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What is the appropriate role of religion in American public policy?



I’ve been in the middle of publishing my Gavin Newsom conversation, and I will get back to it tomorrow. But first, something’s come up—a New Yorker article that I just have to comment on. The article is called “Secret Admirers” [online, it’s “Intellectuals for Trump”], and it profiles some Trump fans. One is a guy named Mark Bauerlein, “an English professor” (according to the author, Kelefa Sanneh) who lives in Manhattan, and edits something called “First Things.”

Some background: Bauerlein is an outspoken “supporter of Trump.” I wish Sanneh had told us a little more about him; the information is scant, given the controversial nature of Bauerlein’s views. So I went to the Internet. Bauerlein converted to Catholicism in 2012 -from Judaism? Alas, I couldn’t determine, but it’s a Jewish name. He certainly shows the religious élan of a convert.

First Things’ website describes itself, rather immodestly, as “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life.” Does First Things, then, impartially explain the world’s religions, taking a philosophical view and delving into the epistemology of faith? No; it’s much more political than that. Instead, it seeks to ”confront the ideology of secularism, which insists…that faith has no place in shaping the public conversation or in shaping public policy.”

“The ideology of secularism”… Aha! Now we’re getting someplace. I thought secularism was the absence of ideology, but perhaps I was misinformed.  First Things is an apologia for religion’s place, not only in public conversation—who could be against that?—but in “shaping public policy.” Well, you know, that explains a lot, including why Bauerlein is a “supporter of Trump.” Most hardcore religionists in America—at least, the evangelicals and ultra-orthodox Jews and extreme Catholics—supported Trump (although they may live to regret it). On the other hand, most Americans who wish to see religion’s role in “shaping public policy” be strictly limited, as the First Amendment mandates, probably voted for Hilary Clinton, me among them. I’ll return to this at the conclusion of this post. First, let’s look at what Bauerlein said in the article.

He makes five points.

Point 1.

Bauerlein begins with an extreme nationalist stance. “What [Trump] is really about is planting an idea into Americans that this is our country. This is our home!” Yes, this certainly has been something Trump has been outspoken about. The problem, which seems evident to me, is that nobody—Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, whatever—would disagree with that. Of course it’s “our country”!!! Republicans always try to seize the high patriotic ground by pretending they are the only ones that love America. Not so! Don’t you wish Republicans would stop this pandering?

Point 2.

America “is going to have a boundary.” Well, obviously. The implied concept here is, of course, Trump’s “Wall” on the Mexican border. I’ve blogged previously that I fail to understand why some Americans are so obsessed about America’s southern border. Trump’s slur about “criminals and rapists” aside, Mexican immigrants—legal and otherwise—tend to be hard-working people, whom many an opiate-addled Midwestern Christian white male could take for role models. Anyhow, we know that Mexico isn’t going to pay for The Wall—ever. Mexico’s former President, Vicente Fox, said something that current President Enrique Peña Nieto can’t: Mexico “is not gonna pay for that fucking wall,” so if Trump wants to build it, his Republican friends in the House and Senate will have to pay for it. Again, why is the southern border the most important issue so many trumpists have? Maybe it’s because they don’t like dark-skinned people.

Point 3.

“The rise of Trump [is] a reaction to political correctness, which has…made people feel that they can’t express themselves.” Look, this is one of the most damnable memes that the Right comes up with. I was taught—you were taught—we all were taught that there are some things that shouldn’t be said, even if we’re thinking them. It’s called politeness, good manners. You might think that someone’s ugly, or fat, or whatever, but you don’t say so to their face. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or, as Luke said, “You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” There are compelling reasons why Americans should examine themselves before putting others down. It results in a more civil society. It prevents fights. It helps our communities be cohesive. It promotes mutual respect. Mr. Bauerlein, do you remember when Trump felt free to express himself about that disabled reporter? Did you think that was funny?

Point 4.

Trump “might somehow help to move [people] beyond hardened partisan positions…by demolishing traditional Party ideologies.” Well, most of the “partisan positions” that my side, liberal-humanists, has adopted are the result of millennia of philosophical evolution. For instance, it’s hard to see how the issue of allowing same-sex couples to marry is an “ideology” that needs to be “demolished,” as most Christian Republicans aver. Marriage equality is not an “ideology,” it is a human right. Republicans love human rights when applied to them; not so much for others. It’s like Trump saying he would accept the results of the election if he won—if Hillary won, he wouldn’t. #DoubleStandard!

Point 5.

Trump has promised to ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS.” Bauerlein likes that. Look, we all want to defeat ISIS—and we are doing just that. Obama hesitated to obliterate Middle Eastern neighborhoods that may be ISIS strongholds. Bauerlein apparently thinks that was a bad decision. Shouldn’t America be leery of bombing the shit out of anything? We tried it in Vietnam and Cambodia; didn’t work out so well. We turn people against us when we fight without restraint, like bullies. If we’re going to get along with 1 billion Muslims, they need to respect America for what we’ve traditionally been: a country that fights fair and square and promotes human values. Carpet bombing Aleppo is not a sane solution.

To summarize: The problem with religion “shaping public policy” is, Whose religion is doing the shaping? It’s not likely to be Native Americans’, or liberal Judaism’s, or Episcopalians’, or Wiccans’, or Coptic Christians’, or New Agers’, or Buddhists’. Moderate religions don’t want to get involved in public policy; they understand the First Amendment, and respect it. The religionists who want to dominate public policy are the extremists, and that’s where we get into trouble—which is why we we have a First Amendment. In a melting pot like America, we have to keep hard-core religious ideologies out of the public policy debate. It’s the only way America can survive as what we are: a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society. What part of that does Mr. Bauerlein have a problem with?


  1. Bob Rossi says:

    Beware of religious converts; they’re often the most rabid.
    “if Trump wants to build it, his Republican friends in the House and Senate will have to pay for it” Unfortunately, that means WE would have to pay for it.
    And Steve, I noticed you said Second Amendment 3 times when you clearly meant First Amendment.

  2. Dear Bob Rossi, thanks for pointing out my type. I’ve fixed Second to First!

  3. Rick Seguin says:

    I like you am a liberal humanist. Religion has no place in the public square. Public policy must be framed on pragmatism, realism and the betterment of humankind.

    Secondly, it’s curious that one of Bauerlein’s points is that Trump will “help to move people beyond partisan positions” (Point 4). In fact he he takes 4 positions on every issue over a period of time; sniffing the wind all the while. He is indeed in my view non-partisan but rather a cynical opportunist. Leaving himself four positions to play, he will work it to get maximum exposure and effect. If trapped in his own logic at some point, he offers a new shiny object to distract from the cognitive dissonance he has stepped into. It seems to work but to me is a sure sign of manipulative sociopathic behavior.

  4. Dear Rick, you are of course entirely correct on all points. I do believe there’s something sociopathic about him. I think, also, that the Washington press corps (even the right wingers) as well as Republicans in Congress understand that there is something very disturbing and probably dangerous about him. They don’t quite know what to do about it, though. After all, he’s their man on “repeal and replace,” taxes, SCOTUS, global warming, drill baby drill, etc. So they feel they have to lay back and wait and see. The question is, when do Congressional Republicans rebel? My own feeling is that it will be sooner rather than later. Trump is showing signs of a complete mental breakdown, and even the most diehard tea partiers cannot be comfortable with him.

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