Odium anti-theologicum?

Why is anyone who suggests that Democratic politicians get less tone-deaf in dealing with high-religiosity voters treated as if he or she had farted in church?

The desperate efforts of Kevin Drum’s commenters to misunderstand what Amy Sullivan is saying are fascinating if you’re an anthropologist or social psychologist, amusing if you’re a satirist, and depressing if you’re a Democrat. The level of personal vituperation is really quite astounding, comparable to what she might have found if she’d defended gay sex on a Family Research Council blog.

Let me try to restate Sullivan’s argument as I understand it. She makes, I take it, two simple points:

1. Many white Democratic politicians have tin ears when they try to address high-religiosity voters. (On average, that’s somewhat less true of white Democratic politicians from the South.) Relatedly, many white Democratic activists are hostile to conventional religion: as a system of metaphysical beliefs, as a mechanism for reinforcing tribalism, and as a threat to civil liberty.

2. If Democratic politicians knew better how to communicate with high-religiosity voters, and if the activists gave them room to do so, Democrats would win more elections. That would not require compromising substantive policy positions (e.g., on gay rights, reproductive choice, and teaching biology). But it would require multiculturalism in action: a willingness to respectfully listen to, and address, people with beliefs that the activists (including me) don’t share.

As an Obamophile blogger, I’ve gotten lots of critical email. Much of it has complained about what the writers saw, sometimes accurately, as my unfairness to HRC. But the really and truly hostile mail &#8212 hostile to me, and to Obama &#8212 has come from people who find his engagement with traditional Christianity offensive and threatening.

I understand why many (of course not all) theologically conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Jews wind up hating people who disagree with them: they’re convinced that they have The Truth, and anyone who believes differently must be either wicked or stupid. The hatred is inconsistent with Gospel Christianity as I read the Gospels, and the conviction inconsistent with Talmudic Judaism as I understand that tradition, which is based above all on controversy and which insists on preserving in its central text the opinions that did not prevail: “These, too, are the Word of the Living God.” But since I’m neither a Christian nor a believing Jew, I’m more amused than offended by the inconsistencies involved, and I’m bigoted enough to think that bigotry comes naturally to fundamentalists of all religions.

But I fail to understand how someone brought up in the scientific/Enlightenment tradition that prides itself on holding its opinions lightly and in despising persecution in all its forms can consistently be dogmatic in his or her belief that what religious folks believe is simply nonsense and that the folks who believe it are in some deep plot against the rest of us. If Voltaire and Orwell are your household gods, shouldn’t you at least be tolerant? The odium theologicum is bad enough. But the odium anti-theologicum is just plan silly.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com