Kathleen Parker’s war on religion in the Re-public-an square entered a new phase today. In her syndicated column, she nobly attempted to explain her use of the term “oogedy-boogedy” to describe religious conservatives. It’s not that she is “anti-God.” It’s just that God really shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company. Religion can inform our values (gee, thanks). But reason, not religion, should inform our public debates.
I hadn’t realized religion and reason were mutually exclusive. It seems Pope Benedict hasn’t gotten the memo, either. As he said in his widely misunderstood Regensburg address in 2006:
In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.
For many, Republican and Democrat, a belief in the Divine informs reason. So it is a little difficult to remove one from the other.
Parker does not offer a particularly persuasive defense of her position. Why should we exclude certain rationales in defending public policy? The moral opprobrium of the electorate has driven public policy since the Founding, supporting laws against murder and prostitution as readily as laws against trespass and littering.
Take, for instance, the always-heated issue of abortion. Opposition to abortion can, as Parker observes, be explained on the basis of science and reason. Parker is absolutely correct that the writings of Nat Hentoff, a self-professed atheist, are of immeasurable value to the debate (and if you do not believe in an afterlife, there is a great incentive to protect life on earth). But why is it invalid to suggest that faith in an Almighty, life after death, or anything else should also play a role in convincing the great undecided middle? Surely Parker doesn’t think the entirety of the religious debate about abortion revolves around the question of “ensoulment,” does she?
Parker claims that “the cause” — implying she has a common one with conservatives — “is not helped when someone of the stature of Rick Warren interviews the leading presidential candidates in his church, questioning them about their faith.” But many who watched the Saddleback forum thought that it was far better than the Commission-sponsored debates, because Warren asked questions that tried to differentiate the candidates on who they were, not on their economic growth-plans. How are we worse off when Rick Warren asks questions that reflect the moral and religious beliefs of a majority of Americans, while leaving the nuts and bolts to Lehrer and Brokaw?
At bottom, the fundamental problem with Kathleen Parker’s argument is that it leaves to Kathleen Parker the decision as to what is too “oogedy-boogedy” for the public square. She even quotes the indecipherable legal standard proffered by Justice Potter Stewart for cases involving pornography: “I know it when I see it.” But a look at the more complete text of Stewart’s “standard” for defining hardcore pornography shows that it was no standard at all: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
Parker, like Stewart, has failed in intelligibly defining a standard. But she’s failed even more in defending her characterization of the Religious Right as made up of “oogedy-boogedy” fundamentalists who put off moderates.
– Shannen W. Coffin, an attorney in Washington, D.C., is a former Bush administration lawyer.