January 19, 2009


The Fire Next Time (Joseph Bottum, Spring 2004, The Public Interest)

"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth," Christ declares in the Gospel of Matthew. "I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

The Bible is full of hard sayings like this--too many, too hard, to be entirely exegeted away in historical criticism, or eased with gentler passages in antidote, or shrugged off as the overstatement of prophetic rhetoric. From the Pentateuch to the prophets, from the gospels to the Book of Revelation, there is something in both testaments that has no patience for political compromise, or moral casuistry, or conventional prudence, or philosophical judiciousness. It's not the only thing in the Bible, of course, but without it, we have no Bible. "A fire is kindled in mine anger," as Deuteronomy puts it, "and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains."

There is something in America, as well, that has always burned against the world. From Cotton Mather to William Lloyd Garrison, from John Brown to Martin Luther King, Jr., there has been a hunger here to speak with lips touched by burning coals, a blessed rage for the apocalyptic lessons taught only by tongues of fire. A nation formed by political geniuses--masters of compromise, philosophers of prudence, judges of wisdom--we are also a nation with another theme. Something here has, from the beginning, disdained political order and sought not to be brilliant, wise, and learned, but only true, though the heavens fall as a result. "I am come to send fire on the earth," Christ says in the Gospel of Luke, "and what will I, if it be already kindled?" It's not the only thing in America, of course, but without it there is no America. [...]

Once we set aside the superannuated secularists, however, there remains the genuine theologico-political problem they masked from us for decades. Public order in a democracy--the structure of liberalism that needs a people of virtue to maintain itself--seems to require the bulk of citizens to believe in God. But no one ever believed in God for the sake of public order in a democracy. Especially not Americans.

This is a momentous dilemma. Liberalism needs religion, but religion doesn't need liberalism. The rhetoric of biblical prophecy would burn the world to the ground if a still, small voice demanded it. "God gave Noah the rainbow for a sign," as the old slaves' spiritual put it: "No more water, but the fire next time." And to reap the benefits it needs, a democracy must allow religion to remain the potential trump, the threatened uncontrollable, the possible authority outside a modern state that longs to have no authority outside itself.

Liberal democracy can be threatened even when the prophet doesn't return from the wilderness to preach fire and brimstone in the public square. Throughout our history, biblical America has stood outside political America: the wayfaring stranger far away from the public man, however much the political world echoes with the words of a public God. And this, too, is a threat--perhaps even a greater threat than a prophet like Garrison proclaiming publicly that a constitution perpetuating slavery is a "pact with the Devil"--for it leaves us with a mass of citizens who suffer the political order merely because it doesn't occur to them to think it particularly important either to attack or, worse, to defend.

In other words, the Bible may help produce the ethics a modern state needs to assume in its citizens if it is to allow them freedom, but the Bible didn't start out as the ethics of liberal democracy. It may not even be an ethics at all, in the sense in which philosophers speak of "ethics." Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, yes. Understand that God Himself has allowed the sword to remain in the hands of the magistrate, indeed. But the day may come when a prophet is told to enter the public square and cast down the nations--just as the day may come when a private man is told, "Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering." And with these possibilities, ethics in any philosophical sense has disappeared. Whatever political benefits a state gains from biblical religion, how can a liberal democracy allow even the chance of such things? They are immoral on their face--or amoral, or supermoral, or extramoral, or call it what you will: They are outside the capacity of any ethical political order to allow.

Except, of course, that if the political order doesn't admit their possibility, then the political benefits of religion cannot be held, and democracy itself decays. "Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure," as Washington famously warned in his Farewell Address, "reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle." The United States, as it naturally wants to be--what we might call the platonic ideal of America--contains a tension we must be careful not to resolve. From its founding, the nation has always been something like a school of Enlightenment rationalists aswim in an ocean of Christian faith. And how shall the fish hate the water wherein they live? Or the water hate the fish?

WELL, perhaps the modern secularists showed us that it was possible. They would have been left gasping to death on the beach had they ever fully succeeded--as intelligent observers have known since Virgil exposed the way Lucretius was trapped in self-contradiction: If the public ever accepted Lucretius's preaching of the good life of atheism, then Lucretius would lose the personal advantages he claimed to gain from atheism. But genuine secularism--of the kind that would lead, for example, to French laicite and the complete banning of religion from public life--was never really what the American theologico-political tension was about. In its modern form, that secularism was an import from nineteenth-century France and Germany, mostly, based on a notion of intellectuals' vast superiority to vulgar religious belief and a reading of history as proving that battles among Christian sects are the greatest danger to political order.

None of America's Founders had a comparable disdain for religious belief, and American history contains nothing analogous to the European wars over Protestantism. Both sides "read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other," Lincoln said of America's most costly division, and as the Civil War went on, his cadences and his thought grew more biblical, not less, as though only the language of the prophets were sufficient to express the horror and the necessity of the conflict:

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

No, the question in America was always how to reap the benefit from biblical religion while minimizing the dangers of extra-political authority and a set of citizens called by their deepest beliefs away from any desire to help defend the political order. Part of the American situation in the eighteenth century was historical accident, or perhaps--as Madison put it in an extraordinary letter--God's direct providence that preserved the New World undiscovered by Europeans until they were ready to try this experiment in freedom. But, whether the participants willed it or not, the American Revolution occurred in a Christian moment, formed most immediately by the progress of religion from the Puritans to the Great Awakening.

That gave the Founding Fathers massive advantages. From Max Weber's sociological descriptions to the economic analysis of John Paul II's Centesimus Annus, from the political thought of St. Augustine to the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, innumerable arguments have suggested that biblical religion offers enormous public benefits. And the examples of Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas alike make it impossible to deny that a philosophically sophisticated ethics can be reconciled with the superadded truths of biblical revelation.

But the overwhelming Christian faith of America also presented the Founders with terrible disadvantages, for the Bible cannot be entirely tamed to any public purpose or ethical reading. The tense and awkward solution of the Constitution derives from an awareness that the benefits and the dangers have the same root. "Biblical America" is the oxymoron that defines us, the contradiction that maintains us. If we lose either our extra-public religion or our Enlightenment use of public religion--if either side in this tension ever entirely vanquishes the other--the United States will cease to be much of anything at all.

Even setting aside the dependence of a healthy liberal democracy on a morality that only Judeo-Christianity can supply -- an issue you can probably never convince most secularists of -- it is unarguable that to the extent that you diminish the central role of religious institutions in society you create a vacuum which government fills and in the process cause people to be more dependent on government. Thus does secularism, which usually casts itself as a liberating movement, instead lead inexorably to an ever more powerful and intrusive state. The resulting State has no purpose other than its own continuance, a purpose which is obviously abetted by exactly that dependence which its very rise fosters, in a brilliant kind of recursive loop.

We can not be surprised then when our former liberal democratic allies in Europe prove incapable of being summoned to a higher cause--like liberalizing the Islamic world--their only cause is themselves. Though folk have been slow to accept the fact, it is simply the case that we longer share a common culture with them.

2004: A competitive presidential race (John Zogby, 1/02/04, St. Louis Business Journal)

I have just finished an extensive poll of values and issues with my friend and colleague Brad O'Leary, a well-known conservative political consultant and commentator. We will release the full results in early January, but the poll reveals in great detail how much we have become divided into separate and distinct political cultures in the past decade.

"We are two separate nations," warned the Kerner Commission in 1969 following its detailed study of race relations and the causes of civil disorder in the 1960s. While the problem of race continues, the United States is slowly cleaving into separate nations culturally. While much exists to homogenize our lives and culture -- the ever-present McDonalds, Holiday Inns, Home Depots and Blockbuster Videos, so much that it is hard for the traveler to tell where he or she is waking up on a given day because it all looks the same -- the fact is that we are separated by the way we live our lives and think about our world.

In 2000, the Presidential election was as close to a tie as it could possibly be. George W. Bush won the so-called "Red States" in the South, Southwest and mountain West, while Al Gore won in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, the Great Lakes, and the far West. But the tie was more than about the candidates. These are the two separate nations as we move into the 2004 campaign.

The O'Leary Report/Zogby International Values Poll is an attempt to get at the core of this division. What we see in the poll are significant demographic and ideological differences between the two regions -- the Blue States have fewer Republicans, 55- to 69-year-olds (the most conservative age cohort), rural dwellers, conservatives, born-again Christians, daily or weekly attendees at a place of worship, local sports fans, gun owners, investors, military veterans, and married voters. All of these differences portend a harder sell for Republican candidates.

On the other hand, the Red States have fewer younger voters, single voters, college graduates, liberals, Catholics and Jews, union members, and non-prayers.

In short, the two regions think and vote differently because they are different.

America Culturally Divided; Blue vs. Red States, Democrats vs. Republicans - Two Separate Nations, New O'Leary Report/Zogby Poll Reveals (Zogby.com, January 06, 2004)
Voter opinions on the political, economic, and social values espoused by former president Bill Clinton and his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton further underscore the divisions between Red and Blue States. A solid majority of Red State voters reject the Clinton’s values (56%) while 34% agree. Blue State voters are split with 45% responding favorable to the Clinton’s values and 47% disagreeing.

Respondents are also at odds on the issue of civil unions and the definition of marriage itself. Seventy percent of Red State voters side with the proposition that marriage should be confined to a man and a woman. Only 25% support the idea of civil unions. Conversely, Blue State voters are much more divided, with 42% supporting civil unions, while 55% support marriage restrictions.

Religion also separates the two Americas. Fifty-seven percent of Red State voters are Protestants, 23% are Catholic, and 1% are Jewish. In Blue America, the religious demographics are vastly different: Protestant, 37%; Catholic, 33%; Jewish just 4%. When respondents were asked how they practiced their faith, just over half (51%) of Red State voters said that they attend their local church, synagogue, or mosque either once a week or more often, while a near-majority (46%) of those residing in the Blue States said they attend religious services only on holidays, rarely, or never.

Ideologically, the two Americas are quite distinct. Those who label themselves "progressive" constitute just 5 percent of voters in the Red States, but 11 percent of voters in the Blue States. Meanwhile, conservatives account for 39% of respondents in the Red States and just 29% of those in the Blue States.

Ideological differences are buttressed by considerable discrepancies in party identification. In the Red States, 38% call themselves Democrats while 39% are Republican. In the Blue States, Democrats dominate with 40% of the respondents while Republican identifiers total 31%. The number of independents is higher in the Blue States (29%) than in the Red States (22%).

Family life is also quite different in the two nations. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those living in the Red State are married as opposed to 56% in the Blue States. Meanwhile, one in ten (10%) voters in the Red States are single; in the Blue States, one in five (20%).

There are significant differences in gun ownership. A majority (51%) of those living in the Red States say they own a gun, while 64% in the Blues States do not.

[originally posted: 3/30/04]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 19, 2009 6:04 AM
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