The topic for my column this week is religious conservatives. There are a few reasons for this.
The 80th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey trial is approaching, for one. For another, the city of
Dover, Pennsylvania, has just approved the teaching of “intelligent design”the latest
semantic end-around for use in questioning Darwinism. But the real reason to talk about religious
conservatives is because the last few months have been something of a coming-out party for them
as a mainstream political force.
Beginning with the Terri Schiavo affair, and continuing most pointedly
with the latest fight against the filibuster, what we have seen lately is something new: the congressional
leaders of the ruling political party (Tom Delay, Bill Frist) signing on with the more extreme representatives
of the evangelical movement to push highly dubious and eccentric political objectives. The presence
of such people as James Dobson and Al Mohler side by side with leading congressional Republicans
has even led some respected political commentators to wonder aloud if a schism is developing within
the Republican party, if the fiscal conservatives who have long been stomped on in the Bush years
are finally going to start wondering what payoff they’re getting for their political support.
Even Andrew Sullivan, that foul whore of right-wing commentary, admitted as much recently in the
New Republic. “Conservatism isn’t over,” he wrote. “But it has rarely been as confused.”
All of this talk has led to false hope among progressives, who think they
see an opening in the Republicans’ apparent strategic error in backing fundamentalist causes.
The decision by Tom Delay to jump in bed with the snake-handlers in the Terri Schiavo casewhen
polls showed that even a majority of evangelicals opposed himseemed to indicate a rare
suspension of electoral judgment by his party. There is a feeling among the pointy-headed secular
set that the evangelicals are a doomed anachronism who will die out with increased exposure to the
open air, and that hitching a political wagon to their causes must result in failure.
This idea was put most explicitly by Tom Junod in Esquire a few months
back, when he wrote: “Whether the issue is Internet porn or stem-cell research, what conservatives
are up against is not Blue-State America, or liberal America, or secular America, or decadent America,
or enlightened America. It’s not even, as some have suggested, the Enlightenment itself. It’s
technology, and it’s time.”
This is a common belief among the overeducated east coast set. It is also
exactly what H.L. Mencken believed 80 years ago, when he filed what he thought was the obituary of
American yahoo-ism from Dayton, Tennessee. He concluded from the Scopes trial: “On the one side
was bigotry, ignorance, hatred, superstition, every sort of blackness that the human mind is capable
of. And on the other side was sense. And sense achieved a great victory.”
Little did Mencken know that 80 years after Dayton, the supporters of
William Jennings Bryan’s point of view would still outnumber the supporters of Clarence Darrow’s
opinion by a ratio of about five to one; not just in Tennessee, but in the country at large. Polls on
the issue have been remarkably consistent for decades. A New York Times survey last year showed
that 55 percent of Americans believed that “God created us in our present form,” while only 13 percent
believed that “we evolved from less-advanced life-forms over millions of years, and God did not
directly guide this process.” A similar Gallup poll in 1997 placed those numbers at 44-10; in 1991,
the numbers were 47-9.
Progressives in this country have always maintained a kind of fuzzy
belief that fundamentalists will eventually just disappear, as if by magic, that the phenomenon
of grown men and women believing in devils and witches and angels will inevitably be outgrown, the
way children outgrow Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Marx. When some pastor in rural Alabama takes
the pulpit to denounce SpongeBob Squarepants as the agent of the Evil One, we figure no response
is really necessaryfolks will figure out the joke on their own, somewhere down the line.
Because of this, nothing like an organized resistance to this buffoonery
has ever taken root in America. Though fundamentalists themselves imagine their secular opponents
as a great and unified conspiracy, in truth the only weapons trained on Christians in this country
are the occasional lawsuit by the ACLU (a group which normally opposes not religion itself, as I
would prefer, but some ostensibly unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the public sphere)
and the sarcastic barbs of ineffectual heathen media figures like Maureen Dowd and Jon Stewart.
Our pornographic pop culture, seen by religious conservatives as a
coordinated, premeditated military offensive against Christian values, is as indifferent to
Christianity as it is to environmentalism. It is not a true opponent of fundamentalist Christianity,
because it doesn’t give a shit about fundamentalist Christianityor about anything else
for that matter, except ratings and sales.
What organized political resistance fundamentalists do encounter
comes in the form of groups that oppose their political objectives, not Christianity itself. Even
pro-choice groups like NARAL, which come into direct and often violent contact with Christians,
restrict themselves to agitation for abortion rights, and leave the issue of their opponents’
religion alone. In general, there is almost no public figure, anywhere, who has ever suggested
publicly that fundamentalist Christianity, as a thing-in-itself, should be opposed. The strongest
suggestion most critics will make is to say that it should be contained, and indeed that seems to
be the best-case strategy of progressives: that the God-fearing set can be boxed in, kept from being
a nuisance and from meddling in areas where they don’t belong, just long enough for them to eventually
die out of natural causes.
This is a mistake, and it is the same mistake people have made for centuries:
underestimating the American zeal for superstition, for boobism, for living the intellectual
lives of farm animals. A large statistical majority of Americans would rather live their whole
lives in perpetual fear of the devil than listen to ten minutes of common sense. When you consider
where these people live intellectually, the idea that the Democratic Party can somehow succeed
in Middle America by making small tactical changes, by waving a few more flags, seems absurd. You
either believe in the devil or you don’t; and if you don’t, you’re never going to fool these people.
The Republicans, for all their seeming “confusion,” understand this now better than ever. Their
seemingly open attempts in recent months to radicalize and embolden their evangelical base may
have had a temporary desultory effect with regard to their poll numbers.
But this current crew of Republican strategists has always understood
American thinking better than the Tom Junods of the world. They know that most political trends
are fleeting. Liberalism vanished at the first sign of trouble; pacifism disappeared one generation
after Vietnam; even fiscal conservatism is easily forgotten. The one thing that never disappears
in this country is stupidity, and if you court it, you’ll always have votes down the line. Especially
when it lives on unopposed.