Monday, May 01, 2006

Robert F. Kennedy and Religion in the Public Square.

The image of RFK may be blocked by lunatics under the impression that this great American and global political leader was a "Communist." He wasn't. RFK was a humanitarian, Christian, compassionate, just, freedom-loving human being.

Norman MacAfee, ed., The Gospel According to RFK: Why it Matters Now (Colorado: Perseus, 2004). A very good introduction and commentary accompanies these writings and speeches by RFK.

I am told that my book has been listed by a Portuguese language site, featuring works in philosophy, which makes me very happy. http://www.lojabril.combe/

I have read a few books lately arguing different sides of the controversy concerning the role of religion in the public square. By that phrase, I mean the role that religious values and a sense of mission ought to play, if any, in the formulation and execution of public policy or politics in a diverse society that aims to remain neutral in the competition among faiths.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a much more complex and rich text than may appear to observers from other nations, since it seeks to accomodate competing values with respect to religion. The U.S. was founded by persons escaping religious persecution, so that a yearning for freedom to exercise religious practices -- or just to think and believe freely (or not to believe!) -- is protected by that Amendment.

Yet the U.S. is also a society that was never monolithic in its religious adherence or practices. Hence, the framers of the Constitution also hoped to treat the various faiths equally, to carve out a place of non-interference by the State in the domain of the various religions, which were to be practised (autonomously) by their adherents. There is no State responsibility to discriminate against or favor religions over competitors in the shaping of public opinion on controversial issues.

Religion, however, is not like stamp collecting. It is not a hobby that people can practice on the weekends. If a person -- like Dorothy Day, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Arthur Hertzberg, Billy Graham, Robert Kennedy or William Sloan Coffin -- is deeply committed to the moral instruction found in his or her religious tradition, then that person is called upon to act in the world in accordance with its teachings. Liberals readily grant this point when it comes to most of the persons that I have just named, but are appalled at the possibility that conservative religious fundamentalists will act on their faith, influencing public policy in accordance with it.

My view is that social conservatives and liberals motivated by their faiths to adopt a moral or political stance have an equal right to do so. As for President Bush's pronouncements, I am not as outraged by them as some of my friends on the Left seem to be. I have not heard the President say that he is guided only by messages that he receives from on high in formulating public policy, but that he reflects and prays before major decisions, which is something also acknowledged by Bill Clinton. How can anyone in that office not be humbled by the awesome responsibility associated with it and either pray or reflect on that responsibility periodically?

Bush's use of the terms good and evil, so far, have not disturbed me all that much, since I believe that 9/11 was indeed an "evil" occurence. Also, I have yet to see a President who failed to use the language of moral exhortation to suit his purposes. That sort of talk goes with the territory when an elected political leader is also head of State, thus wielding important symbolic functions in his or her society. I am much more concerned about, say, the incompetence surrounding Katrina rescue efforts.

Having said that, I must acknowledge that I agree with Richard Bernstein and others that talk of good and evil is used too easily and casually by Mr. Bush. Such talk should be reserved for uniquely tragic moments in the nation's history, such as 9/11, and must not be invoked as a sanction for Bush Administration policies on everything from social security to renewal of the Patriot Act. This brings us to the real issue that angers the good folks in the East Village and the Upper West Side. (Yes, I know about opposition to the war, which I share, though there are no easy solutions there either.)

"Intolerance," is the mantra of the Leftists, who are intolerant of those claiming a religious calling or salvific mission with a political dimension. "I can't argue with someone who claims that God has told him or her what is right." My answer is: "Sure you can." You can point out that: 1) you didn't get God's memo on that issue; 2) you can also note that, as Kant and other thinkers have taught us, authority is no warrant when it comes to moral beliefs, so that even if I believe that God told "you" (why you?) what the heavenly position happens to be on "sewage treatment options," it is irrelevant, morally, unless I have come to that conclusion by myself, freely and independently; and besides 3), others may claim that they got a memo arguing the opposite from God's legal team. They have just as much right to that argument as you do to yours.

To allow or recognize the right of persons claiming religiously-inspired moral positions to state their case in public debate on controversial issues is not to give them -- or science worshippers, for that matter -- a priori superior status or greater credibility when it comes to the hard task of persuading a rowdy and diverse electorate concerning the wisdom of a particular public policy. Science only gets deference on empirical questions, not political or moral issues.

The trendy fashionistas and the "good old boys" (of either gender), who are found at opposite ends of the American political spectrum, both define tolerance and niceness in a manner that includes them, while excluding those who disagree with their cherished views. Thus, Manhattanites in soft, marginal professions that are saturated with Bush-haters -- like journalism, public policy law, or academia -- mean by tolerance people who agree that science alone should guide our political/moral decisions, that religion is mere superstition, who are liberal on domestic relations and "lifestyle" issues. "Tolerant people," our liberal friends say, "are those who believe what I believe."

Suburban dads and soccer moms, who vote Republican, define tolerance in terms of "normality," that is, people who take care of their lawns and mind their own business, pay their taxes and are "nice" when you wave to them at the mall, are entitled to believe whatever they like in their own hearts. After all, this is America.

To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all get along?" If we can't, then the people who wish to blow up a subway train when your family happens to be sitting in it may have an easier time doing so. You may wish to bear this safety concern in mind the next time you criticize "enhanced" security measures.

I cannot imagine living a human life that excludes a concern with morality and politics. The Greeks in the ancient world had a word for a person who took no interest in politics: "idiot." This is a term that Americans often reserve for politicians. The rest of us, as citizens, have an obligation to think about the "issues," drawing our inspiration and meanings either from religious traditions, or (as in my case) mostly from philosophy and art.

I regard the wisdom of the great religious traditions as directed at the effort to cope with the tragedy and failure inherent in the human condition, and not as prescriptions for specific revisions of the tax code, so that persons who draw on faith -- in humility and modesty -- when discussing policy questions, do not offend me. I am not a religious "believer," but I respect the power of faith and accept as true the ethics of love at the center of the great religious stories.

An example of a political leader who embodied moral gravity and seriousness, goodness and a sense of hope for life's possibilities, despite a clear-eyed view of our fallen and tragic condition, is Robert F. Kennedy. Senator Robert F. Kennedy -- and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- must be regarded as the moral examples in American public life of the last fifty years or more. I have not seen anyone to compare with those two men since their deaths. Both were highly religious and explicitly invoked their faiths at moments of crisis. To suggest that there was something inappropriate about this, or to claim that Robert Kennedy was wrong to do so because he was an elected official, is ludicrous. Much depends on the sincerity of one's religious inspiration and the modesty in the manner in which it is offered to fellow citizens.

On the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s murder, Robert Kennedy offered an improvised speech that is among the most memorable of my lifetime, along with Senator Edward Kennedy's speech at the Democratic Convention in 1980 (" ... and the dream shall never die ..."), which will also stay with me always. Robert Kennedy spoke these words:

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

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