Zealots on the Mount

Following the president’s re-election by the electoral synod last week, the sentimental apoplectic in me couldn’t help picturing the last scene in “The Day After,” the movie about a nuclear holocaust. Shredded and shrunken, Jason Robards’ doctor-character sits on the rubble of his house as the camera pans out to reveal a flattened Lawrence, Kan.

What hydrogen bombs couldn’t do to the Democratic Party, Karl Rove and George W. Bush finally did, with a little help from a ringer. Five votes swung the election Bush’s way four years ago. It took just one vote this time — Osama bin Laden’s, cast with impeccable timing over the last three years to keep fear the value-added commodity it’s been for the Bush administration. Without fear, there could be no crusade (against heathens abroad and at home, but mostly at home), and, without crusade, there could be no appeal to the deciding factor in American politics: the religious bloc. So, the 2004 election panned out as a choice between committed evangelicals and committed secularists. Evangelicals won.

It’s time to doff the veil. The United States isn’t immune to the fundamentalist El Niño circling the globe. Iran has its mullahs. Afghanistan has its Taliban. Saudi Arabia has its Wahhabites. We have evangelicals, whose world view is different from those doctrinaire brigades in dress only.

What they all have in common is the subordination of private and public conduct to God’s law as they understand it and the rejection of the secular values of the Enlightenment on which America’s constitutional principles were founded, what historian Garry Wills sums up as “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”

Quashing those principles may not be what we want as a society. But, for now, it’s what we’re headed toward. Secularism is by nature accommodating and diffuse where zealotry is grasping and single-minded. And George W. Bush’s born-again Republican Party (which has very little to do with Ronald Reagan’s GOP and nothing to do with Nelson Rockefeller’s and Prescott Bush’s) depends for survival on its arranged marriage with evangelicals. The two feed on each other in a symbiosis that will survive so long as national values are defined by the fundamentalists.

Evidence of scandalous presidential deception on, and incompetence in, Iraq; of negligence the summer before the 2001 attacks; of officially sanctioned brutality and torture in military prisons from Guantanamo to Kabul; of routine contempt for due process and other constitutional rights; of wanton cronyism within the administration; of suppressing or faking evidence to manipulate favorable congressional votes (on the true cost of the Medicare prescription law, on tax cuts, on pollution rules) — none of it matters. What matters is that a self-proclaimed Chosen One is in the White House claiming to be doing God’s will and elevating it where he can.

God, if He happens to be listening, help us. Speaking at the University of Chicago Divinity School almost three years ago, Antonin Scalia, the next chief justice of the United States, defined the state as St. Paul defined it: “The core of his message is that government — however you want to limit that concept — derives its moral authority from God. . . . And in this world the Lord repaid — did justice — through His minister, the state.” That concept, Scalia said, represents “the consensus of Western thought until very recent times. Not just of Christian or religious thought, but of secular thought regarding the powers of the state. That consensus has been upset, I think, by the emergence of democracy . . . The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible.” So they did on Nov. 2.

For secularism to reassert itself, it’s time to doff another veil. Religion has traditionally been a subject commentators address only peripherally and never critically for obvious reasons. Theology was neither a matter of state nor of public concern. Few lay commentators are prepared or capable of addressing it. Evangelicals have taken advantage of that immunity to invade the public sphere unchecked. Now that their theology has become an engine of public policy and national purpose, it’s fair to return to the basics of Enlightenment strategies, to tackle theology head-on, to ridicule its political presumptions and condemn its public grabs, where necessary, and to demolish its doctrinaire assumptions when appropriate. To treat it, in sum, on the equal footing it claims to be with all matters public and political. We could start with a debate about every evangelical’s blind spot: free will.

An important election was lost, but an objective was clarified for any American, Republican or Democrat, who cares about the nation’s secular values. I’m adding Jefferson to my speed-dial and unholstering my Voltaire.

PIERRE TRISTAM is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at ptristam@att.net.


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