What's a Liberal?
What makes a liberal a liberal, and a conservative a conservative? A perceptive book review in the Miami Herald implicitly raises the question.
It's a review of a couple of books from "a successful new literary sub-genre: the liberal, Bible-based counterattack." The books under review are Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right and Dan Wakefield's The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. To these two, add Rev. Jim Wallis's God's Politics: Why the Right Gets Its Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, and a forthcoming title Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, a "humor" title by a not very funny liberal Christian writer, Becky Garrison.
All these books want to wrestle out of the hands of religious conservatives the claim to represent the most authentic Biblical politics. The book I'm supposed to start in on writing next month (for Doubleday) is Why God Is a Republican: An Honest Look at the Politics of the Bible. These liberal books could all be strung together under the title Why God is a Democrat.
Who's right? Of course there's always some self-righteous killjoy who will harrumph, "God isn't a Democrat or a Republican!" OK, OK, obviously true. But the question still stands: If forced to choose, would you say a conservative or a liberal political outlook comes closer to representing the politics of the Bible.
Readers, please give me your thoughts. Just don't be a wimp and duck the question.
My own view starts from the observation that clearly there is something, a deeper issue or concern, that unites the seemingly disparate collection of opinions we call liberalism. And there is a deeper issue or concern that unites the opinions we call conservative. There must be, otherwise how can we explain the strange fact that if you ask someone for his view on, say, gun control, from this you can nearly always guess what his views will be on taxes, abortion, and immigration. What's one got to do with the others?
It's not for nothing that you meet few genuinely eclectic political types. Few people mix and match political opinions of the left and right. Generally most of us line up on one side or the other. And you can't explain this with, again, the self-righteous harrumph that "Well, most people are sheep, they don't think for themselves--unlike me!" Because obviously there are many liberals and conservatives alike who transparently are not sheep, who obviously do think for themselves, and yet they accept the whole package of views associated with their ideological community.
My favorite explanation, which I've heard articulated best by Michael Medved, holds that what unites liberal positions on apparently unrelated issues is materialism.
In almost every familiar liberal political position, there is what you might call the privileging of a materialist perspective over a non-materialist one. By materialism I don't mean greed for luxuries but rather a single-minded focus on material stuff.
Some examples include:
Gun control: liberalism sees the material artifact (the gun) as the problem. Unwanted pregnancies: liberalism sees a material solution (abortion) to the problem rather than a spiritual one. Gay rights: liberalism sees a material substrate (the hypothetical "gay gene") as determining sexuality and sexual activity rather than moral choices. Crime and punishment: liberalism sees sickness and other biological problems (heredity) as determining criminality rather than, again, moral choice. End-of-life medical issues: liberalism sees the human individual as a purely material being that, once its brain has deteriorated to a certain point, may be ethically killed just like any other animal. And so on.
This, by the way, may help explain why intelligent design is currently being fought over so fiercely in the courts and in the media. Darwin's evolutionary theory is the keystone of the modern "religion" of materialism, a/k/a secularism. It provides confirmation, in the form of an origins narrative, for materialism in the same way the story of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis (which may be understood in more important ways than a simple literal reading) underlies Biblical religion.
If you undermine people's faith in the myth at their religion's roots, the superstructure is in danger of collapse. To the extent Darwinism's influence in the culture is weakened, the roots of liberal social policies are cut off from their source of nourishment. The political importance of intelligent design is, then, potentially huge.
The Good, the Bad, and...the Religious
In an interview in the Boston Globe, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz tries to uncouple religion from morality. Actually he goes much further than merely saying you don't have to be religious to be moral, which is obvious. Quoth Dershowitz: "You need not to have religion to have morality. Morality based on religion is often no morality at all. If you do it because of heaven or hell, or because an instruction book told you to, it's not morality. It's morality when you have decided yourself, without benefits or threats, that this is the right thing to do."
I don't know how many variations I've heard on this basic theme which tries to deny that religion has anything positive to contribute to a society's moral tone. Folks like Dershowitz are entitled to their opinions, but let's at least recognize them as mere opinions with zero basis in empiricism.
Empirically--meaning, based onhard evidence derived from scientific observation--we actually know that Dershowitz is wrong. A person may be moral without being religious, but within a society or a culture, religious individuals are statistically more likely to espouse moral viewpoints than non-religious individuals. This has been shown by sociologist Rodney Stark from studies of peoples around the globe.
The hard data may be found in Chapter 7 of Stark's book Exploring the Religious Life. The same material may be found in an academic journal article by Stark, in PDF form, here.
The new Matisyahu album, Youth, came out yesterday and I have not heard it mainly because I’ve always found reggae a repetitive bore and I would so much like to like Matisyahu’s music. Rolling Stone, indeed, gives the album a mixed review but the talk is that Youth will rocket to platinum status in short order, making the 26-year-old artist the best known Lubavitch hasid since the late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Good for him--which I say mainly because I’d love to see Chabad catapulted to greater visibility as a result, this organization that is the most valuable Jewish group in the country and that offers a lesson to Christians as well.