Good Judgment

At last night's Republican debate, Anderson Cooper asked the candidates whether voters should "pay attention to a candidate's religion." A few of the candidates—Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney—were asked to respond to the question, and generally gave milquetoast answers about judging candidates on character and freedom of religion, but implicit in all of their responses was the notion that a candidate should have God-belief of some sort. Gingrich made the assertion most explicitly (emphasis is mine):
I think if the question is does faith matter, absolutely. How can you have a country which is founded on truth, which begins, "We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights"—how can you have the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which says religion, morality, and knowledge being important, education matters? That's the order: religion, morality and knowledge.

Now, I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God. And I think that all of us up here, I believe, would agree. But I think all of us would also agree that there's a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments because then I'd wonder, where's your judgment—how can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don't pray? (Applause.)

Who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God. But the notion that you're endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America. (Applause.)
Faith of a religious sort is the only kind that matters, naturally. Those of us with a faith decidedly more grotty and earthbound are axiomatically filed as untrustworthy, because we don't recognize and worship a god whom we identify as the singular genesis of morality; because our moral compass doesn't lead us through the pages of a holy text; because we find the capacity to lead in ways other than the practice of prayer.

The problem with that equation—apart from its self-perpetuating entrenchment of Christian privilege and its reliance on the reflexive presumption, both dangerous and foolish, that anyone who identifies as Christian must prioritize decency—is that we are not, in fact, a "Christian nation," and, leaving aside the tedious arguments about whether the US was founded as such, we are certainly not now, if we ever were.

Our diversity encompasses a plurality of religious beliefs—and atheism. And while I'm certain there are people in this country, and all over the world, who are better people for their belief in deities—in fact, I'm sure there are denizens of this very community who would say that very thing, and more power to them; I don't begrudge anyone hir own experience—I am also certain that realizing a better self through a higher power is not the universal fact so many religious people, including Mr. Gingrich and his colleagues, assert it to be.

You see, I am a better person as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian.

Much of that is about religion, rather than strictly god-belief itself, but the two are inextricably intertwined for many people (and they certainly were for me). Religion made me self-loathing (no amount of bullshit about equality in any god's eyes can undermine the message of refusing to ordain women), but, worse than that, it forced me to label and categorize people—believers, non-believers, sinners, saints, good, evil, redeemed, condemned, us, them—to see the world in black-and-white binaries that closed off half my heart.

And it made me reluctant and unable to admit my failures. Despite all the emphasis on forgiveness, there was never a clear pathway to fully own that for which I was meant to seek absolution. I confessed my fuck-ups to God every week in a monotonously recited plea with the rest of the congregation, and I meant it—but I didn't know how to apologize to the human beings I'd hurt, not really. I didn't know how to accept criticism, or make amends. And I sure as shit didn't know how to examine my privilege.

God may have loved me, and sent his son to die for me, and forgiven me—but he taught me diddly-shit about being a privileged person with internalized prejudices. Love one another. Well, swell. Except loving someone doesn't always prevent me from hurting them. And getting right with God didn't get me right with the people I'd hurt. The message of the savior was that I could sit back and be saved with minimal inconvenience, not to mention negligible self-reflection. I could be stingy with my willingness to admit to anyone other than God my wrongdoing, my mistakes. If it was selfish to let other people live with the pain I caused them, it didn't matter: I needed God's forgiveness alone.

I was learning how to get into Heaven. I wasn't learning how to be a good person.

The religious community in which I was raised was not particularly conservative, especially by US standards; Pat Robertson et. al. would have found absolutely no favor among the people at the church I attended as a child. There was none of the fire-and-brimstone, gays-and-abortionists-are-going-to-hell! business that is the hallmark of conservative Christianity in this nation. I was not being taught to hate. In fact, I regularly heard lessons on being loving and forgiving and tolerant.

But those are not the same lessons as being accepting, deeply self-reflective, willing to examine privilege, acknowledging to other people my own human flaws, and avoiding auditing other people's beliefs, mistakes, choices, and lives.

I wasn't kind; I was judgmental, which is the poisonous soil in which a lack of kindness grows. Giving myself permission to let go of the judgment that was such a fundamental part of god-belief has been one of the greatest gifts I've given myself, and the people around me.

Where once I had judgment, I now have compassion. Where once I was creating distance from other people, I now create connection. Where once "being good" meant following rules for personal reward, now it means something very different: I value life, and the humans living it, much more strongly because I view it as finite. I've only got this life to get it right.

God did not claim my "sinful heart" and make me love, or even know, what is right and just and good. Walking away from God did that.

That's not everyone's experience, but it is mine. No one, not even the almighty Newt Gingrich, can rightly claim to have the market cornered on what elicits goodness in humankind.

How can you have judgment if you have no faith? he asks. I know when he says "judgment" that he means wisdom and decency, not the smug assessment of a religious zealot convinced of his own rectitude, but I hear the latter all the same—because only a religious zealot convinced of his own rectitude could smugly assess that it is faith alone which informs wisdom and decency.

[Some parts of this piece originally published September, 2009.]

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