Thursday, September 15, 2005

Use of Religious Language

This morning on Air America's Morning Sedition I caught part of the interview with James Traub discussing his Sep. 18 NYT Magazine article on Bono (read it here). The bit that really caught my ear was a story from the article about an interview Bono had with Jesse Helms, yes the Jesse Helms former Senator from North Carolina. Bono was making an appeal for aid to Africa and getting nowhere when he decided to change tactics and took to quoting scripture. The change on Helms was enormous ending with Helms giving Bono a hug and a blessing (I kid you not, read the story) and promising to do whatever he could.

This confirms an idea that I've long been toying with and is, I think, important in understanding the difficulty Democrats have in getting out our message. I wrote about this once before here. It is a normal part of our discourse to cite some literary or artistic example to help explain a point. One might cite Romeo and Juliet when discussing the mindlessness of a feud or one might cite Les Miserables when discussing the need for justice to be tempered by mercy. This is done not because you believe that whatever the author wrote must be true, but rather because you believe that the author has done a particularly fine job of discussing some true thing, and that this thing is true for reasons independent of the author having written it. While it is certainly true that some people do try and insist that scriptural references must be true simply because they are scriptural, I really believe that even for most people who are religious, citations of scripture are done more for the literary reasons I've discussed above than from an argument of pure authority.

Some elements of the right do argue for a strictly literal interpretation of scripture and that Religion and this sort of fundamentalist mind set are necessarily one and the same. This is a wrongheaded viewpoint and one which serves the interests only of the authoritarian right. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the left, to a very large degree, accepts this relationship. I do not understand why the left does so as it is a completely wrong viewpoint and seems to be entirely to the disadvantage of progressive politics and ideas. Furthermore, there are a large body of people who respond to ideas only if they are expressed with reference to scriptural stories.

As a consequence of rejecting religious language entirely left fails to communicate with this group. However, many of the members of this group are by nature a great deal more sympathetic to liberal causes than was Jesse Helms. Were the left to speak to these people in scriptural language on issues of poverty and the like, much support could be found. Not only is this group not hearing the liberal message, but the only folks who are talking to them are the bigoted, racist, homophobic, anti-feminist authoritarian right wingers. There are many people in the religious community who are not by nature attracted to this bigoted authoritarianism, but the only people who speak their language are the bigoted authoritarian.

We do not need to all become true believers, and lord knows we should not every pretend to hold beliefs that we do not. But many in the religious community would respond to the liberal message if folks could present the liberal message with reference to scriptural stories in exactly the same way you might do so with reference to Dickens or Hugo.

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