Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Biblical Wisdom


In Today's New York Times, David Brooks suggests that we should applaud the insertion of "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance because of the manner in which religion has enriched our nation. (Never mind that the socialist minister who wrote the pledge didn't add the words "Under God", and and objected to changes to his work: ""He thought (the changes) spoiled the poetry of it," John Bellamy [grandson of the author] said. "He was a pretty stern guy. Everybody has some sense of humor, but I don't think he had much."")

Brooks' argument boils down to this: He read a book, "A Stone of Hope", which argues that the civil rights movement would not have succeeded as a secular movement, agreed with its thesis, and thus feels free to apply the same thesis to every single event and occurrence in world history.
If you believe that the separation of church and state means that people should not bring their religious values into politics, then, if Chappell is right, you have to say goodbye to the civil rights movement. It would not have succeeded as a secular force.

But the more interesting phenomenon limned in Chappell's book is this: King had a more accurate view of political realities than his more secular liberal allies because he could draw on biblical wisdom about human nature. Religion didn't just make civil rights leaders stronger — it made them smarter.
Here, of course, we encounter a major flaw in Brooks' analysis. The Bible is not the only source of analysis of human nature, and the depiction of human nature many derive from the Bible is far from complete and may well prove incorrect.

While, as Brooks argues, the Bible's stories can be read even by secular individuals as allegories about human nature, the lessons to be drawn are often subject to debate - yet religious adherents of a particular viewpoint are often not interested in that debate, instead asserting a particular interpretation as "correct" and claiming that all other interpretations are wrong. For no small part of this nation's history, "God-fearing, church-going Christians" were slave-owners, and were assured by their ministers not only that slavery was consistent with the Bible, but that it was ordained by the Bible. Many members of the Ku Klux Klan were also devoutly religious - even as they terrorized and lynched their darker skinned neighbors. Any analysis of the role of religion in the civil rights movement should also consider the role of religion as a counter-force - the role of religion in the perpetuation of slavery and in opposition to the civil rights movement.

At some point it should become clear that while the civil rights movement (and women's suffrage movement - which again had to overcome religious authorities who asserted that the Bible dictated that women were to be in a servient role) benefited enormously from its association with devoutly religious individuals, and many significant players in the movement got through some very dark times by relying upon their faith, the post hoc analysis of the role of religioin offered by Brooks ignores the fact that the religous values at issue were far from universal.

Brooks then proceeds with an argument that is simply absurd: that "biblical wisdom may offer something that secular thinking does not - not pat answers, but a way to think about things." Perhaps when in college Brooks avoided courses on philosophy and even political theory on the basis that they weren't sufficiently practical. But it is difficult for me to imagine how any graduate of even a mediocre college could make such an assertion with a straight face. Brooks attempts to explain his bizarre assertion:
For example, it's been painful to watch thoroughly secularized Europeans try to grapple with Al Qaeda. The bombers declare, "You want life, and we want death"- a (fanatical) religious statement par excellence. But thoroughly secularized listeners lack the mental equipment to even begin to understand that statement. They struggle desperately to convert Al Qaeda into a political phenomenon: the bombers must be expressing some grievance. This is the path to permanent bewilderment.
Okay.... so now the problem is that religious "fanatics" adhere to their mindset in defiance of all reason, and are not willing to entertain ideas or concepts that conflict with their worldview? And if that is the case, is it not inconsistent with his prior argument? The adherents of religion at issue don't exactly stand for progress on the civil rights front, after all. And what is his solution - a war of religions, where one set of religious ideologues attempts to extirpate another, as the sole solution dictated by their "biblical" understanding of human nature? Perhaps he wants to schedule joint Bible study sessions between U.S. political leaders and members of Al Qaeda? (So I don't have to explain it later in the comments, that last question was sarcasm.)

Brooks also argues that Europeans have a monolithic mindset, have no understanding of religion, and thus cannot grasp that you cannot reason with religious "fanatics" (his word). If I were inclined to again be sarcastic, I would point out that some of the Europeans at issue view the likes of GW "Jesus is my favorite political philosopher" / "God wants me to run for President" Bush and John Ashcroft ("Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.") as religious fanatics - so, by Brooks analysis, they can justifiably conclude that there's no point in trying to reason with them? I might also point out that one particular European, um, secularist? takes strong issue with the Bush Administration's approach. (But what could a European possibly know about the Bible?) But, more seriously, what is he suggesting that the Europeans - who for the most part have vastly more experience than the U.S. in dealing with extremists and terrorism - should do? Surely not "accept the truth of fundamentalist Islam" - but then we're back to the fact that there's more than one way to interpret the Bible.

And we must also confront the fact that if strong religious views transform Muslims into irrational fanatics, as Brooks clearly suggests, perhaps Brooks is contradicting himself in suggesting that religion holds the greater answers to human nature and the problems of society.

Brooks closes with the suggestion,
The lesson I draw from all this is that prayer should not be permitted in public schools, but maybe theology should be mandatory. Students should be introduced to the prophets, to the Old and New Testaments, to the Koran, to a few of the commentators who argue about these texts.

From this perspective, what gets recited in the pledge is the least important issue before us. Understanding what the phrase "one nation under God" might mean — that's the important thing. That's not proselytizing; it's citizenship.
First, obviously, Brooks is either blithely ignorant or chooses to ignore why the type of "comparative religions" class he proposes is not more widely available in United States public schools. Simply put, there are many areas in this Country where large numbers of people cannot accept the secular notion that religion - and more specifically, Christianity - can be an academic subject, with "competing" religions treated alongside the one they prefer, as if the others have merit. (And some school districts use "Bible as Literature"-type classes as a subterfuge for proselytization.)

Brooks' final words don't really make sense in the context of his larger argument. If he is arguing that the words "under God" should be offered not as religious indoctrination but as a history lesson, why should they be recited in the Pledge as opposed to being taught in a "history of religions" class? Besides - who does he think has a clearer notion (right or wrong) of what it means to be "one nation under God" - the typical U.S. Christian, or one of the Islamic "fanatics" he previously mentioned?

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