Almost all my life I thought of the United States as a country in which diversity of opinion and freedom of religion were valued. These values were reflected in a tolerance for Buddhists, despite our association with Asia, rather than with “Western civilization.” The Christian Nationalism movement, however, opposes all that. A recent New York Times article, “Trump or No Trump, Religious Authoritarianism is here to stay,” by Katherine Stewart, <here>, demonstrates the destructive potential of Christian Nationalism. Stewart explains that the movement’s followers are people who identify with “the idea that the United States is and ought to be a Christian nation governed under a reactionary understanding of Christian values.”
I have for quite some time been trying to express clearly what my concerns are about the relation between ethics and religious identity. My friends and colleagues, Kristin Largen and James Fredericks—both influential figures in the dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity <here>—recently pressed me to share my concerns with them. While that conversation went off onto many creative tangents, I have been brought back to my main concern again by Stewart’s article.
Central to modern conceptions of “religion” (that is, as a general category) is the idea that religion is the primary determinant of ethics. Consider the widely shared stereotype that atheists are of necessity immoral, acting only for the own personal, materialistic gain. What strikes me as problematic is when a particular religious identity claims supremacy in the ethical calculations a person is confronted with. Specifically, it seems to me that one analysis of Christian Nationalism is that being a Christian and being a citizen are not two identities held in tension with one another, but rather that the identity as a Christian is the single determining identity for ethical decisions. One’s duties as a citizen, as a parent, as a worker are defined as subsumed under one’s Christian identity.
This also would seem to be linked to a particular conception of the self as singular, fixed, and unitary. This contrasts with the idea of the self as complex, contingent, and multiple, which is one way of interpreting the teaching that there is no permanent, eternal, unchanging, absolute self. This is also why I become suspicious of discussions of Buddhist ethics that start from “being a Buddhist,” such as “what is the Buddhist view of abortion, war, political corruption, whatever…” This identity driven ethics seems to me to have adopted the worst of contemporary ethical discourse.
As a self-identified Buddhist do I have a Buddhist view of such matters that is exclusively determined by being a Buddhist? Speaking personally (which some might dress up as phenomenology), I don’t think so… Instead, I feel that I have multiple perspectives on complex issues that are not easily resolved by claiming “I’m a Buddhist so I’m in favor of or opposed to…” Certainly, Buddhism influences my values, my view of reality, but political conceptions, economic conceptions, and aesthetic ones as well all influence my values, my view of reality.
Perhaps the appeal of a position like that of Christian Nationalism is that one then doesn’t have to think, reflect, consider—what for example is my responsibility as a citizen? As a parent? As a worker? Any other such identity, ones that carry with them different perspectives, different values, different claims on attention and effort, are all too easily subsumed under the single identity of being a Christian. This is not speculative, as arguments along these lines have been successful in court, where they have come to be called “religious freedom.” The claim is that a person’s religious freedom supersedes any other kind of obligation. The baker claims that his religious freedom depends on being free to deny service to gay people, whom his religion tells him are immoral, and that he must remain free of that taint.
The basis of our society had been a shared commitment to the common good. Increasingly it seems that a malignant individualism, evident when someone asserts, for example, that my rights are more important than yours because I’m motivated by my religious identity. A strategic power play backed up by an absolute authority, that of the Creator, which then leaves no room for compromise, for negotiation. Either a person is on the side of the righteous or not, and if not then they are inferior beings, whose rights are freely ignored. Obedience to an authoritarian system comes to be defined as righteousness.
This kind of absolutism was exactly what the founders of our country feared and protection against it is what they meant by the freedom of religious expression—not the freedom to impose one’s religious ideas on others.