Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"SecularRight"? Or Just Plain Secular.

Let me take a shot at articulating what I find so frustrating about Ross Douthat's divalog with Heather McDonald on the subject, "God and Man on the Right", or rather, what role should religion play in conservativism.

To provide context, Heather writes for the City Journal website on affirmative action and immigration (she's against both), and in general attacks the way that what passes for "Civil Rights" distorts our society. It is probably fair to call her a race-realist, although I don't know that she describes herself that way. She also blogs at Secular Right, about which more later. Ross Douthat, of course, needs no introduction.

Heather's argument comes in two parts. First, she asserts the existance of "universal human values," by which she means values that are derived independently from religion. Ross gently points out that she observes a civilization steeped in Christian influence even in places that have shed their overt religiosity. For my part, I don't see how a conservative could refer to "universal human values" with a straight face. Certainly, humans possess universal drives: to eat, to screw, to acquire status. From a classical liberal perspsective, we possess universal rights, as in life, liberty, property, and I suppose that it is respectable for conservatives to believe this. But universal values? Which values? Not freedom, certainly, which appears to be a niche taste. Not humane and rational self-government. Not peace with ones neighbors. And certainly not tolerance. In fact, I can't think of a single "value" the least bit politically relevant that isn't contested by a significant fraction of the planet.

Heather's second argument is that secularism is the better protector of these values than religion. Ross gave her almost a complete pass on this, but I won't: never mind the secular projects of Nazism and Communism for a moment. Let's look at something more prosaic: the treatment of fellow secularists Larry Summers and James Watson. I know for a fact that Heather is sympathetic to race realism, and I'm pretty sure she appreciates the math behind Summers' foray into sex differences. How much tolerance and reason did secularism display in response to those controversies? Indeed, in general, on university campuses, where secularism's power reigns the strongest, to what extent do we see reaon and tolerance on display?

Heather wants to point to post-Christian Scandinavia as representing her ideal society, and specifically uses them to rebut the argument that people turn promptly to barbarism without religion. There is some truth to this: there are many factors that make a society humane, cooperative, and industrious, and overt religiosity at the inter-societal level appears to have little bearing. (At the intra-societal level, it's more significant.) But Ross points out that only a generation ago these very Scandinavians were all good Lutherans, so it's a bit early to announce that the post religious future works in the long run. And I would go further yet: the significant threat to Scandinavia is not that Scandinavians will stop being law-abiding without Christianity. It's whether Scandinavia can be roused to defend itself in the face of invasion. Here I speak, obviously, of immigration. Scandinavians do not seem to be willing to invest in their own future by having children; better to import immigrants instead. But these immigrants are bringing their own culture with them, a culture in which freedom and tolerance are noticeably lacking. These trends virtually assure that post-Christian Scandinavia in non-viable in the long run, regardless of how law-abiding and tolerant the last living Scandinavians are when they are finally put to the sword by their new Islamic masters.

Ross further observes that one of the significant factors driving how humane a society is is its wealth, a point that directly rebuts Heather's technique of reaching into history to find examples, usually Catholic, of religious intolerance or any other failure of a Christian society to conform to late 20th century American political norms. There are at least two reasons to doubt the appropriateness of this benchmark. First, Christianity came into a Europe -- indeed, an entire world -- that was darkly barbaric. As Ross points out, it immediately set about civilizing this world: improving the status of women, the treatment of slaves, and combatting routine practices like crucifixion and infanticide. That this work wasn't accomplished in a generation or two should not surprise us, and for Heather to arbitrarily pick a point in this civilizing process and say, "look, here is a 'Christian' society and look what it did!" ignores the broader sweep of our history. Yes, that sweep also depended on increasing wealth. Second, a more secularized America has given birth to its own injustices, abortion being the obvious example.

As a Roman Catholic, Ross feels obliged to defend Catholicism, and indeed spends a good deal of time speaking of religious faith as bringing order to a widely shared impulse to transcendent feeling. For my part, I make the more specific claim that American political culture arose very specifically out of Anglo Protestantism. So, yes, Heather is correct to point out that other confessions were indifferent to slavery as an institution. And she is correct that many Christians of all stripes did not embrace emancipation, for instance, or the Civil Rights movement. But these evils were universal: slavery had always been what the strong did to the weak, and morality had always been what people owed exclusively to its own in-group. For her to blame these evils on Christianity because Christian societies didn't instantly dissolve them would seem to require that there was some better state of affairs before Christianity's arrival, and such a state simply does not exist. But significantly, when movements arose seeking this better state, the important point here is they were animated by Christianity.

But here's the thing: I can appreciate that a liberal might look upon our contemporary political controversies and see Christianity on the opposing side. If you want gay marriage, the suppression of competition to the public schools, and a doubling of the national debt in four years, then sure: it's hard not to notice the Christians standing in your way. But Heather McDonald identifies as a conservative. What's in it for her?

Heather mentions a couple of concrete issues. She points to the Christian emphasis on traditional family arrangements as standing in the way of further female emancipation. Heather can believe this if she wants, and she may even be right, but how is this a conservative argument? Indeed, such concern as religious people have about this is primarily defensive: we want to preserve space in which we can live order our families in the traditional way. That Heather objects to us resisting further efforts by the government to destroy this space is certainly feminist, but is in no way conservative.

The irony doubles on the issue of Civil Rights. Ultimately, the vision of Civil Rights, articulated by Martin Luther King, that America bought was specifically Christian in its orientation. But in no way was it conservative; most conservatives, including some Christian conservatives, had serious reservations (as well they should have, hindsight being 20/20). So why is Heather, as an athiest and a conservative, trying to take credit for the other team's moves?

In fact, Heather would have a very strong position to attack religion from the right if she chose it: the argument that the universalist morality of Christianity undermines our particularist aspirations. Indeed, I have expressed sympathy for this position myself. Take, for instance, the Civil Rights movement. As I have written before, what we call "civil rights" not only began a massive transfer of wealth and opportunity from the white Americans to blacks, but also empowered racial minorities to began an armed insurrection against the Whites unfortunate enough to cross their paths, and in so doing have exchanged one set of injustices for another. The legacy of Civil Rights seems to be an unwillingness to preserve the identity that makes the values Heather champions possible. I would think that Heather's apparent sympathies for HBD would have made her turn to this argument. But she only attacks Christianity from the left, which is appropriate only for an actual leftist.

Come to think of it, this is my criticism of the outfit she blogs for, Secular Right, and herein lies my frustration. While I would welcome the development of secular arguments for conservative policies, nowhere do I see this in evidence. Nowhere do I see any "Right" in "Secular Right". I only see fratricide: lazy and self-congratulatory attacks on the religious conservatives with whom they ostensibly share the bulk of their political agenda. Their arguments are not likely to convince anybody not already convinced; but they are likely to further divide what remains of the conservative coalition.

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