The Religious Left--Part 1--Universal Victimization

By Mike Dorf

On Friday, Cornell Law School celebrated the publication of my colleague Steve Shiffrin's new book, The Religious Left and Church/State Relations.  I've discussed much of the underlying work with Steve (whom I greatly admire) but I must confess at the outset that I haven't yet read the book (though I plan to do so), and so these comments are based on the panel.  It featured commentary by Kent Greenawalt, Sally Gordon, and Bernadette Meyler.

Shiffrin argues that the religious left is better positioned to respond to the religious right than is the secular left.  By the "religious left" he more or less means to refer to people who self-identify as religious and who support separation of church and state at least in part based on their religious convictions. Shiffrin's pragmatic case notes that the great majority of Americans have some religious convictions, and so arguments that banish such convictions from the public sphere--as the Rawlsian notion of "public reason" would--will ring hollow or at best incomplete.  If the secular left wants separation of church and state, it would do better to take a back seat to the religious left, which wants the same thing but can argue for it in terms that have broader appeal.

In this post I want to make an observation.  In a follow-up post later in the week, I'm going to register a doubt about the likely efficacy of the strategy.  Here's the observation:  We now seem to have reached a place in our public discourse on religious matters where nearly everyone feels victimized.

Recent books by prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris all, in one way or another, urge atheists to "come out."  And with seemingly good reason: With polls showing that atheists are among the most despised, least trusted minorities, atheists might be borrowing a page from the gay rights movement and trying to show their religious fellow citizens that atheists are their friends, relatives and neighbors.  Of course, this round of books is not at all effective for that purpose, because the books tend to treat religious belief as a form of irrational, often immoral, superstition.  I don't know whether these authors intended to insult religious people, but it wasn't hard to predict that this would be the effect of their writings.  It's therefore probably best to read the recent atheist books as round one.  They aim to raise consciousness among atheists themselves, who can then feel the power of their numbers and later argue for acceptance and even changed policies.

Meanwhile, the religious right has for some time been promoting its own narrative of victimization.  The supposed "war on Christmas" has now morphed into a "war on Christianity"--a term being used by some on the religious right to describe laws in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. that extend protection against hate crimes for LGBT persons and efforts to respect Muslim traditions.  Googling "war on Christianity" produces over half a million hits. You can't make this stuff up.

So, if atheists and the religious right feel persecuted, surely the religious left feels secure, right?  Nope.  It was striking to me how, during the panel on Shiffrin's book, Professor Gordon (whose work I much admire and whom I like very much) repeatedly spoke for the religious left as though they are a persecuted minority.  She reported to having felt lonely, isolated, and even scorned by her progressive friends in the academic world for taking religion seriously.  Reading Shiffrin's book was for her empowering.  She realized that she was part of a great silent plurality if not majority, that would be silent no longer.  And she directed her anger not at the religious right but at the secular left, at one point wishing that the likes of Richard Dawkins would "shut up."  I believe Gordon meant the point in jest; she doesn't literally want to censor the atheists; and I suspect that she would not exactly say she is victimized for her religious convictions.  But still, I perceived real anger.

It is tempting to take from these competing narratives of persecution the lesson that America has become a nation of over-sensitive whiners, or worse, that our public life is so fractious that we cannot engage each other respectfully despite our diverse views about ultimate value and meaning in life.  But I would resist both temptations.  Certainly Shiffrin himself has repeatedly shown in my conversations with him that it is possible to understand the strength of views he does not hold.  Greenawalt specifically noted how the book is scrupulously fair in its treatment of opposing views.

As for Americans more broadly, it strikes me that competitive victimization is simply an effective political rhetoric.  In many contexts, differences about religious matters are simply not salient.  Thus, for example, on Thursday night, I had the good fortune to attend Game 2 of the World Series, where strangers of all religious faiths, and no religious faith at all, came together to high-five one another and in unison chant "who's your daddy?" at Pedro Martinez, united by the true American faith: That with enough money, and a Presidential pardon for illegal campaign contributions, you can assemble the best baseball team on the continent.  Go Yankees!