Taking the Bait

Daniel Larison wants to know what I make of this passage, which kicks off Damon Linker's review of Charles Marash's Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel From Political Captivity:

Who would now deny that the political ascendancy of the religious right has been bad for the United States? Its destructive consequences are plain for all to see. It has polarized the nation. It has injected theological certainties into public life. It has led political leaders to invest their aims and their deeds with metaphysical significance. It has made America a laughingstock in the eyes of the educated of the world. And it has encouraged devout believers to think of themselves as agents of the divine, and their political opponents as enemies of God.

I hesitate to dignify the deeply irritating "all reasonable people must agree with the self-evident truth of my argument" trope with a rejoinder, but since Daniel asks ... well, look, obviously if you disagree with the religious right's various policy objectives, you'll think that its rise ("ascendancy" seems like a little much, doesn't it?) has been bad for the United States. That's a perfectly reasonable position to take. But it isn't what Linker's arguing here. The "destructive consequences" he's talking about all seem to have to do with the nature of our political culture, not the shape of our public policies - specifically, the level of polarization, moral absolutism, and us-versus-them Manichaeism in American political life, with the damage to our reputation among "the educated of the world" thrown in for good measure.

On the last point, I imagine Linker could find some polling data to back up his argument, though I'm also pretty sure that European sophisticates were wont to look down their noses at American rubes long before Pat Robertson came along. As for the rest of his claims, the available evidence seems to run the other way. Perhaps Linker has a different timeline in mind, but I would date the modern religious right's rise to the late 1970s, and I would urge anyone who honestly believes that the level of polarization, absolutism, and Manichaean excess has risen in our politics since the Seventies to read Rick Perlstein's Nixonland and reconsider. The parties have grown more polarized vis-a-vis one another since then, true, but our politics in general have grown vastly more peaceful, even as arguments over civil rights and Vietnam have given way to arguments over issues like abortion and gay marriage. Which ought to suggest, at the very least, that there's no easy correlation to be drawn between the influence of religion on democratic politics and the tendency of democratic peoples toward division, self-righteousness and violence.

One could, of course, dispute the premise that the politics of the Sixties and the early Seventies were any less flavored by theological concerns and metaphysical yearnings than the era that followed; indeed, I would be inclined to dispute it myself. But that still doesn't provide any grounds for claiming that the religious right "injected" theology into politics in some uniquely destructive way. Rather, it suggests that what Linker sees as an alien and destructive innovation - religious conservatism's intermingling of politics and metaphysics - is actually a more or less constant feature of American life, and one whose consequences for civil order and national unity have been far less dire during the post-'70s culture war than in the supposedly-more-secular era that preceded it.