November 18, 2006

A Clash of Languages: Christianity vs Liberalism

Rae Hart Anderson lost an election to a Democrat Hindu in Minnesota and then sent a concession email which the Democrat complained, as the local television station, WCCO, reported, sounded more like a sermon than a concession email. (For any reader who wishes to see the email for themselves, the text is provided in the report I've linked too.) Andrew Sullivan has carried the story and thinks that it indicates the kind of republican thinking that he has come to fear- an intolerant theocratic way of thinking.

I think that Mr Sullivan is wrong to analyse it in this way. What it indicates rather is a clash of political languages which is important to understand- for in the end what Rae Anderson saw as a generous gesture was interpreted on the other side as an aggressive one. I suggest that this example is interesting because it exposes this clash. On the one hand Rae Anderson beleives unlike some other Christian thinkers, Andrew Sullivan himself or C.S. Lewis that you can't reach heaven without faith, for her faith seems from this email to be central and consequently her call to faith is an act of benevolence- she would see it as an opening of the arms to a sinner that she hopes will repent, not a patronising gesture. I should note that what Anderson is saying is often the way that religious people talk to people who disagree with them: this is not merely a Christian thing but people of other religions too can make points which derive from their world views and which make those who share the perspective outlined below feel insulted.

Mr Chaudhary and others myself included though have not interpreted the email in the same way. What to Anderson is a matter of truth- something she sees as being as true as the fact that right now I am typing words on this computer- we see as a matter of doubt. Something that is arrived at from a personal perspective of the world. Disagreement therefore becomes not a sin but a perspective and the only way to deal with disagreement is rational argument. Anderson beleives that merely asserting a fact, calling to Mr Chaudhary and calling upon him to repent is enough but for Mr Chaudhary it looks like she is preempting him, she is declaring that Mr Chaudhary's reasoning processes don't count beside her's. What we have is a clash of languages.

This distinction between the Christian Rae Anderson and Hindu Liberal State Senator Satveer Chaudhary is very important. It allows us to understand how both sides are using different languages to think about religion. It also allows us to see how each side for perfectly sensible reasons comes to misunderstand the other sides' actions and motivations- disentangling the language that we are using and finding out what we are actually arguing about- as in this case it seems two concepts of truth and human autonomy are at stake- is important because it may well lead to Anderson perceiving how her email could insult and Mr Chaudhary understanding that if the tone of the email was wrong, the intention was generous.


Right Hook said...

Senator Chaudhary is not as squeaky clean on this as the WCCO-TV account implies.

Please see for a different perspective.

Gracchi said...

Chaudhary is obviously a politician. But I do think that it captures something interesting- as your article makes clear- I think I'll put the permalink here should people wish to go to it- Rae Anderson is a devout practising evangelical. I agree with you that there was no malice intended but I also think that within the languages and ideas that Chaudhary and the 'liberal media' work in it does sound like an insult. I think you have to understand that in order ot understand why there was a reaction to it and also in order to understand why Anderson's motives have been impugned. I think this is an interesting example of the ways that conservatives and liberals can end up offending each other- despite not meaning too- just because they don't share the same kind of thinking about the world.