Friday, May 04, 2007


One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State

A little reflection, while desperately waiting for the rubber chicken season to end...

Someone who makes far more money than I do, drives a nicer car, and doesn't – as far as I can tell – give two hoots about anybody else recently called me a liberal elitist. The “liberal elitist” tag is absurd, tired, and patently false, yet tenacious – from listening to Fox News, you'd think it was almost tautological. I'll admit, I'm really losing patience with it. Maybe it's the exhaustion of the season, but I'm thinking it's time to take that tag out back and shoot it squarely in the head.

To my mind, there's nothing more American than liberalism. And liberalism is a hell of a lot more compatible with Christianity than plutocratic conservatism could ever be.

Some of us were raised in churches that barely exist anymore. “Mainline Protestant” churches, they were called. (Mine was Presbyterian.) They were Christian, certainly, but the word had a different political valence back then. They typically stayed out of politics. When they entered, it was usually along the lines of supporting civil rights or peace groups. (Anybody remember the 'sanctuary' movement? Good times...) The idea was that Christianity was about love and forgiveness, and that at some level, we are all in this together. By the time I was there, the Social Gospel movement had long passed, but the habits of mind were still recognizable. I recall learning that Jesus hung out with the poor and the despised, and that he did so for a reason. I recall hearing a good deal about the poor, and about the moral ambiguities of wealth. Humility was big.

This was also a time when America took a breather between bouts of jingoism. For a while there, it was actually acceptable to question whether bombing brown people is always a good idea. In fact, I recall conversations in which it was asserted, with a straight face, that a real patriot fixes his ethical gaze on his own country. Some people believed – and I found them convincing – that if you really care about your country, that you bear witness to its failings,and tell the truth about them. Not in a superior way, but out of real concern. The idea was to protect the honorable parts of ourselves from our baser instincts. In a sense of the word that has been lost to history, it was truly – and honorably --conservative.

That particular time and place receded, as these things do. What replaced it, first slowly and then quickly, was an increasingly self-confident, clearly regional clique of very angry people who arrogated to themselves the right to decide who could use the word “Christian” and who couldn't. (Later, they would do the same thing with words like “American” and “patriot” and even, bizarrely, “conservative.”) People who equated justice with vengeance, mercy with weakness, and resolve with rightness. And they used criteria I didn't – and don't – recognize.

For a while, I just walked away from the whole thing, concerned with the things young men are concerned with. Let the Jerry Falwells and Ralph Reeds huff and puff – surely their patent absurdity will eventually discredit them. I had other things to do. Other than weddings or funerals, I didn't set foot in a church for probably 17 years or so. (I always retained some scholarly interest, though. My undergraduate thesis addressed some church-based movements for social justice, quite sympathetically, and I've never abandoned my respect for that tradition.)

When I returned, tentatively at first, I couldn't help but notice the change. My first visit was to the local Presbyterian congregation. It might as well have been a different religion. The sermon that day was about how evil infiltrates our lives through the internet. I don't recall having heard the word 'evil' once in church, growing up. I didn't go back.

Since The Wife is Catholic, we had TB and TG baptized in the local Catholic church. Before their ceremonies, we had to go through some classes. I still recall the priest mentioning, in an offhanded way, that he thought President Bush “wears his religion on his sleeve...adequately.” In any other context, I would have walked out of the room. It was unthinkable to me that a practicing member of the clergy would make that kind of statement, or use that kind of criterion. To judge faith by its relative bellicosity is a fundamental, egregious, and alarming category error. It's wrong, both in itself and for its effects. That he could be so wrong so offhandedly was even more alarming – he said it as if he were commenting on the weather. I was appalled, though, for the sake of family harmony, I let it go without comment (at least until we got to the car).

I finally settled on the local Unitarians, since they're endearingly humble about what they actually believe. (Some would say 'vague.' I prefer 'humble.') A church that performs same-sex weddings and sells fair-trade coffee comes much closer to my idea of Christianity than does one that fears the spread of evil through fiber-optics, even if some in the group shy away from the C-word.

The point of this bit of autobiography is that these positions aren't taken lightly, or on grounds of elitism, disdain, distaste, or whatever the slur of the day on Fox News happens to be. The ethical basis for these decisions doesn't come from postmodernism or consumerism or France; it comes from a very American, very traditional background. I don't see the contradiction between being a lefty-liberal and being a married breadwinner with two kids in the suburbs. (The irony, maybe. The contradiction, no.) I don't see the contradiction between living traditionally and being open to folks who live non-traditionally. (One of my groomsmen was an 'out' lesbian. This, at a Catholic wedding!) And I absolutely don't see the contradiction between being loyal to what's best about my country and being appalled by its President.

(The writer Gerald Early once said that future civilizations will remember ours for three achievements: the Constitution, jazz, and baseball. This President condoned torture, stood idly by while Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and traded a young Sammy Sosa. I am not impressed.)

Political opinions don't have to spill over into every corner of daily life. Basic friendliness and courtesy towards others goes a long way, even given some acknowledged cultural differences. I once interned at a Republican mayor's office in the Midwest, and got along famously with everyone there. (Before I left, they gave me a key to the city. It doubled as a bottle opener, which came in handy back at college.) It's entirely possible for good people with honest motives to disagree about how a given policy works. They considered me charmingly naïve, and I considered them good-hearted but shortsighted. History will judge, but we all liked each other and worked together well.

What I find really offputting about the current crop of 'conservatives' – as opposed to their forerunners -- is that they've forgotten what's really valuable in their own tradition. The natural order of things is supposed to be the idealists – that is, those who want things to be fairer for everybody – in tension with the realists – that is, those who warn of the costs of overreaching. Each has something valuable to bring to the table. When I think about intelligent conservatism, I think of David Hume. Smart conservatives are supposed to bring a recognition of the limits of the flesh to bear on utopian schemes. The current crop has all the hubris of the old left, combined with a knee-jerk worship of wealth and power – they're the worst of both traditions. They honestly believe that they can turn Iraq into a Jeffersonian democracy if they can only send enough troops. They honestly believe that God has charged them with spreading his word through the barrel of a gun. And they have the arrogance to paint disagreement as elitism. Give. Me. A. Break.

I try to find value in real exchanges of ideas. I've publicly praised folks who disagree with me, and have never been the sort to let political disagreements become personal vendettas. I live in a Republican county and work in another, getting alone just fine in both. And I'm fully aware that I can get stuff wrong, fall short of my ideals, and sometimes get caught up in passing idiocies. (I once bought a Duran Duran CD. The shame!) But the current crop of 'conservatives' who take it upon themselves to question my integrity, my motives, or my claim on full membership in America can kiss my ass. A recognition of our common humanity isn't elitist or foreign or subversive or wimpy; it's part of what's best about the faith, and the country, that I recognize. It goes back a long way. If we don't lose ourselves in smug and imperialist fantasies, it will go forward a long way, too.

RE: liberal elitists

Maybe it's the exhaustion of the season, but I'm thinking it's time to take that tag out back and shoot it squarely in the head.

Sadly, the liberal view on gun control would make this unlikely, if not impossible to do. But I feel your pain.

The Catholic church in California is very different - we try to be a unified church but sometimes regional differences are too strong to ignore. The cathedral downtown and several local parish churches are the local drop off points for the community supported agriculture co-op. They also have fair trade coffee for sale. My favorite ministry at a nearby diocese is the one where religious men and women spread the word about safe sex to the local gay community. I hear they even give out condoms. I revel in the irony. The men and women in that ministry act as part of a long tradition of dissent in the Catholic church that includes such luminaries as St. Fransis of Assisi and the Jesuits (before they got real power). In fact, if you look back, most religious orders have their origin in a desire to reform the church or religious life and make it truer to the spirit of the gospel. If that weren't a big part of the Catholic tradition, I'd probably be something else.

Sadly, the most annoying religous types are the most shrill and get the most play but if you scratch under the surface of most churches you'll find the bread and butter folks that run the canned food drive and organize the bake sale. I would encourage you to comfort yourself with that thought - things aren't as bad as the occassional crappy homily or poorly chosen off-hand comment would make them seem.

A last thought - if you listen to dogs barking, you'll go deaf without learning very much. The barking is rather loud these days though, isn't it....
Dean Dad,

I feel your pain.

Prescription: Just turn off Fox News. They're crazy. Everything's okay.

With an arm over your shoulder: It's Friday, and you've got a free weekend ahead of you (I hope!) with your beautiful wife and kids.


A Friendly Chicago Catholic Reader
If you don't want to be a liberal elitist, don't be so hostile and snotty about trade unions.
well said.. the Christianists aren't Christian at all.

Also, "The current crop has all the hubris of the old left" is mostly because they are the old lunatic left, mad idealists who think utopia can be imposed. If this sounds like good old-fashioned communism, it's because it is. Irving Kristol was an active Trotskyist. There's nothing conservative about a neocon.
Thank you for that. I've been trying to write the same thing a thousand times, but never as well.

Especially the part about the tension between the supposed idealism of the left and the pragmatism of the right. The current "idealism" of the right is so unrecognizable to me it leaves me speechless. I can only hope that there are enough real traditional conservatives to wrest power back from such... megalomaniacs?
Someone who makes far more money than I do ... recently called me a liberal elitist.

If it is the first time, tell him that you are a middle-class liberal (or progressive, which is more typical of Scandinavians from the upper midwest). Then tell him that the next time he says that you will know that he is a smug elitist liar rather than simply ignorant.

By the way, that priest simply meant that the President wore his anti-abortion preference for the life of the fetus over the life of a woman on his sleeve. I doubt that he agrees with Southern Methodists on much else.
A church that performs same-sex weddings...comes much closer to my idea of Christianity

No doubt. Emphasis on "[your] idea of".
I have one question. Why are you opposed to freedom??? :-):-):-)
Thoughtful entry...I grew up in a different generation of church than yourself (I'm 24), found many of the same frustrations. I finally found a home in the UCC (heavy in the midwest and new england) - very similar to the Unitarians but explicitly Christian. They have a great campaign going on now,
I have noticed you use the term "category error" a few times, which leads me to believe you understand basic argumentation. I too have noted a few things you mention in this excellent post.

In the end, I believe that the terms "liberal," "conservative," "left," "right," and even "democrat" and "republican" are simply little more than buzz words tossed out as shorthand. And in that shorthanding of complicated ideas rests the true problem:

No one really AGREES on the definitions of these words!

Lots of people seem to select the terms they think apply and run with them...without any thought as to whether the term is actually a good fit.

How many "patriots" have we all encountered who really are little more than "fascists"? How many "liberals" are really, unpon reflection and investigation, really just a "conservative" whose views are not what all the other "conservatives" agree with?

It's all just a big word game. And the people who COULD be setting things straight don't want to (e.g. news media). After all, we all know the media are liberal, right? ;-)
Beautiful. I couldn't agree more. I've often wondered how people who claim to do and say the things they do in the name of Christianity can really think that Jesus (whether you take him to be the son of god, or an interesting philosopher)would ever have done what they do in his name.
I'm not threadcrapping or asking to be flamed, but...

What gives you the right to brainwash your kids with Catholicism?

If you value free thinking, value critical thinking, value fostering the ability to make up one's own mind, then putting the voodoo and guilt toxin of Catholicism in your kids' heads when their imprint clay softest is exactly the kind of abuse--yes, abuse--that creates the problems you rail against here.

Let the kids themselves select a religion--or none--when they're old enough to. Until then, you're brainwashing them.
If you let your kids figure it out for themselves, you'll end up like my mother---all upset 32 years later because her daughter is an atheist. Sure, she's bothered, but I think it's the best thing she's ever done for me. :)

And I'm fully aware that I can get stuff wrong, fall short of my ideals, and sometimes get caught up in passing idiocies. (I once bought a Duran Duran CD. The shame!)

There's no shame in Duran Duran. Okay, there's probably some shame in Duran Duran, but none in getting one of their CDs. ;)
You weren't upset at being called a liberal, because you are liberal, and proud of it. You might have been troubled by being called an elitist, but you are a member of an elite group—those who deliver higher education (and who happen to be overwhelmingly liberal).

In truth, you seem to be upset that "liberal" is not the badge of honor that it once was. That's not the doing of Fox news, credit for making "liberal" a dirty political word goes to Jimmy Carter. He's the one who made "liberal" policies appear impractical, naive, or downright incompetent. Pointing that fact out is what won the election for Reagan. When Fritz Mondale campaigned on a promise of a return to liberalism, he lost every state but his home state of Minnesota. The rest, as they say, is history.

You are upset, and I am upset, that churches are intruding into the political sphere. But what brought them there, and what keeps them there? As I see it, the abortion issue.

Not all conservatives are religious, as you seem to suggest. But the Republicans provided a place for the pro-lifers (in the name of diversity?) when the Democrats refused them any voice (liberal elites?).

Also, it would be well to recognize that Fox news gets its power from a very odd fact. Although the country is closely divided, 50-50, liberal-conservative, the major media—ABC, CBS, NBC, NPR, CNN, MSNBC—all cater to the liberal side of the divide. They've given Fox monopoly power in communicating to conservatives. That always struck me as an odd business judgment, but then I'm not in the media business.
Re: the major media are liberal.

Now that's comedy, written by someone who didn't see Bill Moyers' work.

Fox News is more successful than MSNBC or CNN because it is by design a righty propaganda outlet which purports to be a news organization, and that market niche had not yet been filled. There's no deeper meaning. The Dems' refusal to have Fox News moderate a debate may prove the beginning of the end; there's a much smaller market for propaganda recognized as propaganda than propaganda which can be plausibly denied to be propaganda.

MSNBC has low ratings (except for Olbermann) because it sucks. CNN's ratings went down because they suck, too, and now I have the internet as an alternative. Sometimes the simplest answer is the best.
KS -- no, what I objected to was the pairing of 'liberal' with 'elitist,' as if the two imply each other. Had I been called a liberal academic, I would have just shrugged it off. It was the implication that everybody knows that liberalism is inherently elitist that struck me as offensively wrong. Still does.

We'll see how open the Republicans are to diversity on the abortion issue with the Guiliani candidacy. I suspect the Southern base considers this an absolute, but we'll see over the next year or so.

Even Roger Ailes has retired the "liberal media" canard, so I think we can safely consign it to the ashbin of history at this point. The closest thing to a reliably liberal voice out there now is Jon Stewart, and he is, as he will admit, a comedian.

You're right that not all conservatives are religious. Part of what I'm doing is trying to find the real conservatives out there. Halloo? Anybody home? Would you care to tamp down the utopian fantasies of an overweening government? You people live for that sort of thing! Halloo?

As to the "Catholicism as brainwashing" point, I'll just say that if I believed that, I wouldn't expose my kids to it. Part of what I'm trying to say is that there's a large and important space between "what I think" and "what's false."

Thanks to the others for the support.
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