Jul 24, 2012

When talk of 'religion in politics' goes in circles

In northwest Washington State, where my parents live, traffic engineers have spent the last decade or so implementing their ingenious solution to congested intersections: traffic circles.

Traffic circles, these "roundabouts," are so much better than four-way stops. More functional. More practical. They ease congestion and allow traffic to flow more smoothly. And yet: In practice, what you see is often people stuck driving around and around the roundabouts, stuck going in circles, not sure how to actually use this very useful things. Everyone just goes in circles, the whole region's traffic now a series of crazy merry-go-rounds without the music.

My fear and sometimes my frustration, in talking about "religion and politics," is that this very functional idea ends with everyone stuck going in circles.

I'd like to briefly offer two exits. That is: two different ways out of the circle. Two contradictory correctives to how we get stuck talking about religion and politics and religion in politics in the US.

My first suggestion: More of American politics is religious than we allow.

Second suggestion: Religion is less important in American politics than we allow.

What I mean by the first is, we seem stuck, too often, with only a couple of issues, a couple of topics, designated as "religious." And, many times, too, we seem to imagine the religious position as clear, and not diverse, as definitive, not diffuse and decidedly plural.

Think about health care. We've allowed to the "religious issue" regarding health care to mean strictly statements released by Catholic bishops. That is one aspect, but that's not everything. Ted Kennedy, the late "lion" of liberalism, took a break of cancer treatments to cast a vote to protect Medicare. He spent some time towards the end of his life promoting universal health care, and hoped that health care would form a substantial part of his legacy. Because of his religious beliefs. Kennedy wasn't outspoken about his understanding of Catholic social teaching and his belief that his Catholicism called for certain political action, but when asked he would cite his religious convictions as the source and motivation for his liberalism.

There are other examples. The point is just that one of the things "religion and politics" or "religion in politics" could very helpfully open up for us is the sorts of positions and people and issues that are not typically designated as religious.

The second corrective suggestion, to keep us from getting stuck going 'round and 'round, is that we get off on the other side of the circle, and think about how religion is not as important as it's presented in U.S. politics.

A lot of times what we point to as religious is really just one kind of account or justification or explanation for policies. But that religious discourse isn't necessary to that policy. It might work as rhetoric, politically or practically, appealing to certain segments of the electorate, but it's not quite right to think of the policy or position itself as religious.

As an example of this, think about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The former was deeply religious, the latter, ambivalent towards religion, unless politics and winning is a religion. But what difference did faith make in the policies of the two men? If the areligious Cheney had taken over for the evangelical Bush, what would have been different? The point at which the two men broke ranks wasn't abortion or the environment or the middle east, or any of these supposed religious issues, but the question of whether or not to pardon political allies who'd broken the law.

So maybe "religion" is a less useful idea for analyzing the Bush administration's policies than has been generally supposed.

It can be quite useful to discuss religion and politics. There's a very functional aspect of this topic. But just as a suggestion, when you find the conversation going around and around, as it does and as it will between now and November, consider these exits off the roundabout.

Ask: is there a way religion's more involved than is being recognized? Or, on the other side, is it possible religion's significantly less important than imagined?