My Enemy

I have few enemies, intellectually speaking — enemy ideas, that is; real nemesis visions. To qualify for nemesis status, a vision must be coherent, compelling, and viable on a mass scale. So I am not particularly worried about, say, the rise of actual Socialism in America, or the eventual transformation of everybody into militant atheist scientists, or most of the larger bugaboos upsetting our supposed public mind on the wide cultural right. There are only a few plausible destinies we face that I find deeply troubling — that is, only a few ways in which I really think we, us now with all that entails, could go wrong.

In consequence, I am sometimes apt to harp on certain apparently marginal themes, to the detriment of apparently more central ones. The net effect may be a certain initial opacity as regards what is known in academe as my Broader Intellectual Project. But then an exchange like Friday’s between Damon Linker and Rod Dreher comes along, and suddenly my assorted remarks on therapy and transgression, liberaltarianism, pink police states, and the sex vote take on, if not new relevance, the cast of a greater unity. I have more to say about some of these things in in other venues, but a few comments, here, are in order.

Linker writes as follows:

Somewhat fewer Americans are identifying as Christians; somewhat more are identifying as secular. And even those who remain religiously traditionalist are a bit less likely to believe that they should work for the transformation of the nation through the medium of electoral politics.

To my mind, these are all encouraging trends. (Though they are merely trends, and so could be reversed given the right circumstances.) And yet they leave the most important and interesting question unanswered: What will provide the theological content of the nation’s civil religion now that the “mere orthodoxy” of the evangelical-Catholic alliance has proven unsuitable for a pluralistic nation of 300 million people? To my mind, the most likely and salutary option is moralistic therapeutic deism. Here is the core of its (Rousseauian) catechism, in the words of sociologist Christian Smith:

1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”

2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”

3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Theologically speaking, this watered-down, anemic, insipid form of Judeo-Christianity is pretty repulsive. But politically speaking, it’s perfect: thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant. And that makes it perfectly suited to serve as the civil religion of the highly differentiated twenty-first century United States.

Rod replies that “Linker ought to thank God, or whatever, that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who marched and stood with him, were actual Christians drawing on the full strength of the Christian tradition, instead of Moralistic Therapeutic Deists who professed a “thoroughly anodyne, inoffensive” form of the Christian faith. Nobody finds the courage to face down police dogs and Klansmen in the vapid mewlings of MTD. MTD Christians don’t sing “We Shall Overcome”; they trill “We Shall Accomodate.”“ So Rod “would much rather see Christians who disagree with me on gay marriage taking to the streets demanding what they truly believe is justice for gays and lesbians, than deal with squishy pastors and other Christians who run away from what, no matter which side you take, has become a very important issue of liberty and rights.”

Now then:

(1) It is notable that Linker is saying nothing that Tocqueville hasn’t already. “Belief in an immaterial and immortal principle, for a time united to matter, is so indispensable to man’s greatness that it has fine effects even when it is not united to a conception of rewards and punishments and when one believes no more than that after death the divine principle embodied in man is absorbed in God or goes to animate some other creature” (544 in the Mayer edition).

(2) But for Tocqueville the great spiritual danger facing democracies is pantheism. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but one creation and one Creator, he is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole. If one finds a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are only to be considered as the several parts of an immense Being who alone remains eternal in the midst of the continual flux and transformation of all that composes Him, one may be sure that such a system, although it destroys human individuality, or rather just because it destroys it, will have secret charms for men living under democracies” (451-2).

(3) Linker gives us no indication that he either fears or expects what he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) to lose even its accommodating minimal creed and slide down into pantheism. But he does hint that MTD is of such great value or meaning in a country like ours today because in times and places like ours we “want to reconcile conflicting principles and to buy peace at the cost of logic” (450); i.e. rather than an endless earthly war over our foundations and convictions, and over how those issue forth in policy and law, we seek spiritual repose in comfortable, inclusive wishy-washydom.

(4) Linker gives our great diversity a positive spin, but Tocqueville, again, diagnoses exactly the same social order in slightly less flattering terms. “When there is no authority in religion or in politics, men are soon frightened by the limitless independence with which they are faced. They are worried and worn out by the constant restlessness of everything. With everything on the move in the realm of the mind, they want the material order at least to be firm and stable, and as they cannot accept their ancient beliefs again, they hand themselves over to a master. For my part, I doubt whether man can support complete religious independence and entire political liberty at the same time. I am led to think that if he has no faith he must obey, and if he is free he must believe” (444).

(5) Unlike Linker, Tocqueville is a rallying figure and touchstone for intellectual conservatives of a religious bent. But where Tocqueville identified pantheism as the bad plausible halfway house between salutary faith and unbelief, Linker identifies MTD as the good plausible halfway house between unhealthy, inevitably-politicized faith and unbelief. The question for Tocquevilleans is whether MTD is both more plausible and worse than pantheism in a way Tocqueville didn’t or couldn’t quite grasp.

(6) I maintain that the answer is yes. But from the position of political or social theory, the reason why must carry more water than “MTD is contemptibly weak.” For, on its face, it satisfies Tocqueville’s admittedly reluctant criteria for a minimally salutary faith of a sort that will well (enough) nourish political freedom in a democracy. Notably, Tocqueville observes that if “Catholicism could ultimately escape from the political animosities to which it has given rise, I almost certain that that same spirit of the age which now seems so contrary to it would turn into a powerful ally and that it would suddenly make great conquests” (450). In theory, it is extremely plausible, adding Linker’s view to Tocqueville’s, that MTD is most at home within a Catholic church, in which the ruling creed were so remissive, comprehensive, and lovingly vague that the faithful would gladly realize within it all its longings for equality and unity. All it would have to tolerate would be an increasingly token and administrative ecclesiastic hierarchy, which would parallel closely enough the bureaucratic intermediaries with which they have become well familiar already in political life.

(7) Yet it is extremely difficult to imagine the mass Catholicization of America, because another institution of sorts has already grown up to keep MTD afloat. The therapeutic economy admits of a serial hopping among affinity groups that would be impossible even beneath the all-encompassing umbrella of a one true therapeutic church. No matter how remissive, a Catholic church cannot provide enough exit options for the therapeutic purpose of MTD to be adequately realized. This does not mean that some Catholics could not try to realize it, championing Catholicism as in fact the supremely best of both remissive and repository worlds. (In fact, you can expect this to happen.) It only means that in today’s America even they will ultimately be disappointed if they seek really mass appeal.

(8) To observe that MTD is most likely to remain a ‘Protestant’ phenomenon in the US is, therefore, to observe that religious pluralism remains of great therapeutic value, insofar as it affords the open opportunity for individuals to therapeutically cross and transact back and forth between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ behavior and sojourn across and through different experiences of ‘officialdom’. Nonetheless, if, in the ultimate act of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too, one seeks both a plurality of official experiences and a supervening unity of ‘final’ officialdom, the natural answer is a riot of contingent, fleeting religious options plus a single, inescapable Rule of Law organizing the whole of social life into a governmentally-speaking official zone and a governmentally-speaking unofficial one. Under such a regime, official moralism will take on an increasingly gentle cast — even when it officially ‘gentlizes’ otherwise beastly behavior — while the unofficial moral life will increasingly revel in the unregulated character of its ungentle transgressions. Liberal government, in a great synergy, will work so hard to stamp out public cruelty by legal means that it will create a still-public but technically unofficial zone in which profound cruelties will go officially ignored or denied to be such. This kind of bifurcated public life creates endless opportunities for the processing and reprocessing of experience through therapeutic institutional performance. Between official charismatics and unofficial ones, whose ritual and anti-ritual characters and behaviors will constitute poles of godlike hospitality and theatrical beastliness, the vast therapeutic apparatus will mediate and manage our comings and goings. But rather than being a journey up and down in a hierarchy of sacred authority — the social order of, for instance, Christendom — it will be a horizontal shuffling to and fro.

(9) The promise of MTD is to convincingly-enough deny that this shuffling takes place between two types of enchanted but merely secular power. As such, it makes religious faith and worship profoundly complicit in the production both of ever-more-transgressive ‘unofficial’ acts and the ever-more-remissive official absolution of those acts. This creates undoubted psychological pressure on individuals, yes; but more importantly from our perspective, it creates huge institutional pressure on the social order at large:

these are the kinds of dilemma with which this form of the moral life is always confronting us, making us see double by directing our attention always to abstract extremes, none of which is wholly desirable. It is a form of the moral life which puts upon those who share it, not only the task of translating moral ideals into appropriate forms of conduct, but also the distracting intellectual burden of removing the verbal conflict of ideals before moral behavior is possible. These conflicting ideals are, of course, reconciled in all amiable characters (that is, when they no longer appear as ideals), but that is not enough: a verbal and theoretical reconciliation is required. In short, this is a form of the moral life which is dangerous in an individual and disastrous in a society. For an individual it is a gamble which may have its reward when undertaken within the limits of a society which is not itself engaged in the gamble; for a society it is mere folly. — Michael Oakeshott, The Tower of Babel

We are left with two questions: (1) how long can MTD play the official/unofficial oscillating game before breaking down? And (2), how opposed to the therapeutic might our practical deists still be — for reasons drawn directly from our deist inheritance?