Haters in the Public Square

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Thursday evening I’m driving up Connecticut Avenue on my way to my reading at Politics & Prose and the cab driver has NPR on the radio. All Things Considered is talking about CPAC, which is kicking off just blocks away, and the GOP’s new national front runner, Rick Santorum. They play a snippet from one of his speeches. (I Googled a few phrases from it back at the hotel and learned that he was talking to some ministers in Texas, basically pledging his support for their agenda. Funny to think that JFK, another Catholic contender for the presidency, went to Texas to reassure a gathering of ministers that he believed in the separation of church and state.)

Santorum’s topic is the liberal religion of secular humanism, a paradoxical construction I first encountered in Phillip Johnson’s brief for creationism, Darwin on Trial (I think Johnson actually called it “scientific materialism”). It is the most intolerant religion ever, Santorum tells the ministers:

The intolerance of the left, the intolerance of the secular ideology, it is a religion unto itself, it is just not a biblical based religion. … Just like we saw from the days of the atheists of the Soviet Union, it is completely intolerant of dissent. They fear dissent. Why? Because the dissent comes from folks who use reason, common sense, and divine revelation and they want no part of any of those things. … They want their world view to be imposed without question, and if you question them, you’re haters, you’re bigots, and you should be as a result of that ostracized from the public square.

He’s talking about me, I realized—if the author of The New Hate isn’t one of those people who accuses regular folks of being haters then who is? If the fundamentalist right wing and Opus Dei-style Catholicism has a monopoly on reason, common sense, and divine revelation, what does that leave the rest of us with? Superstition, error, and vindictiveness, I guess. Unless it’s the other way around.

But this is precisely where I don’t want to go. I don’t want to get up on my high horse and say that there is no place for faith and feeling in one’s world view, because let’s face it—most of the injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount (or for that matter, The Ten Commandments) are categorical imperatives, not the products of a rational calculus of profit and loss. I don’t believe in divine revelation myself, but I don’t throw my whole lot in with reason, either. If pure religion can lead to the auto da fe, pure reason can just as easily take you to the gulags, to Auschwitz, to any number of nightmares perpetrated on the principle that noble ends justify the most despicable of means.

People are more than the sum of their ideas—they are formed by their families and tribes. The contraception controversy that we find ourselves in the midst of (and who in 1965 would have dreamed that the stuff of Griswold v. Connecticut would be coming back to haunt us almost fifty years later, in a time when the parties to the original lawsuit probably imagined we would be wearing rocket belts and commuting to Mars?) is interesting not so much because of the Catholic Church and the far right’s negative stances, which are both predictable and internally consistent, but the anguished unreason of some otherwise liberal Catholic pundits (Chris Matthews, E.J. Dionne), who, whether they follow the church’s teachings on contraception or not, deplore the state’s intrusion into religion’s sphere. The church, they say, shouldn’t be compelled to pay for something it disagrees with (even though non-tax exempt entities like me and my family are compelled to pay for things that we don’t approve of all the time). The church deserves a certain measure of deference, even if it’s only pro forma.

Joan Walsh addresses this at Salon. Atavistic memories of Know Nothingism are roused when the church is attacked, she says. And there is guilt too. “OK, I might not listen to the bishops, but I think we ought to demand that they’re respected in the public sphere.”  All of this is understandable, but it’s not something that should be blandly enabled. As Walsh goes on to say, it has a serious bearing on the 2012 election. And it puts some Catholics in league with some very strange bedfellows:

It wasn’t until I debated the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins on Hardball this week,” she says, “that the craziness of the right-wing Catholic alliance with conservative evangelicals became particularly obvious to me. They’ve locked arms with some of the very forces that once persecuted their ancestors—some of whom still despise Catholicism to this day. … Like Zionist Jews who’ve made common cause with right-wing evangelicals over Israel, some Catholics are lining up, in the name of religious freedom, alongside folks who want to wipe out their religion.

I could write an even longer post on the bizarre alliance between Zionism (some Zionists) and the Evangelicalist (some Evangelicalists) right. Perhaps some day I will. But in the meantime, it is fascinating to watch as the GOP ties itself to the coat tails of the forces aligned against contraception.  Most Americans, most Catholics, and most Republicans use birth control. Do Republicans vest that much confidence in their members’ tolerance for cognitive dissonance? Apparently they do. It brings to mind some choice phrases from the Gospels: “Do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. … Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy.”

Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah (Doubleday, 2005), Isims & Ologies (Vintage, 2007), and Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009). A contributing editor at Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, he also writes for children.