Monday, September 21, 2015

When Absolutists Collide

The fuss over Ben Carson's remarks against the prospect of a Muslim President, following on the reaction to a frothing Birther bigot at a Donald Trump rally, made me think that people might benefit by knowing -- or remembering -- some history. When John F. Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he had to contend with bigots who claimed that as a Catholic, he would be loyal to the Vatican first, and to America second -- and probably a distant second at that. The only previous Catholic presidential candidate, Alfred Smith, who ran in 1928, "was dogged by claims that he would build a tunnel connecting the White House and the Vatican and would amend the Constitution to make Catholicism the nation’s established religion."  According to this writer:
On Nov. 22, 1963, my home state of Mississippi was, like every other state in the South, solidly Democratic. And yet, according to my American History teacher, who was standing before a class in Columbus that day, when the intercom blared that President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, had been assassinated in Dallas, her students responded with applause.

Imagine: Americans cheering the death of their own leader. Students whose parents almost certainly identified themselves as Democrats whooping it up that the leader of that party had been killed. My teacher, Judy Morris, was telling that story to another Mississippi classroom nearly 30 years later to illustrate the virulent anti-Catholic hatred that pervaded the South. She said her own grandmother, who given Ms. Morris' age must have been born in the late 1800s, had eventually reached a point where she could be cordial to black people. But the Catholics? No, sir. She could never stand the Catholics. And didn't mind saying it.
This knowledge might be enlightening to Democrats who insist that no President before Obama ever had his patriotism, his religion, or his nationality questioned -- in fact, numerous Presidents have been denounced on those grounds; Franklin Roosevelt, for one.  And impugning the patriotism of one's political opponent is as American as cherry pie.

Some historical knowledge might be also be useful to Americans who are upset by the prospect of Muslim refugees being allowed into the US. Their claims that such refugees will not assimilate are exactly what was said in the United States about Catholics in the 19th century, and about Jews before and after that.  That great advocate of liberty, Thomas Jefferson,
... looking at the Catholic Church in France, wrote, "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government", and "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
I doubt that the Founders would have welcomed -- or even that they foresaw the possibility of -- a Muslim President, or a Catholic one, let alone a black or female one.  Most probably didn't think about the logical outcome of some of the principles they wrote into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  Historically, it's true, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has generally been hostile to modernity, and has been politically active to suppress reforms, but it was ironic for the slaveowner Jefferson to single out Catholicism as the foe of liberty.

Since the 1980s, of course, the most reactionary American Protestants have made common cause with the most reactionary Catholics; no one can say Catholics haven't assimilated.  But there's a problem here, namely the widespread belief that (one's own) religious beliefs must not be criticized, and indeed don't say anything about one: that they are trivial details like skin color, beyond one's control, unchosen and virtually innate.  Other people's beliefs are fair game, of course.  So, for example, as he denounces the fundamental Constitutional principle of religious liberty, Ben Carson stresses the importance of protecting the religious liberty of Christians.

As Daniel Larison wrote about Carson today,
It’s a mistake to view Muslims as a monolithic bloc, and it’s simply wrong–and contrary to the principles of our political system–to insist on subjecting Muslims to a harsher and more demanding standard than that applied to the adherents of any other religion. On top of that, it is self-defeating to insist on the great importance of protecting religious liberty for Christians while declaring in the next breath that members of a religious minority cannot be considered fully American. That is essentially what the Carson campaign has been saying to defend the candidate’s remarks, and that’s a deplorable thing to say.
Christians aren't a monolithic bloc either, though they often like to pretend otherwise.  A Roman Catholic priest, writing at the National Review site last year, complained about remarks by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who "blithely declared that anyone who is pro-life on the issue of abortion or who is opposed to gay marriage is 'not welcome' in his state of New York."  Father Robert Barron saw this as anti-Catholic rhetoric.  But first, while antigay bigory has long been fostered by Roman Catholic leaders in New York, it isn't exclusive or specific to them: Cuomo was also rhetorically showing the door to all bigots, regardless of their sectarian affiliation.  If Barron felt singled out as a Catholic, maybe he should examine his own prejudices.  Second, Catholics are not monolithic either: many Catholics are pro-choice and pro-gay, indeed many are gay themselves.  As usual in such controversies, Barron hoped his readers would believe that the doctrines and practices of the uppermost levels of the Catholic hierarchy equal Catholicism, and forget that most Catholics neither agree with nor follow them.  Barron himself wants critics to believe that all Catholics have the same beliefs and values, and that they have no choice but to follow them; which is false.  Catholicism, like any other religion, is a lifestyle choice.  Third, it's entertaining to see this protest against religious prejudice published at the website of a mangazine which fosters and defends anti-Muslim bigotry.  But that's different, isn't it?  It's always different.

A commenter on Larison's post argued, probably with some accuracy, that Carson "was suggesting a belief widely held among evangelicals that they won’t vote for Muslim candidates, won’t vote for atheists or agnostics, won’t vote for LGBT people, won’t vote for Hindus or Buddhists."  That, of course, is every voter's right, though I think that Carson -- like his fans -- is vague on the distinction, given their inability or refusal to understand what "freedom of religion" means.  They make it pretty clear that they don't believe freedom of religion extends to non-Christians: not only would they not vote for a Muslim, they don't believe a Muslim should be permitted to hold office.  Many Americans believe that it's wrong (for other people) to decline to vote for a candidate because of his or her expressed beliefs, be they religious or political.  (I'm not sure what the valid reasons to vote for someone are.)

People who make the link themselves -- e.g., I'm opposed to same-sex civil marriage because I'm a Christian -- would like you to believe that disagreeing with them constitutes prejudice and persecution.  What is prejudice is assuming that all Christians, or Muslims, or Jews believe the same things.  I've been trying to find something Walter Kaufmann once wrote, that it isn't the advocate of equality who believes that everybody is the same, it's the bigot who believes that all Jews, Muslims, women, gays, blacks are the same.  And this needn't be because of the bigot's religion: he or she chooses to highlight accept and practice those teachings which support his or her bigotry, and to try to drive out co-religionists who don't.