The Political Animal

The Right to Denigrate Religion


Over at Jeffrey Goldberg’s place (there’s coffee, hamentashen) we have seen a little exchange between Goldberg and Neera Tanden of the Center for American progress. The subtle but not insignificant difference of opinion has been over the balance between the right of free speech and the responsible exercise thereof. The latter, in this case, relative to that stupid movie and the infinitely more ignorant reaction to it in some Muslim quarters, concerns responsible exercise in relation to the wildly inflammatory sensitivities of some people regarding beliefs they hold. Tanden’s most recent reply to Goldberg, today, is thus:

Murdering four people for any statement is obviously both horrifying and barbaric.  And should be condemned totally. My only point to free speech advocates, of which I count myself, is that we can both believe strongly in freedom of expression and also believe that freedom should be exercised responsibly. Obviously making a blasphemous video should not be equated with murder; that doesn’t mean making a video designed to denigrate a religion, any religion, should be celebrated as an act of freedom. Its contents can and should be criticized.  One can believe absolutely in the protection the First Amendment affords a certain expression, and believe a certain expression is dumb.  It is a conflation to equate support the First Amendment and support for all content. In that way, Americans can adhere to our most fundamental principles of both freedom and tolerance. [Emphasis added]

One can see, just by the several calibrations back and forth in Tanden’s response, that this is a matter of very subtle balancing, accomplished in the end by what follows the final “but.” I find the weakness in Tanden’s argument in the two statements I have emphasized. She says,

It is a conflation to equate support the First Amendment and support for all content.

However, the issue is not “support for all content.” It is support for the expression of all content. This is the crucial issue that, in her apparent distaste for what the video expresses and her support of tolerance toward religious views, Tanden overlooks. This is specifically an argument over a principle, and the principle has nothing to do with the content, but with the expression of it or any content.

More closely relative to the content of the video itself, Tanden says

that doesn’t mean making a video designed to denigrate a religion, any religion, should be celebrated as an act of freedom.

Actually, it does. I do not say this because of the content of the video; other than a few tidbits from news reports, I am unfamiliar with the content. Once again, though, Tanden is missing where the emphasis should be in clarification of the principle. No, the content should not, all depending, necessarily be celebrated. But the “making [of] a video designed to denigrate a religion”; that is to say, the right to make such a video should be celebrated, and – this is so fundamental as to be inseparable from the right – a right that cannot be exercised without unjust consequence, and must therefore be voluntarily restricted,  is no right at all.

I will go a step further. I will say, even, that the critical content of a video denigrating a religion should be celebrated. I do not mean any particular critical content. From the little I know, the content of this video is puerile – so by critical content, what I mean here is critical nature. The critical nature of any expression against religion, or any other set of ideas, should be celebrated as the very action of critical discourse – for which in an enlightened world there should never be violent consequence – regardless of the quality of the criticism or discourse.

People’s reactions to politicized debate consistently reflect an unexamined piety that transcends any political divide, even that between the religious and the secular. Whether about Islam more globally, or, these days, Christianity and Mormonism domestically, that piety is the profession that people’s faiths, even if they are not shared, should at least be respected. But there is nothing other than circular reasoning to argue that a nonbeliever should acknowledge any religious doctrine, far from sacred, as anything more than just another set of ideas. From the standpoint of reason, we know religious doctrines are generally something less than just another set of ideas.

For the past week I have severely criticized the ideas of Judith Butler; one might say, in the ridicule I have leveled at them, that I have even denigrated them. There is no question in anyone’s mind of empathy for any violent response to such criticism. There should not be, either, any empathetic consideration for a violent response to criticism, now matter how severe, of the doctrines of religious faith.

From that standpoint of reason, we need to consider religious doctrine as we would any other set of ideas, any other conduct, any other argument or claim about the nature of the world. There is no good reason – no reason at all – to treat faith any differently. No faith, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others commit their lives and pray to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, including that of faith, must earn our respect intellectually, not be awarded it uncritically.


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The Political Animal

Politicians, Faith, and Reason

Invariably in American politics, the faith of political candidates will be scrutinized. Because of protestant strains in the nation’s colonial origins and its long-time demographic majority, the scrutiny has always been heightened for the non-Protestant. In the evangelical age, for the Protestant, the scrutiny has taken the form less of a necessary demystification – and easing of anxiety – than of personal testimony. Even for a Protestant, though the faith required no justification, the call has been for representation in biography. From a George W. Bush, the MSM acquiesced in seeking to know how religious faith would comfortingly shape Presidential rectitude and decision making. For a JFK, a Mario Cuomo, or a Mitt Romney, the anxious, mistrustful call from a media still representing a Protestant perspective was for reassurance of all the ways religious faith would not shape their performance in office. Cuomo, like many Catholics, needed to assert that whatever his own beliefs about abortion, he would not impose them on Ceasar’s realm. In contrast, for a Protestant conservative these days, the demand is that the office seeker commit to imposing his beliefs.

Mitt Romney, as that Mormon man of faith more deviant even than Catholic or Jew, has provoked even greater anxiety. Thus we get standard reviews of the role of religion in his life like that by Jodi Kantor in The New York Times.

When Mitt Romney embarked on his first political race in 1994, he also slipped into a humble new role in the Mormon congregation he once led. On Sunday mornings, he stood in the sunlit chapel here teaching Bible classes for adults.

Leading students through stories about Jesus and the Nephite and Lamanite tribes, who Mormons believe once populated the Americas, and tossing out peanut butter cups as rewards, Mr. Romney always returned to the same question: how could students apply the lessons of Mormon scripture in their daily lives?

Now, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mr. Romney speaks so sparingly about his faith — he and his aides frequently stipulate that he does not impose his beliefs on others — that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.

But dozens of the candidate’s friends, fellow church members and relatives describe a man whose faith is his design for living. The church is by no means his only influence, and its impact cannot be fully untangled from that of his family, which is also steeped in Mormonism.

Smug enough are the faithful that they will little consider the anxieties of those more committed to reason – which is not to say cold logic – than faith. Easy enough even for the Christian to mock the Nephite and Lamanite tribes and even the poor resurrected Jesus having been transubstantiated from Judaea to the Adirondacks. What enables this smug ease is both the difference and recency of Mormon belief. Christianity and Judaism, even considering the ultimate tensions between them, receive protection under the halo of religious antiquity. Adherents excuse themselves from the “faith fallacy,” the implicit belief that while all their other ideas in public life must withstand logical scrutiny, the peculiar spiritual and doctrinal notions they profess and even embody in life need meet no similar test of reason. So we read of Romney that

Mr. Romney’s penchant for rules mirrors that of his church, where he once excommunicated adulterers and sometimes discouraged mothers from working outside the home. He may have many reasons for abhorring debt, wanting to limit federal power, promoting self-reliance and stressing the unique destiny of the United States, but those are all traditionally Mormon traits as well.

The non-Mormon person of faith may ratify or not these practices as national policy or culture, but regardless mistrust their source. The non-faithful may wonder how this differs in the least from the Catholic Church seeking to build a wall of protection around itself in violating the rights and equal protections and access by women in its employ to contraception and other reproductive services. One is to feel more reassured, over the the Golden Tablets in Manchester New York, by the Holy Trinity?

“He is an unabashed, unapologetic believer that America is the Promised Land,” said Douglas D. Anderson, dean of the business school at Utah State University and a friend, and that leading it is “an obligation and responsibility to God.”

It is one argument to make that the United States is existentially exceptional by virtue of the historic ideas that gave rise to it, the long success of its democratic and constitutional system, and the wide embrace of its motley and vibrant immigrant culture. It is an entirely different, arrogant, and dangerous argument to make the essential claim attributed to Romney above. Many, more traditional Christians believe it too.

There are many reasons to mistrust Mitt Romney, as many to abjure his vision of the country. But if his Mormonism is cause for concern, it is a cause and concern no different from those that any other religious doctrine should engender. And any scrutiny of its doctrine and sense – and the effects they might have on U.S. policy and American life – should be equally applied to all faiths.


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