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Robert Reich’s Religion Problem
Witless rhetorical oppositions.


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Ramesh Ponnuru

Liberals tend to take umbrage when it is suggested that they are hostile to religion, or to religious people, or to some subset thereof. They have nothing against evangelical Christians, they respond, so long as they do not seek to use the state to impose their faith on others. Some liberals go further, saying that they are religious progressives who advocate a bigger welfare state as an outgrowth of their religious values. (A number of my fellow contributors to the new Brookings Institution book One Electorate Under God? take this approach, including Paul Begala.) I take all these liberals at their word. I do not think that most liberals who passionately dislike the Christian Right are hostile to Christians; they have some political and moral disagreements with conservative Christians. On most of the issues in question, I am inclined to agree with or at least lean toward the views of contemporary Christian conservatives, but there is plenty to debate.

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But the phenomenon of liberal religion-bashing isn’t imaginary, either. Robert Reich’s latest column in The American Prospect is a case in point. It starts out pressing the case for the contemporary liberal understanding of church-state separation and its history in America, and uses this understanding to criticize the Bush administration. (The article is headlined “Bush’s God.”) He says that “the problem” with “religious zealots” is that “they confuse politics with private morality.”

Now I disagree with much of what he has to say, and consider it uncivil to describe advocates of prayer in public schools, a ban on abortions, and other policies Reich dislikes as “religious zealots.” (I don’t consider myself a religious zealot, although I support several of those policies, and support some of them zealously.) But none of this is especially outrageous or even noteworthy.

But then comes Reich’s conclusion:

The great conflict of the 21st century will not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The true battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is mere preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the greatest danger we face.

This goes well beyond the common denunciation of “fundamentalism” where that term is meant to describe an ideology that seeks the imposition of religious views on non-believers. (That’s what Andrew Sullivan means when he uses the term.) It is a denunciation–as a graver threat than terrorists–of people who believe that the world to come is more important than this world, or that all human beings owe their allegiance to God.

Many millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other religious believers will reject Reich’s witless rhetorical oppositions. One can believe in the political “primacy of the individual,” the obligation of all people to answer to God, and the wrongness of any governmental attempt to make them answer to Him, all at the same time. But if our choice is between the primacy of individuals and the primacy of God–if, that is, we are to choose between individual human beings and God–then the vast majority of traditional religious believers would have to choose God. I certainly would. That would be the case for plenty of believers who are not sure what they think about abortion law, or want a higher minimum wage. All of us, for Reich, are the enemy.

I will not reciprocate the sentiment. Reich is not my enemy, although I certainly want most of what he stands for politically not to prevail. I don’t think we have to have the battle he forecasts. I hope we don’t. In fact, I pray we don’t.



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