Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Saddleback Aftermath

Kathleen Parker, reflecting on Rick Warren's much-ballyhoo'd Civil Forum, has decided, at the risk of heresy, that it is not good for America that a minister of a church should shoulder his way onto the national political stage. Though I disagree with her in general, she does draw attention to one of the central conceptual tensions running through the American Founding.

Two major streams of influence feed into the mighty river that America has become, and the currents from these two streams rarely flow in the same direction or at the same velocity, which makes for some of the whirlpools, eddys, and white water rapids that periodically characterize our political culture. The Judeo-Christian patrimony of the Reformation is one stream; the rationalist Enlightenment enthronement of Reason is the other. We can never forget--though many folks are now working to obliterate the memory--that America was a haven for Christians considered religious troublemakers by the Anglican establishment in England. The Pilgrims themselves intended to set up a shining city on a hill, and finally get the balance right between church and state. They didn't get it right; but they, and the waves of English settlers coming after, knew instinctively and experimentally that natural law, whether informed more by St Paul's epistle to the Romans, or by John Locke's rationalist paean to "reason, our only star and compass", is the only sure basis for a free government of morally equal individuals. We don't create ourselves, but we do create our government. The first fact informs and limits the second. Throw out the first, and the second consumes human dignity and liberty. This much I think was understood by earlier generations without having to be stated.

This assumption, that natural right flowing from natural law is the ground of political liberty, is now hotly debated, and the default position among the Illuminati and cognoscenti is that religion, if it must exist at all, is entirely and properly a personal matter. In a secular culture--and how can a modern nation have anything other than a secular culture?--faith must not be allowed into the public square. Too metaphysical. Not scientific. And so eighteenth century. Besides, the political technologists over at the English department of your local university, having applied "deconstruction", the ultimate ideological solvent, have deconstructed everything from human nature, natural law, and even the human person, to race, class, and gender and have found that old Thomas Hobbes had it substantially right--that "the general inclination of all mankind, is [a] perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceaseth only in death." Every action, every thought, every intended purpose is but a stratagem for hegemony and domination in the minds of our postmodern guides.

Religion is then just another mask for the Hobbesian desire for power. Faith then, in the political arena, is much to be feared. Any metaphysics or religion is, ipso facto, fraudulent--only a mask for power seeking oppressors

Ms Parker does not, in the piece linked above, plumb the philosophical roots of her unease with religion in American politics. But she does consider the spectacle of a Protestant minister holding a political forum to be a dangerous incursion on the establishment clause of the constitution. And what, she wonders, is the real value of knowing the candidates' personal religious views? From her article:

Both Obama and McCain gave "good" answers, but that's not the point. They shouldn't have been asked. Is the American electorate now better prepared to cast votes knowing that Obama believes that "Jesus Christ died for my sins and I am redeemed through him," or that McCain feels that he is "saved and forgiven"?
What does that mean, anyway? What does it prove? Nothing except that these men are willing to say whatever they must -- and what most Americans personally feel is no one's business -- to win the highest office.

One can appreciate the cynicism--and wisdom through experience--shown in those sentences. But what cultural expression or political stance has not been used cynically by ambitious politicians? And what era exactly would it be where politicians were not seeking power after power, assuming along the way whatever mask necessary? Parker cites Thomas Jefferson, the leading spokesman among the Founding generation for Enlightenment rationalism, on the proper attitude toward religious belief:

"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

But Jefferson assumed that his Rationalist Deism would not only hold, but develop into an even stronger ground for a free and virtuous society, a position we now know to be untenable. In quoting Jefferson here, Parker subtly points to the charge that religious nuts are bent on establishing a theocracy in America by destroying the sacred separation of church and state, and are therefore the ones who threaten the Founding Father's understanding of America.

Parker is agitated by all this because she knows nothing of Redemption through faith, denies that a politician making a claim of faith can be genuine, or that information concerning a candidate's faith can add anything to the national conversation; denies that religion, in short, has a place at all in our political life. But as the Pilgrims' attempt at achieving the right balance between church and state failed, and as the 18th century Enlightenment project of sweeping away religion failed, so too will resurgent atheism's antipathy toward Christianity fail to remove faith from the political consciousness of the American people.

Besides--Rick Warren would probably never have stepped up to put on this affair if the Fourth Estate had not ceded its august--and constitutionally protected--responsibilities. It was into a giant journalistic and media vacuum that Warren stepped. The political culture is surely better because of it, Kathleen Parker to the contrary notwithstanding.

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