Essay / Culture

Saving One Nation Under God from Failing, Aging, Childless, Crabby Secularists

OpinionJournal – Extra: “Why I’m Rooting Against the Religious RightSave the Republic from shallow, demagogic sectarians.I like Christopher Hitchens as a writer. I also like the fact he is unpredictable. He supports what he wants to support and though it is hard to discern a coherent worldview in his positions at least he is not bought and paid for by some faction.Christians and other people of faith need to start taking seriously the notion that there has existed a soft bigotry against religion in our nation (and certainly in Britain) for some time. Because it has mostly been hidden in smirks at University wine and cheese gatherings and in liberal foundation gatherings most Americans have never noticed it. It does exist and Hitchens is giving voice to it.The sad news for Hitchens is that this secularism has never been tried out on the market of American culture. It has always kept hidden. Now that it is out most Americans find it insulting and bluntly silly.This republic has always been dominated by religious images and themes. Think of Teddy Roosevelt marching his political forces into battle with “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Try removing all the Biblical images from Lincoln’s speeches. Count the number of out of the closet atheists who have been President.Secularists are and should be free to be wrong. They have been pretty bad at sustaining free societies. The only states to be officially atheistic (one thinks of Albania) have not been very pleasant places to live. Of course secularism need not be atheism. How has it done when non-atheistic?If Western Europe, still partly running on the borrowed culture of its Christian heritage, is the future Mr. Hitchens prefers then most Americans are likely to say “no thank you.” France has been pretty secular (in Hitchen’s sense) for over one hundred years in government and a close examination of its history and the trajectory of its culture leads me to say, “No thank you.” In is not clear that secular France can reproduce itself let alone defend itself. What model of secularism does Hitchens have in mind?Still secularists, who have a great many borrowed Christian and Jewish ideas they cannot really defend, are often decent folk and good citizens. It is a free country and though I doubt Mr. Hitchen’s view of thinks is anything short of a disaster for any party that adopts it both parties are free to try.My comments in italics below.BY CHRISTOPHER HITCHENSThursday, May 5, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDTI hope and believe that, by identifying itself with ‘faith’ in general and the Ten Commandments in particular, a runaway element in the Republican leadership has made a career-ending mistake.Mr. Hitchens could easily find equally hopeful predictions during the Reagan administration from secularists when the death of the Republican party for going “too far” with the “dying religious right” was often predicted. Because he does not define his target (what is the religious right?) and does not understand the sub-culture his analysis ends up being simplistic to the point of parody.In support of this, let me quote two authorities:* The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100%. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. . . . Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some god-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism.’* ‘Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother.’ And he said, ‘All these have I kept from my youth up.’ Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, ‘Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.’The first citation is from Barry Goldwater, moral founder of the Reagan revolution, who, when I interviewed him on his retirement from the Senate, vowed to ‘kick Jerry Falwell in the ass.’Barry Goldwater changed over his time in Washington. He became. . . how shall we put it. . . eccentric? In any case, I think Reagan the more likely moral founder of the Reagan Revolution and he loved the religious right. He worked with them and wrote a pro-life book while in office. By the way, Reagan actually won his elections. Hitchens must prefer Republicans who kick their own base and who are losers in general elections. (Like the British Tory Party?)The second citation is from Luke 18:20-22.We can now predict that Hitchens is going to misuse Scripture. Let’s do a quick context and remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is attacking the love of money. To such greedy and short-sighted men money had become all consuming. These rich would be better off without money. Just as radical surgery is not for everyone, but may save the life of someone eaten up by cancer, so the words of Jesus remind us that the lust for money may require a radical cure in some. It also reminds his full-time servants, the clergy, that theirs is to be a purely altruistic calling. They are to live for others. Of course, such a calling, that of a Mother Theresa, makes no sense to men like Hitchens.I am neither a Republican nor a Christian, and I don’t propose that there is any congruence between Sen. Goldwater’s annoyance and the alleged words (which occur in similar form in all four gospels) of the possibly mythical Nazarene.Did he say, “Possibly mythical?” We now know Hitchens has been communing on the kool-aide served at the very fringes of the secularist community. There are a few marginal “scholars” who argue that Jesus may not have existed. Since he appears in at least one non-Christian historical source (Josephus) and since there exist documents (Pauline epistles) referring to his life that even the most liberal scholars date from the first decades after Christ’s death almost no serious scholar doubts Jesus existed. Hitchens has lost all claim to be taken seriously by this one comment, but perhaps that was not his point.I suspect instead that he has thrown in this adjective to get the “fundies” mad and to get the kind of reaction from our fringe that will justify his hopes. Sadly for Hitchens most evangelicals, and even sensible secularists, will just roll their eyes and move on to something interesting. Such claims about Jesus not existing are like the cocky seventh grader who thinks he can dismiss Biblical authority because it requires believing Jesus Christ was made of wood when He said He was the Door or who believe he has invented the problem of evil when setting out to stump their AWANA leader. That is funny in a kid, but it is just sad when one finds a college educated person still thinking the same things and still expecting them to be “crushing” to the religious.Yet two things are obvious. The first is that many conservatives appreciate the value of a secular republic, and do not make the idiotic confusion between “secular” and “atheist” that is so common nowadays.Of course secular does not mean atheism, though all atheists are secularists not all secularists are atheists. However, the notion that there can exist a water tight compartment between religious ideas and the state is pretty silly and has never been
true in the United States. Just a quick reading of public documents shows this to be the case. Sometimes religion has had a good impact (abolitionists and slavery) on our politics and sometimes a bad one (McKinley prayed his way into the Spanish American War), but it has been there. Bluntly, the American Republic has done pretty well with our permeable wall between religious ideas, religious people, and the state.Hitchens may be misunderstand the historical American Christian (even Calvinist) distinction between the “secular” and the “church” sphere so common in the language of the Reformers with more modern ideas of “secularism.” Of course, they did not intend by this any 1950’s notion of keeping religion totally out of things. These early thinkers, including almost all the Founders, simply wanted the Church authorities to recognize the limits of their sphere. No Anglican bishop should confuse governing his Church with governing the state. This did not mean that the Anglican governor was supposed to keep his Christian ethics at home. In fact, it would have been hard to get elected to the presidency without talking about Christian (or later Judeo-Christian) ideas in Christian ways.In one sense, I am a secularist if by that one means that there exists a sphere of human life not directly governed by Church authority. However, no Christian is a secularist if Hitchens means that we should leave our worldview at the office or government door.Though it may not be easy to flow chart this American relationship it works. Secular is a good old English word which does not simply mean “religion free zone.” In the past it has had religious uses (see “secular clergy”) and has a special use historically in the American context.My own bishop recently commented that the clergy should stay out of politics. By this he meant that clergy should stay out of direct influence in political matters. He is not going to attempt to govern the state from the bishop’s throne! On the other hand, he has taken strong pro-life positions and I assume would expect any of his members to live out their faith in government or in any other job in the broader culture. We want our bishops to work in the ecclesiastical sphere while Christian carry their faith into the market place and compete in that open area for attention. That does not mean the Christians have become “secular.”
The second is that no “Moral Majority” type has yet proposed that the most important commandment, the one underlined by Jesus himself, be displayed in courtrooms or schoolrooms. It turns out that the Eleventh Commandment is not “Thou shalt speak no ill of fellow Republicans,” but is, rather, a demand for the most extreme kind of leveling and redistribution.This is Hitchens taking Our Lord out of context. Jesus Christ did not want anyone to love money, but he was followed by many wealthy people and so far as we can tell did not command all of them to “give away everything.” Judas was the only disciple to suggest everything should be sold and given to the poor. . . and his track record of getting Jesus right was not good.The early Church did not, or at least the vast majority of it, did not so understand Him. I will take Paul and the apostles as better sources of what Jesus meant than Hitchens. Paul worked to avoid being a burden on his followers (II Thes. 3:8) and I Timothy 5:8:8But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.Protestant forms of Christianity have long been associated with free market economics, but perhaps Hitchens understands the Bible and Jesus better than they?I have never understood why conservative entrepreneurs are so all-fired pious and Bible-thumping, let alone why so many of them claim Jesus as their best friend and personal savior. The Old Testament is bad enough: The commandments forbid us even to envy or covet our neighbor’s goods, and thus condemn the very spirit of emulation and ambition that makes enterprise possible.Hitchens now lets the lid off with a good old fashioned nineteenth century village skeptic rant. This sort of things is so dated that is fun. It is like finding an actual tent revival only on the other side! In the next article, we can anticipate Hitchens finding some crushing rejoinders in Ingersoll or some other nineteenth century professional Bible-basher.Hitchens should get out a good commentary before doing Biblical exegesis.What is it to covet? Hitchens should look here for one example of what one billion people take it to mean.Put simply wanting a car like my neighbor’s is not coveting. Being consumed with such a desire or wanting my neighbor to lose his car so I can have it (or stealing it) is forbidden. In short, the Commandment confirms the right to private property as a human right, though not an absolute one. It also tells people not to view economics as a “zero sum game.” Your car is your car and I should not be consumed by desire (leading to economic doom in the long run ) for your possessions. It functionally bans socialism.But the New Testament is worse: It tells us to forget thrift and saving, to take no thought for the morrow, and to throw away our hard-earned wealth on the shiftless and the losers.This is mostly a lie. Hitchens is reading words more out of their literary context than any freshman student I have ever had. However, Hitchens is right about one thing. Christians are called to have hope for people he calls “shiftless” and “losers.” Secularists (of the Hitchens sort) have a hard time doing that. People who think Christians heartless should remember that we started almost every charitable program in the West and remember these words from Hitchens.At least two important conservative thinkers, Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss, were unbelievers or nonbelievers and in any case contemptuous of Christianity. I have my own differences with both of these savants, but is the Republican Party really prepared to disown such modern intellectuals as it can claim, in favor of a shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity?Rand is an important thinker, but I think her wrong about religion. So? I am a Platonist, but I don’t agree with everything Plato said. I can use ideas from a person without kow-towing to everything they said.As for Strauss, I value Strauss greatly and have started an entire academic program chock full of his methods. I received professionally training and am close friends with one of his students. I admire him highly and wish people actually read him more, but even here I do not have to agree with all his conclusions. I think Strauss’ particular reading of Plato wrong, but appreciate his focus on the text as an end. I am a Straussian and a member of the religious right. What does Hitchens have to say about that?What is the religious right Mr. Hitchens? Who is in it? What must we believe? What is our creed? Perhaps one could phrase the same question in two further ways. At the last election, the GOP succeeded in increasing its vote among American Jews by an estimated five percentage points. Does it propose to welcome these new adherents or sympathizers by yelling in the tones of that great Democrat bigmouth William Jennings Bryan?I doubt anyone is suggesting a revival of nineteenth century rhetorical styles in either party. It might be that persons of non-Christian faith find an open and honest expression of religious belief, much of it compatible with their own, less threatening than a ban on all expressions of faith in the public square.By insisting that evolution is “only a theory”?Is Hitchens suggesting that belief in an active Creator God is limited to Christians? Is Genesis a Christian book?By

demanding biblical literalism and by proclaiming that the Messiah has already shown himself?The only wooden literalism I have seen of late is Hitchens misusing Christ’s words in this article in an overly literalistic (not literary!) way that would do a movie fundamenatlist proud.My religious Jewish friends and I disagree, but we have more in common than we have with a secularist like Hitchens. We believe in God given rights and in a Creator. I am not likely to say the Hebrew Bible “is bad enough” like Hitchens did. They might appreciate that and, who knows, resent Hitchens’ slurs.Christians in the religious right also understand that “making disciples” is a Church job and is not part of their job when governing. Jesus is Lord of my life wherever I am. However, I see no need to push this into the face of my friends who disagree at the drop of a hat. We agree to disagree and work together in civil discourse. Hitchens wants to split us by using our real, and serious, differences to divide us which is the only way his tiny minority in the US can have power. We will not let him.If so, it will deserve the punishment for hubris that is already coming its way. (The punishment, in other words, that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson believed had struck America on Sept. 11, 2001. How can it be that such grotesque characters, calling down divine revenge on the workers in the World Trade Center, are allowed a respectful hearing, or a hearing at all, among patriotic Republicans?)Quote mining is a bad habit for all writers. If Falwell and Robertson said 9/11 was “God’s judgment” then they were wrong. Being wrong has been known to happen to other than religious leaders.Both should re-read “City of God.” Augustine points out in that great book, which forms the deep thinking of the American right in many ways, that God’s providence is not always manifest in any single action. Why did Rome fall? Was God punishing us? Was it for other reasons? At any given moment this is hard to say and human hubris to be sure of any divine connection at the moment. God’s plan in history can only be seen over time. His ways are subtle and not apt for blogging!Then again, hundreds of thousands of young Americans are now patrolling and guarding hazardous frontiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is there a single thinking person who does not hope that secular forces arise in both countries, and who does not realize that the success of our cause depends on a wall of separation, in Islamic society, between church and state?Lots of people who are religious know that just because some religious ideas are true that not all religious ideas are true. Hitchens seems to think that the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they were “too religious.” I think it more likely that given how religious men are by nature that the problem is that they were fed bad religious ideas. Here is hoping for an Islamic society (majority opinion) in both places that allows Christians and others (a large minority in Iraq) freedom of association and ideas. Here is hoping we don’t get a France, a Hitchens secular solution,. . . which cannot last, is failing in France, and which is contrary to the dreams and wishes of the majority.In fact, the best solution is the American solution! Let’s have a permeable wall between mosque and state. Let the Islamic religious leader govern his mosque and let his faithful followers live out their moral ideals in business and in government. Christianity invented this “low wall” between Church (but not Churchmen!) and state. . . can Islam adapt to it? Why not? If not, then Islam is guilty of a bad religious ideal and will fail. My Islamic friends think they can do it and I hope they do so.How can we maintain this cause abroad and subvert it at home?This is insane. Religious conservatives want to defend the way things have always been at home (traditional marriage, sanctity of life) and Hitchens thinks we are undermining America?Is defending the way things have been changing them?It’s hardly too much to say that the servicemen and -women, of all faiths and of none, who fight so bravely against jihad, are being stabbed in the back by the sunshine soldiers of the “crusading” right. What is one to feel but rage and contempt when one reads of Arabic-language translators, and even Purple Heart-winning frontline fighters, being dismissed from the service because their homosexuality is accounted a sin?Hitchens should look at the states and areas where troops come from. He should note that the armed forces are and historically have been some of the most traditionally religious places in American society. Chaplains were not invented yesterday.We are not fighting for Hitchen’s style secularism. If we were, Hitchens would have to find new volunteers for his army. He might start with Harvard Yard or the latte drinkers in Oregon. Good luck.We are fighting because radical Islam wants to destroy our way of life. They hit us and the state is allowed to defend itself. We are mostly Christians and all Americans and think that our nation is best able to protect our faith and freedom. We don’t mind Hitchens hating us and his mostly leftist secularist friends living off our sacrifice. That is what freedom is all about, but is a bit hard to get mocked for bearing the lion’s share of the burden.If left to Hitchens and the fighting secularists, the War on Terror would be lost.I will bet Hitchens his favorite adult beverage that the Republicans go right on getting a large majority of Armed Services votes. The fighting men and women don’t feel that defending American morals is a jihad. They have seen a real jihad and know the difference. American troops have decided that homosexual behavior has no place in a modern army. Confusing that with a Taliban-culture that has no place for homosexuals to live is lazy thinking.Hitchens also conflates our destruction of an evil religious government, the Taliban, with an evil, secular Iraqi government. Repeat to yourself Mr. Hitchens: Sadaam was a bad non-religious leader who led a secular Iraqui party.Thus far, the clericalist bigots have been probing and finding only mush. A large tranche of the once-secular liberal left has disqualified itself by making excuses for jihad and treating Osama bin Laden as if he were advocating liberation theology. The need of the hour is for some senior members of the party of Lincoln to disown and condemn the creeping and creepy movement to impose orthodoxy on a free and pluralist and secular Republic.It is more likely that the party of Lincoln will emulate Lincoln and become more religious as the War continues. This religion will become more sophisticated in its use of religion and not less so. It will be led by a man who can speak like Lincoln and not like Hitchens. Only then can real liberty based on the rights given by a Creator God bless our one nation under God. We will not allow Hitchens and his aging, childless, secular minority to change our Republic because we have Lincoln’s words engraved not just in stone but in our hearts:Fellow-countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued seemed very fitting and proper. Now, at the (1) expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and (2) phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and (3) engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. . . .On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an (4) impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avoid it. . . . Both parties (5) deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nat

ion survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. One-eighth of the whole population were slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, (6) perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would (7) rend the Union by war, while government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the (8) territorial enlargement of it.Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each (9) invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in (10) wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayer of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. . . . If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the (11) providence of God, must needs come, but which having continued through His (12) appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we (13) discern there any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always (14) ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, (15) fervently do we pray, that this mighty (16) scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continues. . . until every drop of blood drawn with the (17) lash shall be paid another drawn with the sword . . . so still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.With (18) malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and for his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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