Making Sense of Leftist Political Discourse as a Religious Believer

Yesterday, I read a really interesting post by one of my favorite undergrad profs, Michael Berube. In this post, he questions why people in the Democratic party (the DLC is a prominent example) and on the left keep insisting that we need to show a greater respect for religion in the political system. His basic point is that religion gets plenty of respect (he cites statistics that while 95 percent of people would vote for a Catholic for president, only 45 percent would vote for an atheist), that statements of religious conviction are most often used as a conversation stopper, and so he’s wondering what is really motivating these claims:

But I see no evidence whatsoever that “persons of faith” are discouraged in any way from testifying to their faith in American political life, which is why complaints about Democrats’ indifference or hostility to religion strike me as so very disingenuous. These complaints can’t possibly be about hostility to religion in American politics, I think. And when they come from the left side of the spectrum, they can’t possibly be about trying to win over voters on the religious right. Nor do they seem to be centrally concerned about issues of war and peace — or even the minimum wage. Nor do I see religious progressives arguing for greater discrimination against gays and lesbians. So I’m left to wonder: is this conversation-stopping conversation all about abortion, in the end? Because when political liberals and moderates ask atheists like me to give even more weight to religious beliefs in the public square, I can hardly believe that they’re merely asking me to reply, “gee, I’m impressed — you have a really deep, sincere faith.”

Go read the post because my summary is not really doing it justice.

In my favorite comment, Abbey Kelleyite argues that (1) religious people are often irritated by atheist conclusions that faith is in conflict with reason, and that (2) perhaps Berube is underestimating the need to appeal to moderates and swing voters.

My sense of the matter was along the lines of Abbey: that religious moderates are bothered as much by getting lumped in with fundamentalists (translation: religious crazies) as they are with fundamentalists themselves, and that secularists/atheists/agnostics/etc should differentiate between fundamentalists and those who want to make some of their political decisions using their religious morality.

So, anyway, I’m really interested in what the rest of y’all have to say (especially our moderate readers who may feel “disrespected”). Are there anti- or non-religious discourses that bother you, and if they do exist, why do they bother you?

Generally, what do y’all make of the conclusions in Berube’s post? How do you make sense of the different arguments about religion in leftist political discourse?


  1. I think you’re right. Some on the left – especially among the chattering classes – lump all religion together and see any “abuse” or “problem” as characteristic of religion in general. Certainly this doesn’t describe the majority of people. But what people are complaining about is a small elite that characterizes many Democrats (just as one could say the same about the chattering classes for Republicans)

  2. Thanks for the link; that is a thought-provoking post. I will confess to having concerns about the anti-religious left, some of whom seem to have swallowed the argument made by many conservatives that religion and conservativism go naturally together, and therefore define themselves in opposition to religion. My impression is that there are religious people who might be inclined to vote for liberal candidates (not in spite of their faith, but even because of it), but who are turned off by anti-religious rhetoric. I know that I get frustrated when some of those who have political orientations similar to mine speak about religion with condescension and contempt, and conflate liberal politics with a renunciation of the (presumably brainwashed) religious faith of the unenlightened masses.

  3. Well, I will admit to being a big hypocrite about this. I am in favor of people using religious arguments to support causes I like, but when they do it in support of causes I don’t like, they are all a bunch of zealots and religious nuts. Fortunately for me, I have plenty of company here in my whited sepulchre, since just about everybody is a hypocrite in this way. I think it really does depend on whose sacred cow is being butchered at the moment.

    I think people on the political left have a special challenge. If I want to argue in favor of laissez-faire economics, I can simply invoke natural law. But if I argue against laissez-faire economics, and in favor of equality, I have to make the case as to why equality is desireable, or morally right. It is hard to go very far down that road without calling upon the moral authority of the Bible. I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master at this.

  4. I read the Berube post and really agreed with the conversation stopping, “I take this political position because I believe it is the will of God.”
    We can’t have a political discourse that begins this way. We have to start with things we all agree with. Like Mark IV, I’m guilty of calling the religious right a bunch of zealots (at least occassionally) when it suits my purposes, and yet being a zealot myself (will not divulge specific issues here) a time or two.
    I will admit that my opinions on this have been shaped, at least in part, by a dedication to the West Wing (may it rest in peace), my Poli Sci studies at BYU, and a decided dislike of the current administration, though not in that particular order.
    I blame the media in part for creating or maintaining the trap of religious dichotomy, the right has it, and the left doesn’t. (which is why the the GOP South will accept Leiberman or Romney when they aren’t “Christian” as the Bible Belt defines it.) It seems that the right has defined itself “for God” and the left has therefore been defined (if not defined itself) “against God.”
    I echo the statements that a person who doesn’t believe in God is perceived as immoral. That seems ridiculous to me.
    I think the left has two choices in the upcoming election now that religion is such a hot topic (as it has been for years now, I know)
    1. They tout their own religiosity, somehow separate and disctinct from the right, or the same as the right, but drawing different conclusions.
    2. They reframe the religious argument to “moral vs immoral” and discuss the war (occupation) in Iraq, etc.
    I think the reframing idea will have more success, especially coupled with a clever political ad like Berube suggests, with religious conversation stoppers that indicate how inane it is to bring religion into politics in a personal way.
    Regardless, I think the leftist rhetoric of anti-religion (whatever exists and is not created by the right) must stop. There are simply too many people that are offended by the snobbishness of these arguments. Additionally, the right has capitalized on the anti-religion dialogue with books like this (which I was repulsed by in Barnes and Noble one day)
    My fear is that the left won’t get a united message about religion (either, “we have it”, or “it doesn’t matter in politics”) before the election and we’ll lose swing voters, an hence the election.
    Where are you, Jed Bartlett?

  5. Jessawhy, I’ve read elsewhere in the liberal blogosphere the argument that in a democratic society people with religious beliefs have to be able to argue their morality in secular terms (or terms that do not apply solely to those with their own religious beliefs). While my religious beliefs do inform my political beliefs, I think there is something to be said for this argument.

    I also like the idea of framing things in terms of immorality vs. morality (which I see most Democrats trying to do in one way or another). I think what we need to do is try to be more trusting of one another’s moral compasses. For example, religious people need to trust that non-relgious people can have a very strong moral compass, and as Lynnette pointed out, atheists/agnostics should try to assume that religious people are not fundamentally misguided, unenlightened, etc. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

  6. Clark, I definitely agree that there are quite a few on the left who are religious and/or respectful of religion, which makes it interesting to me why so many of us still believe that the Democratic party is by its very nature hostile to religion (like you and Lynnette pointed out, there are certainly some, but I wonder how many there actually are).

    It goes back to the interesting point that Lynnette raises–that perhaps we have bought into the rhetoric framed by the conservatives that they are the party of faith/religion.

  7. Mark IV, I think it’s very possible to make arguments for equality without referencing the Bible (though I think for some people appeals to the Bible are going to be more persuasive).


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