Religious Liberalism, Politics, and Empire: Paul Rasor at AAR

This is the second in a new series on scholarly activity related to religious liberalism at the American Academy of Religion.  Yesterday a summary was posted of Dan McKanan’s presentation to the 2008 UU Scholars and Friends session entitled “Religious Liberalism, Politics, and Empire: Resistence and Complicity.”  Today we offer a second paper from that session, by Paul Rasor, a UU minister who is also the director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freesom at Virginia Wesleyan College.  Last year Dr. Rasor published a very important paper in the Journal of Liberal Religion relating to the current UUA Congregational Study/Action issue on peacemaking.

Dr. Rasor has graciously consented to allow his paper to be published here.  Please bear in mind that the actual in-person presentation contained spontaneous remarks, asides, jokes, and occasional deletions not reflected in the print version.  Although he is presented here second, he was actually the opening speaker.  Here is his presentation:

I want to begin by noting a deep contradiction in the American situation. We seem to be oriented to both freedom and conquest. There is something about the American situation, in other words, that creates an impulse toward democracy and an impulse toward empire, both at the same time.

The question I want to explore, then, is this: What does it mean to live as a religious liberal in a society that is both a democracy and an empire? More specifically, what resources does our tradition have that might help us nurture the democratic spirit and resist the imperial structures?

I’m not enough of a historian to say whether there as been a general long-term trend toward one or the other, or whether they tend to emerge and wane in cycles. But it seems clear that today, the impulse toward empire is on the rise. To get at these issues, I want to draw on the insights offered by Cornel West in his 2004 book Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism. West identifies three core ideas, which he calls “dominating, antidemocratic dogmas,” that drive the current movement toward empire in America. He calls these “free-market fundamentalism,” “aggressive militarism,” and “escalating authoritarianism.” I think it helps to think of these not simply as social or political ideas, but as theologies. Like all theologies, they are grounded in a specific worldview, and they reflect a particular set of core values.

The first, “free-market fundamentalism” is an ideology that justifies unlimited corporate power. In theological terms, the free market is the god that will bring us salvation, and its chosen instrument for this purpose is the multi-national corporation. Corporate power therefore takes on certain divine attributes. Like most gods, its authority is self-justifying, and it therefore has no need for moral accountability to the people. Recent events have shown (if we needed to be shown) that this is a false god, but as we rescue the banks, I don’t see any deep questioning of the market itself.

The second dogma, “aggressive militarism,” points to a disposition to use violence, and especially the military, to accomplish national goals. The dogma of military aggression was not invented by the present forces of empire; it builds on the glorification of violence that has always been part of our culture. And it is supported by a deeper theology of violence. In this theology, violence is what brings us salvation, and the military is the divine instrument chosen for this purpose. The theology of the market and the theology of violence are linked. Together, they justify the use of violence in support of corporate power.

The third anti-democratic dogma is what West calls “escalating authoritarianism.” This dogma belongs to a theology of control, and it is grounded in fear. Our legitimate fear of terrorism, along with what West calls “our traditional fear of too many liberties,” are manipulated and used to justify authoritarian forms of social control. Civil liberties are restricted; speech is monitored; disagreement is suspect. In this climate of escalating authoritarianism and fear, the civic space for dialogue disappears.

West argues that these three anti-democratic dogmas—market fundamentalism, militarism, and authoritarianism—represent the “gangsterization of America” in which the impulses that are vital for deepening our democracy are being snuffed out.

So, what do we do with this? It will help if we recall that the American impulse toward empire is only one side of the coin. The impulse toward democracy is still very much alive, still beating in the American breast. In fact, despite his stark assessment of our current situation, West believes that the forces of democracy are ultimately the stronger of the two. As he puts it, “the voices and views of nihilistic imperialism may currently dominate our discourse, but they are not the authentic voice of American democracy.” But this impulse toward democracy is not self-perpetuating. It needs us to keep it alive and healthy.

West identifies three basic commitments that are part of our democratic tradition. These are deeply engrained in the American psyche, and I see them as the spiritual wellsprings of a reinvigorated democracy. West calls them questioning, justice, and hope. Or more precisely, the “Socratic commitment to questioning,” the “prophetic commitment to justice,” and the “tragicomic commitment to hope.”

As it happens, these three spiritual commitments, questioning, justice and hope, are also basic to religious liberalism. This means that our faith tradition is itself a resource in the struggle against empire. It also means that a commitment to the deepening of our democracy can also deepen our faith.

West begins with the commitment to questioning, and traces this tradition to Socrates. Anyone who has been to law school will recognize the technique. But West is speaking here not just of clever verbal sparring, but of a commitment to truth-seeking and truth-speaking. What this requires, as West puts it, is “a relentless self-examination and critique of institutions of authority, motivated by an endless quest for intellectual integrity and moral consistency.” This form of questioning is a critical spiritual practice.

And I’m happy to say that religious liberals excel here. A commitment to questioning, and especially to challenging authority, has always been part of the liberal religious tradition. In fact, I think that constant questioning is a form of spiritual practice for many liberals. The good news is that we religious liberals can make an important contribution to deepening our democracy just by doing what we have always done best.

West’s second element, “the prophetic commitment to justice,” in his words, “calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery.” It requires both careful social analysis and profound courage, especially the courage of plain and fearless speech. The prophetic voice speaks not only on behalf of the poor and the oppressed, but against those who misuse power. Religious liberals have always been among those who have called society to account in the face of injustice, challenged the cultural status quo, and worked for reform.

But before we strain ourselves patting our own backs, we need to recognize that liberalism has its own set of tensions that often get in the way of our own prophetic practices. As a result, our social witness can sometimes have difficulty moving beyond our own comfort level. The issues raised by Jeff [Wilson, another of the presenters] are part of this tension. Still, the liberal prophetic voice continues to make a major contribution to our democracy. And it needs to be heard, especially today when the loudest religious voices in public discourse so often seem simply to defend theologies of empire.

Finally, West’s third element is what he calls a “tragicomic commitment to hope.” This is not simply about being optimistic. It involves a much deeper form of spirituality: the ability to persevere, to continue the struggle for justice even when it seems hopeless. West calls it “the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy—to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy—as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair.” He finds this sense of the tragicomic expressed most profoundly in the long black freedom struggle in America, and especially in the blues. The “blues sensibility,” as he calls it, “expresses righteous indignation with a smile and deep inner pain without bitterness or revenge.”

Hope has always played a central role in the liberal religious tradition. In the early days of the 19th century, Universalists offered their belief in universal salvation as a basis for human hope, in stark contrast to the Calvinist doctrine of election that condemned most of humanity to eternal damnation. On the social level, liberals have always had deep faith in the possibilities of human fulfillment and social progress.

But West’s notion of tragicomic hope is a bit different. In some ways, it is a gentle critique of the liberal tendency to be overly optimistic, or to swing the other way and lapse into cynicism. James Luther Adams reminded us that human history always combines elements of tragedy and hope, that the very forces of good we celebrate can easily become forces for evil, and that it is up to us to steer these forces toward the good.

West reminds us that “this kind of tragicomic hope is dangerous—and potentially subversive—because it can never be extinguished. Like laughter, dance, and music, it is a form of elemental freedom that cannot be eliminated or snuffed out by any elite power. Instead, it is inexorably resilient and inescapably seductive—even contagious.” For this reason, hope is one of the key resources we have in the struggle against empire.

The tension between democracy and empire seems to be a permanent feature of the American condition. By the same token, religious liberals seem cursed to live with the tension between energizing hope and the temptation toward paralyzing cynicism.

But cynicism is a negative spirituality that in the end only feeds empire. Cynicism, in fact, is a luxury of privilege. We can maintain our hope, and be true to our own religious ideals, if we remember that this very dissonance, this tension that so often frustrates us, can be creative as well as destructive. It can fuel the passion to question, the courage to be prophetic, and the faith to hope.


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Filed under Liberal Religion at the American Academy of Religion, Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

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