Ross takes a swipe that deserves unpacking a little. His argument is weak, which is why, I suppose, he feels the need to grace it with a whiff of nativism:
Andrew misunderstands American history, American religion, and the intersection thereof, and how he's trying apply a continental model of faith and politics to a context where that model has never applied, and so and so forth.
Please. If someone thinks I'm wrong about a country I wasn't born in but have lived in my entire adult life, then please say why I'm wrong. Don't play the "you weren't born here" card, however guilefully. Ross's beef was with my concern with Sam Brownback's recitation of the Mother Teresa line "All for Jesus! All for Jesus! All for Jesus!" as part of his primary stump speech. You can see it above. For Ross, this kind of appeal is fine in American politics. I disagree.
Now, of course, American political rhetoric has been much more saturated with religious imagery and idiom than British or much European discourse since the Enlightenment (though not before). Some of this, as the theocons keep reminding us, has been to the good - the abolitionist and the civil rights movements spring to mind. What they're less likely to say is that the institutional core of today's Christianism was on the wrong side of those struggles (SBC anyone?) and that abolitionism and the civil rights movement emerged to undo the Christianist impulse to enslave, torture and then segregate a race that God had allegedly set apart. Moreover, much of the rest of Christianist campaigning over the centuries has also been for the bad - Prohibition, anti-miscegenation laws, vicious persecution of homosexuals, etc. The difference between the good and the bad in Christianism is that the good was also often framed in terms of secular, non-sectarian arguments (as MLK took pains to do), while the bad, having much less logic to stand on, was more reliant on pure Biblical authority. The more explicitly Christianist you get, in other words, the greater the likelihood of abuse to human dignity and individual freedom.
The notion that this kind of politics has no victims, has not led to evil, has not at times led to absolute insanity (like Prohibition), and is not still a constant threat - is preposterously complacent.
It is as preposterous as the notion that the dangers of religion in politics apply "a continental model of faith and politics to a context where that model has never applied." As Ross surely understands, the political-theological question knows no boundaries in human life or history. And it knows no final settlement. The notion that this tension somehow doesn't apply to America is ahistorical, or a form of religious faith in itself. Look at the Brownback video. Notice the crowd's response to his rallying cry in a political setting. Even a child is clapping. The words "All for Jesus!" were in fact a political and partisan rallying cry in a major election event. The audience members completely conflated the struggle for their souls with not just politics but a particular party in politics. Once this happens, once it is acquiesced in, once it becomes normal, the immense power of religion and its unequaled capacity to change society and politics is unleashed in unpredictable and dangerous ways. If you doubt that, look at Iraq. Or read your seventeenth century European history. The core achievement of the modern West - its success in changing the subject in politics from the eternal to the mundane - is threatened. It is just as threatened by a statement at a political event by a corrupt and petty Majority leader, Tom DeLay:
"The enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won, and if we put our trust in Christ, they never will ... It is for us then to do as our heroes have always done and put our faith in the perfect redeeming love of Jesus Christ."
So vote Republican.
America's great, great advantage over Europe, of course, is its Constitution. This deeply conservative bulwark against theocratic impulses has managed to keep the threat of theocracy at bay. Even so, even within the constitution, the damage has often been great in American history. It was particularly great during the first term of the Bush administration, where office and policy were placed in trust to the phalanx of voters whose primary criterion for political judgment was sectarian. It's also no accident that Christianists seek to amend the Constitution as often as they can, to ensure that their religion trumps others' freedom. Brownback wants to amend the Constitution on the abortion question and the gay marriage question. The founders, mercifully, have won again. But they lost over Prohibition, didn't they? And the attempt by the GOP to remove the Supreme Court from any rigorous defense of minority rights and freedom is part of a conscious strategy to make future Prohibitions more feasible. This is Hewitt's "Constitutional majoritarianism." It can also be called the tyranny of the majority.
But the rhetoric poisons nonetheless. How can an atheist American respond in civil discourse to a politics based on revelation? Or a Muslim to a politics based on Jesus? And how can we restrain the eschatological and utopian strains within Christianism that threaten to turn all politics into cultural warfare and therefore all discourse into religious bragging? How, above all, can we tackle our greatest enemy - Islamism - while supporting a similar, if weaker, conflation of religion and politics at home?
I don't believe America is on the verge of theocracy. I don't believe that Christianism can be put in the same category as Islamism in terms of its threat to the West. If you read my book, this is clear. But Christianism comes from within, draws strength from currents within the West itself, and is a subtler, more insidious threat to Western freedom and constitutionalism. The manners of our politics matter. I see no reason for complacency, and when I see a speech like Brownback's, a man who is completely unashamed to base his entire political thought on religious doctrine, I worry. To quote Mark Lilla's splendidly lucid forthcoming book on the theologico-political problem, "The Stillborn God,"
The river separating political philosophy and political theology is narrow and deep; those who try to ride the waters will be swept away by spiritual forces beyond their control.
Ross doesn't understand this about religion or politics. He needs to get a life-raft.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.