Jewish law prohibits public viewing of the deceased, considered an act of disrespect. In essence, the reasoning behind this prohibition is that the dead can no longer speak for themselves and are thus subject to manipulation by the living. The same holds true for God. Whether or not you believe in a God — and I confess profound doubt — claimed revelations notwithstanding, what we know of the divine ultimately derives from human attribution. Big surprise: those attributions tend to coincide with the particular beliefs and views of the attributor; more often than not, serving her or his own purposes. When all else fails, we justify our actions with a God says, directs or wants, all declared with absolute and unquestionable (how dare you) certainty. I like to call it the arrogance of attribution.
Which brings me to Glenn Beck. Perhaps the most significant bit of news by far out of last weekend’s Lincoln Memorial gathering was not the crowd’s size or any particular speech but his decision to shift from the expected theme of politics to one of God. Perhaps the broadcaster was moved by the sage advice given months back to attendees at the February Tea Party Convention. As Sarah Palin put it then, it would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again. Of course to many in this group God and politics are an indivisible one. God has been integral to the Conservative playbook, and perhaps to its success, since the Reagan years. Sure the economy sucks but playing to anger goes only so far; playing the God-card is so much more attractive and potent. How exactly this crowd would address high unemployment if in power takes some concrete explaining, invoking the divine invites no questioning. As such, it’s a political no-brainer. So take careful note, George Bush may be gone but God is back. That may not be good news.
Before going further, let me digress to identify the God in question. The one of this particular arrogant attribution is an ultra Conservative God as largely seen by a certain group of Christians — a Libertarian God would be a stretch even for them. Beck and company have made it clear that this definitely isn’t an Obama kind of God — even if he is a Christian and a citizen, the President, they proclaim (inaccurately), follows that alien liberation theology not the real faith. Theirs is the God who is opposed to abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage. To be sure it’s the same one resolutely opposed to any separation of church and state. And that brings me to the larger implications of God’s return that transcend Beck’s gathering.
For starters, let’s consider the June 26 NY Times column by Yale’s Linda Greenhouse, Nine Justices and Ten Commandments. In it Ms. Greenhouse, who had the Supreme Court beat for thirty years, uses the backdrop of the still not completely resolved issue of displaying the 10 Commandments on public ground to suggest that at least four and perhaps five sitting Justices have no real commitment to separation, certainly not an absolute one. This of course has major implications for the likely Proposition 8 appeal and the abortion rights cases that will come before the Court, perhaps sooner rather than later. Add to that the August 14 decision by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth halting President Obama’s Executive Order modestly relaxing the Bush restraints on stem cell research. By the way, that decision has stopped much of ongoing stem cell research dead in its tracks.
The issue discussed by Greenhouse reflects the generalized power of those, like Beck, who would impose their God-attributions on the rest of us, which includes a growing number of citizens who don’t believe in God or whose faith doesn’t include the big Ten. But the others are even more to the point. Abortion and stem cell research are ultimately medical/scientific issues. The only reason to outlaw them is on religious grounds, what is attributed to God. The stem cell issue is particularly troubling because however important reproductive choice, and I consider it fundamentally important, it can be said to impact directly on only a portion of the population. Embryonic stem cell research has the potential of impacting on every one of us. It boggles the mind how one can be pro-life and not leave a single stone unturned in an effort to prolong or improve its quality. Forget the hypocrisy of opposing the destruction of embryos for medical research while happily dumping the same life-matter into the laboratory dustbin. So, too, with the definition of marriage and opposition to same-sex unions, which are solely based on religious grounds, very narrow religious grounds to boot. Why do all these things? God says so, the arrogance of attribution.
The return of God in our politics is made possible and legitimized in part by the continuing myth of America a religious country. This is not to suggest that many Americans, perhaps still a majority (if only in name), are not personally religious. But that is not the same thing. Part of the reason the political Right, particularly those with a religious agenda, have been so successful is that the media buy into that myth and fall into line even if the facts don’t match the words. Once spoken, the language is set. And the wordsmiths’ influence is powerful. While not related to God is back, a case in point is that even now, and despite its own reporting discrediting that description, the august NY Times still headlines stories on the proposed Islamic Center as pertaining to the Ground Zero Mosque. More on point is the headline accorded to a twenty-two and a half minute interview given by the President to NBC’s Brian Williams. The setting was New Orleans on the 5th anniversary of Katrina and beyond that subject there was considerable discussion of the economy and of the exiting troops from Iraq. For less than a minute of that long exchange the subject of religion came into play. What was the headline of the video on the Washington Post’s website? Obama discusses his faith. Glen Beck wants to change the subject and he’s getting a great deal of help from people who should know better and upon whom we rely for accurate information.
If each an every one of us believed in God or even if those who held such a belief shared the same attribution and the same consequences, perhaps that God is back wouldn’t be so bad. That is not the case, and without diminishing or disrespecting the rights or questioning the heartfelt belief of Beck and others on the Religious Right, overtly and aggressively bringing God and religion back into our shared national space is no step forward. Forcing your attribution of me, or for that matter mine on you, can lead to no good, especially in a society so bitterly divided. Instead of taking Ms. Palin’s advice of bringing God back, perhaps we should consider that of Lyndon Johnson who lived in another time of deep division. Let’s reason together, and leave God out of it.