Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Mar/12

27

Conserving a non-existent past, revering radicalism’s forgotten

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Recently I watched this Christian duet’s paean’s ode to Rick Santorum and was struck by the references to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I am aware that Christian conservatives have a “Constitutionalist” focus, and often suggest that the Founding Fathers were “Bible believing Christians.” In regards to the latter the historical record speaks rather easily on this issue because many of the founders were men of letters, and have left their opinions. Aside from a few exceptions such as Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen most would have accepted the appellation Christian, but then again most Mormons also assert that they are Christians. Unitarian Christians such as John Adams explicitly rejected Trinitarian Christianity.

In other words, by and large a substantial proportion were heretics from a modern conservative Christian perspective. Others, such as Thomas Jefferson exhibited skepticism of revealed religion more generally over most of his adult life; even producing a bowdlerized Bible. Again, as noted above aside from Paine and Allen most of the founding generation of American statesmen would not be confused with militant secularists. Their cultural presuppositions and contexts were radically different. But they were a generation which matured during an era where educated elites tended to view belief in institutional supernatural religion with more indulgence than sincere ardor.

But it is issue of cultural presuppositions that I want to get back to, as this is actually the largest rupture with the conservative Christian patriotic paradigm which strikes me. The American republic organized as a federal entity was a radical break with thousands of years of human history, explicitly separating the sacral and the profane. The radicalism of the American republic existed int the political dimension, certainly. Many thinkers were skeptical that republican forms of governance scaled upward in size. The failure of ancient Rome being the classical example known to all educated men of the era. But another issue from a mainstream perspective was the tearing away of the divine sanction which a political order must receive. The decoupling of faith and state was a great innovation (only a few American states had done so at the time!). We know now that the rise of the state and civilized political order was accompanied by the liberal mixing of religion and politics. Many of the early states which were vehicles for antique civilizations were famously more religious than political in character. But the American republic took the process of secularization farther than had been conceivable. I can grant the proposition that even the Deist founders might be curious and confused as to the details and passions of church-state separation policy in today’s America. But I do not think that that negates the radicalism of their secularism in their age.

All this goes to show that modern political movements draw inspiration from the past, but they refashion the past to suite current propositions. I have had friends of Left-liberal persuasion who have suggested that the founders were pioneers in multiculturalism! Again, I doubt that the founders would even recognize terms of the debate. As a factual matter both the Right and the Left draft the past to suit present ends. This is not wholly without merit or utility. We see the past darkly, collectively and personally. So long as we can separate the past as a positive and empirical matter, and a romantic, almost mytho-poetic one, cold truth and nurturing falsity can coexist usefully. For much of the population the lived reality is that positive matters of truth are of little concern. They are consumers of fiction and the novel, not connoisseurs of monographs. The key is to keep a balance between the reality that was, and the myths we cherish going forward.

8 comments

  • Jeeves · March 27, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    @DH

    For much of the population the lived reality is that positive matters of truth are of little concern. They are consumers of fiction and the novel, and connoisseurs of monographs. The key is to keep a balance between the reality that was, and the myths we cherish going forward.

    Can you clear up this apparent paradox (maybe only “apparent” to me): If positivism is irrelevant to the general population, how can it be both a consumer of fiction and a connoisseur of monographs? Unless I don’t understand what you mean by “monograph,” such consumption and connoisseurship would seem to result in precisely the balance you say is key–though I personally doubt whether monograph reading is as widespread as you say.

  • Author comment by David Hume · March 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    lol. that was a typo. though i appreciate your exegesis. very interesting window into cognition….

  • John · March 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    I think part of it is that religion is, in part, about tradition, and the political right is more known for supporting traditional values than the left. Even though the founding fathers were breaking the traditions of their time, they were creating the traditions of our time. Therefore, a person who generally supports the constitutional views of the founding fathers sees himself as upholding the American tradition, even though the founders themselves were breaking the traditions of the time. A person attracted to upholding tradition is therefore going to be (1) religious and (2) support traditional American values.

    For a lot of America’s past (and probably some of its future), religion has been associated with the political left, so there is no iron law that says religion = the right. So why is the religion on the right now? My guess is people’s differing reactions to the sexual revolution, but I’m welcome to other guesses.

  • Jeeves · March 28, 2012 at 12:38 am

    @John

    So why is the religion on the right now? My guess is people’s differing reactions to the sexual revolution, but I’m welcome to other guesses.

    Based on a recent C-SPAN interview of Michael Sean Winters, author of a bio of Jerry Falwell called God’s Right Hand, and other books, you’re probably correct that the (white)* RR coalesced around issues relating to sex and the defense of the traditional family. Roe v. Wade was certainly a catalyst.

    Fundamentalist Christians were rather quietist about politics until Richard Viguerie and others approached Falwell about forming a strategic alliance that would be good for the GOP and good for Falwell’s ministry. As they say, the rest is history.

    *Keeping in mind that it was apparently black voters and their ministers who pushed Prop. 8 in CA over the top.

  • RandyB · March 28, 2012 at 12:52 am

    Before there was Roe v. Wade there was Impeach Earl Warren.

    Jerry Falwell got his political start organizing religious schools that could serve as an alternative to mandatorily desegregated schools. A lot of the 70-80s Religious Right rhetoric makes no sense, except as an extension of anti-integrationism. Like “abortion is wrong, and so it’s our position that states should be allowed to make their own laws.”

    Ummm, if it’s an absolute wrong, shouldn’t you be pushing for federal restrictions?

  • cynthia curran · March 28, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Well, actually, about a 100 years ago, Evangelicals were leftwingers on many issues. William Jennings Bryant believe the government should own some industires. The social issues were not important since everyone in 1911 would be very social conservative compared today except maybe having brothels. In those days gay people were jailed. William Taft was an unitarian, a liberal theology person with a politcal conservative view is rarer these days but it might change if other non-evangelical rightwingers become more involved. There is a small group of people in Nordic Gods that are pro-military and fiscal conservatives and against illegal immirgation of course.

  • SFG · March 28, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Generally, in European history, it was the church and the landowners (right) against the peasants and, later, the factory workers (left). Things have moved around a bit. Businessmen used to be on the left (when they didn’t want to pay taxes to the church), but now they’re on the right (and don’t want to pay taxes to the state).

    Generally, right and left are coalitions of more or less disparate interests. There’s no reason they have to remain the same across time. I’m not sure which parties Jefferson and Hamilton would belong to–Jefferson was antireligious but also pro-rural.

    And, of course, due to change over time, one century’s right is another (usually earlier) century’s left. That doesn’t mean the left is always correct–any given change may not be positive at a given time, and societies can take wrong turns.

  • Jeeves · March 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    @RandyB

    A lot of the 70-80s Religious Right rhetoric makes no sense, except as an extension of anti-integrationism. Like “abortion is wrong, and so it’s our position that states should be allowed to make their own laws.”

    Ummm, if it’s an absolute wrong, shouldn’t you be pushing for federal restrictions?

    What? Like Obamacare? So far as I know, the RR doesn’t like that either. Must be because they’re racists.

    Arguendo, I’ll concede the RR’s motives for asserting state’s (more politely, 10th Amendment) rights were mixed. A federal solution to segregation was obviously the only option.

    But to get there we had to endure the dubious sociology of Brown vs. BoardI–not to mention that it was, in fact, a decision that overturned a precedent that was less than 60 years old. You know, Plessy, lthe one that affirmed separate but equal was perfectly constitutional? (The so-called “reliance interest” is one the SCOTUS is supposed to give considerable weight to when reversing settled law. Any idea about how much the South had invested–in every sense–in segregation?)

    In other words, characterizing opposition to abortion as just another redneck obsession–which, like opposition to integration, is hiding behind the skirts of state’s rights rhetoric–seems to me shed much heat but little light on the question of whether nationalization is the solution to everything.

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