Thursday, September 11, 2003

Christianity and "Establishment" in the South

In a wonderful, long, passionate, rambling post which dives headfirst into the South's terrible and perplexing history, Amanda Butler clarifies where she was coming from in the post I cited earlier on the relevance of "establishment" thinking when we discuss what kind of communities we want to have, and what we think communities can offer to all our attempts to live good lives. She writes that she is a "staunch supporter of the First Amendment, to be precise. However, I don't think the First precludes religion as a motivator, or talking about how one's religion is grounds for an idea. The personal is the political when the personal delves into questions relevant to the community; so too the religious is also the political. Whether the Republic or the Bible, I'm always interested in what drives people and I think it makes them more understandable." At the risk of once again putting words into Amanda's mouth, what she is saying is that our ontology should not be excluded from our thinking about our polities (a truism I am constantly amazed to find intelligent people either denying or ignoring). But which ontology should we think about--are they all equal? She doesn't say; but then, she doesn't need to: wrestling with the problem of moral pluralism isn't the object of her post. But she does add: "Before I come off as entirely dependent on the situation....I will say this: I trust Christianity, rationally-applied (ie, gather the attractive spirit, not the plausible exhortation to personal propertyless communal living, unless one has the strength of conviction of the Shakers). I like it as an influence, causing my lawgivers to question the morality of their actions and compelling my citizens to be concerned about their community, properly channeled through the constitutional means by which we express what we think." I couldn't agree more.

Amanda's post is also worth going through for the sake of appreciating her Robert Penn Warren-inspired reflections on the "state of the South today"--that is, the South as a particular place, with a particular religious history and therefore a (potentially) particular moral voice. Of course the same can be said, perhaps, of other regions of the United States (no one familiar with American history can avoid the importance and consequences of the unique religious/civic "establishment" vision which New England Congregationalists and other descendents of Puritans embodied throughout the nineteenth century, whether in regards to abolition, prohibition, suffrage movements, or any number of other movements). But at the present moment, with the rise of Southern Christian conservatives to political power through the Republican party over the last couple of decades, it is regarding the South where reflections on the power--for good or ill--of "establishment," as well as considerations of its constitutionality, are most important. And wonderfully, Amanda provides some of both:

"It was religious motivation that led to the Texas sodomy law. It was religious motivation that wasn't strong enough in Alabama to pass Gov. Riley's tax reform. Dangerous stuff. Ineffective motive. But to truly live religiously is to live an examined life (and here I guess, for to my sometimes-regret, I am not myself religious, but simply respectful of those who are). Sin. Guilt. Powerful motivators, they are. Why, because they might somewhat resemble a stick, should they be distrusted? The Eighth Amendment allows for plenty of motivators that aren't carrots. The flip side to sin and guilt is, after all, a feeling of having done good, of having fulfilled a mandate. And the religious life, the one that prompts a person to look at himself and the life he leads, will at least lead a person to ask the proper questions. His answers may be quite different from mine -- Texas's sodomy law, for the over-cited quick example -- but it at least can be seen as a bold attempt to make a community better, even if I think it has adverse effects."

As always, read the whole thing. Anyone who quotes from Warren's All the King's Men, especially its tour de force opening paragraph, is all right in my book.