Excerpt from Gods, Gays, and Guns: Essays on Religion and the Future of Democracy (Campbell and Cannon Press, 2012)
Over the past two decades, I have written and organized on the front lines of the culture wars and the greatest challenges of the democracy. This collection of essays reflects both a crisis of faith and a new set of questions that have emerged. The excerpt below challenges the reader to consider the role of religion inside our democracy.
In the post-9-11 era, one has been able to interchange the words "Christian," "conservative," "religious," "right," and "Republican" in one sentence without necessarily changing the meaning of the sentence. A lexicon shift of this magnitude is an indication of profound meaning-making power.
The religious right blessed the imperial expansion by indicating that the war in Iraq was America calling by god to fight the evil Muslims in a post 9-11 world. Two days after 9/11, Rev. Jerry Falwell prophesied that god had lifted the hand of protection from the United States and allowed the terrorist attacks because "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians."
From divining the war in Iraq to the late Jerry Farewell's proclamation that Katrina was god's wrath visited upon America for its tolerance of gays and other "deviant" behavior, this god had been strategically employed by the powerful to divide the electorate and impose restrictions on democratic opportunity. This god maintained a hegemony over our public discourse; a supreme being that was synonymous with empire and its economy--an imperial god. A god that launched a pre-emptive war and punished the most vulnerable was a god I wanted no part of. A religion that defended the powerful over the powerless was not my religion.
Hence, there must be many gods if not mini gods. I am attempting to name them in way that keeps track of the fallibility of gods constructed by humans, including my own. In this essay, using a lower case "g" is to lower our conception of gods so that no religion can claim to have sole access to the divine.
Consequently, god, is a poly-glyph- word that has multiple meanings at once. The word, god, is linguistic intervention that reflects a conservative ideology that historically limited democratic opportunity. I am arguing that the use of god talk in American public life is often a lot less about religion and more about public policy.
While some would suggest that religion breaks down into two distinct categories. I posit otherwise. The choice is not between fundamentalism and secularism; faith and reason; but rather a more sinister set of categories.
The history, culture, and constitution of the American democracy were born of a unique blend of Enlightenment sensibilities and religious strivings. The structure of American democracy was never based on religion versus science. For the founding of the nation there has been a delicate and contestant consideration of the role of religion inside democracy.
To say the word god in American public discourse is to conjure up a number of images and ideas that serve to undermine democracy in name of religious freedom. What matters is whose god has access to political power will be the god that is the most powerful when it comes to making public policy. The American pantheon of religion then must be discerned in such as way that it highlights the best of the relationship between democracy and religion. I have come to believe that nothing less than an epistemic break on the magnitude of the founding of Christianity and the depth of the Protestant Reformation will save our democracy.
What has emerged over the last two decades is not a break, but a theological capitulation to the neo-liberal economy by religious and non-religious folks alike. For most, religion is a meaning-making activity. We humans use it to situate ourselves within a broader context in the face of dread, death, and despair because it offers us an eternal story when we are comforted with a finite reality. Given that the critical victory of the Right has been existential rather than political, any countervailing project must highlight the existential.
This intervention is critical to our understanding the way in which we derive meaning. To achieve such an aim, we must--as Cornel West often notes--take an on tological risk that will lead to existential vertigo. What is at stake is how we make meaning for ourselves within the dual languages of religion and democracy. This must therefore be a central part of the task of re-visioning a Religious Left. And it will require great theological, spiritual, and political courage on our part.
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