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For a few weeks in France in the spring of 1968, with universities and factories occupied by students and workers, conservative bureaucrats of the ossified (Communist) left seemed the main obstacle in the way of “the imagination in power.” It was at that time that the poetic anarchists of the Situationist International – today, they would be called political performance artists — proclaimed: “this great humanity will not be truly happy until the last bureaucrat has been strangled with the guts of the last capitalist.”
These words echoed a celebrated watchword of the atheist priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729) and the great philosophe and encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713-1784). Meslier called for hanging nobles on the guts of priests, while Diderot, with a Revolution looming, wanted “to strangle the neck of the last king” on “the last priest’s entrails.” One must hand it to them: they figured out a way to put the First Estate to good use.
Nowadays, nobles and kings are no longer politically relevant thanks in part to transformations set in motion by those who took Meslier’s and Diderot’s call to heart. Ironically, it was the socialist movement, which took root decades after the French Revolution in (partial) opposition to the economic, political and social order bourgeois revolutionaries established, that consummated the project of ridding the political arena of nobles and kings. It was socialists who finally did in the class enemy of their class enemy, leaving their own class enemy, the bourgeoisie, more secure than ever. Then, to add to the irony, in the final decades of the twentieth century, as Communism imploded and other socialist tendencies fell into a profound and protracted eclipse, the ossified bureaucrats who aroused the animosity of revolutionary students in 1968 soon became irrelevant too. However, it was not students or workers that did them in, but their own uselessness; in effect, they strangled themselves.
Meanwhile, capitalists are still with us, their necks and guts intact — with consequences even more noxious than in 1968. So too are the priests – and their counterparts in other “faith traditions.”
This too is ironic. For enlightened thinkers two and a half centuries ago, the prospects for priests in societies based on Reason and Justice were at least as grave as for nobles and kings. And what Communist militant, after the Bolshevik Revolution would have predicted that the Catholic Church would outlive the Third International? Indeed, what thoughtful liberal or social democrat in the middle decades of the last century would have imagined that organized religions, already irrelevant in their own time, would be so politically consequential in America today?
I was reminded of this by the brouhaha stirred up by the efforts of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to force President Obama to back down (imagine that!) on his plan for all employers, including Catholic hospitals, universities and other Church-related institutions, to include contraceptive coverage in the health plans they offer their employees. Since there is overwhelming evidence that few self-declared Catholics, perhaps as few as one or two per cent, abide by their Church’s prohibition of contraception, this looked like one area where Obama’s (Romney-inspired, indeed Heritage Foundation contrived) health care (actually health insurance) reform might evade Republican obstructionism and also do considerable good. But the Bishops were not about to give up without a fight. And so they are now making common cause with the buffoons vying for the Republican nomination, and with the once virulently anti-Catholic Protestant Right.
That the Bishops would choose this battle and those allies is remarkable inasmuch as the Church hierarchy holds positions on many issues – from capitalist rapacity to capital punishment – that their Protestant counterparts and the most retrograde of their co-religionists (like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich) would hardly abide. By today’s standards, the Catholic Bishops are downright “progressive” in much the (genuinely conservative) way that, say, George, father of Mitt, was back in the day.
The Bishops’ explicit rationale is, of course, theological; it is all about when personhood begins and what the “sacredness” of human life implies. But this is on the surface. At a deeper level, it is fair to say that what is going on has more to do with internalized sexual repression and the domineering patriarchy of the Catholic Church.
In these respects, Catholic teaching is of a piece with that of other Christian denominations and also of Judaism and Islam – in other words, with all the Abrahamic religions. Only liberal strains of these “faith traditions” are comparatively free of twisted views and patriarchal attitudes. In In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People, I argue that religious liberalism is not so much a form of Abrahamic religiosity as a vehicle of exit from it, attractive to those who know better (even if they don’t know that they know), but who, for one reason or another, are not yet ready to break free from traditional religious practices and beliefs. For those whose faith is more full-blooded, the Bishops’ express views, and the fervor with which they press them, are more nearly the norm.
It is revealing that the Bishops almost always maintain a discreet silence when political authorities do things they officially oppose, so long as Abrahamic pathologies are not engaged. What sets them off is sex and, insofar as there is a difference, efforts by women to escape the thrall of patriarchy. Even so, one would have thought that, this election season, they would confine their meddling to wedge issues like abortion, where the positions they defend are not so far behind the views of their followers. Setting their sights on contraception is remarkable, even for them.
That Obama would seek to compromise with the Church that outraged Meslier and Diderot is to be expected. Were he, like the Situationists, to speak in the idiom of eighteenth century revolutionaries, his slogan would have to be “capitulate, capitulate, always capitulate.” But one has a right to expect better from what passes for a left. Why, then, is there so much reluctance to tell the Bishops, in no uncertain term, what they can do with their views on contraception? So far have we fallen from the days of Meslier and Diderot, and the revolutionaries they inspired, that it has become almost axiomatic that no one dares say a non-respectful word to or about clerics. Instead, almost the entire left, not just spineless liberals, is steadfastly and self-destructively decorous where religion is concerned — to a degree that would have seemed astonishing not just in the hoary past but within the living memory of “progressives” today.
To be sure, the turn from the hangman’s noose to overwrought civility represents progress of sorts. It is something of an achievement that nowadays, even the Catholic hierarchy, if not their newfound allies, have joined the civilized world by no longer countenancing death sentences. But we mustn’t exaggerate the progress made. In the United States, we still have a political class that, along with much of the electorate, supports judicial murder. And we have a President who, with the backing of many liberals, actually licenses extra-judicial killing, even of American citizens, without a shred of due process, so long as the state commits its crimes within the ever-widening framework of a rebranded War on Terror.
At least the Bishops have not sunk that low; and, for that, they deserve credit. But they do not deserve respectful deference; especially not when they aim to set the clock back by decades. Since the contraception question has been settled for decades, their radicalism, like the Supreme Court’s on corporate assaults on democratic governance, should make everybody, even genuine conservatives (as distinct from “conservatives” of the GOP variety), raging mad.
For what is more worthwhile conserving than the idea, enshrined in our Constitution, that there should be an infrangible wall of separation between churches – not just the one headquartered in Rome, but all of them — and the state? This deeply entrenched principle represents perhaps the most important tenet in the entire liberal canon: that religious convictions ought to be matters of private conscience only, and that they should therefore be of no political consequence at all.
To be clear, I do not mean that principled liberals believe that individuals’ opinions on matters of public policy must never be shaped by religious convictions; for believers, that would be impossible, even if it were desirable. Nor do I mean to suggest that when religions shape political stands, the result is always or even usually for the worse. That would be a reasonable conjecture, but the facts do not bear it out.
Even in the comparatively recent past — in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements and then in the solidarity movements of the 1980s – people “of faith” often took leading roles. In In Bad Faith, I argue that religious convictions merit reproach even so, no matter how welcome – and beneficent – the politics they can sometimes inspire. But that is another story. For now, I only want to claim, along with the authors of our Constitution, that the rational kernel, as it were, of the diatribes of revolutionary eighteenth century thinkers is that a just state is one that keeps the priesthood — and its counterparts in other Abrahamic religions — out of the political arena entirely.
Liberals who make a virtue of unconditional civility don’t quite get that point. And so, when priestly meddling becomes too egregious even for them, as in the case of the Bishops’ recent machinations, they only meekly dissent from what they should robustly condemn.
Meslier and Diderot, unlike liberals today, were not shy about taking their own side in arguments; and they did not pull their punches rhetorically. Even as liberal fervor has diminished as the centuries have worn on, there were plenty of liberals who evinced a similar boldness — some of them even helped write our Constitution. Were they still around and cognizant of prevailing mores, they could surely be counted on to call the Catholic Bishops to account.
Their watchword, again, was the separation of Church and state, a doctrine that, unlike the militant atheism of Meslier’s and Diderot’s successors, arguably serves both Church and state well. But even those of us who feel drawn to militant atheism, and who wish it weren’t so plainly self-defeating, can comfortably accept the doctrine of Church-state separation, provided it is rigorously and consistently applied. It has implications that even hardier liberals of times past failed to acknowledge.
These considerations come to a head around the issue of gay marriage. For reasons that are not entirely clear, homosexuality is a matter of the utmost concern to clerics in nearly all the Abrahamic faiths, and an occasion for their most blatant hypocrisy. In this respect, the Catholic Church is, by all accounts, primus inter pares, first among equals.
It is also second to none, or very nearly so, in making much of marriage. From time immemorial, marriage, in one form or another, has been the chief institutional means for regulating and therefore controlling female sexuality. By now, the Catholic take on marriage has become the norm — especially, but not only, in the “Judeo-Christian” world. Thus marriage today, nearly everywhere apart from a few Muslim holdouts, is, at least in theory, companionate. And, until lately, it has everywhere and always (except perhaps in pre-archaic times) been between one man and one (or several) women. In addition, for Catholics, unlike Protestants or Jews or Muslims, marriage is a sacrament; and Catholicism rigorously proscribes divorce (except when it doesn’t; that is, when it is useful for the Church hierarchy to claim that some marriages never really existed in the first place).
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Church would oppose homosexuals marrying, though on this issue the hierarchy’s vehemence pales in comparison to what one finds among their more retrograde co-thinkers on contraception. The Church hierarchy is too worldly, too well-bred, to sink quite to their level. What is surprising is the respectful deference liberals, and some “beautiful souls” to their left, show towards these perpetuators of what Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the modern era, called “humanity’s self-imposed nonage.”
Radical thinkers since Plato have called for the reform or outright abolition of marriage. Those who are now engaged in the struggle for marriage equality, if they harbor similar sentiments, have kept them to themselves; their call is just for including same sex couples in the existing order.
Now this much should be uncontroversial: that invidious discrimination is reprehensible. At most only three of the vaunted Ten Commandments – the sixth proscribing murder, the eighth on theft, and the ninth on “bearing false witness” – even come close to being as defensible. Treating same sex couples the same way opposite sex couples are treated with respect to conjugal unions should therefore a no-brainer for anyone claiming moral authority, as clerics of all faiths do.
But, of course, most clerics are on the wrong side of this one. Still, too many liberals and leftists go on as if their position, though indefensible on its face, deserves respect. They speak and act as if there is a real debate to be had because, there can be no other reason, it is taboo to disparage the guardians of humanity’s benighted past. This is civility run amok, and it leads liberal and left thinking astray.
Let’s grant that there are matters of social and legal importance that the state has a legitimate reason to regulate that fall within the purview of traditional marriage. This would suggest that, insofar as there is more involved than just a word, “civil union” for all — hetero- and homo-sexual alike — not “marriage” for all, should be the goal of liberal egalitarians. But even if the difference is only verbal, and the insistence on “marriage” has only to do with expressive concerns that, for extra-political reasons, matter to some people, it is still telling that the issue is never raised.
And so the debate today is an intra-conservative one: between those who want to keep things just as they are, and those who support traditional marriage too but want to include same sex couples in its strictures. Gay marriage rectifies a longstanding and indefensible exclusion from a social order it would leave essentially unchanged.
Who would gainsay that much conservatism? Even the most radical among us would have to concede that, for an indefinite future, we have more pressing “utopian” goals to pursue than the radical transformation, or total abolition, of marriage (or civil union). But it would hardly be too much to expect real liberals, and those to their left, within the marriage equality movement to press for a very simple and not very radical reform; one that follows straightforwardly from one of liberalism’s core doctrinal commitments.
Surely, they could press to get clergy out of the marriage (or civil union) business altogether. Let them do what they want to those who acknowledge their authority. Let a thousand weddings transpire in churches, synagogues and mosques. But in the political arena, clergymen and, where liberal religion exists, clergywomen ought to be citizens only; nothing more. Let their necks and entrails pass unharmed by all means; but by no means let them act, as they now do as agents of the state.
Once that obvious reform is secure, perhaps we could then go on to consider the vexed issued of tax exemptions, de facto state subsidies, for religious institutions; and we might even try to block the monies our government currently throws their way for their supposedly non-religious work (as if money weren’t entirely fungible). But first let us be rid of the most egregious and longstanding violation of the principle of church-state separation in our political culture; let’s get priests and ministers and rabbis and mullahs and the rest of them too out of the business of moving democratic citizens from one “civil estate” to another.
That this is not even an issue today is very nearly as remarkable as the fact that contraception now is. After all, gay activists used to be, or seem to be, the most rad kids on the block. Throughout the 1970s, they called, along with many allies, not only for changing property relations and political structures, but for liberating the human psyche itself by breaking down traditional gender expectations and smashing sexual prohibitions. Today, in contrast, they are probably the most conservative sector of the erstwhile Obama coalition. The ossified bureaucrats of May 68 are screaming Bolsheviks in comparison.
And so when, finally, Barack Obama, assured of overwhelming popular support and the backing of the Pentagon brass, finally got Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for gays serving in the military repealed, not a bad word on militarism or imperialism was heard from their quarters. It is the same today with efforts to repeal DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and with efforts at the state level to legalize marriage equality. Indeed, it is worse because while anti-militarism and anti-imperialism are respectable (though extreme) positions in the minds of coalition-minded liberals, anything smacking of Meslier and Diderot falls beyond the pale.
Where the opinions of ecclesiastics whose powers and office ought to have expired long ago are involved, unconditional civility is emphatically not a political virtue. It only enables their illicit meddling – even on such settled “moral” issues as contraception. It confers immunity upon the meddlers, undermining the benefits of church-state separation.
No doubt, Meslier and Diderot, like the militants of the Situationist International, were a bit over the top. But, at the very least, when desiccated Catholic Bishops and the pedophile priests they superintend start acting out the pathologies Catholicism shares with all the Abrahamic faiths, it surely wouldn’t hurt to err in the opposite direction, by responding to their views with a resounding “who cares?”
That would at least be in the spirit of Meslier and Diderot, and also consistent with the deleterious tolerance of today’s anodyne liberalism. With atavistic clergies and their reactionary flocks everywhere challenging the hard-won achievements of modernity, the urgency of resuming the cause of eighteenth century revolutionary thinkers – formerly the cause of progressives everywhere — is plain. Before what remains of our enlightenment heritage succumbs to a Santorum surge, abetted by reprobate clerics of many faiths, not just Catholic Bishops, this great humanity must finally overcome its far too polite quiescence in the face of godly authority by rising up again, and saying something like “enough – the offices you hold and the views you profess are just not worth taking seriously any longer.”
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.