Remember not long ago how so many liberals were whining about the impending American theocracy? It was a relentless mania that, had it been directed leftward, would have been instantaneously identified as an example of the paranoid style in American politics (Ross’s essay on the subject is still well worth reading) and denounced by people like Frank Rich as McCarthyism. Well, as Frank Rich himself hamfistedly noted the other day, it seems to all be going away. I don’t mean Christianity is going away. Indeed, the one thing both the peddlers of the “Christianist” canard and its critics alike could agree on, was that Christianity isn’t the same thing as Christianism. Nonetheless, the theocracy panic is evaporating rather quickly. Rich casts this as a victory in the culture war.
I started thinking about this while writing today’s column. Liberals are determined to mock and ridicule the notion that Obama’s moving America in a European direction. But of course he is. Liberals have been — unapologetically — pushing America in that direction for generations.
Anyway, what I didn’t get into in the column is how this contrasts with the theocracy-panic of five minutes ago. Back then, the liberal consensus was that we need to be very, very, very scared that the bible thumpers were going to take over everything and turn us into a Handmaid’s Tale (itself a classic example of paranoid fiction). But back then, if I had suggested that America’s rich history of religious tolerance and pluralism could stand up to the Orwellian onslaught of Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, I would have been laughed off as ludicrously naive.
But when Obama is literally spending trillions of dollars to move us in a European direction, conservatives like Mark Steyn, Charles Murray, and others are supposedly daft for thinking this is anything worth worrying about.
One last point:
This, too, is a replay of the Great Depression. “One might have expected that in such a crisis great numbers of these people would have turned to the consolations of and inspirations of religion,” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in “Since Yesterday,” his history of the 1930s published in 1940. But that did not happen: “The long slow retreat of the churches into less and less significance in the life of the country, and even in the lives of the majority of their members, continued almost unabated.”
The new American faith, Allen wrote, was the “secular religion of social consciousness.” It took the form of campaigns for economic and social justice — as exemplified by the New Deal and those movements that challenged it from both the left and the right. It’s too early in our crisis and too early in the new administration to know whether this decade will so closely replicate the 1930s, but so far Obama has far more moral authority than any religious leader in America with the possible exception of his sometime ally, the Rev. Rick Warren.
History is cyclical, and it would be foolhardy to assume that the culture wars will never return. But after the humiliations of the Scopes trial and the repeal of Prohibition, it did take a good four decades for the religious right to begin its comeback in the 1970s. In our tough times, when any happy news can be counted as a miracle, a 40-year exodus for these ayatollahs can pass for an answer to America’s prayers.
Yes, the reverence for Obama, the slimy and juvenile ayatollah talk, and the richness of Rich is exhausting. But Rich’s point about a “secular religion of social consciousness” is interesting (and not just because it jibes with the thesis of my book). The very idea of creating a secular religion of social consciousness is straight out of the mainstream of European social thought. Indeed, the original kulturkampf was launched to crackdown on “backward” and superstitious religionists (AKA Catholics) who wouldn’t cave into modernity, science, and the national interest as German protestant progressives understood it. Rich doesn’t realize it, but for all his talk about how the culture war is over, what he’s really pointing to is the fact that the culture war is raging as strong as ever; it’s just that his side is winning at the moment so he wants to declare victory while he’s ahead.