The Christian Right
My liberal Episcopalian friends and I have strangely symmetrical fears. They worry that conservative Christians have, in the words of one local Church banner, “kidnapped Jesus”. I, on the other hand, fret that in addition to kidnapping Christianity, conservative Christians have also kidnapped conservatism. And so just as liberal Episcopalians feel compelled to remind us that one can be religious without being conservative, I am increasingly driven to the corollary complaint: one can be conservative without being religious. Never mind for now whose predicament is more vexing; we are both annoyed by the company we are wrongly assumed to keep.
One could hope that these unwanted fundamentalist bedfellows were the unfortunate casualty of a kind of linguistic shorthand. It’s quicker to say “Christians” than “fundamentalist evangelical Christians” after all. And most American conservatives are indeed religious. However much the term “Christian Right” seems to obscure conservatives who are not Christian and Christians who are not conservative, the term does indeed apply, alas, to the majority in those categories.
But the idea that this evangelical preemption of both religion and conservatism is unintentional, a casualty of statistical convenience or vernacular sloppiness, is undone by Dinesh D’Souza in his latest book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11. I confess I have not read the book. It is enough for this discussion to have read Andrew Sullivan’s long review of it in The New Republic (March 19, 2007)
Read it and you will learn that the co-opting of both conservatism and Christianity by “theo-conservatives” is unapologetic and entirely intentional. In their view, and sadly D’Souza’s, there can be no worthy conservatism without a theology attached, and no proper theology that is not conservative. D’Souza proposes that American theo-conservatives bolster their defense against the secularist onslaught of the West by “going global” and allying themselves with Muslims and other fundamentalist believers of the Third World. (As Sullivan notes, this is a political strategy with which liberal Episcopalians are all too familiar. Several conservative parishes in the United States have abandoned their liberal bishops and sought refuge under conservative Nigerian sponsorship.)
D’Souza’s view of the liberal/conservative divide goes like this. There is “traditional morality” and “liberal morality.” Traditional morality “is based on the notion that there is a moral order in the universe, which establishes an enduring standard of right and wrong.” Liberal morality, on the other hand, holds “individuality and self –fulfillment as moral ideals.” As Sullivan explains, traditional morality is based on authority, liberal morality on autonomy. The real catastrophe of American culture, according to D’Souza, is the abandonment of traditional morality for a morality of self-fulfillment.
No one, D’Souza included, suggests that this is a new idea and few would argue that it is entirely off the mark. I have often admired D’Souza’s writing when I came across it in magazines. But after reading this article by Sullivan (himself a conservative though one who can find little to admire here in D’Souza apart from his candor), it appears that D’Souza has gone off the deep end. His rigidity and attraction to theocratic models seem uncharacteristically ignorant and simplistic.
First of all, he is ignorant to assume that a universal moral order must be grounded in religion, and that, by extension, a secularist/atheist cannot be “traditionally” moral. Morality needs nothing other than the first principle that survival of the tribe is preferable to its extinction. Everything pretty much follows from that: murder of a tribe member: bad for survival. Sex for reproduction: good for survival. Sex not for reproduction: not good for survival. And so on, with local embellishments, almost all of which have (or originally had) at their heart, to prevent adults from killing each other and to ensure a supply of babies. It is no wonder that Western liberalism’s salient “sins” – divorce, abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights – all affect, or can be feared to affect, procreation. There may be, as D’Souza points out an uncanny consensus on morality among the world’s religions, but that is because they are all derived from the same socio-biological reality. Religions didn’t create morality. They merely packaged and dispersed it.
Secondly, D’Souza is simplistic to contend that morality can never adapt to the discoveries of science and technology and the resultant complications of modern life. That liberal religionists often seem to be smoothly bending their principles to their convenience does not mean that there is no room for revision or moral nuance. The world, after all, is now more complex than the one in which our moral instincts evolved. One can agree with D’Souza that modern secular/liberal societies tend dangerously to narcissism and various frivolities that jeopardize their existence. But fundamentalist societies have their own slippery slope towards a different sort of hell. What they gain in reproductive success and a sense of community, they lose in freedom, creativity and the flowering of human intelligence.
Both slopes are slippery and both ends miserable, but the ultimate totalitarianism of authoritarian theo-conservatism would seem to be more inevitable, i.e. less self-correcting, than the chaos of an intelligent liberalism, however self absorbed, if only because by its nature true liberalism looks more kindly upon dissent and alternative ideas.
I will leave the liberal religionists to fend for themselves. But for my part, D’Souza seems not to allow the possibility that one could value autonomy, individuality and self-expression without abandoning a conservative respect for certain basics of survival and community. D’Souza should re-examine his assumption that secularists/atheists are ipso facto liberal. Indeed, the atheist, without the consolations of faith or an after-life has even more reason than the liberal religionist to support the fundamental genetic continuation that is, ultimately, at the core of conservatism.
As it stands now though, D’Souza leaves no middle ground. The center surrenders principle. Right of center is not right enough and left of center is wanton. In D’Souza’s dichotomy, you can either be an informed, liberal narcissist or a virtuous, ignorant conservative. I’m against the culture of narcissism as much as the next conservative, but D’Souza’s testing my faith more than he knows here. Faced with a theocratic society or a narcissistic one, I think I’d finally camp with the narcissists. For starters, the theater would be better, the news more interesting… oh, the list is very long.