On civic atheism

With the decline of organized religion in western societies, beginning with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but continuing into the twenty-first century, many practices and ideologies emerged to take its place as the guiding institution- both entwined with and autonomous of the state. The nineteenth century saw the rise of romantic nationalism, which motivated social action and conflict much like the religious wars of previous eras.

Encompassing nationalism, but more varied, is civic (or civil) religion. The concept, originating with Rousseau, is that a new, unifying and exalted force takes the place of the church, with its own myths and sacred figures and texts that function in a similar fashion.

Civic religion is highly developed in the United States, and instantly recognizable, even to those who were not born here and did not experience American socialization. From the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion:

Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.

In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place.

Civic religion saturates the political and social mainstream of American society. Both political parties invoke the Founding Fathers, treat texts like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence much as prior societies did the Bible. The difference is in interpretation and emphasis- whether the American myths and legacy are compatible with a diverse and multicultural population. Though President Trump’s refrain of ‘America First’ is rightly seen as historically tied to intolerance and fascist ideology, exalting America as above all else, either the material nation or the abstract idea of America, is not particularly controversial. Even those that support multilateralism and international cooperation are often fiercely patriotic, and appeal to the civic canon to justify their decisions.

What is civic atheism?

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever discussed the idea of civic atheism, and given it a definition. Similar ideas exist- it is implicit in socialist internationalism, for instance- but I feel it is best to use the term as a contrast to civic religion. If there is religion, if there is a sacred and holy, there is its opposite, a negation.

Civic atheism is defined asa worldview that rejects the mythology of the state, the primacy of its core figures and texts, and exceptional narratives as irrational or otherwise indefensible.

Why civic atheism? 

  • Civic religion is ahistorical. It creates myths and rearranges history to glorify the nation and the state. Acceptance of, and participation in, civic religion is predicated on overlooking social problems and injustice when it doesn’t ‘fit the narrative’.
  • Principles of American civic religion have problematic ethical and moral implications. The ‘American dream’ (‘a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful’ [Merriam Webster]) can interfere with empathy, as it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and failure is a shortcoming explained by individual factors. Belief in meritocracy is not fair to the less advantaged. Civic religion has a lack of understanding of both power structures and intersectionality.
  • Civic religion is the foundation of xenophobic nationalism and is used to marshal support for unjust wars. How often was the flag used to rally support for the invasion of Iraq, despite a complete lack of evidence that the country was involved in the 9/11 attacks, or could be occupied without massive consequences?

Civic religion is the true inheritor of the established churches- it also inherits the same fundamental issues from dogmatic religion.

Groups that try to tell a different story of America- the indigenous tribes that lived here long before, and live here today; the black community with its history of slavery and discrimination that predates the founding of the country; the immigrant communities from all over the world who are told to accept civic religion in order to be accepted, no matter its wisdom. It is fine to be a civic atheist, and have a cultural system that does not exist to bolster the state. It may be the healthiest way forward, in the light of profound and systemic social problems.

The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

Sanders and his supporters: transform or perish

The Sanders campaign understands transformative politics. His supporters have not, at least yet.

Sanders rally in Los Angeles 8/10/15. Credit to Maximilian Cotterill
Sanders rally in Los Angeles 8/10/15.
Credit to Maximilian Cotterill

Transformative political movements need to be able to adapt and respond to social crises. They need to see criticism as valid and important. We now live in the post-Seattle Sanders campaign. What has happened in the last three-plus days with the Bernie Sanders campaign shows the candidate and his staff are willing to evolve and transform. His base of largely white progressives have not taken interruption and criticism well at all, and has fallen back on arguments that I frankly find insulting.

The campaign has hired Symone Sanders, a black woman with a background in justice system activism, as a national press secretary. Also brand-new is a racial justice campaign platform that I think is pretty comprehensive. It divides violence against people of color into four distinct categories (a structure that as a sociologist I appreciate for its clarity), and deals with police reform, mandatory minimums, voter disenfranchisement, the War on Drugs, all tied into the established (but previously whitewashed) economic policies.

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Additionally in tonight’s massive rally in Los Angeles he allowed Black Lives Matter activists to open up the program. Most (perhaps all) other candidates would likely have just beefed up security.

I think besides him lagging far behind Hillary Clinton in campaign staff diversity, Sen. Sanders and the core, experienced people who are running his campaign get it. The activists who interrupted the Seattle event and those like them know that. They target Sanders because he was the most likely candidate of either party to respond to their concerns. They were right, and a bunch of activists have said that the Democratic candidates have been in touch about incorporating racial justice into what they do.

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One would hope that this process will be a learning experience. An example of how parts of the social justice movement can combine to become stronger. The wider base of Sanders supporters has made me discouraged though. Without the people who will ultimately decide his fate in the primaries accepting Black Lives Matter as an integral part of the process, this will just be a wise decision from the top with no larger social currency.

My friend Chad posted this picture up. He’s a Socialist Alternative member who moved from San Diego to Seattle recently to work with a local SEIU chapter. He took this during the period of silence in remembrance of Mike Brown, after the planned event was interrupted.

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Adding “There was a mix of fists in solidarity and middle fingers raised in defiance.” So the the two fingers here were not isolated but widespread.

My friend Max, who has deep connections in the Democratic Party machine, added in the aftermath “many consultants and strategists I know are saying that isn’t Bernie’s poll numbers or lack of $$$ that might doom him, it could very well be his strongest supporters.”

The level of discourse in the last few days has varied wildly, but I’d like to isolate some things being said that are both insulting and short-sighted.

  • There was a lot of talk of the Seattle interruption being part of a conspiracy. Who was behind it varied- I saw people claiming Hillary Clinton’s campaign was behind it. Others said the GOP. One person specifically said it looked like something Karl Rove would do. This talk, almost all from white people, is denying black autonomy. It is saying that these two black women are paid agents of white people. There are few ways to be more demeaning and offensive.
  • There was a lot of talk about the tactics being used are counterproductive. I wrote this just after the Seattle event.Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 10.32.57 PM
  • There was talk that Bernie is the “best ally” of black people and it’s self-defeating to target him. It ignores that being the best of a poor lot on racial justice is not an excuse for leaving him along.
  • There was talk of why Black Lives Matter activists don’t interrupt Clinton events, or GOP candidates. There is plenty of pressure on Clinton, but she also hasn’t been drawing the massive crowds that give exposure like Sanders does. Targeting the GOP is useless because they don’t care and never will. Activists are intelligent people and can make estimates of how much can be gained with a finite amount of time and resources.
  • There was gratuitous mention of Sanders’ background in civil rights- SNCC and Martin Luther King Jr. That is all well and good, but that was forty-seven years ago. Mike Brown was killed a year and two days ago. This is a new civil rights struggle that requires a re-commitment to justice and equality.
  • There was a discussion of how inconvenient the interruption was, and how people came to see a program that involved Sanders speaking. These white progressives are either ignorant of history or fine with being hypocritical. Protest is inconvenient, that’s what separates it from regular day-to-day activity. What happened at Stonewall was a violent riot against the New York police. Civil rights activists shut down a lot of Birmingham for over a month in 1963. Black resource centers and academic curriculum came from events like the Cornell takeover, where radicals fought off a fraternity attempting to violently drive them out of a occupied hall, compelling the occupiers to bring in firearms to defend themselves. I helped shut down the Port of Oakland in late 2011. That cost a lot of people millions of dollars. Do I think that makes my action unjust? Not even a little bit.
  • Finally, there was just plain mean, borderline racist shit. It’s weird to see white progressives attack conservatives for calling black activists “thugs”, but then use similar language whenever black women do the same kinds of actions.

Sanders will not win the primaries by just getting the non-white vote. But he will lose them because people of color don’t show up in numbers to back him. Clinton has many advantages, including the overwhelming approval of her husband among Black Americans.

Since Peyton Stever wants modern data that says the same thing, I’ll link to this story that shows Hillary with a new +68 rating. The Clinton brand has always tested well, during and after the Clintons’ stay in the White House. Sanders has to build name awareness with a supporter base that’s a ready source of ammunition when the primaries actually close in. How will social media screenshots of racist talk from people with Sanders logo profile pictures play in black-heavy media outlets? Anyone remember how racist Hillary supporters were a massive headache in 2008?

nfd1iw-im0odafqmuzac7gJust because Sanders promotes policies that would economically help people of color doesn’t mean they will automatically vote for him. He needs to be responsive and show that he genuinely cares. His campaign is on aggregate doing a good job as of late. The large amount of volunteers scattered around the country, on the other hand, need to open their minds.

As Robespierre once said during the French Revolution- “Citizens, did you want a revolution without revolution?” A revolution is a very particular process. This is a very far step from status quo Democratic Party politics. Going to events, reading media accounts, talking with supporters, it is not surprising that many are unable to see this as an opportunity to run something distinct from the Hillary campaign, or the Obama campaign in 2008. Sanders wants a grassroots movement to change the country. What I see is a grassroots movement to get Sanders elected, with very little outside of that narrow goal.

Thus when there was a negative reaction to how the Seattle event went down, I was not surprised. A political revolution involves liberation struggle. The business-as-usual tack was to insult these women, tell them they were self-defeating, and place their actions in the confines of two-party partisanship. I saw a lot of that. I just passed my six year anniversary of deregistering as a Democrat. This fiasco is a big part of why I did so, even before I became a radical in the proper sense of the term.

Playgrounds as a civil rights struggle

There’s a nice three-minute video released today by Al Jazeera America, part of a much wider collection of material on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s about playground accessibility, which is a struggle that has emerged largely in the aftermath of the ADA. Indeed, in the year I spent on a county disabilities commission, the ADA compliance committee (its most important part, since they decide how to spend limited grants from the state and federal governments) spent a huge chunk of time on playgrounds. Basically no playgrounds created prior to the ADA met code. Like all other structures, they have to evolve with the many amendments to the Act, which have made many new areas in violation.

Disability accommodation and accessibility are civil rights struggles. The failure of conservative lawmakers to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities due to a series of vague, conspiratorial concerns is not the exception, but rather part of an ongoing undermining of a large, diverse group of oppressed people that was in no way ended when the ADA was signed.

How tax money is spent is a reflection of a society’s commitment to their ideals. The United States prioritizes defense spending above programs that would help implement what the Constitution and American idealism espouse. Indeed, how much time and attention is paid to playgrounds can tell us much about the larger social justice struggles of the 21st century.

Unitarian Universalism has an issue: radical goals and non-radical tactics

I finally wrote a full post on this tension I’ve had since September 2014 when I gave a guest sermon. This is based on “Not my father’s religion”, published in 2007. The contradictions in what UUs promise to do in the world and the distance they’re willing to do the radical things required is difficult. As an impatient young UU this bothers me- lots of people who were 60s radicals but have now settled down and ditched the needed politics.

Here it goes.

May 28, 2015

“Nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines (and dead armadillos)”

This is not a lovely, soft sermon like many here. They are beautiful, but certain issues require a hardened tone. Do know that this is in the vein of Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in American history, when he told a group of Unitarian abolitionists, the UUs of their day, that he loved them all but would give them Hell for these twenty minutes.

The issue starts as the central point of “Not my father’s religion” by Reverend Doug Muder, from UU World. In it, he explains why his working-class factory worker father goes to a conservative Lutheran church, and not the one he preaches at. The article, which a masterwork of cutting through assumptions and stereotypes, comes to the conclusion that UUs have very few working-class members, and their beliefs contribute to that.

From an upper middle-class professional core, members don’t see the insecurity and danger in the world that regular laborers do, and often spend more time talking about the homeless than the near-homeless. There is always a danger of hidden elitism- when we use the term “flipping burgers” we often devalue that working at a Wendy’s is hard, unrewarding toil.

This taps into what I’d like to talk about, something that guided a 2014 guest sermon I gave called “And Society at Large”, which was about that Principle Five of the Seven Principles we cherish calls for democracy in all of society, including economic democracy. For the purposes of the sermon and the fact that “economic democracy” is a wide-ranging term, I didn’t use words like “socialism”. But the message that many got was clear- the church needs to live up to its radical talk. This is a church that, bluntly, is the radical children of the 1960s teaching a much more watered-down set of values to their own kids.

One person who sat up after the speech to make an announcement irritated me. Two things were annoying- first, she was making a regular political announcement (though I know the contradiction given my sermon) in the church sanctuary that is normally done outside. And secondly, she credited me as the inspiration to talk about how she needs everyone to go to the Democratic Party offices to work on the elections.

The biggest blow was not that I think the Democratic Party is a dead-end for the radical and religious, though I do. It’s that she took my leftist message and turned it into the kind of milquetoast liberalism that gives the Party its nickname- the graveyard of social movements. It’s the repeated appropriation- of gay liberation, of black resistance, of the mass left-wing movements that defined the twentieth century in many places, including the United States. These groups become cogs in a party machine and lose their independence. The black American experience we are seeing with police violence is clear- some leaders have long since joined the party apparatus, and thus their criticisms have evident limits. The young insurgents that I admire so much have sometimes booed Al Sharpton off the stage, because they’re too smart to be sold on a plan that doesn’t work. Smaller groups cannot influence large machines in the way that big money and white voter issues do.

The organization I am a part of rejects the two parties and sees that the only way to gain economic democracy, egalitarian society, and all these things that by the Seven Principles we are morally obliged to strive for- is to build a working class alternative that lacks the compromises that define the two big parties. And I felt our 2013 campaign in Seattle was an example of what many UUs may one day see as necessary- a challenge to liberal Democratic politics that are too tied to businesses and interest groups to achieve change.

Running under the then-insane demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage, our candidate Kshama Sawant- an immigrant woman of color, organizer, and professor- beat him out by the slimmest of margins, winning almost 94,000 votes.

And what happens with that radical alternative. The $15 an hour wage became a reality in Seattle, and now spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles, coming soon in Chicago and Minneapolis, New York and Berkeley. A ordinance was passed to stop landlords from raising rents by more than 400% (!) to keep gentrification at bay. Homeless encampments are allowed to stay rather than broken up by police every week or so. And the new budget is the most progressive in the country, including record funding for homeless LGBT youth and looking to invest in mass transit. Currently the struggle in Seattle is over a large oil rig headed to drill in the Arctic- given the chance by the Obama administration- where hundreds of indigenous people and environmentalists block the way out with their kayaks and banners.

Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.
Idle No More indigenous activists in Canada block a highway.

In essence, the UUs need to change their principles or change their tactics. Many UUs will support the Democratic candidate, and I understand that. But without our own political power we will never win the victories that match our moral expectations. Indeed, when Democratic clubs all over Seattle held their 2015 endorsement meetings, they all came back with an endorsement in our district of “none of the above”- since our non-Democratic candidate cannot be directly endorsed. There is a split available more than ever in recent time between the establishment and the activists.

Unitarian Universalism would benefit from class diversity, just like it would from racial diversity, and more immigrants, and other things we discuss all the time. But class diversity is not going to be gained by tabling outside union halls and pawn shops. Our ideas are great but their expression is biased in favor of the well-educated, and those in communities that are not in crisis. I don’t see how a black janitor in a community where young men are being shot in the back will find our progressive ideals right for him, because they’re never communicated in the way he might see things.

Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.
Standoff between protesters and armed police in Ferguson, Missouri. 2014.

As the new generation, I understand that I will be on the radical fringe until I settle down, have kids, and pay dumb taxes. But since what the UU needs are people who might see my worldview as better aligned with theirs, I can’t just be flatly ignored.

We can do this. Let’s be the radical kooks that our ancestors were when they said that slavery was an abomination and rose up as whole towns to chase slave catchers out of the North. They were one moderate reformers, but they saw the Light that radical solutions were needed to serious problems. Abolition stopped being symbolic the moment it became extralegal.

From “who” to “what”, from branch to root

The Thoreau quote is famous and forever relevant: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” All public policy, all activism, all social justice effort expended lies within the tension between branches and roots. It’s a dialectic, where no answer is fully satisfactory. If the focus is entirely on roots, the branches of injustice will harm innocent people in the meantime. If the focus is entirely on branches, society can only tread water, the problem never ending.

Martin Luther King Jr. put the issue in different words, when he eulogized Rev. James Reeb (PDF), a Unitarian Universalist minister bludgeoned to death by white racists in Selma, Alabama. His death is treated with the gruesome, horrifying tone is deserves in Selma. To King, branches are the question of “who”, and roots are the question of “what”.

Hate crimes have tangible perpetrators- those that directly order killing or participate in the killing act.  Hate itself goes beyond the individual, into the very fabric of society itself. King is right- society is complicit in racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequity of all types. All evil exists within a world that we helped create. Today, as it was fifty years ago in Alabama, we are spending so much time performing triage. There is no shortage of suffering to soften if we wish to keep looking. Yet we cannot roll into bed exhausted each day, and not think about prevention. Helping the homeless is important, but not the same as preventing vulnerable people from becoming homeless in the first place. Exonerating the innocent about decades behind bars is not a substitute from preventing the innocent from being placed there.

The tension between roots and branches, between what and who, sits in a battle between past and future. Present society is habitually bailing out past society. At least a dozen times in my life, someone of an older generation has said that the world is in the hands of Millennials. They tried to save the world, failed, and there’s nothing left to due but transfer the weight. Mending past injustices has to be mixed with preventing present injustice, for each new tragedy compounds and worsens each tragedy that emerged before.

Psychologically, how does one deal with the truth that one cannot strike both the root and branches completely at the same time? How can we take both success and failure in the same moment? We cannot do everything, but the world needs saving. Tension will always exist, and each step towards justice has to be evaluated. The process encourages self-reflection, and there is always the threat of self-consciousness rising, to become overwhelming.

Between roots and branches,
between what is and who has,
between injustice, today, yesterday, and a thousand years ago, unremedied.