March 5, 2001
Liberal Attacks and Counterattacks
-- Martin E. Marty
"Freedom from Religion." So Ellen Willis called her blast fromthe left against "faith-based" ventures and religion in public life in*The Nation* (February 19). Some notables from what survives on theleft blast her blast in a subsequent issue (March 12), showing that theissue sunders left as it does center and right these days.
Former California state senator Tom Hayden says "I am a spiritual man." He wants religious institutions to be engaged in basic public issues. But there is a "danger of the private religious sector replacing the publicsector." Being tax-exempt and dependent upon government, will thefaith-based forces "express political rage?" "Old Testament rage" is moreneeded than "a clerical seizure of the public sector."
Georgetown professor-writer Michael Kazin reminds Willis that not onlysecularists are wary of the "faith-based" approach, noting that liberalevangelicals such as Jim Wallis worry about threats to the "prophetic voice"of governmentally financed and dependent religious groups. Kazinaccuses Willis of failing to comprehend the fact that prophetic challengesoften come from the religious people she overlooks or disdains. Shealso therefore cannot figure out why Enlightenment-based moral argumentattracts so few supporters in a nation where so many citizens are religious.
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, in the public zone for decades, writes fromNew York University. Smarting for having been seen as a member ofa "defective people" by Cardinal Ratzinger, he is suspicious of those whoclaim morality is safe only in the hands of the religious. Jews haveprospered in secular societies and been beaten up in religiously dominatedones, so he fears more religion in public life. As a rabbi, Hertzbergsays, "I am commanded -- not permitted, but *commanded* -- to advise apregnant mother whose life is in danger that she *must* have an abortion." Many of the religious forces would pass laws that would thwart his divinelycommanded mission. Bottom line: watch out!
Richard Parker of Harvard finds Willis and her kind oblivious to thecreativity religious forces have contributed, and continue to contribute,to American public life. She is blind to a country where ninety percentof the people say they believe in God and often root appeals for justicein their faiths. "Blind, Willis cannot see; deaf, she cannot hear."
Jim Wallis himself checks in on some of Willis's misstatements. He says that "it's also very old and, frankly, politically stupid, to keeprepeating the abuses of religion as if religious people don't know or evenagree" with such charges. Nor is it wise to ignore the fact thatpeople of faith have have often noted these abuses themselves.
Space prevents us from quoting more criticism of Willis. In nextMonday's *Sightings*, we'll hear Willis's responses.
Editor's note: Read Ellen Willis's column in *The Nation* at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010219&s=willis. The responses to Willis are available at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20010312&s=letter.