Friday, July 15, 2011

A Secular Government is a Sane One

I've mentioned before (also before before) that I'm a big fan of American politics.  Elections in the US are exciting to watch because there either candidate can actually win, unlike in South African politics where we have only one party that always wins every election by a landslide.  I think that the upcoming presidential elections are shaping up to be really interesting.  So far I'm especially enjoying the race for the Republican presidential nomination.  I'm no political analyst so I don't want to use overly dramatic language like saying "the Republican Party is at a crossroads!" or that there is "a battle for the soul of the party!!" but it does seem to me that what happens in the 2012 election will have a serious impact on the future of the party.

Following the success of the Tea Party in the midterm elections, the religious right suddenly have more power than they've had in a very long time - and they are using it for all they're worth.  Things that belonged on the far right fundamentalist lunatic fringe just a few years ago are becoming increasingly mainstream on the conservative side it seems.  Case in point, the popularity of Michelle Bachman as a serious presidential candidate and of course this:

What was poison for a presidential candidate just last election is now the water of life and those who are unwilling to swear fealty to the new right wing, fundamentalist Christian dogma may just find themselves sidelined.  The religious right are now the kingmakers and they demand doctrinal purity - no gays, no abortion, no taxes, no healthcare, no compromise.  Therefore, all the moderate, more centrist conservatives are being flogged for their "progressive" views and so now the moderates have to fake allegiance to the fringe or risk losing support.  This in turn leads the party ever further towards the far right and I think this will cost them.  For instance look at the issue of gay marriage - fast becoming the Republican Albatross.  The religious right wants none of that and are fighting it tooth and nail BUT public opinion is turning rapidly and the majority of Americans now favour it.  While doctrinal purity may win you the Republican nomination it may very well cost you the election.   Worse, in the history books of tomorrow they will stand alongside the villains who fought against women's suffrage and to keep racial segregation alive.  Only time will tell I guess.

Now I could be reading it all completely wrong, I am half a world away after all.  Just seems to me that this next election will determine the future direction of the Republicans - either they will do well and the Religious Right Wing Fringe will become more powerful than ever OR they will get spanked and moderates could wrestle back control.  I for one hope that cooler heads will prevail.

But again, I know that no one likes a foreigner coming along, telling you your business and pretending that they understand things better than you do and I definitely don't want to be that guy.  No one likes that guy!  So I will rather just post the words of a great American, Robert Ingersoll.  He wrote the following in 1879 but it's so appropriate that it may as well have been written last weekend:

"I would like also to liberate the politician. At present, the
successful office-seeker is a good deal like the center of the
earth; he weighs nothing himself but draws everything else to him.
There are so many societies, so many churches, so many isms, that
it is almost impossible for an independent man to succeed in a
political career. Candidates are forced to pretend that they are
Catholics with Protestant proclivities, or Christians with liberal
tendencies, or temperance men who now and then take a glass of
wine, or, that although not members of any church their wives are,
and that they subscribe liberally to all. The result of all this is
that we reward hypocrisy and elect men entirely destitute of real
principle; and this will never change until the people become grand
enough to allow each other to do their own thinking.

Our Government should be entirely and purely secular. The
religious views of a candidate should be kept entirely out of
sight. He should not be compelled to give his opinion as to the
inspiration of the Bible, the propriety of infant baptism, or the
immaculate conception. All these things are private and personal.
He should be allowed to settle such things for himself and should
he decide contrary to the law and will of God, let him settle the
matter with God. The people ought to be wise enough to select as
their officers men who know something of political affairs, who
comprehend the present greatness, and clearly perceive the future
grandeur of our country. If we were in a storm at sea, with deck
wave-washed and masts strained and bent with storm, and it was
necessary to reef the top sail, we certainly would not ask the
brave sailor who volunteered to go aloft, what his opinion was on
the five points of Calvinism. Our Government has nothing to do with
religion. It is neither Christian nor pagan; it is secular. But as
long as the people persist in voting for or against men on account
of their religious views, just so long will hypocrisy hold place
and power. Just so long will the candidates crawl in the dust --
hide their opinions, flatter those with whom they differ, pretend
to agree with those whom they despise; and just so long will honest
men be trampled under foot."

From "Some Mistakes of Moses" by Robert G. Ingersoll available for free online here.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.


John in Michigan, USA said...

The Robert Ingersoll quote is a good one, and I want to point out an aspect of it that maybe you haven't considered.

The religious craziness documented in the Rachel Maddow clip has always been with us.

Nor is it limited to the right wing; Maddow's clips document a hateful tone and extreme, apocalyptic rhetoric that would be right at home in a Jeremiah Wright sermon. Our current President was soaking in that filth for 20 YEARS, only to pretend not to have heard it when it threatened to derail his nomination! Or, try watching unedited video from Farrakhan's keynote speech at Million Man March in 1995. If the anti-Semitism isn't enough, pay attention to the numerology rants, they're a real treat.

So this sort of nonsense exists on the right and the left wing, although I agree that, due to the season, the US right wing is more vocal at the moment.

Also, keeping candidate's religious views private (or requiring that candidates be secular?) is no panacea.

Secular fundamentalism exists (Marx, Ayn Rand), and in case of Marx, was every bit as destructive as religious fundamentalism. Or, read the "science" produced by the Club of Rome or today's ZPG movements who claim science can predict global population trends 100+ years into the future. These secular fundamentalists preach their own form of Armageddon! Michael Moore, a sometime Truther, claims George Bush was dosing the nation's water with arsenic. Talk about your precious bodily fluids!

Also, we don't just elect representatives for their policies (which inevitably are compromised), we elect them to do what we would do, speak as we would speak, and think as we would think. We elect people to represent the whole person, not just a collection of policy choices.

Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect or require that candidates not talk about their character and their judgement, and so, some discussion of morality, religion, etc. on the campaign trail is inevitable.

As to the various fundamentalisms that are gathering on the horizon: we've weathered this storm before. That's why Ingersoll's quote from 132 years ago still resonates today. There's no reason to believe that we can't weather it again.

Eugene said...

Thanks for commenting John! In my short life I've lived under both a very right wing fundamentalist Christian government and a very left wing socialist-leaning one so believe me, I know all too well that the one is no better than the other.

This is why I find the current trend worrying - it is making a moderate, centrist position very hard to hold successfully (as any fundamentalist position is wont to do) which is bad news for everyone. Having moderates in government is essential, otherwise things can get wildly unbalanced!

I agree that it would be unreasonable to expect candidates to not speak about their character and judgement but that's the issue here, they're not. Instead they are pretending to be what they believe they are supposed to be. Just look at all the recent policy 180's that people like McCain and Romney had to do lately! When religion dictates politics, it just causes a whole lot of dishonesty. Ideally, no one should be forced to be secular - or anything else - but in the current climate they are being forced into a particular mold, contrary to the constitutional promise of no religious tests for office.

Just an observation though, I don't have a dog in this fight! I just find US politics far more fun to follow than any sport!

GumbyTheCat said...

That video is wild. The clip of the preacher saying that Hitler couldn't find any straight soldiers who would be brutal enough for his liking, but found that the homosexual soldiers were perfectly willing to be as brutal as possible, is... is... um... well...

Can I move to South Africa and be your roommate? I'll pay half the rent and wash the dishes! Promise!

Eugene said...

Yes Gumby, didn't you know? Gays are so evil that they are to blame for every evil thing ever! That's why guys like Fischer wants to round them up into camps - it's not because he's a flaming bigot, it's because he cares about the children!! /sarcasm

You think that video was wild? Then chew on this piece of infogristle, nearly every GOP presidential candidate has been on his show! Apparently his seal of approval is now vital for Republicans. Honestly I don't see why you would want to move, you are clearly living in INTERESTING TIMES!

John in Michigan, USA said...


Thanks for the observations from SA, keep 'em coming.

The reason that religious fundamentalists won't take over the Republican party is, everyone understands that the election this year will be about the economy. Also, there is an impressive movement of gay Republicans (led in party by Paypal founder Peter Thiel) who are working to ensure that Republicans don't ignore the rights of gay people.

The fundies will have a role influencing the Republican nomination process, but even there, their power is limited. Typically Republicans nominate according to Seniority, which this time, would mean Mitt Romney, a Mormon. The fundies like Mormonism's conservative positions on social issues, but they aren't even sure he is one of them (a Christian). Also, Romney is fairly moderate (for a Mormons). Nevertheless, Republicans will probably nominate him. The last time they broken the rule of Seniority was to nominate Ronald Reagan. That worked out great for them, but even so, they quickly reverted to their habit of nominating the most senior Republican. Bush, Jr. might have been an exception, that didn't work out so well for them, but arguably, he was senior because he was his father's son.

Even if Republicans nominate an outsider, you can look for them to quickly pivot after the nomination and re-focus on the economy. They know that "values voters" (which includes Christian fundamentalists but also other voters who are less extreme) are only about 40% of the electorate, and alone that is not enough.

To me, a far more worrying trend is that the media have become far more demagogic in their rhetoric, and far more willing to mix opinion and news. Fox News, particularly Glenn Beck, started this, but most of the other news outlets rapidly tried to imitate him, while condemning the very thing they were imitating!

I feel like the media situation is in flux, as old, established outlets (network news, NY Times, etc.) are displaced by new outlets (Fox and new media). It will settle down eventually, since Americans will get bored with the constant hyperbole, but meanwhile it may be a bumpy ride.

GumbyTheCat said...

I followed your link, then followed the link in Brayton's post.

PLEASE! I'll take the trash out and do all the other household chores as well!

digapigmy said...

I would replace the word "secular" with "pragmatic" and then I might agree with you. The problem is that fundamentalists come in all shapes, sizes, and religious (or anti-religious) affiliations. Being convinced that the earth is 8,000 years old is only slightly sillier than thinking the welfare state is sustainable. American politics is becoming more divisive as both parties move away from the middle and seeems to be more populated by people who will never examine evidence to make decisions.

Oh, and gay Republicans are kidding themselves (and I am not just referring to the closeted gay Senators and preachers) and if something happens 4 out of 8 times it is not an exception.

digapigmy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eugene said...

I would argue that secular government is pragmatic government. What could be more pragmatic than electing the most competent person for the job regardless of their religious affiliation? Unfortunately, while ideal, that is probably never going to happen in a country that overwhelmingly belongs to a single religious faith. I'm not saying you can't be religious and a politician, I'm just saying that ideally it shouldn't matter if you're a Hindu, Agnostic or Methodist if you're the best person for the job.

Government should be secular because the alternative is that it be Sectarian and then the question is, who's sect is going to run things? It may seem like a great idea to many Christian folk to have a "Christian Nation" but once you have that, the guy in power tends to also put everyone in his particular flavour of Christianity in charge and that is no fun for everyone else.

Eugene said...

@Gumby - so basically you want to come to Africa to work like a slave? Oh how the tables have turned! You're more than welcome of course but I think you'll find we have a fresh set of challenges to deal with over here...

GumbyTheCat said...

It may seem like a great idea to many Christian folk to have a "Christian Nation" but once you have that, the guy in power tends to also put everyone in his particular flavour of Christianity in charge and that is no fun for everyone else.

Of course, that guy would not be a Real Christian! *chuckles*

so basically you want to come to Africa to work like a slave? Oh how the tables have turned! You're more than welcome of course but I think you'll find we have a fresh set of challenges to deal with over here...

Oh, I'm sure of that. I'm just relaying my current great trepidation over the state of the U.S. political system.

I'd be happy to come visit you though! And my offer to do the dishes still stands.

John in Michigan, USA said...


"gay Republicans are kidding themselves"

Perhaps. One could just as well say that African-Americans are kidding themselves if they think Democrats are ever going to fix the inner city. The War on Poverty must never end.

But, I could be wrong about you could be wrong about gays and Republicans.

"if something happens 4 out of 8 times it is not an exception"

I count 7 candidates since 1980, not 8? Anyways, I don't consider renominating a sitting President (Reagan in 1984, Bush, Jr. in 2004) to be an exception to the rule of Seniority. Once an outsider/non-senior becomes President, he becomes head of the party, therefore he is the most senior member. Your better argument would be that the Tea Party didn't exist before now (or existed in a less explicit form) therefore, the rules may have changed. We'll see.

John in Michigan, USA said...

Returning to the original topic, when it comes to sane government, digapigmy preferred a pragmatic one to a secular one. I agree with this. Perhaps we could also say a pluralistic government would be good for sanity. A practical, pluralistic government would still have to respect the establishment clause (no religious test in order to hold office, no law establishing religion, etc).

A purely secular government would work, but it would be less effective at promoting sanity, since a majority or large minority of Americans identify as religious and would feel (in fact, do feel) excluded from the national conversation.

digapigmy said...

African-Americans are definitely kidding themselves. All of the "welfare voters" are. If the Democrats were to ever actually improve poverty significantly, they would lose the most significant part of their platform. What makes anyone think they have any interest in truly fixing anything? People reliant on the system vote Democrat.

It is possible my math was off. If we just go from 1980: Reagan, Bush Sr., Dole, Bush Jr., McCain. At best you are still at 60% with the seniority (giving the nod to Dole without looking up who else was in that primary race with him). That sounds like it is almost as likely that Romney will not benefit from seniority.

I understand the textbook definition of "pluralism" as it relates to government, but I don't understand what you mean by a pluralistic government as a model. As I understand it, pluralism is just an attempt to describe the mechanisms of government taking outside influences into account, not an actual model that you can build a government to look like.

John in Michigan, USA said...


I've been thinking, and it turns out, I don't have an exact definition of pluralistic government as a model!

But I do have some examples of what I mean. A secular government would prefer, or perhaps even require, no religious displays whatsoever in its public buildings, parks, etc. This would include dismantling historical monuments if they were deemed too religious. Whereas, a pluralistic government might tolerate or even encourage such displays, provided that all the different denominations are represented without favoritism.

France or (until recently) Turkey would be an example of a strictly secular government; the US I would describe generally as more pluralistic than strictly secular.

A secular government would see itself as a force counter-balancing religion; a pluralistic government would see itself as a force *supporting* the peaceful exercise of religion (which for the purposes of this discussion would include atheism, agnosticism, etc), while preventing any one denomination from dominating the government or the society.

So that gives you the general idea of what I am talking about.

Eugene said...

John, what you call a pluralistic government is exactly what I would call a secular government. To me a secular government is one that protects everyone's freedom of religion (or lack thereof) by never enforcing any religious viewpoint. The example of prayer in school is a demonstrates this principle perfectly I think. Anyone can pray in an American public school whenever they like, that is their First Amendment right. However the school cannot tell anyone what to pray or enforce a decision on who to pray to again thanks to the same amendment. The school is secular by staying out of religion but at the same time it protects everyone's right to religious belief - by staying out of it.