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Nov 11 2008

Debating the Invisible, Arguing the Emotional: Religion and Politics, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the question of religion in the political arena… specifically when it comes to Prop 8, and banning same-sex marriage. I discussed the problem of how religion — a belief system based on authority, tradition, and personal feeling, a belief system that’s essentially uninterested in reason or evidence and is often uniquely resistant to it — makes for a frustrating force in politics. Today, I try to answer the question, “So what do we do about it?”

As a pragmatic, political, “what do we do about this/ how do we address this/ how do we organize around it” issue, I’m really not sure where I’m going with this.

Scarlet letter
As a hard-line atheist, my reflexive response is to say, “What we need to do is to keep working on deconverting believers into non-belief. Religion is a mistaken idea, it’s an idea that does more harm than good, and when religion reveals itself to be this strongly and stubbornly against the cause of social justice, we obviously need to keep working to uproot it from the human mindset.”

But even I have to accept that, as a realistic middle-term strategy for winning same-sex marriage in the next couple/few years, that’s not very practical.

So what do we do about it?

When traditional organized religion — with its unique power to inspire and mobilize, and its unique lack of interest in facts and arguments — gets involved in the political arena, how do you engage with it?

God hates fags
I know we’re not going to reach the hard-core true believers. Pretty much nothing reaches them. But not all believers are hard-core true believers. Not even all people who go to church once a week are hard-core true believers. And yet religion still exerts a powerful effect on their beliefs and action… including their actions in the political arena.

How do we deal with that?

I do think that one step is to light a fire under the churches and other religious organizations who are already (in theory) on our side. We need to get them to speak up much more loudly, and in much larger numbers, about how it’s possible to be a fervent religious believer and still support marriage equality, and how religion is not an acceptable excuse for bigotry. Religious believers need to hear that homophobic bigotry isn’t a requirement for religious faith… and they probably need to hear it from other believers.

First Amendment
We also need to do a better job getting out the message that opposing same-sex marriage is not a First Amendment/ freedom of religion issue. One of the most powerful and most effective lies that the Yes on 8 campaign told was that if same-sex marriage remained legal, churches who refused to perform them would lose their tax-exempt status. We need to remind people that this is bullshit. Religious organizations are perfectly free to perform or reject any marriage they like. Synagogues don’t have to perform interfaith marriage ceremonies (and many of them don’t); the Catholic church doesn’t have to perform weddings for divorced people. And if same-sex marriage is legalized, no religious institution will be forced, by tax law or any other law, to perform same-sex weddings if they don’t want to.

Quakers support gay marriage
And we need to point out that, in fact, banning same-sex marriage restricts religious freedom… since religious organizations who want to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies can’t. Even fervent, hard-core religious believers may feel guilt about infringing on the rights of other churches… even if they don’t feel even a twinge of guilt about infringing on the rights of, you know, actual individual people.

But honestly, I’m not sure how effective any of this is going to be. Because again, it’s all an attempt to apply reason and evidence to a side of humanity that doesn’t find either of those things compelling. I mean, it’s not as if traditional religious believers came to their current conclusions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage through a careful examination of the facts and arguments. I’m highly doubtful that a careful presentation of facts and arguments is going to sway them in the other direction.

So how do we deal with this?

No religion
My own long term goal — like, very long term, like maybe a hundred or two years after I die — is to get rid of religion’s power in the political arena by getting rid of religion. My long term goal is to continue to use my powers of persuasion, in tandem with other non-believers, to gradually slide religion out of the human mindset.

But in the meantime, while religion is still here, and is still a powerful political force in this country… what the hell do we do with it?

I honestly have no idea.

Brokeback mountain
I do think part of the solution is to make not just rational arguments, but emotional ones. Keith Olberman’s extremely moving special comment about Prop 8 was a good example of that. We need to talk about/ show images of gay and lesbian couples losing their children, losing their health insurance, losing their shared property when one of them dies, because they can’t be married. We need to talk about/ show images of what Ingrid calls the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon: the way that keeping homosexuality in the closet ruins lives… not just the lives of LGBT people, but the lives of their spouses and families and everyone around them.

We need to talk about/ show images of a lesbian couple — domestic partners even, right here in California — who, when one of them was pregnant and bleeding and having serious trouble with the pregnancy, were not recognized by the hospital as a couple and a family and the mutual parents of the child they were trying to have. (A couple who then drove hours to go to another hospital, with the one woman still bleeding, so they could be together and make decisions together and be treated with respect in a shared medical emergency.)

In other words: We need to make people see the human face of this issue. If we can’t make them see reason and evidence, maybe we can make them feel humanity and compassion.

Jesus_camp
But that can’t be the only answer. For one thing, traditional religious groups can pull on heartstrings, too. They are surpassing masters at it. The yearning to please the invisible Father in the sky; the fear of strangers who don’t keep our sacred things sacred; the desire to protect our children from blasphemous defilers who would lead them into sin and harm; the terror of permanent burning torture in hell… I could go on and on.

And besides, I just hate it when politics turns into a battle of the heartstrings. Why should public policy be won by the most effective emotional manipulators? Do we want a government of Steven Spielbergs?

It’s kind of driving me nuts. I realize that I’ve raised the alarm here without issuing a specific call to action, and I hate it when people do that. But I’m really stumped on this one. I think this is a big problem, one that reaches past the same-sex marriage question, one that has been mucking up politics for a long time. And it’s going to be much harder to move forward on same-sex marriage — or any gay rights issue, or any issue at all that traditional religious organizations care passionately about — if we don’t come up with a way to address it.

So I’m throwing this out to my readers.

Thoughts?

When traditional religious organizations get their teeth into a political issue, and it’s an issue where you think they’re both morally and factually wrong… how do you think we should deal with it?

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Kit Whitfield

    I just hate it when politics turns into a battle of the heartstrings. Why should public policy be won by the most effective emotional manipulators? Do we want a government of Steven Spielbergs?
    I hear you … but at the same time, I think it’s dangerous to ignore the Spielberg effect. Some people are swayed by rational arguments and others are not; some people will only ever listen to emotional pleas. If we don’t plead harder and more eloquently thatn the bastards trying to manipulate people out of their rights, then we’re losing those people. The other side isn’t going to stop, and we mustn’t either.
    The demagoguery of the last decade has cheapened emotional appeals. They’ve been manipulative many a time – but for my money, what was wrong with their manipulations was not that they used emotional appeals per se, but that they pleaded using lies and appealed to the darker human emotions. But that can’t be the whole story. If Obama hadn’t used emotion, if he hadn’t run hope as a huge part of his campaign, he wouldn’t be President-Elect right now, and we’d all be screwed. I don’t think that dishonours him, I think it means that someone finally worked out how to put an indispensable tool to honorable use.
    Perhaps because of Bush, or perhaps going back further, I think liberals are often uncomfortable with using emotion. But, aside from the fact that this means they often lose to people who aren’t, emotional appeals are morally neutral; it doesn’t corrupt us to handle them. Great breakthroughs in civil rights have happened because of emotion: think of the passion of Martin Luther King. There’s a tendency to a mind/heart divide, but just because something’s an emotion doesn’t mean it’s stupid, it can’t be. We choose who to marry based on emotion, which is trusting it with our lives. Healthy and intelligent emotion need to be tapped.
    After all, isn’t marriage an emotional issue? Isn’t the great sin of Proposition 8 that it will cause tremendous human pain? This is not a dry bill whose effects can only be measured by highly-trained experts; its effects are going to be felt in the hearts of citizens. I see nothing undignified or cheap about acknowledging that: it’s playing the battle on the territory where it properly belongs.

  2. 2
    newbie atheist

    Can’t say it any better than Keith Olbermann did last night
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27650743/

  3. 3
    J. J. Ramsey

    Part of the solution may be to ensure that the emotional appeals tie into the underlying rational arguments. At the very least, that may help keep the emotional appeals from becoming just empty manipulation.

  4. 4
    Christine

    Go for the youth vote. The breakdown of numbers had younger people voting against Prop 8 in much higher numbers. My generation tends to be much more tolerant and progressive as a whole, even including the evangelical youth. A study (that I can no longer find and will search for when it’s not 7 a.m.) said that evangelicals under 25 don’t really care about gay marriage; their marriage concerns are the environment, poverty, and international crises like Darfur.
    Another problem specific to Prop 8, I think, is the apparent complacency in the anti-Prop 8 movement. It’s really nice and inspiring to see crowds of thousands turning out to protest all across California, but as I watch these things I can’t help but wonder… where were you two weeks ago? A strong showing of solidarity like that could have swayed some people, and the measure didn’t pass by that much. I don’t mean offense to those who did get out and protest and work hard against this thing, but there needed to be a lot, lot more people involved.
    So there’s my $0.02. Youth vote, and get people who are already in favor of gay marriage up off their butts and into the streets BEFORE rights get taken away.

  5. 5
    Eshu

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about emotional pleas (we’re emotional creatures after all), as long as they’re not used to the exclusion of rational arguments.
    I wrote about the emotional aspects of (de-)conversion a while ago (sorry for self-linkage, but it is relevant!).
    In cases like the ones you describe where you’re asking people to do the right thing for real people who are really suffering, an emotional argument seems, if anything, more relevant.

  6. 6
    Zipi

    You are making me depressed, Greta. I am stuck at the same point that you are, and I was very much anticipating this second part in search for answers.

  7. 7
    Anfractuous

    I am a married woman of, shall we say “mature years” who does not have many gay friends. However, the few I do have never once mentioned the issue to me. Perhaps they took my agreement for granted, but if so, I think it was a mistake. While I voted against the ban, I regret that I did not actually work at getting others to vote against it. I guess I took its defeat for granted just like they must have. I could not conceive of its passage in California. Obviously, there are many more people like me, who could be inspired to step up.
    Part of the reason great crowds came out in solidarity after the election is that only then did it become emotional for them. Before that, the results of its passage had not been brought home in such a powerful way.
    What I think might help is the equivalent of the “50 States” approach used by Obama in the election; that is, use all the tools in the arsenal. Using an emotional hook does not preclude the use of reason and vice versa. Getting upset and lashing out every which way, a la the response of the McCain campaign, however, has been demonstrated to be a losing strategy. The country seems to be ready for a positive, calm, well-thought out approach, and that includes appeals to the heartstrings. We rejected appeals to fear in the presidential election, so it proves it can be done.
    Another thing Obama did was recruit volunteers to staff permanent outposts all over the red states to press their issues and to make the residents of those areas comfortable with Obama and his ideas. I believe that approach was almost entirely missing for Prop 8. Outreach has been uncomfortable and threatening in the past, but it must be made to be less so if the issue is to be resolved satisfactorily for both sides of the issue. The opposition must be made to feel less threatened.

  8. 8
    Jim H

    Greta, you speak of “putting the human face” on the issue, but that this can’t be the only answer. Maybe not…
    Anecdote: A friend of mine came out as trans-gendered, and changed to a feminine first name. I was a bit taken aback–I just didn’t understand.
    A few weeks later, I ran into my friend at a conference, and saw she was much happier than he had ever been; I impulsively offered a hug, and realized that understanding is not required–just acceptance. (Side note: he had married a woman a couple of years previously; last I heard, they were still together. Another thing I don’t understand–but accept.)
    My point is this: putting a human face on the issue may be THE most powerful way to get people to see that there is nothing “icky” about marriage equality.
    Even for someone like me, believing I was open minded enough: it took human contact to reach the right conclusion.

  9. 9
    Infophile

    Here’s the only idea I have: Religious persuasion is based, above all else, on an appeal to authority. If you want to persuade a religious person, you appeal to the authority of the Bible, the church, their pastor, or their god himself.
    Now, of course we can’t change what the Bible says, and there aren’t any passages we can pick out that support homosexuality at all. We also can’t affect most churches to any reasonable extent, and pretending to know the word of their god would just be lying. That leaves their pastors. Perhaps, on an individual basis, we could work to convince them, using logic or emotion, whatever works best, and then leave them to preach tolerance. I honestly don’t know how well this might work, but it’s all I can think of at this point.

  10. 10
    inter-something

    I have wanted for so long to get religion out of politics. I have racked my brain and spent sleepless nights trying to think of anything that could work, even just theories and things I personally could never put into motion.
    But I can’t think of anything. I’ve never been able to think of anything. I can’t think of anything that could possibly work from a practical standpoint, without certain support we don’t currently have.
    And it’s driving me crazy, and it’s really depressing me. Reading this post and the responses make me a little more hopeful, but I am still feeling rather dejected at the thought that I’ll never see religion completely melt away from our political sphere.

  11. 11
    Nathaniel

    Hi. First time commenting.
    Just wanted to let you know that emotional appeals can work. On Daily Kos earlier in the day, there was a recommended diary by a religious Christian.
    In it, he talked about how he against gay marriage, until the day before. The tipping point was Keith Olbermann’s impassioned appeal to people’s good side, and to peoples empathy for love.
    Further reading of the post revealed that the writer had been feeling the cracks in his anti gay beliefs for awhile, spiked by the infamous outing of Ted Haggard.
    People can be reached, one at a time. We need to appeal to their compassion, and show how much this kind of hate hurts people. Hope this helps your feelings of hopelessness a little bit.

  12. 12
    Zipi

    Thank for that comment Nathaniel. I searched for it, and I suppose you meant this.
    It gives hope. A tiny little bit only, but hope nevertheless.

  13. 13
    Norman Doering

    newbie atheist wrote: “Can’t say it any better than Keith Olbermann did last night”
    Yes, I think Olbermann’s special comment is a case of out playing the heartstrings. He is a more effective emotional manipulator.
    I put the Keith Olbermann special comment up on my blog.
    But we do need more. We need to listen to the other side and take apart what they are saying and find ways to deal with religion in a respectful manner.

  14. 14
    Ebonmuse

    I don’t think every political campaign should be waged on the basis of who can tug harder on the public’s heartstrings, but we’d be unwise to overlook the role that emotion and sentiment play in most people’s decisions. Frustrating as it is, that’s what people respond to most strongly. It it’s left up to the public, the argument based on dispassionate reason will lose every time to the one that stirs their emotions, regardless of whether it makes any rational sense. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality we have to adjust to.
    With all that said, I’m not arguing that the way to win the marriage-equality debate is to get out there and make the most mawkish, sentimental ads we possibly can. Emotion has its role to play, but it’s just one aspect of a wider strategy.
    If you look at successful political campaigns have in common, the answer is almost always the narrative – their success at depicting the world in terms of a story that’s favorable to their goals. The players and the plot need not be spelled out explicitly, but campaigns that have a strong, compelling narrative are usually the ones that triumph. That’s really what most politics is about nowadays, the ability to tell a better story than your opponent. It needs to be a story that’s simple, memorable, and speaks strongly to its listeners’ hopes or fears (or both). It needs to be a story that people identify with, one that they can readily see themselves as participants in.
    You asked how we can overcome the faith-based stolidity of religion, Greta, and I think this is how. Religious people (people in general, really) don’t often respond to logic and reason, but they do respond to stories. That’s how religion gained its power in the first place, but those levers are still there and can be used against it as well. If we’re going to win the debate on marriage equality, we need to do it by gaining control of the narrative and crafting a better story than the one our opponents are portraying. And I think all the necessary elements are there for us to do that. People can be persuaded, if only we present our message to them in the right terms.

  15. 15
    Kelsey

    As a pro-gay-rights theist, I just want to say that it’s great for you to appeal to progressive churches. But when mere paragraphs later you state that your ultimate goal is to get rid of religion, that immediately creates suspicion and weakens alliances. You really can’t expect communities of faith to get behind a movement that is explicitly anti-religion.

  16. 16
    Greta Christina

    You really can’t expect communities of faith to get behind a movement that is explicitly anti-religion.

    The movement — if by that you mean the pro- same- sex- marriage movement — isn’t explicitly anti- religion.
    I’m explicitly anti-religion.
    But I, by myself, do not make up this movement.
    And even I am only anti- religion in that I would like for people to eventually be persuaded that religion is mistaken. I don’t think religious believers are stupid, evil, or crazy (or, to be more, accurate, I don’t think they’re any more likely to be stupid, evil, or crazy than anyone else.) And I am perfectly happy to be allies with religious organizations about issues we agree on.
    I would hope that progressive, pro-gay religious groups wouldn’t refuse to work on same- sex marriage simply because some same-sex marriage advocates disagree with them about religion. I hope that’s not what you’re saying.

  17. 17
    pig

    We need to demonstrate just precisely what the argument is about: Do you believe that the Church has the right to deny your right to get married?
    And I don’t just mean if you are gay, I mean, if you don’t believe in God, does the Church have the right to deny the existance of your marriage because it is essentially a religious institution?
    Or if you are religious, does the most popular Church have the right to deny your marriage’s existance – because your religion is false and therefore so is your marriage?
    Prop 8 was not just a threat to gay marriage, it was a threat to marriage as a whole, as it allowed religious reasoning to dictate who could and could not join in a contract.

  18. 18
    omar ali

    There is no magic pill. You have to work at every front. And I think trying to prioritize in a top down manner (wise people decide what may be the best strategy) is not the most cost effective method. Do what you can. Others are doing what they can. There is a short term organizational level at which planning is really important, but in the longer term, its millions of individual vectors and they are going to sum up to whatever they are going to be. The trend is in the right direction. Supernaturalism may be hard wired into our brain (whatever that means) but organized religion in the “fundamentalist” judeo-christian-islamic tradition is a loosing proposition. They are the ones who will have to adjust (some of you may be depressed by this, but I think all three religions will stick around, just adjust to changed circumstances as they have done in the past…after all, they no longer stone women except in Somali and Afghanistan)..more depressingly, dumping religion does not dump magical thinking or fashion or herd instinct. Look at Bill Maher and his kooky beliefs about diet and medicine..

  19. 19
    SnowdropExplodes

    Infophile:
    Actually, there is what amounts to a lesbian marriage vow in the Bible. Ruth 1:15-7 – ‘”Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”‘
    Admittedly, Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law, not a lesbian partner, but the oath that Ruth swears is in all but name a marriage vow, and shows that the same bonds of love between a man and a woman can also bind a woman with another woman.

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