Return to Enlightenment Ideals?

In the wake of yesterday’s election, conservative Andrew Sullivan reprints a letter from a far-right conservative reader whose views have evolved [link]. Here’s the last paragraph:

I believe in smaller government. I believe in efficient government. I believe in honest government. I believe in reason informed by faith. I believe in politics, informed by faith, but not ruled by it. I believe in the principles of government as set forth by the Founding Fathers. I believe ours is not a Christian nation, and it never was. It is a nation built on the ideals of the Enlightenment. Ideals born in Judeo-Christian thought, but tempered by secular reason and rationality.

Also TPM is posting that AP exit polls found fully one-third of evangelical voters did not vote for Republican candidates yesterday. Perhaps we’re seeing a realignment in the U.S. away from the cynical conflation of politics and religion. That’s good news for us. As nonbelievers here in the U.S. we should do all that we can to encourage rational believers to return to Enlightenment ideals. It’s the only way we can prevent the rise of a Taliban-like state that would persecute nonbelievers and other so-called heretics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15799168778162687036 Bilbo Bloggins

    I’m hearing alot about these “Enlightenment Ideals” lately. Can you list them off for me so we can be very clear about what your asking others to promote and return to? And are they ideals that all people, believers and non-believers ought to promote? Or just non-believers?

    Thx,

    Bilbo

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14558495391350708810 James Still

    Simply put, Enlightenment ideals are the valuation of reason and pragmatism over superstition, tradition, and tyranny. The U.S. was founded on the idea of equality and liberty rather than monarchy or hierarchy by fiat; of the separation of church and state in order to avoid the corruption of one by the other; of government invested with power only by the consent of the people; and of the natural right to self-determination. How does that sound to you Bilbo? We could always go back to the days in which political policies were based on religious ideals. We’d just have to figure out which religion to base that government on…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15799168778162687036 Bilbo Bloggins

    James writes:

    “the valuation of reason and pragmatism over superstition, tradition, and tyranny”

    Well, that sounds like it resonates quite nicely with Protestantism. Can we really say that we were founded on a notion of separation of church and state though? Its not that I’m against this (I’m not), or that I’m saying we were not founded upon this, but I don’t know much about the history of this doctrine. From the history of government in this country, I’m not so sure it looks like this has really been adhered to.

    James wrote: “We could always go back to the days in which political policies were based on religious ideals. We’d just have to figure out which religion to base that government on…”

    Well, religious ideals often overlap with one another, and with secular ideals, in many areas. So we could probably boil it all down to some common denominators. I’m a big fan of looking for common denominators. If you ask me, that’s what this country needs more than anything. We need to really focus on what we have in common – as theists and atheists, as democrats and republicans, etc. In that basic unity, we could probably also come up with common enemies (i.e. things we all vehemently oppose). If we could forge something like this, we might draw much closer together as human beings, and do so much good that perhaps we’d find out that our areas of disagreement, while definitely important, were not the most pressing matters.

    What do you think?

    Bilbo

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04549444906381131734 Martin Wagner

    What exactly, I wonder, is “reason informed by faith”?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14558495391350708810 James Still

    Enlightenment ethics and values do not necessarily conflict with Protestantism or any other religion for that matter. The point I was trying to make is that there is a dangerous trend in the U.S. and in the world right now. In the U.S., it has many names: fundamentalism, theocracy, dominionism, and Christian Reconstructionism. They all share the same idea, namely, political policies and laws should be based on religious law rather than the natural rights of classical liberalism. This is the dangerous virus that is spreading. I have faith in my fellow citizens and I do not believe that we in the U.S. are soon to be governed by a Christian Taliban. But as Wendell Phillips famously said over a century ago “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Nonbelievers and believers alike must be vigilant and guard against the fundamentalist impulse that threatens our secular form of government.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15799168778162687036 Bilbo Bloggins

    James,

    I hear you, man. I agree with much of what you say. I’m just not so sure I buy into all of the theocratic paranoia (though indeed even many Christians do). And I’m not accusing you of buying into it either. Bush talks about God in a speech and we get “Look man! The signs of the coming theocracy are everywhere! Did you hear Bush? That’s what the ancient Romans emperors used to say!”. All this extreme conspiratorial nonsense always surfaces from the opposition when any given party has power. The Republicans were crying about the moral apocalypse in the Clintonian era. Bush is gets spun as an apocalyptic armageddon-instigating fundy Pope leading the new crusades? Utter extremist/reactionary nonsense. I don’t care what he says about how he feels about his actions or interprets them religiously. He’s an underachieving rich brat oil man who failed as an entrepeneur at every point where Daddy’s influence didnt’ come into play, and he wouldn’t make a single governmental decision without it being spoon-fed to him by his pre-ordained caretakers. He has been nothing but a puppet of Rumsfeld and Cheney, who laid out the goals for this entire administration a long time ago in their conservative thinktank, The Project for the New American Century, and it has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with an extremely pessimistic capitalistic (even Darwinian) arms race view of global events, and their percieved necessity of Western superiority by any means necessary. From pre-emptive war to space-based weapons – it was all laid out and determined by PNAC. Anyone talking about a Christian Taliban as an actual reality is most likely an extremist themself, and obviously doesn’t understand the nature of our democracy or the great diversity and spirit of the American people.

    Bilbo

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    US voters preferred the side which wants to surrender to the Taliban allies in Iraq. Or didn’t you notice?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15799168778162687036 Bilbo Bloggins

    I wouldn’t call it a surrender. If I had to describe it in any other language than military withdrawl, I’d say its conceding an error.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Malcolm:

    Do you think that U.S. withdrawal would lead to the “Taliban allies” in control of Iraq? That seems pretty unlikely, since there’s a Shia majority, at least in central Iraq, and it’s likely that Iran would intervene to support them in the event of a U.S. withdrawal (which, as it happens, I haven’t seen many Democrats endorse).

    The Bush administration’s actions in Afghanistan have led to a corrupt Afghani parliament, full of drug dealers and warlords, that has led to a resurgence of the Taliban, which controls southern Afghanistan.

    Doesn’t look like you know what you’re talking about, Malcolm.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    Jim, (Since you started it, let’s get personal),

    Al Qaida in Iraq is fighting –against– US forces. Whether a Shia or Sunni faction gains control of the entire country or it fractures into three parts, a US withdrawal is a victory for Al Qaida in Iraq. The Democrats in Congress brought George McGovern in to advise them on how to abandon an ally (using his Viet Nam experience in this area).

    The Taliban and their Al Qaida allies controled Afganistan before the US assisted the Northern Alliance and toppled them. That an Al Qaida and Taliban resistance continues and that an elected Afganistan Parliament contains crooks (what parliament on Earth doesn’t) does not belie the fact that the Bush administration opposed and toppled a Taliban-ruled state.

    Looks like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    We agree that the Taliban controlled Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion (though I’m not sure al Qaeda had any control, rather than simply being harbored there).

    Iraq has already been a huge victory for al Qaeda–it has been a complete disaster for the U.S., with the cost to the U.S. exceeding $1 trillion, and the number of insurgents fighting for al Qaeda has multiplied, as U.S. National Intelligence Estimates on Iraq have documented. If the country splits into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni partitions, it is only the last of these that would specifically be a victory for al Qaeda. As it is, there has been ethnic cleansing of Sunnis occurring in central Iraq at the hands of the Shia majority.

    While I agree that most governments contain crooks, Afghanistan is one of the worst on the planet, with the result that popular support is being given to the Taliban because at least they follow the rule of law (even if it’s Sharia)–this is similar to what has been occurring in Somalia, where the Union of Islamic Courts have gained power because the opposition, backed by the CIA, has been viewed as corrupt.

    You claimed that “U.S. voters prefer the side that wants to surrender to the Taliban allies in Iraq,” which you’ve still not supported. “The Taliban allies in Iraq” would be the Sunni insurgency, but most Democrats have not endorsed immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and it’s not at all clear that the Sunni would be the beneficiaries of such a withdrawal.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    The “Taliban allies in Iraq” would be Al Qaida (who are Taliban allies) In Iraq.

    $1 trillion sounds exaggerated. The total US Defense Department budget is about $ 500 billion/year, and it’s not all spent in Iraq. The Iraq war began in March 2003.

    Modern technology empowers everyone, including devotees of an 8th century Bedouin superstition. People may reasonably criticize the strategy which President Bush has chosen to address this problem, and it’s implementation, but until I hear a better idea, I support the effort to raise a pluralist, a democratic State in the Arab world.

    To equate the Bush administration to the Taliban is absurd.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    For an estimate of the three-year costs of the Iraq war, see Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s estimate (PDF).

    Who equated the Bush administration to the Taliban? That looks like a straw man.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14558495391350708810 James Still

    Jim argued that Iraq has been a “complete disaster for the U.S.” and I agree. As CNN reported back in 2004, one of Osama bin Laden’s long-term goals is to bankrupt the U.S. government. We have spent over $1 trillion (and that will probably double when all is said and done). In one of his videotapes in 2004, bin Laden said this:

    “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”

    The alarming and sad thing about this statement is just how true it turned out to be. He knew us better than we knew ourselves. All his rag tag band of freedom fighters has had to do is stay alive and maintain a low-level war of attrition. Meanwhile we spend millions per day and have little to show for it. So I disagree with Malcolm’s assertion that “a US withdrawal is a victory for Al Qaida in Iraq.” Bin Laden is on record as saying that he wanted to draw us into a fight in the Middle East because he feels he can duplicate Al Qaeda’s success against the Soviets.

    Jim also wrote that “if the country splits into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni partitions, it is only the last of these that would specifically be a victory for al Qaeda.” I disagree. My understanding is that the Sunni-Qaeda alliance is temporary and one of convenience (i.e., the enemy of my enemy is my friend). If the U.S. were no longer a presence in Iraq and the Sunnis were somehow to gain control again, they would probably turn on each other.

    The whole thing is a complete mess and there are no easy answers. No matter what the administration and Congress work out it won’t be pretty. The best thing would have been not to have invaded in the first place. But alas, we’re there and so we have to do something.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    James Still wrote: “In 2004, bin Laden said this: ‘All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.’

    Two points:

    a) “…benefits for their private corporations…” sounds like bin Laden studied rhetoric under Noam Chomsky and Michale Moore. He’s obviously playing to his audience.

    b) As I wrote: “Modern technology empowers everyone, including devotees of an 8th century Bedouin superstition.” Unfortunately, in the technology-empowered world which approaches, the least scent of threat will require a response. Organizations which rely on maintaining a dominant position in the violence business (that is, governments) for their revenue will have to monitor ever smaller actors, since it does not now take much to make a big mess, and in the not to distant future, anyone will be able to kill everyone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Malcolm: I would see that as an argument for decentralization of power rather than for an all-monitoring police state. A reactionary government that imposes stricter and stricter centralized, standard controls is doing the terrorist’s job for him (and imposing costs on everyone). Decentralization of power puts security decisions closer to the front lines, reduces costs, produces diverse strategies that have different sets of vulnerabilities (and are thus not all subject to the same attacks), and decreases the overall value of any individual target.

    I question whether it will ever be economically efficient or rational to “require a response” to even “the least scent of threat.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14558495391350708810 James Still

    Malcolm wrote: “‘…benefits for their private corporations…’ sounds like bin Laden studied rhetoric under Noam Chomsky and Michale Moore. He’s obviously playing to his audience.”

    He could have studied under Mephistophales himself for all I care; what disturbs me is that his prediction came true. We played right into his hands thereby giving him way more prestige and power in the Arab world than he deserves.

    The idea that “the least scent of threat” requires a response (the so-called Cheney Doctrine) has one big strike against it: it fails the proportionality criterion. It is axiomatic in our judicial system that the punishment of a crime must be in proportion to the seriousness of that crime. For instance, we would not put to death someone who stole $100 from a convenience store. Similarly, our foreign policy response must be in proportion to the action.

    All but the peacenik left supported the war in Afghanistan because it was in proportion to the terrorist attack. The whole world supported it. The administration went wrong by abusing this support to start a preventative war against Iraq on the premise that there was the possibility (the “scent”) that Saddam Hussein might attack us at some point in the future; or as Condoleeza Rice put it “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Even though Iraq had nothing to do with Qaeda’s attack, the Cheney Doctrine argued for a response way out of proportion to the actual threat.

    Needless to say, if we started wars with other nations under that criterion, we would quickly exhaust ourselves, our troops, lose all support from our allies, and go bankrupt in the process. There’s absolutely no way that an open society such as ours can protect itself against every conceivable threat. Our best long-term defense is diplomacy, education, and working with our allies. Somehow the UK, Israel, and others manage to deal with the daily threat of terrorism without lashing out at every target imaginable. We’re just not used to such threats and so we overreacted in our response. (That’s the charitable reading; some have argued that the Bush Administration planned to invade Iraq even before 911 and used that tragedy as a pretense to do so.)

    There are threats in our day-to-day lives that would fall under the umbrella of being the “least scent” of a threat. When I’m walking around town I frequently see meth addicts on the street. It’s possible that they could mug me. When I commute on my bike to work it’s very possible that a car might not see me. Who knows what awaits us at every moment and in every new situation? But somehow we manage to calibrate and to proportion our response to life’s multitude of challenges without attacking first and asking questions later.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    a) It’s hardly a “prediction” if bin Ladin said this in 2004 and the US invaded Iraq in 2003. As a chess friend of mine used to ssy: “I’ve got you just where you want me.”

    b) As to “proportionality”: 3000 or so died in Pearl Harbor, and 70,000 or so died in Hiroshima. The “proportionality” argument fails. Consider drunk driving. Who is harmed? Why is possession of a sawed-off shotgun, or silenced pistol, or armor-piercing ammunition illegal?

    The causus beli of the Iraq war are a large topic. We’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    a) It’s hardly a “prediction” if bin Ladin said this in 2004 and the US invaded Iraq in 2003. As a chess friend of mine used to ssy: “I’ve got you just where you want me.”

    b) As to “proportionality”: 3000 or so died in Pearl Harbor, and 70,000 or so died in Hiroshima. The “proportionality” argument fails. Consider drunk driving. Who is harmed? Why is possession of a sawed-off shotgun, or silenced pistol, or armor-piercing ammunition illegal?

    The causus beli of the Iraq war are a large topic. We’ll have to agree to disagree.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14558495391350708810 James Still

    One last reply and then I’ll shut up Malcolm. :) I don’t mean that Bin Laden predicted that we would invade Iraq. I’m sure that was beyond even his vivid imagination; who would have thought we’d be so dumb? No, the quote is from his 2004 video in which he spoke of his desire to bankrupt the U.S. His “prediction” (perhaps the wrong word) is that he will be able to manipulate easily the U.S. response to his actions and to cause us to bleed red ink going after him. It’s almost 2007, we’ve spent billions upon billions (money we don’t have and so put on the nation’s credit card through special appropriations), estimates are that we’ll spend up to $2 trillion before all is said and done, we’ve got nothing to show for it, and as a nation we’re now arguing about an exit strategy. He’d love for us to stay longer of course. In the same video he goes on to rant about how he “alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.” I’m not suggesting that he caused the fall of the Soviet Union obviously, only that he takes the long view and is very patient.

    Regarding proportionality, I don’t think you quite get my point. I don’t mean “an eye for an eye” where the response must create equilibrium. I mean that a foreign policy response must be reasonably proportional to the circumstances. You refer to the war with Japan. In 1940 they signed a pact with Hitler. So then we closed the Panama Canal to their ships. Then Japan attacked more of her neighbors. So we set up an embargo and stopped all oil exports. They responded with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Naturally, the U.S. responded. Tit for tat. Logical. But the same cannot be said about the Second Iraq War. Iraq was contained. There was no national security threat. We just decided to start a preventative war just in case at some point in the future Iraq might have the capability to make mischief. I don’t know what to say about sawed-off shotguns or drunk driving because I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04699296428920303928 Malcolm Kirkpatrick

    a)”The alarming and sad thing about this statement is just how true it turned out to be.”

    “Turned out” is past tense. I “predict” that geologic evidence indicates that an asteroid exterminated the dinosaurs. I need only be smart enough to read __Discover__ or watch the National Geographic channel.

    b) To what injury I inflict is the sentence I endure proportional, if I am busted driving with a 0.12 blood alcohol level, with a sawed-off shotgun and a full auto M-14 loaded with armor-piercing ammo in the back seat?

  • Anonymous

    Be careful what you ask for. Britain, France and much of Europe has been promoting secular humanism, jettisoning its evangelical Christian past, shutting down churches and now we see horrendous social statistics coming out of Europe, we see the young people Godless, pagan, profane, drunken poorly educated, undisciplined, selfish, hedonistic and we see an entire European culture in abject decline, they arent just “slouching towards Gomorrah”,they are chasing Gomorrah down! At this rate, once powerful Europe will become a wasted away colony owned by Islam and the “Kings of the East” and pacific rim. Looked at the educational stats for U.S. students lately? All that money spent and yet poor Indian kids from a Calcutta slum can perform mathematical analysis better than most American kids. And it isnt because a few teachers are teaching against human evolution either. It is a moral, a religious failing that is giving us this result. Alexis DeToqueville and William Lane Craig are right.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14558495391350708810 James Still

    Todd alleges: “we see horrendous social statistics coming out of Europe, we see the young people Godless, pagan, profane, drunken poorly educated, undisciplined, selfish, hedonistic and we see an entire European culture in abject decline….”

    Care to back up any of those wild claims with some evidence? I’m a bit jaded because evangelicals are always saying that “this generation” is the worst ever. They said it in the roaring 20s, then during the early 50s with rock n’ roll, the 60s hippies, the 70s with punk music, backward masking, tatoos and piercing today, etc. etc.

    When evangelicals condemn the youth, you always learn a lot more about their own anxieties than you do the behavior of the young. Fundamentalists have a pattern they follow: first condemn, then copy. They thought Satan was roaming the earth freely when Elvis swung his hips around but today you see rock bands performing in every mega church. My guess is in 10 years it’ll be hip for youth ministers to get some ink done and sport a few earrings.


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