Monday, May 21, 2007

On liberalism and religion; or, Newt's delusional nonsense

By Michael J.W. Stickings

On Saturday, Newt Gingrich gave the commencement address to the 2007 graduating class of Liberty University. Having already cozied up to James Dobson, and establishing himself as the would-be candidate of the religious right for '08, he used his address both to praise the university's recently-deceased bigot-founder, Jerry Falwell, and to rail against what he called a "growing culture of radical secularism". Here's a sampling of his advice to the graduates:

I urge you to seek the joy of life and the after life and to rid yourself of your dry, miserable, and spiritless materialistic existence.

Actually, that's from a speech by Osama bin Laden to the American people (as quoted in Morris Berman's Dark Ages America, from Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris). But it fits, does it not?

In essense, what Gingrich actually asserted was that "radical secularism," whatever that means, has taken over the United States at the expense of, and in opposition to, religion, however understood. He claimed, for example, that "[i]n hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive," that radical secularists are using "contorted logic" and "false principles" in their attack on religion, and that "[b]asic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard". Indeed: "It is wrong to single out those who believe in God for discrimination. Yet, today, it is impossible to miss the discrimination against religious believers."

This is, of course, sheer nonsense. You don't have to be Christopher Hitchens to notice the prominent place religion holds in American public life today. Just turn on any of the 24/7 cable news networks, where religious "leaders" are regularly invited to opine on matters of faith and, in many cases, to spew their venom. (Gingrich's beloved Falwell was a notorious media whore, for example, but he was just one of many of his kind.) Or just pay even casual attention to the major presidential candidates. There isn't an atheist, agnostic, or deist among them, and they all profess their faith loudly, proudly, and whenever possible, and that goes for Democrats and Republicans alike.

For a thorough debunking of Newt's claim that religion and the religious are somehow excluded from public life, that there is an "anti-religious bias" in the U.S., see Steve Benen: "Exactly how much more religiosity will it take before he’s satisfied? Or is it more likely that Gingrich and his receptive audience yesterday revel in some kind of delusional self-pity because a victim complex sells better than reality?" Well, yes. Such "delusional self-pity" is one of the more obvious characteristics of the conservative movement in the U.S., and it is particularly acute on the religious right. It's what keeps the true believers politically motivated.

Otherwise, Newt has shown once again that he knows very little about American history and even less about American political thought. Given his current (and convenient) theocratic leanings, he would do well to go back and read some John Locke, preferably the Second Treatise, as well as The Federalist Papers. He may call it "radical secularism," or whatever, but what is clear is that the United States is a politico-philosophical experiment built on the foundations of early-modern political thought, which itself -- as expressed by Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, among others -- was a revolution against religion, and specifically against theocracy, a revolution, that is, for liberty. In this sense, the United States is, or was intended to be, the political expression of liberal political thought, of the Enlightenment.

Life, liberty, property -- according to Locke. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness -- according to Jefferson. Either way, the United States was liberal and secular in its founding. The theocrats have sought to overthrow this Novus Ordo Seclorum -- and at times they have been successful enough to implement elements of their illiberal agenda. Indeed, they continue to pose a significant threat to the core principles of the United States and to the American way of life. Private religiosity is one thing, after all; liberalism happily allows for the private expression of a mulitiplicity of faiths, for the place of religion, or religions, in the larger marketplace of ideas. Theocracy, however, is quite another; the domination of public life by religion, and especially by one particular religion, is anathema to liberty and to America.

In the end, what is evident is that Newt's America is the America of myth. He is wrong about the place of religion in public life and he is wrong about the place of religion in America generally.

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