In most of the Western world, today is Christmas Day. We rationalists know that, despite the meandering of the calendar and all the religious mythology that’s become encrusted on it, this date was first chosen for its astronomical significance. The winter solstice is an inflection point, after which ancient people knew dark days would brighten and long nights would dwindle as the sun returned. That’s what we’re really celebrating, and all the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs in the world won’t change that.
There’s a parallel here worth exploring. These last few years in America, we freethinkers and progressives have been living through a cold winter of our own. We’ve witnessed the rise of an aggressive, theocratic faction of conservatism, which has brought on a blizzard of brutal attacks on choice, on voting rights, on the social safety net, and more. Despite having a Democratic president, it seems as though preserving the accomplishments of the past has been the most we’ve been able to accomplish, and often not even that.
And yet, in the midst of this darkness, there are glimmers of light. Healthcare reform stumbled out of the gate, but it’s steadily picking up steam. The non-religious continue their demographic ascent. And what odds would you have given twelve months ago that Utah, of all states, would have marriage equality by the end of 2013?
It’s stories like these that make me think America is going through its own winter solstice season. It’s not that our long night is over, but we’ve hit an inflection point: we can see change coming, up ahead on the horizon.
And I think the religious right knows this too. I’m not the only one who’s noticed how their rhetoric has reached a fever pitch of hysteria – accusing President Obama of being a Muslim-socialist-atheist usurper, making absolute non-cooperation a precondition for all their politicians, trying to drum up support for secession, nullification, and violent rebellion.
Above-it-all pundits have bemoaned the “gridlock” and “hyperpartisanship” of our era, apportioning blame equally among the parties, without ever attempting to explain why things have gotten so bad. Well, I have the answer for that.
The cause of these convulsions is privileged distress on a massive scale, as white Christian conservatives realize they’re losing their power to unilaterally dictate the direction of the country. Taking their place is a coalition of younger, more multiracial, less religious voters – and the old guard is obsessed with the idea that these upstarts are immoral, undeserving, and will bring America to ruin. It’s shocking how willing they are to say this openly, as in the recent Wall Street Journal editorial that, no joke, laments the end of WASP rule.
Barack Obama, a black man with a mixed ethnic heritage and a funny name, is like a composite of everything they fear. (The exception to this is that he was Christian and not, say, Muslim – but they were happy to fix that detail.) And as disheartening as his election was for them, his re-election made it even worse, confirming that his first win was no aberration but the sign of a demographic change that may be permanent. Their wailing and rending of garments over Mitt Romney’s loss can be understood in this light.
Their plan now, insofar as they have one, is a strategy of massive resistance to slow down political change and cling to power as long as possible. We saw it with voter ID laws: after the Supreme Court disgracefully invalidated the Voting Rights Act, state after state raced to pass the most restrictive laws possible, trying their utmost to weaken and dilute the power of women and minority voters. We saw it in the brick-wall obstruction that Republicans put up against health-care reform – unanimous opposition in Congress, a torrent of lawsuits, blunt refusal to set up state exchanges, and now outside groups spending millions on TV ads trying to convince people not to buy the insurance they now have access to.
We saw it in the Senate, where minority Republicans were dead-set on filibustering any judge nominated by President Obama, because they didn’t think a Democratic president should be allowed to make appointments that would change the balance of the courts. That absolutism backfired when it finally pushed the Senate majority to abolish the filibuster for presidential nominees – but even now, Republicans are still gumming up the process as much as they can by petulantly demanding the maximum 30 hours of debate for every vote.
We saw it in the House, where a dead-ender majority passed a record low number of bills, of which more than 40 were demands for the repeal of Obamacare. This culminated in the historic embarassment that was the two-week government shutdown, which likewise came about as a failed attempt by Republicans to blackmail the Senate into repealing health-care reform.
So, as infuriating as these stonewall tactics are, we should recognize what it means. The religious right believes it’s losing the culture war, and they’re acting accordingly, lashing out in fury with all the tools they still possess, trying to build walls to hold off the future as long as possible. And when your opponents think they’re losing, you should believe them. For true-blue American liberals, this may be the darkest hour of the night. But that just means the sun will be rising all the sooner.