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James Carroll's Call to Arms (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) March 13, 2011: Regarding religion, we in Western culture today live in interesting times. James Carroll, a self-described practicing Catholic, has done his part to keep our public discussion of religion in Western culture interesting, most notably with his critical views of religion in his books CONSTANTINE'S SWORD: THE CHURCH AND THE JEWS: A HISTORY (2001) and JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM: HOW THE ANCIENT CITY IGNITED OUR MODERN WORLD (2011).

I do not necessarily agree with all of Carroll's critical views, but I certainly agree with his conclusion in his new book that we should discuss and debate what is good religion and what is bad religion. Through the text of his new book and through the text of CONSTANTINE'S SWORD, Carroll has called attention to bad religion. In the conclusion of his new book, he steps back a bit and tries to generalize about what might constitute good religion and bad religion. He is issuing a call to arms to liberals and to the Democratic party.

I agree with Carroll that this is the way that we in the United States today should focus the public debate about religion. Time and again, surveys have shown that more than 80 percent of Americans say that they believe in God. For this reason, religion is not likely to disappear from American culture in the near future.

Let's take stock of where the public discussion of religion in the United States stands today and of how the public discussion of religion has influenced our American political life in recent times. Briefly, the Republican party has benefited enormously from public debate about cultural issues involving religion. By contrast, the Democratic party has not.

In recent decades the Christian right has emerged as a religious coalition that has helped elect conservative Republicans. The Christian right coalition includes a large number of Carroll's fellow Catholics who are concerned about legalized abortion in the first trimester, and a large number of Protestant Evangelicals who are concerned not only about legalized abortion in the first trimester but also about the teaching of evolutionary theory in public secondary education.

Generally speaking, political liberals and secular humanists in academia have supported both legalized abortion in the first trimester and the teaching of evolutionary theory in public secondary education. However, by virtue of being a practicing Catholic, Carroll is not a secular humanist; he is a theistic humanist. But he is a political liberal, as his columns in the BOSTON GLOBE show. Also see Carroll's excellent book HOUSE OF WAR: THE PENTAGON AND THE DISASTROUS RISE OF AMERICAN POWER (2006).

Secular humanists are generally non-religious or anti-religion. For this reason, certain conservative Christians like to rail against secular humanism, or secularism, for short. Oddly enough, the estimable German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has recently urged his fellow secularists not to be too strongly anti-religion. His attitude seems to be to live and let live. However, thus far, his attitude has probably not had much influence in the United States, despite the fact that he has a fair number of followers among American academics.

Even though the Christian right has been active in helping to elect conservative Republicans, push-back has emerged in recent years from the so-called "new atheists" such as Richard Dawkins. In their view, the sooner that religion fades away, the better. They are anti-religion. For this reason, the so-called "new atheists" are made for the media. The media devote far more effort to covering new books by the so-called "new atheists" than they do to covering new books by Habermas or Carroll. But for all the media attention the so-called "new atheists" have received, how many Democrats have they helped elect in the United States? None that I know of.

If secular humanists who are anti-religion wanted to compile a bibliography of books that are critical of religion, they would probably include James Carroll's new book JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM   and his earlier book CONSTANTINE'S SWORD (2001). But Carroll is not a secular humanist. He claims that he is a practicing Catholic, and he has even published a book titled PRACTICING CATHOLIC (2009).

Despite being critical of religion, Carroll is not yet ready to join the ranks of anti-religion secular humanists, even though his critical views of religion could be used to help advance the anti-religion cause. But in the conclusion of his new book, he tells us that we need to learn how to distinguish good religion from bad religion, and he offers some guidelines for doing this kind of sorting out. But within the three monotheistic religions that Carroll discusses, people have been trying to do this kind of thing for centuries. In the Roman Catholic tradition, for example, all of the debates about so-called heresies can be understood as debates about good religion and bad religion.

Let me briefly recapitulate my observations so that I can sharpen the focus of my thought. The Christian right has helped elect Republicans in recent decades. During the same decades the Democratic party has lost elections to Republican candidates because the Democrats could not turn out the voters as effectively as the Republicans could. Now, polls have consistently shown that 80 percent or more Americans say they believe in God. For this reason, the Democratic party would be well advised not to appear to be anti-religion.

The Democratic party would be well advised to take a hint from Carroll and start thinking about good religion and bad religion. Like Carroll, Democrats could be critical of bad religion but without being anti-religion.

Political liberals who are secularists should take a hint from Habermas and temper their anti-religion fervor. Secularists should just hold their noses because they are not likely to see the demise of religion in the United States in the near future.

If political liberals who are secularists want to read critical views of religion, then they should read Carroll's books, and many of the books he cites. In my estimate the most cogent critical views of religion are being written today by authors who are themselves steeped in religion and religious history, not by the so-called "new atheists."

I have no hard data about how many fat-cat Republicans have held their noses as the Christian right helped elect conservative Republicans in recent decades. Fat-cat Republicans want to advance the causes of lower taxes for the rich and of deregulation. They are not as concerned about cultural issues as the Christian right is, but fat-cat Republicans have welcomed the votes of the Christian right in helping elect Republicans dedicated to lowering taxes on the rich and to deregulation.

But what are the larger causes, if any, that liberals want to help advance? Do liberals want to increase taxes for the super-rich? Do liberals want to grow the federal government and its regulatory powers

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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