*Note: This post was adapted from an earlier essay.
On September 9, 2004 I was reading the Seattle Times before boarding my flight back to California. The lead editorial caught my eye: â€œA Nation Dividedâ€ by Joel Kotkin claimed that America is more divided than any time since the Civil War. And, while the division is not primarily political, it becomes fiercely evident when national elections role around as they did in the fall of 2004.
Well, new elections are upon us in this fall, and the shrillness of public discourse is sickening. If I see another political add on television, Iâ€™m going to move to Europe. Well, maybe Iâ€™m not that desperate. Perhaps Iâ€™ll just turn off my television. And just as Kitkinâ€™s editorial predicted and analyzed the bitter rhetoric to come, we have Bill Oâ€™Riellyâ€™s book Culture Warrior attempting the same thing prior to election-time.
Interestingly, Kotkin and Oâ€™Reilly correctly note that the fundamental division is not political, though strong political trends are associated with it. Each locates the divide at the level of two competing worldviews locked in a struggle for the soul of Western culture. According to one side (Oâ€™Reillyâ€™s secular progressives), the natural world is all there is. Religion is a private matter that may help some people but which is not a source of truth. Values are cultural inventions. Moral relativism implies that anything goes as long as you donâ€™t hurt someone else. We should seek a secular state where religion has no role in the public square. Like race or hair color, homosexuality is just a morally irrelevant difference that should be accepted. America has been too arrogant and imperialistic throughout its past because it has been too closely associated with Judeo-Christian ideas. A collectivist state provides a fitting object of commitment given that God is dead.
On the other side are those whom Oâ€™Reilly calls traditionalists: God exists, moral law is absolute and transcends human law and custom. Homosexual practice is like driving a car on the bottom of the ocean. It is not the way we were designed to function well and, eventually, it shall lead to ruin. The state should not favor any one religion, but allow religion to have its voice in the public square alongside other voices. America has made a number of mistakes (e.g., slavery) but, in general, its values and ideas are worth spreading to the rest of the world. Individual political liberty is crucially important but the state has a legitimate interest in protecting human life and preserving the uniqueness of heterosexual marriage.
Curiously, neither Kitkin nor Oâ€™Reilly answers this: Why do secular progressives adopt the sorts of values they do, values currently associated with the political left: environmentalism, affirmative action, higher taxes for social programs, gay rights, and a merger with Europe in which the United Nations and the international community replaces American nationalism?
Hereâ€™s my two cents worth on this question: Assumption one: God exists, secular progressives (and liberal religionists) spend a lot of energy suppressing the awareness of God to keep him out of mind. Most secularists were raised in a Judeo-Christian family with traditional values, and they feel much guilt and shame for abandoning God and their upbringing and for rejecting traditionalist authority figures from their childhood. Assumption two: Everyone wants to think of oneself and be perceived by others as a good person with solid values who makes a difference in the world. No one wants to be perceived as a self-absorbed narcissist. Assumption three: People would rather find a way to feel good about themselves as they are, whether or not they should feel that way, rather than learning to change. Why? Change is difficult and involves self-denial. And change requires admitting that one is wrong and needs to change.
Together, these assumptions imply the following: Secularists need a cause that makes them feel good about themselves, that allows them to continue to reject God, traditional values and their upbringing, and that doesnâ€™t require them to change. They desire a no-fault approach to life that enables them to retain a perpetual happy hour. Look carefully at the secular agenda. It allows people to retain their image of being morally upright while continuing to feel righteous in rejecting traditional values, all the while not having to work on their own moral lives. Spending other peopleâ€™s money to â€œsolveâ€ social problems, caring about things that donâ€™t require them to change in their private lives, and opting for non-traditional social values helps to justify their lifestyle. It also explains why they are so angry at traditionalists: Traditionalists are a threat to their narcissism. Traditionalists remind them that their coping strategy is just thatâ€”a way for them to feel good without having to change. And intelligent traditionalists are a big problemâ€”they remind secularists that they may very well be wrong about God and their morally confused ideas. I wonder if this provides insights for why Hollywood leans to the far left?