Views from a slippery slope

The slippery slope looks something like this:

After the first but wholly safe step of free “expression” of religion by citizens and politicians, there follows an eventual “entanglement” of private belief and public policy, as each encroaches upon the other. Taken to its extreme, we might then see an “endorsement” of a particular faith by those who find themselves in power – an endorsement that is, by inference, to the political disadvantage of others.

Discomfort with our nation’s current, widely perceived trip to the bottom of that incline informed Sunday evening’s excellent forum on politics and religion, sponsored by the Interfaith Council. A quartet of sage panelists including theologians and constitutional and legal scholars held forth on the thinking of the founding fathers – who sought to guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – and the extent to which that traditional wall twixt church and state still stands.

It was apparent from the audience questions that many in attendance were concerned by the infusion of language from a conservative strain of Christianity into the rhetoric of the current administration. Mainline Protestants appear chagrined by what they see as a shift away from their particular tenets – compassion, justice – toward judgment and fundamentalism as public policy, while non-sectarians object on principle to any breach of the figurative wall.

The discussion made for a fascinating evening, well worth viewing when it rolls around to the local public-access TV station. Interestingly, there seemed to be agreement that the issue is not so much which particular religion is being espoused in the “public square” – to the contrary, several argued for more open discussions of faith, by more people and more often – but rather, the marginalizing of those who fall outside the moral acceptance of those in power.

The supporting impulses – to trump up an “other” to be demonized and opposed for social or political gain – and to create hierarchies of good/evil, right/wrong, us/them (or if you’re unlucky, “us/you”) have been explored by post-structuralist writers for years, and it’s easy to see both as useful strategies for those who claim both political and moral authority. Another impulse, it seems, is to deny everyone else the ability to ask questions; truth is to be received a priori and immutable. And that is anathema to the “public square,” in which competing visions are refined into a pluralistic whole.

We might look at the extent to which such impulses inform our own public discourse, even beyond the scope of religion. While “the right” took its beating Sunday, one could make a case that “the left” has its own fundamentalist impulses. Try to raise questions about the wisdom of, say, more-restrictive land use policies – a revised Critical Areas Ordinance, for instance – and you may well be branded a deceiver, an apostate against the cause of the environment. The appeal of the manichean worldview – that your opponents are not just “wrong,” but “bad” too – isn’t confined to sectarian circles. That’s something to think about as our local political season draws nigh.

It reminds us again that our goal should be a healthy and livable pluralism, as a community and a nation. Recall that the discussion series that prompted Sunday’s forum is called “Spiritually speaking...and listening.”

A worthy model, in all spheres of our public life.

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