Saturday, March 12, 2005

Wherein I Exhibit Some of My Stick-in-the-Mud Wet-Blanketness

I have been thinking about the article discussed in this post at Cliopatria (the post is by Greg Robinson) for a while now. And after some thought, I think my problem with it is this:

There is no such thing as a Religious Right. 'Religious Right' is just a phrase we have begun to use uncritically, without real regard for how it actually fits reality, because it has turned out to be convenient for clumping purposes: it just arbitrarily lumps a bunch of people together and so is useful for the same purpose any stereotype is: praise or blame. And it doesn't take much searching to realize that it is precisely in this way that it is typically used. Ditto with 'Religious Left'. There are no such things. They are just the conjunction of two extremely vague and malleable labels for purposes of self-aggrandizement or mudslinging. Some people pump the label up because they think most people would consider them as falling under it; others try to associate it with the worst things they can, because they see it as connected with 'Them', where 'Them' is just whoever happens to be standing in the way of what they want today. In other words, they are fictions created by partisan politics for scapegoat and rally purposes. The continuation of these labels is just a failure of critical thought.

I would be fascinated to know the history of the phrases 'religious right' and 'religious left'. I suspect such a history would show that the same forces of self-aggrandizement and mudslinging, scapegoating and rallying, have always been the defining characteristics of these phrases. I suspect that it would show that they came about arbitrarily applied for precisely these purposes. And, after much thought, I'm fairly sure that it would show that there really isn't much rhyme or reason to the actual application. There is nothing there to have 'victories', 'strategies', 'defeats', 'political force', or anything of the sort that is often attributed to the 'Religious Right' or the 'Religious Left'. We uncritically accept that there must be something to fit the labels because we get in the habit of using them; in so doing we show that politics (and perhaps journalism) make us stupid. In particular cases, where we are explicitly and deliberately using the labels to identify, for particular purposes, a well-defined and recognizable group of people, it might mean something; but by and large it is a term we use to cover our ignorance of the actual people involved.

Part of it, I confess, is my growing skepticism about the viability of the terms 'Left' and 'Right'; I do think there's some use to words like 'progressive' and 'conservative', but there is nothing particularly progressive about most people who consider themselves on the left, nothing particularly conservative about most people who consider themselves on the right - there is no particular reason, for that matter, why we should associate today's left with progressivism and today's right with conservatism, except that that's just the association of words that got picked up somewhere along the lines and that has continued to be used out of habit. 'Right' and 'Left' are essentially party designations; as such they have no stable core and no real substance. They are terms of convenience for partisan politics, and nothing more. Scapegoating and rallying, self-aggrandizement and mudslinging. Nothing more.

Part of it, also, is that there isn't much meaning to 'Religious', which these days can always mean myriads of different things. When used in conjunction with the political terms, it doesn't add much; it just makes them even more vague by linking them with a set of associations completely incidental to their normal use. It's not as if, as it is usually used, it indicates a movement that can be well-defined by precise naming of people and books and principles like (for instance) the Social Gospel Movement or Neo-Thomistic Humanism.

My suggestion is that we stop using the phrases altogether. Ah, but then we would have limited our ability to engage in silly triumphalisms and divisive insults, and where's the fun in that?

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