Thursday, March 31, 2005


This is irritating: using terminology like "religious right" and "politics" as rhetorical hammering for the apparent purposes of insult and dismissal. Words and their use are critically important in social discourse, and so are the attitudes with which we make our attempts to communicate and argue our positions.

In the case of the expression "religious right" the citations are too numerous to list. Who are the users of this expression talking about? Presumably they refer to those voters and social advocates who are of conservative orientation, who voted to re-elect President Bush, and whose social positions are influenced by values they consciously derive from their church, mosque, congregation or general religious tradition.

Those who characterize these citizens as the "religious right"--the "non-religious left"?--appear to have in mind that in our society it's not legitimate to allow oneself to hold opinions, beliefs, values or specific cultural affiliations that might be derived from religion. If this appearance is true, then it is wrong on two very serious counts.

In the first place, it's wrong because religion is at the root or core of all civilization and culture. This is true, of course, of our republic and its central values--all the more true because this is an intentional society, not of gradual and accidental origin, but made by a set of deliberate choices based on issues of philosophic and religious principle. It's not only understandable but also legitimate and within the spirit of the Founders to argue social issues and policies from such ground, provided one is respectful of others' commitments. That's how the system is designed to operate. The ever-perceptive Toqueville spoke about the nation "with the soul of a Church" precisely because the wounds of religious war were not present in the American consciousness, and citizens were free to act on such principles without consequence. So it's OK, for example, to debate about civic and legal duties toward human life either from secular perspective or on religious grounds.

The second reason that using this "religious right" characterization is improper is that it's simply an attack ad hominem. More than one of my college philosophy professors would have warned us about delivering opinions in such personal terms. "Religious right" is a meaningless expression unless it's used pejoratively. All those of any persuasion--liberal and conservative--who contribute to the public debate these days would be well-advised against using such terminology.

The other misused term is "politics," as in "Oh, that's just politics." The recent pejorative use that's bothersome is in yesterday's New York Times headline for John Danforth's commentary. (Click on header above.) Politics is a good thing, not a bad thing. It is the "medium" in which social organization, especially democracy, operates. We can't avoid it. As Aristotle notes, politics and political things are useful properly to humans, who have to negotiate life together in society. They are exactly as basic as the faculty of speech, without which we are "either beasts or gods". Senator Danforth may not like the particulars of the "religious agenda" but in all honesty he should respect the legitimacy of that set of issues as they appear in the thinking of "his" party rather than censoring their consideration.

By the way, exactly how was it that the Terry Schiavo matter became a "political" issue? It was political the moment the disagreement between the parties came before a court of law and were pursued in court unremittingly until "resolved" by her death this morning. It's completely legitimate to have discussed the issues her case has brought to light. Perhaps Ms. Schiavo's untimely and unnecessary suffering will continue to bother all of us for a long time.

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