Blogs > Liberty and Power > Declaring War Against Zealotry

Nov 4, 2004 5:32 pm

Declaring War Against Zealotry

I must say that I was a bit annoyed some months ago when I was routinely criticized by those who supported the President despite their reservations about his religious agenda, because I dared to suggest that he was using religion as a political and cultural weapon for the re-making of the modern world. When I wrote my essay about the alarming growth in evangelical Christianity as a mainstream cultural force, I knew that such growth would have vast political implications. These critics kept telling me that I was"overdoing" it. In my view, the election results yesterday are much too clear to ignore.

So to all my critics: You voted for this man. Do not be surprised by the long-term political consequences, which, unfortunately, will affect all of us.

Of course, the liberal NY Times has been talking about this rise of religion for a while. It has published essays by Ron Suskind, Russell Shorto, and, today, Garry Wills, all of which speak of an ongoing religious revival.

Ironically, yesterday, in his victory speech, Bush himself thanked the gay-baiting Karl Rove as"the architect" (with apologies to Howard Roark). That fact is not lost on Wills, who writes:

This election confirms the brilliance of Karl Rove as a political strategist. He calculated that the religious conservatives, if they could be turned out, would be the deciding factor. The success of the plan was registered not only in the presidential results but also in all 11 of the state votes to ban same-sex marriage. Mr. Rove understands what surveys have shown, that many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin's theory of evolution.
This might be called Bryan's revenge for the Scopes trial of 1925, in which William Jennings Bryan's fundamentalist assault on the concept of evolution was discredited. Disillusionment with that decision led many evangelicals to withdraw from direct engagement in politics. But they came roaring back into the arena out of anger at other court decisions - on prayer in school, abortion, protection of the flag and, now, gay marriage. Mr. Rove felt that the appeal to this large bloc was worth getting President Bush to endorse a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (though he had opposed it earlier).

It's interesting that some commentators think of this Bush victory as the re-emergence of an even purer"Reagan revolution." I find nothing pure in Bush's complete abandonment of Reagan's libertarian rhetoric. Say what you will about the Gipper; at least, he hadlibertarian rhetoric, even if his legacy was terribly mixed. Wills himself argues, in essence, that however much Reagan might be viewed as the John the Baptist to Bush-as-Jesus, Reagan was"amiably and ecumenically pious. He could address more secular audiences, here and abroad, with real respect."

In the end, Wills asks a legitimate question:"Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?" I do think he overstates his case, however. Yesterday was not"The Day the Enlightenment Went Out." But it was a warning shot in a much wider cultural war. And it is a cultural war that we are ultimately fighting... not only against the religious zealots at home, but also against the religious zealots abroad, who would bring death and destruction to our shores.

It is now up to those men and women of goodwill, who hold Enlightenment values, to stand tall, and to fight zealotry, of whatever stripe, every step of the way.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


Re (2):
Your statistics simply do not support the claim you are making. The claim is that the religious right played the pivotal causal role in electing Bush. Neither group of statistics you cite shows that.

The first group, the exit polls, purport to show that because people put 'moral values' before Iraq and so forth, they equated 'moral values' with 'religion' and thus voted for Bush on a religious basis. Despite the frequency with which this claim has been repeated, there is no empirical evidence for it. There is no way to determine what the people polled were really thinking--because the poll didn't ask. It is simply a leap of faith to assert that they equated 'moral values' with religion, and thus to infer that religion was the prime mover in the Bush election. (This analysis was seconded by Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Ctr, who made a similar argument on PBS's Lehrer Report--which I only mean as an 'argument from authority' insofar as it suggests that an experienced pollster was as willing to dismiss that statistic as I am.)

Set aside the further question of whether exit polls are even reliable as such!

Your second group of statistics simply tells us that of the people who hold anti-gay views (etc.), a large percentage voted for Bush. It hardly follows from that that a large percentage of voters for Bush voted for those reasons. We need to know what percentage of the aggregate of Bush voters had the anti-gay (etc.) views. And that is precisely what is unknown.

No one denies that religious people like Bush. The question is whether most Bush-supporters did so for religious reasons. That would be good evidence that the country as a whole is devolving into some anti-Enlightenment abyss. But where, exactly, is that evidence?

Regarding (1):
I didn't mean you were endorsing him. I only mean to inquire: what on earth is he talking about? Here we find him praising "the Enlightenment." There we see him praising the pre-Enlightenment Catholic tradition. So if we make the charitable assumption that he is not being totally incoherent (defeasible, but a good start), he has a conception of the Enlightenment which includes Vitoria, Suarez, and the Pope. OK, so we have ceased to be an "Enlightenment nation" in that rather idiosyncratic sense. But what sense, is it again? Does he mean: the clear, self-evident sense in which Pope John Paul II is an Enlightenment figure? I'm not familiar with that sense.

Does he mean: the sense in which people form beliefs without basing them on evidence? Well, there is nothing unique about religious people in that respect. Contemporary liberals can be as fideistic as any religious person, and are sometimes more so. It was after all William James, the secular pragmatist beloved of so many liberals, who gave Americans the idea of 'the will to believe'.

We could then perhaps say that Wills is being incoherent. But why is an incoherent person's observations a good guide to politics? Chris says he quoted Wills because he agrees with him--fair enough. But I haven't seen the basis of the agreement. It can't be the statistical analysis. And I don't find it non-statistically plausible.

Re (3):
I couldn't agree more with your third point, but the problem is, it doesn't cohere with Wills' analysis. Wills really does seem to be implying that we once were a secular Enlightenment nation--and that GWB & Co. have singlehandedly ended that. Again: evidence?

The fact is, I see little difference between Reagan and Bush Jr, and I don't think highly of either of them. But we lived through and past the theocratic depredations of Reagan, and we'll do the same here. (At least Bush doesn't depend on astrologers.) The point is that it's merely a reprise of the same damn thing, not something wholly unprecedented and unique.

What I don't see is the need for the sort of panic and exaggeration engendered by people like Wills. Under Bush, abortion will suffer, gay rights will suffer, stem cell research will suffer. Bad. Under Kerry, economic freedom would have suffered. Also bad. What this proves is that American politics sucks, not that we are headed for the extinguishing of the Enlightenment in America.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I don't disagree, but my point on Wills stands: I doubt he meant what you meant, and even taken at face value, you're talking about some serious influence-at-a-distance. Vitoria and Suarez may have been precursors of the Enlightenment, but at sufficient distance for us to say that they weren't part of it--also to say that they were inheritors of lots of things very much incompatible with what's usually taken to be central to the Enlightenment. To make things worse, Wills is taking 'Enlightenment' as a proxy for 'secularism', which definitely do not describe Vitoria, Suarez or the Pope.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

That's a disagreement, not an agreement with Wills. He is the one who is saying that we once were an Enlightenment nation, but now are not. You are saying we never really were. Whichever claim is true, my point is that contrary to Wills (and to Chris) the Bush election does not provide the evidence that decides the issue.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Just to head a potential misunderstanding off at the pass:

If Chris's thesis is that religion was THE fundamental causal explanation for the Bush re-election, my argument above stands as stated.

But if the thesis is that religion merely played one significant role among others, I don't see how that claim is consistent with Wills' argument, and don't see the purpose in citing Wills at all. Wills thinks that religion was THE, not 'a' factor. That is the only basis for his claim about the death of the Enlightenment.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I would dispute the idea that there is any such thing as "the" position. There are a multiplicity of possible positions, making multiply different references to "the Catholic tradition" and "the Enlightenment" involving multiple elements drawn from each. Some of those may well be--I'm sure are--coherent. But you could easily come up with combinations that are incoherent.

My point is that if a person insists on using such terms as "our Enlightenment culture" in a polemical context, making accusations about the death of "the Enlightenment" in response to a single event like an election, he has to specify what HE means. Because prima facie, if a person whose beliefs are rooted in a pre-Enlightenment tradition suddenly starts making favorable reference to the Enlightenment, it raises the obvious question--"Well, what EXACTLY do you mean? Frankly, I can think of any number of elements of 'the Catholic tradition' that are and aren't consistent with any number of elements of "the Enlightenment tradition. Could you please elaborate?"

If I'm in a sufficiently uncharitable mood, I might focus precisely on the inconsistent elements, and say: "Hmm, I see that you're committed to the views of Pope John Paul II AND Thomas Jefferson. Mind giving me a story on how that rather bizarre combination is supposed to work?" And I don't think any such story is going to be forthcoming. Or if it is, it will be not much better than a story.

Of course, if Wills responds, "No, no! I meant that Vitoria was a precursor of the Enlightenment because Vitoria's views, like Hooker's, are a precursor of Lockean liberalism...", I'll say: Fine, I agree. But you (Wills) aren't a Lockean liberal. So what does that have to do with anything?

So my point is not that NO conception of the relationship between the Catholic tradition and the Enlightenment could be coherent. There are continuities between the two. But it's that it's very unlikely that Wills's conception is either (a) referring to THOSE continuities, or (b) doing so non-opportunistically and coherently. But since Chris's analysis really does lean on Wills's to a great extent--Wills is being brought in to ratify Chris's claim that Bush was elected on religious grounds--it matters what Wills's bona fides are. And it matters that he appears to be writing in bad faith for a polemical end in ways that simply do not match what he writes elsewhere in a more serious quasi-scholarly context.

Why, in short, should we take such a person seriously? Not because he's a particularly astute or objective observer, and not (in my view) because his thesis has independently plausibility. There's no reason to take him seriously at all. He is simply adding to the noise level on this issue.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

You ask why 40% of the American electorate believes that Saddam was involved in 9/11. The explanation for that is ignorance. It has nothing to do with belief in God, and thus has little to do with Wills's thesis (or Chris's), which is that Bush was elected for specifically religious reasons.

As for believing that Saddam had WMD, uh...he DID have WMD. What he lacked were large stocks of them. But the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission found and destroyed small quantities of mustard gas in Iraq in March 2003, a fact recorded in their Quarterly Report released at that time. Mustard gas is a WMD. The ISG subsequently found small quantities of mustard and cyclosarin weapons in Iraq. Both are WMDs. Saddam's nuclear physicist Mahdi Obeidi has recently revealed the fact that he had hid a centrifuge in his backyard, with blueprints for the manufacture of atomic weapon. Blueprints for atomic weapons, while not themselves weapons, are banned under the terms UN Res 687.

In any case, the only reason we know that Saddam had no large WMD stockpiles is that we invaded and looked. Had we not done so, we might very well be in the state of uncertainty that everyone--including Saddam's generals, all of the UN weapons inspectors, and secular counter-terrorist experts like Richard Clarke--was in ca. March 2003. The clearest evidence for this is that the inspectors were fooled for the second time in a row about Iraq's violations of the nuclear weapons protocols--the first time in the late 1980s, the second time when they missed Dr Obeidi's little centrifuge and blueprints.

As for the weapons going to Syria, whether it happened or not, I don't know of any weapons expert who was willing to dismiss it out of hand. And I certainly don't see what that has to do with the religious fundamentalist explanation for the Bush re-election.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


What do you make of the fact that while Garry Wills laments the demise of the Enlightenment in the NY Times on the one hand, he has an essay in the NY Review of Books which defends just war theory via Vitoria, Suarez and Pope John Paul II?

Since when have they become "Enlightenment" thinkers? They look a lot more like sectarian Catholics to me, and Wills is less the secularist that he pretends to be than a left-wing Catholic opportunist who speaks secularism out of one side of his mouth and sectarian (but left-leaning) Catholicism out of the other when the mood suits him. I didn't vote for Bush, but as an atheist, I find it both nauseating and laugable to be lectured to about secularism and rational belief-formation by the author of "Why I Am a Catholic."

Considering Wills's pathetic performance in the Bellesiles matter, I find it hard to take him seriously as an objective commentator on anything, much less "facticity" as a guide to belief-formation. The best that can be said for the guy is that he knows how to quote Abraham Lincoln. But so does that other supposedly secular but deeply confused Catholic liberal, Mario Cuomo. (Who can forget Cuomo's famously incoherent speech at Notre Dame on why his Catholic principles told him to be pro-choice despite his belief that abortion was murder?)

The claim that Bush owes his election to religion strikes me as little more than secular fideism. I have not seen one bona fide piece of evidence to show that that really explains why he was re-elected. Religion was surely part of it--but the causal key to his re-election? I don't see it. Or should I be looking for "the evidence of things not seen", to quote St. Paul?

John Arthur Shaffer - 11/5/2004

Economic freedom has suffered terribly under Bush and probably will suffer more so in the next 4 years. At least Kerry would have been handcuffed by an opposition Congress.

THere is a greater issue here than simply gay rights and abortion. It is the idea of an imperial Presidenct, who many believe was installed by god. He can do no wrong and faith (not reason) rules the day. How else to explain how 40% + of the American electorate still believe Saddam was involved with 9/11. Or similar percentages that believe Saddam had WMD and perhaps they're in Syria.

It wouldn't be such a big deal if this involved domestic issues alone. This can be corrected. But the war on terror (like the war on drugs) will never end and will be used by authoritarians to increase the power of government.

Never has power been consolidated in such a vacuum of reason and accountability. This is indeed a lot of strain for our republic to bear.

Roderick T. Long - 11/5/2004

Let's try that link again:

Roderick T. Long - 11/5/2004

Is it necessarily "incoherent" to praise both the Enlightenment and the Catholic pre-Enlightenment tradition? I've defended precisely this posiiton here:

I'm not saying that Wills is coherent, just that the position is. And since Irfan is an Aristotelean, mustn't he too think that the Catholic pre-Enlightenment tradition had something right?

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/5/2004

... in other words, a dialectical transcendence. :)

Roderick T. Long - 11/5/2004

There certainly is plenty of relativism in the cultural Left -- but it's by no means all-pervasive there. So I take a bit more solace in the cultural Left. Still, what we really need to build is an Austro-Athenian version of the cultural Left .... or a cultural-Left version of Austro-Athenianism ....


Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/5/2004

I saw that, John. To say this is a potential nightmare is an understatement.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/5/2004

A few comments in response:

1. My citation of Garry Wills does not signify an endorsement. I only quoted the material that I found of interest, and left the rest of it on the cutting-room floor. I agree he's got a lot of hypocrisy running around in his pronouncements, and so do the Democrats, in general---something I discuss in today's post. Thing is: I'm not averse to quoting from left or right, regardless of the source, if I agree with it.

2. I think the evidence is clear that the religious right played a key role in this election. I do not believe it was the only group to help elect Bush. But Karl Rove, "the architect" as Bush called him, knew what was needed to get Bush re-elected: shore up the base, and push anti-gay amendments in red states and a few battleground states like Ohio, in order to inspire that base to come out and vote. More: Make sure the Boss comes out for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, even if the amendment is stillborn in Congress. The other factors in Bush's re-election, I would think, are fairly obvious, and I discussed those factors back in May in my article, "Bush Wins!" I think that the war and the electorate's historical resistance to changing horses in the middle of one were important (exit polls showed that "terrorism" and "Iraq" were clearly among the issues that concerned voters, though both polled behind "moral values"). But simply put: If the religious right does not get out the vote, Bush loses. If Ohio doesn't vote on a gay marriage amendment, that base does not come out in full force. Here's one significant group of statistics: Of those who favored no legal recognition for same-sex couples, 70% voted for Bush. Of those who opposed the ban, 76% voted for Kerry. I think that is persuasive evidence that there was a correlation between those hot-button social issues and Bush's re-election, especially since the amendments were approved with high percentages of voters.
3. I would agree, of course, with Jonathan, who says that the Enlightenment was/is only a "component of American culture" (though I do think Bailyn gives us a very provocative portrait of how Lockean ideas were popularized in colonial America as a precursor to the Revolution). Still, the "Liberal Tradition" as Louis Hartz once called it is a very complex one, filled with many internal contradictions. And I think those contradictions are at the base of many cultural, social, and economic problems.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/5/2004

Fine comments, Mike. And I agree that this is something that libertarians need to focus on more often. The problem is, however, that too many of them don't. I have been a long-time critic of libertarian "economism," this tendency to reduce all questions to questions about the free market and government intervention. Enough. Freedom has cultural preconditions and effects; those who don't understand either are not apt to preserve freedom.

You can say whatever you want about conservatives, but, typically, they do understand the role of culture. The problem, from my perspective, is that too many of them embrace the kinds of cultural values that are inimical to freedom, rather than supportive of it. This is not to say that religion as such is anti-freedom; but clearly, as I argued here back in June, there is a significant cultural shift toward evangelical Christianity, which has enormous anti-freedom political implications.

I should say one other thing about the issue of libertarianism and cultural issues. As I argue in Total Freedom, when some libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, have focused on cultural issues, they have, almost invariably, shifted toward a "paleoconservative" perspective; in other words, they end up endorsing aspects of the very cultural values that I find problematic, especially insofar as those values inspire the current religious revival. To the extent that the paleos buy into that value framework, they have little means to oppose this dangerous cultural trend.

I should note, of course, that I find no relief when I look to the "cultural Left" as antidote; yes, the secular essence is a breath of fresh air, but the bottomless relativism that the Left has advocated has, in many ways, fueled this turn toward Sunday morning certainties.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/5/2004

Amen... but I really wonder, given the current political system, just how powerful a genuine third party challenger can be. The two parties have so rigged the system that it makes old style third party politics, as was famous in the late 1800s-early 1900s, a thing of the past.

John Arthur Shaffer - 11/5/2004

Chris, it didn't take long for the jackals to go after Specter, and it looks like his judiciary committee chairmanship is in doubt. Payback's a b**tch Mr. President.

Aeon J. Skoble - 11/5/2004

Good! Maybe this wil finally force the split among Reoublicans between theocratic conservatism and libertarians. If the Republican party is taken over by theocrats and the Dems continue to be socialists, maybe libertarians will finally get somewhere. In the early 80s, libertarians were at home in the GOP; this seems less and less the case (and even less so in the Democratic party).

Jonathan Dresner - 11/4/2004

I would add my reaction to Wills: what makes him think that the Enlightenment has ever been more than a component of American culture; aside from its dominance of the founding fathers (who were a distinct minority within the country in that regard), and a continuing strain of Enlightenment thought running through our politics and academics, I don't think you can really say that we are an Enlightenment culture.

Roderick T. Long - 11/4/2004

Vitoria and Suarez may not be Enlightenment thinkers, but they and their Salamanca confreres arguably helped pave the way for the Enlightenment, as well as for classical liberalism specifically (both in economics and in rights theory). The Spanish Scholastics were Austro-Athenians avant la lettre.

(This observation is not meant to offer any support to Garry Wills or to JP 2.0.)

Mike Enright - 11/4/2004

Some interesting thoughts on understanding the fundamentalists are found today at Will Wilkinson's web page, The Fly Bottle ( Will writes about understanding fundamentalists and the cultural solidarity around the American Christian exceptionalism that Bush tied into so well. I think the use of cultural identity is something that libertarian people should look into further.

I think that there is something sick about the fundamentalist turn that politics seems to be taking. I think it is larger than the so-called moral issues of gay marriage and stem cells. Unfortunately, I think that the crusade against Islam plays into this all too well. I haven't seen much commentary on this part, but a great example is the internet slide-show that I saw at free republic set to Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around". Cash's song depicts Christ at the second coming as the man that comes around passing judgment. The slides presented George Bush as the man that comes around passing judgment, and the final judgment as the war on terror. This was the most disturbing political move I saw this whole election.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 11/4/2004

Thanks Gus, John, and Jason for your various comments. Gus, that is a chilling historical portrait, indeed. And John and Jason, you're both right: there is going to be turmoil in the Republican party given the fact that there is at least one (small) wing of the GOP that is socially moderate.

I've been writing for months about the "conservative crack-up" that is taking place between the neocons and the more traditional conservatives, the former favoring the Iraq war, the latter opposed to it. Interestingly, there is just as much opposition between the traditional conservatives and the more "moderate" types, who, ironically, take their inspiration from Barry Goldwater, he of the "extremism" defense, who understood that the principle of limited government required that government stay out of the boardroom and the bedroom.

Unfortunately, however, I do not see how any GOP moderate will be able to gain national office without catering to the evangelical wing. Rove is right, for better or worse; the fundamentalists are the ones who hold the ideological key to national power for the GOP.

Jason Pappas - 11/4/2004

I’ve seen a number of social conservatives who are claiming the election is a mandate for religious morality (for example, Bill Bennett). Of course, this is nonsense. Now that the Republicans are in total control of all three branches of government, there is going to be a fight for the spoils. I saw a few moments of the Bill Moyers’ interview/discussion with Richard Viguerie just prior to the election. His view was that the long-delayed battle for the soul of the Republican Party would commence the day after the election. And it will be a verbal slugfest. Republican or not, put on your intellectual amour, sharpen your pen, and let’s go!

John Arthur Shaffer - 11/4/2004

They're a dying breed but Arlen Specter fired a warning shot yesterday that as chairman of the Judiciary committee he will not allow a radical justice (who would undo settled law establishing a right to privacy) to pass his committee.

The Republican party is coming to a crossroad. Most of the big names in the party are social liberals (Guiliani, Schwarzenegger, Pataki, McCain) and will not be acceptable to the radical right.

If anyone doubts the motives of this wing of the party, just read the Texas Republican Platform. At some point the party may fracture as those of good conscience can't take the theocratic impulses that many will try to impose.

Gus diZerega - 11/4/2004

Americans have never been good at history. Political Evangelicals, having abandoned any semblance of critical thought about their own beliefs - and so the beliefs of those who disagree - are even more ignorant than the average American. the Republicans have given us mobocracy at its worst.

The Enlightenment was preceded by the 30 Years War, during which about 30% of the population of Germany and what is now the Czech Republic was slaughtrered, as well as smaller but still large percentages in many other parts of Europe, over which brand of Christianity was to prevail: Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. Other forms of Christianity were often simply exterminated. It took Germany over 100 years to recover its population. Steven Toulmin has written an important history of the impact of the 30 Years War on the Enlightenment and what followed: Cosmopolis: Modernity's Hidden Agenda. I recommend it.

The Founders were well aware of this war and its horrors. So were thoughtful Christians in the US at the time, and the result was what we have more or less enjoyed since then - religious liberty and toleration. Even so, Evangalical and other political Christians succeeded in eliminating religious liberty for Native Americans despite the First Amendment. That freedom was restored only under FDR . Significantly, to my knowledge, the 'small government' folks so many libertarians today seem to idolize did nothing to protect religious liberty or enforce the Constitution in this regard. Perhaps the hostorians on this list could offer some insights here.

I worry that a group that defines freedom primarily economically might find it easy to look away as the Christian Right undermines our Constitution. So far, on balance, they have.