Thursday, August 08, 2013

Telling Religious Progressives Apart From Religious Conservatives

To me, two of America’s core beliefs have always been “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state.”  This influenced my selection of three of the books I read during my now-concluded 7,000-mile cross-country road-trip

It’s personal.  Many of my ancestors suffered religious persecution, some fleeing to America 375 years ago to escape it, others fleeing America 167 years ago to escape it.

These issues are not just historical.  Even today, “75% of the world’s population lives under high or very high legal restrictions on religious freedom,”  and as I departed a month ago lawmakers where I live were bent on superimposing religious beliefs on my adopted state of North Carolina, as has often been tried in various states since the 1970s.

On my trip, I read these:  If you are open to learning more about freedom of religion from both a sides of the coin, I highly recommend reading:

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul” by John M. Barry

The First Muslim” by Lesley Hazleton

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Dr. Reza Aslan

The book about Mohammad is coincidentally written by a woman who is Jewish, the one on Jesus by a religious scholar and former Muslim turned Christian, turned Muslim.Economic Orientation

It is clear that Mohammad had alliances with Jewish tribes.  Late in life, he also had a Jewish wife and was grateful to Christians who gave Muslims safe harbor at the beginning during times of persecution by Arabs.

Cast out of Mecca for his beliefs, Mohammad was sensitive to official persecution.  It is also clear that six hundred years earlier, Jesus was very disturbed by the close connection between religion and government during his lifetime.

The Puritan cleric Roger Williams first brought to America the values of religious freedom and tolerance as well as English Common Law.

His influence on England regarding those issue extends many years after his immigration to America and both before and after the English Civil War.  Incredibly, he spans King James, Edward Coke, Roger Bacon, Oliver Cromwell. King Charles and John Locke.

The colony Williams established and nurtured in America was plausibly the first in the world to outlaw slavery in 1652.  An interesting example in the book dealt with Quakers, a belief we associate today with pacifism but whose members when they first arrived in America in the 1600s were confrontational activists and demonstrators.

The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony cracked down hard on Quakers, whipping and deporting them.  Williams was no fan of Quakers but he truly believed in not only freedom and tolerance for all religious beliefs but that government and religion should be very separate.

The book also delves into the impact of Williams on the issue of liberty.  Even under the U.S. Constitution, Americans still seem to struggle today between the Puritan view of liberty as a group vs. Roger Williams’ concept of individual liberty.

It seems that whenever the influence of religion on society is perceived to wane, those who see that as negative are alarmed and try all the harder to embed it in laws and government.

A Gallup tracking poll this year shows that 77% of Americans see the influence of religion on society as decreasing while 20% see it as increasing.

Many of those seeing the decrease as a bad thing seem to seek in desperation to embed it in laws and government, while many of those who see it on the increase fear a blurring the lines between church and state.

America seems to work best when the two perceptions are in check as they were in 1963, 1978, 1988 and 2003. Either way, many seem conflicted about the separation of church and state.

Interestingly, another newly published study documents that 19% of Americans are religious progressives, 38% religious moderates, 28% religious conservatives and 15% nonreligious (which does not mean they are not spiritual.)

Moderates outnumber progressives and conservatives combined but telling is the survey finding that:

“Nearly 8-in-10 (79%) of religious progressives say being a religious person is mostly about doing the right thing, compared to 16% who say it is about holding the right beliefs…

By contrast, a majority (54% of religious conservatives say being a religious person is primarily about having the right beliefs, while less than 4-in-10 (38%) say it is mostly about doing the right thing.”

More than 80% of religious conservatives believe that if enough people had a personal relationship with God, social problems would take care of themselves.  Nearly 7-in-10 religious progressives disagree.

Blacks are often presumed to be overwhelmingly religious conservatives but the study shows that more than half are religious moderates (30%,) religious progressives (14%) or nonreligious (7%.)  Only 28% of Hispanics and 40% of whites are religious conservatives. 

Republicans may misjudge the level of overall religious moderation or religious progressivism in this country because they are twice as likely as Independents or Democrats to be religious conservatives.

Religious progressives are also younger and more diverse and far more heterogeneous when it comes to religious affiliation.

Belying the gridlock among lawmakers today, only 25% of Americans are economic conservatives compared to 42% who are economic moderates and 34% who are economic liberals.  However, four times as many white Americans are economic conservatives as black Americans and Hispanic Americans.

Also different than what is reflected in the media or by lawmakers, only 29% of Americans are social conservatives compared to 46% who are social moderates and 24% who are social liberals.  Democrats and Independents are primarily social moderates as are 43% of Republicans and even 41% of Tea Party followers.

All of this is masked, it seems to me, by the fact that America is only representative when it comes to democracy and that representation is gerrymandered by politicians and political parties.

As a moderate Independent, it seems to me that the preponderance of social and economic moderates and liberals compared to conservatives on those issues should be of far more concern to Republicans than views on immigration.

It may also explain why so many Republicans, when they are in the majority as they are in North Carolina, appear so desperate, un-statesmanlike and prone to menace and mischief rather than seeking to govern on on behalf of all of the people of the state.

Doing a great disservice to other members of that party, they forget that it because of Independents, mostly moderate that they were elected at all.

To the issues of religious freedom and separation of church and state which came down to the founders through Locke from Roger Williams, nearly 9-in-10 religious progressives believe religion is a private matter and should be kept out of public debates while only 49% of religious conservatives hold that view.

I find this information fascinating and a useful context in which to understand the extreme actions of lawmakers today and how far out of synch they seem to be with public sentiment or democracy.

Unfortunately, far too many people are not open to information and as found in research reviewed by Dr. Keith Stanovich in his book “What Intelligence Tests Miss”, seem to “hold their beliefs like possessions.”

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