Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Frederick Clarkson on Silencing the Religious Left, and Centrist Game of Ignoring Progressive Catholic Voices

Frederick Clarkson has posted an outstanding reflection today at both Talk to Action and Daily Kos about the silencing of the religious left. He notes that the attempt of religious progressives to find common ground with moderate evangelicals and Catholics continues to require that progressives concede ground to their brothers and sisters of the right. The “common ground” that progressive religionists are buying now through a new, purportedly beyond-the-culture-wars coalition, is bought at a steep price, and progressives alone are being asked to pay that price.

The price is the silencing of progressive voices in faith communities, re: issues like LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and the separation of church and state. While moderate evangelicals and Catholics negotiate with (and welcome) their brothers and sisters of the right, they caution their progressive brothers and sisters to keep silent about these issues that might stir the ire of the religious right.

As a result, what the media are tagging as the center in a new coalition of progressive and moderate believers is a center that incorporates key presuppositions of the right while excluding many significant commitments and interests of the left.

Fred Clarkson cites a prescient essay by Debra Haffner and Timothy Palmer published prior to the last election, which rang a warning bell about these developments. Clarkson published the essay in his 2008 book Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America.

Haffner and Palmer note,

Some well-meaning progressives are privately cautioning advocates for sexual justice to recede quietly into the background. ...Their concern is that differences over sexuality will hinder them from forming coalitions with moderate evangelicals and Catholics, thus forestalling the election of progressive candidates. Instead, they prefer to seek common ground with the right on shared issues.

I think Haffner, Palmer, and Clarkson are absolutely correct in this analysis (as is Peter Laarman, whom Clarkson also cites here, and whom I’ve cited recently on this blog). What’s happening in the religious sphere parallels what’s happening in the centrist Democratic beltway coalition that I analyzed in my previous posting today.

In both cases, the right continues to dominate the center, even when its political and religious positions represent the thinking of only a minority of citizens or believers. In both cases, key presuppositions of the right are presented as if they are centrist-inclusive, even while they completely exclude progressive options and reflect the minority views of the right. These moves represent the normalization, the continuation, and the mainstreaming of policies (and positions) that were repudiated by American voters in the preceding election.

As I’ve noted repeatedly on this blog, I’ve been concerned for some time now by the phenomenon that Haffner and Palmer describe—the deliberate silencing of progressive voices in the American Catholic community not only by the right, but by centrists. I’ve noted that phenomenon—and the strange silence in which it resultsre: gay and lesbian people and issues, for example, in major centrist Catholic publications and discourse communities. I’ve noted it in progressive Catholic organizations like Catholics United.

I’ve noted that, while these discourse communities and organizations defend human rights, they are conspicuously silent about attacks on the human rights of their LGBT brothers and sisters—including attacks by the Catholic church itself. I have noted my disappointment with centrist Catholic groups and discourse communities that exclude frank discourse about issues of sexual ethics—that exclude any discourse at all about these issues, in fact—even as large numbers of Catholics do not adhere to the magisterium’s position in this area.

I’ve noted the disservice centrist Catholic discourse communities do to the church when they refuse to talk about or even acknowledge the presence of their many brothers and sisters whose lives are made exceptionally difficult by magisterial teachings to which many in the center do not even adhere themselves. It is impossible to talk cogently at a theological level today about church, justice, communion, love—anything at all, actually—while we remain silent about the effects of magisterial teaching and hierarchical behavior on gay and lesbian Catholics.

As I say all of this, though, I’d like to point out that the unacknowledged secret of the campaign to lure Catholics into a centrist alliance by refusing to talk about reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and church-state separation is that a large number of American Catholics flatly refuse to buy into the positions that this campaign assumes as “the” Catholic position. As an example: various blogs (e.g., Dan Gilgoff at God and Country) are noting in the past several days that a woman featured in a No on 1 Ad in Maine (No on 1 opposes those who want to overturn Maine’s law permitting same-sex marriage) is a Catholic woman.

The Catholic mother featured in the ad notes that her faith requires her to speak out against those who would trample on the rights of a minority group. Because this particular Catholic has chosen to speak out about what her faith teaches her, she is now being attacked by Catholic groups of the right, who want to silence her voice and the voice of the millions of American Catholics who do not support the hierarchy’s current attack on the lives and rights of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and sons and daughters.

There would be no need for the draconian episcopal politics I described yesterday, in which the bishop of Marquette, Michigan, noted that his duty as “the” teacher of his diocese is to prevent discussion of homosexuality and women’s ordination, if an increasing number of American Catholics did not reject official Catholic teachings about such matters. It is strange, indeed, to observe centrist religious activists colluding with the likes of Bishop Sample of Marquette, Michigan, in locking down necessary Catholic conversations about issues like homosexuality and women’s rights, and in ignoring the significant witness of the many Catholics who intend to keep critiquing the magisterial teaching (and hierarchical politics) about such issues.

The graphic for this posting is a photo by Chris Freeland available for replication through Creative Commons.