March 12, 2001
Liberal Attacks and Counterattacks: Part 2
-- Martin E. Marty
Last week we listened in on an internal debate among voices on the politicaland religious left reacting in long letters to *The Nation* (March 12). Respondents took on author Ellen Willis, who had spoken up for "Freedomfrom Religion" (February 19). Willis re-reacts.
She claims she did *not* write a broadside against religion at all.She thanks Rosalind Petschesky, Arthur Hertzberg, and dissenting CatholicFrances Kissling. (Kissling, not quoted here last week, had laudedWillis for giving ammunition against the Catholic hierarchy which, Kisslingsays, is repressive and misuses power.) For the rest, she deals withher critics.
Her attack, she claims, was not against religion but "against the broadsideattack on secularism and secularists, particularly the claim that secularsociety is antidemocratic and violates believers' rights." She claimsto have acknowledged some contributions by the religious left to politicalmovements. And she joins those who "favor a secular society and arenot religious in the conventional sense [but] have their own conceptionsof the quest for transcendence."
Contrary to Parker, whom we did quote, Willis does not think that "religiousand democratic sentiments are mutually exclusive." But she attackspeople like Yale law professor Stephen Carter, whom she hears saying that"democratic government should make special accommodations to religiousbelief *because* of its absolute nature." Willis goes on: "Parkerhas me saying democracy has thrived by preserving clear boundaries betweenpublic and private, thereby minimizing conflict between secularism andreligion. My point is essentially the opposite: that minimizingreligious-secular conflict depended on confining the practice of democracyto a narrowly construed public, political sphere, and that the spread ofdemocratic principles to 'private' life -- especially sex, gender andchildrearing-- has greatly intensified the conflict."
Against Eric Michael Dyson, also not among those quoted in last week's*Sightings*, she agrees that the clergy had a big role in civil rights,but they had no monopoly, and that secularists had their part. Andshe defends Enlightenment-based moral claims.
Rarely have we devoted two columns to one source, but debates on religionwithin the left are fairly rare and there are so few journals like *TheNation* representing the left that we take special notice. Not likelyto be noticed as regularly as it ought to be: despite the whining of manyreligionists that secularists dominate the debates and run the country,we find the vocal among them on the defensive, having to explain themselves. If religion was ever a "private affair," it has indeed "gone public."