How the Left Lost Religion

18 Jan

One day a year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr still dominates the airwaves. Yesterday was his day, and news organizations fill much of the non-prime time with filler of King speeches, interviews and stories. As I drove around yesterday doing my errands, listening to excerpts of King’s addresses on the radio, I was struck once again by his choice of language and tone. Allow me to choose, as representative of much of his oratory, this paragraph from the Presidential Address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on what must have been a sweltering August 16th, 1967:

Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout White Power! — when nobody will shout Black Power!—but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.

This paragraph has it all. An expectation of civil equality. A plea to move past racial divisions to “human power.” A call to stand firm, and an implication that “dissatisfaction” may take some time. And most notable to me, in direct contradiction with today’s America, constant, eloquent, unapologetic Biblical imagery and religious language. This is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, after all. Which made me ask: when did the Left loose its faith?

I seek no self-serving whitewashing of history, and I certainly won’t try to turn an ardent pacifist into a supporter of foreign wars (note to the Pentagon: next MLK Day, crow about the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and link it to King’s legacy). The civil rights movement was firmly Liberal, and conservatives were on the wrong side of history. But King’s movement was also a tidal wave of faith with a religious conviction that eventually justice would be done, according to God’s will. It is impossible to escape God in King’s writings and speeches. The Left had no issue with that 40 years ago.

Obviously, much has changed. If I may summarize the current political situation, from a lefty perspective, it would go something like this: smart people are Liberals because they think rationally, and Liberalism is inherently so. Dumb people are conservative and Republican because they are sheeple that believe in God (and guns). Liberals are atheists because believing the earth is 6000 years old is dumb, and Liberals are smart. They have a study to prove it. Smart people don’t need God, they have Humanism and the Flying Spagehtti Monster.

Of all the alignments of ideology with political party in the last forty years, the disappearance of the religious Liberal is one of the least recognized. The Religious Right is famously faithful, conservative, and reliably Republican, in numbers almost as stark as African-Americans are Democratic. In response to this political power, atheists have become more vocal and public, releasing popular books and becoming more fervent, seemingly not only in their nonbelief, but also in their dismissal of the faithful (see: Dumb Sheeple, above).

Yes, most Democratic politicians maintain a faithful public persona. And the African-American civil rights community never left their churches. But increasingly religiousness also cleaves along political boundaries, at least among the leadership, spokespeople, and pundits. Too-Catholic John Kennedy has been replaced by Bill Maher. Liberal Hawks who opposed the Soviet Union because of its godlessness have been replaced with activists equating Muslim and Christian crimes in the spat over the Islamic Cultural Center near the Ground Zero (I’m not trying to argue the merits here, please, only characterize the tone). On issues of prayer in school, the 10 Commandments at courthouses, abortion, etc, the loudest voices could be as easily described as Atheist versus Christian as Left versus Right.

So, I wonder, how do modern Liberals view this icon’s religious faith, now the public preserve of the Right? It is certainly glossed over in polite conversation. Is it an embarrassment? An inconvenience? An allowed imperfection? I am honestly looking forward to the answer in the comments below.

47 Responses to “How the Left Lost Religion”

  1. Ethan January 18, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    What is interesting to me is that King’s religiosity was as sincere as the religiosity of his detractors; a lot of white Southern Christians had no problem squaring their love of God and their hate of ‘niggers.’  So, it seems to me that the notion of religiosity being always good is a canard.  In King’s case, it was profound and informed his arguments and their articulation, but the same set of beliefs can clearly fuel division, too.  Net, it is a wash.  That we should treat people equally doesn’t have to be justified by some elaboration beyond “Hey, *I* like being treated equally, ergo…”  But Rev (& Dr.) MLK was a product of his time and place, and yes: we were a more religious country 40 years ago, and he was a religious leader, leveraging his religion for social justice. His religiosity, to this liberal, is neither embarrassing, nor inconvenient nor an imperfection: it simply is.

    I’ll leave your obviously over-the-top and intended to be provocative paragraph for someone else to take up; it’s such an ridiculous oversimplification I can’t even figure out where to start… maybe with “Well, you couldn’t possibly understand, being a religious conservative?”  

  2. Brian Castner January 18, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    I am not trying to impose a value judgement about religiosity being “good” or “bad” (how do you make a value judgement at all without faith – another discussion) – I am simply observing it. MLK was not just faithful, he could hardly say a sentence in public without referencing God.

    And I find your basic “meh” response unsatisying because as my (correctly assumed) over the top, snarky paragraph points out, the religiousness of the Right is noted by the Left not as some random attribute, but indicitive of how dumb they are.

  3. BobbyCat January 18, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Obviously the world is a much more complex place than the world we learned about in kindergarten. As we grew older and learned more, our understanding of the world matured. And hopefully, to learn is to grow and learning never stops.

    The same is not always true of religion, however. Many people still believe in the religion that they learned in catechism. Some people still believe there is an invisible man who lives in the sky who loves us very much but if you break one his cardinal rules, you will be punished by fire for eternity. For many, that’s not love, it’s torture. For many, all the complex rules imposed by religions have been replaced by morality and ethics – that being a good person is more important than the tenets religion. The Sermon on the Mount, ie, the ‘golden rule’, is a good guide. That is, treating others the way you wish to be treated is a pretty good way to live. I believe if you do that, the rest will take care of itself. Martin Luther King is honored because he was a good person, not just because of his religious beliefs.

    It’s hard to ignore the hypocrisy on the right – wrapping themselves in the flag, while holding a bible and praising god, then telling their less fortunate neighbors to go to hell and fend for themselves. The ‘golden rule’ of the right is “I’ve got mine, so screw you”.

  4. Alan Bedenko January 18, 2011 at 8:52 am #

    I don’t think anyone glosses over King’s religiousness – his name is still routinely prefaced, after all, by “The Reverend”. 

    The difference? King used religion and God and Jesus to argue for good and positive and progressive ideals. How could governments not treat blacks and whites as equals under the law if God had created them equal, and they are equal in His eyes? By contrast, religion is used today by the right to widen divides between people, and to engender hatred.  We cannot allow gays to marry because the Bible refers to what they do as an “abomination” in an obscure passage somewhere

    I think you would be surprised to find that many liberals believe in God and are active in their respective churches, but either (a) do not agree with church teachings that cast certain portions of society aside as unworthy of civil rights; or (b) belong to denominations that are themselves socially liberal, like the UCC or the UU.  In the United States, however, the most politically powerful denominations are unfortunately those that are the least tolerant of, e.g., homosexuality and other touchstone culture war issues.

    So, when the Southern Baptist Convention (which has its genesis (so to speak) in advocating for the Biblical correctness of American slavery) takes positions on social issues that are intolerant at best and hateful at worst, liberals consider that to be dumb.  Because frankly if two gay guys or women want to marry, it’s really no skin off anyone’s nose and to work so hard and spend so much money and to advocate so hatefully against such a thing seems utterly ridiculous.

    To sum up: King used the word of God to advocate for a coming together, while contemporary conservative Christianity does the exact opposite.  

  5. Brian Castner January 18, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Alan – you’re making the “But liberals use God’s teaching for good while conservatives use it for hate and division” argument, which is not my point at all. My point is 1) the loudest Liberal voices are now atheists, and not ashamed to say so (nor should they be) and 2) the Liberal meme is that the religiousness of right is an example of how dumb they are. I’m sure many (most, according to general statistics) Liberals are church going. But the Liberal culture and tone is past that. Standard Bill Maher line: “Why would the right want to fund science? They think the earth is 6000 years old.” Or “The right doesn’t need to think for themselves, an old man in the sky tells them what to do.” How does MLK fit into THAT?

    • Alan Bedenko January 18, 2011 at 9:27 am #

      MLK fits into that because, again, MLK used religion to promote understanding and civil rights – not to moralize, reject science, or revise history. I literally just last night read through the local tea party’s Google Groups email digest and learned not only that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “one of the most dangerous ideas ever entertained by the Western World.“. The same outfit wants to sell you, “The Bible Obama does NOT want you to read — Back in print after 400 years!“. (I also learned that cancer is but a fungus that can be cured with a simple antacid).

      The world of the 60s was quite different from the contemporary era. Religion provided the Civil Rights Movement a strong foundation to advocate and agitate for equality. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of very many churches using the same arguments to advocate for the rights of, e.g., homosexuals. Instead, the role of religion in politics changed under the Reagan Administration to become a force for moralizing about social issues. The liberal reaction to that is a gentle reminder that the Bible is either (a) what people came up with to explain the world before science came to be; and/or (b) a collection of allegorical tales which, taken together as a whole, tell you to be nice to each other. Fundamentalism has been the most prominent form of political religiosity since Reagan, and nothing has come along to replace it yet.

  6. Brian Castner January 18, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    When did I mention the Tea Party? What does that have to do with this? I think you are reinforcing my point, that when we talk about religion in politics, we (you, above) focus on the growing religiousness of the right, and not the growing atheism of the left, and the internal tension that creates. Of course a lot has changed since the 60’s, and the country is generally less church-going than it was. I find it notable (to grossly over-simplify) that those who still go to church have congregated in one political party.

    BTW, Maher is hardly “gentle,” on purpose. Not to put thoughts in MLK’s head, but I bet he thought the earth was 6000 years old and an old man in the sky told him (and the country) what to do. Maher would laugh such a figure off the stage now, except that he agreed with his race politics (but not his LGBT agenda? – someone will have to fill me in on any MLK statements on that topic). A simple “the world has changed” doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation to me.

    • Alan Bedenko January 18, 2011 at 10:01 am #

      The premise of your post is that the left now generally rejects religion, so how does it counterbalance that with King’s religiosity. I think you’re wrong about “growing atheism” on the left – it’s just that there are a certain number of vocal atheists who aren’t afraid to express themselves (Gervais, Maher, e.g.) A very miniscule portion of Americans identify themselves as “atheists” – consistently under 10%, and I’m not aware of any sudden spike or even gradual growth in that.

      I was addressing your question directly:

      So, I wonder, how do modern Liberals view this icon’s religious faith, now the public preserve of the Right? It is certainly glossed over in polite conversation. Is it an embarrassment? An inconvenience? An allowed imperfection? I am honestly looking forward to the answer in the comments below.

      I specifically said it’s none of those things. It has to do with the way in which religion was used politically by King and how it’s now used by the white Christian majority in this country that is so thoroughly desperate to see itself as the victim of a horde of godless brown & liberal people taking their jobs. You’re going to have to be satisfied with “King used religion for unity and equality, while Robertson, Falwell and the AFA use religion for disunity and discrimination” for your explanation as to how the left treats King’s religiousness.

  7. Colin January 18, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    There’s a lot to say here. The most important, I think, is that the Left didn’t lose religion. The Right won it. Conservative evangelicals launched a movement that was, in its own way, as powerful as the civil rights movement. There was a brief moment when that movement could have tipped in either ideological direction — my friend is writing his dissertation on movement evangelicals who supported McGovern in ’72, for instance — but in the end their doctrinal conservatism turned into political conservatism. The Right hitched their wagon to this movement, which was more publicly and expressively “religious” than any mainline socially liberal denomination. The Left was outflanked.

    I think your picture of liberal abandonment of religion is too broadly drawn. Maher and Dawkins are certainly strident atheists, but I don’t know that they represent liberals as a whole. And their attitude certainly isn’t indicative of liberal/Left activism, which remains suffused with religion.

    I also think we have to recognize that there are different kinds of religion. Some really are based on hostility to reason, and for whatever reason it happens that those kinds of religion are also those that are most conservative ideologically.

  8. Nate January 18, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    It’s hard to be religious today becasue the most visible people in the US use religion to promote their ideas which are amoral and counterproductive to the health of the nation. Abstinence only sex education, no gay marriage etc. are views straight from the bible according to these people. Add this to the fact that the vocal religious people are right wing blowhards who could care less about anybody than themselves doesn’t make it easier. Religious and god has been hijacked by the right to promote discriminatory and dangerous behavior, and to gain support from the most closed minded people in the nation. If I did believe in a god I would find it very hard to practice Christianity in the US becasue it’s been so twisted into something evil. Today, it’s not about civil rights and equality and love, it’s about discrimination and hate.

  9. Kurt Reppart January 18, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    Brian, first of all, thanks for being thoughtful on MLK day. I experienced a lot of ‘going through the motions’ type of energy yesterday and it made me appreciate that you set down your thoughts to words and tried to create dialogue.

    My first response is this. King was first and foremost concerned with God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. He wasn’t a politician, he was promoting Biblical Justice. He saw something that was grossly wrong, spoke truth to power (as a prophet and preacher) and was killed for it. This is what inspired the movement. I also happen to believe that the Holy Spirit had/has a role in it as well.

    The interesting thing to me was that the non-violent organization was largely done through churches. They gathered together for worship that was challenging, encouraging and hopeful and were educated in the principles and practices of non-violent resistance. So, my question wouldn’t be about liberal politicians losing religion, but rather ‘What happened to the Church being the center for grassroots organizing around issues of Biblical Justice?”

    The more I pay attention to politics I find myself wanting to withdraw and simply be a really good neighbor on my block, create dialogue and movement in my community and see what happens. To me this is how the civil rights movement grew to affect change. It started with dissatisfied people (who were dissatisfied because they read in the Bible that ALL people are created in God’s image and have inherent dignity), who organized in churches, and because they were on the right side of justice it made it’s way all the way to the powers of the day and change happened.

    I think that when we act on the right side of justice that many people who are not religious will add their feet to the march and their voices to the chorus. My prayer is that the Church will once again take the lead on these types of issues and that a movement will once again grow to change the many things that need to change in this country and world.

  10. Ethan January 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    “how do you make a value judgement at all without faith ”  Reason works pretty well, actually.

  11. Chris Charvella January 18, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    The left didn’t lose religion, it was stolen by the right wing starting with the Reagan administration. The Republican Party in the early 80’s began waging a morality war beginning with the Meese Report. They pandered to religious extremists that fancied themselves the morality police and spread the movement to conservatives all over the country.

    I don’t think that religious people are unintelligent, but I do think that they are gullible and easy prey for political vultures. If you define your life by your faith, tunnel vision is unavoidable. The right wing has recognized that and exploited it to great effect, see Karl Rove’s quote about ‘Just get me a faith-based something.’

    The reality is that religion falls on both sides of the aisle. Governmental philosophy doesn’t fit neatly into a box, particularly a religious one. Hell, neither does morality.

  12. BobbyCat January 18, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    @Chris C.

    “Gullible” is the right word. Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Elmer Gantry” was published in 1927. It was just as true in the 60ies when Burt Lancaster playing the title role of con-man Gantry. But it goes back a lot further. Circa 1825 the Erie Canal was called the ‘Burnt-Over” country because so many fundamentalist groups preached fire and brimstone. And con men like Joseph Smith preyed on the gullible faithful and took their money. Yes, THAT Joseph Smith.

  13. Chris Charvella January 18, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Gullible wasn’t the word I really wanted to use, but it was the best one I had to describe: Predisposed to belief without question in ideas that agree with the constructs of your chosen belief system regardless of factual or rational merit.

  14. Ethan January 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    “Predisposed to belief without question in ideas that agree with the constructs of your chosen belief system regardless of factual or rational merit.”

    Nicely put.  Brian wants me to call him stupid or something, I’m not sure why… Or maybe he’s not actually religious. 😉  But indeed, that is the point: You can keep on believing the sun is Apollo’s flaming chariot despite the evidence to the contrary or you can accept the empirical evidence that says it’s a big mass of plasma.  Now, what label would you like to assign to an individual who holds the former belief?  Other than “wrong,” doesn’t matter to me.

  15. Brian January 18, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    People of the left read interesting stuff:  “The Nation,” “The New Yorker,” “Harper’s,” “The Atlantic,” “Mother Jones.”  Often, too, the left sends its kids to college not to the north forty.  As a result, many on the left have determined that having 21st century moral compasses set by the musings of bronze and iron age goathumpers is worse than silly.

  16. Colin January 18, 2011 at 5:03 pm #

    It’s interesting that ol’ inflammatory Colin is one of the more level headed voices in this thread (third person!).

    I think it’s a real mistake to speak about the religious right as if they were created by the Republicans. For one thing, it’s simply inaccurate — these people were building their churches, organizations and networks long before the 80s. For another, it suggests that they are mere puppets when they are actually rational actors pursuing their own goals. And finally, it suggests a monolith when none is actually present.

  17. Chris Charvella January 18, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    Sorry, they’re puppets. For some reason they haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m confident that they will.

  18. Chris Charvella January 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm #


    Let me clarify. Of course they were out there prior to the 1980’s, my argument is that they didn’t become a national political powerhouse until the republicans made them one. Right wing leaders fired them up by targeting and relentlessly beating on issues like pornography, abortion, school prayer, and gay rights and they haven’t stopped since 1985.

    Because of the republican strategy over three decades, religious folks in general and evangelicals in particular have even become entrenched in our political vernacular: Religious Right, Conservative Christian. I don’t hear any mention of the political power of the Atheist Left or Authoritarian Agnostics….

    By the way, Ed Meese, who fired the first shot in the political war for morality with his federally funded attack on exposed bosoms, has worked for the Heritage Foundation for years. Hell, maybe he and Reagan were true believers and pure moralists, but soon enough, the opportunists and cynics entered the fray. They seized on what was obviously a voter gold mine and began pandering for all they were worth. Since then, the strictest sects of religious America have been hauled out of the basement every election cycle wearing a leash of wedge issues. Some of them get to frothing at the mouth so badly they can even be convinced that the President is a terrorist Muslim from Kenya.

  19. Brian Castner January 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    @ Colin: Eminently level headed, of course. I find your win/loss narrative an interesting angle I was not aware of, or did not consider. Now it seems as though the Religious Right being Right was pre-ordained. And while I agree my brush is broad, I am unaware of popular liberal activism suffused with religious tone. From the CEJ, for instance, there is a lot about labor, social justice, equity, etc, but those ideas exist outside of religion too. Can you provide some examples?

    @ Alan: Thank you for noting what I did not say explicitly enough – the “growing atheism” of the Left is a reference to their vocal promoters (Gervais was another good pick – maybe HBO is just atheist), not the proportion of their members. But it does fit comfortably with the way Liberals view themselves (the smart ones of the group) and the way they bash the right (religious nuts who don’t think for themselves). I would suggest that if the ends justify the means (King’s religiousness and his civil rights success) for the Left, then perhaps they should stop opposing faith-based social service initiatives, or, at least, recognize its the policies of the right they don’t like, and not the religion. They all seemed to get mixed up in the hyperventilating critical atmosphere.

    @ Kurt: “The more I pay attention to politics I find myself wanting to withdraw and simply be a really good neighbor on my block, create dialogue and movement in my community and see what happens.” I understand the feeling exactly. I feel like modern religious political movements have failed to render to Ceasar what is Ceasar, and got too involved with the electioneering, campaigning, and politics itself, instead of focusing on service and helping the poor. The point got lost somewhere – King’s movement worked, but it didn’t start as a political campaign. It started as a social justice campaign.

    @ Ethan: Reason would tell me to never buy a MetroRail ticket because I probably won’t get caught, cheat on my wife (for the same reason), avoid military or public service, never volunteer (especially for a for-profit brewery), cheat on my taxes, and use the free emergency room for as many of my medical needs as possible. It is Morality, if not religiousness, says otherwise. But morality need not come directly from reason.

    I’m not asking you to call me stupid, just recognize (admit?) that that’s how much of the left views the right – see Nate’s, Chris’s, and Brian’s comments. I also find your Apollo flaming chariot reference interesting. First, it equates literal (and relatively brief) paganism with nuanced faiths that have been studied and considered for 2000 or 4000 years. Secondly, it makes faith “provable,” when the essence of each great faith, of any variety (Judeo-Christian to Buddhist), relies on the assurance of things unknowable and unprovable. Next time we are drinking beer we can go into it, I suppose, but Reasoned Atheism rejects not just American simplistic “God put the dinosaur bones in the ground” Bible belt literalists, but all manner of philosophical considerations and mystical insights, and the writings of millenia of religious philosophers, from Thomas a Kempis to the Dalai Lama. As Colin notes, it is easy to resort to a mega-church monolith to oppose, where none exists.

  20. Matteah January 18, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    So, I read your article scratching my head. Why do you say that the atheists have gained the voice of the liberal left? I know that might be something agast to your readers, but, huh, I hadn’t noticed. Sure, Bill Maher is loud, and I love him…but who else? In my world–a world without TV, void of little political rhetoric & dogmatism–I was surprised to read your ultimate conclusion was that the religous voice is absent from the political left. But then I got to thinking…much like your colleague Chris, that the Way I follow does not belong to either “The Right” or “The Left”. After all, what makes the Reverend Dr. MLK Jr a liberal? I don’t think he fit into The Box…nor do I.

    In my world, I am surrounded by many religious intellectuals who may be considered on the left end of the political spectrum: Ron Sider (Evangelicasl of Social Action, PRISM, among MANY other publications), Gregory Boyd (author of Myth of a Christian Nation–fabulous book!), Shaine Claiborne, John Perkins, Bob Lupton, Wayne Gordon, Jim Wallis…but again, that is just my world, as sheltered as it may be. But many of these voices could also be considered to “The Right” based on thier socio-political views.

    So,in answer to your question:
    So, I wonder, how do modern Liberals view this icon’s religious faith?

    I affirm it! As do many others! And it is still a present voice that is being spoken. It just may not be present on your 24-hour news commentaries.

  21. Colin January 18, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

    @Brian: CEJ is a good example. Their coalition is designed to have 3 legs: labor, faith, and community groups. There are a few dozen religious organizations in the coalition, there are always a few faith leaders on the board, and the group’s founding director was a former nun.

    So religion is there in the bones of the organization. As for tone, that’s a bit trickier. Allison Duwe (the current director) can’t get up and start speaking in that overtly religious tone — that’s not her background, and it’s just be insulting. But they are quite intentional about recruiting voices who can speak that language.

  22. Gabe January 18, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    Alan’s 1st comment here pretty much sums up my own feelings on this.

    Let me just say this. I know plenty of people with left political beliefs who are also churchgoing. As stated by others here, these people tend to emphasize the humanitarian aspects of their religion rather than the authoritarian, conformist and self-aggrandizing aspects. At least two of the latter attributes have been reliable hallmarks of conservative thought throughout the ages.

    Any astute student of history knows that organized religion has usually served as a convenient means of social control. Since the beginnings of civilization, power elites have used religion to mind-control the masses into being obedient little peons who sheepishly keep their mouths shut, do what they’re told and not dare to challenge the elite’s “divine” authority (or property).

    Of course, ironically, many of the world’s largest religions were founded by fringe, upstart characters who opposed tyrants and their self-serving perversion of “divine” doctrine. And of course, when these faiths caught on, the contemporary elites hijacked (ex: Council of Nicea) those beliefs and spun their doctrines into effective codes of social control.

    Today we live in the ages of science. Using the tiniest application of logic and deductive reasoning, it becomes clear that most religious doctrine holds as much water as any other set of myths from antiquity. People in positions of leadership who choose to continue to espouse these these outdated beliefs will often resort to negative control methods like denial, fear-mongering and scapegoating in order to retain their flocks. Those left who wish to hold onto faith for progressive action will simply downplay the more abhorrent aspects of their religious doctrine.

    So there you have it, the liberal reasoning of why I think religion is largely bullshit in this day and age, despite my respect for those who simply use it as a tool to better themselves and their communities.

  23. Brian Castner January 18, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    @ Gabe: I think you sum up the dismissive attitude well: after three paragraphs bashing conservatism and faith equally, you say it (religion) is fine as long as you use it as nothing more than a glorified (pun intended) personal self-help book. So let me ask slightly differently: do you respect MLK for using religion as a tool to better his community? And is that because he downplayed the “abhorrent aspects” of his faith? As Kurt noted, his agenda was to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, a plan that does not pass the tiniest application of logic and deductive reasoning.

  24. Brian Castner January 18, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    @ Colin: Gracias. You will forgive me if what I have heard (which is different than what is being said, I admit) publicly seemed to focus on green building codes and mandatory wages, and not much of a religious nature. It would be interesting to note if it ever came to a point of not using religious language for practical reasons (not just comfort level) – it might say something about what you consider the public ready to hear, and whether conservatives are more ready to use religious language in 2011 than liberals.

    @ Matteah: Thank you for once again reminding me that the real world often bears faint resemblance to internet news sites or (shudder) cable news, which I do not watch either.

  25. Gabe January 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm #

    “Do you respect MLK for using religion as a tool to better his community?” Certainly. Just as Moses, Jesus, Buddah, Mohammed, and others of those kind stood in opposition to the ills and evils that plagued those specific time periods.

    “And is that because he downplayed the “abhorrent aspects” of his faith?” You betcha. According to legend, Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple. Buddah abandoned the apartheid caste prison his society’s religion espoused. Mohamed rejected petty tribal identity chauvinism and idolatry in favor of human universalism. MLK was in open defiance of so many entrenched institutions of the time. I respect great humanitarians for who they are/were as individuals and the actions they’ve taken; I respect these people DESPITE the dogma that comes along with their respective faiths not for.

    You’ll have to excuse me for calling a spade a spade, but human belief systems altogether is largely an inertial collective (mis)understanding of the world and the cosmos. Some have evolved faster than others; the aggressive modes of thought that haven’t been able to keep up with science and technological advancement serve as little more than a drag on the progress of our entire social apparatus.

  26. Brian Castner January 18, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    Calling Jesus, Gautama Buddha and Mohamed “humanitarians” represents one of the most basic misunderstandings I have ever heard. All three, on the most basic level, rejected physical humanity for the spirituality you consider a drag on the social appatatus. Not to mention that Mohamed took his petty tribal identity and used it to conquer the Arabian penninsula. Revisionism and personal projection doesn’t begin to describe the crime you just perpetrated. Stick to communism.

  27. Colin January 18, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

    @Chris: I think you have the relationship backwards. The Republicans didn’t make the religious right powerful, they benefited from the power that the movement had already built for itself. And the “war for morality” certainly didn’t begin with Ed Meese — our history is chock full of movements to cut back on drinking, sex and whatnot, and often the people behind those movements have been progressives. Sorry to be a douche, but history is a big deal to me.

    @everybody: way to confirm Brian’s thesis . . . jeesh.

  28. Chris Charvella January 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm #


    I feel like we’re arguing both sides of a double headed coin. I’m not saying that religion hasn’t been a large part of American politics for the long term. I’m saying that during the last three decades religious people have been used intentionally as tools by a particular political party.

    MLK was a true believer in his God and a humanitarian because of it. The kind of truth that came along with his ideology hasn’t existed in quite a long time because cynics, hacks, political whores and extremists have hijacked it.

    I object to the ridiculous notion that liberals think religious people are stupid. I also reject the notion that atheist liberals don’t truly understand morality because they lack religion.

    Morality is a philosophical problem, not a religious one and while religion helps certain individuals define morality, it isn’t the be all and end all.

    I don’t really care how a person comes to their conclusions about morality and I care even less what terms they use to define it.

  29. Leo Wilson January 19, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    This is a great thread. I’m glad I didn’t comment, because of that old saw about being quiet vs. proving something by speaking. I’m gonna copy the whole thing once the discussion ends, it’ll give me stuff to read about for weeks on end.

  30. STEEL January 19, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    This phrase sums up the difference quite well – “…will walk humbly with his God” The fact that King used the word ‘his” in front of God is beyond the understanding of most right wing religious fanaticism but is at the hear of everything that King stood for. Perhaps it is also why you have this idea that Liberals could not possibly believe in God.

    Personally, I can’t fathom how anyone could believe in the bible and still be Republican. Except for the old part written by the Jews with all the stoneings and such the whole thing is pretty much a communist manifesto by teabag standards.

  31. BobbyCat January 19, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    “How the Left Lost Religion?”

    Oh please. Is there no end to the right wing spin? I’m surprised that you didn’t used that tried and true right wing canard “Why is the Left Acting Like Godless Communists?”

    And your entire proof is Bill Mahr? How weak is that? By the way, Bill Mahr borrows much of his philosophy from the comedy of George Carlin. You can blame old George.

    You might better ask why Europeans stopped going to Church. (Hint, its not a left-right thing)

    I count 31 posts, 24 are by WNYMedia bloggers. You guys are talking amongst yourselves. And I mean ‘guys’. Women are pretty scarce in WNYMedia. Only two of 20 bloggers are female. What’s up with that?

    My point is, you might think about reaching out to gain a wider, more diverse audience. There is nothing wrong with talking amongst yourselves, if that’s what you want, but eventually every incestuous relationship fails by attrition.

    I suggest more timely, more lively subjects. Less academic droning. More relevant subjects—please. There is no shortage of interesting headlines.

    And fellas, where are the ladies? There must be a reason no women venture into your blogs. Obviously women bring an entirely different perspective into any conversation. In a word, liveliness is needed.

    Ok, now you can tell me in unison to go F-off.

  32. Ethan January 19, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    <blockquote.@ Ethan: Reason would tell me to never buy a MetroRail ticket because I probably won’t get caught, cheat on my wife (for the same reason), avoid military or public service, never volunteer (especially for a for-profit brewery), cheat on my taxes, and use the free emergency room for as many of my medical needs as possible. It is Morality, if not religiousness, says otherwise. But morality need not come directly from reason.

    If your reasoning leads you to those conclusions, I have to tell you, it works very differently from mine.  Because I do none of those things and am also areligious.  I mean, to pick but one obvious example… I don’t cheat on my wife (let’s put aside the assumption that anyone but my wife wants to sleep with *me*, by the way; as far as I know, nobody else does) because I conclude that the value (to me, individually) of having lots of kids with many different women is lower than the value of having a best friend and co-parent for the two I have.  It’s not morality, it’s following my heart and my brain, and it certainly not because of my religious beliefs.  But true, morality and religion aren’t the same thing.

    I’m not asking you to call me stupid, just recognize (admit?) that that’s how much of the left views the right – see Nate’s, Chris’s, and Brian’s comments.

    I would recognize or admit that with some data to back it up, sure.  I think you’re only considering a handful of atheist “liberals” (Mahr is better categorized as a libertarian in my book, frankly) who happen to have a giant soapbox.  But by all means, if there is some survey data that speaks to that, I’m open to it.  I’d add that smart people can make bad decisions, can believe in untrue things, can make giant mistakes and all that, and yet be considered, overall, quite intelligent.  If I say someone has a “stupid” belief, that is not the same as saying they are “stupid” in every possible domain, period.

    I also find your Apollo flaming chariot reference interesting. First, it equates literal (and relatively brief) paganism with nuanced faiths that have been studied and considered for 2000 or 4000 years. Secondly, it makes faith “provable,” when the essence of each great faith, of any variety (Judeo-Christian to Buddhist), relies on the assurance of things unknowable and unprovable.

    I used Apollo because it’s hard to find a living adherent of ancient Greek religion anywhere in the world today- an historical fact that one would do well to consider.  I’m sorry there was no ‘nuance’ to pre-Abrahamic religions, which actually probably existed for as long or longer than the modern alternatives (especially if you see them as historical extensions of their predecessors- Greek = Zeus, Roman = Jupiter, &c).  But if you prefer, fine: I find it as difficult to believe the sun is a flaming chariot as I do to believe that someone got instructions from a burning bush, lived 900 years, parted the Red Sea, was killed and rose again, was born of a virgin, &c.  That Christianity is some nearly 2k years old doesn’t make it any less mythic than the belief systems it replaced.  

    As to your second point, things unknowable and unprovable?  That’s not even a static thing.  It was indeed unknowable and unprovable at the time that the sun was anything BUT a flaming chariot, this is true.  But that changed.  In every domain where science has become able to address the questions that religions answered formerly, science has come up with the better answer.  The earth goes around the sun, no matter what theologians insist makes more sense to them.  Maybe some questions will never be scientific questions, but it’s pretty hard to know for certain which will or won’t be in the future.  Where there is a scientific approach, I’ll go w/it.  Where there is not, I’ll wait and not worry about it much.

    Reasoned Atheism rejects not just American simplistic “God put the dinosaur bones in the ground” Bible belt literalists, but all manner of philosophical considerations and mystical insights, and the writings of millenia of religious philosophers, from Thomas a Kempis to the Dalai Lama.

    Reason doesn’t reject them; it re-interprets and re-contextualizes them.  There was something else I was going to add to this, but I suddenly realized I better go photocopy some syllabi.  cheers!

  33. Brian Castner January 19, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    @ STEEL and BobbyCat – In no way did I ever say Liberals could not be religious – in fact, exactly the opposite, as the leading liberal voices used to be. We are talking about the historic shift of the tone of the lead pundits and the political movement. BobbyCat – my “entire” proof is not Bill Maher – There are apprximately 15,000 words in this thread that say otherwise. But I thought you weren’t reading or commenting on my slogs anymore?

    @ Ethan: We need beer and the removal of the text internets filter to resolve this. But for the “data” of how the left views the right, consider this:

    • Alan Bedenko January 19, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

      I think it’s just becoming less of a stigma for someone to openly say they’re atheist. In some quarters, that kind of thing is punishable by death.

  34. Ethan January 19, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    @Brian: there was no data in that article that I saw; did one of those links go to a survey or something?  I actually recalled reading that back when it was published (perhaps your link, as I do not regularly read Slate), but found it then, as I do still, an inapt analogy.  Even the author thought so: “I’ll be the first to admit that marriage is not an ideal analogy for politics.”

    In any case, indeed, I do much prefer these discussions over beer.  You know: expensive, trendy, contemptuous beer.

  35. Gabe January 19, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    Brian, you’re lumping in organized religion with spirituality. The latter doesn’t require the former. Your reliance on black-and-white thinking confuses a lot of issues.

    Bobby has a good point. This place has turned into a 30-something-male cigar bar. Pour me some scotch.

  36. Ethan January 19, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Bobby has a good point. This place has turned into a 30-something-male cigar bar. Pour me some scotch.

    BobbyCat can go read wherever he wants to on the internet if he’s unhappy with our content; I read all over the place.  Just because one site isn’t everything he wants it to be doesn’t mean we have anything to feel bad about.  We cannot control who does comment on a thread; we can only control who doesn’t.

    That said, it’d be great if some diversity would like to join the WNYMedia crowd; I totally agree that it’s somewhat insular.  I believe Chris has periodically shouted out for more talent from more perspectives; I can only assume nobody has responded to those–always open–invitations.  If BobbyCat were a woman, he could start a WNYMedia blog and we’d be all set; too bad he’s not, I guess.

  37. Brian Castner January 19, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    @ Ethan: Well, I did call it “data.” Make sure you sure you bring some totally socially irresponsible beers, with no redeeming civic value.

    @ Gabe: Funny, I thought you were having some “baby out with the bathwater” issues yourself by lumping all religions and spirituality into a mega-church sized evangelical container of non-progressive “human belief systems.” In the future, all computer screens will have built in beverage dispensers, so when you arrive at this site, a scotch appears in front of you.

  38. BobbyCat January 19, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Thanks Gabe, I like the cigar bar analogy. You’ve proved that its possible to be self-critical and not melt-down like the Nazi who opened the Arc in Raiders

    My attention span doesn’t need constant stimulation. I don’t need screaming tweens to galvanize my interest. I’m an adult. But these blogs need a shot of adrenaline, badly. You need a feminine perspective, interesting subjects, alluring headlines, beginning sentences that capture attention. There’s a lot of ways to punch it up, but doing nothing is not an option – to borrow a phrase – unless you’re aiming to cure insomnia.

    My motive: I’m a student of the Demming Method – always trying to improve a product.

  39. Ethan January 19, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    You know, I’m not sure there is a beer on this earth that could be described as having no redeeming civic value–even an A-B/InBev product–assuming it had alcohol in it.  

    (and if it doesn’t, it’s not a beer in my book.)

    It occurred to me that I could sort of turn the topic of this post (strayed from long ago, admittedly) on it’s head a little bit, too… MLK wasn’t really only a civil rights leader and a religious leader; he was also concerned with (as you know) economic justice across the board for whites and blacks. His last speech was to AFSCME:

    He was a huge defender of public sector unions, in other words; one of the Right’s favorite targets (and sort of everyone, in NYS anyway).

    Is this fact embarrassing, inconvenient, or just an allowed imperfection?

  40. Brian Castner January 19, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    I’m going to go “allowed imperfection.” I feel no moral, religious, reasoned, or patriotic duty to agree with ALL of King’s positions. He can be right on civil rights and wrong on unions, generally, IMHO. So I could give some mushy Alanesque “the times, they are a changin'” answer, and say unions then are different than unions now, with another 45 years of unreasonable contracts and mandates, etc but I’m just going to pick one of your (my) options.

  41. Gabe January 19, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    Brian, reread my remarks. My criticism is directed toward organized religion, not spirituality as an abstract concept. My stance on the latter is neutral. Does one really need a bureaucratic clerical hierarchy and bronze age texts to be spiritual? If someone chooses to live a spiritual existence, good for them so as long as they don’t use it to coerce/control others or inflict harm.

  42. ethan January 19, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    mobile (I.e. short, misspelled and ungrammatical) riposte:

    How is your overlooking pro-union any different from my overlooking religiosity? (It’s not)

    I’d point out though that both his civil rights and economic justice positions stemmed from the same religiosity, the same interpretation of God’s word. How can you fail to see the inconsistancy of upholding one and decrying the other?

    Finally: Alanesque… somebody call the OED; I want it in there!

  43. Eric Saldanha January 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

    “I feel no moral, religious, reasoned, or patriotic duty to agree with ALL of King’s positions”

    but you feel no such reservations in using him to prop up your beyond-tired assertations that teh Left=godless heathens?

  44. Leo Wilson January 20, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Cut, pasted for future review. Thanks guys!

    I gotta admit, now that this thread is retired, it does look like at least one point is proven: There’s a contempt of sorts for people with religous beliefs. They are considered stupid, whether you use the word “stupid” or “gullible” or need 20 sentences to say the same thing. Is that attitude the exclusive property of the left? Of course not. Is it the exclusive attitude of elitists? No again. Snobbery? Well, let them eat cake.

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