Today's date:
Winter 2008

From the Faith-Gap to Post-Liberalism

Winter 2005

The historian Gary Wills has aptly pointed out that, culturally speaking, the outcome of the recent American election may have taken us back to the time before the Scopes Monkey Trial. More Americans today believe in the immaculate conception than in evolution. Forty-three percent describe themselves as born-again Christians. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argues there are today more evangelicals, a key constituency of the first faith-based presidency in American history, than mainline Protestants.

There has always been a tension between reason and faith in America, going back to the first evangelical Great Awakening from 1720s to the 1740s, conceived in reaction to Enlightenment Rationalism. The second Great Awakening began in New England in the 1790s. Some argue we've been going through another one since the early 1980s.

America has thus been a place of "two souls" balancing back and forth. The sociologist Pitrim Sorokin divided societies into sensate and ideational aspects, sensate being based on empirical reality and dependent upon the natural sciences; ideational being mystical, anti-intellectual and based on faith and authority.

For most of American history these two modes of being have coexisted, even as a kind of hybrid the theologian Martin Marty calls "religio-secular." The society most people inhabit is neither religious nor secular. "I am a Christian, but I think in secular ways all the time," he says. "Even as a Christian believer, a good part of me remains with the Enlightenment. Every time I see someone emerge from the Ganges with dysentery, I am reminded of my secular commitments.

"While secular rationality works for much of the operational side of life," Marty notes, "it does little to satisfy the human heart. There is considerable discontent with the barren aspects of modern life."

This discontent is what has given rise to the religious revival we are now experiencing—not only in America, but in many places around the globe, except perhaps in Europe, where the churches are empty but the mosques are full. Even in supermaterialistic China, evangelical converts in the countryside are growing at such a rate that the Middle Kingdom could one day turn out to have more Christians than Europe.

Paradoxically, this awakening is a response to the end of the social authority of religion wherever modernity has triumphed. In its wake has come what Sorokin called "late sensate chaos" that presages a new religiosity. The current sense of crisis over "moral values" is thus a reaction to the cultural upheaval that has resulted from the intense and protracted onslaught of the market, science and technology on all the traditional foundations of life. All that was sacred has been profaned, as Marx put it, and it is not clear what, if anything, is sacred anymore.

This sense of something amiss has been accelerated and broadened not only by the new anxieties of globalization from 9/11 terrorism to outsourcing, but also because of the rapid advances in science such as cloning. Again paradoxically, to cross the new frontiers of science is to resurrect the religious imagination because the oldest questions of origins and destiny are once more on the table.

All this suggests that "modern" does not designate a location in time but a position in the terracing of determinations, one mode of being in the larger repertoire of the human condition. The religious imagination turns out not to be the antiquated but the substratum of secularism, not the outmoded but the profound, not the outdated but the repressed.

Until recently, this awakening in America has been mostly individualized, not collective. It has been about religiosity, not religion per se, that is—the personal relationship with God, often outside institutional settings, or loosely institutional at best.

As late as 1996 Marty said, "Our national spirituality is too particularized, so individualized, that you could say that the last 20 years of explosive spiritual revival in America has had almost no social consequences. Outside the anti-abortion activists, people are finding their own way. Individuals are on their own quest. Amid the pillars of secularism, people go to the synagogue, they go to church, they go to codependency groups and affirm the existence of a higher power for which liberal culture has no vocabulary. When we get replenished we go back into the liberal culture, changing it bit by bit."

This historical tension and balance in our "religio-secular" culture, however, now threatens to turn into a clash and an imbalance—the "faith gap"—because of the politicization of the religious right, which includes not only evangelicals, but right-wing Jews and right-wing anti-abortion Catholics.

By mobilizing these forces into politics, George Bush and his political strategist, Karl Rove, have engaged in the Likudization of the Republican Party—moving to incorporate religious fanatics into a governing coalition because they can't capture the center. This is a recipe for tearing a society apart, just as Sharon has done in Israel. They know that constituencies emerge out of the vague electoral masses depending on which buttons you push—the race card, the gay marriage card, the abortion card.

Indeed, the politicization of cultural issues is what makes democracies go to war, with themselves if not others. Economic issues and interests are negotiable. Moral issues are not. There can be no compromise in this realm of absolute beliefs. It only makes it worse when those absolute beliefs are seen to be universal truths. The neutral state that mediates between interests—what Daniel Bell called "the procedural republic"—lacks legitimacy in a battle of faiths.

Politics then becomes "us vs. them" and "good vs. evil." "In America the enemy is thus not only the Muslim jihadist, but also the secular liberal," Marty continues. "In retreating from what they see as corrosive modernity, people turn their backs on others not like them. They turn exclusive and claim divine sanction.

"The difference between fundamentalists and the more traditional or orthodox religious is that the fundamentalists fight back. They get involved in politics. They can't let the world pass them by. They must engage that world as the devil's domain, the domain of the Great Satan."

In the words of Harold Isaacs, author of Idols of the Tribe, "each tribe is protecting its pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat of others, who are doing the same."

The obvious political response is to isolate the religious right from the "moral values" hinterland by exposing hypocrisy and the price of polarization.

But the issue is deeper than politics. The road out of "late sensate chaos" leads toward post-liberalism. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the postmodern attitude that has all but cast away any notion of appropriate social authority. After all, the key problem of Western civilization today is not the absence of tolerance, but how to cope with so much freedom. Except perhaps for Hollywood liberals, people know in their gut that the issue of our time is no longer which limits to erase, but where to draw boundaries.

Radical impiety is not an answer any more than orthodoxy. Nicola Chiarmonte wrote that we live in a time of both orthodoxy and nihilism. It is a time not only of disbelief, but a time when people look to the past for norms in which to believe, thinking in terms of moral restoration. But, Chiarmonte warned, beliefs, whether ancient or recent, are alike when reduced to abstract formulas. They are no more than attitudes chosen not because experience has led us to them, but because we fear uncertainty. Since they are not chosen in "good faith," orthodox attitudes are no different from believing in nothing.

Fundamentalist religiosity, Islamic or Christian, is a defensive ideology, not cultural reconstruction. The place for post-liberal reconstruction to start is with new issues that have the least historical baggage—the frontiers of science. It is not good enough for moral conservatives to summarily declare cloning is immoral because only God should create; but it is also not good enough just to say, "If we can clone a human being, why not?"

Pandering to the past—even if it constitutes the present political majority—is not the way forward. Resisting theocratic and messianic proclivities without rejecting religiosity is the new challenge for those of us outside the moral majority.