TCS Daily

Why Religious Voters May Be More Inclusive than Seculars

By Frederick Turner - November 11, 2004 12:00 AM

The current panic on the Left over the 1/5 of American voters who apparently put "values" at the top of their priorities is surely misplaced. No, we are not going to become a theocracy, and Britney Spears is not going to have to wear a chador. America is haggling its way toward compromises on gay unions and abortion and public recognition of religion -- and neither side is going to get all it wants.

We will end up with civil partnerships for gays that are legally the same as the status of heterosexual couples, with the name "marriage" being left to civil society (including religious communities) to define. Some armistice line in the abortion fight will be established, preserving abortion in at least the first trimester, with increasingly tougher legal and medical tests for justifying it thereafter; probably partial-birth abortion will be outlawed, but there will not be a domino effect as regards women's reproductive rights. The three principles -- freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and realistic recognition of America's religious history and traditions -- will be bargained to a standstill roughly in the middle of the triangle. Religious folks in government, schools, and the courts will be able to express their views in their public offices, but only at the risk of having to allow other views, such as Hinduism, Wicca, Vodoun, and atheism, equal access. Where the compromise lines will end up won't be very different under a Republican administration than under a Democratic one. In a way everybody with any sense knows this, but is trying to establish the most extreme bargaining position in order to have more chips when the legislative game begins.

But there is a real concern underneath all the theatrical rug-market screaming that deserves to be addressed. It can best be described in terms of the doubleness of the democratic citizen.

The president of the nation himself has two roles, that of leader of his party responsible to the platform on which he ran, and sovereign representative of the whole nation. But the ordinary citizen too has two roles: as voter, tasked with the burden of decision on the candidates and issues; and as the loyal member of a nation, subject to its laws and required to support the rights of all the other citizens, including even the right of the majority to make laws with which one does not agree. The citizen must be both subjective and objective, both a decision maker and an obedient observer of the law, both an individual and a member of a collective, both skeptical about foreign policy and at the same time ready to bear arms for the nation at the behest of the majority.

Voting is the way we test how policy actually affects the individuals in the society. We must honestly vote what we want, and must therefore go to the trouble of actually deciding what we want, and thus the pain of rejecting alternatives that we might also want, but not as much. We must be partisan to be able to do anything. As voters we cannot be Hamlets, balanced between "to be or not to be", unable either to take arms against a sea of troubles or suffer in the mind the slings and arrows of fortune. As voters we cannot be honest to our ambivalence about whether to act or endure, if that means being paralyzed by our honesty. To be a voter we must hold our nose and choose the lesser of two evils. To be an active political advocate -- which is the duty of anyone with information and talents valuable to our collective decision-making process -- we must go further, and artificially suppress our doubts, making the best case we can for our own view, like a legal advocate for the prosecution or the defense.

But if in the tunnel-vision, the necessary blinkers, of partisan debate, we lose the other side of the citizen, and forget our necessary doubleness, we neglect our duty just as much as does a non-voter. There must be another side of us that accepts the wisdom of the majority, that tries to step outside of our own interests and perspectives, that is willing to work for policies we voted against. The good bargainer must fight every inch of the way, but must also have an internal picture of what an acceptable range of outcomes might be; he must be an "actor" in Hamlet's double sense, one who actually does something and one who pretends to. Hamlet does in fact end up performing his political and moral duty, after all; and he does it, as Krishna persuades Arjuna to do in the Bhagavadgita, by calmly recognizing both the need for passionate action and the vast impeturbability of the providence within which he is an ignorant player.

In the light of this analysis of the task of the citizen, some rather startling conclusions about the religious and secular voter emerge. The religious voter, who is by moral training well accustomed to separating his own personal valuations and priorities from those of God, and is thus habitually "double" already, may be a better voter and citizen than the purely "single" secular voter who has no theoretical basis for dividing his view of the world from that of the larger community. Certainly there are secular positions such as humanism and environmentalism (and Marxist class-solidarity, and racist race-solidarity) that do postulate a higher unity that we must balance against our own self-centeredness. But those positions are explicit that the "intentions" and "interests" of that larger unity are accessible and intelligible to human understanding, and thus that there exists an elite that grasps those intentions and interests, and is therefore qualified to command the rest of us.

Judeo-Christian religion -- and the deepest traditions of all religions -- insist that there is a threshold of understanding before which the human mind must fall silently to its knees and acknowledge a mystery, and accept. We cannot know the mind of providence. The Dao that can be spoken is not the Dao. We must love our neighbor and renounce our pride and recognize humility as a virtue and strength, not a weakness. And at the same time the great religions insist on the unique value and dignity of every human soul, and the importance of the drama of our actions, and even the mystery that we are redeemed in the very recognition, and thus in the very existence, of our sinfulness. Religion lets us off neither the hook of our submission to a higher mystery, nor the hook of our responsibility to act and be ourselves in all our ignorance.

"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's," said Jesus, in the full tradition of the Hebrew prophets. The context of this injunction is very interesting: he has been tested by the intellectual deconstructionists of his time, who want to know if he advocates the paying of taxes (and thus the participation in a political economy). He asks to see a coin, and inquires whose head is on it. On being told it is Caesar's, he gives his answer. The deeper point is this: if we pay taxes to Caesar because Caesar's image is on the coin and Caesar coined it, what is it that bears the image of God and must also be rendered up to the image-maker when the law requires? Since God made humankind "in his image and likeness", then human beings themselves are the tribute that God levies upon his citizens. We render coins to Caesar, and the divine part of ourselves -- God's image in us -- to God. Again, the necessary doubleness.

But secular ideologies, noble and beautiful as they often are, are always in danger of becoming pure individual selfishness, in which case the vote becomes the way that the majority loots the wealth of the minority. On the other hand, if they do postulate a higher unity (race, class, the human race, Gaia), they are in danger of dissolving the individual in the collective, "liquidating" the individual "false consciousness" that stands out from the "masses". And that postulated higher unity, that "popular Will", being the conception of human beings themselves, is in theory understandable by an elite which is thus mandated to rule.

It is no coincidence that democracy was invented by religious people -- the Greeks, the Icelanders, the Dutch, the British, the Americans. It was not invented by atheists and secular humanists, though democracy may be the environment most hospitable to atheists and humanists, and most liable to benefit from their own valuable insights. But perhaps democracy is safer in the hands of those who believe both in a higher unity whose values are finally unknowable to us, and in the personal caring and love of that higher unity for us, that values our individual decisions and our freedom. Those who are best accustomed to the pain and tension of religious "doubleness" may be those who are best qualified to handle the two paradoxes of free societies: the contradiction between my valuations and the valuations of the free market's pricing system, and the contradiction between my necessary political opinions and the verdict of the election.


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