It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
Monday, August 24, 2009
The use and abuse of faith in the public square
Statesman or demogogue? Well, I'm emerging briefly from my work-imposed break from the blog to post the following stories. The common theme for today's work is the difference between being a person of authentic faith in the public square as opposed to a person who merely uses religion to advance a secular ideology. I am a strong defender of the rights of religious believers to live their faith in the public square and to form their political positions in light of their religious convictions. But there is a danger that faith can be misused, seen not as a source of moral truth but simply as a means by which a particular ideological perspective can be advanced. For the authentic believer who is involved in politics, a proper use of faith can help that person rise to the level of a stateman. The misuse of religion as a means of manipulation in support of an ideology, though, leads down the path of demogogery and hypocrisy. An example of a faithful politican. One politican who embodied authentic religious conviction in the public square was the late president of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino. Strengthened by her Catholic faith and shaped by the Gospel's concern for the human person, Aquino was a human rights activist who helped to lead the People Power movement that brought democracy to the Philippines in 1986. She then became president, and worked to solidify the rule of law and constitutional government in her country. An authentic believer, Aquino's faith was a source of strength for her as she sought to restore constitutional government to her homeland. Her faith was so strong that she's even being proposed for sainthood. Here's a brief overview of the story over at the Mirror of Justice. Aquino wasn't just a political leader, she was the leader of a spiritual movement for reform as well. And her work as a leader in both venues was grounded in her Catholic faith, a faith she took very seriously, even heroically. But she never used Catholicism as a cheap vehicle for exploiting her people. Both her religion and the people were too precious to her. Her Catholicism deeply informed her political principles -- it was not a cheap prop to be used after the fact to bolster her own self-invented ideology. An example of the demogogue. Contrast the impact of faith on Corazon Aquino's public life with our own president's recent foray into the topic of faith and public policy. Speaking about health care reform before a rabbinic group, Obama's instincts were precisely to use religious faith as a cheap prop in support of his own ideological goals. As he put it to the assembled rabbis, in a statement of remarkable hubris, "we are God's partners in matters of life and death." Can you imagine what would have happened if George Bush had said something like that? I sure can... As Ann Althouse puts it, "Obama would like you to see government as religion." This is precisely the kind of perversion of religious faith in public life that is such a temptation for politicians who have any kind of theological orientation. God is wheeled out in support of a particularly policy, without any attempt to pay attention to the actual principle involved. In this particular case, Obama claims that God wants us to be his partners in matters of life and death. A crass and self-serving use of theological principle that in Obama's case indicates a a failure to appreciate both devotion to religious principle and how religious conviction can inform public debate. Rather than bringing religious principle to bear on how larger issues intersect with concerns about human rights, the dignity of the person, the common good and the ideals of subsidarity and solidarity among people, Obama's religious rhetoric is just an example of a tawdry attempt at manipulating faith in the service of an ideology. Such manipulation is an abuse of religion, subordinating faith not to the God who gives it as a gift but to the shabby ambitions of the Chicago-style huckster. Religious conviction is held not to be a transendent vision of the true, the good and the beautiful, but is reduced to a barrage of pseudo-religious language interjected into speeches as an emotionalistic crutch for secular ideology. As such, it is blasphemous at best, idolatrous at worst. And in either case, it displays a remarkable level of presumption, of claiming the ability to identify our own ideas and interests with those of God. A useful quote about being ruled by self-righteous busybodies. As we reflect on the differences between the authentic believer and the pseudo-religious ideologue, it might be helpful to keep the following quote by the Christian apologist and Anglican layman C.S. Lewis (1989-1963) in mind: