Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Evolution of a Post-Secular State

In my random journeys through the World Wide Web, I just ran into a discussion by the Washington Post of liberal attitudes towards evolution in the current election. Specifically, the commentator was registering a certain dismay and disappointment at the way Democratic platforms have downplayed evolution - hoping that a combination of "education" and "science" will give their supporters the right idea while offending as few religious radicals as possible. This is similar to the irritatingly tentative way the liberal candidates have of approaching abortion issues - refusing to take a strong position, and emphasizing their respect for alternative belief systems and absolute moralities. Republicans, on the other hand, are not so shy about either issue - they cater to a demographic firm in its convictions, and willing to state unequivocally the difference between right and wrong.

To liberals, this begs one simple question: How did this happen?

The answer is not nearly so simple, to liberals or conservatives. From a very early age, we're raised in a mainstream culture brimming with 20th-century Postmodernism. "Liberal" thinking, we're taught, refers not to a set of conclusions about the world but to a way of reaching conclusions - a value system wherein two opposing views are given equal validity, and even the most foolish of notions is prized for the discussion it engenders. That's why when a good liberal says they're "pro-choice," they really mean it - pro-choice, and not necessarily pro-abortion. In fact, I know a substantial number of liberals who say they're against abortion personally - but are zealous advocates of the woman's right to choose. They argue for a right they hope nobody ever exercises.

The extent to which this brand of liberalism is born from secular moral relativism would surprise many Americans raised in the Post-Enlightenment world. This is because members of the secular community don't really get religion, even those who claim to believe in it. They see religious tolerance as the norm, secular government as an unquestioned political axiom, and faith as explicitly opposed to rational thought. They see religion as just one facet of a well-rounded life - to them, all extra-normal ideas can be corralled into a box labeled "Religious Beliefs" and set aside from politics, science and medicine.

They would probably be offended to be told that really religious people don't think that way - and never have, at more or less any other point recorded history. The truly religious see faith as a canopy over all aspects of human life - to say something is or is not "religious" would make no sense to the genuinely faithful. They believe in God the way we believe in gravity - absolutely, unbendingly, willing to live their lives as though a man who steps off the cliff will fall. I don't need to stick my hand in a circular saw to know it will be cut, and would see any claim to the contrary as mere semantic nonsense. That's the way they believe in God.

The problem is that if you believe in God that much, you're likely to take his instructions fairly seriously - so seriously, in fact, that it's hard to acknowledge any other authority whatsoever. After all, you've been given a user's manual to all Creation by the guy who made it so - what more could you possibly ask for? How could you care about medicine when you know it's God's will who lives or dies? How could you believe in evolution when you know it was God's word that brought us here? How could you allow behavior when you know it's immoral - and even worse, that immoral behavior by a select few could doom all of humanity?

That's the position of religious fundamentalists the world over, and especially the position of American Evangelicals - or Bible Believers, as they call themselves. A large majority of the Republican demographic see the Bible as divinely inspired law - cover to cover, word for word, no contradictions, no confusion. That this belief system strikes most liberals (or even socially conservative secularists) as totally nonsensical is just as totally irrelevant - the Believers relish the outcry from scientists, savor the scorn of liberals, and live for the stings and arrows of religious persecution.

Liberals would say the Believers are perpetrators of religious persecution, not victims - and this is, indeed, a very defensible position shared by the author. Again, however, this is because we are products of Enlightenment secularism - as well we should be, given that our nation's very existence is among the greatest expressions of that ideology. The very basis of democratic government is also the very basis of Postmodernism: that no one individual has unfettered access to the truth, and the closest one can come to it is a synthesis of multiple truths. Democracy is the admission that right and wrong do not exist in a way we can access, and any attempt to force one man's beliefs on another is tyranny. Not all believers in democracy would describe it that way, but take another look: if one man knew both right and wrong, and we could tell who that man was, why would it make sense to put anybody else in charge?

A little less than half of this country has considered that question and arrived at the logical answer: it wouldn't. They have the man: his name is Jesus. They have his opinions: they're in the Bible. They have the consequences of transgression: hellfire, damnation, Sodom and Gomorrah. If America permits wrongdoing - abortion, homosexuality, managed economy - God will make sure we all go the way of the dinosaurs.

See how quickly their view makes sense if you accept their most basic premises? See how quickly secular tolerance becomes ridiculous in the face of moral absolutes? See how quickly one must admit uncertainty and adhere to subjectivism in order to justify any measure of true religious (or even moral) tolerance?

Conservatives see this, and liberals don't, and that's why they can't stand us. We sit up there and waver back and forth, arguing less about what we believe and more about the nature of belief. Conservatism is about right and wrong, truth and falsehood; liberalism is about which wrongs, if any, the government is empowered to right - which falsehoods, if any, the government is able to correct.

That's why we say pro-choice and they hear pro-death; we say pro-science and they hear pro-evolution. They live in a world where black opposes white, abortion is murder, and belief carries the weight of fact - or even law. Ours, by contrast, is a gray and shifting planet. We say pro-choice instead of pro-death because we're not sure when life begins; we say pro-science instead of pro-evolution because sciences are known to overturn themselves from time to time. Our beliefs aren't just uncertain, they're beliefs about uncertainty.

Film, literature, and academia have all been comfortable with this situation for so long that most people take it for granted; take, for example, Jack Cafferty, a liberal commentator for CNN. Recent events at Saddleback prompted him to call McCain "intellectually shallow" for sounding off so confidently about the nature of faith, when "Great scholars have wrestled with the meaning of faith for centuries." Everyone knows moral questions are hard, maybe impossible, right? Simplistic one-liners are a mark of stupidity, right?

Not for a Bible Believer, as McCain seems to know quite well. When you think even children know the truth - the whole truth, every important bit of it - the stupid man is the man who won't say it; the man who dances around, who acts like it's tough when it's the easiest question in the world. Didn't he read the stuff? Wasn't he listening?

He wasn't, and if you think America's fine with that then you don't know America. Not right now. The right wing isn't just religious, it's anti-secular; it's not that they missed the Enlightenment, it's that they rejected it. They want to make America a post-secular state, and we're closer than you might suspect to letting them.


ashanan said...

You say we're closer to letting the Evangelicals turn America into a post-secular state than we realize, but you don't seem to be taking into consideration who the Republican candidate is. John McCain didn't give two shits about social conservatism until it became necessary for him to win the nomination, and if he wins the nomination (God forbid), he'll go right back to not giving a damn. If we were so close to succumbing to the Evangelicals, how do you explain the fact that one of the more clearly Christian candidates (Huckabee, or even Romney) didn't win the nomination?

Free Radical said...

First of all, I think it's a huge exaggeration to say that John McCain wasn't socially conservative until it became necessary to win the nomination. He's always been known as a liberal Republican, but he's still always been staunchly pro-life, against affirmative action, pro-Iraq, pro-military - I mean, this is no Democrat we're dealing with here. Second of all, don't you see what you just said? In order to have the slightest chance of winning his party's nomination, whose asshole did he have to lick? If you told me he could win the election WITHOUT the Christian Right, I'd be willing to take your point - but the only reason he wasn't laughed out of the party a year ago is because he stood up and said life begins at the moment of conception, and salvation means that Christ has saved and forgiven him. I mean, one of the main reasons the guy was known as socially liberal was because he said a few years ago he wouldn't want Roe v. Wade appealed, and how quickly did he swallow THAT?

The answer to why Romney or Huckabee didn't win the nomination is, first of all, Romney was a Mormon. That's Evangelical for "godless heathen", they trust Mormons less than Catholics. Huckabee is a kindly, open-faced minister - which is frankly the last thing the Christian Right wants on the throne. Being Evangelical means more than social conservatism - they want a gun-toting badass willing to blow those towelheads back into the Stone Age. Willingness to go set fire to Islam is one mark of godliness among many.

Finally, even WERE McCain the social liberal his record occasionally suggests, if he wins the election he can't just go right back to not giving a damn - he can't forget who got him there, not if he wants to serve another term. As I understand it, campaigning for re-election begins about a year and a half into the first term, and everything he does is going to come under scrutiny.

Look at the liberals court the religious right instead of cleaving to their base and tell me both sides of this debate don't know which side their bread is buttered on.