«1 On (Not) Arguing about Religion and Politics In the spring of 2003, during the American invasion of Iraq, my friend Michael attended a peace vigil. ...»
On (Not) Arguing about
Religion and Politics
In the spring of 2003, during the American invasion of Iraq, my friend
Michael attended a peace vigil. As he stood quietly on a street corner with
other participants, a young man leaped very close to his face and screamed:
“Traitor! Why don’t you go to Iraq and suck Saddam’s dick?” Michael was
taken aback by the vehemence with which the insult was delivered as much
as by its indelicacy. Why, he asked, does disagreement make some people so angry?
This is and is not a rhetorical question. That is to say, it is a question about rhetoric, and the question requires an answer. In A Rhetoric of Motives Kenneth Burke asserts that “we need never deny the presence of strife, enmity, faction as a characteristic motive of rhetorical expression” (20). But in America we tend to overlook the “presence of strife, envy, faction” in our daily intercourse. “Argument” has a negative valence in ordinary conversation, as when people say “I don’t want to argue with you,” as though to argue generates discord rather than resolution. In times of crisis Americans are expected to accept national policy without demur. Indeed, to dissent is to risk being thought unpatriotic.
Inability or unwillingness to disagree openly can pose a problem for the maintenance of democracy. Chantal Mouffe points out that “a wellfunctioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions. If this is missing there is the danger that this democratic con© 2006 University of Pittsburgh Press.
2 ON (NOt) ARguiNg AbOut ReligiON ANd POlitics The Boondocks © 2003 Aaron McGruder. Dist. By Universal Press Syndicate. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
frontation will be replaced by a confrontation among other forms of collective identification” (Democratic 04). When citizens fear that dissenting opinions cannot be heard, they may lose their desire to participate in democratic practices, or, to put this in terms congenial to Mouffe’s analysis, they may replace their allegiance to democracy with other sorts of collective identifications that blur or obscure their responsibilities as citizens.
Something like this seems to have happened in America. Members of a state legislature flee the state’s borders in order to avoid voting on a bill that will gerrymander them out of office. Other legislatures are unable to cooperate well enough even to settle on a method of deliberation. Authorized public demonstrations are haunted by the possibility of violence. Media pundits tell us that “the nation” is “polarized.” Citizens do not debate issues of public concern with family, friends, or colleagues for fear relationships will be irreparably strained in the process. Joan Didion suspects that we refrain from discussing current events because “so few of us are willing to see our evenings turn toxic” (23). Didion writes that some issues, such as America’s relations with Israel, are seen as “unraisable, potentially lethal, the conversational equivalent of an unclaimed bag on a bus. We take cover. We wait for the entire subject to be defused, safely insulated behind baffles of invective and counterinvective. Many opinions are expressed.
Few are allowed to develop. Even fewer change” (24). Clearly this state of affairs threatens the practice of democracy, which requires at minimum a discursive climate in which dissenting positions can be heard.
Discussion of civic issues stalls repeatedly at this moment in American history because it takes place in a discursive climate dominated by two powerful discourses: liberalism and Christian fundamentalism. These two discourses paint very different pictures of America and of its citizens’ re© 2006 University of Pittsburgh Press.
ON (NOt) ARguiNg AbOut ReligiON ANd POlitics sponsibilities toward their country. Liberalism is the default discourse of American politics because the country’s founding documents, and hence its system of jurisprudence, are saturated with liberal values. The vocabulary of liberalism includes commonplaces concerning individual rights, equality before the law, and personal freedom. Because of its emphasis on the last-named value, liberalism has little or nothing to say about beliefs or practices deemed to reside outside of the so-called public sphere. Indeed, in the last fifty years American courts have imagined a “zone of privacy” within which citizens may conduct themselves however they wish, within certain limits (Gorney 35–39). Fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, aim to “restore” biblical values to the center of American life and politics. If they have their way, Americans will conduct themselves, publicly and privately, according to a set of beliefs derived from a fundamentalist reading of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. One might say, then, that the central point of contention between adherents of these
discourses involves the place of religious and moral values in civic affairs:
should such convictions be set aside when matters of state policy are discussed, or should these values actually govern the discussion?
Because most Americans subscribe at the very least to the liberal value of individual freedom, the increasing popularity and influence of Christian fundamentalist belief has created debate, often acrimonious, on many issues of current public concern: abortion rights, prayer in school, same-sex unions, and censorship, as well as more explicitly political practices such as taxation, the appointment of judges, and the conduct of foreign policy.
And even though the variety of fundamentalist Christianity I will here call “apocalyptist” is professed by a minority of religious believers in America, its adherents’ vocabulary and positions have indeed begun to influence policy developed in civic spheres (see chapter 5). Furthermore, terms and beliefs invented within this discourse (“family values,” “partial-birth abortion,” “judicial activism”) have entered common parlance—the discursive realm from which rhetorical premises are drawn.
I forward the ancient art of rhetoric as a possible anodyne to this situation, in the hope that rhetorical invention may be able to negotiate the deliberative impasse that seems to have locked American public discourse into repetition and vituperation. I hope to demonstrate that the tactics typically used in liberal argument—empirically based reason and factual evidence—are not highly valued by Christian apocalyptists, who rely instead on revelation, faith, and biblical interpretation to ground claims. We thus need a more comprehensive approach to argument if Americans are © 2006 University of Pittsburgh Press.
4 ON (NOt) ARguiNg AbOut ReligiON ANd POlitics to engage in civil civic discussion. Rhetorical argumentation, I believe, is superior to the theory of argument inherent in liberalism because rhetoric does not depend solely on appeals to reason and evidence for its persuasive efficacy. Since antiquity rhetorical theorists have understood the centrality of desires and values to the maintenance of beliefs. Hence rhetorical invention is better positioned than liberal means of argument to intervene successfully in disagreements where the primary motivation of adherents is moral or passionate commitment. Susan Jacoby provides a compelling description of the role played by passion in the maintenance of belief and of the difference it makes in terms of persuasiveness: “In August 2003, when federal courts ordered the removal of a hefty Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama State Supreme Court building, thousands of Christian demonstrators converged on Montgomery.... They were not only outraged but visibly grief-stricken when the monument was moved out of sight. It was, one demonstrator said with tears in his eyes, like a death in the family. Secularist civil libertarians who had brought the lawsuit, by contrast, spoke in measured objective tones about the importance of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state” (364). I hope to establish that deeply held beliefs are so tightly bound up with the very bodies of believers that liberals’ relatively bloodless and cerebral approach to argument is simply not persuasive to people who do not accept liberalism or whose commitment to liberalism is less important to them than are other sorts of convictions.
I need to say up front, however, that rhetoric is not a magic bullet. A rhetorician can make no promises when it comes to changing minds, particularly those of people who are invested in densely articulated belief systems. Usually people invest in such a system because it is all they know, or because their friends, family, and important authority figures are similarly invested, or because their identity is in some respects constructed by the beliefs inherent in the system. Rejection of such a belief system ordinarily requires rejection of community and reconstruction of one’s identity as well. Hence the claim I make in this book for the efficacy of rhetoric is limited: it will work better in the present climate than liberal argumentation because it offers a more comprehensive range of appeals, many of which are considered inappropriate in liberal thought. In order to be of use in a postmodern setting, however, the conceptual vocabulary of rhetoric must be rethought. If this can be accomplished, rhetoric can become a productive means of working through issues that concern citizens.
© 2006 University of Pittsburgh Press.
ON (NOt) ARguiNg AbOut ReligiON ANd POlitics American Liberalism and the Second Coming Mouffe and Ernst Laclau define hegemony as “the achievement of a moral, intellectual and political leadership through the expansion of a discourse that partially fixes meaning around nodal points. Hegemony... involves the expansion of a particular discourse of norms, values, views and perceptions through persuasive redescriptions of the world” (qtd. in Torfing 302).2 A discourse that achieves hegemony in a given community is so pervasive there that its descriptions of the world become thoroughly naturalized. Furthermore, its conceptual vocabulary literally “goes without saying”—that is, its major terms are seldom subjected to criticism. Liberalism has enjoyed hegemonic status in American discourse since the early nineteenth century. Apocalyptism has an even longer history in America, but it has never achieved the hegemonic status enjoyed by liberalism or by mainstream Christianity, for that matter. I will argue that at this moment in history, however, a version of Christian fundamentalism, driven by apocalyptism, is in hegemonic contention with liberalism because it motivates the political activism of the Christian Right. The considerable political and ideological successes of this faction have rendered the terms and conjectures of liberalism available for examination and possible redescription. In democracies a serious challenge to a hegemonic discourse is likely to create uneasiness and rancor because ownership of the master terms of political discourse, and hence of political and cultural power, is at stake.
Liberalism emerged as a set of political beliefs and practices in company with capitalism during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.3 According to Anthony Arblaster, the fundamental values of political liberalism are freedom, tolerance, privacy, reason, and the rule of law (55). In an American context equality should be added to this list. There are many varieties of liberalism, among them the classical liberalism of Mary Wollstonecraft; the utilitarian liberalism of John Stuart Mill; the welfare-state liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt; and the contemporary merger of liberalism with free-market capitalism in the ideology called “neoliberalism,” exemplified by the centrist politics of Bill Clinton (Lind). Welfare-state liberalism is no longer influential in American politics; Senator Ted Kennedy, who supports subsidized health care for all Americans, is a lonely avatar on the national level. Nonetheless, surveys establish that most Americans still support welfare-state liberal programs such as Social Security and Medicare. More important from a rhetorician’s point of view, America’s founding documents are saturated with liberal principles. Hence children © 2006 University of Pittsburgh Press.
6 ON (NOt) ARguiNg AbOut ReligiON ANd POlitics and adults who apply for citizenship are exposed to liberal beliefs while becoming acquainted with America’s civic lore. Not the least notable assertion in that lore is that “all [citizens] are created equal.” The necessity of placing brackets in this famous line points up the fact that exclusions were endemic to Enlightenment liberalism. Despite this, the liberal values of equality and liberty are the most inclusive political values ever incorporated into a polity, and they have been used repeatedly since the nation’s founding to extend civic and civil rights to previously excluded groups (Condit and Lucaites). Liberal beliefs permeate our judicial system, as well as our daily talk about “freedom,” “equality,” “privacy,” and “rights.” That is to say, bits and pieces of liberal ideology still circulate widely in public discourse in the form of commonplaces, and it is on the level of common sense that liberalism (still?) enjoys hegemonic status.
I am aware of course that liberalism is ordinarily contrasted to conservatism. However, nonreligious conservatism is a minority discourse in America, as is illustrated by the cases of neoconservatism and libertarianism. Our national politics has moved to the right since the 970s because of a powerful alliance forged during that decade between conservative political activists and apocalyptist Christians (Diamond, Spiritual 56–60).
The social agenda that motivates the religious Right is of little interest to economic conservatives, but their acquiescence to it was required in order to amalgamate a voter base that was sufficiently extensive to elect conservatives to office. While this collaboration has not been entirely free of ideological strife, it has achieved astonishing results in elections at all levels.