Book: Religion is a ballast against totalitarianism. God forbid.

Book: Religion is a ballast against totalitarianism. God forbid. January 27, 2020

 “Science cannot establish whether religious claims are true or false. But science, especially social science, can attempt to discover the consequences of religious values, institutions, and communities for the political system.”

christianity politics government trump barr america
American colonial religion: Faith was embedded in the settlement of the New World, and its effect is still felt today. Painting circa 1867. (Regan Vercruysse, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

This passage from the sixth edition of Religion and Politics in the United States, published in 2011, sounds reasonable enough. But as I read through the preface sections and final chapter, I realized the authors were trying to start making a case for more overt religious influence in American politics.

Such influence is now strictly limited if religious communities hope to retain their tax-exempt status, which is granted as a way to keep such faith institutions at arm’s length from government — and vice versa — as the Constitution mandates. Direct religious politicking has long been viewed in the United States, as it should be, as corrosive to democratic purity.

This book is still relevant today, as U.S. evangelical Christians have betrayed most of the core values of their faith to support a president who clearly honors none of them, and as top government leaders (e.g., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr) have publicly and in their official speeches promoted Christian dogma as essential to the nation’s governance. (See my related Nov. 2, 2019, post here.)

Pompeo and Barr both contend that secularism — growing nontheistic values in the body politic — gravely threaten the nation’s survival, and that only fealty to Judeo-Christian values can save the day. By fervently embracing the Trump administration, evangelicals have betrayed the ageless Christian values of chastity (Trump is a thrice-married serial adulterer, sexual assaulter and misogynist) , charity (he is stingy with charitable contributions and has used those  made to his personal charity for personal expenses), and love of their fellow man (he is a white-supremacist racist and purposefully separated migrant children from parents and held them in cages), all of which the president spurns.

When its authors, Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown revised the Wald’s 20-year-old book in 2011, it carried a soon-to-be-obsolete bias about American religion.

“If religion is to fulfill its promise as a bulwark against tyranny, it must encourage its followers to resist rulers who demand actions that are inconsistent with religious values,” the authors contend.

This was years before Sinner in Chief Donald Trump was elected by a very large proportion of evangelicals, who were all-too-willing to overlook his obvious amorality, religious apathy and expansive cruelty toward others to get prayer back in schools, conservative extremist judges seated on federal benches and end legal abortion in the U.S.

The authors, quoting prominent Christian cleric and writer Richard J. Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square (1988), explain that he argued “religion supplies a counterweight to the greatest threat faced by democracy — a slide into totalitarianism.”

“One religion is reduced to nothing more tan privatized conscience, the public square has only two actors in its — the state and the individual,” Neuhaus wrote. “Religion as a mediating structure — a community that generates and transmits moral values — is no longer available. Whether in Hitler’s Third Reich or in today’s sundry states professing Marxist-Leninism, the chief attack is not upon individual religious belief. Individual religious belief can be dismissed scornfully as superstition, for it finally poses little threat to the power of the state. No, the chief attack is upon the institutions that bear and promulgate belief in a transcendent reality by which the state can be called to judgment.”

Yet, as we see now in our sharply divided nation, the opposite is the reality: evangelical Christianity is promoting a leader who demonstrably longs for the monolithic power of kings and, if allowed, will ruthlessly crush any obstacle in his path. Indeed, he is doing it now while being impeached.

One such casualty of the president’s lust to retain and enlarge his power is former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, a widely respected 30-year diplomat whose callous and painful early removal Trump orchestrated. Trump fired the ambassador to further his scheme to pressure then-new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing a politically motivated investigation to smear Joe Biden, who then was the president’s main 2020 election rival and leading Trump in the polls.

So, are we to listen to Neuhaus and view American evangelicals as the “mediating structure” to hold our president’s authoritarian impulses in check? Hardly. Trump is only using the religious Right as a slavish, reliable base of voters, who seem to have no sense he is playing them for patsies (or don’t care) and who he will certainly not allow to curb his dictatorial ambitions.

However, the authors of Naked Public Square seem bent on gathering enough historical and sociological evidence to promote a resurgence of religious authority in America, and to amp-up direct religious influence in politics. They admit more research is needed, but they clearly have an end game in mind. Otherwise, why study the effects of chimera.

Recall Attorney General Barr’s disturbing comments in a recent speech at Notre Dame University, in which he claimed that the “forces of secularism” have caused “immense suffering, wreckage and misery” in American society and that they “press on with even greater militancy.” He used this right-wing fear as the catalyst for this chilling prescription for renewal of U.S. society:

“Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.”

Even though Wald and Calhoun-Brown acknowledge in the quote leading this post that religious claims cannot be verified in reality to be true or not, they still promote a society based on them — which is to say based on ideas that may, and almost certainly are, fiction.

A good number of countries, like those in vastly secular Scandinavia, have no dominant religious institutions to serve as “mediating structures” to curb leaders’ totalitarian dreams. They use rationalist, humanist, secular consensus to rule their social democracies. And they all appear to be prosperous, happy and politically stable.

So, why again should we ever consider going back to the future to have religion direct our temporal as well as spiritual lives?


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