Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

24 Dec 2007, 1:14 a.m.


Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Another response to an old pal, this one more than a year in the waiting.

Last year, Zed Lopez criticized me for being -- as I perceived it -- pro-happiness, pro-togetherness, pro-tolerance etc. I'd enjoyed some language in a speech by Barack Obama on religion and politics. Mr. Lopez, among others, was unhappy with the talk because they thought he was being too soft on those who want to increase or legitimize the role of Christianity in public life.

I don't dispute that religious fundamentalism is real and dangerous in the US. And it's not like I've always been on the winning side of the culture wars.

At the time, I was basically happy with Obama's speech because of my preference for civility and hope -- Mr. Obama had made a speech that I read as pro-hope and pro-connection, as Walter Holland put more eloquently at the time. Andrew Sullivan* in The Atlantic Monthly this month:

To be able to express this kind of religious conviction without disturbing or alienating the growing phalanx of secular voters, especially on the left, is quite an achievement.

But Mr. Sullivan's not getting that right, because Obama did alienate secular voters with that speech. And Mr. Lopez was one of them. He saw the speech as "advocating not being so darn persnickety about keeping religion out of school and government." What? No! At least, 90% of the speech wasn't about that. More on the other 10% in a few paragraphs.

I think part of what Mr. Obama was saying was that we have a natural tendency to listen better to people who make an effort to connect to our legitimate sentiments. To take that further, I have a natural tendency to listen a little better to people who don't literally insult me. In explaining his distaste for Mr. Obama's message, Mr. Lopez linked to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who, admittedly as a wounded person the day after the 2004 election, blew up at me for no fault of mine. And scorn, cross words, etc. are usual for him. So I was discounting his opinions pretty heavily (despite earlier progress).

This fall, Leonard got to hang out with Mr. Nielsen Hayden at Viable Paradise, and says he's an all-right guy. So I'm taking that into account now. And from a later comment of his, praising Scott Rosenberg's work, I can tell that "f*** you" doesn't mean to him what it does to me; part of the reason I had been offended was on behalf of my old colleague's honor. And Scott Rosenberg can obviously defend himself.

This is maybe why this post has been germinating in my drafts pocket for a year and a half; I wanted to disengage from the hostility I felt and that one of the participants in this dialogue expressed, but still address it.

Now, 17 months later, Mitt Romney has said bigoted things about nontheists. Not just our party's values share roots and expression with religious values, but

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom....Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

The followup: "A spokesman for the Mitt Romney campaign is thus far refusing to say whether Romney sees any positive role in America for atheists and other non-believers..." Wrongheaded, delusional, and completely the opposite of Mr. Obama's speech; dividing America instead of reaching out. If you think the Democrats should watch out for the slippery slope of reaching out to religious constituents, listen to Mr. Romney:

We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders - in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history...
Well, he's eliding the deism of the founders, and the fact that "under God" got inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s, and that our currency started its God-fearing ways during the Civil War, and that of course there's no way to teach world or US history without talking about religion and no one is seriously arguing that mentioning the Quakers in a public school is going to get a teacher fired. But more than that: these are government policy proposals and positions. Not just possible implications, not just likely or unlikely readings, but flat-out stated "the government should do this." And gah!

Okay, we disagree on how we read Mr. Obama's speech. But he's Michael Newdow compared to Mitt Romney. And this is including the most disagreeable passage in Mr. Obama's talk:

But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God." I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.

I can see both sides of the latter two points, but come on about the Pledge. It's just idiotic to think that "under God" belongs in a required public school pledge; it's there because of inertia and because it's a wedge issue.

The really important places where church encroaches upon state are like the ones Mr. Lopez mentions -- atheists, Jews, etc. harassed at public schools and the Air Force Academy, denied jobs or promotions at state and federal agencies, and so on. Those are obviously wrong and all reasonable people understand and object. The borderline bits that Mr. Obama mentions above are more controversial, and get more press, frustrating and dividing moderates. Mr. Nielsen Hayden had a similar problem with Mr. Obama's speech ("yes, I caught his obligatory dance-of-even-handedness....what aspects of his speech got covered in the national media?"): he believed it played into the hands of bigots.

How problematic is that? Well, it seems I've come across both sides of Postel's Law. I need to work on being more open and sensitive in my readings of other people's thoughts, and I (especially powerful I twenty years from now) need to take exceptional care in my words and their implications.

Perhaps the best symbol of church-state transcendence is the secular sainthood my generation has draped upon the Rev. Fred Rogers, as evidenced in the comments for the goodbye video from Mr. Rogers. He saw that TV was crap, so he worked to improve it for the sake of children everywhere. On his public television show he never proselytized, though he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. And talk about Postel's Law! He listened to kids' fears so he could comfort them, which is why he sang that song about how you don't have to worry about being sucked down the bathtub drain. And just try to find an instance where he said an unkind word to anyone, or something that even out of context sounds bad.

He listened and spoke carefully and well, even when addressing political issues (PBS funding, Sony v. Betamax). I gotta get on that. Right speech is part of right living. And that's what I've been struggling with over that 17-month-old keynote. Did I divide myself from a friend by celebrating inclusiveness? If most of its ideas are technically correct or even incisive, but an effect of it isn't, then is it right speech? And then there's the basic skill of calmly listening to people who disagree with me. Which reminds me of the bit of that controversial speech that I liked the best, and quoted the first time around:

A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

* Note that Sullivan's article mistakenly places the speech in June of 2007, not last year.