The War Against Secularism
There is a war going on against secularism. The aggressors in this war claim that they are on the defensive in a war on religion. But that is often the case with revolutions. The perpetrators claim they just want to go about doing things in the usual way. Sometimes the revolutionaries are right. The South was correct in thinking that Lincoln was trying to change a nation that had for so long been led by the Southern slaveholding class. The English thought they were restoring the Parliament to its traditional prerogatives—until, that is, the Parliament beheaded the king. In the present case, the Catholic Church, Protestant Evangelicals and some of the Republican Presidential aspirants think they are restoring the nation to its religious roots.
Now, that isn’t true, as everyone with a decent college education knows. Most of the Founding Fathers were Deists who believed that “Nature’s God”, as the Declaration of Independence puts the concept, had set the world in motion and that the world was on its own now, subject only to the laws of physical nature, economics, and politics, the last of these extensively mined to produce The Federalist Papers. Jefferson had edited the Bible so that the supernaturalism is taken out and Methodist enthusiasm had not yet taken over most of American religion. But, be that as it may, those who war on secularism do insist that the United States was always the burnt-over district New York State would become in the 1840’s and that they are just reclaiming what always was.
Now, a better case can be made that secularism came to dominate major public institutions at the time of the turn into the twentieth century. Medicine was put on a scientific basis in that you could actually accomplish something with surgery, and public health matters such as vaccination, a clean water supply and indoor plumbing became issues for good government types. Schools, in the name of educating immigrant groups, became the purveyors of a secularized knowledge of both the humanities and the sciences. The Bible was just another piece of literature and everybody could and should study evolution, at least in the big cities, regardless of your cultural background.
That accommodation to the variety of Americans allows the pursuit of a secular agenda and may even require it, and that is what the current revolution is out to unseat. The Catholic Church wants to take back an authority it can’t manage to exercise over its own membership by having the government enforce that authority, never mind that the government can, from the outside, consult whatever Catholic groups it wants to, including women led Catholic health organizations, and not just the male clergy that the male clergy of the Church says are the only people to be consulted. The secular government is not in a position to judge who is theologically correct either about leadership authority or doctrine; it is only in a position to treat whatever group cares to be treated as such as an interest group worth cultivating.
The leading figure on the anti-secular side is Cardinal Dolan, the recently anointed Cardinal of New York. He is the one who said that the Obama “compromise” by which insurance companies rather than the Church will foot the bill for contraceptive care is unsatisfactory. But his avuncular, hail fellow well met style allows him to leave the dirty work to people in the secular arena, and the most prominent of those, for the moment, is Rick Santorum, the erstwhile presidential candidate whose real concerns is moving the nation back to what he takes to be the morality of the Fifties, before John F. Kennedy, when Catholicism was still an isolated community, eating no meat on Fridays and few using birth control, its membership going to Catholic schools and Catholic colleges, and marrying within their own. Santorum is like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan in thinking that the pre-Civil Rights and pre-sexual revolution Fifties was a Golden Age for both religion and politics. It is therefore a mistake to understand Rick Santorum in terms of how he will build a political coalition rather than in terms of his religious convictions. That was something the recent New York Times piece about him made clear.
So what is one to make of Rick Santorum, the leading edge, at the moment, of the attack on secularism? A friend of mine, Arnold Birenbaum, raised this question most acutely in an article he had published recently about the contradiction between Santorum’s wish to see his own daughter, who has a severe birth defect, given all the treatment she needs, and Santorum’s political agenda, which is to cut back on federally funded programs for the developmentally impaired. How to explain Rick Santorum's cognitive dissonance about health care for the disabled? Santorum must know that not everyone can afford the care his daughter needs. The Liberal position is straight-forward. Spend as much public money as is needed to give such children some degree of comfort and to give their parents some sense that people are concerned about their plight. The amount of public funds spent would be a pittance in the health care budget because such cases are so rare. But Santorum wanting to cut such programs suggest he has no sympathy for anyone but his daughter. So I ask how to explain this obvious contradiction. Mind you, I am not asking how Santorum could or should resolve his cognitive dissonance. I don't think people do that; they just find ways of managing it, and I am asking how Santorum does it.
Two explanations immediately suggest themselves to me. The first is what might be called Plato's explanation. People just aren't very capable of generalizing beyond their immediate situations and so do not see that other people share their circumstances. A second explanation can be called the Mannheim explanation because it invokes the peculiarities of political thinking. When people talk politics, they enter into a rhetorical realm that has rules of its own, mostly concerned with the expression of anger and righteousness that have little to do with what happens in everyday life. So when Santorum is talking politics, it comes out of his Conservative ideology of big government always being bad and so has nothing to do with whether it is a good thing to nurture very disabled people. His political talk is like what some philosophers of language call religious talk: it follows its own rules and so uses words like “faith” or “God” or phrases like “speaking with God” in ways that have little relation to what we do in ordinary language when we invoke feelings or name objects or invoke tropes, as when we say, “I told my secrets to my dog knowing he would never reveal them”.
I queried a social psychologist I know about what I now call the Birenbaum Problem. He said that Santorum was simply a zealot and therefore did not consider the consequences of his beliefs. That is also an explanation. There might be dozens out there, which suggests that the Birenbaum Problem taps into something deep about language and human nature. Birenbaum’s own explanation is very interesting and, characteristically of him, is very sociological. He says that Santorum is unwilling to acknowledge that other people are troubled by dealing with the “courtesy stigma” that goes along with being the parent of a permanently sick child. They do not forever want to be identified and treated as the caretaker of a tragedy. Some want to be relieved of the role, and that is something Santorum cannot abide, he himself fully caught up in that role, always having to manage it, even to the point of letting it intrude a bit on his Presidential campaign.
Good for him, but not everyone prizes that virtue of enforced humility in the face of awful circumstances. I add that Santorum may feel up to doing so because he believes, as a Christian, that suffering is redemptive, and so the suffering of one’s child is part of the vale of soul making into which he has been placed, but I hope he doesn’t think so selfishly about the little girl, even though his Church’s theology would think that way, every soul selfish for its own salvation.
Rush Limbaugh, this past week, went a step further in the war against secularism than Santorum did because he personalized it, thinking he would draw blood rather than just the usual response of generalized indignation when he called a young woman who had long lobbied for reproductive health insurance a slut. He, like Santorum, is interested in reviving the moral codes that flourished sixty years ago, though he alone is willing to put it into the street language of that time. Never mind that Sandra Fluke, the object of his attack, is a full grown thirty and can take care of herself rhetorically and emotionally; commentators also have grown daughters who lead independent lives and the commentators don’t want their own children called sluts on the airwaves. MSNBC commentators fell over backwards not to give her offense when speaking to Ms. Fluke, as if she were a doll or a child or a saint. But Sandra Fluke is so appealing because of her well scrubbed look and exceptional manners that the President of Georgetown sprung to her defense, even though she had been a pain on campus, just as did the President of the United States just a day or two later. PBS was, as usual, on target because it relegated the Fluke kerfuffle to thirty seconds on its news roundup rather than having a panel brought in to discuss it. This was a very minor skirmish in the war against secularism.
The problem with casting the war on secularism as one that engages only politicians and commentators is that such a characterization distances it from the Catholic Church.
The Times article tried to distance Santorum from the Catholic Church or, anyway, from the Liberal church the Times would like the Catholic Church to be. Calling in Garry Wills as an expert on Catholicism, as they did, so as to get an expert commentator from outside their organization, is to call in a ringer. Wills has long pressed his own anti-clerical line, something for which members of the American Church are not well known. Indeed, I hazard the opinion that Wills mischaracterizes the history of the Church in that a Rome like hierarchical structure where authority goes down the line but not up the line is to be found in the Gospels. Wills’ Vatican II view that true Catholicism is the reverse, an expression of the corporation of believers, may have a lot of merit but it was rejected by the Church fifty years ago. Deal with it.
The truth of the matter is that the positions Santorum takes are no different from those of the American Conference of Bishops; they just preach about it less because they know that their parishioners are no longer on the same wave length. There is an article in the same issue of the Times on Cardinal Dolan, who does indeed advance the Santorum positions, even if he might pose it, if queried, more in terms of natural law than in terms of redemptive suffering. But when Catholics, including both Santorum and Dolan, say that they want to bring religion back into the public arena, they don’t really mean it. They mean only that they can deliver their judgments from on high and that everybody ought to acquiesce out of respect for their piety. It is the same with most religious figures. You don’t want to insult them by saying that what they say is insulting to someone who does not agree with them, whether about the proof of the existence of God or about whether birth control is morally permissible. The clerics and their followers, of whatever religious persuasion, do not want to bring their arguments into the public light for public dispute. I would ask Dolan why he thinks condoms are any less unnatural than the rhythm method. Both are inventions of the human imagination, and the rhythm method requires a great deal more discipline than using a piece of rubber. Dolan just prefers privation as a way of life. And I would ask Santorum why God would create children so that they could suffer. But to ask either of these questions would be rude.
The revolutionaries have not thought of what would ensue if we were allowed to be rude to one another about religion. It would embark us on the deep seated mistrust that characterized the relations between Church and State that existed before the English and then the Americans saw the virtues of a doctrine of tolerance: respect offered while dislike or discomfort with another group is kept private. The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing even if Dolan and Santorum, under the rules that the Founding Fathers established, are allowed to disrespect those rules.