Posted by: Jeff | August 26, 2009

Get Religion!

In his thoughts on Kennedy’s passing, Jonathan Cohn makes an eloquent point.

We live in a strange political moment, one in which conservatives talk freely–and instinctively–of their causes in moral terms, whether it’s a matter of life or death, or a matter simply of death taxes. To regulate the practices of business or to cede a woman’s control over pregnancy; to erect walls between church and state or to raise taxes on capital gains. All of these things, in the conservative mind, are evil. And they are not afraid to say so. Liberals are not so quick to invoke morality. We call up statistics and, if we’re feeling indignant, we’ll take a stand on integrity and honesty. But we seem strangely uncomfortable making naked appeals to the public’s sense of right and wrong–whether out of a confidence that our policy analysis will prevail or a fear that the public will not see things the way we do.

My own two cents on this: I have a long rant about how the embrace of secularism and the abandonment of religion is killing the soul of the left and the liberal cause. Maybe someday I’ll write it. That’s probably a good deal farther than Cohn would go. And it’s not really that I think we all need to get our asses back to church and declare ourselves believers. (Though I wouldn’t object.) It’s more that by voluntarily cutting ourselves off from that foundational cultural and spiritual resource, by trying to shuffle religion off to the realm of the purely private, we’re letting our ability to speak in moral terms slowly atrophy.

Morality does not arise out of nothing. It is rooted in something that is not necessarily irrational, but it is pre-rational. Religion in general, and in our own western civilization Christianity specifically, is the primary mechanism by which human beings connect to those basic spiritual drivers which compel us to change our societies for the better. (And hey, given that’s the case, religion might even be true!) It’s not something every liberal and leftist needs to join, but it is something we should all respect and a source we can draw upon. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, Gandhi and the fight against British colonialism and the Polish Catholic resistance to communism.

We liberals would do well to remember that our cause is to defend and lift up the people Christ called “the least of these.” The ones in whom we come closest to seeing the face of God. And I suspect Christ would find the notion – loudly touted by many conservatives – that our duty to care for our neighbor somehow stops at the statehouse door to be strange in the extreme. I don’t know what Kennedy’s religious inclinations were, but he was definitely on that same page.

When he [Kennedy] looked at America, he saw a country full of people made vulnerable–by circumstance of birth, economic misfortune, illness, or injury. Some were middle-class; some were poor. In either case, he believed, we had an obligation, as a nation, to protect them–if not to render them whole, then at least to make them safe. And so he spoke out– for universal health care, for civil rights, for aid to people with disabilities, for more generous assistance to the poor. And when opponents criticized those moves, because they meant bigger government or bigger taxes, Kennedy didn’t deny the charge. He justified it, in a way few Democrats would dare do today. It was, he said, the way Americans fulfill their duty to one another.

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