Faith is not a supplement for politics

14 06 2011

So, I came across this article over at Religion Dispatches which led me to an article by Melissa Harris-Perry in The Nation in which she articulates her view of religion’s place in politics. It makes for interesting reading in light of her response to Cornel West’s criticisms of the President. While she espouses support for the sort of theological views endorsed by Cornel West, she does so in a way that doesn’t commit her to them.

In light of her criticism of West, it is easy to read her support as a sort of pragmatic diplomacy, a way to strengthen the popular appeal of the American Left. Of course, her criticisms of West also make it appear as a remarkably shallow and not particularly committed diplomatic effort. Committed diplomatic effort would entail genuine compromise and a willingness to hear out the concerns of those like West.

Her diplomacy is clearly one of convenience, though, because as she states in her statement in the Ed Show, she doesn’t see West’s views as popular, so she doesn’t need to court them. She lacks an appreciation of religion as a way of life and understanding, employing religious language primarily to further a political programme.

This isn’t an uncommon view. I would dare say that most people, even people who explicitly identify as religious, hold views akin to Harris-Perry’s. The danger I see, though, lies in religious people buying into this language. It is one thing for the political thinker (progressive, conservative, or moderate) to forge alliances with religious people, but quite another for religious people to mistake a political agenda for a religious practice. Political agendas, progressive or not, aren’t identical with their religious beliefs.

If religious people accept that Harris-Perry and her ilk are speaking on behalf of them religiously, they will be sorely disappointed. Worse, they risk mistaking the political agenda of these progressives for religion.

While the religious qua religious must engage in political action to secure the avenues for sacred action, they need to remember that the ways of the divine are not identical to the ways of people. Politics is, first and foremost, about the ways of people. Any effort to make politics and religion identical is inimical to both.

(I would like to make clear here that there is nothing wrong with a religious person having or participating in a political programme, so long as they do not conflate the political program with their religion. In fact, since politics is about the ways of people, the religious cannot avoid politics. As they live with people, they must have some political life.)

To argue, like Harris-Perry, that “a powerful and justice-loving God is an important political tool for those who have the fewest resources to resist inequality” is to reverse the proper order necessary for faith. God is not a political tool. For the religious, politics must be a tool of the devoted for the sake of God.

To this point, it’s frustrating to read Harris-Perry write:

Despite a Democratic administration, the American Left is struggling to to create more space for itself in public discourse. To make this space progressives will need more than sterile reason, rationality, and evidence. These tools can become a kind of cynical self-righteousness that denies the powerful work of faith based claims that generate social change. An analytic lens that that reveals injustice can become paralyzing without the faith to believe that collective efforts can truly initiate change.

Faith is a practice of intellectual humility. It is a habit that reminds us of our own limitations and encourages us to remember that we don’t know everything, can’t predict every outcome, and don’t control every variable.

Because this is not what faith is.

You don’t need faith to be intellectually humble. Anyone who is deeply committed to thinking through the principles of their understanding (be it political, scientific, or religious) and the consequences of carrying it out will develop intellectual humility. No matter how great an intellect you possess, life will give you plenty of occasion to appreciate how inadequate it is to forming a complete understanding of how things work.

If you are not humble in the use of your intellect, it is either because you have not used it or you have detached yourself from the consequences of its application.

Suggesting that the American Left needs to be more open to religious perspectives in order to motivate its base is not the cure to cynical self-righteousness; it is a symptom of that cynical self-righteousness. It reduces religious faith to a tool instead of appreciating it as a way of life.

Political commitments like a concern for the welfare of a nation are not religious, yet they ought to provide political agents with the motivation necessary to appreciate how collective action creates change. If those commitments fail, it is not to religion that we need to look, but to politics itself.

Faith entails reason, rationality, and evidence. It isn’t the antithesis or ‘vital’ component of rationality. The intellectual limits that confront the scientist or the politician within their own domains, confronts the faithful, too.

The idea that there is a special certainty to religious faith is dangerous to faith as well as politics and science. For religion, it leads to a reduction of religious faith to delusional certainty. Those who cannot emulate this crude and empty certainty come to assume that they are inadequate to the challenges of faith they feel called to meet.

Outside of the religious sphere, this notion that certainty is religious leads people to endorse the worst scientific and political relativism. They come to assume ahead of time that facts can be reinterpreted so easily as to make any show of confidence unfounded. Or, just as bad, they assume that confidence rests on a ‘leap of faith’ that cannot be justified. The strength of assertion becomes as or more important than reasonable certainty based on understanding.

Again, if politics falters, it is not because it is in need of religion to bolster it, but because politics itself has become detached from the concerns of the people. Substituting religion for that drive is a recipe for disaster in a pluralistic society like our own. That strategy diminishes politics and religion both.

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