Saturday, August 26, 2006

C'mon Charlie Brown, kick the football

Carol Iannone replies to Heather MacDonald's call for an accomodation with secular conservatives with the cautionary rejoinder that "we tried that once, and we were taken to the cleaners":

I am following with some interest the ongoing debate on religion between Heather Mac Donald and her friendly adversaries at The Corner and today at NRO. Heather is dismayed to hear so many public expressions of religion from conservatives and believes that conservatism needs no religious basis but can rely soly on reason.

The irony is that this public expression of belief is actually a quite recent development. From what I can make out, and forgive this rather crude summary, a bargain was struck many years ago, certainly by mid-twentieth century, that religious believers would leave aside their beliefs when entering public debate. Any intellectual argument had to be handled on the basis of reason, just as Heather advances now. At a certain point, however, believers began to realize that this may have been a devil's bargain. The public arena had not become neutral territory given to reason but a place where atheism and materialism were aggressively able to ascend while believers remained tongue-tied. The Supreme Court decisions outlawing prayer in the schools were only the most visible example. Then, when the counterculture began destroying the traditional understandings that had held America together, even without necessarily mentioning God, conservative believers seriously started to question the old bargain. That's sort of where Father Neuhaus and his criticism of the naked public square and all that came in.


Say what?? Iannone's revisionist history is breathtaking in its cluelessness, but it is a perfect example of the religious conservative "litany", a well rehearsed shorthand view of history in which all was good in society until the radical secular agenda destroyed everything of value in American society. I'm reminded of other ideological litanies, such as the environmental litany propounded by Jared Diamond in his book "Collapse" whereby the collapse of dead civilizations can simplistically be blamed on bad environmental policies.

Can anyone point to any historical event that resembles the "bargain" she refers to? When, prior to 1960, did religious politicians and intellectuals forswear public religious language for the benefit of including secular people? Was it in 1954 when President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the Congressional resolution adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance? Was it during the 1950's Red Scare when atheism was publicly reviled as the ideology of our arch enemy, the Soviet Union?

And was this "bargain" somehow legally binding on religious people? Were they really constrained from injecting religious viewpoints as they watched radical secularists, to quote Iannone, "destroying the traditional understandings that had held America together"? Was it really the case that dismayed believers said to themselves "I really wish I could counter these atheistic arguments that are destroying the soul of America, but since I am a man of my word, I must honor my part of the bargain"?

She continues:

America seemed to be growing more undisciplined, hedonistic, materialistic, hyper-individualistic, self-indulgent, and so on. Divorce and llegitimacy arose alarmingly, family life was eroding, and one Supreme Court decision after another seemed to remove any vestige of traditional understanding from the conduct of life and of the individual. Believers realized that their bargain was a premature surrender and decided they wouldn't be silent anymore. They took off the white glove and entered the public arena. I remember the amazement I felt when I read that full-page ad some Christian group took out years ago listing the various pronouncements about the importance of religion in our system of representational government on the part of the Founding Fathers.

It wasn't easy because the rationalists, some of whom were great and brilliant people, did not welcome the encroachment. If William Buckley, say, wrote the merest half-sentence in an article suggesting that a society required a belief in something higher than itself, Sidney Hook would leap into print to stomp on any such notion, tear it into shreds, and scatter the shreds to the wind. Hook is mainly an admirable figure, a very early critic of the irrationalism that would overtake the American university and founder of the aptly named University Center for Rational Alternatives, but I believe he did a lot of harm with his single-mindedness and his aggressive and rather arrogant atheism. Asked what he would do if he found out after death that God does exist, he said He would tell God He hadn't provided enough evidence. Ok, it's cute, but it's also arrogant.


America may have been growing more individualistic and hedonistic, but you have to be intellectualy lazy and incurious to the point of being brain dead to attribute this social trend to the effects of an accomodation of secular thought in the public sphere. Somehow a court case that was decided in 1963 to ban prayer from public school had the effect of bringing about a slackening of individual and public morality that had its roots in such landmark events as the rise of Playboy, hipster & drug culture, rock and roll and the youth movement, the public respectability of divorce, all which began in the 1950s, and the birth control pill which was approved by the FDA 3 years before the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools.

Yet this is the popular litany that is repeated ad nauseum by religious social conservatives scapegoating athiests and secular minded people for everything that went wrong with American culture from 1960 on. Iannone's seeming lack of interest in providing facts supporting her analysis just shows how widespread acceptance of the litany has become through constant repetition. Iannone is probably of the younger set of conservatives too young to have experienced the 60's firsthand, and who has been raised on a steady diet of religious conservative commentary without the curiosity to actually fact-check the worldview she has inherited. But, as Orrin would no doubt approve, she gets extra credit for conformity, and that is what American culture is all about, right?

The reality of the situation is that America was predominantly religious before and during the Countercultural revolution of the 1960's, and remains so today. American culture was never under the control of an athiestic mindset. It was largely ordinary religious people who subscribed to Playboy, took advantage of no-fault divorce, took the pill, tuned in, turned on, dropped out, experimented with alternative lifestyles, and then largely settled down and went to work. The religous conservatives will point to a great revival of religion following in the wake of the 60's and 70's, and they are correct. But the inconvenient truth is that most of the alternate lifestyles of the counterclture period are still with us. We just don't notice it because the counterculture of then is the culture of now. Sexual promiscuity is a permanent reality of our culture. So is drug use. So is divorce. So is pornography. All this among the most religious "developed" population on the planet.

I'll inject one personal anecdote for your perusal. My ex-wife tells me of an acquaintance of hers who is a fundamentalist Christian who attends only the most fiery of fire and brimstone churches and who scolds her for buying into the lie of evolution. This person is also a confirmed bachelor and abuser of alcohol, marijuana and occasionally cocaine, who sleeps with women he has no intention of marrying and who frequents nudie bars. Now anecdotes do not prove trends, but it is also true that most people's experiences are generally not unique to them. What is noteworthy about this person is that he is not particularly noteworthy.

And yet the need to scapegoat athiests through the Litany continues, because although it is not news that people are contradictory animals, it is also true that people seek comforting and self-serving explanations to deal with those contradictions. Honest believers will deal with their own contradictions by admitting their own faults, as this article from Christianity Today does. Dishonest believers will scapegoat others by repeating the Litany.

18 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I see she is editor at large (PC title for common scold, I guess) at American Questions. This journal describes its mission as reform of:

'American higher education [that] has been profoundly compromised in the past three decades. Standards have been eroded, the curriculum has been debased, and research has been trivialized or distorted by ideology. Yet the established voices of the academy often speak 'in tones that are self-congratulatory rather than self-critical.'

So her professional job is to make wide generalizations that are obviously not justifiable, even if relevant to small districts within academe.

August 26, 2006 10:53 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I propose an objective test to tell whether people like Ianonne are sincere or just blowin' smoke:

She has to list the last 10 movies she watched. Then we assess how many, if any, of them would have obtained Legion of Decency approval back in the good ol' days when Catholicism was still keeping the savages out of Hollywood.

August 26, 2006 11:02 AM  
Blogger David said...

This is akin to the people who claim that George W. Bush has inserted religion into the government like no other president. As every president in my lifetime has closed his speeches with something like "G-d bless you and G-d bless the United States of America", I have no idea what these people are talking about.

Sometimes I suspect is that what they mean is "we believe that George Bush believes it, but that Bill Clinton was just lying."

August 26, 2006 5:55 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I submit that the reason that the most militantly atheistic cons, and the most stiff-necked religious ones, have decided that they can no longer stand each other, is because conservative thought has become the dominant philosophy in America. Just as many couples, groups, and organizations are bound by a common struggle, but fall apart with success, so too do political coalitions and philosophical movements tend to splinter once they're setting the agenda.

The rise of conservatism does have elements of irony, however, insomuch as a lot of what mainstream conservatism accepts as the status quo reflects the past victories of liberals and progressives. As Duck writes, "the counterculture of then is the culture of now."

Take gay marriage for instance. Conservatives adamantly oppose it, but the hetero marriage that they're defending would be unacceptable to the conservatives of the past. What today's conservatives are so passionate about is liberal marriage.

August 26, 2006 7:30 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

David wrote: "As every president in my lifetime has closed his speeches with something like "G-d bless you and G-d bless the United States of America", I have no idea what these people are talking about."

Nixon was a little sporadic on the G-d thang, I think. For example, his 1971 SotU address didn't mention G-d once. But I don't think how Presidents close their speeches is necessarily relevant to the topic.

But I do think that I've seen that invisible wall that separates church and state move quite a bit in my lifetime. First pushing religion farther away from government and public life, and then in the last few years the wall has moved back the other way, with compassionate (i.e., religious) conservatism, faith-based initiatives, etc.

I can certainly understand Iannone's viewpoint. No, there was not an explicit bargain, but that doesn't mean that religion was somewhat less embraced in the public sphere for a period of time before enjoying a bit a resurgence.

Now, I think Iannone is seeing a cause and effect relationship where there isn't one. I think the waning of religious influence was an effect caused by the same things that caused the social ills Iannone harps one. Lack of religion didn't directly cause such things (IMHO).

The sorts of things that led to the temporary waning of religion (again, IMHO), include the huge expansion of the federal government and the collectivism that swept the world in the 20th century. Each of those is caused by man's supreme confidence in his ability to solve every problem from a centralized authority per Hayek's Fatal Conceit.

August 26, 2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Can anyone point to any historical event that resembles the "bargain" she refers to?

What's the matter with you? Haven't you ever heard of the Treaty of New Haven of 1831 that carefully delineated the division between the secular and religious in public life? Clause Xl prohibits porn and gay marriage!

(Ok, ok, but if Harry and Skipper can make up their history on the fly, why can't I?)

Nope, no bargain and no social contract. But the question that has been before us in a very "in your face" way since the 60's is this: To what extent does the American creed of maximizing individual freedom depend on the discipline of a social ethos informed by private piousness? It's a question that obviously troubled many of the Founders and led to their saying such favourable things about the social bedrock of religion.

One of the calmer and non-personal philosophical sources of anti-Americanism in Europe and elsewhere is the fear of unrestrained individual freedom and the lack of any complementary ideological principle to keep the streets safe. The classic view of civilization was that it was a balance between freedom and order. The fear of chaos is never far from the European or Chinese heart, and for good reason. This is why the popular image of America elsewhere is more likely to be that of the lawless town on the Western frontier or the robber baron bullying and bribing his way through life on the backs of the poor than the ordered New England village or the nation rising as one against an enemy in patriotic unity. What really makes many of them mad is that America always manages to defy predictions of disintegeration and just keeps on truckin' to greater freedom, prosperity and strength while all their beautiful experiments with order lead to disastrous totalitarianism.

But, domestically, it hasn't been so unidirectional, especially on the social/cultural front. The notion of an order built on commonly agreed upon restrictions of personal behaviour was hardly absent in America. It's just that, traditionally and unlike with almost all other countries, you didn't find it in the constitution or rousing political speeches, which are exclusively about freedom. You found it in the pulpit. There have been lots of reactions and reversals when personal freedom appeared threatening. Prohibition is the most obvious example, but so is Hollywood's self-censorship from the 30's to the 50's. However excessive they may have been and however much they were spearheaded by the religious, they didn't come out of nowhere and they weren't just decided upon out of the blue one day by a bunch of gloomy church elders lost in the Mosaic law. Public and domestic drunkeness were serious problems and Hollywood was dabbling in the offensive for extra lucre. A rough-edged approach to law enforcement and a general puritan approach to things like public nudity may be other examples. And, oh yes, they did make a difference.

We can argue about individual trade-offs and compromises on individual issues forever, and maybe we will. But whether you like it or not, and however hypocritical many of them may seem to you, and despite what all those social scientists you love to haul out with their "objective" findings say, a very large percentage of the population is feeling increasingly alienated from the popular culturalzeitgeist and that feeling is strongest among folks whose priority is to build sober, moral and successful families and children with the strength and character to fight off sin, vice and self-absorption. The words of the psychologist who quipped that, while traditionally the role of parents was to introduce their children into the surrounding community, today more and more they feel they must protect them from it, resonate louder with these people every day. Are these the people you wish to marginalize or dimiss as disordered and a threat to the nation?

One thing that strikes me about all our debates here is how secular libertarianism locks itself philosophically into absolutist positions that hold firm whatever is going on in the streets outside. Skipper's and AOG's positions on, say, divorce don't seem to change whether the divorce rate is 1% or 99%. Skipper can't deal with church bells and Muslin calls to prayer as a practical problem that demands compromise based upon reasonableness and respect throughout the community. He jumps straight into the miasma of "group rights" vs. "individual rights" and thus turns it into a winner-take-all fight by definition. And surely, Duck, you of all people won't deny that the secular response to the alienation of the religious has been more to question their sanity and the legitimacy of what they say than to look for compromises.

I'll say it again. You guys are the fanatics. Sure, there are loony, theocratic voices around that make the news, especially on Harry's street, but their views on the separation of church and state are on the margins of American religious thinking and you know it. I suspect you are so attracted to them, and so anxious to define them as mainstream, because their fantacism puts yours in a better light. Frankly, one of my frequent prayers is that before I die I will meet a secular libertarian who has something thoughtful to say about social cohesion and the dangers of alienating the mainstream and extirpating all notions of decency from public life.

So, Ms. Iannone gets a D in history, but an A for having the insight to see she is the compromiser fighting extremism.

August 27, 2006 4:31 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'a very large percentage of the population is feeling increasingly alienated from the popular culturalzeitgeist and that feeling is strongest among folks whose priority is to build sober, moral and successful families and children with the strength and character to fight off sin, vice and self-absorption.'

Take out 'increasingly' and I'd almost agree with you. The problem with people who battle dragons is that there ain't no dragons.

The self-proclaimed sober moralists have felt just as strongly about this in all eras, suggesting -- since I guess all of us agree that the standards have changed considerably over time -- that this is an internal problem of theirs and not an external problem of the society's. Or, as I like to put it to lefties or righties who decry the loss of American liberty, Massa Lincoln done freed the slaves.

Cotton Mather was no less disturbed about the sad condition of the public morals than, oh, I dunno, whoever is the current version of Mather. Bill Bennett?

August 27, 2006 5:09 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Yes, there have always been Jeremiahs in the wilderness. Your problem is explaining those eras when they are suddenly overwhelmed with dinner invitations.

August 27, 2006 5:25 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Frankly, one of my frequent prayers is that before I die I will meet a secular libertarian who has something thoughtful to say about social cohesion and the dangers of alienating the mainstream and extirpating all notions of decency from public life.

I have plenty of nice things to say about social cohesion, but I've never called myself a libertarian. Peter, I'm not calling for a purge of religious talk from public life. I do think that the absolutist position of church-state separation represented by the ACLU and PFAW goes too far and tramples on the rights of religious believers without providing any real security to the rights of non-believers. I've said so many times on the Daily Duck.

The problem with Iannone's litany is that it stands in the way of the kind of cohesion and consensus between conservatives that she so treasures. Maybe it is a trust issue, as with Lucy and Charlie Brown. But trust isn't built by lying about the past to absolve your own "team" of its share of the blame.

Yes, churches have traditionally been the sources of calls for restraint on the excessive emphasis of personal freedom. Yet they have often been the source of extreme rhetoric where the issue wasn't personal freedom but "group rights" or group antagonisms. The funny thing about social cohesion is that it often strengthens local, ethnic, regional and sectarian identity at the expense of inter-group peace, stability and understanding. A lot of the backlash against religion in the 60s wasn't just as a result of its restraint on personal freedom, but its support for traditional prejudices, particularly with regards to racial inequality and injustice. You can wail at the effects of 60s values on the cohesion of the African-American family, which is true, but it also broke the back of systematized social opression of blacks. The 60s didn't throw out just baby, there was some bathwater in there too.

So, the American experiment can err on the side of order as well as personal freedom. I'm willing to work beside religious conservatives to acheive the right balance between the two, but not if the religious cons will continue to use secular people as the scapegoat to avoid dealing with the skeletons in their own closet.

August 27, 2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

From the article:


Heather is dismayed to hear so many public expressions of religion from conservatives and believes that conservatism needs no religious basis but can rely soly on reason.
.
.
.
America seemed to be growing more undisciplined, hedonistic, materialistic, hyper-individualistic, self-indulgent, and so on. Divorce and llegitimacy arose alarmingly, family life was eroding ...


Congratulations, Ms. Iannone, for fatally wounding your own argument within the space of several paras.

Hint, in case you haven't sussed it already: you used reason to prove the necessity of conservatism.

But if you are going to rely on reason to make a point, why not go all the way? When it comes to morality, a Christianity Today article of roughly a year ago (sorry, no link, although Duck's stands in reasonably well) pointedly noted that evangelical Christians are nearly indistinguishable from society at large. And where they are distinguishable -- spouse abuse and racism -- it isn't on the plus side of the ledger.

The reality is that over the last 40 years, women have gained control over their fecundity. That sort of thing is going to leave a mark, never mind the supposed predations of secularism.


I submit that the reason that the most militantly atheistic cons, and the most stiff-necked religious ones, have decided that they can no longer stand each other ...


I submit you are wrong. The list of religionists, and religions, who claim to possess universal truth, and thereby demonize all who don't agree, is far from balanced by those on the other side.

Peter:

(Ok, ok, but if Harry and Skipper can make up their history on the fly, why can't I?)

Examples, please.

August 27, 2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Q.E.D.

August 27, 2006 10:19 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Q.E.D.

Quod? Details, please.

August 27, 2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I am all for vigorous debate, but not for swallowing baloney without chewing.

Here is my rule: If a social practice arose (in our zone) within the last 400 years or so, religion cannot take credit for that. If religion were the origin, it must have arisen much earlier than 1600, which is the date at which self-conscious questioning of received truths really got under way. (Not neglecting earlier geniuses like Valla, the man to whom, in the end, we owe all our liberties.)

It is amusing to listen to various worshipers of religion scorning secularists for all the bad they've done without even realizing how much secularism they have melded into their faiths.

I've said it before, but it's worth saying again in this context: Few present-day Christians would have been accepted as Christians in 1650.

August 27, 2006 3:08 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Harry, we may have found some common ground here. I think most religious folks would be more than happy to give you secularists full credit for all those things that are upsetting them.

August 27, 2006 4:24 PM  
Blogger David said...

From Nixon's second inaugural:

We shall answer to God, to history, and to our conscience for the way in which we use these years.

As I stand in this place, so hallowed by history, I think of others who have stood here before me. I think of the dreams they had for America, and I think of how each recognized that he needed help far beyond himself in order to make those dreams come true.

Today, I ask your prayers that in the years ahead I may have God's help in making decisions that are right for America, and I pray for your help so that together we may be worthy of our challenge.

Let us pledge together to make these next four years the best four years in America's history, so that on its 200th birthday America will be as young and as vital as when it began, and as bright a beacon of hope for all the world.

Let us go forward from here confident in hope, strong in our faith in one another, sustained by our faith in God who created us, and striving always to serve His purpose.

August 27, 2006 8:25 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Like the Bill of Rights?

As full of secular ideas as an egg is full of meat.

And, yes, I do believe many, though I hope not a majority, of present-day Christians would happily toss most of it out.

August 27, 2006 9:30 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

David,
I said Nixon was "sporadic" in his mentioning of G-d, I did not say that he never mentioned G-d.

By contrast, is there a single GWB speech (as president) that doesn't mention G-d at least once?

August 27, 2006 11:17 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

My wife listens to 'Weekend Radio,' which has been rebroadcasting Stan Freberg's 1957 CBS shows. He signed off with a 'God bless.'

Dunno what that means. Allahu akhbar.

August 28, 2006 12:13 PM  

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