Faith & Public Policy


Address delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Swannanoa Valley  January 16, 2005

Media accounts of the 2004 General Election proclaimed values to be a foremost concern of American voters. The question isn't whether values belong in political discussions. Values are the rules of thumb we use to help us choose. No nation or sentient being has ever lacked for them. The debate, as always, is which values? and how shall they be imparted to those who don't agree?

"Faith" and "faith-based values" are not exempt from the confusion and contradictions. Even within the Christian tradition, and, for the moment, excluding sectarian disputes, these terms can attach to categorically different things. The nonviolent Christian leadership of the 1950s and '60s civil rights movement typifies one form faith-based values can take. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow organizers believed in the wisdom and public applicability of the old-fashioned golden rule. They put their faith on the streets and into the deliberations of government from the courthouses of the South all the way to the halls of Congress. Dr. King's example helped those who marched with him find the courage to face the dogs, the fire hoses, the beatings, and the jail cells without retaliating in kind. His grasp of the deep meaning of brotherhood enabled him to withstand discouragements brought on by weak-kneed political allies and the "appalling silence of the good people." By the light of the golden rule, he saw that Jim Crow's defeat was not the end of the struggle. Another system of values, one which reduced persons to things, remained abroad in the land. So long as America "thingified" people, he said, it would continue to exploit the poor at home and abroad and would use military power to protect its investments.

Dr. King's values were the fruit of a personal spiritual understanding. Despite his position in the church, he led by example and the enactment of his beliefs.  Historically speaking, this method of applying faith to questions of public policy is a recent development. For purposes of this discussion, faith with a small "f" or the term spiritual will be used when referring to a personal relation with the divine. Value systems arising from faith and which depend primarily on personal example rather than institutional power, will be designated faith-based with a lower case "f."

Faith with a capital "F", or the term religious, will mean the general class of Faith and Faith-based values arising from institutional understandings and power. The line separating faith from Faith can be fuzzy, but the differences are easy to see at the extremes. Faith is what happens after faith draws a crowd and reports of spiritual encounters have been transformed into dogma. Leadership by personal example gives way, perhaps inevitably, to coercion or force.

If faith is a latecomer to the political stage, Faith has long been a player. Priestly interpretations of God's will prior to the Age of Enlightenment in Europe led to massive bloodshed, including the Spanish Inquisition, Henry VIII's campaign against English Catholics, and the slaughter of a third of the population of Germany. Where Faith remains politically prominent, as in India, Ireland, and the Islamic theocracies, sectarian violence persists. This type of Faith is not, at heart, a spiritual hope or understanding. It is, as William James pointed out, an emotionally driven tribal mentality organized around religious dogma. Holy wars are us-versus-them conflicts as surely as those fought over race or ethnicity. It was Martin Luther and John Calvin, not God, who blessed the butchery of Anabaptists during the Reformation's competition for souls.
Precisely because religion had so often been the battle cry from the Crusades through the Reformation, Enlightenment thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries worked to remove Faith from politics. Reason had to be a better basis for the social contract. Not surprisingly, religious leaders opposed the idea. Martin Luther put it bluntly, "Reason is the greatest enemy Faith has." He then proceeded to emphasize his objection to Reason in language that would redden the ears of FCC commissioners.

But Luther was on the losing side. The purviews of Reason and Faith were separated, and Reason was given preference in disputes between the two. No longer would one group's interpretation of the divine be allowed to dictate the behavior of others. This breakthrough ended the holy wars and the worst of the persecutions. It opened the door to science and technology. America's founding fathers enshrined the Enlightenment solution in the very first sentence of the Bill of Rights.

And what, finally, is Reason? During the Enlightenment, Reason was akin to humanism. On paper it was holistic, including an appreciation for the spiritual and emotional experience of humankind along with the determination to let evidence and the empirical method lead where they may. Today, Reason typically means much less. It has been stripped of emotional, spiritual, and artistic dimensions. We're left with, "Just the facts, Ma'am," a set of logical rules for relating facts to each other, and a system of social values dominated by production goals.

There's nothing humanistic or humane about this whittled down version of Reason. Unbuffered rationality can be as corrosive to the human spirit as the old Faith-based system ever was. Instead of slaughtering people of different religious persuasions, we abuse the power of superior technology to exploit human and physical resources, to economically enslave entire populations, and to dump or destroy whatever gets in the way or isn't cost-effective.

Many of us join the evangelical community in deploring a system in which the only public values that seem to count are those geared to process and profit. When the United States Supreme Court can hold, as it did in Herrera v Collins, that due process, not Herrera's actual guilt or innocence, was the determining factor in whether he should be executed, something is wrong. Something is wrong when money tips the scales of justice and when celebrity excuses misbehavior. Something is wrong when Wall Street rewards corporations for grabbing all they can, as long as they don't get caught. Something is wrong when news programs are designed to sell soap rather than to inform the public. Something is wrong when the entertainment industry wallows in blood and crude depictions of sex because that's what we'll pay to watch.

But history suggests that a Faith-based government won't correct much of that. Nor does it justify any hope that American theocrats would resist the temptations that made monsters of some of their churchly forebears. In fact, the present coalition between neoconservatives, big business, and religious fundamentalists threatens us with something closer to the least humane of worlds, corporate globalization with crusades, a planetary game of chicken in which the leaders of the new political trinity bicker, as they will, for control of America's steering wheel, while we hurtle down the road toward delusions of unfettered hegemony, unlimited money, or Armageddon.

Our challenge is to discover and implement alternatives to this scenario. I don't pretend to have the answer, but a deeper look at how our minds are put together may offer a starting place. Once again, words, powerful as they are, leave a lot to be desired as thinking and communications tools. Take, for example, what it means to know or to believe. I used to have to clean the gutters around my house. I didn't look forward to the job because whenever I got out there on the edge of the roof, I believed two things. Part of my mind believed I would fall; it ran movies for me about what that would be like. Another part of my mind told me I wouldn't fall and recited the precautions I'd taken to prevent it. I experienced these conflicting beliefs differently. Falling came to me in emotion, physical sensation, and gory visuals. Not falling was a rational argument, given in words.

These two mental systems are fairly distinct neurologically as well as subjectively. And they're useful for different things. Psychology has long recognized that excessively rational people often marry specialists in emotion. Though they complain they can't understand each other, one partner gets somebody who can change a tire; the other gets help with his or her social ineptitude.
Rationality and emotional gestalts aren't the only modes of awareness and believing. Spirit is something else again. Ineffability and illumination, not words or pictures, characterize it. Direct spiritual perception is certain, beyond any previous certainty. The usual boundary between existence and me is dissolved. In other frames of mind, mystery and unclarity beg resolution. In spirit mode, mystery is a wonderful and comforting thing. The thought of solving it seems absurd. As with rationality and emotion, brain science is discovering the physical characteristics associated with this third form of perception. The three systems can be considered voices, whose counsel may complement or conflict when their jurisdictions overlap.

Within us, as within society at large, emotion lays an essential foundation. Through the immediacy of feelings, it guides us and connects us to each other. But it also causes tribal separations. And emotion is lousy at arithmetic.
Rational thinking comes to the rescue. It tempers unhelpful emotion and solves problems abstractly, by manipulating words and concepts. What the Age of Enlightenment did for European culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rational thinking did for each of us as adolescents and young adults. But rationality has its own limitations. It is the great thingifier. By reducing everything to abstract objects, rational thought separates us from each other and even from ourselves.

This is where spiritual awareness, not the old tribalism of Faith, comes into its own. It unites us again, not only with each other but also with existence at large. Spirit knows no objects. When we mistreat, we mistreat our greater self.
The bad news is, of course, that the ineffability of spirit makes it the hardest experiential mode to communicate. If there's truth to the recent announcement of a "God gene", some of us may have no more ability for direct spiritual perception than a color-blind person has for seeing green. And among those who do have first-hand experience, differences of interpretation are enormous. It seems unlikely that a Roman Catholic Pope will awaken to a state of samadhi any time soon.
When we think of applying spiritual understanding to public policy, it's worth remembering that both Jesus and Gautama specifically declined offers of earthly rule. They knew spirit couldn't be imposed; it can only be invited, enacted, and nourished where it may exist. So, when religious leaders talk about putting a Christian, Islamic, or other God in government, is it spirit they're discussing, or Faith setting out rules for tribal membership?

The role and relationship between faith and Faith is in a constant state of renegotiation. The questions aren't easy. Perhaps no passage in secular literature poses the issues more beautifully than does the story of the Grand Inquisitor told by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Paraphrased, it goes like this.

Dostoevsky imagines that Jesus returns to Earth from time to time to make himself known to saints or to lend comfort in times of trouble. And so he appears in Seville, Spain, during the darkest hours of the Inquisition. The fires of the auto da fé blacken the sky with the ashes of heretics. The people are in a constant state of panic and despair. Despite the turmoil, they immediately recognize him. They cluster around, begging to be healed. Jesus grants their wishes.
But the old cardinal prosecuting the Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor, happens to pass by. He too recognizes Jesus. With a flick of his finger, he signals his guards. Jesus is arrested and imprisoned.
Late that night, the door to the prisoner's cell opens. The ancient Inquisitor enters alone. He asks, "Is it You?"
Receiving no reply, he asks again.

The prisoner remains silent.

The cardinal, tired of waiting, says, "Don't answer; be silent. Indeed, what can You say? You have no right to add anything to what You've already said.
"Why did You come to hinder us? For You have come to interfere, and You know it. But do You know what will be tomorrow? I don't care whether You're Him or just a semblance of Him. Tomorrow I will burn You at the stake as the worst of heretics. The very people who kissed Your hand today will, at the faintest sign from me, heap coals on Your fire."

The prisoner remains still.

The old man continues, "You have no right to reveal the mystery of the world You come from. Didn't You always say, 'I will make you free'? But You've seen these free men. It's taken us fifteen hundred years to fix the mess You made. You look meekly at me and pretend not to be angry, but do You know that most people can't wait to be free of Your freedom? There's nothing more frightening. They lay it at our feet. It's we, not You, who strive to make men happy.
"You failed them in the desert. For them, You could have picked up the stone and turned it to bread, but You refused. What's Your promise of bread in heaven worth to the starving? We give them bread, declaring it to be in Your name. That's our suffering. For their good, we must lie."

The prisoner continues to listen.

The Grand Inquisitor resumes, "Your freedom confused them. People want certainty, someone to worship, and they need a feeling of community. For the sake of these things, they've been slaughtering each other for centuries. You had the chance to prevent that too in the desert. Mankind would have fallen on its face before You, but You refused. You ignored the common man in favor of an elect minority who could understand you. Ordinary people need answers, not questions. They want peace, not wrestling with their consciences. So we're correcting Your second mistake by ruling in Your place. We tell them it's not about freedom or love. It's a mystery to be blindly followed. And they do; they follow us like sheep."
Seeing that his words still bring no reply, he commands, ”Come on, don't stand there looking at me with those searching eyes. Get mad. I don't want Your love. I don't love You. Why am I even bothering to talk? You already know everything in my heart. But I'm going to tell You the secret of our mystery anyway. We work for the one You refused in the desert. We accepted the sword of Caesar. The world would long ago have been at peace if You'd only done that. But no, You left the job to us.
"You can have those few who understand You. We'll rule the rest. Yes, they'll be slaves. We'll teach the freedom of submission and weakness. We'll let them sin---with our permission---tell them it's okay. God will forgive them. They'll look to us as gods.

"And everybody will be happy except for us, their rulers. We know the truth. They aren't going to heaven. Heaven isn't for them; it's for the exceptions, the strong ones who relish your freedom and who live on locusts in the desert somewhere. When You return for them on Judgment Day I'll stand and dare You to judge us for what we did. I don't fear You. I once lived in the wilderness, eating roots and locusts. I prized Your freedom and strove to be one of Your elect. But then I woke up. I stopped serving Your madness and returned to the humble people to work for their happiness instead.

"I'll tell You again. Tomorrow You'll see the flock that worshipped You today heap coals on Your fire. If anyone has ever deserved to burn, it's you."

The cardinal stands, the silence weighing down upon him, for an answer. He must have a response, however bitter or terrible. Suddenly, the prisoner steps forward and kisses the old man's bloodless lips. That is his only answer. The Inquisitor shudders. He goes to the cell door and opens it, saying "Go, and come no more, not ever!" The prisoner disappears into the dark alleys of Seville.

The story ends by noting that, although the kiss continues to glow in the cardinal's heart, he goes on about his business as before.

It's a hard mystery Dostoevsky offers. Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi understood its ramifications all too well. And yet they and their followers chose to enact the glow in their hearts. It emerged in a thingifying world as proof that people can be better and can do better by each other. Dr. King must have been tempted to fight segregationist fire with fire. But he knew he couldn't win that way. His victories were achieved by means more subtle and potent, the skilled use of invitation and shame.
The cardinals of modern society have nothing to lose and everything to gain by resorting to skulduggery in their pursuit of power. For the sake of their own consciences, they must prove the golden rule impractical. They're challenging those who believe otherwise to put up or shut up. Whenever we avoid the temptation to abandon the principle of universal brotherhood in order to save it, we take another step along the road pioneered by Dr. King and the other champions of the kiss.  A step toward a society steeped in faith and a new system of faith-based values, one lit not by the purifying blaze of inquisition but by the kindly light of inspiration.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2005 all rights reserved



Copyright © 2007 michaelhopping.com