Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Dogs, Fleas, and Conservative Politics

“Revelation, reason, and an assurance beyond the senses tell us that the Author of our being exists and that He is omniscient; and man and the state are creations of God’s beneficence. This Christian orthodoxy is the kernel of Burke’s philosophy. God’s purpose among men is revealed through the unrolling of history. How are we to know God’s mind and will? Through the prejudices and traditions which millennia of human experience with divine means and judgments have implanted in the mind of the species. And what is our purpose in this world? Not to indulge our appetites, but to render obedience to divine ordinance.”

“The Age of reason, Burke protested with all his splendor of rhetoric, was in reality an Age of ignorance. If (as most men, since the beginning of human history, have believed) the foundation of human welfare is divine providence, then the limitation of politics and ethics to a puny “reason” is an act of folly, the refuge of ridiculous presumption. Precisely this blindness to the effulgence of the burning bush, this deafness to the thunder above Sinai, is what Burke proclaims to be the principal error of the French “enlightenment.”

Russell Kirk – Commenting on Edmund Burke’s view of religion’s role in human affairs cited in “The Conservative Mind” (page 29)

I came across an interesting observation from columnist George Will a few days ago. Will, who is one of my favorite columnists, had this to say about what he perceives to be the unnecessary wailing and gnashing of teeth that can be heard from many Christian conservatives lately:

“Some Christians should practice the magnanimity of the strong rather than cultivate the grievances of the weak. But many Christians are joining today's scramble for the status of victims. There is much lamentation about various “assaults” on “people of faith.” Christians are indeed experiencing some petty insults and indignities concerning things such as restrictions on school Christmas observances. But their persecution complex is unbecoming because it is unrealistic.”

I’ve pondered that observation since I first read it last Thursday and I’ve asked myself some questions about what Will was saying.

First and foremost, was he right?

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s more than a small grain of truth in what he said. I’ve heard a lot of complaints from fellow Christians about being squeezed out of the public arena in the past few months. I've even given voice to a few myself. But, are the complaints warranted?

Will cites the popularity of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and Jerry B. Jenkins’ and Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series as evidence that faith is very much alive in the public square. To further bolster his contention, he also cites some recent happenings in network television programming:

“The Associated Press reports that NBC is developing a show called “The Book of Daniel” about a minister who abuses prescription drugs and is visited by a “cool, contemporary Jesus.” Fox is working on a pilot about “a priest teaming with a neurologist to examine unexplained events.”

To add fuel to the fire, NBC is in the process of airing a miniseries titled “Revelations,” my just completed twenty-two day one-man protest notwithstanding.

Yes, it seems that religion is in.

People of faith, particularly Christians, have become increasingly active and powerful in the public arena in the past ten years or so. After a series of shocking public policy defeats (school prayer and abortion), evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, who had long lain dormant in politics, awoke, shook themselves off, and made themselves heard. It took a while, but the movement has now not only taken root, but has also grown far beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected a few years before this “new awakening.” The social reverberations of this movement seem to be, on the surface, like those of the “First Great Awakening” of colonial America. That revolution, which profoundly changed a fledgling nation’s spiritual character, was also the forerunner of a revolution that shook the eighteenth century world, and continues to shake the world today.

Knowing all this it does seem curious that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would be lamenting nowadays. Wouldn’t celebration be a better expression, given the stunning successes of the past decade?

Well, just before I got revved up and started my celebratory jig a second question occurred to me. Could Will have been both right and wrong in his observation?

I think so. And, I have a few reasons for believing this.

First among those reasons is the growing concern about “fundamentalist religion” being voiced in ever wider media circles. And, ominously for the movement, the concern is not only being raised by “fundamentalism’s” arch rivals on the left, but also from its assumed allies on the right. It’s conservatives, whose philosophy evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians have embraced, who are now sounding the alarm about the dangers of “jihad” and a “theocracy” being fronted by people of faith who only last November were viewed as essential elements in a Republican victory at the polls.

Conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan, for example, recently noted that:

“Yes, fundamentalism as a mindset can extend beyond the purely religious to the secular as well. Hence the notion that all critics of Bush are, by definition, liberals. And what unites the fundamentalists from James Dobson to Benedict XVI is that they alone define priorities. For today's fundamentalists, everything in the Bible is literally true and there is no way to pick and choose from among them. Of course, they do pick and choose - look at how civil divorce is now pretty much fine among evangelicals. The same is true of Benedict's record: he has vastly expanded those areas of “faith” that are non-negotiable. The point here is that fundamentalism is a circular system where power and authority count more than reason and dialogue. That's why it poses such a threat to liberal democracy; and why it must be countered before it becomes a cancer to the very possibility of a liberal society.”

It’s astounding. Conservative Christians, who only months ago were being courted and wooed as brothers in arms, are now being viewed as either cranky and ungrateful (Will) or unreasonable and dangerous (Sullivan). How the mighty have fallen! Even more ominous, though, are the shots being fired across the bow of the "S.S. Evangelicus." We’re no longer friends, but a “cancer” that must be “countered” if democracy itself is to survive.

No, it’s not fiction. The rhetoric has been heating up for some time now. Conservative Christians are now in the cross hairs. Is there any wonder, then, that there has been this type of reaction from conservative Christians?:

“In more than 50 years of direct engagement in and observation of the major news media I have never encountered anything remotely like the fear and loathing lavished on us (evangelicals and traditional Catholics) by opinion mongers in these world-class newspapers in the past 40 days," he laments. “Readers have been assured, among other dreadful things, that we are living in ‘a theocracy’ and that this theocratic federal state has reached the dire level of — hold your breath — a ‘jihad.’”

Sullivan, in his commentary, noted that “fundamentalists” are notoriously “circular” in their thinking, wanting only to exercise “power and authority.” They are, in his mind (and the minds of many conservatives), unyielding jihadists bent on creating a society more in keeping with John Calvin’s Geneva than Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

But secular conservatives, without seeing it, are guilty of the same circular thinking. What did they expect of the “fundamentalists?” Once the invitation to become part of the core of national political power was issued and subsequently won, Christian conservatives began to flex their muscles. That was apparently too much for their secular brethren. Their operating assumption was that the religious right would just sit on their collective hands and applaud and vote on cue, eschewing exercises in power politics. This thinking was every bit as circular as the one Sullivan and other conservatives protested.

Then, when Christians attempted to fully exercise their new found clout many of their fellow conservatives were shocked into action. The circular chase was on.

Well, the two parties have now somehow caught up with each other in this vicious political circle. The result is this - the welcome mat that was ceremoniously placed at the feet of Christian conservatives six months ago is fast becoming the rug pulled out from under them today.

While it may be difficult to see it right now, for Christian conservatives this may be a blessing in disguise. This brings me to my second reason for believing that George Will was wrong as well as right in what he wrote.

As a life-long Democrat I’ve had to learn my political lessons the hard way. The party of my youth has been a consistent disappointment to me. From my formative years I’ve been well schooled about power and the powerful. They love you in the run-up to the election. They’ll get you to the polls. Then, once they’ve been elected your ideas and agendas are long forgotten. I learned that it was all about being, as Lenin was purported to have once said, a “useful idiot.” This, I believe, is the lesson that Christian conservatives will be learning about the Republican Party and conservative politics in the days to come. Vote for them in November and you’re their kissin’ cousins. Flex your muscles and express your wishes in May and you’re a cancerous jihadist.

There are a couple of other valuable lessons in all of this. First, as the adage says, “sleep with dogs and you just might wind up with fleas when you wake up in the morning.” That is, political power cuts two ways. Not only can evangelicals exercise influence on the arena, but the arena can also exert influence on evangelicals.

George Will cited some statistics gathered by the American Religious Identification Survey in his May 5th column. I first glossed over them. Then upon re-reading, they hit me like a Burlington Northern freight train:

“According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Americans who answer “none” when asked to identify their religion numbered 29.4 million in 2001, more than double the 14.3 million in 1990. If unbelievers had their own state -- the state of None -- its population would be more than twice that of New England's six states, and None would be the nation's second-largest state.”

For evangelicals, who have had what seems to have been growing power and influence for nearly a decade, this should be seen as a clear message, if not a cause for alarm. The number of people who can’t or won’t identify their religion in America, at a time when evangelical power seems to be so great, has doubled. That’s astounding! It’s a symptom of an age-old expectation, akin to the expectations of Christians in the political arena – present a good spiritual front, but when the chips are down make sure that you’re core beliefs align with conservative dogma.

As I said, this may all well be a blessing in disguise, a bolt from heaven designed to get us back on track. If, for all our power, the net result has been a doubling of the number of people who don’t identify with religion, there is something dramatically wrong in the way we’ve approached power in what we believed was our heyday. This might indeed be the signal to turn back, to become the “jihadists” we’re supposed to be.

Ted Olsen, Rob Mall, and Wesley English of Christianity Today put it this way I’ll close with their comments, using them as my resounding “Amen”:

“Evangelicalism, however, has always been a reform movement. And there is always more to reform. The Kingdom of God has arrived, but is not yet here. And we won't be satisfied until the king comes in all his glory.”

“And that's evangelical Christianity's little secret right now. We really are theocrats. Only in exactly the opposite way from how some op-ed columnists think we are. Our hopes lie far beyond the next election, or the next judicial fight. Our king isn't elected, and our judge isn't appointed. Sometimes we forget that. But it's what we're all about.”


James Fletcher Baxter said...

The thoughts, comments, and behavior of members of secularism plainly echo the priorities of secular non-value. They are largely committed to a life-style apriori chosen and then grasp at a humanistic view of cosmos 'reality.'

They hold no transcendent criteria as prior and thus possess no anticipatory vision of the future - for good or ill. For threat or peace. For hula-hoop jumping or patty-cake.

"Without vision the people perish." Christians know this and thus seek no egoistic intellectual man-made foible for verification of lack. We read the future in the present more accurately than our carnal brothers since our compass is not man-made.

Because no one is born in the flesh as a Christian, we've all "been there, done that;" we have all been sinful humanists from the beginning. Being born-again is an actual progression designed by the Creator as a step and process of free-will, choice, faith, and vision.

We are not about to drive it in un-natural Reverse to please the ego-centrics; conservative or liberal secularists. The evidence is universe-sized and history-long - an apt IQ Test. "They are without excuse."

semper fidelis

Trudging said...

Gutsy Blog!