MOYERS: You can't avoid God these days. That is to say, you can't avoid politicians talking about God. Democrats on their way to the recent debate in Detroit all stopped off to pay their respects to the almighty at local churches. President Bush was campaigning at a church in Texas this week, greeted as he entered by gospel hymns and swaying hands and Christians chanting "USA! USA!"
In Florida, governor Jed Bush responded to the prayers of his religious constituents to do God's will. And overruled the courts to keep a severely brain damaged woman on life support. And the Supreme Court says it is preparing to decide on whether the words "under God," can stay in the pledge of allegiance.
I imagine Wendy Kaminer would be alarmed at all this religious rhetoric in public places. Miss Kaminer is one of the nation's noted social critics. A lawyer and a writer who pays close attention to religion even as she confesses to being a non-believer. Her book, SLEEPING WITH EXTRATERRESTRIALS: THE RISE OF IRRATIONALISM AND PERILS OF PIETY, argues that declarations of intense belief have largely taken the place of rational discourse.
But in the current issue of the magazine FREE INQUIRY she has some surprising advice for her fellow secular humanists. Quote, "We ought not become fixated on the dangers posed by evangelical Christians." This I had to ask her about. Welcome to NOW.
KAMINER: Thank you.
MOYERS: Have you had a change of heart about religion in the public square and about conservative Christians in particular?
KAMINER: No, not at all. And I have never thought that people shouldn't be free to bring their religious beliefs into the voting booth, bring their religious beliefs into the public square. And indeed, how could we stop them? People's religious beliefs are the deepest part of who they are. What has always worried and even scared me is government endorsement of particular religious beliefs.
People talk about the faith-based initiative, for example. That's a very misleading term. It suggests that we are a country of one faith. And we are a country of a great many faiths. And we are a country in which some people have no faith at all.
So for example, when people say they support the faith-based initiative, they're generally thinking about government money going into the religions they like. If they think about government money going to utre religions, like Scientology or the Hare Krishnas or Islamic fundamentalists, they're not going to be so much in favor of the faith-based initiative.
But in fact, once you say that the government can give money directly to religious organizations, you can't allow the government to discriminate against particular religions. And that's precisely why we have this tradition of separation of church and state.
MOYERS: You're saying we should not be financing those efforts.
KAMINER: Absolutely not.
KAMINER: Because we are a pluralistic country. And we should never want the government to be directly funding sectarian activities. People forget that the whole principal of separation of church and state is intended to protect religion. It's intended to protect religious diversity.
MOYERS: You write in this article in FREE INQUIRY, quote, "The complaints of conservative Christians about excessive secularism are not unrealistic. They have reason to feel besieged by culture and should not be dismissed as delusional."
KAMINER: They have reason to feel besieged by popular culture.
I understand that many conservative Christians are appalled by the number of half naked teenagers they see riding around on MTV. I mean, we have a popular culture that was not exactly shaped by the ideals of a lot of conservative Christians. When they complain about sex and violence in the media, they're complaining about something real.
Now I don't share their complaints, I certainly don't share their remedies for what they see as these ills, but they're complaining about something real. We don't have a popular culture that's been shaped by their ideals.
MOYERS: This surprises me, I must say, from someone who as a kid, found the Christmas lights in your town to be offensive.
KAMINER: I was, as a child, I felt not just irritated, but quite alienated by the Christmas lights. Almost as I was by the mandatory school prayer that I had to recite every morning. And that was because I was acutely aware and all of this made me acutely aware of my own status as a minority.
I was not a Christian, my family was not Christian. And I deeply resented being constantly reminded that I lived in a Christian country. I thought this is my country, too. And I shouldn't have to be a Christian to feel comfortable here. I suppose that I've become less sensitive to that as I've grown older.
I've also become, I think, more understanding of religious belief. And I think that partly comes with age. I mean you realize how hard life is for people. And you realize all the losses that people have to endure and you realize the comfort that religion can give to people. And you also, you know, as you get to know more religious people, and people of different religions outside your own circle, you start dispelling some of your stereotypes about people.
And you realize how extremely well-intentioned some of these people can be. That doesn't mean that I think that they're right. But it means that I don't disrespect them individually and I really really wouldn't want to live in a country in which people didn't feel free to talk about Jesus or whatever other divinities they believed in.
As long as the government is not endorsing a notion that in order to be a virtuous and a moral person, you have to be a religious person. That you cannot be a moral person unless you are raised in the tenets of a traditional you know, the Judeo-Christian tradition.
MOYERS: Unless you draw them from an absolute…
KAMINER: Unless you draw them from some absolute source. Now it was interesting to me to see how all of this talk about religion being essential to virtue dissipated a little bit, or was at least qualified a little bit about September 11th. Because, as I and other people have said, September 11th was essentially a faith-based initiative.
And people began to realize that here was a very clear example of the ways in which faith can be horribly cruel, horribly destructive, horribly malevolent. And that's what's interesting about religion. It can bring out great benevolence in people and it can bring out the worst in people. My favorite quote about religion was by Mary McCarthy who said religion is good for good people.
MOYERS: What do you mean by that, "religion is good for good people"?
KAMINER: I think what she meant is that religion is a vehicle for whatever is in people. And if you have naturally a lot of compassion and desire to help people you can find great support for that in religion. You can find a vehicle for acting that out in religion.
And if you are more naturally cruel and autocratic you can also find a vehicle for that in religion because it can give you a sense of your own absolute moral rightness, you know? When you invoke God, you invoke all the rightness of divinity. And that can be a very dangerous thing.
MOYERS: What does it say to you that a society that is so saturated with religiosity, has such an enormous tolerance for lying?
KAMINER: That is a very good question. I think that has a lot to do with the old adage about people not practicing what they preach. And I think that, you know, look, even many religious people would tell you that they find it very hard to live up to their own religious ideals.
But they might also say, "Well, at least we have those ideals. At least we realize where we fall short." I mean Bill Clinton himself was apparently quite a religious man and after, in fact during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he made a great show of a public confession. And he told us who his spiritual advisors were.
And he, at least ostensibly, bared his soul to us. I mean I found all that rather offensive. Because I didn't really care about the state of his soul, I cared about the state of the country.
MOYERS: Would both of us agree that when it comes to politics, the reason people accept lying is because their partisan goal is more important than anything else?
KAMINER: I think that's partly true. But I think that people also accept it because all of us or most of us lie in our own lives. And we're not just telling white lies, we're not just telling social lies to avoid hurting people's feelings. We're telling self-serving lies. And you don't just see it in government.
You see it in organizations, you see it in any group of people. One thing that I have learned over the years is that there are very few people, regardless of their religious affiliations, their politics, their ideals, who are not in some way corrupted by power.
Who don't come to believe that it is more important for them to remain in power than it is for them to be absolutely truthful about everything they're doing. If being absolutely truthful will threaten their hold on power. I don't think that's a vice of the left and I don't think it's a vice of the right.
I think that it is a natural human failing. And it is a very difficult thing to resist. And I don't think religion keeps people from resisting it. You know, we have more than enough examples of extremely bad, even sinful behavior, among religious people. You know, including of course, the scandal about pedophilia in the Catholic church.
To know that religion is simply not a good predictor of character. Of morality. I mean, people… if there are 250 million Americans and if 95 percent of them are religious, 95 percent of them are not virtuous. You know, we all know that. If that were true, we wouldn't have two million people in prison.
MOYERS: You yourself call yourself, openly and honestly, an agnostic. Does that… where do you draw your ideals from? Where do you draw your ethical code from?
KAMINER: It's very hard for me to articulate. You know, I could say that I got it from my parents who… neither one of them were religious. My father especially was a confirmed atheist. My mother would have enjoyed believing in God if she could. But she couldn't quite bring herself to it.
But they were very honorable, ethical, fair-minded people. I was just brought up with a sense of fairness. I suppose that's part of it. I don't know where else it comes from. I, you know, is it instinct? Is it temperament? Is it all the things that happened to you when you're a child? Is it the kind of larger environment that you grow up in?
But I suppose one reason that I don't have a good answer to that question is that it's not a relevant question to me.
MOYERS: What is… it's not a relevant question?
KAMINER: No, the source of my moral values is not relevant to me. What's relevant to me is trying to figure out my moral values. You know, what's relevant to me is trying to live up to my own moral values. I'm not a religious person but I use words like "evil" and "sin" quite freely.
MOYERS: To describe realities you see in the world?
KAMINER: To describe behavior that I think is really, really bad, you know? If bad isn't a strong enough word then I'll call it sinful or I'll call it evil. And I'm not offended when public officials use words like "sin" and "evil" necessarily because I think they're very effective words.
I think that they convey a sense of real horror at really, really, really bad behavior. But I can't tell you where that comes from. You know? I… you can… there are political theorists who have much more sophisticated ideas about it than I do.
I think you can look at human history. I don't think you have to look at religious teachings. I think you could look at human history and draw a lot of messages about what is good behavior and what is bad behavior, about cruelty, about the importance of not being cruel to people.
About the importance… I don't know. I think a lot of children have a basic sense of fairness. I don't know where it comes from. But I think it's there in people.
MOYERS: All of us who are parents can remember a three-, a four-, a five-year-old when offended by something that happens at the table from the sibling says, "That's not fair."
KAMINER: That's right.
MOYERS: "Stop that. That's not fair."
KAMINER: That's right. And that sense can be encouraged in people or it can be squelched in people. And then, of course, all kinds of things take over. Self-interest takes over. Ambition takes over. Insecurity takes over.
Fear of being exposed in public takes over. You know? And I suppose the most, you know, I'm speaking now off the top of my head so please don't hold me to it. But I suppose…
MOYERS: This is television. You're permitted.
KAMINER: This is television. I'm allowed to do that.
I suppose, one of the most important ways you can teach children to live up to the moral codes that you try to instill in them is to try to make them strong enough to stand out from a crowd, you know? To try to make sure that when a group of kids is going to do something that they think is wrong that they're strong enough to say, "I don't want to be a part of this. Maybe I can't stop you from doing it. But I don't want to be a part of it."
MOYERS: Well, I've often thought that the religious traditions that I know most about have all drawn upon a basically humanist well when they talk about the essence being do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
MOYERS: Because we can't live in a society unless we all respect that ethos, right?
KAMINER: I think that's right. I think the Golden Rule is actually a very important thing to keep in mind. I think empathy can help make people moral. And, you know, I'm not a biologist. I'm not a scientist. I'm not a philosopher. So I can't tell you why some people have more empathy than others. But I think without empathy you're very vulnerable to falling into the pit of cruelty.
MOYERS: This is a very powerful article you have written in FREE INQUIRY. And there's a sentence in there that I'd like to ask you about. You say, "Social freedom means the right to define vice and virtue for yourself and choose between them."
But isn't that what worries the Christian Right? Isn't that what the Christian Right would deny you? The right to define for yourself the difference between virtue and vice and then to choose?
KAMINER: Absolutely. And that's what our argument's about. But, you know, let me even qualify my own statement. I mean, obviously when we're talking about things like murder and rape and other kinds of violence, assault, you don't get to choose that murder is a virtuous thing to do. And, well, I suppose you can choose it but you better be willing to pay the consequences if you do.
The problem in trying to define virtue and vice for society comes when you move outside of the areas in which there's a general moral consensus. We have a general consensus that cuts across religious lines. It cuts across lines of people who have different faiths and no faiths that murder is wrong, that gratuitous violence is wrong. That stealing is wrong. People may not live up to these ideals. But they will generally concede that these things are wrong.
We don't have a consensus that homosexuality is wrong. We don't even have a consensus that abortion is wrong. We are divided almost right down the middle of that. We have no consensus about right-to-die issues, these very difficult issues. One of the things that's troubling about what's going on in Florida is not just that the governor, Governor Jeb Bush, has decided to override the decisions of the court. I mean, Jeb Bush in Florida is really having his George Wallace moment. It's completely… in terms of the structure of government, it's completely inappropriate.
But he's also not just playing to a religious community of people. He is playing to a sectarian group of people. Because there are many religious people who would not agree with his decision at all.
And so when we move into these areas in which the firm belief is not one that's widely shared but it's mostly shared by one particular religious group, those are the times when we have to step back and say, "No, we don't impose the views of one religious group on the rest of us in a pluralistic society."
MOYERS: What do you mean by secularism? The right has demonized the term. What do you mean by that?
KAMINER: When I talk about secularism I'm not talking about a personal stance. I don't call myself a secularist because I don't believe in God. I call myself a secularist because I believe in a secular form of government.
You know, if you ask me do I mind all this religious rhetoric? You know, it might irritate me. But I associate it with freedom of religion. I associate it with freedom of conscience.
And protecting freedom of conscience is actually more important to me than protecting my own secular sensibilities. And, you know, I recognize that we live in a very noisy and a very diverse culture. And there's a lot of noise out there that's going to irritate any one of us. And part of living in a democracy is being willing to be irritated. And not confusing being irritated with being oppressed.
MOYERS: Wendy Kaminer. People can read your article in FREE INQUIRY by connecting to pbs.org. They'll also find there a bibliography of your books and articles. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
KAMINER: Thank you.