Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Peter Laarman on Common Ground Between Religious Right and Left: The Price Is Silencing of Progressives

Peter Laarman has a wonderful statement at Religion Dispatches today that dovetails with themes discussed recently on this blog.

Yesterday I highlighted a reflection that my colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker at Enlightened Catholicism had posted here, noting the futility of trying to argue from a progressive political and religious position to common ground with those on the right, given the totally different starting points of religious-political progressives and conservatives.

Laarman agrees. His statement is an extended critique of the idea that there is some common ground between the religious right and the religious left. In Laarman’s view, the two occupy separate universes, and practically speaking, they find common ground only on the right’s terms, when progressives concede their ground to the right in the interest of collaboration.

Laarman notes that the process of appeasement accelerated after the re-election of George W. Bush, in which the religious right played a pivotal role. At that point, progressive religious leaders proposed dialogue and collaboration between the religious left and right, in the hope that those on the progressive end of the spectrum might domesticate those at the other pole, tempering their rhetoric if not their positions.

In Laarman’s view, the upshot of this “collaboration” has been something entirely different:

What has happened instead amounts to moving the goalpost rightward: some notably sex-phobic evangelical and Roman Catholic individuals and entities have been rebranded as the progressive forces watch, while actual progressives (solidly feminist and pro-LGBTQ religious leaders) have disappeared from view.

And so, as I’ve argued constantly on this blog (most recently here), the center has shifted to the right, and a primary effect of that shift is that those occupying the center now do the right’s work of policing centrist dialogues to rule out all discussion of key issues that are discussed freely in the culture at large but not in the churches, including gay and lesbian rights, or, in the Catholic context, the crisis precipitated by clerical sexual abuse of minors and the hierarchy’s cover-up of that abuse. There is now a deliberately cultivated silence at the center which imagines discussion of those issues as distasteful:

The silencing of a progressive religious voice for the sake of creating an imaginary common ground is also evident in the informal agreement to remove entire issues—marriage equality, for example—from the table. Whereas abortion can be admitted to the conversation on the right’s terms, equal rights for sexual minorities cannot be admitted at all. The religious right’s position, “we’re not even going to discuss this,” becomes tacitly accepted by everyone else.

Laarman’s analysis dovetails with mine. He argues that the religious right is not merely content to occupy its own turf, but wants as well to “intimidate and police what there is of the religious middle.” As a result, he thinks, religious progressives make nice to the religious right (and its centrist allies) to our own peril.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my Catholic brothers and sisters of the center don’t intend to talk about the savage exclusion of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from the church, even when they discuss the credibility of the church in the world today. They don’t want and will not talk about the shocking abuse of church funds by Catholic dioceses and organizations intent on bashing gay people.

Nor will they talk about the untold millions of dollars that continue to be spent as dioceses, religious communities, and Rome itself still seeks to cover up the trail of sexually abusive clerics. Or about the real-life effects of that abuse on the real lives of those abused.

Just as my brothers and sisters of the center have given every possible signal that honest, open discourse about the real-life effects of the church’s savage treatment of its gay and lesbian members is inappropriate and theologically insignificant, they also give strong signals that honest, open discourse about the real-life effects of clerical abuse of minors is inappropriate and theologically insignificant.

The ultimate effect of these right-serving canons of taste now hedging our discussions at the center is to make those discussions meaningless, a polite exercise in nattering about nothing at all. While we talk about the church’s credibility in purely academic terms, imagining ourselves dispassionate and above the fray, millions of Catholics are walking away in disgust due to the various forms of abuse they experience at the hands of the church. The most significant theological data that we have to discuss if we’re to discuss the credibility of the church in any compelling way is not even on the table.

And that’s just sad.