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The religious right and democracy

June 4, 2015

Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher has been reflecting on how (small-o) orthodox Christians should respond to an increasingly hostile culture. Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’ calls for Christians to–among other things–disengage from politics.

There’s something about this response that’s always bothered me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Over at Democracy Journal, Nathan Pippenger articulated my concerns better than I could have:

Withdrawal would be a dispiriting rejection of democratic politics. There’s no evidence that it has begun in earnest, and it’s not exactly clear how it would work. I don’t think anyone is proposing a level of cultural separation on the level of, say, the Amish—conservative Christians would still live and socialize in mixed-religion neighborhoods and still be dispersed across the whole of the United States. Even the institutions devoted to internal forms of community-building—Linker mentions “families, parishes, and churches”—would not be able to seal off or separate their way of life to the extent implied by analogies to the Amish or the ultra-Orthodox, or for that matter by the monastic title of their movement.

What, then, would be the result of a quietist, separatist movement that could erect only ineffectual barriers against the forces of the majority culture? Probably not the comforting preservation of traditional ways of life, but an exacerbation of the alienation which motivated the separatism in the first place. And here is where all of us—or, at least, those of us not completely resigned to permanent fracture and division among Americans—have reason for concern. The success or failure of democracy depends, in large part, on the recognition of citizens that they all share a part in it. If one group of citizens feels completely, comprehensively walled off from the broader public, the reassurance that laws come from “We the People” will be cold comfort. And this problem will persist unless the group can truly make its life in isolation from the majority; unless it can educate, worship, and govern in its own corner of the world. Anything short of this is unlikely to satisfy the separatists, since the world they want to preserve will continue to face intrusions from a wider society they can’t really escape. We want to be able to justify the legitimacy of democratic government by affirming that it really does emanate, however imperfectly, from the will of the people. When a subset of the people intentionally wall themselves off, the legitimacy of the rest of us ruling over them is called into question, and their reasons for obeying us are weakened. A “Benedict option”-style retreat, then, might look like the obscure politics of an isolated minority. But in reality, it concerns all of us.

It concerns all of us indeed.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Agellius permalink
    June 4, 2015 5:16 pm

    Well expressed. As a devout Catholic, I can live with gay marriage without feeling the need of a separatist solution. I might oppose its legalization, but if that’s the will of majority then as a participant in a democratic society I have to accept it.

    Where the line is crossed is when, for example, Catholic schools are legally coerced into employing teachers who openly dissent from its mission and beliefs. For us, faith and family come before government. This is what authentic liberty is all about. When government places itself above either faith or family, for me it’s no longer a legitimate government.

    • Victor permalink
      June 7, 2015 11:19 am

      Agellius, is this happening? I thought religious organizations were allowed by law to be selective in employment. I thought the current fights in places like Arkansas or Missouri are related to non-religious organizations (though run or managed by religious people) either religiously discriminating in hiring practice or refusing service to people of other practices, faiths, or beliefs. However, I could be wrong, so I want to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

      What is the level of coercion to employ mission-dissenting candidates in religious organizations?

      • Agellius permalink
        June 8, 2015 10:44 am

        I’m just saying where I personally would draw the line. I’m not saying it has necessarily been crossed so far. The HHS birth control mandate came close, although it looks like the Supreme Court is going to do the right thing in that instance. However the level of outrage at the Hobby Lobby decision, as well as the reaction to the RFRA bill passed in Indiana, shows that there is a lot of hostility to the idea of religious freedom, which, to me, doesn’t bode well for the future.

  2. Victor permalink
    June 8, 2015 7:16 am

    I struggle a great deal with the mindset of the author of the excerpt. It is well-intentioned–that I do not doubt. Additionally, and discomfortingly, it comes from a privileged perception. Implying that the success or failure of democracy depends on the recognition that all citizens (including these potential separatists) share a large part of it is a bit like saying marriage is under threat and attack by homosexuals. With adultery and such high divorce rates, marriage is in deep trouble due to heterosexuals themselves with no help from outside people. In the same way, democracy is in deep trouble with no help from potential separatists.

    Due perhaps to privileged or being walled off from the reality of a considerable portion of Americans, the author does not realize that we do not have a real democracy. Almost all (if not all) of the world’s governments are de factor oligarchies, and I have heard this from respected politicians and ambassadors behind closed doors. Let’s look at some of his statements.

    “The success or failure of democracy depends, in large part, on the recognition of citizens that they all share a part in it.”

    A considerable portion of the US public does not feel they share a part in it. This statement seems to imply that democracy can succeed or fail, but it has already failed for many.

    “If one group of citizens feels completely, comprehensively walled off from the broader public, the reassurance that laws come from “We the People” will be cold comfort.”

    This is ALREADY cold comfort to a considerable portion of the people. From a Hasidic and ultra-orthodox minority group in East Ramapo taking first a majority and then occupying all seats on a school board and running the public school district into decline to the uninsured in the American healthcare system, people feel isolated and “We the People” is already cold comfort. When 15% of the American people are without health care and yet that group doesn’t have the ability to change the situation, they already feel cold comfort, that their voices do not count or matter.

    “And this problem will persist unless the group can truly make its life in isolation from the majority; unless it can educate, worship, and govern in its own corner of the world. Anything short of this is unlikely to satisfy the separatists, since the world they want to preserve will continue to face intrusions from a wider society they can’t really escape.”

    This reminds me of the separatists movements all over the world, from Ireland to Sudan, from Nigerian to Spain, from Ukraine to Turkey, from Syria to Scotland. It also reminds me of the African Americans (democracy has long failed) who migrated to Liberia in the 19th and early 20th century.

    “We want to be able to justify the legitimacy of democratic government by affirming that it really does emanate, however imperfectly, from the will of the people. ”

    No, this is a terrible premise. You want to first analyse what is, evaluate what is, and then if found wanting, create a better government. To do that, you first have to determine “is this a democracy.” In fairness, I think he is saying he wants to be able to say that, but in fairness to the most vulnerable in the US, you cannot say that. And it’s not just slightly imperfect emanation from the will of the people, no. We are way off. The very fact that you have a campaign called “Black Lives Matter” means there are communities of people–considerable communities–that feel disconnected from this “democracy.” The very fact that I have had conversations with elected officials in which they say “I’m not worried about the lower class because they don’t vote,” means something is amiss. And if the lower class is least likely to vote in a country that only motivated a third of the population to vote, it’s hard to call it a democracy. If the extreme example of “House of Cards” illuminates anything, is that there are huge problems with the machinery of supposed democracy in this country.

    “When a subset of the people intentionally wall themselves off, the legitimacy of the rest of us ruling over them is called into question, and their reasons for obeying us are weakened.”

    The problem with this statement is that in an already dysfunctional democracy this process works in reverse. People are ruled over by an oligarchy which calls the oligarchy (named democracy) into question. Their reasons for obeying are weakened, and people react. They react in wrong ways with looting and violence and in positive ways with protests, marches, sit-ins, and the redirection of economic means. People can intentionally wall themselves off as a result, not a cause, of the thin illusory, veneer of democracy.

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