May 05, 2005

Column 2005-5-5 Commentary

In this column, Brooks once again proves conclusively that he is dispatching these pieces from some other reality. In Brooks's reality, militant secularists are overrunning the country, driving anyone who dares so much as mention religion from the public sphere with hooting and catcalls. Politicians who mention God or their faith are mercilessly harassed until they crack under the pressure and publicly reject religion in speeches filled with excerpts from Bertrand Russell and Voltaire. A nation-wide, well-organized lobby of atheists constantly presses for the passage of laws banning the teaching of religion, as well as spear-heading campaigns to remove the phrase "In God we Trust" from our money and to end the practice of swearing in the President on the Bible. The occasional meek protests by evangelicals are shouted down, complete with insinuations that fundamentalist Christians are not real Americans. If this doesn't sound like America to you, congratulations: you are living in the real world (although given the way things are going, congratulations may not be in order). In the real world, which Brooks doesn't seem to have touched base with in quite some time, there are some "militant secularists", but they are far outnumbered by the hard-core fundamentalists who are fighting to turn America into a theocracy. In the real world, Pat Robertson can go on tv and claim that activist judges are the greatest threat the United States has faced in its 400-year history, proving that not only is he completely insane, he's completely ignorant of the most basic facts of American history (or perhaps he just can't subtract; after all, 2005 and 1776 are very large numbers, and Pat Robertson is not very bright). In the real world, the radical Christian right is attempting to block the teaching of evolution (and, if they can get that through, plate tectonics, the Big Bang, and then presumably practically all science), drastically reduce the power of judges and eliminate their ability to review any question having to do with religion, run roughshod over the separation of powers in order to interfere in private matters, prevent women from having access to birth control (not to mention their attempts to ban abortion and homosexuality) and eliminate the separation of church and state and the right to privacy. In the real world, politicized evangelicals are proposing to radically reshape our society and establish a Christian version of the Taliban.

The radical turn that the Christian right has taken is obvious to anyone who is paying attention to the political scene, from which we can deduce that Brooks is doing no such thing. In his column, he refers to "militant secularists" and their "bland relativism", the "smug ignorance" of one Robert Kuttner, and "the forces of selfishness and subjectivism" (since these forces are to be balanced by evangelicals, they are presumably secular). Meanwhile, the "orthodox believers" have "conviction". Sure, "we're a little nervous about the perfectionism that often infects evangelical politics, the rush to crash through procedural checks and balances in order to reach the point of maximum moral correctness" and "sometimes evangelical causes can overflow the banks defined by our founding documents." But "the evangelical tradition is deeply consistent with the American creed" (who knew that the American creed included homophobia?); plus, the evangelicals have "moral rigor" (a ridiculous statement, incidentally: the phrase "moral rigor" is meaningless, and evangelicals are not necessarily more moral than other people simply because they claim to be evangelicals, as the televangelist scandals of the 80's demonstrate) and are partly responsible for "a great wave of internal improvements that transformed the country". It seems to me that Brooks is just a tiny bit biased in favor of the evangelicals here. And yet he admits that the evangelicals have a tendency to ignore the laws in order to impose their moral vision and that they are "overflowing the boundaries of our founding documents" -- i.e., ignoring the Constitution. Meanwhile, what are those bad secularists doing? Well, uh, the ACLU is fighting the constant usage of the sacred vocabulary in the public sphere (which, of course, is not true: the ACLU attempts to prevent the public sphere from being completely overrun by the sacred vocabulary). At least Brooks doesn't descend to the claim that secularists are trying to destroy Christianity by forcing people to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas", but really, can't he see what's going on here? This is, in fact, even worse than if Brooks had no idea what was going on (ok, so I was exaggerating earlier): all the facts are in front of him, yet somehow he is unable to put the pieces together.

Naturally, if this material was presented on its own, its patent absurdity would bring it down, so Brooks links everything to Lincoln, a man who "wrestled with faith, longing to be more religious, but never getting there." Brooks sees Lincoln as being firmly in the middle of the culture wars, where by firmly in the middle Brooks means right next to the evangelicals, though not approving wholeheartedly of everything they do. This is interesting, as Lincoln is a man who said "The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." Perhaps Lincoln wanted to be more religious, but he appears to have recognized something that Brooks has not: religion is not the same thing as evangelical Christianity. (This is especially confusing because Brooks is, after all, Jewish). Evidence of Lincoln's peculiarly personal approach to religion abounds: when Lincoln first ran for office, he was dogged by charges that he was "an open scoffer at Christianity" or at least not entirely orthodox in his beliefs. He is the only president who never joined a church. Then there is his Second Inaugural Address, full of quotes like this one: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." The whole speech is suffused with the feeling that God's plan may not be exactly what anybody, even Lincoln, thinks it is, and is especially a warning to the North (and, presumably, the Radical Republicans, who were in some sense the radical Christian right of the day) not to assume that its victory in the Civil War gave it a monopoly on truth or a sudden ability to divine God's will.

Lincoln is, of course, an excellent figure for Brooks to select, only not for the reasons that Brooks thinks. Unlike today's radical Christian right, Lincoln did not automatically assume that he had all the answers or that he knew God's will. He did not claim that the Bible was literal truth and should be the highest law of the land: after all, he must have known that the Bible was being used to provide support for slavery. Furthermore, Lincoln never tried to impose his religious views on others, insisting that they should remain private. It appears, according to Allen Guelzo, whose biography of Lincoln Brooks quotes, that Lincoln was, in his own way, an intellectual who came to his moral beliefs at least in part by reading books and thinking about what he had read, something which is anathema to the Dobsons and Robertsons of the world. Consider, finally, this Lincoln quote: "The subject presented in the memorial is one upon which I have thought much for weeks past, and I may even say for months. I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right." It is hard to imagine the Lincoln who appears in this quote having much sympathy with today's evangelicals.

It should be noted that the only evidence Brooks gives in favor of his view of Lincoln is that Lincoln told his cabinet, when he announced his intention to, well, proclaim the Emancipation Proclamation, that he had made a vow to God that if the Union won at Antietam, Lincoln would present the decree. This is interesting as this story appears to be practically unsourced (as is his wont, Brooks doesn't source it). For instance, Brooks quotes Lincoln as saying as this meeting that "God had decided the question in favor of the slaves", but a Google search for this quote produces exactly two hits which are not quotes from this column, neither of which state a source for their quote. Google is certainly not all-knowing, and it is possible that new scholarship has revealed this hitherto unknown episode, but it is instructive to examine the timeline that most sources give for the Emancipation Proclamation, one which is rather different than Brooks's. Lincoln first broached the idea of emancipation to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of State William Seward on July 13, 1862, and presented it to the full cabinet on July 22. There was no talk of God at this meeting: instead, Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, applauded the Proclamation's military value and Montgomery Blair warned of possible adverse consequences for the fall elections. Lincoln wanted to issue the Proclamation immediately, but Seward persuaded him to wait for some good military news, as otherwise "it may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help." And while Lincoln's strong belief that slavery was wrong, arising at least in part from his religious beliefs, was an important motivation behind the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, it was not the only one. The Proclamation had, as Stanton recognized, considerable military value, as it struck directly at the basis of the South's economy and ensured British backing for the Union.

But of all the ways in which Brooks twists Lincoln to suit his purposes, this sentence is undoubtedly the most ridiculous: "When great leaders make daring leaps, they often feel themselves surrendering to Divine Providence, and their strength flows from their faith that they are acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth." The freethinkers, atheists, and Deists who founded this country -- Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Madison, Franklin, Paine, Hamilton -- would (if they were alive) disagree, in many cases fervently. Furthermore, it is entirely possible to have faith that one is "acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth" without being religious. Brooks is merely recycling the tired old canard that atheists have no concept of morality. What would actually be accurate, or at least more accurate would be to say that "When great leaders make daring leaps, their strength flows from their faith that they are acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth." Religion can be involved, but need not be.

Finally, Robert Kuttner deserves better than to be dismissed as smugly ignorant for proposing that the culture war is now "a contest between enlightened reason and dogmatic absolutism". First of all, it should be made clear that Kuttner proposed no such thing: this formulation is Brooks's. The column to which Brooks appears to be referring is here: Kuttner doesn't even refer to the culture war, a much broader phenomenon than that which he is discussing. Instead, Kuttner attacks the radicals on the far religious right who wage war against science, history, and all forms of intellectual effort when they conflict with what the radical Christians believe to be the revealed truth of the Bible. Just what Brooks feels is objectionable about this is unclear, especially since Brooks, as noted above is Jewish (and, judging from his picture, not Orthodox). As always, the only possible conclusion is that Brooks is flacking for the Republican party, doing his best to put a moderate face on the religious extremists who wield an ever-growing amount of influence over the party. Sadly for Brooks, the Republican party has long since stopped being the party of Lincoln.