The Corner

Rise of the Seculars

Paul Waldman has a very interesting article over at the Prospect pondering whether liberal secular Americans will become as “tribal” as evangelicals. He writes:

Whatever the answer is, the possibility does seem real for secularism to achieve a new awakening of its own as a political and social movement. Non-believers can now claim their first publicly open member of Congress (Pete Stark of California), and they even have their own lobbying group (a modest enterprise, admittedly). Greater visibility makes it easier for the tribe to reproduce itself: The more we wear our tribal identity on our sleeves, the easier our fellow members are to spot, and the more likely we are to define membership as one of our primary criteria in mate selection and thus pass on our identity to others. And, indeed, there are multiple atheist dating services on the web.

Let’s put that aside for a moment. Ross Douthat, meanwhile, notes that Waldman’s essay jibes with his own essay in the latest Atlantic (Sub Req’d). From the tease at his site, I thought Ross was more than a bit off. But when you read the whole piece, I think he’s on much firmer ground and makes a very good argument. But still, there’s some stuff worth discussing.

He summarizes the piece on his blog :

This, not the supposed right-wing religious revival that conservatives champion and liberals dread, is the newest new thing in American political life, and the trend that’s likely to have the most impact on the culture wars over the next decade or so.


And he writes in the Atlantic:

It’s even making a difference at the ballot box. Liberals have spent much of the past six years straining to cut into the GOP’s advantage among religious voters. But when the Democrats finally shattered the Republican majority in the 2006 midterms, it was their consolidation of the secular vote that helped put them over the top. Despite all their efforts to close the God gap, the Democrats managed barely any gains among frequent churchgoers last November—but their share of the vote among Americans who never attend church at all leaped to 67 percent, from 55 percent in 2002.

This isn’t the first secular moment in American history; indeed, the modern religious right emerged, in part, as a reaction to what was perceived as the growing Godlessness of America’s political institutions, from the Supreme Court’s decision banning school prayer to the disproportionate influence of secular voters in the Democratic Party of the 1970s. But that earlier secularism tended to be an elite phenomenon: Even Time magazine’s famous 1966 cover story, “Is God Dead?,” confined its analysis to the world of intellectuals, and noted that in America, “public faith in God seems to be as secure as it was in medieval France.” The secularism that has come of age in the Bush era, by contrast, seems to have a greater mass appeal. What’s more, where the earlier secularism tended to cultivate a self-conscious neutrality toward religion, the new secularism is defined by an unabashed hostility toward traditional faith—or at least toward any attempt to mix such faith with politics. The more-extreme secular voices regard religion as a virus or a poison; more-nuanced polemicists merely argue that their religious opponents are un-American, and that faith-based politics is a stalking horse for theocracy.

Me: This partially deflects what was going to be the brunt of my objection. But not completely. He’s right that in recent times secularism has been an elite phenomenon. Indeed, as Jeremy Rabkin wrote in a great Public Interest article years ago, the American kulturkampf was launched by liberals, primarily by the Supreme Court, and it was first and foremost aimed at traditional religion.

But both Waldman and Ross seem to be ignoring a fairly large elephant in the corner: Communists — or Marxists, doctrinaire socialists, dialectical materialists, whatever you want to call them. Here was a very tribal bunch. They were dedicated to the overthrow of religion and religious opiates. They protected themselves in tribal fashion in academia, government and politics. They defined themselves largely by what they hated. Etc, etc. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that both Marx and Engels came to their Communism via their atheism rather than the other way around (Josh Muravchik’s book Heaven on Earth makes this point vividly).

Now, we can certainly argue about how “mass based” Communism was and to what extent its mass appeal reflected or contradicted the religious attitudes of its supporters. But here’s an idea. Maybe now that Communism and the various isms in its orbit have been discredited, the attributes which made it appealing may in fact flourish. A couple years ago I wrote a piece suggesting that cosmopolitanism explained much of the passion for Marxism. Perhaps the same case can be made for secularism. Perhaps Communism did us a great favor by partially discrediting, or at least tamping down, the appeal of secularism and cosmopolitanism. As Ross notes, turned toward secularism in the 1990s. Maybe that’s because is association with “Godless Communism” crumbled with the Berlin Wall? That might be too much of a stretch. But while I think Communism is in the dustbin of history, that doesn’t mean we should sweep it under the rug.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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