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.