On Using Religious Language in Public, Right and Left

Conservatives are fond of using scripture to support their arguments, and they are great at tapping the emotional heart of a story. Liberals, not so much.

To reiterate just for a moment the points about narrative I made the other day, when confronted with an opposing worldview, it’s all well and good to make fun of it — humor can be a very useful polemical tool — but to be really effective, you have to offer more than just mockery. You have to give a meaningful alternative.

That’s much easier and much more effective if you can tell a story. A classic liberal dilemma is the instinct to respond with facts and figures when conservatives offer up narratives. The progressive position is often correct on the merits but not anywhere near as persuasive as the conservative view because it fails to tap into the emotional core of the message. Anyone who’s read George Lakoff understands this much.

Not surprisingly, for religious believers, scripture is a deep well of stories. Sarah Posner named two of the most popular ones on the conservative side in her report from the Values Voters Summit: David and Goliath and the story of Esther. Both fit the conservative framework of opposition to overwhelming power very nicely. It’s no wonder they keep coming back to them time and again.

We don’t do nearly as good a job on the liberal side.

Take, for example, this piece by CAP Senior Fellow Sam Fulwood titled “Loving Thy Neighbor: Immigration Reform and Communities of Faith“. It’s a perfectly serviceable headline, as is the entire article, which discusses the myriad ways local religious groups have found to work on the immigration issue. Nothing wrong with that. It’s all very nice in a Matthew 25 kind of way, and I certainly wouldn’t want to sniff at the underlying work.

Likewise, at a press conference plumping the release of Fulwood’s report, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina cited James. “Look out for the widows and orphans in your midst,” Clyburn urged, in reference to needy immigrants.

Again, perfectly acceptable. But neither Clyburn’s exhortation nor Fulwood’s title scratches very deep. Their frame of reference seems to be something like, “many Americans are Christians, Christians are supposed to be loving people, therefore on the subject of immigration, Americans ought to (and in fact do) support the loving option, namely welcoming immigrants into their midst and helping them to better their lives.”

This frame has some advantages: it calls upon Americans’ better nature, recognizes the role religion has played in advancing immigration reform, and provides at least some alternative to the hate-filled rhetoric coming from the right on immigration. But it also has its disadvantages. For one thing, it relies much too heavily on an individual, voluntaristic ethic. There’s no compelling reason to get behind immigration reform if one does not already support it. Most important, there’s no connection to a larger story to help people make moral sense of what’s going on.

Imagine how much more powerful the press conference could have been if Clyburn had followed up his citation from James with the section immediately following, with its condemnation of partiality and its challenge to put faith into action. The Congressman could have easily told the story of how some people prefer the rich and powerful to the poor, but how the churches in Fulwood’s study chose to take all of James’ advice and live out the gospel. That’s obviously a much richer frame than simply, “be good to one another.” It allows the hearer to place him or herself in a role in the story of faith, and adds some meat to the argument.

And as it turns out, the Bible has rather a lot to say about “aliens” and “strangers,” little if any of which is based on loving your neighbor per se. The people of God are commanded to treat foreign residents justly as a matter of their history and identity. Moreover, practicing hospitality reflects the very nature of God. Leviticus says:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Here the narrative frame comes easily. America too is a land of “aliens,” and as God watched over the immigrants who came to its shores, so too those immigrants must offer a hand up to those who have come after them. That’s who we are as Americans – or so the argument ought to run – and that’s what it means to follow the Lord.

Speaking this way has its own problems. Obviously, not every American is the descendant of immigrants, and some who are did not come by choice. Nor do all Americans find appeals to religious commitments persuasive. But understanding the commandment as a call to radical equality gets around the first difficulty: a nation that prides itself on its immigrant past has no business in oppressing immigrants — and it owes something to those it pushed aside to make its own migration possible.

Likewise, I realize that it makes more than a few people uncomfortable to hear appeals to follow the Lord in the public square. But I have to ask what’s worse: coded appeals or overt language? Whatever the first spares non-believers in offense, it loses in distorting and trivializing the faith. If believers are to speak about their faith and its imperatives, let them do so openly. Let them put it out where it can be argued! As Louis Ruprecht is fond of saying, “Religion is not protected in the United States. Free speech and thought are.” So if we are going to grapple with competing moral visions, we ought to at least do so in a way that takes them seriously.

That is why I’ve gone on at such length on the subject. It occurs to me that using religious language as a gloss to indicate moral seriousness doesn’t take faith seriously. For that matter, it doesn’t take seriously the idea that there are competing worldviews at work in our political discourse, let alone offer a meaningful alternative.

Calling on Americans to “love the neighbor” or to “look out for the widows and orphans in your midst” assumes that all citizens are of goodwill toward one another, and only need gentle encouragement to bring out their basic decency. It also assumes that they see one another as deserving of respect and loving care. Given recent events, I’m not sure either of those assumptions is warranted.

It’s going to take a lot more than just a few name-checks of scripture to get our commonwealth back on the rails. It’s going to take an entirely new story, one that is not afraid to confront the dominant narrative and to suggest a different way of understanding the American identity and purpose. Right now I don’t see that coming out of the Beltway. That’s something I’d love to be proved wrong about, but there it is.

Originally published at Religion Dispatches.

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