Liberalism saved Western civilization from the tyranny of the church. Liberalism freed us from superstition and its sequelae, like burning people who said “no” to the dominant power; and it gave us freedom and democracy and science, leading to a world where people were free to make their own decisions and to pursue individual happiness rather than a path bound on all sides by damnation, dictated for them by religious authorities.
Conservatives have never quite gotten over this rejection of the past and with it, of their ultimate, capital-T Truth. We have seen them convince themselves in recent years of liberalism’s essential illigitimacy as a political ideology, leaving liberalism’s success, let alone its continued existence, to confound them.
Earlier this month, William Bennett admitted conservatives have lost the culture war, but he managed to do so without really acknowledging the reasons conservatives lost, or even accepting for conservatives any responsibility for their own defeat.
At the time, Bennett whined (there is no other word for it) that,
To women they said: Republicans are waging a “war on women,” trying to outlaw abortion and contraception and would take them back to their rights in the 1950s. To minorities they said: Republicans are anti-government services, cold-blooded individualists, and cannot represent minority communities. To middle and low income Americans they said: Republicans are the party of the rich, who will slash taxes for only the richest Americans and cut social safety nets for the poor.
What Bennett catastrophically failed to see is that the Republicans were guilty of all these things. What he was essentially complaining about was that the Democrats told the truth about what the Republicans were planning.
Now he has convinced himself that liberalism will ultimately fail, and he explains his thinking in an opinion piece on CNN.
To make his argument, he pulls out some old Republican fantasies, showing at the outset that he is not prepared to have this conversation; that this will be another piece of conservative apologia rather than an honest political analysis based on the facts on the ground.
He says that diversity is bad – it is a long-term weakness, not a strength for the Democratic Party, despite liberalism’s short-term success in fashioning a union of disparate factions (gosh, it sounds a lot like liberalism’s success in fashioning a union out of thirteen disprate colonies too, doesn’t it?).
Then out comes conservative economics 101, based not on evidence but wishful thinking:
Rather than waiting on free markets to correct themselves and start creating wealth again, liberalism’s cure is immediate, and so are the political payoffs. This explains partly why many voters feel liberals care about them more than conservatives.
The free markets will not correct themselves, just like nothing will ever trickle down. It they were self-correcting we would not have any problems in the first place. Trying to fix the broken free-markets is apparently, in Bennett’s eyes, a liberal’s way of playing to the masses. Again, the problem is not of conservatism’s own making. Liberals are just taking advantage.
In his earlier piece Bennett brought up the churches, saying that liberal discourse must be countered with a message of “faith, freedom, principle, values, work, country, community, improvement, growth, and equality of opportunity.” He does so again here, lamenting the weakened hold of the Church:
For the ideologically driven — the pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage voters and Sandra Flukes of the world (she was the Georgetown student at the center of a birth control debate this year) — liberalism offers a slightly different relief: the rejection of the central role of mediating institutions — like churches, families and community organizations — in imposing moral standards to govern or regulate behavior within the state.
In Bennett’s carefully reconstructed past, the Church was only a mediator, but the church was never interested in mediating. The church, historically, and down to the time the U.S. Constitution changed all that, was authoritarian, telling people what to believe, how to believe, and how to live. It did this or 2,000 years and never willingly relinquished the role.
The Religious Right, since it gained control of the Republican Party, has not shown any interest in mediation, but has turned to the time-tested historical model of enforcing obedience. It has done so in state after state and even at the federal level through legislation based on the Bible, on Christian belief. Obedience will even protect you from rape by demons.
Obedience, in the conservative lexicon, is good. But those pesky liberals will not obey.
Once in a while, we find the truth coming out, but though Ron Paul openly expressed his hatred for democracy and his love for oligarchy, Bennett tries to cloak the iron hand of religious authoritarianism in a velvet glove of beneficence.
So we find Bennett complaining,
Churches and families can exist, says liberalism, so long as they exercise “soft” religion and don’t force their views on the public. When they do, like in the case of the Catholic Church and contraception, it’s necessary, says liberalism, for the state to step in and impart justice. This explains Obamacare’s contraception mandate and why much was made over the “war on women.”
Yes, liberalism says it is the state’s job to impart justice. That is what the Constitution says, after all. We have certain inalienable rights, not only the rights the Church grants us, and ultimately, we all have the same rights; we are all equal before the law.
The First Amendment specifically denies churches the right to “force their views on the public,” yet we have Bennett lamenting this seeming error by our Founding Fathers.
No wonder they try so hard to convince themselves that a sentence that forbids state-sponsored religion actually grants it to Christianity exclusively. No wonder they try so hard to convince thesmelves that only the Church is granted First Amendment protections.
The Constitution cannot possibly say what it says because the Founding Fathers were not a diverse group of believers, deists, and atheists, but Evangelical Christians, who could never have meant such a thing. Bennett, it would seem, has fallen for the same fantasies pushed by David Barton.
Bennett argues that liberalism will fail but until he comes into contact with actual facts (something, like any Republican, he avoids like the plague), he is not in a position to judge such matters.
All he has accomplished here is shaping an apology for the Evangelical Republican Party, and has done so, like the early Church fathers, has attacked everything outside it as wrong, and in the same breath, justified its own doctrines. And an apology is nothing more or less than the cry, “Don’t panic! You’re right and everybody else is wrong. Your beliefs are justified in the face of all facts to the contrary.”
So when Bennett asks, “Does this mean that conservatism is past its time and that liberalism is the mandate of the future?” he has to answer, “No, it doesn’t.”
After all, as he argued in his previous piece, the problem isn’t the message but the packaging and the inability of conservatives to get their message out. The message, divinely countenanced, cannot possibly be at fault.
We have sunk here to the heart of the eternal struggle between those liberal thinkers who ignited the European Enlightenment, and the Church authorities. Liberalism says the system must conform to the facts, but the church argues that facts (and history, as it turns out) must conform to the system. This is the struggle as played out on Election Day 2012, when Americans voted for a continuation of the European Enlightenment rather than a return to the Medieval Papacy, a point which entirely eludes conservatives like William J. Bennett.
In simpler terms, Americans sided with Obama’s slogan “Forward” and disregarded the conservative plea to, quite literally, take the country back.
Therefore, Republicans “will be ready” to counter the argument that conservatism “as the faction of social injustice” (in other words, I suppose, to lie more effectively or disenfranchise more voters to compensate), and liberalism’s refusal to turn to “strong, active, character-forming institutions” like churches will leave the government overburdened (never mind that these religious groups rely on the same tax dollars used by the government).
Horror of horrors, with liberalism, people rely on the government rather than the Church, and we can’t have that, we can’t enforce obedience if the government is going to create a situation where people don’t need the church. It takes the teeth out of coercion entirely.
Bennett therefore concludes that the problem is one of allegiance, to the government or to the Church, apparently.
“The problem is that liberals often confuse such allegiance with successful governing,” adding that, “The liberal coalition of the future looks more like Greece, an advanced secular, social welfare state, than the idealized liberal glory days of FDR.”
Unfortunately for Bennett, the conservative coalition of the future looks more like the Medieval (with all the sordid connotations that word implies) Papacy than the idealized vision of the Founding Fathers for a nation where power derives from the people, not from people who claim they talk to (and therefore, FOR) God.
Even more unfortunately for Bennett, growing numbers of Americans – in all those disparate groups he maligns – seem to realize this. The electorate, to conservatism’s dismay, voted for science. It voted for women. And most importantly of all, the electorate voted for the right to choose, and not to be told. Ultimately, the voice of the people – all people – is why liberalism will not fail.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.