Last Sunday I made a Zoom presentation of a talk that had been scheduled BP (Before the Pandemic) with the Ethical Humanist Society of Asheville. In the talk, I returned to issues that have concerned me on these pages since the beginning, but now in a period of conflagration with intensified awareness of their import. Here is the gist of my remarks, which I entitled “Religion and the Republic: Parent, Prophet, or Problem?”
We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis that strikes at the cultural basis for our commitments to being a constitutional republic. It is a crisis riven by the historic fault-lines of slavery, racism, genocide of the original Americans and exploitation of the land itself. Now the coronavirus has laid bare these lines of fracture. Our Constitutional order sought to separate out the historic religion that had legitimated public order since the age of Constantine and replace it with belief in reason and science. The new order of persuasion, deliberation, negotiation, and compact would rest on appeals to scientifically verifiable truths of the actual world the participants hold in common.
However, the religion that had been sequestered into the private sphere, with its domesticated patriarchy, always sought the more expansive power manifested in the Biblical template of messianic kingship. In recent decades the work of reason and science has been undermined by both reactionaries and radicals by the acids of suspicion about the ways “reasonable words” can and have masked over the power interests of dominant groups and organizations. (Al Gore presents a fuller analysis in his The Assault on Reason republished with a new epilogue in 2017.) With its legitimacy undermined, our constitutional order has not been able to hold off the theocratic nationalism fostered by appeals to Biblical templates of political domination. A God with the lineaments of a despot—unconstrained, all-powerful, omniscient, retributive and mysteriously gracious—could re-emerge to begin breaking down the delicate separation of powers, the norms of reasoned debate, negotiation, compromise, and of a republic ordered by law.
To begin the exploration of where we go from here, to draw on M. L. King Jr.’s famous book, I pointed to three endeavors: A reconstruction of what it means to be “a people,” a religious reworking of our God image away from the despotic model of unitary omnipotence, retributive justice, and arbitrary power, and an intensified imagination of a form of truth arising from the ecological sense of the interconnection of the whole web of being.
I then developed the understanding of “the People” that emerged in Western civilization to mean the assemblies of face-to-face argument and mutual accountability. This is a far cry from the conglomeration of individuals or the mobs of self-appointed vigilantes that tend to clog the airwaves. Secondly, I pointed out how there are alternatives to the despotic God lifted out of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures that can better speak to the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the mutual respect and accountability at the heart of democratic republican order. And finally, I indicated a few ways we might think of the common good in the context of ecological interconnection. You can read the whole piece by clicking HERE.
We engaged in lively discussion of these challenges, free of masks, socially distanced but engaged, trying to be the public argument and mutual accountability that we need to re-activate if our public life is to make it through this epidemic rooted in our estrangement from the natural world and from one another. This wide-ranging conversation is what groups like the Ethical Humanist Societies were founded to pursue and I was grateful to be a part of their conversation. Your own experiences with this struggle are welcome in the comment section below.