The Religious Right is wrong, and we all know it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have important lessons to teach secular voters working to build an alternative moral vision for the future of politics.
That’s the lesson author and sociologist Jeffrey Guhin wants his readers to take away from his research into “how moral life works” — how it develops and functions, where it interacts with power.
His recent Slate piece zeroes in on the relationship between belief, broadly defined, and political advocacy. His conclusion?
Secularists need to be more comfortable with pushing a moral agenda.
For decades, terms like “values voters” and “Moral Majority” have made the idea of morality a right-wing buzzword, often with the corresponding implication that the left is immoral, “godless,” or unconcerned with moral principles.
But non-religious voters are every bit as values-motivated as the right; they just don’t like to talk about it in terms of their beliefs and agendas. The idea of a political agenda sounds crass, the language of “values” has become associated with some repugnant points of view, and… well, we’re non-believers so what does belief matter to us?
But Guhin posits that beliefs are of paramount importance in any political action:
Belief isn’t unique to religion. How many of us still believe the American presidency or Congress can survive another four years of Donald Trump? How many of us have lost faith in democracy itself? The religious right is really good at recognizing the contingency of their beliefs and doing what they can to protect them. And secularists would do well to do the same.
As slaughterers of sacred cows, we’re primed to flinch at the idea of “protecting” beliefs. If they can’t withstand the cold light of day, why should we protect them? But Guhin has a certain point: Beliefs produce actions. Just as you can’t get a bunch of protesters lining up outside of an abortion clinic without first convincing them that abortion is murder, you can’t get a bunch of atheists to fight for a democracy they believe is fundamentally beyond helping without appealing to their (forgive me) better angels. There’s a reason the group that launched earlier this week was called Humanists for Biden, not Atheists for Biden. It centers around shared values.
So how does belief — religious or otherwise — happen? Guhin posits that it grows out of community:
It’s in those moments of just being with people who believe like you that your moral universe starts to feel true. That’s what secularists need too. As a secular sociologist, I would disagree with the religious right that the source of their moral energy is God. I think the source of their moral energy is these ongoing interactions that affirm their commitments.
… A commitment to justice is not a hypothesis that can be falsified through rigorous argument; it’s a moral faith that needs support through like-minded believers.
That’s something non-believers often struggle to replicate. Efforts to create “atheist church” have faltered; it’s hard to create a strong community around something you don’t believe. If we want to be successful, Guhin argues, we should stop trying to force secular moral communities and start bringing moral imperatives to the communities in which we already exist.
But that means “pushing a moral agenda” — and that’s where we get uncomfortable.
The rhetoric of the right has painted us further into a corner. While appealing to the authority of their God as justification for hard-headed positions, they love to complain about “moral relativism” — the idea that morality is individual and varied across human societies, not rooted in some nebulous “natural order” — as the hallmark of the wishy-washy left.
But take a single step towards a definitive secular moral value and watch them start to scream about our “agenda,” our overreach, our willingness to use whatever power we have at our disposal to force them to live in a society that matches our moral convictions.
Too often our response is to shy away from power at all. We hate the idea of authoritarianism, so we hate the way we see ourselves when they start projecting their own authoritarian ideals onto us.
Instead, Guhin calls on us to start owning it:
We secularists need to own up to the fact that we’re using our power to change people, sometimes through arguments, but often through changing the social world enough that what previously seemed sinful or strange now seems normal and good… I think the answer, at least for secularists, is to simply own up to the fact that we disagree with the religious right about moral goods and we are using our power against them.
We think it less cruel and will cause less suffering to teach kids to respect gay rights, for example, to read them stories about same-sex parents, even perhaps read by a drag queen. We think that reading these stories is neither cruel nor causing suffering, but rather using our power — the power of the institution, the power of the state, the power of the teacher — to impart a moral good.
The moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but only if we decide to bend it.
Check out Guhin’s article for a fuller explanation of the dynamics at play, including the desire for a higher moral authority and the way the Religious Right uses it as a political tactic. He also has a book forthcoming from Oxford University Press, Agents of God: Boundaries of Authority in Muslim and Christian Schools, exploring his conclusions about how private parochial schools “reproduce their moral commitments” in the next generation of young believers.
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