Religion in the deficit debate

As I watch the deficit battle in Washington with fascinated horror, I can’t help but noticing the threads of religion that run through it:

Barack Obama is a self-avowed quasi-Niebuhrian pragmatist who has come out of the mainline Protestant tradition. Like so many mainliners these days, he has distanced himself from organized religion; part of that mainline pragmatism is to stick to religion only when it doesn’t get in the way. He doesn’t seem to be drawn or driven by any particular transcendent moral or ethical ideals. You will also notice that he doesn’t go to religious services on a regular basis.

There are at least two religious types within the Tea Partiers. First, there are the followers of the Prosperity Gospel. Generally speaking, the Prosperity Gospel holds that religious success (salvation) is tied to material success; in one common American form, it ties in with residual American Calvinism, and holds that the wealthy are the elect, and those without money are hellbound without possibility of salvation. Whatever the specific form of Prosperity Gospel, if you’re not wealthy, you are morally culpable, you need to pray harder, and the government should not help you out.

Second, you can find the libertarian atheists among (or at least allied with) the Tea Partiers. These are often people who follow the fundamentalist atheism of Ayn Rand and her cohorts. This often takes the form of deifying the individual human, and rejecting as anathema any coordinated effort to help out the poor and unfortunate, who are not deified. The fundamentalist Randian atheists reject any call to a higher moral authority out of hand; sometimes, they’re hard to distinguish from the quasi-Niebuhrian pragmatism of Barack Obama and his cronies.

Ordinary Christian evangelicalism, committed to its own high principles around various social issues, continues to affirm that the churches can and should play a major role in delivering social services. They find themselves allied with the Tea Party’s efforts to de-fund government as much as possible. Catholics who are aligned with their religion’s hierarchy are in much the same position. However, both the Christian evangelicals and the Catholics are committed to government intervention in social issues like marriage and abortion, and many Christian evangelicals and most Catholics remain committed to letting the government fight poverty, out of their Christian commitment to helping the poor; at some point, they will have to confront the vast gulf between themselves on the one hand, and the Prosperity Gospelers and Randian atheists on the other hand. (My guess is that many of them will jump the gulf and join the Prosperity Gospelers or the fundamentalist Randian atheists.)

What is most striking to me is that so many theological groups are missing from the public coverage of the debate. Where, for example, are the mainline Protestants who have been influenced by the various liberation theologies (the feminist, black, GLBT, etc., liberation theologies)? Also missing from public coverage is any mention of the various groups doing ecological theology, including liberal Christians, humanists, and Neo-Pagans.

Religious liberals have been left out of the debate? — this should not be a great surprise. Most religious liberals and religious moderates long ago decided that they would keep their religion out of any discussions of public policy. And having once ceded the public square to fundamentalists, religious conservatives, and religious nutcases (i.e., the Prosperity Gospelers, etc.), we’re finding it very difficult to get back in.

9 thoughts on “Religion in the deficit debate”

  1. Bill @ 1 — Both, I think. The news media and the politicians have been ignoring religious liberals for some time now (say, since the 1980s), and so it is difficult for religious liberals to get noticed. At the same time, religious liberals have had an inward focus for some times now (say, since the 1970s), and that has kept them out of the public debate as well.

    A lot of this comes down to money. While religious conservatives have funded influential institutions like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and various religiously conservative think tanks, religious liberals can’t even fund Tikkun magazine. Liberal Protestants ran the U.S. government through the middle twentieth century, and they got used to tax dollars paying to promote their values. (The major exception to that rule was the Black Protestant church, which got left outside the power structure — and which, when it finally realized its own power in the 1950s, started and self-funded the Civil Rights Movement; of course, the Black church is now as much disrepair as white religious liberals.) Until religious liberals step up to the plate and support their liberal religious institutions with money and energy, we’re not going to get anywhere.

    Even then, there’s a good chance we won’t get anywhere in the near future. The corporations that control politics and much of society have such a firm grip on us that I think the Prosperity Gospel will remain ascendant for another couple of generations. Or longer, if we don’t start working now.

  2. “Second, you can find the libertarian atheists among (or at least allied with) the Tea Partiers. These are often people who follow the fundamentalist atheism of Ayn Rand and her cohorts.”

    Those on the liberal side of the spectrum often hate it when they are accused of being socialist and/or communist. Why do so many of them also insist on saying that libertarianism is the same as Ayn Rand’s objectivism? It is not; Rand herself denied it, and there are different variations of libertarianism (take a look at for an example of a libertarian-left viewpoint.) While an individual’s religious/spiritual/philosophical beliefs will certainly influence their politics, the religion they belong to should not dictate what political party or persuasion they follow.

    One of many reasons I left evangelical Christianity was because of what I perceived to be their attempts to take over government, to implement the Kingdom of God (as they define it) through law, creating a socially conservative society controlling individual choices. Coming to UU, I thought things would be different, but they also are trying to influence government to set up the Kingdom of God (as they define it) through law, creating a soft-socialist communitarian society controlling individual choices. Neither option sounds good to me, as I am neither conservative nor liberal, and find the common left-right description of politics extremely limiting and inadequate.

  3. JMP @ 3 You write: “Why do so many of them also insist on saying that libertarianism is the same as Ayn Rand’s objectivism?”

    Well, I can’t speak for the liberals you say confuse libertarianism with Rand’s objectivism — I’m not a liberal, I’m a leftist; and as someone who has spent a good deal of time with leftist libertarians, I don’t confuse libertarianism with Ayn Rand. But what I do see is a fair number of unsophisticated libertarians confusing Rand with libertarianism, and confusing atheism with libertarianism. So when I say that there are people out there who equate rightist libertarianism with Randian objectivism, I’m trying to speak accurately about what I observe. I don’t like it, either, but that’s how people are misusing intellectual traditions.

    As far as various religious groups trying to “take over government,” as you felicitously phrase it, it’s not so much taking over as clinging to the power they’ve had since the founding of the U.S. As I mention above, Protestants created the United States government using their Protestant ideals; when Catholics started coming to the U.S. in large numbers, they felt they had to start their own schools in order to maintain their children’s religious integrity. And Unitarians were right in the thick of this project to create a government run with Protestant ideals (Universalists as well, but to a lesser extent).

    When the liberal wing of Protestantism crumbled in the late 1960s, the Protestant evangelicals remained where they were, and since at least 1976 (Carter was an evangelical, remember?) have struggled to keep the U.S. as a government run with Protestant — or more specifically now, Protestant evangelical — ideals. Unitarian Universalists, having inherited institutional memories of when the Unitarians were more closely aligned with the ideals with which the government is run, sometimes forget themselves and continue to try to worm their ways back into the power structure. You can bemoan this fact and leave UUism, or you can stick around and change the way we do business.

    Finally, I don’t see how any religious person can remain true to himself or herself and not get involved with politics. A major task of religion is figuring out how to live a moral and ethical life; any religion worth its salt is going to call on individuals practicing that religion to actually do something with their moral and ethical ideals; if I as an individual am not out there trying to make my shared moral and ethical ideals into reality, then whatever religion I have is not even skin-deep. The quasi-Randian libertarians are living out their religion, which is naked selfishness and extreme individualism; the Prosperity Gospelers are living out their religion; so we should expect the Unitarian Universalists to live out their religion as well. Which is pretty much the point of this whole post: let’s be honest about the truth of our religious commitments, and acknowledge that we are going to try to live out our highest moral and ethical ideals.

  4. Dan — I suspect that part of the reason for religious liberals not having the same impact as conservative Christianity is due to differences in religious market share.

    Even in a nation where religious groups are shrinking (assuming the Pew Forum studies and other social science studies are correct), the larger groups within Christianity are the more conservative voices.

    This is complicated by the fact that some conservatives thought it would be good if mainline Protestants were hit schismatic splinter groups funded by the Institute for Religion and Democracy. The UCC minister Rev. Chuck Currie has written about them in the past on his blog:

    The IRD supported splinter groups for the Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, and the UCC (the UCC “Biblical Witness Fellowship” splinter group). Sadly, the UUA was too small and too liberal for IRD to bother with. We have about 0.3% market share (less than the 1% that Linux has in the computer world).

    Regarding atheism and libertarianism, there are some folks who are both atheist and libertarian.

    But there are some atheists who very critical of libertarian ideology. Here’s an example of this from the prominent outspoken atheist blogger and developmental biology researcher PZ Myers:

    On this blog post, he prints the following quote about libertarianism:

    “Libertarianism. A simple-minded right-wing ideology ideally suited to those unable or unwilling to see past their own sociopathic self-regard.”

    And there are a wide range of pro and con replies from the mostly atheist/skeptic audience on his blog responding to this quote.

  5. Steve @ 5 — You write: “I suspect that part of the reason for religious liberals not having the same impact as conservative Christianity is due to differences in religious market share.”

    The big decline in market share among liberal Christians came in the 1960s — I’d argue that the big decline in political influence happened in the next decade — so while I’m not claiming causation, I’d have to say that decline in market share preceded decline in political power.

    Thanks for reminding us all of the influence of the IRD.

    Re: libertarians and atheists: Once again (see comment 4, second paragraph), when I say that there are people out there who equate rightist libertarianism with Randian objectivism, I am not saying that is what I myself believe, I’m trying to speak accurately about what I observe out there in the real world. And thanks for the link to the PZ Myers post, it’s one I had not seen.

  6. Mainline Churches have a long history of splitting that precedes IRD (I’m thinking of the Lutherans at the moment). IRD’s a response, not a cause. The issue of marriage as cause of the moment just to fundamental to many people not to expect Churches to split over it. If you want to push the issue, expect the split.

  7. Bill @ 7 — Mmm, well, OK, but the difference is that IRD funneled quite a bit of money into some of these groups. Previous splits in U.S. Protestantism were funded from within.

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