Nemesis II: The Footnote

Damon Linker has a followup to Ross’s reaction to the original post that I remarked on below. I recommend this followup post highly. Linker is right about intellectuals and distinctions, in a way that can be extended to emphases. I wouldn’t make some of the emphases Linker makes, but I am on record in various places arguing, in good pomocon fashion, on behalf of a foundationalist culture and a nonfoundationalist politics, so this bit struck me as extra important:

…Moralistic Therapeutic Deism looks like a comparatively promising alternative. But only if we assume the United States can’t get along without any civil religion at all.

Yet Ross’s own post hinges on the insight that at least one prominent strain of MTD tends especially to colonize politics. In the mind of, say, a Michael Gerson, the reality of human suffering, and the guilt associated with recognizing that reality, is unbearable without throwing ourselves into the arms of a moralistic, therapeutic Leviathan. Thus Ross’s critique of Bush’s Second Inaugural.

But there are details going obscured here. MTD can be more or less Christian. Some might look upon Joel Osteen as one of America’s foremost practitioners of MTD; others (ahem) might be a lot more concerned that, say, Richard Rorty’s vision of pragmatism as romantic polytheism comes much closer to realizing the full potential of MTD:

A Christianity that was merely ethical — the sort Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers commended and was later propounded by theologians of the social gospel — might have sloughed-off exclusionism by viewing Jesus as one incarnation of the divine among others. The celebration of an ethics of love would then have taken its place within the relatively tolerant polytheism of the Roman Empire, having disjoined the ideal of human brotherhood from the claim to represent the will of an omnipotent and monopolistic Heavenly Father (not to mention the idea that there is no salvation outside the Christian Church).

Linker’s brief against MTD hinges on his contempt for its ‘anemic’ theology. But moralistic deism that isn’t therapeutic would revolt Linker as equally anemic (right?) — while it would, in fact, carry a whole different set of cultural and political implications. Our American heritage of moralistic untherapeutic deism points toward a cultural life that prizes personal nobility over a political life that prizes universal dignity. I am guessing that Ross, Linker and I all agree — along with more radical critics of this business like Daniel — that the thing to be avoided, politically speaking, is seizing upon the state as the most powerful tool to save us all from cruelty and suffering. I’d agree with Linker that not all varieties of MTD always seek to commandeer politics in this way. But I’d do so in order to underscore what seems like the as-yet-unspoken heart of the matter: the real problem with MTD is not in its political side effects but in its cultural primary effects — and not because it’s moralistic, or because it’s deist.