When So Little is at Stake

Recalling those who had reasons to resent, and didn't.

There’s no doubt that the cultural and ideological fissures in American politics have become more apparent in recent years with the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the pushback from Occupy Wall Street. Still, it’s tempting at times to look at our political leaders and say what is often said of academia—that the battles are so vicious because so little is at stake.

The Florida primary showcased a particularly nasty fight between two politicians who have little that separates them in policy substance: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. They resent and resemble each other. For instance, both men supported health insurance mandates before they didn’t. And both of course have serious gripes with Obama (who, incidentally, adopted the originally Republican idea of insurance mandates as part of his healthcare reform package).

When aiming at Obama, the Romney-Gingrich fusillades can seem strangely out of proportion even to their obvious differences with him.

Take Romney’s claim that Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” while he, Romney, would “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.” The choice in November, if Romney finally carries the GOP flag, would actually be between two politicians who desperately want to position themselves as “reasonable centrists” in the general election, as John Harwood of the New York Times has pointed out. Put another way, the election would pit a Republican in favor of keeping the Bush tax cuts against a Democrat who would return to Clinton-era tax rates. That adds up to a difference of roughly four percentage points in the top marginal rate. It’s not what separates a socialist strongman from a friend of the free.

Gingrich’s clashes with Obama might be more profound ideologically. But could these possibly justify his assertion that he, Gingrich, honors the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while Obama supports neither? As Speaker of the House during the ’90s, Gingrich did more than any other political figure to envenom the public discourse. He helped make it safe for politicians to habitually attack the decency and good faith of their adversaries.

No small amount of that incendiary rhetoric has rubbed off on the left. Many liberals have lapsed into the habit of condemning Republican “lies.” Very often, these alleged prevarications are really just matters of opinion, like the GOP claim that the rich already pay too much in taxes. To call them lies is itself a distortion.

When Things were Rotten

Plainly, there’s a lot to fight over in 2012. But there was far more at stake a half-century ago when Martin Luther King and the civil rights marchers, walkers, and sitters showed another way of relating to the opposition. You might say they had some serious differences with the segregationists. They were living in what was, for African Americans, a state of terror in the Deep South. But they steered a way to mutual understanding even as they took to the streets.

During the movement’s early years, King went to such lengths as to answer his hate mail respectfully—thanking his correspondents for writing, and proceeding to reasonably state his differences with these unreasonable points of view. (There was less time for that as the freedom campaigns intensified and the hate writers became more prolific.) During the few times he lost his cool with a segregationist or, some years later, with a supporter of the Vietnam War, King would reproach himself for hours, as his biographers (including Stephen Oates) have described. And then he’d pick up a phone and apologize.

Unlike today when political dialogue is often clogged with conversation stoppers like “lies” and “dishonesty,” King and his supporters found ways to keep the conversation going. They engaged in rational argument, as King did in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (in which he asked his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth,” and begged God to forgive him if he had understated the truth). He tried to open channels of discussion because of his belief that hearts could change, but also because, as a trained theologian, he could “see that some truth, however minuscule … may exist in quite opposite ideas and viewpoints,” as the social ethicist Rufus Burrow Jr. has noted.

In other words, everyone has a piece of the truth—not the most likely message of a Super PAC ad.

Yes, King denounced and confronted: history told him that oppressed people seldom gain their freedom by dropping hints. But he and his fellow campaigners made it clear enough that the prize they eyed was not just their own freedom. It was friendship and community with white America, what King often referred to, in rich theological tones, as “the beloved community.”

During this Black History Month, it’s worth recalling how civil rights activists often spoke large-heartedly about people who set off bombs in their churches or tacitly condoned the terror. It shouldn’t be too hard to practice a similar forbearance today with political rivals who would like to raise (or lower) taxes by a few percentage points. …read more

Inspecting the “Anti-Religious Bigotry of Elites”

Richard Dawkins: "Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

It’s easy to pick apart claims by some presidential contenders that America is facing an assault from within by adamant secularists, by the elite purveyors of “anti-religious bigotry,” as Newt Gingrich pronounced in his victory speech after the South Carolina primary.

The accusation is often aimed at President Obama, who is, according to former contender Rick Perry, waging a “war on religion,” and who is, according to cooler heads, a theologically serious and sober Protestant. And let’s not overlook a supremely elite institution: the 538-member U.S. Congress, in which there is, by most tallies, one person who goes so far as to label himself a nonbeliever. He is Democratic California representative Pete Stark.

But it’s also worth noting that anti-religious elites do exist and their eschewal of all things spiritual may run deeper than even Gingrich suggested.

One of the most unequivocal among them is the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He not only constantly upbraids the faithful but also serves up an entertainingly bleak and nihilistic view of human existence and the cosmos. Dawkins writes that there is, at bottom, in the universe, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” He forgot to say, Have a nice day!

As a New Yorker by birth and attitude, I feel more at peace with Woody Allen’s old quip that there is in fact meaning in the universe—except for certain parts of New Jersey. (And it was a mere quip. Allen the film director would seem to drift more toward Dawkins’s almost cartoonish view of the cosmic condition.)

Beyond Matter and Motion

The Gingrich forces would be right if all they were saying is that there’s a recently influential cadre of hard-core atheists, who have turned out some lively, readable books like The God Delusion (Dawkins), The End of Faith (Sam Harris), and God is Not Great (by the late great Christopher Hitchens). There does seem to be a brassy challenge to religion and theology issuing from these precincts. The result in recent years has been, for the first time in a long while in the United States, a real debate about faith. Not necessarily about religious conservatives or radical Islam or this or that religious movement, but about faith as such—whether there’s a God, whether there’s a transcendent reality, whether there’s anything in the universe besides matter and motion.

Still, the “New Atheists,” as Dawkins and the gang are dubbed, have been more provocative than they’ve been proliferative.

Many casual observers point to the growing numbers of Americans who don’t identify with any faith tradition; these Americans now comprise about 16 percent of the adult population, according to the most authoritative surveys. But a little over a third of these people affirm that they’re religious even though they’re religiously unaffiliated, and most of the others could be classified as “spiritual but not religious.” Most say they pray regularly or from time to time, as reported in studies such as the Pew Forum’s 2010 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. These aren’t the shock troops of the New Atheism.

What’s left is a trifling four percent of Americans who see themselves as atheists or agnostics, according to Pew. Maybe they’re the elites who are allegedly subverting our culture, purging religion from public schools and cracking down on religious freedom. But my guess is that not even most of these people would belong to the ranks of religion haters. Besides, the anti-secular warriors are firing mostly in other directions, at Obama and the Democrats, at the schoolteachers and journalists, and others. There are multitudes of believers in all of those directions.

Popular Reruns

Gingrich and others have some real grievances.

They have an argument to make about public school policies that at times go overboard in limiting religious expression. They can point to federal edicts like the Obama administration’s recent move to insist that Catholic colleges, for example, include free contraception services in their healthcare plans for employees. These, however, aren’t skirmishes in the final battle between good and evil. These involve legitimate questions about how to negotiate lines between church and state, between faith and society, between personal conscience and public policy.

Most people know this, but there’s an appreciative audience for the depictions of “war on religion” and “the growing anti-religious bigotry of elites.” We could expect to see those cartoons replayed for much of the presidential primary season. …read more