Republicanism As Religion

Sep 12 2011 @ 11:40am

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The Dish covered the remarkable web essay of Mike Lofgren, but I didn’t comment myself because it so closely follows my own argument in “The Conservative Soul” and on this blog, that it felt somewhat superfluous. But I want to draw attention to the crux of the piece, because if we are to understand how the right became so unmoored from prudence, moderation and tradition and became so infatuated with recklessness, extremism and revolution, we need to understand how it happened.

It is, of course, as my shrink never fails to point out, multi-determined. But here is Lofgren’s attempt at a Rosebud:

How did the whole toxic stew of GOP beliefs – economic royalism, militarism and culture wars cum fundamentalism – come completely to displace an erstwhile civilized Eisenhower Republicanism?

It is my view that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism (which is a subset of the decline of rational problem solving in America) may have been the key ingredient of the takeover of the Republican Party. For politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes – at least in the minds of followers – all three of the GOP’s main tenets.

That too is my view: that the GOP, deep down, is behaving as a religious movement, not as a political party, and a radical religious movement at that. Lofgren sees the “Prosperity Gospel” as a divine blessing for personal enrichment and minimal taxation (yes, that kind of Gospel is compatible with Rand, just not compatible with the actual Gospels); for military power (with a major emphasis on the punitive, interventionist God of the Old Testament); and for radical change and contempt for existing institutions (as a product of End-Times thinking, intensified after 9/11).

Lofgren argues that supply-side economics attaches to the fundamentalist worldview purely by coalition necessity. The fundamentalists are not that interested in debt or economics (they sure didn’t give a damn as spending exploded under Bush) but if their coalition partners insist on a certain economic doctrine, they’ll easily go along with it, as long as it is never compromised. If it’s presented as eternal dogma, they can handle it – and defend it with gusto. If it also means that Obama is wrong, so much the better. Most theo-political movements need an anti-Christ of some sort; and Obama – even though he is the most demonstrably Christian president since Carter – fills the role.

And so this political deadlock conceals a religious war at its heart. Why after all should one abandon or compromise sacred truths? And for those whose Christianity can only be sustained by denial of modern complexity, of scientific knowledge, and of what scholarly studies of the Bible’s Rick_Perry-Bush origins have revealed, this fusion of political and spiritual lives into one seamless sensibility and culture, is irresistible. And public reminders of modernity – that, say, many Americans do not celebrate Christmas, that gay people have human needs, that America will soon be a majority-minority country and China will overtake the US in GDP by mid-century – are terribly threatening.

But all these nuances do not therefore vanish. The gays don’t disappear. China keeps growing. The population becomes browner and browner. Women’s lives increasingly become individual choices not social fates. And this enrages and terrifies the fundamentalist even more. Hence the occasional physical lashing out – think Breivik or McVeigh – but more profoundly, the constant endless insatiable cultural lashing out at the “elites” who have left fundamentalism behind, and have, on many core issues, science on their side. So within this religious core, and fundamentalist mindset, you also have the steely solder of ressentiment, intensified even further by a period of white middle and working class decline and economic crisis.

That’s how I explain the current GOP. It can only think in doctrines, because the alternative is living in a complicated, global, modern world they both do not understand and also despise. Taxes are therefore always bad. Government is never good. Foreign enemies must be pre-emptively attacked. Islam is not a religion. Climate change is an elite conspiracy to impoverish America. Terror suspects are terrorists. When Americans torture, it is not torture. When Christians murder, they are not Christians. And if you change your mind on any of these issues, you are a liberal, an apostate, and will be attacked.

If your view of conservatism is one rooted in an instinctual, but agile, defense of tradition, in a belief in practical wisdom that alters constantly with circumstance, in moderation and the defense of the TEAPARTIERChipSomodevilla:Getty middle class as the stabilizing ballast of democracy, in limited but strong government … then the GOP is no longer your party (or mine).

Religion has replaced all of this, reordered it, and imbued the entire political-economic-religious package with zeal. And the zealous never compromise. They don’t even listen.

Think of Michele Bachmann’s wide-eyed, Stepford stare as she waits for a questioner to finish before providing another pre-cooked doctrinal nugget. My fear – and it has building for a decade and a half, because I’ve seen this movement up-close from within and also on the front lines of the marriage wars – is that once one party becomes a church with unchangeable doctrines, and once it has supplanted respect for institutions and civility with the radical pursuit of timeless doctrines and hatred of governing institutions, then our democracy is in grave danger.

If you ask why I remain such a strong Obama supporter, it is because I see him as that rare individual able to withstand the zeal without becoming a zealot in response, and to overcome the recklessness of pure religious ideology with pragmatism, civility and reason. That’s why they fear and loathe him. Not because his policies are not theirs’. But because his temperament is their nemesis. If he defeats them next year, they will break, because their beliefs are so brittle, but will then reform, along Huntsman-style lines. If they defeat him, I fear we will no longer be participating in a civil conversation, however fraught, but in a civil war.

(Photo: Lucy West of Kileen, TX, participates in the opening worship ceremony during the non-denominational prayer and fasting event, entitled ‘The Response’ at Reliant Stadium August 6, 2011 in Houston, Texas. Thousands attended the event organized by Gov. Rick Perry in order to pray for God to help save ‘a nation in crisis’ referring to America. By Brandon Thibodeaux/Getty Images. Also: Tea Partier by Chip Somodevilla/Getty.)