Painting in broad strikes

Helen Rittlemeyer thinks I’m talking trash about her kind of conservatism.  In a previous post, I wrote:

Often cultural conservatives are also religious, and consider religion to be an integral part of their civilization, but do not necessarily frame their political worldview on a vision of religious infallibility, recognizing along with the gradual changes in culture, also the gradual changes in religious outlook. Essentially, to be truly culturally conservative, one must be able to utilize history as a frame of reference.

To be a religious or fundamentalist conservative, one need only have a dogmatic approach to their particular religion. History, science, philosophy, modernity—all fall by the wayside.

To which Helen responds:

Kain is wrong about dogmatism not so much in the summary he gives as in the picture he paints: the strict Christian who has no interest in testing his ideas against history, science, or logic—the very face of supreme arrogance…

..To offer a counter-definition to Kain’s: A “fundamentalist conservative” is someone who has sworn fealty to a tradition, not because her judgment has led her to believe that it is a generally reliable one, but in response to some glimpse of beauty (or sublimity!) in it. This fealty supersedes her private opinions and judgments, and thank God for that; deliver me from the prison of my own subjectivity! This is not meant to be a comprehensive argument for my version of conservatism (which I will, after this post, never again refer to as “fundamentalist”); all I mean to point out is that, if a curious and adventurous humility is the cardinal virtue of philosophical argument, then E. D. Kain may discover it among the people who, apparently, he least expects to have it.

All of which got me to thinking on the subject of generalizations and stereotypes, of both the stigmatizing and self-aggrandizing variety.  I think generalizations can be quite useful in politics, because the world of political parlay is so complex and so riddled with contradictions and nuance that at some point everything has to be generalized or summarized or blurred out around the edges.  So when I refer to fundamentalists, obviously I am making the error of assumption.  That there are fundamentalists who may fit into the “picture I paint” goes without saying.  For every stereo-type there is someone who fits it perfectly.  But this is often the exception to the rule.

And of course, I was actually trying for specificity here–trying to distinguish one subset from another.  Yet, in doing so, I generalized rather egregiously.

So to take this a bit further, I think I fell into what I’ll term the Christianist Trap, a little rush-to-judgment syndrome that Andrew Sullivan seems to be constantly falling into.  Christianists are Sullivan’s Christian equivalents, or counter-parts, to the better known Islamists.  They are, to Sullivan at least, guilty of the sin of pushing a dogmatic and intolerant Christian agenda into politics, often to the detriment of Separation of Church and State, one of the most important founding principles of this nation’s Constitution, and more specifically in direct opposition to Sullivan’s own gay-rights causes.

Where Sullivan goes wrong, I think, is exactly where I went wrong in distinguishing between “cultural” conservatives and Fundamentalist Social conservatives.  He’s painting with too broad of strokes, and where he generalizes or lumps large groups together, his arguments become less poignant and less effective.

Now, I largely agree with Sullivan on the Religious Right, or when he says that Christianism is “the belief that religion dictates politics and that politics should dictate the laws for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.”  The politicization of religion is bad for the State and for the Church.  Yes, this nation is founded on Christian principles, and was done so largely by Christian men.  Then again, it was also founded on Classical political theory that stems from the days of the Greeks and Romans, and was erected on the back of the Enlightenment.  We are a nation of Science as much as we are a nation of God.  More to the point, we are a nation of People, and we happen to be very diverse in our religious beliefs, and Constitutionally protected to believe whatever we like.

But not all fundamentalists are Christianists.  Nor are all opponents of same-sex-marriage bigots.  Not all environmentalists are tree-hugging hippies, and not all hippies treat the environment with care.  I think this all plays into the larger conversation we’ve been having about partisanship, because the more rabidly partisan one becomes, the more likely it is they’ll utilize these broad strokes in defining their opponents.  This is why Kyle is right to call for humility in understanding our political opponents, but also right to warn that within any given debate there does indeed exist the possibility of right and wrong answers.  To truly distinguish between, as Scott terms it, “calcifying” partisanship and debates with real, definitive moral certitudes, requires a move away from generalizations and labels, as handy as they may be in maneuvering the larger political debates.

So I’d suggest Sullivan moves away from the term Christianist, just as I feel the need to step away from my less-than flattering use of  the term fundamentalists.  Perhaps it’s better to speak in terms of what these opponents are saying, rather than labeling and defining who they are.  Perhaps we can better understand our own relationship to our friends and foes alike by focusing on the specifics of the debate as opposed to the opponents themselves.

After all, in this whole discussion of partisanship, are we really asking that people take on a sort of political agnosticism?  I doubt that is a terribly practical notion, as most Utopian sentiments rarely are practical.  Rather, I think we are demanding less generalization, less unconditional defeat, and more openness to fallibility, empathy, and above all, perhaps, specificity.

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3 thoughts on “Painting in broad strikes

  1. Oh I understand that, Cascadian. What I mean here is that not all fundamentalists are necessarily the shallow, vapid types I paint them as in that piece. I only mean to say that when I began to draw “sides” I started boxing in ideas, etc. and that this is not necessarily helpful in the larger scheme of things…

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