Those earnest “neoliberals” at the Washington Monthly have again gotten religion, which, every few years, seems to be their wont. The putative convert this time is Amy Waldman, who writes that the left (her term) has needlessly neglected to “draw on a religious tradition” when trying to persuade others to support its political program. The rest of Ms. Waldman’s argument, however banal, reveals a lust for power as frightful as anything that the dreaded Christian right has put forth.
Liberals, neoliberals, and leftists have long reeled aghast at the tactics of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition but failed to realize that they might profitably employ such tactics themselves, she argues. Since many of “liberalism’s core values—whether help for the downtrodden or support for peace—derive from the Judeo-Christian tradition,” liberals should use religious imagery in their lobbying efforts, quote Scripture in fundraising letters, and even trot out presentable parsons or pliant rabbis to plead their case. Mere quibbles over matters of belief need not prevent liberals from drawing on the rich historical and cultural tradition of religious faith. “For whether or not you believe Jesus Christ was resurrected, He still offers a model for a life of radical social justice,” she reminds her fellow lefties. “Whether you believe God or men wrote the Bible, it too speaks to how we live.” (No kidding.)
If Ms. Waldman were in less of a rush for liberals to impose their values on the rest of society—as the Christian right is accused of doing—she might consider this possibility: some liberals might “disdain religion,” as she puts it, for a very good reason. If they happen to be self-respecting atheists, agnostics, or “secular humanists,” they may not wish to pander to churchgoers in so cynical a manner as recommended here.
As remarkable as it may seem, there are still some people, believers and nonbelievers alike, who regard the Resurrection, for example, as a weighty matter that cannot be dismissed as airily as Ms. Waldman would have them do. “So what if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead?” she seems to say. “If it will help us defeat the teachers’ unions, let’s act like He did!”
But there is another reason why persons on the left might be reluctant to ape Pat Robertson. As serious in their Christianity or Judaism as their colleagues on the religious right, many devout lefties would deem it a violation of their faith to presume that it gives them a keener grasp of monetary policy than their unchurched neighbors. After all, many Christians and Jews disagree about the temporal consequences of cutting the capital gains tax. Humbled by their faith, they would not dare claim that God has disclosed His view of minority set-asides to them.
There is nothing neo- in Ms. Waldman’s neoliberal case for religion, of course. Every few years secular intellectuals “rediscover” religion, almost always concluding that it must be a good thing because it seems to make better citizens of the faithful—better liberal Democrats, in this case. The neoliberals at the Monthly seem to believe that the imitation of Christ is important because it will make us all more like Bobby Kennedy.
Susan Sontag—no right-winger she—once derided the attitude of such philosophes as “religious fellow-traveling.” What intellectuals always want, Sontag wrote in the early 60’s, is the personal, political, and societal advantages of religious faith without actually having to believe in anything. They are for “religion” in a general sense, which, Sontag noted, is of course meaningless. You cannot practice “religion” in general any more than you can speak “language” in general; you speak English, French, or Farsi; you practice Catholicism, Buddhism, or Santeria. You’re either a snake handler or you ain’t.
Taking matters a step further, liberals like Ms. Waldman seem less “for” religion than for what it can do for her and her fellow neoliberals in their quest for political power. The left, she writes, “seems to have forgotten how powerful a force religion is.” The “proof of the power is in history.” Religion’s “power to transform American society” has been established throughout our history.
To harness this power, liberals should learn from Martin Luther King, Jr., whose significance lies not in his moral authority, grounded in his Christian faith, but in his considerable facility as a rabble-rouser, “The power of religion, as anyone who has heard King’s speeches can testify, is that it touches not reason but emotion—which is exactly why liberalism, with its Enlightenment roots, is so skeptical of it,” Ms. Waldman writes in this blueprint for manipulation. “Emotion has power—real, raw power—to change hearts and minds in a way that facts do not. Which is exactly why liberals should use it, not fear it.” (Italics added.)
This is a call to demagoguery, plain as day. It is more than that, however. It is also a heresy, to dust off a word that does not get sufficient use nowadays. Devout persons of the left or right do not and cannot treat their faith as Ms. Waldman suggests. They are unable or unwilling to regard their most deeply held beliefs and practices as mere weapons in some far more awesome undertaking, like the battle to ensure funding of Americorps or to discredit Steve Forbes’ flat tax.
Half a century ago, the now-forgotten theologian J. Gresham Machen, a Baltimorean and friend of H.L. Mencken’s, belabored the civic-minded men and women of his own day for an attitude toward religion identical to Ms. Waldman’s—and to that of neoliberals and many neoconservatives today. “Even hard-headed businessmen and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed,” he wrote. “But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help.” Religion is “discovered after all to be a useful thing. But the trouble is that in being utilized religion is also being degraded and destroyed. Religion is being regarded more and more as a means to a higher end.” Machen, as a Christian, found such an attitude appalling—and heretical.
However noble these ends might be, “it is perfectly plain that the Christian religion cannot be treated in any such way. The moment it is so treated it ceases to be Christian. For if one thing is plain it is that Christianity refuses to be regarded as a mere means to a higher end.” Human relationships—that of man and wife, parent and child, or citizen and state—”exist for the sake of Christianity and not Christianity for the sake of them. Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things, it is not Christianity.”
Ms. Waldman, of course, does not even ask us to “accept” Christianity or any other faith—only to appear to accept religion to advance her dubious neoliberal nostrums. She calls on her political allies to use the language and imagery of other peoples’ faiths for worldly gain. To do so is to trivialize religious faith, cheapen the political discourse, and demean the very causes she seeks to advance. Such utterances reveal more about their utterer and her inability to understand the nature of faith than anything else. One is tempted to tell Ms. Waldman what Mark Twain said to his wife when he heard her swearing: “You know the words, my dear, but you don’t know the tune.”