Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Flapping the Taliban Wing

It is barely possible I went a little over the top. This is rare, usually happening only when I am awake.

On a radio show yesterday, I mentioned that the attack ads and moral certainty in some of the Republican primary run-offs in NC were a little distressing. I can’t quote exactly what I said, but it was something like: “This ascendancy of the religious right in politics is new, and disturbing. If the Republicans can’t control their ‘Taliban wing’, they may start to lose moderate voters.”

Some emails I have since received (and others sent to the show’s host) have been a bit miffed. One fellow suggested that the comparison of North Carolina campaign operatives (who are, after all, loyal American citizens) to the Taliban was less than felicitous. In fact, he suggested I do something that is not only anatomically unlikely, but would be profoundly undignified.

(If it matters, by the way, I was raised Presbyterian and now attend a Catholic church with my wife and family. My sons are both raised Catholic, and take Communion).

On thinking it over, my email interlocutors may have a point, but I do not recant. The idea of government in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, or in any Sharia state, or for that matter in any theocracy, is very different from a democracy. The general will is found, in a theocracy, by reading and interpreting sacred texts. The application of the (usually ancient) texts to current situations is analogical, with disputes decided by narrowly but deeply trained theologians. They act more like judges, interpreting and extending the law, than like a legislature (which, in a Sharia state, is a weak figurehead body). The citizens, public opinion…that all counts zippo, nada.

In a democracy, by contrast, one has to make arguments, to convince people. The general will is discovered by counting votes, either in direct votes such as referenda or in a representative body (i.e., a republican form of government). It is possible that general will (if it exists) is more clearly embodied in the constitution than in any law, but even then most would agree that the law should be responsive to changes in the views of the public. Given our system, it takes much more than a majority to change the law, since the House and Senate have such different bases of power and the President has to sign the legislation.

But more and more, the Republicans are consulting ancient texts, and insisting that the dictates of those ancient texts now be enacted into law. This seems odd, since Jesus said there should be but one law: love one another.

For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Galatians 5:14 King James Version)

But our new Christian theocrats consult instead the Old Testament, and find restrictions on homosexuality (so laws should ban gay marriage) and find theological definitions of life (which mean that even nonbelievers cannot get access to birth control or abortions) (This is why people want the Ten Commandments, not a cross, in the courthouses).

The line between religious beliefs and policy is a difficult one. The U.S. has long been an anomaly: A mostly secular nation with many citizens with very strong religious beliefs. We have been committed to separation of church and state because our sectarian diversity prevented any one group from achieving ascendancy. (Just as Madison predicted in Federalist #10). That meant that our religious leaders, for the most part, were dedicated to a transcendent principle: one must not use religious texts as shut-up arguments for policy. You have to make arguments that even non-believers find persuasive, and the basis for law is the will of the people.

So, I persist: If Republicans want to win converts, not just a Pyrrhic election or two, they are going to have to stop flapping their Taliban wing.


Anonymous said...

I think that your original comment made more sense than your defense of it.

Had I heard your radio comments as you report them I would have interpreted your use of the modifier "Taliban" as a reference to the fundamentalist leanings of the particular Republicans you were talking about. I would not have inferred that you thought they were antidemocratic but rather that a coalition that includes them may not be able to hold on to people with a more libertarian bent.

However, you now seem to argue that political views deriving from fundamentalist Christian views on morality are incompatible with democracy. This is incorrect both as a historical assertion and as an exercise in logic.

Consider the issue of criminal law. If a majority of citizens believes that murder should be a felony, why does it matter whether they derive this belief from Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, or the Playboy Philosophy? What about environmental policy? If fundamentalists determined that Christian stewardship had clear implications for the regulation of air and water quality, would that invalidate said policy? I think not. Unless you're proposing that we extend the mind-reading techniques of Palm Beach vote counters to the entire nation, I cannot imagine how it would be possible to determine why certain voters held their particular policy views. Nor would I welcome the prospect of determining which bases were the acceptable ones in a proper democracy.

I think communism is an immoral, repressive, fundamentally antidemocratic politcal system. I think you probably agree with me on that. Do you therefore believe that it is somehow improper for marxist English professors to vote for candidates who will move the country to the left?

Come to think of it, I may actually be in favor of a system in which neither fundamentalists of any kind nor marxists of any type were allowed to vote at all. In fact, why not drop all pretense and admit the truth: I really don't want anyone voting except me!

mungowits said...

You have put your finger on the core of the problem, of course.

But it would be a mistake to think that K. Grease believes in democracy of ANY kind. It is precisely fundamentalists of the left (marxist Taliban) and the right (Christian Taliban) who terrify me.

A lot of people have tried to weasel out of the problem. Rawls tried to conjure a genie, called "reasonable"ness. As Walter Hinsch put it in his review of the Cambridge Companion to Rawls:

"Political liberalism may be characterized as the attempt to justify principles of political justice and legitimacy solely on the basis of premises that cannot be reasonably rejected. It is an exercise of accommodation aimed at finding a shared basis of values and principles for public political argument and decision making that proves to be acceptable at least to all reasonable people in a free society irrespective of whether their more specific views are liberal or non-liberal, religious or nonreligious, the only constraint being that certain minimal standards of ’reasonableness’ be fulfilled. The aim is to identify what Rawls has called the ’public reason’ of a liberal and democratic society."

To which I say: piffle.

We cannot rely on the forebearance of ANY extremist group. The only answer is to limit the power of government to do harm in the first place. Since this also limits the power of government to do good, neither liberal nor conservative fundamentalists will ever accept it.