Saturday, January 15, 2011

Secular Soothing (and Inspiration)

It is said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Now we might add that they memorialize sacredly. It is understandable that Biblical quotes would find a place in memorial service such as in Tucson (“Together We Thrive: Tucson and America”). At the Tucson memorial service the closest thing to an actual minister or priest was Carlos Gonzales the Native American who gave a blessing and invocation. But was the Tucson rhetoric by President Obama and others a bit too slavishly devoted to religious language (what some call sanctimonious) or quasi-religious? It struck me that way at times although watching the early part of the memorial event, the audience behavior wasn't what you might find in a traditional church.

It was more like a religious revival or perhaps a warm up for a political rally with cheers and whistles. Obama himself felt something of this when he arrived at the lectern saying, "The decorum is a little un-nerving." And the Guardian newspaper seemed to pick up how the speeches connected the religious and political too. While praising Barack Obama for perhaps the finest speech of his presidency they noted:

“It is not just that, in performing the role of pastor to the victims of the shootings in Arizona, he shed his professorial reserve and became the empathetic head of state that everyone who crammed the National Mall on his inauguration expected him to be.”

Some saw the quoting of scripture as exactly the right tone for a largely Christian nation. It highlighted his Christian faith. And the pastoral tone was seen as statesmanlike and fatherly, which might help some people to rally around him and his policies. Perhaps for this larger reason some, such as the conservative blog Power Line attacked the atmosphere and ceremony. To them the Native American prayer along with Gonzales' comments on his Native American and Mexican ancestry were out of place. They wanted more Biblical language and concluded that the invocation "could have used more God, less Mexico, and less Carlos Gonzales."

But on the other side it wasn’t just me that saw a down side to approaching this event in a quasi-religious tone to handle intellectual, political and moral discomfort. One Guardian reader wrote:

“I so want this man to succeed, and the speech was beautiful, but please oh please will he take intense care of his own voice and not start talking like a preacher as a habit. Tony Blair couldn't resist that emotive "tug of the pulpit". It gives everyone bad memories.”

That’s why for me the part that made Obama’s a good speech was the personalized details blended with humanizing elements, such as captured in the phrase expand our moral imaginations.." Other humanizing elements included the macro-theme of civility, listening to each other and a more balanced political debate. It linked these to the future by invoking the name of the 9 year-old Christina Green who died in Saturday's rampage and Obama’s idea that, "I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it."

As I listened I thought of Martin Luther King Jr phrase about capturing the conscience of the State. My imagination wandered to the idea of what quotes and ideas a secular, humanist president in a society that explicitly recognized the humanist values might serve a role here. How do secular humanists comfort in a time of death and grief to pull families and communities together and inspire them to move forward? To start I thought of Paul Kurtz’s 3 key humanist virtues: courage, cognition, and caring (What is Secular Humanism, 2007) which he contrasted with dependence, ignorance, or insensitivity to the needs of others. A good start and here are a few of the related ideas that came to mind as part of what one might talk about building on these.

Accomplishment and Promise

We lost talented, engaged and promising people so one might emphasize a commitment to improve human welfare in this world. The productive work that we accomplished during our lives (and the hope it inspires) helps those who remain or come after. This is comforting as we live and we should be remembered for the good we do, for as long as we do it. We should think of communities as our extended family, who are our beneficiaries. Indeed we should think of the Earth itself as our extended home and an exquisitely beautiful place whose protection is also our accomplishment and which will comfort those who come after us. This event is an opportunity to make this linkage.

Personal and Democratic Growth & Practical Action

We should be comforted by personal fulfillment, growth, and creativity. This and its promise was one of the compelling aspects of Christina Green and is seen is the still living, heroic intern Daniel Hernandez of Representative Giffords. The key to unlocking both personal and group progress and growth is within life experience. It is to face facts, to fashion realizable ends or purposes, to choose the best course of action, and to act. This is a message to convey in this teachable moment. Rather than being a Pastor-in-Chief, one might try to be a voice of Democracy and social participation. Democracy, as John Dewey noted in The Quest for Certainty, is a “way of life” that must be constantly nurtured and defended. It needs to be understood as a mode of existence, an ethical ideal that demand our active and constant attention. We should take comfort from people who maintain and support this non-dogmatic way of life. We should take comfort in life as a work in progress.

Centering on Life in this World

We should express concern for this life, as opposed to an afterlife. As Omar Khayyam, penned it in the Rubáiyát :

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain -- This life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

We need to strengthen the commitment to making life meaningful here. The means to accomplish this are through Science, better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and conversation with those who differ with us. This means understand the world not as we would like to have it, but as science gradually helps use discover it in reality. This includes understanding our own mortality.

Ethics and Civics

I agree with Margaret Knight that “Ethical teaching is weakened if it is tied up with dogmas that will not bear examination.” Even comforting formulations that are tied up in such dogmas can be counter productive. We should stress an ethics based on critical intelligence and involved citizenry fortified by moral education. As John Dewey notes ethical knowledge is aimed at the improvement of actual conditions and moral values derive their source from reflected human experience. This is all connected to what some have called the search for viable individual, social, political and civics principles of ethical conduct. How much better we would be when we judge actions and goals based on a practical, grounded ability to enhance overall human well-being and individual responsibility. We need such ideas in these times.


mkb said...

Thank you for your thoughts. The only word in your essay that I would change is "sanctimonious", as I heard nothing from the President that I would describe that way.

One of my favorite sections of the President's speech was when he identified those to whom we are thankful -- Hernandez, the men who tackled the shooter, the woman who grabbed the ammunition, the first responders -- nary a whiff of God. Since he got that part right, I'll give him a little slack for the rest.

Gary Berg-Cross said...


I agree that sanctimonious is a bit strong and prefer the quasi-religious term I followed it up with.

I did see the label sanctimonious applied to the speech by commentators like Katherine Kersten (in the StartTibune) who argued (politically) that Liberals were at their worst after tragedy:

"Reaction to Tucson laid bare the biases that drive left-wing ideology.

Most ironically, the liberal establishment used the Tucson shootings to issue sanctimonious calls for "civility" while simultaneously accusing their ideological opponents of complicity in murder. It's hard to imagine a graver slander."