Sunday, December 26, 2004

Secularism and Political Correctness

My last blog entry seems to have rankled alot of readers. And alot was completely misunderstood.

In the comments Arjun made a salient point, and one that I did not make all that clear, but what I also believe. This country, while founded by those who expressed personal faith, was indeed meant to be a secular country to protect the rights of those who did not follow the same faith as those in political power. Secularism does indeed protect the rights of those who wish to have faith as much as it protects the rights of others not to have faith. And a claim of faith should never be used as a means to manipulate the political system.

And I never said I did not support secularism. I have benefitted greatly from the openness of secularism because it has allowed me to experiment with various belief systems. And I don't think I said anything about the rightness of having displays on town hall lawns. That is something that was read into what I said. Because of the diversity of faiths, and that town hall is for everyone, having displays on town hall lawns isn't necessarily appropriate. It isn't necessarily an issue of taxpayer money in that it is that town hall represents everyone, no matter what faith, that lives within the town.

But I would also like to point out the possible rationale behind the decoration of town halls; something that begain sometime in the late 20th century. While I do not have the research and cannot quote the gentleman who did the research on holiday displays, including the original display in Woodward and Lothrop's department store in Philadelphia in the late 19th century, I think the reason that town halls started to have displays was a combination of cold-war fears of "godless communism," of a desire to be more INCLUSIVE of catholic traditions, and a desire on the part of catholic politicians (Irish and Italian) to bring their traditions into the public sphere.

The lack of holiday decorations prior to the late 19th century did not have as much to do with secularism as it had to do with the hard-line protestant belief that there should be absolutely no decorations for the holidays, that this was pagan, idolatrous and had nothing to do with being devout. Most hard line protestants also believed in working thru holidays because idleness left one open to the wiles of Satan and that to truly worship God one should always be industrious.

It was catholics, working with burgeoning labor unions, who rallied to have Christmas off. So, we can thank liberal lefty socialist catholics of the early 20th century for giving us a day (or more) off in December.

The worlds of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, though, were very different from ours today. I don't think the average american in the any of those eras could have imagined that they might be living next door to a buddist, have a doctor who is a practicing hindu, and be best friends with a muslim from Pakistan. It couldn't be anticipated. The most differences they had to deal with were those between mainline protestant denominations, caltholisim, and judaism.

Because there weren't other non-wester faiths present in the U.S. for most of its history, catholics and jews were the targets of discrimination. Betsy's quote from James Madison was actually a direct attack on catholics--I am familiar with that work of Madison's. When Madison speaks of "clergy" he is speaking of catholics, as most protestants of that time did not call their minsters and governing bodies "clergy." Madison (and John Adams and his son John Quincy)was a rabid anti-catholic as were most Massachusetts politicians--and this anti-catholicism was the result of their protestant hatred of those NOT protestant, not because they had been oppresed by catholics in this country. For the most part, most colonial leaders were anti-catholic as much as they were suspicious of quakers and of methodists. Most jews were tolerated because they lived, for the most part, in New York, and did not openly display or compete with the pervading protestant ethos. But they did not hold any political power either, in part because of their beliefs and the suspicions Englsih protestants held about jews.

The discrimination against catholics and jews continued even into the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. In his latest book, Michael Benchloss (sp?) quotes FDR as saying that both catholics and jews were living in the U.S. under sufferage, and were not entitled to the same rights as protestant americans.

So much for the inclusiveness and secularism of some of the founding fathers and modern politicians.

My complaint, however, is NOT with secularism, but with political correctness. These are two different concepts. Political correctness tells people that they must *never* speak of matters of faith because it may offend someone somewhere. That means *any* faith or belief system, although some belief systems are more fashionable than others in p.c. circles. By discouraging open discussion of any faith, political correctness promotes shame and discourages dialogue and experimentation. Because we are not allowed to speak to one another and are shamed into believing we are awful people for having faith, we risk living in ignorance of other faiths and cultures. This can only work to encourange distrust and hatred among people--not acceptance and inclusiveness as others claim.

Personally, I used to believe in p.c.ness until I attended Smith. In a philosophy class, myself and two jewish students were admonished because we would not accept white guilt the way that James Baldwin explained it in "The Fire Next Time". The three of us explained that we were not white in the way that Baldwin discussed whitness--their grandparents had been Holocaust survivors, and my mother's family had been routinely terrorized by the KKK in the 1920's because of our Italian Catholic heritage. We were not quite the same shade of white as our protestant classmates--but our professor would not hear of it. Political correctness told us to just shut up and be white--even if we weren't and had suffered as much, if not more, because of it.

It is this kind of negative political correctness that has pushed many formerly liberal catholics into the hands of the right wing. And this is quite dangerous, as many "christians" on the right still adamantly believe as Madison did that catholics are evil, that they are pope-worshippers and idolators and do not deserve to have a voice in the american political scene. Most catholics who support right-wing causes don't even know that the right-wing will eventually quote FDR back to them and shut them out of the political process. They do not even realize that the agendas forwarded by the right wing as "family friendly" are not in keeping with what most catholics believe. But, because of the fear and intolerance promoted by the politically correct left, it has left many, many catholics with no other political choice. Some of us, though, still rally around Mario Cuomo and men of reasoned faith and stay with liberalism even though it wants to stand on an emotional polticial correctness that pooh-poohs us and wants, too, to push us aside.

But there is a need to acknowledge that this particular holiday season occurs in this country because many people have a belief system that says there is something special about this time of year--that we are not just using the cold winter months as a reason to go on a capitalist spending spree to bolster our flagging economy, which is what it looks like these days. Furthermore, wrongheadded political correctness should not hide behind the banner of secularism in an effort to make people feel ashamed of their desires to celebrate the holidays--whether it is Christmas, Channukah, Ramadan or Diwali. (and if I spelled any of those wrong, please forgive me...just don't have the dictionary handy). Being reasoned and secular often has little to do with the overly-emotional and oppresive political correctness we see today.

--Tish G.

cross posted on Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams

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