CBS, Rev. Thomas D. Williams and the Theoconning of America
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jul 06, 2009 at 03:18:02 PM EST
Last week I discussed the disturbing worldview of  CBS's go-to rightwing Catholic guy, pundit Rev. Thomas D. Williams, a member of the far right Legion of Christ. This is part of a larger trend that merits further discussion.
Neoconservatives and their theocon allies have had considerable success in getting us to see the world through their eyes; and each other as solely as all good or all bad; enemy or friend. These distortions often contribute to grotesque distortions of fact being presented as given truths.

This Manichean framing has infected the news media, which in turn functioned as a carrier of the disease. Apparently gone are the days of more nuanced newsman such as Edward R, Murrow, John Chancellor or Walter Cronkite, who assumed that we are intelligent enough to think and reason for ourselves; that the world is not black and white (even on TV) but that the news of the world mostly comprises shades of grey, where justice often only approximates the ideal.

The Manicheanism of the media is especially evident on television. MSNBC and Fox News act more like vehicles for affirming their views' current political outlook or, as we have seen with CBS, provide a platform to a Catholic priest whose view of both Catholicism and religious pluralism better reflects the über-reactionary Pope Pius X rather than the reform-minded Vatican II.

As discussed last week, CBS News' analyst Rev. Williams is no ordinary priest or theologian.  He is a prominent member of the Legion of Christ, an authoritarian, anti-liberal organization that has a history of cult-like behavior and whose founder, a legacy of promiscuity. Rev. Williams believes that the only truth that should prevail is traditionalist Catholic orthodoxy, and that this worldview should be favored by and reflected in government.

Williams is a perfect example of the way that pundits pass for reporters, telling us what to think and how to act, while democracy is packaged for us as entertainment. The spectacle of media gladiators and bloviators is glorified over the participation of an informed citizenry. While this critique is not new, less well developed is the increasing role of religious right framed presentation of the news, and the risk of discounting the centrality of religigious pluralism as a key to constitutional democracy. One consequence of the creeping theoconism in the media is that we often fall prey to historical revisionism -- the weapon of choice of the Religious Right. Naturally, the narrative that emerges from this history of convenience attacks the very tenets of liberalism, such as religious pluralism as being sinister and evil. Faith and reason are not synonymous, but antithetical entities. Indeed, this is exactly how Rev. Williams approaches it. For example, in an article he published in Richard Neuhaus's theocon journal, Crisis entitled "The Myth of Religious Tolerance:

Religion is a good to be embraced and defended, not an evil to be put up with. No one speaks of tolerating chocolate pudding or a spring walk in the park. By speaking of religious tolerance we make religion an unfortunate fact to be borne with, like noisy neighbors and crowded buses, not a blessing to be celebrated.

Here it is instructive to recall that modern ideas of religious tolerance sprang from the European Enlightenment project.  A central tenet of this project was the notion of "progress", understood as the overcoming of the ignorance of superstition and religion to usher in the age of reason and science.4 In the words of Voltaire, "Philosophy, the sister of religion, has disarmed the hands that superstition had so long stained with blood; and the human mind, awakening from its intoxication, is amazed at the excesses into which fanaticism had led it."

Williams cites Voltaire as if he was the only Enlightenment philosopher to discuss the place of faith in secular society, which was far from the case.  But does not stop there: he then goes after the idea of religious freedom itself. He this by first besmirching religious tolerance - the forerunner of contemporary religious freedom, as "exceedingly undesirable and counterproductive":

This definition mirrors that of the American Heritage College Dictionary, which states that tolerance is "(1) a fair and permissive attitude toward those whose race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry. A fair and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own."

If tolerance is a virtue, it is a decidedly modern virtue. It appears in none of the classical treatments of the virtues: not in Plato, not in Seneca, not even in Aristotle's extensive list of the virtues of the good citizen in his Nichomachean Ethics.  Indulgence of evil, in the absence of an overriding reason for doing so, has never been considered virtuous. Even today, indiscriminate tolerance would not be countenanced.  A public official tolerant of child abuse or tax evasion would not be considered virtuous.

The closer one examines tolerance and strives to apply it across the board, the more its insufficiency as a principle to govern society becomes apparent. Even if it were possible to achieve total tolerance (which it is not), it would be exceedingly undesirable and counterproductive to do so.

This disingenuous picking and choosing plays itself out later in the piece by going after John Locke:

John Locke (1632-1704) himself, in the midst of his impassioned appeal for religious toleration, notes that of course toleration does not extend to Catholics, Muslims or atheists. "To worship one's God in a Catholic rite in a Protestant country," he writes, "amounts to constructive subversion."

In the end, the question for everyone necessarily becomes not "Shall I be tolerant or intolerant?" but rather "What shall I tolerate and what shall I not tolerate?"

Williams continues:

Locke, on the other hand, dismissively notes that "everyone is orthodox to himself." His own ecclesiology that lacked belief in the existence of any one true church led Locke to the conviction that all Christian churches (except the Catholic Church) should be tolerated. "Nor is there any difference," he confidently wrote, "between the national Church and other separated congregations."

Locke further appeals to the "Business of True Religion." A true Christian,Locke asserts, will dedicate himself principally to a life of virtue and piety, which are the chief concerns of religion.  He relegates to a lower tier "outward pomp of worship, reformed discipline, orthodox faith."

His own theological prejudices and political concerns led him to arbitrarily place morals above doctrine, since morals at the time garnered greater unanimity and generated fewer disputes. Their roles have been somewhat reversed today.

Williams cleverly acts as if the Founders never evolved from Locke's own prejudices. In fact they moved beyond Locke from a concept of tolerance to one of religious freedom, thereby enlarging Locke's original concept for the better.

But this is what Williams wrote in a theocon journal not for broadcast on CBS.  So why then should we care?

The problem is that Williams is not the only one. In fact, this Theocon priest is the next step past neconservative pundits like David Brooks and Michael Gerson who hold that only the most orthodox teachings of conservative Christianity and Judaism even qualify as "religious" are disproportionately represented in our national media and dominate our religious discourse.  In their universe those who people of faith who question such orthodoxies are labeled "quasi-religious" or sometimes simply "secular."

In Williams' universe religious freedom is an obstacle  to a more theocratic society.  Ironically, were his ideal society to come to pass, while allowing non-traditionalist Catholics to practice their respective beliefs (or non-beliefs) it would subject them to the supremacy of the pundit-priest's faith - an ironic outcome indeed as it would place Williams and his ilk in the same position for which he criticized John Locke.

Apparently, CBS News has either bought into this agenda or perhaps worse, has no clue about what their Catholic analyst of choice is all about.




Display:
I would strongly suggest that Rev. Williams read Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, especially this section:

Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence. Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.


by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jul 06, 2009 at 03:19:32 PM EST

Williams, Neuhaus and their acolytes would gladly return us to a medieval mindset. I should hope we've moved beyond that point. More likely, CBS News has failed to do its homework. This is not something they can fit into a sound bite, and then people wonder at widespread ignorance.

by khughes1963 on Mon Jul 06, 2009 at 03:25:01 PM EST
And if so, they should either provide a disclaimer or provide balance on Catholic issues.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jul 06, 2009 at 03:35:52 PM EST
Parent
These days, the news staff and reporters don't often have the funding, time or inclination to go out to report and investigate the old fashioned way, so the television and print media get pundits instead. This is how we get bottom feeders like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter bloviating, and William Kristol showing up on Fox News as if nothing ever went wrong with his big adventure in Iraq.  The pundits and self-anointed experts thrive on the minimum of information and the maximum of talking points. We are no longer expected to be citizens,  but consumers.

by khughes1963 on Mon Jul 06, 2009 at 10:05:26 PM EST
Parent




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