The political and religious right are assuredly the tough guys of U.S. politics – tough, that is, in several invidious and immoral senses of the term. Consider these definitions: “characterized by severity or uncompromising determination . . . very hard to influence: stubborn . . . marked by absence of softness or sentimentality . . . strong and prone to violence.“ In other words, intransigent, brutish ideologues. Their slogan might well be, “Tough luck, losers.”
Despite occasional setbacks, they also seem to have the right stuff when it comes to advancing their political agenda. Rarely have so many gone so far on so little substance – they are so wrong about everything. And rarely have so many been so ineffectual in response to right-wing political bullying. (That’s right, I’m talking about us timid wimps on the political left of center.)
So the right has, over the past 30 years or so, been tough and, probably as a result, generally successful in shifting the U.S. political spectrum way-far to the right. Seismically. Meanwhile, progressive values have been left behind. Just look at the trajectory of the abortion issue: From this vantage point it looks as if a woman’s right to choose is more precarious than at any time since Roe v. Wade. What a travesty of “freedom and justice for all”! More on that in a moment.
So here we are at another crisis point in the endless conflict between left and right, which likely has its roots in human nature. And I can’t help, once again, asking the obvious question: Why is the left in this country so impotent in the face of impending political ruination? Why are we forgetting, or ignoring, the sordid and violent history of right-wing movements? I don’t need to remind you what George Santayana said of people who ignore the past.
Don’t you think it’s shocking how quickly the right recovered from the election debacle of 2008? Just three short years ago Americans were sick of the Bush wrecking-crew ordeal and the McCain-Palin embarrassment. The once proud and vainglorious right looked to be in disarray, down for the count. But overnight, it seems, they shook off the cobwebs, sprung back to their feet, and now they’re again marching in familiar lockstep to martial music and redoubling their efforts to batter down the flimsy barricades protecting our fundamental rights and freedoms. All the while too many on the left are acting as if we’re just engaged in politics as usual. But what I’m seeing is a well-coordinated right-wing power grab playing out once again right in our collective face. And so far, like our calm, cool and collected president, our responses have been far too composed and accommodating.
Case in point: Where is the pushback against the phony “voter-fraud-prevention” legislation Republicans are enacting in at least 17 states? Seems like something along the lines of the prompt and massive reaction to the Komen Foundation’s politically motivated defunding of Planned Parenthood is in order and overdue. Now we hear that the Obama justice department is, at long last, taking “a close look” at all the new restrictions and onerous requirements, only by now it may be too too late. One possible result of their procrastination is that Obama loses the state of Florida and possibly the election. How did the Republicans ever get this far with voter suppression without triggering widespread, vocal opposition?
Dominance of the Religionists
It’s impossible to understand the actions of the political right in the U.S. without also understanding the dominant role played by the religious right. Thus we are treated to the sorry spectacle of Republican presidential candidates pandering to the ignorant fundagelicals, who virtually own the party because of their highly motivated, disproportionate participation in the primaries. Alienate the fundies and your candidacy is doomed. Which explains why Mitt Romney disingenuously disavows almost all the sensible positions he formerly held, and more credible candidates such as Jon Huntsman are long gone.
In my previous column I promised a more detailed look at the “sins” of the religious righteous in the U.S. My goal here will be to make a case that fundamentalist religions are harmful to individuals and a major factor in the pervasive right-wing threat to our rights and freedoms. So let me start this project by turning the tables on the religious righteous, who always assert, without evidence – because there is none – that morality depends upon belief in a god. One obviously harmful implication of this position is the widespread perception that nonbelievers like me and most of my friends cannot be trusted. That sentiment, of course, is easily proven to be stupidly false, just one more instance of unthinking religious bigotry. Still, surveys show that it is the position held by a majority of Americans. This is nothing new or unique: many stupid forms of bigotry have been staples of religion for centuries. And make no mistake about it: this is a religious nation where too many people of faith are easily persuaded to believe ridiculous falsehoods.
Now I am going to suggest that religions – especially the more fundamentalist protestant sects and much of institutional Catholicism – have little or nothing to do with morality, at least not as it is widely understood and practiced among enlightened people in most First World countries in the 21st Century. To understand this we need look no further than the fundies’ absurd and harmful views about sexuality, notably birth control, abortion, pre-marital intercourse, homosexuality, and stem cell research.
Now I submit that genuine and rational morality finds little or no common ground with archaic religious views on sexuality that are based on faith in the alleged words of an ancient, punitive god and not on meaningful, 21st Century, real-world values. The fundies are all about compliance with dogma, i.e., their interpretations of selected passages in an ancient holy book of dubious authenticity. Quite simply, they have once again painted themselves into the proverbial corner by claiming that their holy book is the infallible word of the perfect and all-powerful creator of the universe and therefore literally true in every particular. Their apologetics thus become an exercise in rationalization and verbal contortions to justify obvious absurdities and contradictions.
Unwanted Pregnancy? The Religious Right Says That’s Tough
There is no force in American religion more consequential than abortion, which could well be the single most divisive issue in American society. Opposition to abortion, at least in the early stages of pregnancy, is overwhelmingly based on belief in a particular anthropomorphic, supernatural, multiple-personality deity for which there is no valid empirical evidence. Therefore, absent a compelling secular, humanitarian justification, abortion should never be restricted, at least not prior to a certain point of fetal development. After that point, I’ll concede that some compromise may be in order, if only because feelings about “murdering unborn babies” run so high that reasonable restrictions may be the only way to preserve fragile, nonviolent coexistence between groups holding opposing views. With that gun to my head, I can accept restrictions similar to those in Europe while always insisting on the primacy of the woman’s physical and mental health. But the idea that a zygote (from conception through day four), a blastocyst (days four to 14) or an embryo (two weeks through eight weeks) is a “person” is a religious prejudice that should not be imposed on any woman against her will.
The reason for this is straightforward: religious beliefs are human creations, not revelations from on high, and beliefs vary widely among and even within various religions. And let us not overlook the megamillions of people worldwide who hold no beliefs or idiosyncratic beliefs. To restrict any person’s rights based on faith in unproven supernatural forces must be seen for what it is, a form of tyranny. Personal choices – especially of such life-altering magnitude as to whether or not to have a child – should not be restricted without a compelling secular justification.
Any genuine, rational morality must embrace the concept of “First, do no harm.” Avoiding unnecessary harm and suffering simply must be a central moral tenet; and yet if you look at fundagelical Christianity and Catholic doctrine vis-a-vis sexuality, you find little or no benefit but lots of harm. Again I call your attention to the right’s relentless efforts to ruin women’s lives by forcing them to give birth to children they’re not ready to raise and support; and to their attempts to ban birth control; and to their opposition to using fetal stem cells for research purposes; and to their persecution of gays. I could go on, but it should be apparent, in the case of abortion, that they place the welfare of a clump of cells above the interests of fully invested human beings. (As the old joke goes, fundamentalists believe life begins at conception and ends at birth. Only it’s not exactly a joke.)
It’s fair and reasonable to ask, “Who is hurt by an abortion?” Certainly not the zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus. It has no memories, no fears, no hopes and dreams, no investment in its life, no consciousness. An abortion changes nothing from the fetus’s subjective standpoint, whereas being forced to give birth to an unwanted child can destroy a woman’s life. The harm-versus-benefit ratio seems clear enough.
So why do the religious righteous oppose abortion? For religious reasons only. They are convinced beyond reason that their chosen god puts a soul in every microscopic, single-celled zygote at the moment of conception and that said god will be mightily pissed if anyone tampers with his little creations. Never mind that something like 60 percent of all conceptions fail because the ensouled zygote doesn’t become properly implanted in the uterus.
I anticipate logic-chopping arguments from pro-lifers along these lines: “So if it’s okay for a mother to terminate the life of her fetus, why not allow her to kill her infant child?”
The simplest answer is that morality and law regularly necessitate making distinctions, drawing lines; and, in fact, humans are very good at that. It is clearly to our advantage to embrace a sanctity-of-human-life ethic that includes all living persons. Still, if I were forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice” between the life of a mother and her infant child, I would unhesitatingly choose to save the mother, who is ever so much more invested and connected, even though she would most likely sacrifice her own life to save her child. Fortunately, we rarely have to make such choices, and I see nothing wrong with imposing the same penalty for murdering an infant as for murdering an adult.
But if a pro-lifer irritated me with their sanctimony, I would turn snarky and point out that their almighty god, as recorded in their inerrant and perfect holy book, not only condones, but commands, infanticide. Of course their leading apologists have no problem rationalizing genocide and infanticide.
Okay, I know I have ventured into dangerous territory, and I hasten to say I speak only for myself. But let me be clear: I think the religious right’s and the Catholic Church’s positions on almost all sexual issues are profoundly immoral, exacerbating rather than ameliorating human suffering. It’s not my place to question the nuanced, socially calibrated euphemisms employed by pro-choice organizations, who have been fighting these battles on a national stage for a long time. Yet I’m suggesting that the recent Komen experience suggests there is a useful role for uncompromising, un-nuanced, rational smackdowns of right-wing Christian misogyny. We’re right about these issues, and we have to stop letting the theocrats frame and dictate the terms of the debate. Abortion is a safe and reasonable choice for many women. It is not immoral.
To be continued.