Thursday, November 20, 2008
Kathleen Parker stressing over her email. Or is it existential angst?
THE CONTINUING FRACAS. From commenter Jayteee:
"I'm a mite confused, IP, by all this talk that the GOP must jettison cultural conservative and become neo-Rockefeller-ites. What exactly has the Religious Right wrought that so upsets the likes of David Brooks? From what I've seen, it's succeeded in passing a few popular no brainers like parental notification for pubescent abortions and one or two supposedly unpopular measures like the ban on federal funding of embryonic research, soon to be overturned by Obambi. I'm a Catholic and for 30 years I've been told by the media that theocracy is right around the corner, with Jerry Fallwell standing in as a modern day John Calvin/Torquemada. What the hell am I missing? Conservatives lost the cultural battle decades ago and all these whiners like Kathleen Parker think the key to a GOP comeback is for conservatives to give it a rest and embrace our inner Larry Flynt. Please enlighten..."
It's complicated and it's also simple. What's complicated is all the infighting among the conservative intelligentsia. They can't figure out what to do about the social conservative base, and when anyone takes a hard position on it they get offended by it, angry, or otherwise emotional without clarifying the dilemma much. For example, Kathleen Parker has written yet another column complaing about the mistreatment she's received since writing her multiple, insulting dismissals of Sarah Palin. An excerpt:
As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit.
Three little letters, great big problem: G-O-D.
I'm bathing in holy water as I type.
To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn't soon cometh.
Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth — as long as we're setting ourselves free — is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that.
So far, Jonah Goldberg, bless his heart, has responded twice. First with a scathing personal riposte:
Quit It Kathleen.
To my friend Kathleen Parker — This act is getting really old....
I don't know what's more grating, the quasi-bigotry that has you calling religious Christians low brows, gorillas and oogedy-boogedy types or the bravery-on-the-cheap as you salute — in that winsome way — your own courage for saying what (according to you) needs to be said. Please stop bragging about how courageous you are for weathering a storm of nasty email you invite on yourself by dancing to a liberal tune. You aren't special for getting nasty email, from the right or the left. You aren't a martyr smoking your last cigarette. You're just another columnist, talented and charming to be sure, but just another columnist. You are not Joan of the Op-Ed Page. Perhaps the typical Washington Post reader (or editor) doesn't understand that. But you should, and most conservatives familiar with these issues can see through what you're doing.
But that didn't settle all the questions that are swirling in the air, so he came back for another stab at it:
My email box runneth over with nice attaboys and more than a few interesting criticisms regarding my post about Kathleen Parker. Keying off some of the criticisms, here's one thing I want to know, as I sit here at the Whither Conservatism conference. What aspects of the Christian Right amount to oogedy-boogedyism? I take oogedy-boogedy to be a perjorative reference to absurd superstition and irrational nonsense. So where has the GOP embraced to its detriment oogedy-boogedyism? With the possible exception of some variants of creationism (which is hardly a major issue at the national level in the GOP, as much as some on the left and a few on the right try to make it one), I'm at a loss as to what Kathleen is referring to. Opposition to abortion? Opposition to gay marriage? Euthanasia? Support for prayer in school?
Which, Jaytee, you'll probably notice is essentially a restatement of the question you asked me. But it's a better departure point for providing the simple answer because of this one reductionist query: "What aspects of the Christian Right amount to oogedy-boogedyism?" And because of Jonah Goldberg's own revealing response to it: "I'm at a loss as to what Kathleen is referring to." (He doesn't make much progress beyond this in the remainder of the post, fyi...)
Chances are, Kathleen doesn't know, either. The real "oogedy-boogedy" factor is belief in God and the Christian faith. That's what's so alarming about most of the Religious Right. Conservative intellectuals in general believe in the family values they espouse, the right to life of fetuses from conception, and the right-wrong morality taught by organized Christian denominations. They may even belong to one of the older, less proselytizing denominations themselves -- Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic. Which is to say they endorse religion for its cultural value. But the dirty secret is that in their heart of hearts they don't really believe in God as he is described by Christianity, and they are both frightened and repelled by people who do.
Many of them do not even know this about themselves. When asked, they answer affirmatively to the question, "Do you believe in God?," but they are not seeing Christ on the cross in their mind's eye. They are seeing an abstraction, possibly an incomprehensibly intelligent one, behind the existence of the universe. They do not believe in miracles, divine incarnations among men, divine interventions that breach the laws of physics, and more than that, they see no divine hand in the creation of moral laws by which believers seek to govern themselves. To the extent that such conservative apostates profess belief in Christianity, it is an intellectual belief in the positive power of a beautiful and philosophically resonant metaphor. It takes a semantic trick and a certain willful blindness for them to see their allegiance to metaphor as a kind of immutable truth, but many of them manage it.
I grant that there are exceptions. William F. Buckley was in all likelihood a devout Roman Catholic. But he is also gone, and there is a significant generational erosion underway even among those whom, like Kathleen Parker, he may have personally mentored. What they admired in him was his sparkling intellect, which to their eyes distinguished him far more as a person than his private dialogues with his God.
There's nothing oddball about my diagnosis. As has been documented many times, the elite conservative intelligentsia were mostly educated at prestigious colleges and universities squarely in line with the tradition of "liberal" education, which has waged a systematic and successful long-term campaign against the embrace of the irrational which Christian religion represents to believers in the scientific method, modern psychology, and contemporary cosmology. The bigger the universe gets, the smaller human beings get, and there's no room left in their worldview for an intimate, personally available god. If you think this trend isn't intentional or all-conquering, consider that most major seminaries spend most of the curriculum deconstructing the provenance of the scriptures. Training for the priesthood involves learning that the gospels are a fairy tale written in the context of complex Roman and Judaic politics in the first century A.D. Any faith which survives this process is probably a helpful semi-delusion that serves principally to energize the sermons and personal advice a priest is required by doctrine to offer his parishioners.
This is the source of the schizophrenic back-and-forth we see in the relationship between conservative elites and so-called social conservatives. They agree with the Religious Right on many points of policy. For example, they do oppose abortion, but they do so because it makes no logical sense to infer that a cluster of cells which exhibits all the attributes of life -- ingestion, growth, excretion, development along predictable, repeatable lines that will if left undisturbed produce a human being -- is somehow not a human life as valuable and as deserving of protection as any other. They don't need to believe in God to believe in that. They may believe in the moral value of the Ten Commandments and defend their display in public buildings because there is no historical basis whatever for concluding that the authors of the constitution ever dreamed of prohibiting same. They almost certainly believe, based on pure common sense if nothing else, that the traditional family unit of a man, a woman and their children bound together by vows and publicly accepted responsibilities to one another for life is absolutely preferable to a society in which everyone does whatever he likes and expects everyone else to overlook, forgive, and pay for the consequences without protest. But they don't need the Judeo-Christian God for that. They just need his example as a part of our cultural tradition.
The problem arises when significant numbers of the Religious Right, as they most certainly do, haul out their Bibles and insist that their actions and intentions are backed by the Almighty himself, regardless of what words are written into the law of the land or what behaviors are sanctioned by a broad, indifferent consensus. When the believers stand up to claim that they are absolutely right, without reference to logic, science, political theory, or human psychology, that's oogedy-boogedy time. The elites are embarrassed to be seen in the same room or on the same stage with such people. Their honest, matter-of-fact belief in God and Jesus Christ is the exact reason they are idiots. Kathleen Parker actually got it right; she even spelled it out for us -- "G - O - D."
What can the elites do about that, even in their private hearts? They can't admit it. But they can't change it, either. These people, with whom they share so many fundamental cultural traditions and values, are idiots because they haven't learned to amputate good ideas from their entirely mythological source. And consider the difficulty of defending the declaration in the previous sentence. It's somehow smarter to accept an idea in the full knowledge that it was produced by a bogus set of ignorant superstitions than it is to affirm that the superstitions may not be so bogus if their output has been so helpful in building successful human societies? Uh, go away, please.
The elites don't want to open up that can of worms. To them, the Religious Right is in the best of circumstances a kind of crazy uncle in a lowbrow doubleknit suit. At worst, he is the horrifying skeleton in the family closet that may one day expose the bastard genetics of the whole lineage.
Oogedy-boogedy. When they see it, they cross themselves (metaphorically speaking) and cross the street. Some of them don't want to admit their de facto atheism to themselves. Others don't want to admit it to their political opponents, who will be quick to articulate and win the legitimacy argument. Still others don't want to piss off the Religious Right because they are still needed, however much they make you cringe at cocktail parties. That's why all the "intelligent" conversations about the Christian Right get so confused, opaque, and circular. They'd rather the problem never came up at all. Which is why the only real response they can make is, "Quit it, Kathleen."