Liberal Fundamentalism, Revisited
Consider these quotes about the recently concluded election:
“Election results reflect a decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry…Ignorance and blood lust have a long tradition…especially in red states…They know no boundaries or rules. [Bush and Cheney] are predatory and resentful, amoral, avaricious, and arrogant.” Jane Smiley
“I am saddened by what I feel is the obtuseness and shortsightedness of a good part of the country – the heartland.” Article
“Where else do we find fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity?” Garry Wills
“…used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad…” Thomas Friedman
“W’s presidency rushes backward, stifling possibilities, stirring intolerance, confusing church with state, blowing off the world, replacing science with religion, and facts with faith. We’re entering another dark ages…a scary, paranoid, regressive reality.” Maureen Dowd
These are just some examples of the heated and frequently over-the-top rhetoric by the left.
That ugliness and resulting polarization led me to dig out one of the most powerful editorials I have read in my adult life – and it speaks directly to the so-called Red versus Blue state phenomenon. Here are some excerpts:
We have been following the extensive theological commentary in the press on the subject of politics and religion in the current presidential campaign. It might not otherwise have occurred to us that so many editorialists and columnists harbored so many deep, pent-up opinions on religious worship, voluntary school prayer or Christian fundamentalism.
What we have been looking for but have so far missed in this great awakening of religious writing is a short sermon on the subject of liberal fundamentalism…we would like to offer a few thoughts on what has been far and away the most messianic religion in America the past two decades – liberal politics.
American liberalism has traditionally derived much of its energy from a volatile mixture of emotion and moral superiority. The liberal belief that one’s policies would on balance accomplish something indisputably good generally made opposing arguments about shortcomings, costs or unintended consequences unpersuasive…
In retrospect, it’s clear that the moral clarity of the early civil-rights movement was a political epiphany for many white liberals…many active liberals carried along their newly found moral certitude and quasi-religious fervor into nearly every major public policy issue that has come along in the past 15 years. The result has been liberal fundamentalism.
…Not surprisingly, this evangelical liberalism produced a response. Conservative groups – both secular and religious – were created, and they quite obviously made the political success of their adversaries more difficult. Liberals don’t like that. So now, suddenly, we find all these politicians and columnists who are afraid someone might want to impose a particular point of view on them…
If some liberals are now afraid that certain Christian fundamentalists will reintroduce new forms of intolerance and excessive religious zeal into American political life, perhaps we should concede the possibility that they know what they’re talking about. But they might also meditate on the current election and why there has been an apparent rightward shift in political sentiment in the U.S. It could be that a great many voters have taken a good look at the fundamentalists on the religious right and the fundamentalists on the political left and made up their minds about which poses the greater threat to their own private and public values.
Interesting perspective, isn’t it? Doesn’t it strike you as if the editorial was written on November 3, 2004, the day after the election? But, no, it wasn’t written last month or even this year. Rather, the Wall Street Journal published that editorial entitled “Liberal Fundamentalism” on September 13, 1984.
Unfortunately, liberal fundamentalism continues to actively strip naked the traditional public square and replace it with a secular absolutism. Another editorial discussed recent actions against the Boy Scouts and Catholic Charities by noting:
What’s going on here is an effort by liberal activists and their judiciary enablers to turn one set of personal mores into a public orthodoxy from which there can be no dissent, even if that means trampling the First Amendment. Any voluntary association that doesn’t comply – the same little platoons once considered the bedrock of American freedom – will be driven from the public square. Meet the new face of intolerance.
This ideological intolerance is not the historical face of America. It does not reflect the principles of the Declaration of Independence. And it is not the practices of most Americans today, including many principled liberals and conservatives.
But still the question remains: Where will we go from here as a country? No one should doubt that this is a battle for the future of our country and it requires active engagement by all of us. History from recent decades shows that the apostles of liberal fundamentalism are unrelenting in their self-righteousness and intolerance of any opposing world view. We are fighting what Thomas Sowell has labeled the “vision of the [self-] anointed.”
As we do battle with this determined foe, I would offer you three quotes for reflection and encouragement.
The first quote reminds us of the natural law principles articulated by our Founders and why that leads to a crucial belief in limited government:
…natural law jurisprudence represents the greatest threat to the liberal desire to replace limited, constitutional government with a regulatory-welfare state of unlimited powers.
…the principle that our rights come not from government but from a “Creator” and “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” as our Declaration of Independence says, and that the purpose and power of government should therefore be limited to protecting our natural, God-given rights.
The left understands that if it is to succeed, these principles of constitutional government must be jettisoned, or at least redefined…the founders’ natural-law defense of constitutional government is fatal to liberalism’s goal…
…Woodrow Wilson, for example, insisted that unlike the physical universe, the political universe contains no immutable principles or laws. ‘Government…is a living thing…’
From a liberal view, liberty cannot be a natural right, protected by a government of limited powers, because there are no natural rights…Instead, ‘the state…is the creator of liberty.’
…The liberal critique of the Constitution has been repeated so long and with such intensity that it has become orthodoxy in our law schools, courtrooms and legislative halls…
The size, scope and purposes of our government are no longer anchored in and limited by our Constitution…The American people need to be reminded of the source of their rights and persuaded that limited government is good; that the principles of the Constitution – which are the natural-law principles of the Declaration of Independence – are timeless, not time-bound; that without those principles, the noble ends set forth in the Constitution’s preamble can never be achieved.
The second quote comes from Thomas Jefferson, as mentioned in Chapter 6 of Richard John Neuhaus’ book, The Naked Public Square:
…Jefferson, however, had no illusions that democracy had resolved the religious question by establishing “the separation of church and state.” Consider, for example, his well-known reflection on the immorality of slavery:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?…
In short, Jefferson understood that that no constitution or written law is strong enough to defend rights under attack. Their “only firm basis” is in their being perceived as transcendent gift.
The final quote comes from George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address as his Presidency was ending. It speaks to the importance of religion and morality:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness – these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them…Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
The very nature of public debate on a controversial issue in a democracy is “messy” and that messiness makes the debate appear inefficient or even ineffective. But that is because it takes time to build a consensus among citizens across our great country. For the survival of our country, we must find that consensus over time by helping people rediscover the importance of limited government and how both morality and religion are crucial building blocks.
I believe we will achieve such an outcome by appealing to Americans across the political spectrum who hold a deep-seated belief in the right of individual Americans to live a life of principled freedom among their family, friends, church and community – without interference from fundamentalists of any persuasion.