Last week, we explored the ideological inconsistency that can be seen on the political Left in this country in recent years. We made the point that in the past Americans on the Left (even those who were not Marxists as such) could be counted on to take positions rooted in a Marxian analysis of world events.
Thus their sympathy for the Viet Cong, Fidel Castro’s government and other Latin American Marxists, for example, was based on the Left’s view that these groups were champions of the proletariat engaged in a struggle against world capitalism. This is, in large measure, what former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick meant when she said that many Americans on the Left tend to “blame America first.” Leftists were predisposed to view the United States as a force for evil in the world.
Nowadays, the American Left is harder to predict. They still blame America first, but here’s the rub even when we are engaged in a struggle against Islamic theocrats, hardly a force for proletarian revolution. It is hard to see how a Middle East reshaped by al Qaeda furthers Marx’s understanding of dialectical materialism. This led us to speculate in last week’s column that the Left’s view of the world may be rooted these days more in partisan politics and a desire to restore the Democratic Party to power in Washington than in a concern for ideological consistency.
Let’s take a different angle this week. I submit that there is a method to the seeming madness on the Left, especially for leftists who think these things through. It seems to me that there is one area where the American Left is consistent and firm: its hostility toward religion. Indeed, the Left’s flip-flops on foreign policy may be nothing more than short-term compromises to further its long-range goals on the role of religion in our pubic life. In other words, the Left may be willing to temporarily muddy the ideological waters in order to get the Democrats back in power because they are convinced the Democrats can be trusted on the question of religion.
The talk-show host and syndicated columnist Bill O’Reilly is doing yeoman’s work in exploring this theme. I know, I know many people find O’Reilly hard to take. He can be overbearing, pompous, arrogant, a blow-hard, simplistic, etc. etc. All of that. I have no idea if the man is like this in real life, or if it is just part of his public persona. It doesn’t matter just now. O’Reilly regularly explores the clash in modern America between those he calls the “traditionalists” and the “secular progressives.” And he does it very, very well. I suggest that even those who usually find him unpleasant take a listen when he gets into this question.
By “traditionalists,” O’Reilly means those who live their lives with the conviction that there is a higher authority in life, something above and corrective of our personal perceptions of how we should behave. In modern America, this means mainly Christians and Jews who adhere to a Bible-based understanding of life. But it would also include Muslims and members of other religions who subscribe to the notion that we have a duty to live by what Edmund Burke called the “unbought graces” and the “inherited wisdom of the past.”
By “secular progressives,” he means those who live by the counter-culture codes of the 1960s, who contend we have no obligation to make sacrifices in our personal lives in the name of moral codes rooted in religion or traditional beliefs. It is the understanding of life encapsulated in the maxims of the 1960s: “Do your own thing”; “If it feels good, do it”; “Different strokes for different folks”; “Whatever floats your boat.”
O’Reilly maintains that this is the source of the bitter political confrontations of our era, why it is so hard to reach a political middle-ground on issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, homosexuality, pornography, assisted suicide, legalization of drugs, and cloning. In each of these issues, the question is whether humans should be free to engage in behaviors that make life easier and more pleasurable in strictly human terms. The traditionalists argue that there are behaviors that a society should not permit, even if certain members of society find them pleasurable, convenient, and personally fulfilling.
To which the secular progressives respond: “Says who?” They maintain that society has no right to impose restrictions on the moral autonomy of its members, except when it can be demonstrated that physical harm is caused to another member of society; that it is impermissible to impose our views on our fellow-citizens, to legislate morality. This does not leave much room to split the difference with the traditionalists. This explains why liberal Democrats are so adamant in their refusal to back pro-life candidates for public office who agree with them on other issues, even when there is no imminent threat that legalized abortion will be ended. Being pro-life is seen by the Left as a sign of a traditionalist mentality, of a view of life involving a duty to a Supreme Being.
We should not forget that participatory democracy and a fairer distribution of wealth are only a part of the Left’s long-term agenda. An animus against Christianity has been in the package since the days of the French Revolution. That is why the Jacobins destroyed churches, killed priests and nuns and brutally suppressed uprisings in defense of the Church, such as in the Vendèe. It is why the revolutionaries remade the French calendar to free it from its Christian sources. It is why, in mockery of Our Lady, they crowned a prostitute as the Goddess of Reason on the steps of Notre Dame.
It is wise for Catholics, and other Christians who take Bible-based codes of morality seriously, to remember how we are viewed by those O’Reilly calls the secular progressives. They will let us practice our religion, as long as we do so privately and not attempt to shape society. In the April 2nd edition of the Sunday New York Times book review section, Mark Lilla, a professor at the University of Chicago, reviewed a book entitled The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War.
Lilla writes that “contemporary Europe is the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known.” “Since World War II,” he continues, “Europeans have stared in blank amazement across the Atlantic at a new global power whose citizens and even leaders seem to believe myths about the old bearded man in the sky,” a global power that has not learned “that living without God is the ultimate destiny of the human race.” O’Reilly’s “secular progressives” are the American counterparts of these Europeans.
This is why Europeans who call Bush “ignorant,” “stupid” and a “dumb cowboy” will not be dissuaded by references to his IQ or SAT scores. It is why American starlets and late-night comedians, who read little beyond the gossip columnists, will not have their minds changed about red-state voters by data indicating the number of highly educated people who vote Republican. The animus on the Left against those with traditional beliefs is rooted in something else: the secular progressives’ contempt for anyone who would live his or her life in accordance with the “myths about the old bearded man in the sky.”
This also explains the Left’s intense commitment to the Clintons, both here and in Europe. Why was the Left willing to overlook Bill Clinton’s application of military force in ways they would condemn if undertaken by Ronald Reagan or George Bush? Why were they unconcerned about Clinton’s visits to Sunday services with his Bible prominently in hand? Why are they not troubled by Hillary’s references to Jesus and the Good Samaritan?
The answer lies in the Left’s understanding (well-founded or not) that the Clintons share with them the assumption in Mark Lilla’s words that “living without God is the ultimate destiny of the human race,” and that the Clintons’ religious gestures are nothing more than necessary political ploys required to win the votes of the unenlightened who have not yet come to share that assumption.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)