Religion & Politics  — Bruce Hartford

Maybe the voting machines were rigged, maybe they weren't. I don't know. But regardless, to me the basic issue is that over the past 3 decades the American people as a whole have been moving steadily to the right, and since the late-60s there has been no effective mass movement to counter that trend.

I think it's time we stopped making excuses and started looking at the content of what we are saying, and the issues we are not addressing. One of those issues is religion. Those who regularly attend religious services voted for Bush, those who rarely or never go to church or temple went for Kerry. We need to look at why, and what we can do about it.

The truth is that too many liberals, intellectuals, progressives, urbanites, whatever the label, disrespect, condescend to, and look down upon those for whom religion is central to their lives. Is it any wonder that so many living in the "fly-over" states reject the "liberals" and "elitist snobs" who they feel have been sneering at them for years?

For the most part, liberals have been AWOL in the battle for the hearts and minds of those for whom religion is central to their lives. Worse, they have been dismissive, or acted as if religious belief itself was the problem rather than a particular form of religion — reactionary fundamentalism. That is a losing proposition. There is a deep hunger in the human heart for meaning and spirituality and that ain't gonna change. Nor should it.

For example, shortly after the election a picture was circulated around the internet showing North American divided between the "United States of Canada" and "Jesusland." Like the rest of us, I smiled and got a chuckle out of it, but as a radical Jew civil rights worker in Alabama and Mississippi I understood quite clearly that you can never organize or teach folk by mocking their beliefs or condescending to them.

(Rabbi Lerner of Tikkun had an interesting article in the S.F. Chronicle yesterday discussing this issue. You can see it by going to: http://www.sfgate.com and searching for "Michael Lerner.")

We who were active in the Southern Freedom Movement, — a "faith- based" Movement if ever there was one, — know perhaps better than anyone in America that religion can be, — and has been in the past, — an integral and essential part of struggles for freedom, tolerance, justice and fairness. And I think many of us CRM vets have not done all we could have to educate our friends and allies in the "Blue" states that you cannot win people over by disrespecting them.

Around the globe, religion and Liberation Theology played a major role in anti-colonial and pro-democracy movements. Gandhi, King, Tutu, Romero, and so many others spoke of poverty and oppression, but they also spoke of spirituality, vision, and the meaning of life. But for decades past it seems to me that too many progressives have focused almost entirely on issues of materialism, economics, position, and narrow identity politics, leaving the arena of religion and spirit to reactionaries and conservatives like Falwell, Robertson, and Limbaugh.

Maybe part of our problem is that liberals have gone way too far down the road of religious tolerance and diversity. Yes, we live in a multi- cultural universe with different belief and value systems and we legitimately reject the "cultural imperialism" of the past. But when they extend that to mean that all beliefs and value systems are equally good and bad, they end up unable to distinguish between right and wrong and unwilling to fight for or against anything in the religious arena. I don't agree. So far as I am concerned, fanatic, reactionary fundamentalism, whether it is Jewish, Christian, or Moslem, is evil and we have got to get serious about fighting it.

Our parents survived a time of global struggle against fascism. Fascist ideologies and movements were not just in Germany or Italy, but like some deadly cancer they took root and grew in every nation until the world was convulsed by war and oppression. It is time we recognized the hard truth that the rising tide of reactionary religious fanaticism around the world threatens us just as surely as did the rise of fascism threaten our parents. It's time we stopped endlessly re-fighting the battles of the 1970s and started facing the realities of the 21st Century.

The Christian far-right (Falwell, Robertson, Christian-Identity, Army of God, etc), the Jewish religious bigots, (Kach, the settlers, 3rd Temple cults, etc), and the Islamic extremists (Hamas, Taliban, Islamic Jihad, Khomeinists, Hezbollah, etc) share similar world-views that are opposed to the values of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, and freedom that we hold so dear. And it's high time we stopped thinking about this as just a local issue here in America with the Christian-right, and recognized that we are faced with world religious war between the values of fundamentalist zealotry and those of secular democracy. A battle that cannot be won by ignoring it.

Yes, we believe in religious freedom, but that does not mean we refuse to take a stand for the religious values we support and to actively oppose those that we abhor. Yes, the fundamentalists have a right to hold whatever beliefs they wish, but we also have the right to say they are wrong and engage in an intellectual battle of beliefs and values. A battle that can only be won by education and persuasion based on respect and a willingness to listen. There are some groups trying to do this, Tikkun for example in the Jewish community, but in my opinion not enough.

And on this issue of religion and politics, I think we veterans of the Civil Rights Movement have both a special responsibility and a unique position. I think we should start figuring out how we in particular should be engaging these issues, and I would like to hear what others of us are doing in this arena, what works and what doesn't, what is effective and what isn't.

Copyright © 2004, Bruce Hartford


Copyright © 2004
Last Modified: November 11, 2004.
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