Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Religion is part of the Great Conversation, and there is something peculiar about the argument that, like politics, it is not a fit topic for the dinner table. Why not the dinner table? We eat too quickly anyway (my family, together last Sunday for the first time in ages, devoured the labour of an entire afternoon in about eight minutes flat), and, speaking for myself, I'm not terribly interested in what my dinner-mates have to say about sports or last night's episode of Dancing with the Stars. But I do care what they think about the origins of the cosmos and, more particularly, how the place ought to be run now that it's here.

Having made her faith a very public matter, Governor Sarah Palin has, rather predictably, recoiled in the past weeks when some of its weirder aspects have come to light, and she has objected rather indignantly that it's terribly rude of voters to ask questions about religion. But dinner table etiquette is categorically not binding when choosing candidates for public office, let alone for that public office. Politicians cannot simultaneously claim that their faith is important to them, informs their worldview, and underscores their moral and ethical decision-making, only to turn around and insist that it's a private matter and exempt from public scrutiny and criticism the moment there's the merest breath of concern voiced about it. Either their faith helps them make choices — choices that affect other peoples' lives — or they are religious hypocrites. Either way, it's on the table just as surely as the salt and pepper shakers are.

I teach at a nominally religious institution, but, in hiring me, that institution is prohibited by law from asking questions concerning my views on religion. I see the point: that there ought not to be religious discrimination in hiring practices. The problem arises when the constitutional principle that there be no religious tests for office is extended to mean that a candidate's religious views are immune from ordinary public scrutiny. This position fails to make the crucial distinction between denying someone the legal right to hold office because of his or her religion, and a citizen making a private decision to vote for or against a candidate for the same reason. The first would be an example of the state exercising religious discrimination, which it positively must not do; the other is an example of a citizen exercising religious freedom, including the freedom to differ with others on matters of faith. If Barack Obama claimed to be without faith, would Sarah Palin urge religious voters to give the matter no consideration? Please.

This distinction is a crucial one, but seldom made. Personally, if I were ever asked, I would without hesitation wave my constitutional right to be exempt from questions of religion in a job interview. Religions invariably address themselves to matters of morality, ethics, and epistemology — although I am weary of the claim, sometimes made, that they are the sole authority on such matters — and these realms of human inquiry happen to be absolutely central to teaching.

I realize that some of my postmodernist colleagues believe that it is straightforwardly authoritarian to suggest to students that there are such things as "right", "wrong", and "truth". (The next time a postmodernist tells me this, I intend to poke him in the eye, and then explain that, from my subjective point of view, a poke in the eye is neither mean nor painful.) But activist or advocacy-based teaching is not the goal, and no professor worth having will ever claim to know the truth for certain (teachers, said Pythagoras, need not be wise, only lovers of wisdom.) What the infusion of the eternal questions of moral, ethical, and epistemic philosophy into the more specific concerns of any field does do, however, is situate our discipline, and the teaching of it, within the compass of the Great Conversation - the Conversation about how we should live.

Politic life, too, is part of that conversation. Politicians routinely are asked questions about their economic policies, standpoint on social issues, perspectives on foreign relations, and even about such piffle as their favorite sports team. (In our recent election, an individual who calls himself a journalist wasted his five seconds with the Prime Minister by asking him what type of vegetable he'd choose to be.) So it seems not merely absurd but actually rather insidious that some people consider religion a matter about which politicians cannot be interrogated, even when politicians themselves choose to raise the issue in the first place.

The soon-to-be President-elect Barack Obama, I think, has a good deal to answer for in his former choice of church and pastor. And as for Sarah Palin, well, I do not think we will hear much from or about her after November 4th, except in the inevitable and no doubt increasingly tedious Saturday Night Live sketches. But if anyone ever gets the chance, they should feel at liberty to ask her what a person who believes that the world is 6,000 years old is doing making decisions about the allocation of government resources into education.


Graham Broad said...

My point was made for me today when Senator Elizabeth Dole (Republican, North Carolina), wife of former Senator and 1996 Presidential candidate Bob Dole, ran an ad accusing her opponent, Kay Hagan, of hanging around with atheists. If non-belief can be subject to scrutiny and criticism, so can belief.

Graham Broad said...