By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
In what is still a secular democracy, the president’s theocratic values translate themselves into the language of secularism, which is ideology. Bill Clinton’s efforts to rip American politics free from ideology failed in part because, to ideologues of the right and even the left, in all his appetites Clinton embodied how an absence of ideology is an absence of morality. From virtues viceroy William Bennett to former Reagan/Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan, the right persistently equates ideology with character, by which more often than not it means sexual behavior, citing Ronald Reagan as an exemplar and the Clintons as depraved. “They have made the political landscape,” Noonan has written of the Clintons, “a lower and lesser thing.” To Noonan, ideology is synonymous not only with principle but with a kind of faith. If ideology is theology secularized, then skepticism of ideology is agnosticism or worse.
Ideology for both right and left has become an irresistible way of viewing the truth through the prism of philosophical biases. By its nature, ideology not only is at ease with intellectual dishonesty but thrives on it. Liberals with an expansive view of the Bill of Rights suddenly become strict constructionists when it comes to the Second Amendment, citing the maintenance of militias over the amendment’s clear principal concern with protecting the individual from disarmament by the state. Conservatives with an abiding mistrust of civil liberties suddenly become champions of the First Amendment when it has to do with campaign-finance reform and the power of the very rich to influence how others vote. In a confused and weary America where the political center doesn’t have the energy to take control of the most troubling issues of the time, ideology is a power base not so much for ideas — because original thinking is anathema to ideology — but for the passion that electorally moves the great non-ideological unwashed. Thus a debate as ethically, even metaphysically disquieting as the one over abortion, which involves nothing less than the unknowable answer to when humanity begins, is dominated by polar positions that will defend every “life” from the moment of conception and every “choice” up to the moment of birth, and that finally will reject one notion of humanity for another, whether it be that of the mother in whose body the fetus grows, or that of the child whom medical science has proved can now exist after a five-month pregnancy.
What President Bush translates into ideology isn’t just religious conviction but something more majestic, which is a theocratic psyche. Although he does this because it’s the constitutional deference that must be paid to secularism if the president is to uphold his oath of office, the new right understands what’s really involved. Speaking to NBC’s Tim Russert last fall, one of the new right’s most prominent spokesmen, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, put it succinctly: There’s a culture war in America, he said, between the “secularists” and the “traditionalists.” Of course O’Reilly is correct, if not exactly as he defines the terms. As O’Reilly defines the terms, secularists are atheists who want to marry homosexuals and abort pregnancies and remove God and religion from American life. Traditionalists fight to protect the family and the unborn and God Himself, a remarkably vulnerable deity. This conflict has marked the American experience from the beginning, with the New World originally settled by Puritans who had a theocratic social vision, which gave way to an idea of “America” invented 150 years later by secularists who were products of the Enlightenment. Of all the Founding Fathers — who had varying degrees of religious interest — only Samuel Adams was distinctly devout. The two presidents most responsible for authoring the American Idea, Thomas Jefferson and, later, Abraham Lincoln, were not Christians in any sense of the word that they or anyone else understood it then or now.
This always has been a nation caught between Cotton Mather and Tom Paine. As the New World’s pre-eminent theologian, Mather wrote Memorable Providences and Wonders of the Invisible World, which marshaled passionate arguments in support of the mass executions of women for witchcraft. Paine, raised in England, where he watched starving children his own age hanged for stealing food, disavowed his Quaker religion; employing the language of the Old Testament (which he preferred to the New) in the writing of Common Sense, Paine chortled to John Adams that he had done so for reasons as perverse as they were strategic. Among others, Jefferson was impressed. Similarly impressed by Paine’s later book The Age of Reason, which included an outright attack on religion, was a young Lincoln, who as a congressional candidate in 1846 was hounded by rumors regarding his lack of religious affiliation until finally he issued a statement assuring voters that, while he didn’t belong to any church, he was nothing but respectful of those who did.
Over the centuries, one side or the other of the Mather/Paine divide hasn’t so much held sway as overplayed its hand, beginning with the traditionalists 300 years ago in Salem. Conversely and more recently, if to less spectacular effect, in 2002 the 9th District Court of Appeals ruled the words under Godin the Pledge of Allegiance a violation of the First Amendment. First among the problems with this decision was its constitutional wrong-headedness: The First Amendment was never intended to strike from public life all reference to a supreme power. Jefferson, the amendment’s guiding spirit by way of his protégé James Madison, and as hostile to organized religion as Bush is committed, made such a reference in the country’s founding document. Rather the First Amendment was intended to ensure that one religion isn’t favored by the state over another, and that religious practice is neither restricted by the state nor imposed; however much public pressure occasionally is brought to bear on the issue, the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t compulsory, with or without God. But beyond constitutional considerations the 9th Court’s decision was a tactical disaster, the sort that gives the separation between church and state a bad name. It played into the traditionalists’ most inflammatory depiction of secularism and undercut a thousand more credible arguments of the future — so that when the day comes that Republican congressional leader Tom DeLay wants to change the pledge to read “one nation under Jesus Christ,” the moral authority of the First Amendment will have been squandered on judicial reasoning specious at best and elitist at worst.
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