Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Religion, nationalism, class: pick your poison

A movement that feels it's losing ground often makes the most noise. It is strange, then, that those dedicated to expanding the place rationality in politics would be so concerned about the political influence of religion, specifically of North America’s aggressive populist Christian churchgoers.

In Canada, it is quite respectable to suggest that, maybe, it is Stephen Harper’s membership in the Christian and Missionary Alliance that motivates him when he’s “muzzling” scientists, “gutting” environmental regulations, and displaying a “low regard for statistics.”

Without what science calls evidence, Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail suggests we worry a lot more about Harper’s suspected religiosity:

“The Prime Minister is under no obligation to tell anyone about his religious convictions. But if his government’s policy-making in important areas like the environment is being motivated by religious faith at the expense of reason, it is cause for debate.”

In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik undertakes an extensive analysis of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and its relevance to his politics. He doesn’t fall for Romney, but he doesn’t see his faith as the core problem either:

“Yet class surely tells more than creed when it comes to American manners, and Romney is better understood as a late-twentieth-century American tycoon than as any kind of believer. Most of what is distinct about him seems specific to the rich managerial class of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, and is best explained so—just as you would grasp more about Jack Kennedy from F. Scott Fitzgerald (an Irish and a Catholic ascending to Wasp manners) than from St. Augustine.

“He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in the American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.”

Surely, Gopnik has got things in the right order: religion, thankfully, hasn’t been in the driver's seat in the West’s politics for two centuries.

Religion didn’t start our wars; it blessed them. It didn’t invent American “Exceptionalism” or its present suspicion about outside ideas, or Harper’s claim that Canada is now the “best country in the world.” It didn’t invent greed, negligence about poverty, Western alienation, Quebec separatism, Star Wars, or wishful thinking about climate change.

The moral issues dearest to the most pious Christians, in both countries, have largely been shunted over to overwhelmingly secular courts.

It is a laughably small bore for rationalists and progressives to dwell on the religious labels of our senior politicians. They’ve been well vetted for their ability to think empirically, to calculate, and to use modern social sciences.

Surely, nationalism remains today the force that most demeans reason and innovation in democratic politics.

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