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The Religionization of Politics and the Tyranny of Totalitarianism

Santorum and God’s Will

by HENRY GIROUX

The possibility of an authoritarian and ethically dysfunctional family in the White House in 2013 certainly has caught the attention of a number of liberals and other progressives. After all, what progressive or decent conservative for that matter would support Rick Santorum’s rejection of the separation of church and state or his belief that it is better to live under the rule of a theocratic state rather than in a democracy. Of course, religious fanatics do not ponder these issues seriously because they get their information straight from God.  One example comes from Rick’s wife, Karen who told conservative talk show host Glenn Beck that it was “God’s will” that her husband is running for president and that she felt that “God had big plans for Rick.”[i] And, of course, Santorum has no trouble doubting his wife because he believes that the ultimate confrontation between good and evil is akin to a religious crusade and he is the man to lead it.  After all, Santorum as he has stated publicly many times  is on a moral crusade to snuff out the work of Satan in a variety of areas extending from higher education to health care and women’s reproductive rights.

For many moderate conservatives such as Rudy Giuliani, the likes of Santorum, Gingrich, Perry, and Bachmann represent the flight of the current Republican Party from the real world. For Giuliani, the party has become anti-modernist. For Ed Rollins, a CNN regular and Republican Party strategist, the party has fatally turned itself into the party of Wall Street and country clubber, leading them to eventual extinction. Liberals such as Maureen Dowd and Robert Reich view the Republican leadership as either “barking mad” or simply loony. As Reich points out, this is a party “of birthers, creationists, theocrats, climate-change deniers, nativists, gay-bashers, anti-abortionists, media paranoids, anti-intellectuals, and out of touch country clubbers [who] cannot govern America.”[ii] Of course, there is a semblance of truth in all of these positions, especially in the recognition that politicians such as Rick Santorum represent a clear and present danger to promise of a real democracy in the United States.

At the same time, terms such a loony, out of touch, anti-modernist, and the politicization of religion while offering a categorical referent that highlights the extremism and fundamentalism that drives the ideological views of such candidates run the risk of reinforcing a fatal
psychologizing or a dead-end collapse into narrow definition of religious fanaticism. Something far more serious and dangerous is unfolding in this current presidential election than the politicization of religion, a politics free from doubt,  or the emergence of the loony squad.  As Zygmunt Bauman points out in a different context:

Much too little attention is paid, however, to the parallel tendency of the ‘religionization of politics’, arguably still more dangerous and often much more gory in its consequences. A conflict of interests calling for negotiation and compromise (the daily bread of politics) is then recycled into an ultimate showdown between good and evil that renders any negotiated agreement inconceivable and from which only one of the antagonists can emerge alive (the liminal horizon of monotheistic religions).[iii]

In this apocalyptic view, issues that were often seen as non-religious such as sexual orientation, education, identity, and participation in public life are translated into the language of a religious revival and militant crusade against evil. Under such circumstances, politics becomes an extension of war, reason is trumped by militarized emotions, and dialogue is viewed as the work of Satan. Manichean, absolutist  visions now dominate the language of politics, just as the ‘religionization of politics’ becomes the only legitimate  fortress of …one truth, one way, one life formula – of adamant and pugnacious certainty and self-confidence; the last shelters for the seekers of clarity, purity and freedom from doubt and indecision.”[iv]

Totalitarian temptations now saturate the media and larger culture in the language of religious orthodoxy. A war against reason and the secular state and culture becomes the primary organizing principle of a politics whose ultimate goal is the extermination of dissent, critical thinking, informed judgment, and any vestige of independent agency. What we are witnessing in the United States is the normalization of a politics that exterminates not only the welfare state, and the truth, but all those others who bear the sins of the Enlightenment– that is, those who refuse a life free from doubt. Reason and freedom now becomes the enemy not merely to be mocked but to be destroyed. How else to explain Santorum’s tirade against higher education, his hatred of Muslims, his suggestion that Obama is not a true Christian, and his disdain for the reproductive rights of women. The violence of war in this discourse is sanctioned as a spiritual crusade, or as Santorum once put it “This is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war at all. This is a spiritual war.” [v] And this is a war whose totalitarian tendencies are evident in the war on science, immigrants, women, people of color, and anyone who does not adhere to Santorum’s religious orthodoxy.  There is more than ignorance at work here, there is also the dangerous demonization of “everybody but white, heterosexual, right-wing Christian males.”[vi] The mainstream media dresses this discursive fascism up as just another opinion, refusing to utilize the civic courage and critical analyses needed to name it for what it is: a form of totalitarian extremism.

Finding our way to a more humane future demands a new politics, a new set of values, and renewed sense of the fragile nature of democracy. In part, this means that militant religious war being waged by conservatives such as Santorum under the guide of a distorted notion of religion must be understood as another facet of contemporary authoritarianism. Not only because, it then becomes possible to recognize the real nurturing and progressive work of many religions, but also because it becomes easier to confront a virulent form of totalitarianism when it speaks through a militant and fundamentalist religious discourse. Santorum and his ilk define themselves as the new warriors attempting to bring morality back to America. In actuality, they are right-wing revolutionaries who want to replace democratic principles with autocratic ones, critical thought with unconditional obedience to a spiritual leader, and justice with a notion of faith rooted in a dangerous notion of exclusion, disposability, and extermination.  These tendencies have a long legacy in American history, but what we see that is new in the current historical moment  is that the totalitarian nature and social costs of that legacy are being erased in a commodified, celebrity-based, market-driven culture in which thinking is considered an act of stupidity and resistance something akin to a declaration of war.

Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His latest book, Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability,” will be published by Paradigm Publishers in 2011. He is a contributor to is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. 

Notes.


[i]. Sandhy a Somashekhar, “Karen Santorum: Rick’s Presdential Run Is ‘God’s Will’,” The Washington Post (February 26, 2012). Online:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/karen-santorum-husbands-presidential-run-is-gods-will/2012/02/23/gIQAhCkdWR_blog.html

[ii]. Robert Reich, “The Sad Race for Bottom on the Loony Right,” AlterNet (February 28, 2012). Online: http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/154321/the_sad_race_for_bottom_on_the_loony_right_/

[iii].Zygmunt Bauman, Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010), p. 132.

[iv]. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Fear (London: Polity Press, (2006), p. 113.

[v].Adele, M. Stan, “Agenda for the Dark Ages: GOP Frontrnner Rick Santorum’s 5 Most Extremist Themes,” AlterNet (February 28, 2012). Online: http://www.alternet.org/news/154242/agenda_for_the_dark_ages%3A_gop_frontrunner_rick_santorum’s_5_most_extremist_themes_

[vi]. Ibid. Adele, M. Stan, “Agenda for the Dark Ages: GOP Frontrnner Rick Santorum’s 5 Most Extremist Themes.”