who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong."
-Thomas Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782)
Representative John Shimkus (R-Ill), a Christian man who begins every day with a Tweet containing a Bible verse reminding Democrats and Republicans alike of God's wrath, may become the next chair of the House Energy Committee. Ordinarily this fact wouldn't trouble me, but his Teapublican ideological commitments and evangelical Christianity--in relation to this position and its responsibilities--do. Why? Because Mr. Shimkus firmly believes that no one should worry overmuch about climate change because God promised not to destroy the earth again after Noah's flood. And, of course, he also believes there is no reason to suppose that the founders intended a separation of church and state.
He is not alone. Approximately one-half of the newly elected Congress and many of the old hands agree with him. So, at a time in our history defined by a genuine threat to our environment to say nothing of our inability to come up with an energy policy to combat our dependence on oil, we find that our duly elected representatives are unwilling to tackle the problem because it doesn't accord with their religious beliefs.
By coincidence I came across this disturbing news item when I had finished reading Johann Hari's review of V. S. Naipal's new book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief . Maybe I read too much, but there is something analogous going on here. Hari writes:
"These are not trivial side-beliefs, like vague fears of black cats crossing your path. They are at the core of many Africans' understanding of themselves and the world. I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a "witch" who cast spells on her neighbors. I have stood in battlefields in the Congo where the troops insist with absolute certainty they cannot be killed because they have carried out a magical spell that guarantees, if they are shot, they will turn briefly into a tree, then charge on unharmed. I have been cursed in Ethiopia by a witch-doctor with "impotence, obesity, and then leprosy" for asking insistently why he charged so much to "cure" his patients. (I'm still waiting for the leprosy.)"
Probably at this point in your reading you are thinking something like this: Yes, but " confronting people about their beliefs is dangerous argumentative and narrative ground. It's not right and it's often not polite. It is a huge violation of conversational rules, which, as the communication scholar Susan Shimanoff expresses it, makes you seem "either mad or bad." Hari, extending these concerns, continues:
"Where do these beliefs come from? What do so many Africans get out of them? Can they be changed? These are questions that are asked in Africa all the time, but we are deaf to the conversation. It's not hard to see why. The imperial rape and pillage of Africa was "justified" by claiming Africans were "primitive" and "backward" people sunk in a morass of voodoo, who had to be "civilized" in blood and Christianity. Just as there are legitimate and necessary criticisms of Israel but nobody wants to hear them from Germany, any legitimate and necessary criticism of the problems with Africa's indigenous beliefs will never be welcome from Europeans or their descendants. And yet there they are, ongoing and alive, waiting to be discussed. Must we ignore it?"
I don't think we can "ignore it." We must never endorse the false idea that "our" beliefs are entirely "rational" or that we have the "right answers" to all of life's mysteries and questions. Nor should we fall into the old bad habits that defined white Europeans and their descendants as the measure of all civilizations. But the communication question at the heart of "the last taboo" is still an important one: when, where, and how should we speak about other people's religious beliefs?
First, however, we must be clear about why we should do so. Here again, Hari is clear: "Once you cede power to an invisible force for which there is no evidence--whether it's Jesus or Allah or a dead child--you cede power to other human beings who can then claim to use those invisible forces against you." Exactly. My concern over Representative's position of power in Washington, D.C. is borne not of his religious beliefs, per se, but of how he uses them in relation to the job he was elected to do for all of us. As I wrote yesterday in a blog about "Lame, Lame Arguments":
"Believe whatever you want to believe. I'm for it and will defend your right to believe in it, right up to the point where it gets in the way of what we can do for each other. That includes stem cell research as well as the cause of peace; promoting social justice as well as meaningful work at a fair wage for everyone. And it means greater support for education, for human rights, for the production of laughter, joy, and poetry.
These are important things we can do for each other and with each other. Instead of getting argumentatively bogged down with 'what aboutery,' let's try asking instead 'what about that ?' And then, because we can, let's work together on achieving it."
Representative Shimkus is entitled to his religious beliefs, but regardless of what he falsely proclaims about the unnecessary separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights , Thomas Jefferson (who wrote the document) and I know for a fact that he is wrong. Dead wrong. To wit:
"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT., Jan. 1, 1802
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