Thursday, March 17, 2005

You Mean Lisa?

You Mean Lisa?
In the Simpsons' episode "Viva Ned Flanders", Ned watches Homer cycle through one of his typically frontal-lobe challenged days, which leads to this exchange:


Ned: How do you do it, Homer? How do you silence that little voice that says "think"?

Homer: You mean Lisa?

Ned: No, I mean common sense!


It's instructive dialog for Democrats these days. There is a growing consensus that those on the Blue end of the spectrum have lost their groove, and the search for it is on: left, right, up, down. Take your pick.

Part of the consensus is that progressives need to reclaim a basic moral sense if they are to be heard in the public square. Americans may or may not be good people at heart, but they sure like to be seen as good people. For better or worse, talking the moral talk seems to be a basic tool in any pol's belt.


The pressure to find "values" is particularly acute for religious progressives, attacked as heretics by the Religious Right and sellouts by the secular left, and expected by all comers to articulate some kind of social principles. Perhaps the pressure is appropriate; because, for all that Homer and Ned's dialog identifies Lisa with common sense, as anyone who's watched the show knows, she's the center of the Simpson's moral universe.


Given the warped world her family lives in, she just might be the voice of common sense, too.


Partly, this is a theoretical debate; religious progressives are sick to death of hearing "religion" equated with "conservativism," and "morals" limited to "abortion and homosexuality." So there is a movement afoot to redefine values as including tolerance and concern for the poor. For example, peace activists in Ireland, or a group of Christian lawyers in Iowa attacking the grotesque bankruptcy reform bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley as "contrary to the forgiveness of debt and charity required by the Bible." More examples here, and there are many more floating around the internet.


But there are some very down-to-earth, practical numbers behind the movement, too (from the Des Moines Register article cited above):

[F]aith leaders have been empowered by a recent Zogby poll that found abortion and same-sex marriage weren't the most important faith-based issues in voters' minds in the last presidential election.


When asked to identify the most urgent moral problems facing the United States today, 64 percent of voters in the poll chose greed and materialism or poverty and economic justice. So it is timely for the rabbis and bishops to remind Congress and state legislatures to exercise a complete range of religious ethics and values in their budget priorities.



This matches recent data collected by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; it seems "progressive values" aren't all that far away from "mainstream values."


Nor is this simply agreement by the usual suspects. Albert Mohler's recent post on Marty Peretz's lament for liberalism sounds almost wistful for the good old days of dusting it up with progressives:


One of the greatest signs of sickness in our current political culture is that conservatives have virtually no one with whom to engage in a lively and substantial political conversation. The left has simply splintered into so many forms of ideological radicalism, that political discourse has become all but impossible.


We might take exception to Mohler's crack about "ideological radicalism" (hold the mirror up, buddy), but he's got a point: even from a conservative perspective, there needs to be some kind of counterweight in public discourse. A monologue is simply not healthy, for the faith or for the society.


From the other other end of the ideological spectrum, staunch secularists are challenging religious progressives such as myself to redefine the face of Christianity as it is shown on the talking-head circuit. I'm not a fan of this poster's aggressive way of articulating his point, but he does have one. If progressives cede the airwaves to monsters like Falwell and Robertson, who can we blame but ourselves for public perceptions of Christianity as harsh, legalistic and punitive?


So for "crunchy Christians," it's the age-old political conundrum: how do you maximize your presence while minimizing your opponents'?


Garret Keizer suggests in this long but excellent article in Mother Jones that progressives must reframe the "moral values" debate with an eye to American class differences.


For Keizer, this reframe is necessary for both liberals and conservatives to live up to their stated ideals. You talk the talk, you walk the walk. That means owning up to our participation in an economy based on some having more while others have less:


Of course, liberals are no worse than conservatives in skirting the politics of class. But conservatives have gained an edge on liberals in exploiting the surrogate politics of identity. In other words, they have succeeded in beating liberals at their own game. The winning strategy is based on two principles: First, the mastery of identity politics depends on gaining the allegiance of the largest possible minority (in the case of "born-again" Christians, about 42 percent of the country at last count). Second, the most committed minority is the one defined not by the "givens" of ethnicity or gender but by the "chosens" of common belief.


The left was once an identity of that sort, and its common belief was a classless society in which no identity trumped that of a human being. Its common belief was that a condition of equality and solidarity was the destiny of humankind. There is no language that the left needs to recover so badly as it needs to recover that faith. This does not mean that the left should not engage the racism, sexism, homophobia, and environmentally inept futurism to which the left itself has not always been immune. It does mean that a truly progressive agenda has to consist of something more radical than reminding the minimum-wage custodian to sort the recyclables when he takes out the trash or the Latina housemaid to dust Che's portrait when she does the den. It might mean that we have to relinquish more of our disposable income in order to reduce the numbers of disposable people. It might mean something as radical as saying so.



Keizer writes for a secular audience, but as a former Episcopal priest, he surely knows what this means for religious types: a back-to-basics re-engagement with scripture. We need to recapture a sense of God's priorities, rather than those foisted on us by religious-flavored ideologues. The Bible, for example, mentions the poor or poverty 3,000 times; homosexuality four to six times by the broadest definitions. Christians believe that God is firmly on the side of the poor, and they have a responsibility to say so, over against those who would convince otherwise, over and against our own temptations.


Since this is about living up to ideals, Keizer isn't much for realpolitik. He sees "political expedience" as just another cop-out. And in any case, he believes that reclaiming a principled defense of the poor isn't the political suicide most pols make it out to be. After all, Pres. Bush has powered his reign of error largely on the perception that he is a man of principle. That perception is a sword that cuts both ways, Keizer notes:


Conventional wisdom will claim that what I'm talking about is hopelessly outdated, regressive rather than progressive, as if the historical dreams of humanity were so many software programs that cease to function whenever some Newsweek pundit declares them obsolete. Conventional wisdom will also claim that a recovery of the original vision of the left is politically unrealistic. That is bunk, and for two reasons.


The first is that it relegates the left to its assigned role in the morality play of the right. If the prevailing left-liberal response to the 2004 election is yet another change of position, another revisionist move toward centrist policies, we will have done nothing more than to demonstrate that our theocratic adversaries on the right are right: namely, that the secularist tradition of democratic liberalism lacks a moral core. Democrats seem prepared to subordinate every value to that of winning, failing to realize that they can never win -- especially in a time of international terror and domestic disarray -- until they subordinate winning to conviction. This is where jabs at George W. Bush's intellect prove to be every bit as lame as their target. Nobody thinks Bush has a brain. They think he has a backbone.


The second problem with the case for "political realism" is that it's often advanced by people with a very limited experience of reality. I don't live in a pollster's PowerBook; I live on a road. One defining feature of a road is its unexpected turns. When I was serving as a small-town priest, I had supper one evening with four of my parishioners. These were conservative people by any liberal's estimate: Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Eastern Star, color guard on Memorial Day, deer camp come November. The conversation began to take a political turn, at which point the young padre felt some obligation to interject a meek word or two on behalf of peace and justice. But before I could finish my thought, a woman declared that there was a wonderful politician who was going to hold the federal government to account and speak for the people. Then, in a tone of voice women her age usually reserve for sons who dote on their mothers, she invoked his name (to the obvious approval of everyone at the table): Bernie Sanders.


I have this bad habit of tilting back in my chair, and it could have proved disastrous right then. These days I take it in stride when Congressman Sanders gets the overwhelming mandate that Bush thinks he got last November. This is in a state where a Republican governor has just begun serving his second term.


The people sitting at that kitchen table may not have known for sure what a socialist is, but they knew for sure that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. More to the point, Bernie Sanders knows for sure that he is a socialist. But that isn't the main point either. The main point, which is always the main point, is this: What do you know for sure?



What do you know for sure? It's a question all progressives need to ask themselves. Not in a scientific sense, but in a moral one. What are our values? How do we live by them? Are we willing to fight for them? Are we willing to live by them while allowing others to live their own visions?


Where the right is wrong is in trying to impose a single set of cultural values on a pluralistic society. Where the right is also wrong is in failing to keep faith with its own professed values. If the right truly believed in the primacy of family, it would rejoice at the number of gay and lesbian couples who wish to form stable, monogamous unions and provide homes for unwanted children. For that matter, if the right truly believed in "Judeo-Christian" values, it would oppose the idolatry of "market forces." At the very least, it would oppose relativistic arguments in defense of torture.


But an alternative set of values cannot be forged in a seminar or welded together from various cross-cultural scrap like a work of found art. Values are a codification of the experience of shared struggle -- be it in the Sinai Desert or the coalfields of Appalachia. If I am in danger of forgetting that, I need look no farther than the snow that begins to fall as we drive home from the bleeping movie. Around here it falls for a good six months. I don't know if a drunk driver is going to kill us on the road, but I do know that if we go off the road for any reason, someone will stop to help. It is one of the ways we have learned to survive as a community. It is one of the values that have come of our shared struggle against the formidable powers of cold and ice. It is one of the things we know for sure.


So what am I saying? I am saying the best way for the left to discover the values suitable to a pluralistic society is in a committed struggle with those forces that are hell-bent on reshaping America as a sentimental Victorian empire where Mammon is Lord and compassion is king and all the luck that any poor person needs is for a rich man to be visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve. This is a struggle that promises to be hard and protracted. It promises that we will live through a formative time, a potentially glorious time -- but only if we can accept what Martin Luther King Jr. told us, that a person who has nothing to die for has nothing to live for. If we on the left can conceive of no value worthy of sacrifice, then we live for no worthier purpose than to grouse and grow old. I am finished with the politics of incest and retreat, with wayward glances at Canada and nostalgic mooning over the '60s and the cyberspace Rapture of the virtual Elect. I am done with equivocal thanksgiving. This is a good moment in which to be alive, or as a Lakota warrior is supposed to have said before riding out to meet a man named George at a river named the Little Bighorn, "It is a good day to die."



Political expedience be damned: it's time for game on, as they say in the hockey world. Not all fights lead to separation; sometimes a good dust-up can bring people closer, once they begin to understand that they struggle against a common foe.


And yet there is a place for good old-fashioned politics. Our leaders need to be made personally and morally responsible for the consequences of their policies. No one likes to be judgmental, but there comes a time when pols need to be held accountable. There is no finer example of this than that hardest of hearts, George W. Bush, as Amy Sullivan points out in Salon:

On Tuesday, I attended a press conference held by five denominational leaders to oppose the President's budget, which was a great first step...but the religious leaders refused to direct any fire at Bush, dodging questions about whether the budget failed to reflect "compassionate conservative" principles, and insisting that they were there to critique a document, not cast judgment on the administration.


Again, this is as much a challenge for progressives as it is for conservatives. If Bush is to be held accountable for his cynical use of...of...well, really, of almost too many egregious, amoral wrongs to name--torture, vast indifference to the poor and vulnerable, lying, cronyism, and on and on--then someone needs to call him to account. If pastors, priests and rabbis, to whom religious progressives traditionally look for moral leadership, fail to call Bush out, then we need to call them to account for their failings. Sullivan puts this in the context of a generation-long collapse of political engagement by the mainline denominations, which I have some quibbles with. But essentially, she has it right: religious progressives only have the right to expect as much leadership as they demand. The battle for moral redefinition must begin from within our own institutions.


Growing out of that insight, religious progressives need to make their conservative co-religionists feel the heat. When Jerry Falwell or Albert Mohler go on "Nightline" to pontificate about family values, the producers of the show need to be flooded with letters and e-mails demanding to know why peace and poverty weren't addressed. This isn't about replacing one talking head with another, more acceptable one. Jim Wallis isn't going to win the battle for the public square, and neither will a thousand Nightline guest lists. What will is changing the terms of the debate itself. Hit the companies with the same message over and over, and eventually they'll get the message: viewers want to hear from people who want to talk about peace and poverty, not the evils of animated sponges.


Because, really, where is the struggle in America? Is Sponge Bob really the greatest threat to our families? Of course not. But how will anyone ever know if the only moral spokesmen they hear from are James Dobson and Pat Robertson?


Well, time for the bottom line. What is just plain common sense for religious progressives?


  1. We need to focus on true Biblical priorities: God's preference for the poor and for peace. That means pushing our communities to get back to basics. That means pushing ourselves to practice what we preach.


  2. We need to create the expectation that our leaders will share these preferences, and lead us to responsible social practices in their light.


  3. In turn, our religious leaders need to help us to keep our political leaders accountable. That means naming names. Torture is not acceptable, now or ever. We need to say so, clearly, and not be afraid to announce God's judgment of those who would sneak it in through the back door. We must, in short, reclaim the prophetic voice.


  4. We need to throw a sharp elbow every once in a while to reclaim appropriate space in the public square. How can we claim to love and serve the God of peace and justice if we allow the public face of Christianity to be narrow-minded bigotry and jingoism? To do so is not to impose our faith on others, but to fill the hole blown in the public conversation by our silence.


Even shorter: we need to figure out what we believe is right and what is wrong, learn to live by it, and not be shy about yelling when those beliefs are violated.


Hmm.


Lisa just might be the right voice for common sense after all.

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