Last week a man named Trebor Gordon, Pastor for the Harris County GOP, tried to block a Muslim, Syed Ali, from serving as a precinct chair for the Republican Party in Harris County, Texas. As reported in Gawker, Gordon objected on the grounds that Islam is not consistent with the principles of Republican Party politics.
A video of Gordon’s efforts can also be found on Youtube. Gordon’s argument, as quoted in Gawker is as follows:
If you believe that a person can practice Islam and agree to the foundational principles of the Republican Party, it’s not right. It’s not true. It can’t happen. There are things on our platform that he and his beliefs are total opposite.
“There are things on our platform,” Gordon went on to say, that he (Syed Ali) is, he and his beliefs are in total opposite.”
You may suspect this is the beginning of a GOP-bashing rant. Well, not today. I actually found the response to Gordon’s efforts rather encouraging (especially that of Dave Smith). Granted, I would love to live in a world where people just don’t act like he does, but in the real world, I take it as a good sign that the Gordon was voted down, by other members of the local GOP mind you. It’s a welcome reminder that there are sane and responsible people in the GOP. On this count, at least, I think they done right.
What fascinates me about this incident is something about the particular argument Gordon used. Well, actually two things. First, I’m always fascinated by the use of architectural metaphors in ideological matters, particularly in the rhetoric of conservative Christians. They will often tell us that atheists lack a moral foundation for our behavior. They will also speak quite often of Christianity (or belief in God in general) as providing the foundations (or alternatively, the ‘foundational principles’) of our country. There are of course endless permutations to this theme, and they are all highly problematic.
On one level I get it. These metaphors do communicate a sense that the ‘foundational’ beliefs or values in question are in some sense more important than others, or that the other beliefs and practices are in some sense dependent on the foundational ones. If you like the First Amendment, this argument seems to suggest, that part of our government comes (in some way) from Christianity. I get that much at least, so the trope isn’t entirely opaque, but I do think it’s rather telling that so much of this rhetoric takes place within the scope of this particular metaphor. I also think it’s quite telling that people making such arguments are often ill-prepared to flesh out the metaphor in literal terms. The same person who is quite sure that Christian values and beliefs are the foundation of our republic is often at great pains to explain what those values are and just how they actually generate the rest of the features of the republic at large. Take a way the architectural metaphor, and an awful lot of these folks struggle mightily to flesh out the details of their argument.
…or even to deal with them in any way whatsoever!
Now Gordon isn’t talking about America as a whole in that speech. The foundation he references in that speech is something belonging to the Republican party. Still, I do think it worthwhile to note that he has fallen into the pattern of a much broader fashion of speaking about religious and political ideas. To say that he leans a bit heavily on the architectural metaphor is putting it mildly. It is Smith that references the relevant features of the U.S. Constitution (namely the proscription against religious tests). Gordon has only his talk of foundations. THAT is exactly what I am talking about. The rhetoric of foundations consistently helped people to side-steps relevant details rather than to illuminate them.
…which brings me to a second and (to me) much more important aspect of Gordon’s approach to the issue. He has effectively taken the GOP platform to function as a creed of sorts. It isn’t enough to actively support that platform, according to Gordon. One must not, so it seems, hold views in opposition (or even potentially in opposition) to that platform. All of which is a very interesting way to speak of a party platform.
By ‘interesting’, I might mean ‘ridiculous’.
A party platform is itself the outcome of a political process. It has winners and losers even within the party, and many of those who lose out on battles over the construction of that platform can be expected to go on and support the party anyway. That’s how the process works.One doesn’t normally turn around and use that platform as a plank-by-plank litmus test of acceptable beliefs for party members, even party leadership. Creeds are used in precisely that manner to define membership in a religious community. Party platforms are not.
A party platform may represent the goals of a party in its relation to the outside world, but one wouldn’t normally assume that it represents the precise views of each member. To be fair, Gordon isn’t simply suggesting that a Muslim will be in disagreement with one or two items on that menu. He seems to be suggesting that a Muslim must be in disagreement on some very important points. What are those points? Well that takes us back to the whole ‘foundation’ metaphor.
An additional problem here would lie in the abstract nature of the argument. Gordon isn’t asking whether or not this particular Muslim, Syed Ali, is opposed to the key tenets of the party platform. He is arguing that a Muslim must do so. It’s in their nature, so it seems, or perhaps it’s in the nature of their professed beliefs.
It’s a kind of theology by proxy, an all-too-common one at that. Folks often assume they can draw inferences for believers (or even non-believers) on the basis of an assumed premise or two. This type of argument parallels the reductio ad absurdum, but it fails insofar as it ignores the embedded nature of the beliefs in question. A reducto ad absurdum can show us the inconsistency of combining different beliefs, but it can’t tell us much about how any particular individual relates to the people and institutions around him. Gordon isn’t arguing against Islam in general. He is arguing against a specific Muslim, and that makes the specific views and behavior of that specific Muslim directly relevant to the issue at hand. But Gordon doesn’t addres what Ali actually thinks. It is enough to know that he is Muslim. To call this approach dehumanizing is putting it mildly.
…which illustrates another point. People tend to turn mission statements, party platforms, etc. into creeds precisely when they don’t like the people they assume to be unable to vouch for the creed in question. I used to see this when I was a participant at Christian Forums where the members were at times expected to vouch for the Nicene creed and/or the Apostles Creed if they were to be considered Christian. Among other things, being recognized as Christian provided access to large parts of the forum denied to non-believers (who were largely confined to ‘open debate’ sections of the forum). I never had much problem with this as I just say ‘no’ to gods, but I lost track of the number of liberal Christian friends who had to explain countless times how their actions or beliefs could be squared with the creed(s). That conservative Christians did accept the creed, even though their own actions and statements could as easily be taken to suggest otherwise seemed to go without question. In the case of Christian Forums, where a creed was an explicit part of the forum policy, that policy provided endless grounds for personal back-biting and mean-spirited bickering, almost always at the expense of those more socially vulnerable than theologically off-base. Seeing the number of people hurt by that process did a lot to confirm my suspicions about how ugly religion could get. It also helped me to see that the problem had less to do with what people believe than how questions about beliefs are handled with in a larger community.
I wish I could say that secular folk are immune to this kind of behavior, but I can’t. I once joined a secular forum in which I had to press a button vouching for the fact that I didn’t believe in a god. After some hesitation, I pressed the button. After all, I don’t believe in a god, but I always regarded the policy as remarkably petty and quite dogmatic in nature. It was an ironic dogma to be sure, but I reckon when you start deciding who is and who is out of the club on the basis of what they do or don’t believe, you are well into dogmatic territory whatever the content of the beliefs in question. I had similar views when the old Internet Infidels website decided to allow believers to act as moderators. (I was a low-level moderator on that website at the time.) Many objected to the move on the grounds that a believer couldn’t possibly agree with everything in the mission statement for the site. I found myself thinking, “neither do I.” Simply speaking, there were a couple items on the mission statement that I didn’t agree with. I joined because of teh ones I did agree with, and (more importantly) because I wanted to help facilitate the discussions then taking place on that forum. No-one had asked me if I agreed with each item on that mission statement, and no-one had done this for the rest of the staff either. So, the argument that a believer couldn’t serve as a moderator for the site always struck me as an odd misunderstanding of the nature of both forum moderation and mission statements. It also struck me as an ugly double standard. Making these arguments in public debates on the matter didn’t exactly make me popular, but I always found it odd that so many critical thinkers were apparently quite comfortable with the assumption that everyone on staff had to agree with every point in the mission statement.
In life offline, one of my more frustrating experiences with policy-driven dogma came while I worked at Diné College (a tribal college) on the Navajo Nation. Faculty were expected to adopt an educational model known as Diné Educational Philosophy (DEP). It was a fairly elaborate theory, requiring us to divide our lessons up into four steps (generally portrayed as four individual quadrants of a circle), each of which was thereby linked to some aspect of Navajo cosmology. It was easy enough to do this, of course, and some of the Navajo faculty could do this brilliantly (and authentically). The rest of us, were doing it by the numbers of course, and the students knew it. I still recall the day one of my more traditional students shrunk in his seat as I drew a circle on the board and raised the topic. “Please don’t!” was all he said. He was absolutely right to do so. The man had been enthusiastic just moments before, but moments before I had been talking American history. Now I was speaking about Navajo philosophy and that was a subject he didn’t need to hear about from a white guy. It might have been my job to address the issue, but that didn’t make the moment any less ridiculous.
One of the more frustrating things about DEP was that its proponents often described western educational theory as top down and western religion as dogmatic. It seemed to be a forgone conclusion that Navajo thinking wasn’t any of these things. There was certainly some justice to this. After all, it was the white people that brought missionaries to the reservation and at one time instituted educational policies amounting to little more than government enforced kidnapping. There were so many respects in which I could see Navajo approaches to education were more flexible and less dogmatic than mainstream approaches; they just weren’t respects that had much to do with the official policies of the college. An educational policy incorporating explicit ceremonial themes mandated by administration, taught to faculty (who were mostly outsiders) and then imposed on students in the classroom was by definition a top down approach, and when that policy (along with its ceremonial themes) becomes obligatory, it is a dogma. If I was ever prone to think otherwise, I lost any grounds for doubt one day in a meeting as two of the Navajo faculty argued over the specific implications of a corn stock metaphor in DEP. One of them, I thought quite sensibly suggested that there was room for different approaches to the subject. The other insisted that we all must be on the same page when it came to that theory. The rest of us, being white, had little to do but wait to see how the indigenous faculty sorted the matter out.
I don’t mean to suggest that all the classes at Diné College were taught according to a set dogma. I do mean to suggest that this was official policy, yes, but that’s one of the beauties of actual human behavior. Sometimes the practice is way better than the theory behind it. People pursued a wide variety of approaches in the classroom, and (at least when I was there) many of those approaches simply didn’t match the vision enshrined in that narrow policy. My own approach was a bit more Socratic. I adapted my lessons to the classroom by asking my students how things worked in their world; they told me, and I worked their answers into the lessons. My students’ mileage will vary, of course, but I at least found that process to be interesting and rewarding. The official policy of the college didn’t help much.
So anyway, my point is that people often turn a range of bureaucratic communications into an obligatory set of doctrines. Mission statements, party platforms, educational procedures aren’t necessarily things that should call for total agreement from those working with them. They outline goals. People in an organization can generally be expected to work toward the goals in such documents, but the notion that someone must agree with every point in such a document is an odd (if rather frequent) inference. Those taking such an approach often do a great deal of harm in so doing, and I generally make it a point to oppose them whenever and wherever possible.
Bringing the issue back to the relationship between Islam and American politics, I think Gordon’s approach touches on a particularly disturbing example of this sort of behavior. It has become relatively common to hear that Islam is not consistent with the U.S. Constitution. Ben Carson seems to have used this as an argument against allowing a Muslim to become president. Others have used this as an argument against allowing Muslim refugees into the country (or into western nations in general) and/or against the notion that Muslims are protected under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The thinking here seems to be that aspects of Islamic doctrine are inconsistent with basic principles of American government (including perhaps the establishment clause). Those pushing this argument will often produce texts from the Quran or related documents suggesting obligations contrary to American law and/or the Constitution itself. But of course that misses the point. The Constitution protects the right to believe any number of things, including those contrary to the constitution itself. It even protects a range of practices, at least those consistent with the constitution itself and the social arrangements made under its authority. That there are limits to these protections is clear enough, but those limits simply do NOT become an excuse to deny people protections altogether.
And of course once again, this approach amounts to a kind of fundamentalism by proxy. I have no count that there are Muslims who want to do things contrary to the law and the constitution. I also have no doubt there are Muslims who respect the law at least as much as the rest of us. How do you tell the difference? I reckon the answer to that question depend on what they say and do, not what a critic can spin off a cherry-picked line or two from the Quran for purpose of fielding an argument. In any event, the possibility that someone may believe (or want) something contrary to the Constitution simply isn’t an excuse for excluding them once and for all from the entire body of constitutional protections.
(Were it otherwise, Gordon might be in trouble!)
The notion that people must demonstrate consistency between their beliefs and the provisions of the U.S. Constitution is (once again) how people treat a creed, not a plan of government. The Constitution too, it would seem, is among the many things people tend to treat as a Creed even though they shouldn’t.