The Religious Right — how a well-funded heresy created homelessness and what to do now
This essay is a reply to a proposal I took exception to: the suggestion that Humanism dedicate itself exclusively to Social Justice issues rather than challenging the status of religion in law, or influence of religion on laws. On this view, addressing or criticizing the legal privileges conferred on religion to determine and both the merit and form of laws in Canada (including on laws directly addressing charity and income transfer!) would be merely a trite distraction from useful work on behalf of the less fortunate. I couldn’t disagree more.
Firstly, you may not believe that a strong linkage between religion and law is still a thing in advanced countries such as Canada. If so, you haven’t read the Canadian Constitution (written in the 1980s). Quoting the very first line of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, there: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:”
In Canada, laws relating to anyone’s rights to shelter, education or a meal proceeds from and must be in conformance with a belief in a supreme God. That’s our law, our constitution. But there are saner guidelines correcting that elsewhere in the Constitution, you say? Not so fast. Elsewhere, that same constitution allows any Provincial government to do literally anything — set up Death Camps and with perfect legality, mass murder any minority, for example — by invoking the Notwithstanding Clause. Words do matter when they find their way into laws and Constitutions. A single clause in the Weimar Constitution in Germany allowed Hitler to discard Parliament legally, once upon a time.
Secondly: Hey, as a former homeless person I’d LOVE everyone and every association to address Social Justice issues strongly — maybe we could start that transition with Billionaires’ Country Clubs? (There are a lot of other things I’d like too.) But leaving religion legally and constitutionally in moral charge of any such effort is not a great idea (think U.S. politics, here.) True, religion traditionally strongly supported charity and in spots, it still does. Religions can indeed be extraordinarily powerful forces for good within society. But that’s not our contemporary reality. During the nineteen thirties corporations in the U.S. funded a very different take on Christianity (a truly vicious heresy, in truth). See:
Because it tells people what they want to hear: that they can and should keep more to themselves; that heresy has steadily become more and more influential.
Third: Logically, leaving social justice as the sole remit of Humanism or a Humanist Movement makes that movement something else entirely. In fact: it just removes Humanism from the field, with that well funded low-tax heresy of Christianity going unchallenged by Humanism. Making social justice our sole concern takes us right back to a world we’ve already seen — just before Humanism emerged! The world of the Middle Ages in which a singular religion governed that remit (and all else.) Where charity and military training worked, sort of; but hardly progress in other matters was quite slow. Then humanism shook that system up, leading to sharply higher growth in total social goods as science took hold, and as the Churches grip on education (such as the Augustine scholars grip on British Universities that Francis Bacon decried) was destroyed.
Does the possibility of a regression in values like that sound silly? Then you really haven’t followed the power of the religious right in the U.S. over the last many decades. Superficially religious “morality” has been used again and again to smash up anything remotely smacking of “socialism” or “social” help. Ronald Regan blocking any funding for AIDS research, and dubbing ketchup a “vegetable” where poor children were concerned was just the start. Homelessness and the Religious Politics shot up together, and for a reason. So I can’t help but think that to provide no resistance to the idea of religious supremacy in law is the mother of all bad ideas. Codependency to all the wrong trends. It’s exactly this law and the politics supporting it that have cramped social justice in order to reduce corporate tax burdens (and allow profits to leave for tax havens overseas.) No legal resistance, and no assertion of the rights of those who prefer reasoned or felt ethics to richly funded pseudo-Christian low-tax-theology just means an expansion of homelessness; not improvement. As individuals, we all need to help — but we need to help wisely, and not even attempting to contest the moral high ground is not going to be helpful in the long run.
At a minimum, ceding moral high ground to religious claims to guide law, rights and policy frees the religious right in both Canada and the U.S., to use an apparent monopoly on moral suasion to help it squash government action/redress re social justice issues. That’s what’s been happening, especially South of us, but also under Harper. It’s the opposite of what a humanist movement should do AND is likely to backfire. If being a humanist is such a trivial distinction that the Humanist Movement can wholly dedicate itself to social justice, then it shouldn’t exist; its members should join a different society directly addressing those needs and distributing sandwiches (etc) instead.
Sadly, religious trends have everything to do with why I walk past a homeless camp nearly every day: many people now feel free of any moral burden to others because they aren’t either Christian or truly Humanist (just agnostic on religious and moral questions generally or unconcerned) and are happy to vote for parties that have not just dropped taxes but also removed an immense amount of intellectual property and profits from poor originators and given them to multinational corporations — to name just one injustice (squatters rights have also been removed in BC, where I live.) Many other people feel free of any burden to help those not members of their faith; or they use their faith as the very reason not to help those in need, since they have a war for souls to fund and conduct, and can’t risk helping those who might actually resist the supremacy of the detailed views they know God holds and will one day insist upon with a rain of fire. All of that malarky merits resistance, by Humanism as an idea. There’s more to do than handing out sandwiches, which if done thoughtlessly, actually helps politicians further lower tax rates.
The historical roots of charity were religious, and I think it’s obvious that those withered roots haven’t been robustly replaced in this much more secular world. We live in a Post-Christian society that is, in some ways, increasingly nasty. Charity has largely been abandoned by most Churches (beyond face-saving token efforts, of course — yes, Pope Francis is trying to correct that drift, and good luck to him.) Filling in a bit to take up the slack is worthwhile — however sad the necessity — but JUST doing that makes humanism a mere codependent to some very pernicious social trends. The most important battles are up there on the moral high ground, in correcting a sociopathic vision of religion (and ethics) that’s taken over a lot of that legal ground, displacing a heartfelt faith that my genuinely Christian grandfather lived, but is now increasingly uncommon. Social justice is a fight of ideas, and laws, the problem isn’t a genuine shortage of social and economic goods, but their sequestration.
I haven’t made a great distinction above between matters of social inequality and social justice (such as inequitable law enforcement) because there isn’t one. More inequality necessitates more thugs. As the ancient Chinese saying went: “In a time of famine it’s cheaper to send soldiers than food.” Or a better equipped SWAT team or riot squad, as the case may be.
A final note: the great weight on contemporary society is chronic illness. The stunning rise in incidence of many severe chronic illnesses (particularly diabetes, but many others too) has put society in the soup. This now-hugely-inflated economic burden (and the personal tragedies that make it up) engenders donor fatigue and makes social progress as a practical matter very difficult within a democracy — and would to some extent even if our laws weren’t for sale.
Science (such as the discovery of pRGCs and the low-FODMAP diet) is now starting to directly address these puzzles and some trends are just starting to go in reverse in advanced countries. More of us, for example, are now getting to bed on time, and staying in the dark and the statistics are beginning to move. In the meantime palliative action that reduces suffering is necessary but it can’t reverse that trend. Scientific research can. The laws we have (shaped by guess who) have cut way back on that research. In contrast Humanism as an idea advocates very strongly for that critical scientific research and always has. In time, one hopes, our efforts will be joined by still more sincere and heartfelt believers whose faith has not been perverted by a reactionary corporate agenda; or who eventually see that improved medical knowledge is already saving them both grief and money.