Monday, March 14, 2005

On Using Ministers as Evidence

I'm interested in how people argue religiously in public on public matters. Over the past couple of presidential elections the role of religion and the rise of "moral voters" has only heightened that interest, as well as the interests of many other folks far smarter than myself. If the Constitution guarantees us the right of practicing (or not) any religion or belief system of our choosing, then it only makes sense that people will take advantage of that right. And, people do. But what happens when it comes time to legislate for everyone, regardless of his or her religious practices and beliefs? How does religion fit into our public debate and reasoning? Do we argue in public the way we argue in church, quoting the Bible or Augustine? Do we "translate" our religious reasoning into more broadly accepted reasoning, and is this possible or even desirable? These, and many other questions seem to appear in the debate over how we debate.

Given how easy it is to get lost in all these questions, I think it's good to just take a peak every now and then at what people are doing. Look at what Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has to say about the budget:
Mr. President, earlier this week, I met with a group of Ministers from a host of Protestant denominations. They were very concerned about the budget, and shared with me a story from the Gospel of Luke about a rich man and the poor man who lived at his gates named Lazarus. In life, the rich man lived a grand life and paid no attention to the poor man, refusing to come to his aid. But in death, it was Lazarus who went to Heaven and the rich men who suffered in Hell.

Their purpose in telling me the story was to point out the immorality of turning a blind eye to economic injustice. And they wanted to make a larger point about the Bush 2006 Budget, which, as they put it, has “much for the rich man and Little for Lazarus.”

And when you examine the Bush budget through a moral lens, as these ministers have done, you can clearly see the injustice and the lack of values in it.
How, then, has the head Senate Democrat decided to talk religiously?

First, he did so through the words of others. Rather than speaking on and from his personal religious experience, Reid relied on the words of a "host of Protestant denominations." Not only did Reid avoid having to establish a personal connection to religion, he was able to be ecumenical with his use of religious beliefs. There were many different Protestants, not a few, so Reid might not have alienated people in the way he might of had he been just quoting Evangelical or Mainline ministers.

He continues this distancing-of-sorts through a narrative that suggests discovery, rather than familiarity in regards to the story from the Gospel of Luke. In Reid's telling, the ministers are cast as active agents, bringing a passive Reid a story from the Gospels that Reid is happy to pass on to us, his readers. Even though the Gospels are far more familiar to Christians than the rest of the Bible (save for the Garden, the Ark, and the Whale), Reid comes across as almost surprised at the story that appears in the Bible and he seems eager to present it in all of its curiousness.

Second, Reid places the action in the story on the religious leaders, not himself. Even though he actively went to the ministers in his telling of the events, as his narrative continues the ministers become active agents that are eager to present their interpretation of scriptures and its applicability to the U.S. budget. This seems to suggest that Reid isn't too involved with religious reasoning on public affairs, creating a distance between him and claim that he might be violating any church/state norms.

Third, Reid's statement suggests that religious reasoning is sufficiently accessible to people, since it can be understood as a "lens" through which we can look and see "clearly "injustice" and a "lack of values."

What Reid's statement establishes and maintains, then, are a particular set of implied rules and norms regarding religious argument in public debate. It seems that religious reasoning can be used by a politician, but it's best if it is done in a distanced way, so that a politician seems almost curious about the religious argument, rather than committed to it. Reid's statement also suggests that religion isn't all that exotic a strand of argument since it has wide applicability to public concerns and that many can use it sucessfully.

What Reid's statement doesn't do, however, is suggest ways that a deeply religious politician might use his or her religious beliefs for public reasoning--without having to bring up someone else as a vessel to carry it in.


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