- Too parochial to see the obvious
- The truth about evil
- Secularism’s Church
- Liberation from sanity
- Unpatriotic Conservatives
- Rick Perry: Stupid in Nature
True story: I once proposed a column on some now-forgotten religious theme to the man who was at the time the city editor of the New York Post. He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “This is not a religious city,” he said, with a straight face. As it happened, the man lived in my neighborhood. To walk to the subway every morning, he had to pass in front of or close to two Catholic churches, an Episcopal church, a synagogue, a mosque, an Assemblies of God Hispanic parish, and an Iglesia Bautista Hispana. Yet this man did not see those places because he does not know anyone who attends them. It’s not that this editor despises religion; it’s that he’s too parochial (pardon the pun) to see what’s right in front of him. There’s a lot of truth in that old line attributed to the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who supposedly remarked, in all sincerity, “I don’t understand how Nixon won; I don’t know a soul who voted for him.”
Anti-religious media bias has profound implications for the future of American politics, or so say social scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio in “Our Secularist Democratic Party,” an important article published in a recent issue of The Public Interest. The Baruch College researchers say that the parochialism of journalists is blinding them to one of the biggest stories in American politics: how the Democratic Party has become a stronghold of fervent secularists, and how secularism “is just as powerful a determinant of social attitudes and voting behavior as is a religiously traditional outlook.”
Among political journalists, the dominant paradigm—what you might call the “official story”—holds that religious conservatives bullied their way onto the American political scene with the election of Ronald Reagan, and rudely brought into the political arena the culture war that had been raging since the 1960s. That’s exactly wrong, say the authors, who attribute the “true origins of this conflict” to “the increased prominence of secularists within the Democratic Party, and the party’s resulting antagonism toward traditional values.”
Until relatively recently, both major parties were of similar mind on issues of personal morality. Then came the 1972 Democratic Convention, at which secularists—defined as agnostics, atheists, and those who seldom or never attend religious services—seized control of the party and nominated George McGovern. Prior to that year, neither party had many secularists among its delegates. According to a comprehensive study of survey data from the Democratic delegates, the party was badly split between religious and moral traditionalists on one side, and secularists on the other. They fought over moral issues: abortion, women’s rights, homosexuality, the traditional family. What the authors call a “secularist putsch” triumphed, giving us what Richard Nixon mocked as the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” and instigating—with help from the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973—the long march of religious and moral conservatives to the GOP, which became the party of traditionalists by default. “What was first an intra-party culture war among Democratic elites became by the 1980s an inter-party culture war.”
… The media have thoroughly reported the key role religious conservatives play in Republican Party politics; what they’ve ignored is the equally important role militant secularists play in setting the agenda of the Democratic Party—as the late pro-life Governor Bob Casey, denied a decent podium at the 1992 Democratic convention, could have attested.
This could be the most important development in American party politics of the past 20 years, say Bolce and De Maio—and America’s two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, whose influence on the reporting of other newspapers and TV networks cannot be overstated, have both completely missed it. In a search of the Lexis-Nexis database of every domestic political news story, op-ed, and editorial published in those papers from 1990 to 2000, the authors found a grand total of 14 stories that mentioned the religious gap between the two parties.
“The minimization of the religious divide between the parties is also apparent when compared to the amount of press attention devoted to other ‘gaps’ in the electorate,” the authors write. “During this same time span, the Times and Post published 392 articles on the gender gap. In the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, white women on average gave Democrats 9 percent more of their vote than did white men; the average gap separating secularists and religious traditionalists in these same elections was 42 percentage points.”
But their most striking finding was the near total lack of editorial and news coverage devoted to the increased importance of secularists to the Democratic Party versus the role of traditionalists in the GOP. The numbers are mind-boggling: 43 stories on secularist Democrats, 682 stories on traditionalist Republicans. In 1992, the Times alone published nearly twice the number of stories about Evangelicals in the GOP than both papers did about secularists among the Democrats for the entire decade.
(Rod Dreher, writing in Touchstone magazine in 2003. That issue bore a provocative cover, which reflected the theme:
Dreher and I both have subsequently lost our enthusiasm for The Stupid Party, about which the best one might say is “stupid’s better than evil.”
I consider the GOP insincerely supportive of a few good things, while the Democrats are ardently committed to a few intolerable evils, and I have trouble enthusing over faux virtue even if the alternative is sincere vice.
John Gray, who I’m not sure I’ve encountered before, has a long piece in The Guardian on The truth about evil. The whole longish thing is well worth reading, but some things stood out for me:
[I]t would be easy to conclude that talk of evil in international conflicts is no more than a cynical technique for shaping public perceptions. That would be a mistake. [Tony] Blair’s secret – which is the key to much in contemporary politics – is not cynicism. A cynic is someone who knowingly acts against what he or she knows to be true. Too morally stunted to be capable of the mendacity of which he is often accused, Blair thinks and acts on the premise that whatever furthers the triumph of what he believes to be good must be true. Imagining that he can deliver the Middle East and the world from evil, he cannot help having a delusional view of the impact of his policies.
Here Blair is at one with most western leaders. It’s not that they are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.
No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.
Most western leaders reject the insight that destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings
Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”. So what disturbs the west about Vladimir Putin, for example, is not so much the persecution of gay people over which he has presided, or the threat posed to Russia’s neighbours by his attempt to reassert its imperial power. It is the fact that he has no place in the liberal scheme of continuing human advance. As a result, the Russian leader can only be evil …
… our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power.They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures.
… The worldview of George W Bush and Tony Blair is commonly described as Manichean, but this is unfair to the ancient religion. Mani, the third-century prophet who founded the faith, appears to have believed the outcome of the struggle was uncertain, whereas for Bush and Blair there could never be any doubt as to the ultimate triumph of good. In refusing to accept the permanency of evil they are no different from most western leaders.
… A rival heresy was promoted by the fourth century theologian Pelagius, an opponent of Augustine who denied original sin while strongly affirming free will, and believed that human beings could be good without divine intervention. More than any of the ancient Greek philosophers, Pelagius put an idea of human autonomy at the centre of his thinking. Though he is now almost forgotten, this heretical Christian theologian has a good claim to be seen as the true father of modern liberal humanism.
Bear in mind that this crypto-Pelagianism is the kind of stuff that our “Christian” leaders accept, which is one reason why I’ve lost passion for elections, let alone electing just any good ole boy who says, for instance, that Jesus is his favorite philosopher.
Pre-publication update: Hot off the presses! 71% of Evangelicals are Pelagians!
“The universities face the same crisis the Catholic Church faced five hundred years ago.” They are secularism’s church, and “Secular salvation requires that you go through it” in order to reach secularism’s paradise. Professors are its priests, campuses are its seminaries, with one difference: “There was more diversity in the Catholic Church back then than there is in the university now.”
By the turn of the last century, the state had expanded to check the private economic power of trusts and monopolies and to preserve market competition. By the 1930s, the state had expanded further to secure equality of opportunity for everyone, which necessitated the development of the welfare state. During the 1960s, however, professed progressives concluded that the principal threat to individual freedom was not the state, big business, or economic privation, but traditional customs and social mores that claimed authority over people’s lives and actions. Only if we can manage to liberate individuals from the authority of the past, they reasoned, will they truly be free.
(David T. Koyzis) Ironically, the more we have labored to free ourselves from the past, the more enslaved we’ve become to the state and to private economic power – the welfare state and wage slavery, respectively, for instance.
Wendy Davis is associated with a national pro-choice “Stand With Texas Women” campaign. It turns out that about half of Texas women are standing with her opponent.
… I vote primarily on social issues, but I’m much less likely to do that than I was in the past. This is in part because I no longer believe that politics is capable of addressing the core of our social and cultural problems, but it’s also — and relatedly — because I am much less willing to sign off on hawkish foreign policy as an acceptable cost for getting social conservatives into office. War is a social issue too. When you see how going to war affects the families and communities left behind, you understand that.
Same deal with economics.
We Americans have come to think of “the common good” as “maximal individual liberty.” In fact, individual liberty is a necessary condition for achieving the common good, and for that good to have meaning (because freely chosen). But in America today, it has become our idol. It has become the end of our politics rather than a means to an end. It is so in our personal lives, so why shouldn’t it be in our public ones?
For Christian conservatives, we see the movement to expand marriage rights to same-sex couples, and we don’t see an expansion of liberty; we see the obliteration of the idea of the family as a binding, normative social institution. In truth, it is both — but the American people have decided that individual liberty is more important. On gambling, I see it as a vice that destroys the poor and their families. Others see it as an exercise in liberty. Those others carry the day in America. I expect that it will get more and more this way as the generation taught that the only real sin is to judge others comes into power.
All politics is about balancing the rights of the individual against the community. Too much collective power is oppressive; too much individual power is anarchic. In a democracy, we will always be struggling with this tension. What has changed, I think, is that we have come to a point where people no longer think of the common good. This is Dante’s great lament about Tuscany in his day: that people only thought of the good of themselves and their own party or tribe. The result was chaotic, and tore at the fabric of society.
This is where we are headed.
I am not a libertarian; if anything, I’m a Red Tory, or a Christian Democrat in the European sense. But ours is not a culture where Red Toryism or Christian Democracy makes much sense. It might have at one time, but not anymore. I have been thinking for a couple of years now that if I’m going to protect my religious liberty rights (the most important right, in my view), I’m going to have to figure out how to do so within a libertarian framework.
A thought that rests uneasily in my mind after reading Ryan’s comment: have I given up on America too? Does this describe me?:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.
I think it probably does. It makes it hard to know who to vote for, though. In a time like this, prophets are more important than politicians.
Maybe that makes me an “unpatriotic conservative.” I know what I want to conserve, but I don’t know that it is compatible with what our country is becoming. I’d like to be wrong.
In the following sentence, what substance do the words “in nature” add?
The nearest threat we face is not foreign in nature: it is from within.
This is part of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s effort at foreign policy, by the way. It does not strike me as reflecting any clarity of thought, because he goes on to say that the threat “within” is precisely that we discount the threat that’s “foreign in nature.”
It is our own complacency. It is the view that events thousands of miles away are not our business. Or the view of cultural relativism that, while acknowledging the systematic savagery of the enemy, is also quick to point to the shortcomings of Western democracies. They’ve got bad guys over there, we’ve got a few of our own – what’s the difference? The attitudes I’m describing reflect a deep confusion, at a time when moral clarity is at a premium.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)