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Lions Roar : January 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 41 American culture is being taken over by militant secu- larism. He characterizes the emerging alliance between more traditional Catholics and evangelical Christian Protestants as “one of the huge stories in U.S. poli- tics—it’s a political realignment of major propor- tions.” When the religious mix is adjusted to include conservative, observant Catholics, who are divided between the two parties, the total reaches about forty per cent of the electorate. To illustrate, Lugo says that the key electoral con- stituencies of both major parties are now the two most highly religious segments of the U.S. public—black Americans on the Democratic side and white evangelical Protestants on the Republican side, together represent- ing more than a quarter of the electorate. “The views of the two communities on religion and public life are vir- tually identical,” he says. “They differ on economic poli- cy, they differ on foreign policy. But in talking about reli- gion in public life, about taking religion into account in public policy and the use of religion in political cam- paigns, these are the two communities from which we get the highest favorables in the country.” Lugo contrasts the 1960 presidential election, when John F. Kennedy had to travel into the Deep South’s Protestant Bible Belt to promise that his Catholicism would have no influence on his public life, to the 2004 campaign, when Catholic bishops cheered on by evan- gelical Protestant leaders told Democratic candidate John Kerry to pay attention to Vatican teachings on abortion. “The tussle between Kerry and the bishops” took on huge significance because conservative Catholics are divided between the two parties and because many of them are concentrated in important swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. “It’s a fas- cinating reconfiguring and reshuffling of religion and political events in the U.S. What has caused it? My whole sense is that it’s a fear that a very militant secu- larism is driving religion from public life and increas- ingly besieging faithful believers.” In overwhelming numbers, Americans approve of politicians talking publicly about their religious beliefs and welcome the presence of religious discourse in public policy debate. Three-quarters of Americans think there’s nothing wrong with George W. Bush say- ing he relies on his religious beliefs to make decisions. Half of Americans say they would not vote for an athe- ist. Nearly sixty per cent believe journalists should question politicians about how their religious beliefs might affect their decisions. And, as Armstrong says, whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more absolute and the middle ground of compromise and flexibility erodes. To fundamentalists, she says, tol- erance of the “other” is a sin. “This goes to feminism, which is seen as a visceral threat. Fundamentalism is a revolt against modernity and one of the characteristics of modernity has been the emancipation of women. Fundamentalists in every religion tend to overplay the traditional role of women as part of their countercul- tural riposte. They talk in frank ways of feminism’s castrating effect. This goes to the absolute hysteria about the gay syndrome. This goes to abortion, which has become a symbol of everything that is wrong about modernity.” Her two prescriptions? America—and Britain is just as culpable, she says—is alienating Muslims, who were initially horri- fied by September 11. It is strength- ening Al-Qaeda by the Iraq war and its awful aftermath. The U.S. and Britain must change their foreign policies, the first step being to find a just solution to the Palestinian conflict and the second being to stop supporting “appalling rulers in the region like the Saudis, like Saddam himself, who was supported by the West for a long time. Iraqis aren’t stupid. They remember this. To quote Thomas Friedman, we’ve used these people like so many gas stations. As long as they give us cheap oil and support Israel, we don’t mind what happens in their country.” Secondly, she says, “We need to reclaim religion from the religious politicians who run it, who are just like other politicians—they speak for their own party and they can’t be sufficiently pluralistic.” Recently, she told a Scottish interviewer, “Religion is not about belief; we’ve got hung up on that concept since the Enlightenment in the West. Religion is about doing things that change you. I think a lot of people just want to rinse their minds of all this rotten theology they’ve been force-fed that’s been bad and thoughtless and careless and heartless. Here’s the world crying out for religion to be reclaimed from the terrorists—that needs a message of compassion. And instead there’s a lot of very facile, lazy, inadequate theology, making people learn catechisms, coming out with glib remarks, like ‘God knows what he’s doing.’ Or just arguing on abstruse points of doctrine. It’s nuts. It’s not surprising people are sick of it. I’m sick of it myself!” What will come of the spiritual quest she pre- scribes? “I don’t think it will be a belief in a conven- tional God, but that’s of no interest or importance.” © Fundamentalism, she says, is the natural byproduct that follows establishment of a secular, liberal society. “To every secular advance, there is a fundamentalist riposte. We have to be grown-up about it. All major social change is contested.”