What are the philosophical or ethical implications of mixing faith with politics? While our overriding goal must be to understand and deal with the alt-right and the rise of white nationalist politics, I think there are some important questions that the left needs to ask. Although I’m sure that lefties will have plenty of disagreements over the issues that I’m about to raise, this is not the time for squabbling and infighting.
The first question is this: should the left make more of an effort to ally with religious organizations and appeal to religious values? Once upon a time, the answer was obvious: the American left was, by and large, against mixing religion with politics. For example, the American left has long argued that the religious right has no business injecting their faith into the machinery of government. Although there have always been liberal churches, the battle lines used to be pretty clear: left-wingers and secularists on one side, right-wingers and organized religion on the other.
Although there have always been liberal churches, the battle lines used to be pretty clear: left-wingers and secularists on one side, right-wingers and organized religion on the other.
Nowadays, however, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. On one hand, white evangelicals were among Trump’s most reliable supporters. On the other hand, the mainline churches—Episcopalians, Methodists, and the like—have become increasingly (even notoriously) left-leaning over the years. Even some evangelical Christians are increasingly progressive on some issues, such as climate change and poverty. And let’s not forget the long tradition of liberation theology in Latin American Catholicism.
So to rephrase my first question: if you could persuade someone to support left-wing causes by using religious language or by appealing to faith-based values, would you? Should you? I don’t know the answer to this question, but this is a question that we should ask ourselves moving forward.
My second question isn’t really about religion. It’s about two phenomena that have historically been intertwined with religion and that have declined as religion has declined: tradition and community.
Historically, American liberals and leftists have largely dismissed tradition and community and have emphasized individual freedom. When it comes to economics, of course, the left has always argued that there should be regulation, that the economy should not be purely in the hands of individuals. But what’s the goal of this regulation? The goal is to level the playing field, to give the disadvantaged more freedom to participate. So in the end, the purpose of regulation is still to promote individual freedom.
“What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. What do I have against individual freedom? Well, I don’t have anything against individual freedom. I like having individual freedom. But I think that an overemphasis on individual freedom, and an overly dismissive attitude toward tradition and community, can be dangerous. I’ll give two examples.
The first example has to do with economics. Now, it’s perfectly possible to have a significantly left-wing economic system while still largely preserving individual freedom. Nonetheless, I think we can all agree that a libertarian individualism permeates American culture, including the socially liberal parts of that culture. Under these conditions, the message that individuals should do whatever they want, free from the constraints of tradition and community, may end up reinforcing free-market capitalism.
My second example has to do with foreign policy. I was in high school during the run-up to the Iraq war, and I remember watching as my beloved liberal values were used to justify a poorly executed and deeply misguided war. The neoconservatives might have been conservative on many domestic issues, but when it came to foreign policy, their defining feature was their militant liberalism. To put it crudely, the neocons’ dream was to go around the globe, bulldozing traditions, governments, cultures, and religions in the name of freedom and democracy.
Now let me be clear: I wholeheartedly support democracy and human rights, and I’m not saying that we need to respect societies and regimes that suppress individuality and squelch dissent. But I think that an overemphasis on individual liberty, and an overly dismissive attitude toward tradition and community, can lead to the kind of arrogance that got us into Iraq.
So here’s my second question: should American leftists be more critical of individualism and more aware of tradition and community? In fact, could a renewed respect for tradition and community—including religious traditions and religious communities—be an important step in combating the excesses of American capitalism and a possible resurgence of neocon foreign policy? Again, I don’t know the answer to this question, but I think it’s a question that the left should be asking.
Joseph Dowd is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Cal State San Bernardino. He organizes THINK, a Meetup.com group where people with diverse perspectives come together over dinner to discuss issues related to philosophy, religion, science, and politics.