.  Yet it can be elevated by appeals to hope.  This nation has made many monumental efforts through the decades.  Some, like marginalizing indigenous tribes or organizing the Confederacy, were the product of fearful and hateful rhetoric.  By contrast, hopeful rhetoric has inspired our greatest achievements, from the Internet to the Apollo Program all the way back to the Constitution itself.

As fuzzy and sentimental as this analysis may seem, its strength is revealed by the rarity and weakness of exceptions to it.  Direct your mind to the past.  Did a President’s angry words ever serve as the birth cry of a great national success?  Did any dark chapter in our history begin with earnest appeals to the better angels of our nature?  If those questions are answered in the negative, a clear relationship between hopeful rhetoric and real success in statecraft has been observed.

The present election provides mixed messages from both sides.  The Republican ticket offers hope that there will be more use of domestic fossil fuels, more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more cold shoulders for foreigners seeking high level diplomacy without preconditions.  Few people seriously believe a surge in fossil fuels can address our economic shortcomings, never mind dealing with serious environmental issues.  Faith in the panacea of tax cuts remains popular, though in the present historical context that can only be characterized as blind faith.

As far as American exceptionalism goes, that point is a blend of hope and fear.  It is all well and good when citizens hope that our nation’s conduct on the world stage is so amazingly wonderful that there are no errors to acknowledge.  It is neither well nor good when citizens hope that our nation’s position in the world is so coercively dominant that there is no need to acknowledge errors as they become apparent.  When the line between patriotism and jingoism is crossed, so too is the line between hope and fear.

By contrast, the Democrats’ chief appeal to fear draws mainly from a reasonable apprehension about continuity in public policy after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left their mark on world history.  Sure, occasionally there is a low blow about Senator McCain’s aversion to modern information technology (after all, a President should have no shortage of top quality clerical assistance.)  However, the bulk of the attacks go negative on the record and plans of the Republican nominee — not his personality and assorted minor foibles.

With the rest of their enormous media buys and direct communications, Senator Obama’s supporters articulate real hopes.  His health care proposal may not rid the nation of parasitic middlemen, but it does constitute a real effort to address a serious national problem in terms of access to medical goods and services. Few Americans would argue that poor citizens should be allowed to die in the streets due to the costs of treatment.  Yet some legislate and millions vote as if that they hoped for precisely that.  Not since the early 90s has any prominent American leader tried to realign hope with basic human decency in this crucial way.

Elsewhere, Senator Obama’s idealism takes even more noble forms.  His plans for education and science funding would make our workforce more competitive and could bring about a technological renaissance.  Healing damaged international relationships, getting serious about renewable energy sources, providing tax relief for families that have never seen a six figure paycheck — the list of appeals driven by hope and joined by substantive specifics is lengthy.  Heck, the man even hopes to radically transform [warning: PDF link] the national failure that is our policy on broadband infrastructure development.

Perhaps there is no force in the universe that could silence all the fearmongering and hatemongering noise machines in American politics.  Yet that is no reason at all to bend to any particular agenda.  The ultimate tax cut would not address the realities of homelessness, domestic hunger, and preventable loss of human life that occur in our cutthroat economy.  The ultimate drilling initiative would not address the realities of toxic byproducts, industrial emissions, and rising greenhouse gas levels.

Even if political conservatives accomplished goals as stated in this election cycle, unsolved problems growing, some already devastating in scope, would create far more trouble than the most loud-mouthed partisan pundit ever could.  All loyal citizens bear a duty to disregard, dismiss, or dismantle sources of political fear and hate.  Likewise, civic duty calls for heartfelt hopes to be expressed clearly and harmonized with the realities of our times.

Not even a sitting President gets to live in a United States perfectly altered to suit his every whim.  Hope must be tempered with reason if it is ever to bridge the gaps between our noblest dreams and our daily realities.  Fear and hatred repulse reason and hope.  What Machiavelli wrote on the subject has little relevance in an open society with regular peaceful transitions of power.   Perhaps appeals to fear and hatred have a part to play in popularity contests and power struggles.  Yet they can only diminish any civilized leader’s ability to govern effectively over the long term.

Barring one of the greatest surprises in the history of American politics, the contrast will be clear as voters go to the polls on November 4th.  One candidate offers ample thoughtful specifics in a long list of plans to make life better for honest working Americans.  The other adheres to the failed politics of the past while framing precious few appeals without falling back on themes of fear or hatred.  When taking the time to exercise a citizen’s right to vote, think of which future is more desirable — a nation driven forward by hope or a nation frozen in place by fear — then act accordingly.

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What You Should Think About Religious Freedom

December 10, 2007

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

–Sinclair Lewis

Last week I happened to catch Mitt Romney’s speech on faith in politics. As a contender in a partisan primary election, it came as no surprise that his message was carefully tailored to maximize its appeal to 21st century Republican voters. His embrace of diversity was not so broad that it included agnostics and atheists. Yet there seemed to be some sort of attempt to establish a theme following from the peculiar utterance, “there can be no religion without freedom and no freedom without religion.”

In the spirit of the season, I suppose Governor Romney should be granted a measure of charity. It could be said that religious practices dictated by force of law or other threat are not authentic. Given the choice between being crippled by stretching on the rack or professing my devotion to the faith of Torquemada, I suspect I would muster an articulate and convincing plea for spiritual salvation. Yet the devotion in those words would not reflect a devotion in my heart.

Christian practices supplanted pagan traditions in many parts of the Old World as a direct result of authorities wielding force to compel participation. Secret reverence for suppressed deities, nature spirits, etc. provides evidence that generations often passed between the forced imposition of Christianity on a community and widespread sincere belief in Christian doctrine. The underground survival of pagan practices, even in the face of the original witch hunts, reveals this to be the case.

Yet cannot sincere faith continue even where religious practices are forbidden? Are Chinese Christians, conducting informal services in private homes (much like the earliest generations of ancient Christians) not true believers? Wherever there is a state-mandated religion, or even state-mandated atheism, divergence from compulsory faith may be a genuine manifestation of faith. Religious practice might not be as easy or comfortable (or materially lavish) as it would otherwise be. Yet I believe some great figures in religious history would question if easy comfortable religious practice was truly better than adherence to a challenged faith.

For that matter, what is to be said about Christians in “liberated” Iraq? Saddam Hussein was a bona fide tyrant designated by some American leaders as a threat worthy of much more attention and resources than Osama bin Laden. Yet under Hussein’s rule, Iraq’s Christian minority peacefully coexisted with the Muslim majority. Christian churches were rarely vandalized, services generated little hostility, and the Vice President of Iraq took Communion on a regular basis. Now, years after George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” there are few parts of Iraq where civilians are not sure to draw persecution for overtly Christian activities.

The plight of Iraqi Christians provides us with a useful lens for scrutinizing both Mitt Romney’s remark and Republican rhetoric in general. Clearly “freedom” is not as simple a concept as it is made to seem by most political speech today. Saddam Hussein did use brutal methods, including techniques borrowed from Joseph Stalin’s playbook, to govern a nation harboring powerful cultural rifts between various Iraqi groups. Even so, he made good on a commitment to religious freedom in a part of the world where tolerance for other faiths is in short supply.

Perhaps there can be no genuine religious devotion without the freedom to choose the particulars of faith. Yet clearly religion can thrive in the general absence of civil or economic liberties. To suggest otherwise seems to reveal a failure to understand the nature of freedom, if not also the nature of religion. Of course, the flip side of Governor Romney’s remark is an even more dangerous misunderstanding. In declaring that there could be no freedom without religion, he reinforces the bogus Red Scare narrative holding that godlessness is a stepping stone to totalitarian governance.

There is much debate over the true religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Like the Freemasonry that served as a social network for many of them, individually they at least endorsed the existence of a higher power. In some instances this can be connected with strict observance of the practices of a particular sect. Yet for most of those hallowed men, no particular church attendance or other ritual behavior was regarded as a prerequisite to a life of virtue.

Most of them knew full well that great evil could be done in the name of Christ. Puritans and other radicals, not at all unlike modern Afghani Taliban, managed to set bad examples that went beyond the torture and murder of alleged “witches.” This nation was forged with keen sensitivity to the excesses of religious zeal and the pitfalls of intractable dogma propagated from the pulpit. Most of the Founding Fathers also followed suit with other Enlightenment thinkers in recognizing that great good can be done based on moral beliefs that exist independently of religious teaching.

Collectively, their words and their deeds both reveal the hope that this nation might be full of good acts and benefit from good leadership as a function of rational processes rooted in philosophy and science, not theology and scripture. After all, if a religious teaching illuminates a genuine moral lesson, then that lesson will stand on its own merits without any need for mortals to invoke the purported stance of deities on the subject. This reasonable restriction on moral thinking only seems weak or otherwise inferior to people who cannot overcome an attachment to unreasonable beliefs.

It is no more sensible to translate a personal incapacity to recognize achievements in the field of non-religious thinking on morality into disbelief in their usefulness than it would be to translate a personal incapacity to understand calculus into disbelief in the usefulness of rocket science. We may thrive without being a nation of philosophers just as we thrive without being a nation of mathematicians. Yet when the value of secular morality is rejected outright, the possibility of worthwhile social progress is also rejected. Non-religious thinking on morality is the only way any diverse society can go forward without instituting a state religion.

Even if one were so senseless as to simply eliminate or forcibly convert the millions of Americans do not view Jesus Christ as the savior of all mankind, Christianity itself is not a monolithic entity. Some sects really would ban alcohol, music, dancing, immodest attire, etc. Others impose strictures like a prohibition against military service or a refusal to acknowledge the dissolution of marriages. Many of the moral lessons dear to the hearts of some Christians are at odds with moral lessons dear to the hearts of other Christians.

In any working pluralist society, secular moral reasoning provides a common ground where no conclusion is cast aside but that it fails to make good sense in universal terms. In the late 18th century, among many different communities founded by European religious outcasts, it was especially clear that disaster would follow from letting articles of faith drive a national agenda. Our fundamental principle of religious freedom is as much a concession to practical reality as the embrace of a noble principle. A significant element of America’s success story is this independence of governance from ecclesiastical pressures.

The circumstances that drove Governor Romney to that particular speech paint a picture of this invaluable national asset under assault. For too long, to great excess, America’s political leaders have permitted faith and governance to become muddled in the public life. Countless citizens fail in their civic duty by embracing a falsified religious duty to evaluate candidates on religious grounds. This may be less a de jure violation of the 1st Amendment than President Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, but the nebulous trend is clearly a greater threat to authentic Constitutional governance.

If the Bible has any place in civic discourse, perhaps it should begin with these words attributed to Jesus himself — “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Many centuries before the Revolutionary War, there was a sensible (and to most Christians sacrosanct) call for separation between civic life and religious life. Like all religious conclusions worthy of advancing in political arenas, this belief stands strongly even when supported exclusively by secular arguments.

A religious commitment is innately a personal commitment. Within communities of faith, it may well also be a public commitment. Beyond communities of faith, in a broader society where many different faiths must coexist (ideally in peace,) dedication to religious teachings must give way to government action framed by enlightened secular moral thinking. By all means, do your best to live your private life and your church life as your faith demands. Insofar as you may have an American political life, your nation demands reason, neither supported nor encumbered by religion, should guide your words and deeds.