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Understanding Religion and Estimating Justice in the Final Term of George II

There is a misunderstanding in what many secular progressives say about religion and politics. Progressives need desperately to find the support necessary both to avoid a repetition of the 2004 election, and to do what they can to support the plight of those who continue to be targeted during the remainder of the term at hand. We need to remind ourselves about religious progressives who, of course, have these needs as well, and we need to make sure we do not alienate our faithful allies by ridiculing and condemning religion as such.

John Duncan

In The Sorrows of Empire (2004) Chalmers Johnson reports that there are more than half a million Americans serving on at least 700 U.S. military bases in some 130 countries outside the U.S., plus 13 major naval task forces dominating the planet's high seas. The point of departure for Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival (2003) is the 2002 announcement, by George II and his administration, of the "National Security Strategy, which declared the right to resort to force to eliminate any perceived challenge to U.S. global hegemony, which is to be permanent." Thus, no one should have been surprised when Vice President Dick Cheney's shooting of millionaire fundraiser Harry Whittington resulted in headlines around the world, among them: "We are all Harry Whittington" -- this according to the February 15, 2006 edition of the alternative daily news program Democracy Now!. Indeed, because of the current U.S. administration's unsurpassed aggressive policies, which continue to affect us all, many throughout the world are concerned both about the administration's targets for the remainder of its final term in office, and about the election fights to come.

Looking back at the 2004 election for lessons is a downer to say the least. A great deal of hope and energy was invested in that election -- almost all of it wasted. But look back we must if we want a real chance of avoiding another reign of red-stained states worldwide.

Immediately after the election there was a lot of frustration and finger pointing, often targeting religion in America, and this kind of allegation has not diminished. There continues to be serious concern about the reasonableness of the religious electorate and its leaders. However, there is a misunderstanding in what many secular progressives say about religion and politics. I raise this issue not because I am religious -- which I am not -- but rather because progressives need desperately to find the support necessary both to avoid a repetition of the 2004 election, and to do what they can to support the plight of those who continue to be targeted during the remainder of the term at hand. We need to remind ourselves about religious progressives who of course have these needs as well, and we need to make sure we do not alienate our faithful allies by ridiculing and condemning religion as such.

Back in its November 19-25, 2004 issue, The Guardian Weekly (an international news digest that draws items from The Guardian and The Observer in Britain, The Washington Post in the U.S., and Le Monde in France) ran typical items that dealt with religion in America: Two letters ridiculed "evangelicals" in the U.S.; a short column reported on a legal battle between creationists and evolutionists over the representation of their views in school textbooks in Cobb County, Georgia; Julian Borger's article on the crises to come with George II back on the imperial throne worried about the evangelical influence on America's Middle East policies: "Everything we have learned about Bush is that he is not pandering to the evangelicals. He is one of them." In regard to the spread of otherworldly forces these items indicate, secular progressives have expressed confusion, frustration, anxiety, and even hostility. As Gary Younge wrote in "Convert or be damned" in the same issue, "The influence of religion in politics provokes in ... [members of "the liberal left"] ... not a thoughtful response but ridicule and contempt." "[T]hey regard engagement with religious communities as compromising progressive values."

In an attempt to take one small step both away from "ridicule and contempt," and toward a "thoughtful response," I offer some open and conciliatory reflections about religious progressives from the point of view of a secular progressive. In the end, I point my own finger both at a misunderstanding of religion in politics, and at an underestimation of the call of justice, two phenomena progressives must overcome if we are to ebb the crimson tide.

Hopefully, most of us recognize that there are religious progressives and that they have important roles to play in progressive politics. In general, with respect to a given instance of legitimate struggle for justice, we should support the initiatives of religious progressives and welcome their support for our own initiatives. In such instances, common goals of justice should bring us together despite divergent metaphysical paths.

Nevertheless, religion appears to some of us to be something very odd. A long time ago we lost our faith -- or we never had it to begin with. Without faith, the Judaeo-Christian Bible (to take the example of scripture with which I am most familiar) seems to be a very odd historical document. It is a collection of somewhat bizarre, inconsistent, and disturbing stories, poems, letters, etc., which reflects various archaic beliefs of long-dead cultures, but, oddly, continues to attract genuine adherents today. Of course, practiced in the arts of civility, many of us try not to belabour these oddities -- we do not want to offend private beliefs.

If we take progressivism, the left, etc., to embody an approach to politics in which human discourse and action are mobilized in order to struggle for social and political conditions more in accord with the legitimate claims of justice -- claims which are themselves always being debated, tested, and revised -- then progressives have no need for religion. Echoing the eighteenth century enlightenment, we argue that justice requires human struggle for improved conditions in the world -- that is, in "this" world -- whereas religions strain to find nonexistent metaphysical entities beyond the world.

hand with gunReligious adherents might argue that our ability to improve conditions in the world depends on our relationship to what transcends it, a position which in the early fourteenth century Dante Alighieri famously symbolized at the end of his Purgatorio by representing the worldly paradise as necessarily empty -- only by transcending the worldly as such in order to receive guidance from what lies beyond it can we hope to establish the best possible worldly existence. However, for the faithless this position is both a non-starter and a source of concern. It is a non-starter because we do not believe in metaphysical entities that transcend the world, and so we do not believe they have any bearing on the causes of justice. It is a source of concern because such metaphysical entities constitute the inspirational grounds for fundamental features of the discourse and action of our religious allies, but they are not available for rational evaluation. One of the core values of an enlightened politics is that all stakeholders be involved in open and rational discussion that leads to policy and its implementation. If the secular progressive believes progressive politics to be a strictly secular affair, whereas the religious progressive claims to have access to extra-worldly insights that both transcend and ground his or her politics, then it is theoretically possible for the religious progressive and the secular progressive to be divided. It seems likely that metaphysical insights will trump the merely political if ever a conflict arises between them, and so we have some trouble understanding those who claim to be in solidarity with us but at the same time are capable of metaphysical suspensions of progressive politics, to borrow very freely from Søren Kierkegaard, who in Fear and Trembling (1843) famously characterized Abraham's willingness to obey God's command to kill his son Isaac as a "teleological suspension of the ethical." The possibility of such suspensions is alive wherever religion reaches beyond the merely real world and its struggles. If a choice had to be made between God and worldly justice, our ways could very well part, for we do not believe in God.

However, this possibility must be slight. It seems to some of us that current social and political formations, at least those in the developed world, are dominated by an incessant drive to accumulate power and wealth. Fortunately, within these formations there are also those who wish to make room for the legitimate claims of justice. Some people with religious dispositions are inclined toward accumulation; others, also with religious dispositions, are inclined toward struggles for legitimacy. As such, the religious right and the religious progressives might reflect, in part, the two sides of one of the most basic antagonisms of our epoch. If so, then religion might not determine political choices as much as ethical and political concerns determine how religion is taken up. In the end, if the goals of justice are what call us, there should be no significant difference between the religious and the secular progressive, all other things being equal of course.

Furthermore, secular progressives must admit that there is a secular right, which presumably approaches politics through discourse and action in order to struggle for social and political conditions more in accord with worldly accumulation (or perhaps more in accord with the right to accumulate). Thus it is not the case that a worldly philosophy necessarily brings with it concerns for legitimacy and justice, just as it is not true that a religious outlook necessarily brings with it concerns strictly in accord with accumulation.

In addition, secular progressives also invoke various suspensions of progressive politics. Each of us does not support every legitimate struggle for justice, but rather suspends his or her activities when various other interests take precedence. For example, the demands of loved ones can certainly bring us to suspend our support for progressive politics from time to time.

In the end, no one is perfect. As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argued a couple of decades ago in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1984), all we can do is build chains of alliance in particular struggles for justice. The common goals of justice bring us together: for the secular left these goals are ends in themselves; for the religious left also, presumably, they are ends in themselves, but not without being metaphysically inspired somehow.

And lest we forget, the right -- whether secular or religious -- builds it own chains of alliance. However, the right's message is supported both by more accumulated power and resources, and by its intimate relations with the fundamental and very familiar context of accumulation within which "we live and move and have our being," to borrow and perhaps turn on its head one of G.W.F. Hegel's favourite quotes from the Acts of the Apostles. For the foreseeable future, the apparatuses of accumulation by which we are all acculturated will give the right many advantages on election day. As we know, "good subjects" are difficult to radicalize.

There was a place for mourning and frustration in the shadow of the election of an administration that called "freedom" what the respected British medical journal The Lancet (Fall 2004) estimated to be 100,000 Iraqi war deaths in less than two years of fighting. However, we are now even deeper into the tide of blood, with fresh demands on our consciences every day (as will always be the case). In January 2005, in its "Index," Harper's Magazine reported both that an Iraqi was 2.5 times "more likely to die today than in the last year of the Hussein regime," and that the cause of his or her death was 58 times "more likely to be violence." In a Democracy Now! interview aired on October 20, 2005, the unembedded, critical, and seasoned investigative journalist and author Robert Fisk worried that perhaps as many as 60,000 Iraqis are being killed annually under the current U.S. occupation. Counting only American soldiers, not "Coalition" soldiers, some 20,000 have been killed or wounded in Iraq, and they are members of the most technologically advanced military in the history of the world; it is certainly not unlikely that 10 times that number of the enemy will have been killed within a country already severely reduced by a previous war as well as crippling international sanctions. Within the churches and outside them -- indeed within America and outside it, and within the Party and outside it -- we are all desperately needed by those who may be numbered among the next to be slaughtered.

Both to prepare for the election fights to come, and to support those who continue to be targeted by George II and his administration, secular progressives must recognize the work religious progressives do to advance the legitimate claims of justice. That, in turn, requires that we both exercise our intellects to make explicit the distinction between religious progressives and the religious right, and stop alienating our faithful allies with remarks of "ridicule and contempt" about religion in politics. There are ridiculous views outside as well as inside the churches. The right criterion for alliance on the left is not secular belief, but rather common commitments to the legitimate claims of justice.

Many of us seem to have completely forgotten this criterion. Not only have we been overly critical of religion, especially during the past couple of years, but many of us put ourselves behind the Kerry campaign even though it began to trumpet injustice. Progressives engaged in a very dubious strategic suspension of progressive politics in that election. A strategic decision was made to get Kerry to say over and over again that he would "win the war in Iraq," "kill the terrorists," etc. This may have been calculated both to swing soft Republican voters away from George II, and to retain other voters who felt that an aggressive approach to the "war on terror" was necessary. Many of us convinced ourselves that Kerry's aggressive rhetoric was strategically necessary, but we believed that if he were elected he would certainly explore less aggressive possibilities. And many felt that George had to go, at virtually any cost. However, there were serious problems with this strategic suspension of progressive politics. By emphasizing that Kerry was just as aggressive as George with respect to the war on terror, the Democrats made the fatal mistake of making Kerry compete on George's terms. George wore the wartime commander-in-chief uniform like a glove; to ask Kerry to compete with him for that uniform was a serious strategic error. The strategy made the Democratic campaign a merely reactive campaign. In fact, by getting Kerry to try to be like George, the Democratic strategy ceded legitimacy to George. Kerry was trying to be a nicer, more inclusive, and smarter George -- but a George none-the-less. Can we blame voters if they made their decisions on the grounds that Kerry did not stack up? Instead of seeing a genuine alternative, voters saw a George wannabe. Why vote for the wannabe when you can vote for the real thing?

Kerry needed to stand up and articulate what progressives believe. The electorate needed a real alternative. Kerry needed to pound home the fact that he had served, that he was decorated, and that he had the courage to come home and ask difficult questions about his country's activity in the war in which he served. He needed to say that he was asking similar questions about the Iraq war. He needed to say that the Iraq war was a bad war. And he needed to say that the latest study numbered Iraqi war deaths at 100,000 in less than two years of shooting. Kerry needed to say all this and more, but instead all he tried to say was that he was a better militarist than the mother of all militarists. The strategy put Kerry in a reactive posture; it ceded legitimacy to George; it failed to articulate a genuine alternative.

In the end, strategic suspensions of progressive politics are always dicey, for they suspend what progressives are supposed to be all about. From the centre to the far left, regardless of religion, progressives believe that justice is worth advocating and that there are always people willing to heed its call. The Democratic message should have been the message progressives believe, not a softened Republican message.

If this was a strategic suspension of progressive politics, ultimately one has to ask why it was considered necessary. Did the Democratic leadership lose the courage of its convictions and come to believe that Americans could not entertain real criticism of the war? If so, the strategy was predicated on ethical and political weakness, and the challenge is to persuade the Democratic leadership to advance a much more robust progressive politics. The possibility that the whole thing was not a strategy at all, but rather that Democratic leaders wanted nothing more than a kindler and gentler George II in the Whitehouse is alarming. It would indicate not a strategic suspension of progressive politics, but rather a complete ethical and political vacuum. Such a vacuum would amount to a call to each and every one of us to demand that issues of justice be put back on the table, whether or not the Party is listening. We do not have much time to make noise sufficient to swing the Party far enough in the direction of progressive politics to make it a viable option for the many voters whose concerns exceed mere accumulation.

Unless we stop underestimating the potential support for justice within the electorate, and unless we stop misunderstanding our religious allies in the struggle, strategy and religion will divide us again, and soon enough, divided and reduced, we will be saddled with the next face of "misunderestimation."

Progressives have less than a term to make the Party understand that it should stand with everyone who stands for justice. One way to begin to do that would be to focus efforts on one of the most compelling issues of the day: by the time of the 2004 election the Iraq war had killed perhaps100,000 Iraqis (not to mention the hundreds of thousands killed as a result of the first Gulf War and the sanctions). Currently, that number may be rising by as many as 5,000 deaths per month. What is the Party doing to stop the next person from being slaughtered in Iraq? It is now up to each one of us to think hard about what is to be done.

John Duncan is the Director of the major program in Ethics, Society, & Law at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, a Foundation Year Senior Fellow at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and founding President of the society for the study of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture (EPTC). His research is primarily in the history of western political philosophy.