HOUSE OF ROCK

Loyal readers may have noticed my latest way of compensating for my neglect of this blog is to search out hooks to link back to things I wrote in the days of not neglecting this blog. In that vein, check out the part of Obama’s speech today where Obama cites the Sermon on the Mount:

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

This strikes me as a good example of an appeal to a religious text on the basis of insight, rather than authority. About a million years ago I blogged about a debate between Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Americans United’s Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author’s inherent authority rather than to the author’s particular insight. In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don’t oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery). I thought at the time, and I still do, that Lynn was making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument. In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.

Over at The New Republic, Hillary Clinton is winning accolades from Michelle Cottle and Andrew Sullivan for her new rhetoric on abortion last week. Like Clinton herself, they’re each partially right.

Cottle takes on Jim Wallis of Sojourners and others for trying to win the “moral values” debate for Democrats by shifting it onto economic turf. She’s right to argue that responding to the heartfelt opposition of all too many working class Republicans to the Democrats’ stances on abortion and other so-called “social issues” with a sleight-of-hand is both insulting and ineffective. The Democrats do indeed need to win the values debate on the “social turf.” But, contra Cottle, a winning strategy for the Democrats will also depend on broadening the popular conception of moral politics to include the economic exploitation and persistent poverty of millions of Americans. Cottle should know better than to take on face value the idea that so-called “values voters” simply could care less about children without healthcare. She completely overlooks the extent to which, in the absence of a real discussion by Democrats of America’s savage inequalities. Republicans have been able to successfully repackage “social issues” as class grievances against liberal elites and activist judges. It’s not surprising that those who want Democrats to change the topic and trounce the GOP on economic moral issues and those who want them to change the message and trounce the GOP on social moral issues each see the other standing in the way of progress. But a winning strategy will have to do both.

Sullivan, like Cottle, writes with the stated intention of helping Democrats win on abortion. And parts of the approach for which he credits Clinton are indeed good moves. Certainly, Democratic politicians and activists should recognize the difficulty and sadness with which many women approach the choice to have an abortion (Sullivan, like most pundits, drastically exaggerates the extent to which this is not already the case). And absolutely, Democratic politicians and activists should frame access to all forms of contraception in all situations as “the surest way to prevent” abortions (nothing so new here either). As for demonstrating respect for one’s opponents, I don’t think many are arguing that the Democrats should demonstrate intentional disrespect for those who disagree on abortion.

But what those on both sides of this debate want, more than respect, is to win. And while Sullivan insists (in a strange turn of phrase) that “Democrats can still be and almost certainly should be for the right to legal abortion,” readers can be excused for coming away with a mixed message. Sullivan follows a long line of pundits and reporters in conflating changes in discourse on abortion with changes in policy. Seemingly intentional ambiguity radiates from Sullivan’s insistence that

One reason that John Kerry had such a hard time reaching people who have moral qualms about abortion was his record: an almost relentless defense of abortion rights – even for third trimester unborn children – with no emphasis on the moral costs to all of us of such a callous disregard of human dignity. You cannot have such a record and then hope to convince others that you care about the sanctity of life.

One could read such a graph to mean that Kerry could have won the abortion debate if only he were on record mourning the “moral costs.” But it’s not clear why one would. A more intuitive reading would be: To win over “pro-life” voters, Democrats should cast more “pro-life” votes. Otherwise, how are we to understand Sullivan’s criticism of Kerry for being “almost relentless” in supporting the right to choose. Sullivan isn’t so much offering ideas on how to win the debate over abortion as urging a partial surrender.

More specifically, Sullivan lauds Clinton’s support for abstinence-only education as good politics, despite the preponderance of evidence that diverting dollars from sex ed to abstinence ed will lead to more unprotected sex and therefore more abortions. And Sullivan urges Democrats to back candidates like Bob Casey in Democratic primaries specifically because they oppose the party’s position on abortion rights. He pushes this plan – that Democrats essentially should sell their position by working against candidates who support it – as a corrective to a mythical “fatwa” against such politicians in the Democratic party. Those who believe such a fatwa exists may still be under the mistaken impression that Casey’s father was denied the chance the speak at the convention nominating Bill Clinton because he opposed abortion and not because Casey had announced he would be voting against Bill Clinton. Either that, or they’re willing to suggest with a straight face, as Sullivan does, that for the GOP to have a pro-choice second-in-command at the RNC while the Democratic party has an anti-choice Senate Minority Leader demonstrates that “the Republicans are more obviously tolerant of dissent than Democrats.”

Finally, Sullivan wants Democrats to tone down the rhetoric about women’s rights and instead frame abortion as killing and abortion rights as a way to avert more gruesome killing. Instead of “reproductive rights,” Sullivan argues, Democrats should talk about a decision through which “one soul is destroyed and another wounded.” But while talking about abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice” for the mother may help make the case, arguing that it’s a tragedy for “unborn children” won’t. Either a woman is a constitutionally-protected person with a fetus inside of her, or a fetus is a constitutionally-protected person with a womb attached. If Democrats frame abortion as killing, as Sullivan does, they will only increase support for banning abortion (and for the dissolution of the Democratic party). This too, is not a new idea. Neither is it a good one.