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Religion is elephant trashing room of U.S. democratic debate

Religion is elephant trashing room of U.S. democratic debate November 23, 2021

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Much of what I read involving religion and governance ignores the elephant trashing the room.

The “elephant” is not religion itself but an assumption about it.

I’m referring to political writers with a religious bias who, while often seeming reasonable and erudite, also often tend to gloss over the faulty fundamental assumption they embrace: that supernatural realities and deities actually exist and should be considered in public policy-making.

The problem is that such chimera can never be confirmed in the real world so are perpetually moot and pointless in any rational debate.

My point for decades has been encapsulated in this question: How can someone argue convincingly about the value and importance of religion in modern governance when its very foundation — an only supposedly existent divine realm — is permanently unverifiable?

I was yet again thinking of this paradox recently while reading another academic paper in the useful research-sharing website Academe.org. The paper, by former religion professor Ronald P. Hesselgrave, Ph.D, is titled, “The Crises of Post-Truth Politics on the Left and Right: An Analysis and Response.

The paper is, in fact, less about “post-truth politics” than about how religion should be given an essential place in a secular republic’s policy debates, not because it’s necessarily true but because a lot of people seem to believe in it.

He defines “post-truth politics” as involving “the inability to rise above partisan politics and arrive at a moral consensus based on a common search for truth.” (boldface mine)

The essay is an interesting, even at times perceptive, read, marred by the fact that  Hesselgraves’ academic argument, at heart, promotes the idea that religion is real and needs to be acknowledged as real — and, thus, “respected,” as such — in public-policy discourse.

Of course, from my equally biased vantage as an atheist, my opinion is that before any discussion of faith and government policy in a secular democracy even begins, the veracity (or not) of supernatural belief needs to be clearly acknowledged. If it’s determined that religion is just an unsubstantiated assumption of believers rather than an alternatively valid and fact-based opinion, a very different discussion would ensue than if the opposite were deemed true.

But, this is not how Christian apologists approach these things. They accept what they believe, without substantive evidence, as necessarily real, irrefutable and above reproach.

In “Crisis of Post-Truth Politics,” Dr. Hesselgraves explains:

“In this essay, I have argued that our society is currently locked in a battle between two totalizing political ideologies or ‘plausibility structures.’ On the one hand, there are those on the liberal left who use the plausibility structure of tolerance based on relativism and the myth of state ‘neutrality’ to legitimize the privatization of religion and the public hegemony of secularism. On the other hand, many on the religious right use the plausibility structure of

Christian nationalism based on the myths of a ‘Christian America’ and America as a ‘chosen nation’ to legitimize the public hegemony of Christianity and Christian values. In the conflict between these two false narratives the notion of ‘truth’ is the primary casualty—that is, ‘truth’ becomes not an end but simply a means to a desired political end in this intense cultural war.”

Referring again to Hesselgraves’ definition of “post-truth politics,” my question is, how can anyone “rise above partisan politics and arrive at a moral consensus based on a common search for truth,” when believers’ version of “truth” — the existence of the supernatural — is effectively unknowable.

“With this loss of a concern for truth there is also the loss of a commitment to shared values and the belief that through honest and civil public debate we can arrive at some shared understanding of the common good. Without the ability to persuade, politics simply de-generates into a Nietzschean, nihilistic exercise of raw political power, intimidation, and an arbitrary silencing of those with whom we disagree. When this happens, our democratic institutions are threatened.”

I ask, what are the “shared values” of which he speaks that ostensibly lead to “some shared understanding of the common good”?

For believers, one of those “shared values” is surely the quixotic belief that Americans universally understand that they owe their existence and its continuation to an omnipotent deity, not random, unfeeling fate (which is actually the case). What about atheists and agnostics?

So, in believers’ eyes, according to Hesselgraves, for an “honest and civil public debate” to occur, nonbelievers must acknowledge the veracity and validity of supernatural faith to accommodate “civil” discussion. How “shared” is that?

How about another tack, where Americans acknowledge that the Founding Fathers envisioned a secular republic whose government systems and institutions would be based on reason and empirical knowledge? And to acknowledge the inappropriateness of injecting religious ideology, which is to say magical thinking, into practical debates on how best to govern the American people.

In the conclusion to his essay, Hesselgraves echoes Ron Sanders 2018 book, “After the Election: Prophetic Politics in a Secular Age,” which recommends how Christians “ought to rethink the role of the church in a pluralistic democracy.” Sanders says Christians, particularly evangelicals, should “return to the church’s prophetic roots as a ‘community in exile’ … [that can] ‘speak truth to power.’” There’s that “truth” again.

My question, once more, is how can supernatural believers have the objective authority to speak “truth” to power when the core “truth” of their faith — that godly realms and divines exist — is objectively unconfirmable and most probably a fantasy?

Governance should be tethered to the real world, should it not, not to a dreamy, immortal realm no one has ever plausibly encountered. Gods don’t pay taxes or fill-in potholes, do they?

Which is not to say Christians and other believers in divinities shouldn’t have a role or a say in our secular democracy. They most certainly should. But their gods should be marooned in their hearts and churches when debating how we Americans ought to be governed in the here and now.

Hesselgraves promotes Sanders’ “better way forward for addressing the thorny issue of the relationship between faith and politics,” referencing how Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King used “religious language and democratic language together … to call America to be more faithful to its promises as a country.”

He suggests that such kumbaya platitudes will help us achieve “the vision of E pluribus unum (of many, one).

Yet, until religion is excised from debates about practical secular governance, the increasingly pluralistic United States will have a tough time becoming the idealized “one” people in a more perfect union.

Christians believe that ungodly people lack moral guardrails necessary for a noble nation, but they’re wrong. I’m an atheist, yet I even treat my cat with nearly sacred respect.


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