The Seduction Of Unreason : Jim Wallis vs. the Enlightenment
Jim Wallis has worked hard to reassert aspects of the Christian Social Gospel tradition*, and has also endorsed positions - including a total ban on all abortions, that might dismay some of his fans and followers. But Wallis exerts a powerful sway and this week he has provoked a controversy and heated debated through a Time Magazine op-ed in which he has repeated - in a somewhat more veiled fashion - the type of assertions Wallis stated in his 2004 book "God's Politics", that "secularists", and American secular government itself, are responsible for moral and societal decay Wallis alleges to plague modern America.
I have culled the following quotes from "God's Politics" and, below, string them together into a logical narrative.
That narrative is the narrative of the Counter-Enlightenment, a reactionary tradition now approaching five centuries old and which rejects the spirit and practice of critical inquiry upon which modern human civilization is built.
"We have been buffeted by private spiritualities that have no connection to public life and a secular politics showing disdain for religion or even spiritual concerns. That leaves spirituality without social consequences and a politics with no soul. And political discourse that is disconnected from moral values quickly degenerates." [ introduction, page xxii ]
"Take back our faith from whom ? [ enumerates list of villains ]....from liberal secularists who want to banish faith from public life and deny spiritual values to the soul of politics. And even from liberal theologians whose cultural conformity and creedal modernity serve to erode the foundations of historic Biblical faith. " [ page 4 ]
"We contend today with both religious and secular fundamentalists, neither of whom must have their way. One group would impose the doctrines of a political theocracy on their fellow citizens, while the other would deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values shaped by faith."
"The lack of vision in public life, and the emptying out of values that visionless leadership creates lead to a politics of complaint. In reaction to politics without values people begin to complain - and there is much to complain about. Moral cohesion unravels, social values crumble, public policies lose their connection to the common good, families lose stability, neighborhoods lose community, leadership loses integrity, poor families and children lose everything - and complaint becomes our dominant political discourse.... [ page 26 ]
"The vision we will put forward in this book for our contemporary society is simply the content of what the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the New Testament writers had to say [ note: so Wallis' vision is clearly derived from his interpretation of Christianity ] - about our public commitments, our common life, and the social bonds we share in community........The vision is there and merely awaits us. When we move towards our prophetic and democratic visions, slaveries are ended, civil rights achieved, freedom established, compassion implemented, justice advanced, human rights defended, and peace made....When we come closer to the vision, our practice of citizenship is always enlivened; when we move away from it, apathy and withdrawal grow like a cancer in the body politic." [ page 28 ]
"If the Democrats could take the opportunity of a political defeat to really reassess their language and style, the way they morally frame public policy issues, and their cultural disconnect with too many Americans... conventional wisdom suggests that the antidote to religious fundamentalism is more secularism. But that is a very big mistake. The best response to bad religion is better religion, not secularism." [ page 66 ]
"Today there are new fundamentalists in the land. These are the "secular fundamentalists" many of whom attack all political figures who dare to speak from their religious convictions. From the Anti-Defamation League, to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to the ACLU and some of the political left's most religion-fearing publications, a cry of alarm has gone up in response to anyone who has the audacity to be religious in public. These secular skeptics often display an amazing lapse of historical memory when they suggest that religious language in politics is contrary to the American "ideal". The truth is just the opposite....
Stringing together the statements above as a logical construct we get something like this :
"Without vision - which is derived from the Bible - and moral values to inform public life ( also Biblically derived ) - politics and society fall apart.
Politics and society have been falling apart for a long time now, because secularism has banished faith from the public sphere. "[ secularists ] would deprive the public square of needed moral and spiritual values shaped by faith"
All manner of social ills have ensued : "Moral cohesion unravels, social values crumble, public policies lose their connection to the common good, families lose stability, neighborhoods lose community, leadership loses integrity, poor families and children lose everything"
In fact, liberals have stolen our faith. For it has been under their banner - the banner of modernity and secularism, and by their shock troops - the secular fundamentalists, that faith has been chased from American public life : Liberal secularists have pushed faith from the public sphere and - as a consequence - "apathy and withdrawal" from the public sphere have grown in the American body politic "like a cancer" and our national discourse has degenerated.
The narrative, above, which is constructed from statements Jim Wallis has made in his highly popular book "God's Politics", is at its core the same narrative employed by Christian nationalists such as Tim LaHaye, co-author of the "Left Behind" book series and founder of the Council On National Policy, and James Dobson, founder of Focus On The Family.
But, the roots of such thinking go deeper, and whether he is aware of it or not, Jim Wallis' claims about alleged evils of "secularism" and alleged moral and societal damage he attributes to "secularists" are part of the grand current of a conspiratorial vein of thinking that harkens all the way back to the enemies o the Enlightenment who saw reason, and critical inquiry, as a corrupting societal force.
To quote Richard Wolin, from "The Seduction Of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Facism From Nietzsche To Postmodernism" ( Princeton University Press ) :
A new breed of anti-philosophe emerged to contest the epistemological and political heresies proposed by the Party of Reason--the apostles of Counter-Enlightenment. Relying mainly on theological arguments, the anti-philosophes cautioned against the spirit of critical inquiry, intellectual hubris, and the misuse of reason. Instead, they emphasized the need to preserve order at all costs. They viewed altar and throne as the twin pillars of political stability. They believed that any challenge to their unquestioned primacy threatened to undermine the entire social edifice. They considered self-evident the view--one in effect shared by many of the philosophes themselves--that men and women were fundamentally incapable of self-governance. Sin was the alpha and omega of the human condition. One needed both unquestioned authority and the threat of eternal damnation to prevent humanity from overreaching its inherently fallible nature. Unfettered employment of reason as recommended by the philosophes was an invitation to catastrophe. As one of the leading spokesmen of the Counter-Enlightenment, Antoine de Rivarol (one of the major sources for Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France), remarked in 1789, "From the day when the monarch consults his subjects, sovereignty is as though suspended . . . When people cease to esteem, they cease to obey. A general rule: peoples whom the king consults begin with vows and end with wills of their own."
In the end, the arguments of Jim Wallis - on the alleged breakdown of American society, are largely or wholly unsubstantiated. Wallis' claims on the alleged breakdown of American society mirror identical arguments, advanced by the leaders of the American Christian right, that attribute alleged rising societal pathologies - murder, violent crime, teen pregancy, and divorce, to name a few measures of societal pathology commonly cited - to an alleged removal of "God" from the public sphere.
Such claims have nothing to do with actual facts though ; until the last year or two, the US national murder rate and violent crime rate have been declining since around 1992. Murder and violent crime are not the only indices that buck claims made by Wallis and the Christian Right. The US national Divorce rate has been dropping since the late 1980's and the US state with the lowest divorce rate, Massachusetts, now a level of divorce comparable to that of the 1940's. More than divorce, teen pregnancy has also been dropping steadily since the early 1990's.
Claims made by Jim Wallis and the American Christian right have little to do with facts, logic, reason analysis, science, or methodical attempts to get a bearing on societal trends and how to set public policy to push trends in desired directions :
Jim Wallis and many leaders - James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, and others - are part of the Counter-Enlightenment tradition, and it is important to recognize this, for many reasons.
Until that underlying fact is widely acknowledged, American public discourse will find it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the radical ideological drift in American society. Writing on the Christian Coalition - powered 1994 GOP takeover of the US Congress and Senate, Time Magazine attributed one, and only one, think tank as a seminal influence on the newly politicized Christian right movement that had so jarringly flexed its electoral muscles : The Chalcedon Foundation.
RJ Rushdoony, key Christian Reconstructionist theoretician and Chalcedon Foundation founder, was a Holocaust denier and also rejected the Copernican mode of the Solar system, according to Richard Neuhaus, to hold that the Earth does not rotate and is orbited by the Sun, and that all the known galaxies in the heavens rotate around the Earth once per day.
Rushdoony's pre-Copernican views - known by some as "Geocentrism" - were far from an aberration. The current Vice President of the Chalcedon Foundation is a leading Geocentrist, and this Pre-Copernican notion, not too different in a way from the beliefs of Americans who think the US lunar expeditions were faked, has its hooks deep in US culture, as a recent scandal has demonstrated. A memo alleging the theory of Evolution to be rooted in a Jewish Kabbalist conspiracy was recently circulated among at least four US State legislative bodies, and that memo referenced a website which held that the Earth does not rotate and lies at the center of the Universe. Lest that incident be cast as an abberation, consider : Tom Willis, head of the Mid-Atlantic Creation Research Association and Geocentrism theorist, headed the re-writing of the Kansas State school curriculum, including the expurgation of mentions of Evolutionary theory from the curriculum, in 1999.
Jim Wallis, and Sojourners, are an odd ideological hybrid - one foot in the stream of the American political and social progressive movement, another in a reactionary, and some would say bigoted, hundreds of years old assault on the Enlightenment and the enterprise of rational inquiry that has led, among other things, to the development of the computer on which I am writing this, the microwave oven that will heat the leftovers I will eat for breakfast, and the car I will drive when I go to the movies tonight.
Jim Wallis uses all those conveniences of modern civilization too, and reliance on the fruits of the Enlightenment confers, some might suggest, a certain responsibility to acknowledge and employ the spirit and practice of empirical inquiry that has made those modern technological contrivances possible in the first place. The selective application of empirical inquiry, and the shift into magical thinking without first making an honest effort to see if empirical inquiry will suffice, reduces us in the end to beliefs and approaches to the world much more absurd than Cargo Cultists who, at least, had the virtue of consistency.
And, from his pulpit on the national stage, Jim Wallis has the responsibility to know that.
Jim Wallis has worked hard to reassert aspects of the Christian Social Gospel tradition, a tradition that has been less active in recent decades, some would say due, in part, to the efforts of the American right to attack Mainline Protestant denominations and to corresponding attacks on liberal and "Liberation" theological traditions within the Catholic Church.
The Seduction Of Unreason : Jim Wallis vs. the Enlightenment | 29 comments (29 topical, 0 hidden)
The Seduction Of Unreason : Jim Wallis vs. the Enlightenment | 29 comments (29 topical, 0 hidden)