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Identity Politics: Trying to Have it Both Ways?

Here's my question for Rob Vischer:If vocal, powerful, and authoritative members of a religious group repeatedly and forcefully claim in the public square that one is a bad member of that group (e.g., a bad Catholic or a bad Mormon) if one does not vote a particular way (e.g., in favor of Prop. 8 --or against Obama), can one really blame their political opponents for reacting against the religious group as such if the religious group wins?If you use identity politics in your arguments in the public square ("Real Mormons [Catholics] will vote for or against X"] , don't you have to expect that your political opponents will turn them against you?Rob's proposal--and I haven't read the whole thing, because the website tells me that I'm not a subscriber-- seems to me something like the "Don't hit a girl" rule --which I heartily endorse in its original form, but not when extended to politics. When I was growing up, boys were told, "Don't ever hit a girl --even if she hits you first." So with apologies to Holmes, the "bad girl" theory of the rule was that girls could hit, and yet not be hit. (I hasten to add that I never took advantage of this theory.)Is the bottom line here that religious groups can invoke identity politics to make their case, but their opponents cannot invoke such politics to oppose that case?

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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Bill, I'm not blaming Rob--I think the article is really interesting, and worth engaging. It's a question.

That's a fair question, Cathy. To be clear, I do not think that political arguments based on religious authority (which I distinguish from arguments based on a religious worldview) are good form in a democracy that takes pluralism seriously. So I'm troubled by the "you must vote for proposition 8 if you are Mormon" style of political discourse just as I'm troubled by the "don't let the Mormons come in and rip up your marriage license" argument. In my view, what we should be aspiring to is a discourse that engages the merits of the policy, even if that engagement is shaped by our distinctive worldviews. E.g., "As a Mormon, I believe that it is important for children to be raised by a mother and father." That type of assertion is open to engagement -- e.g., empirical data on the well-being of kids raised by same-sex couples. I'm not giving religious believers a free pass, but there has been a lot of focus (at least academic focus) in recent years on how religious believers should engage the political process. With Rev. Wright, the Palin pastor, the Prop 8 backlash, etc., I think we need to keep in mind that the helpful role of "public reason" runs in both directions.

The lesson that Rome and Vischer should learn is that the way you show your authenticity is by overcoming evil with good, loving your enemies and bringing life to others. The paradox is that religion really should be crucified. Those who remain are true to their faith. Privilege is always dangerous to clergy. It is a contradiction in terms. Yet it is part and parcel of Christian history.We should not just blame Vischer. This is Augustine saying imprison the Donatists and Athanasius persecuting the Arians. We have to disavow that part of our history if we are to be true to Jesus. The lesson of Constantine is not learned.

After reading Rob Vischer's reply about, I have to ask if The Catholic Church behaved according to his proposed standard during the recent presidential election. The Catholic case was that life begins at conception, that abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, and that voting for a pro-choice politician is remote material cooperation with evil which requires a proportionate reason. There was a concerted effort to convince Catholics that in the case of the recent election, no proportionate reason could possibly exist.* What is the "American" argument, based on "public values," against that?*To be fair, I am not sure how accurate it would be to claim that it was the Catholic Church itself that argued no proportionate reason could exist, but many bishops made that argument, and I know of no one in authority who said they were wrong.

I think the first thing to establish before targeting adherents of religious groups for discourses that their formal organization articulates is to what extent those discourses reflect the actual behavioural patterns of the organization.Take for example the Catholic church. While many groups in the Church argued very strongly against voting for a pro-choice candidate, and while some Bishops were very vocal regarding the subject, when you analyze the data, the breakdown of the Catholic vote mirrors the breakdown of the popular vote.Unions are another example. How union leadership extol members to vote versus the member's actual voting patterns is vastly different. In Canada, the Canadian Autoworkers have historically funnelled a lot of money into the NDP party and as a result have a lot of influence in policy. Howvever, when it comes time to elections, unions cannot deliver the votes of their members who very often as in the case of the CAW vote for the Conservative party (lower taxes, etc.).In 2004 there was a quiet campaign among many Jews to vote for Bush as an expression of gratitude for toppling Hussein. Many Jews who hadn't voted Republican did so for that reason. There is an instance of identity politics driving voting patterns. However, as a proportion of the total vote their vote is not strong and I don"t know what the sociological data is to support that contention. I just heard anecdotal evidence.Long story short - large public groups like church's and unions who have diverse memberships cannot be expected to necessarily reflect in every detail the ideological leanings of their adherents.If you are going to analyze voting patterns, analyze ACTUAL votings and draw conclusions based on that rather than the discourses of public groups which may or may not impact or even reflect the votes of those groups.That seems to be to be the best just and fair way to proceed.

PSAfrican Americans and minorities as far as I understand voted heavily against same sex legislation alhtough they heavily supported Obama.Targetting Mormons is unfair.To people who want to blame, whine, attack opponents they should watch the scene in the last Rocky when he is talking to his son about it not being about how hard you can hit but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward and not blaming him or her. Cowards do that, and that ain"t you - Rocky says to his son.Good advice.The reason Prop 8 was lost is because the people weren't ready or didn't want it. Period. McCain lost because people preferred Obama. Period.It ain't about winning or losing - its about how you play the game.

African Americans and minorities as far as I understand voted heavily against same sex legislation alhtough they heavily supported Obama.Targetting Mormons is unfair.George D,Targeting individual Mormons may be unfair, but as I recall from reading articles at the time, the Mormon Church and Mormon groups were responsible for raising about $20 million of the $40 million in funding for the campaign in favor of Proposition 8. This included hefty contributions from outside the state of California. Suppose there was a ballot initiative in your state that you opposed, and some religious organization, (let's say the Church of Scientology) came in from out of state and contributed 50 percent of the funds for the campaign that helped pass it. How pleased would you be?

David:As long as they are playing by the rules that are transparent and fair, such as full disclosure as they did, it isn't a matter of me being pleased or displeased.If I was REALLY displeased I would mobilize and participate in groups and associations opposing their view and try to move the public in another direction.The hard truth is that the people of California simply do not support same sex marriage.I think virtually 95% of people would support extension of same sex benefits in terms of insurance and some kind of civil recognition. It is possible to forge a consensus around that issue.Besides, the larger issue to think about is why is the definition of marriage any business of the state whatsoever. Why can"t I as an individual enter into whatever relationship I want with whoever and decide between us the financial and moral obligations of either party?

From what I've been able to find, very little money came from the institutional LDS church. The vast majority came from individual Mormons. If other sources suggest that I'm wrong on this, please let me know, as I think this would be relevant information.

Rob:For the sake of arguement let's say that the vast majority of money came from individual Mormons.There aren't that many Mormon's in the state of California. It was their message that resonated - the issue that people should have is with the message not the messenger.

While groups are diverse, the posture leadership takes is another matter.I think that the Catholic heierachy prior to the election (and in spite of Faithful Citizenship) was quite pushy toward the Republican side (stressing the real or imagined FOCA question beyond others) -and that's still happening (as here in new Mexico where the Bishop sent letters to every registered Catholic in the sSanta Fe archdiocese.)In our parish, there was pizza free to listen to the new Republican State treasurer,Bill Redmond (a former congressman -who was so inept- he was thrashed by Tom Udall the first time around) to talk about forthcoming isues including FOCA and same sex marriage. Noone mentioned the economy.At any rate, how would a poltivican react to this kind of approach by leadership (granted broad group diversity?)

Many people came to this country fleeing religious bigotry. Religious bigotry jump started when Christianity became the priviliged religion. When religion becomes powerful it is most obnoxious. Nobody goes for the mind and soul more than a religious despot. This is seen in fanatical Muslims as well as fundamentalist Christians.Sadly, many people are turned off because of this problem. It is truly an assumption to say that California is not ready for same sex marriage. We know that Falwell and Robertson knew that their greatest income ensued when they warned of the evil of gays. So it is a hard sell, Rob, to defend people who make a living on subjugating people. And especially when the most energy is seen on the Cardinal's annual appeal and right to life. I am talking about officials here. James Joyce gives us some graphic details concerning this kind of subjugation. This domination is not less today because of choice but because the laws of countries will not allow it. The Leaven of the Scribes and Pharisees is always something to beware of. So their defense can be viewed with wariness.The choice of church sanctuaries is more religious leader's decision than that of their opponents.

In the parish we attend on Sundays there was a strong political cast to messages in the parish bulletin preceding the election, embodying exactly the sort of pressure to vote correctly that Bob Nunz describes. And right after the election we were treated to a confidential, snickering comment from the altar before mass about the serious need for prayers considering what would be going on in Washington from here on. There were no responding chuckles from the congregation I am happy to say. I explained to the visiting (Legion of Christ) celebrant on the way out that the town had gone overwhelmingly for Obama and many of us were actually looking forward to whatever changes the new administration might bring to Washington in the next four years. Perhaps his acquaintance with the parish had been limited to what he might learn in the rectory and the bulletin and from such self-selected parishioners as have chosen to attend his insistently advertised retreats at the local Legion outpost. But our visitor certainly underestimated the degree to which the hard sell on the election had been resisted by the people in the pews. I suspect that there was a good deal of backlash out there against the campaign to convince them they had no choice about how to vote. It is a mistake to interpret the polite silence of parishioners as agreement with what they hear from the clergy on hot button political issues. Better to look at the way they vote.

Susan, I think it is obvious, that what your visitor underestimated, was the degree to which the people in the pews view the Sanctity of Life and the Sanctity of Marriage and the Family, as simply a "hot bottom political issue".

Money given by Mormons to prop 8 was given strictly as individuals. Members were told in meetings where these funds could be donated, but there was no pressure to do so. In my congregation, people were encouraged to support prop 8 in various ways, but no one was pressured and when some members expressed opposite opinions they were treated with respect. The leadership constantly reiterated that a special effort should be made to reach out to members who did not support the proposition. On election night, one of these leaders appeared on the local news channel while the outcome was still in doubt. When asked what would happen if the proposition lost, he responded that we would accept it and move on. When the ssm supporter was asked this same question, he refused to answer. My question is, who is playing identity politics here? Though I suppose one could argue that general church support for prop 8 might IMPLY that members who did not support it were "bad," my experience was that members and leadership alike went out of their way to stress that people of all opinions would be welcomed and respected. By contrast, the opposition was quick to play some identity politics on Mormons behalf and in a very nasty way.

A spreadsheet purporting to be a record of contributers including whether or not they are affiliated with the LDS is posted at:, this list has the Knights of Columbus in New Haven CT. kicking in a cool $1,000,000As others have noted, 50% of the total (roughly 16M) was donated by LDS members. Of the religious institutions on the list, Focus on the Familly seems to have the largest overt presence. I don't know whether or not the LDS Church or any other religious institution is represented indirectly through the use of proxies. In any event, I guess its stating the obvious to point out that the issue with the LDS is not its direct contributions but its role in mobilizing support for prop 8 -- particularly in view of its own historical support for non-traditional forms of marriage.To me, this is a red herring anyway. Others may see this differently, but as a CA resident, it seemed like the prop 8 opponents got blindsided by the early polling results that showed significant opposition to the proposition.

Like Cathy, I'm in the pitiable condition of waiting for the print copy, so I only read "Bad Faith" today.I guess I'm troubled by the assertion that,"To understandthe danger of protersts against specific churches, we need to understand the rationale for the protests.In most cases,the protestors' objective isnot to persuade church members; it is to persuade nonmembers to reject the views with which the church is associated."That may be or it may not - there is no evidence offered so it seemed gratuitous to me.It's too bad there was no discussion about the foofaraws that followed upon prop. 8's passing, say, with the Mayor of San Francisco incurring the Archbishop's anger at a charity dinner, and then subseqent pstorals by that Bishop and the Southern California Bishops explaining their "defense of marriage" but their desire to accept the gay comunity lovingly.A furher dustup came over the Vatican rejection of the UN resolution condeming hate crimes against gays but then a lengthy statement from the Vatican indicating its opposition to anti gay hatred but its desire to keep in place the traiditional role of marriage.Interestingly, the current print isue has a superb letter from Fr. Aldo Tos, pastor of St. Joseph's in the Village that noted the conflicts many in his gay congrgation experienced and how little pastoral help from the hierarchty or Vatican documents he received in trying to faithfully but lovingly hand on the church's teaching.His letter and others were in reaction to the end piece in the December 5 Commonweal by Ned O'Gorman, "Untouchable."As Professor Vischer has subtitled his essay "Blaming Religion For Proposition 8," it would have been well to examine the conflicts with faiths that leadership positions engender.I need to say that I agree with him that religious voice needs to be strong in the public sqare, but it should be sensitive to our pluralism, keenly aware of any issues of bigotry, and savvy in the way it deals with not only policy makers, but also with decsions of the courts

Okay, WHY do religious voices need to be kept strong in the public square? Any and all religious voices--simply because they're religious?. WICA? A hypothetical AZTEC high priest who believes (theoretically at least) in human sacrifice? Or do we mean traditional, conservative Bible-based religion here?

I think we need a strong voice both to avoid the reaction against any voice by religion in the public square and because good government is based on service to the community and the values that underpin that (not necessarily conservative ones.)I thought Alexia kelly had a nice piece at NCR on working to reduce the number of abortions as a matter of the common good to focus on, for example; I'm sure others would like a more law restrictive approach.I stil think a stron gvoice also needs to be sensitive, etc. as above

Except for atheists, lapse Catholics and non-believers haven't the last couple of decades been notable for the fact that believers question their leaders more than ever? Up to that point bishops and other religious heads have had very little opposition from the pews. (Except from the very rich, Joe Kennedy intimidating Cardinal Spellman, for example)So this challenge to religious leaders to show by example rather than authority is a very tender and recent phenomenon. This is why when religious authorities assert or are given leeway by any of us, I raise a warning flag. Did you not have it your way for 1700 years? Now you have to earn it.

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, supports the Sacrament of Marriage and the Family? Focus on The Family supports Marriage and The Family? Members of the LDS supporting Marriage and the Family? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked!

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