From The Dean: Using Religious Ideas to Make Sense of Nonsensical Politics

October 31, 2017

Column by Mark Markuly, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry

With the level of dysfunction and disintegration in both political parties, it is becoming apparent to “liberals” and “conservatives” that American politics is desperately in need of a reboot.  Unfortunately, there is no switch to turn politics off and on that will fix the malfunctions in our disintegrated common life.  We will need to do this ourselves, first by understanding the dynamics creating our problems, and then by learning to think and relate to one another differently. 

Two new books, one by a liberal – Mark Lilla’s, The Once and Future Liberal – and the other by a conservative – Charles J. Sykes, How the Right Lost Its Mind – attempt to do both through the authors’ unabashedly honest critiques of their own political tribes.  Although both books have a good deal of humor, it is not easy reading for someone who takes their politics seriously. 

Somewhat surprisingly for a strong political analysis at this time in history, both books make use of a good deal of religion or religious ideas in their attempts to explain how the politics in the United States got to this horrible state.  In actuality, of course, religion and politics have always been strange, but frequent bedfellows, borrowing ideas, practices, strategies, and even clothing styles from each other.  Lilla, the author of the best-seller, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, uses theological terminology as a metaphor for understanding why political discourse and decision-making became so toxic for liberals.  Sykes, a former conservative radio host who helped make politicians like Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, and Reince Priebus, finds a lot of fault in malfunctioning religion for transforming important conservative ideas into the worst caricature of the Right. 

In The Once and Future Liberal, Columbia University humanities professor Lilla argues that the latest presidential election cycle became toxic because of the meaning vacuum left after collapse of the two great political “dispensations” of the 20th century.  (The word, dispensation, is a theological term for a system of revealed commands and promises that organize human affairs and present an interpretive lens for making sense of history.)  The first era was the Roosevelt-New Deal Dispensation, beginning in the 1930s, running through the Civil Rights era and Great Society and sputtering out in the 1970s.  This dispensation offered a collectivist vision, portraying America as a “common” enterprise building a nation grounded in “doctrines” like solidarity, opportunity and public duty.  The Reagan Dispensation became the organizing template for political life in the U.S. beginning in the 1980s, fueled by a very different sense of American mission, one built on the “doctrines” of self-reliance and minimal government

The first dispensation had a clear concept of a nation built on a we, while the second had a sense of America as an idea that included everyone, but was built on freedoms associated with me, rather than the rights and responsibilities of we.  “Each dispensation brought with it an inspiring image of America’s destiny and a distinctive catechism of doctrines that set the terms of political debate,” Lilla says.  But the author uses other religious metaphors to explain the U.S. political evolution over the past few decades.  

Lilla believes Reagan’s effectiveness to launch a new political dispensation came from his ability to cast himself as a “homespun John the Baptist,” a voice crying in the wilderness.  Reagan heralded the beginning of a new era in which “the needs and desires of individuals were given near-absolute priority over those of society.” The vision of this dispensation submerged the national sense of we beneath the water level as the U.S. started becoming a new kind of society of “me”s, all of us guided by a host of other doctrines: self-reliance for me, my family, and my voluntary associations (rather than interdependence); opportunities to build wealth (rather than redistribute it); an unquestioning belief in maximizing free markets (rather than moderate their excesses); and, an antagonism toward virtually all forms of government (rather than bad or bloated government).  Lilla’s book is, in large part, a lament on how poorly liberals responded to this Reagan Dispensation.  The Left saw the pivot to individual rights as a moral failure of self-centeredness, and acting like evangelists from one of the nation’s Great Awakenings, found endless ways to chastise those on the Right for their selfishness, narrow-mindedness and bigotry.  This orientation of Liberals led to a series of other progressive behaviors that, in effect, excommunicated Conservatives, or at least their ideas, from the American experiment. 

Religion also figures prominently in Charles Sykes’ book, although this author is more interested in the causal role religious worldviews and organizations played in moving his Republican party away from serious thinking about conservative ideas to the sanctuary of way too much “crackpotism.”  Sykes, a former Wisconsin conservative radio talk show host who helped build the careers of now famous Right-wing voices like Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, and Reince Priebus, tries to articulate in his book the slow, decades-long transformation of the Religious Right’s value system that made it possible for a Donald Trump to win a Republican primary.  Sykes says that after the failed 2012 presidential election the Right underwent an “autopsy” to determine why they lost the White House.  After the 2016 election, he says, there is a need for an “exorcism” to find out why they won. 

For Sykes, one of the more significant changes in the Right has been the dramatic shift among the religiously serious in their understanding of the relationship between personal and public conduct.  The conservative journalist notes that a 2011 study found only 30% of white evangelicals believed an elected official committing an immoral act in his or her personal life could still behave ethically in public life.  Following long-standing evangelical principles, our private and public selves are organically linked.  But, by October 2016, a mere five years later, this figure changed to 76% of white evangelicals.  How does a demographic flip its belief in a moral principle by nearly 50 points in half a decade? 

Sykes tries to track this evolution, suggesting much of the fault comes from leaders on the Christian Right who made headlines condemning Bill Clinton for the Monica Lewinski affair, and made them again for their warm embrace of Donald Trump.  The waffling leaders include Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network (and someone Sykes calls “Christianity’s crazy uncle”); James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, who launched the Family Research Council; Franklin Graham, the son of Evangelist Billy Graham; Ralph Reed, the first executive of the Christian Coalition, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., son of Jerry Falwell who launched the 1980s Moral Majority that helped to bring Lilla’s Reagan Dispensation to America.  The thoroughness of the evangelical shift is shown in election results: Trump won the evangelical vote 80% to 16% percent, beating George W. Bush, who won in 2004 by the margin of only 78% to 21% percent.  This voting outcome occurred even though the highly influential Christian magazine, Christianity Today, wrote a trenchant editorial just prior to the election comparing support for Trump to “idolatry.” 

Lilla and Sykes share common ground.  They believe the zealots of both the Left and Right have been blinded by political dogmas that they have refused to place under the microscope of critical thinking, while simultaneously rushing to apply such careful thinking to their opponents’ belief system.  Both authors also still accept their basic liberal and conservative catechisms.  Sykes, for instance, still strongly maintains the conservative dictum that news media outlets lean strongly to the Left and will embrace any kind of diversity, except the ideological diversity that makes room for serious consideration of conservative ideas.  Lilla, similarly, believes the Left has made society more accessible and just for women and those who are marginalized, and has helped to make our treatment of the environment a more important part of our everyday awareness.

But, what makes these books interesting and important to read is that both authors are self-critical, and identify the tragic errors the Left and Right have made, not so much in their doctrines, as their responses to the doctrines of their political opponents over the past 40 or 50 years.  For example, Lilla concedes that the Right is correct, universities have become liberal enclaves of intolerance against any ideas that appear conservative.  And, he says, the Left’s response to the Reagan dispensation made it even worse.  Liberals got lost “in the thickets of identity politics,” he said, making the concept of “we” even more difficult to access, at a time when the forces of individualism made the articulation of a corporate identity never more important for the nation.  A person’s identity became subject to infinitesimal graduations of uniqueness and self-construction, and the creation of a new vocabulary for identity --  “fluidity, hybridity, intersectionality, performativity, transgressivity…” – mixed up the difference between me and we in a million distinctions, making the surfacing of a common “we” virtually impossible, particularly for young impressionable students.  An even greater loss for Democrats and the nation, in Lilla’s estimation, is that the Left squandered its hard-learned skills during the Civil Rights era for “taking the temperature of public opinion, building consensus, and taking small steps” to move society forward.  When liberals could not get things passed in Congress, they turned to the courts and executive orders and set in motion an endless ping pong match of temporary public policy.  They also backed away from their own political institutions and became involved in “movement politics” to save the environment, promote gun control or secure transgender rights.  As important as these initiatives have been, Lilla says, they also removed Liberals from the messy process and compromise of politics in a democracy, and this cost the Left hundreds of political positions across the nation from dog catcher to the White House.

Meanwhile, Sykes contends that while the Right has always been correct in its analysis of the bias and “double standards” of the mainstream media, it has created an even more destructive model.  When center-of-right news outlets began to appear in the 1980s, conservatives felt the exhilaration of experiencing conservative ideas finally getting air time and being treated with seriousness.  But, Sykes also skewers his conservative journalism colleagues, and accepts some blame himself, for the quick turn conservative news outlets made into insulated silos that blocked out any ideas that did not square with the party line.  Rush Limbaugh’s radio show appeared in 1988, Fox News and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars in 1996.  By the time Brietbart, the much discussed mouthpiece of the alt-right, launched in 2007, a die had been cast.  Fabrication of facts, and the currency exchange of conspiracy theories, became just as important as valid information, and eventually even eclipsed it.  Conservative news outlets became an “Outrage Machine,” with celebrity “news commentators,” turning serious journalism to tabloid entertainment.  Sykes says the insulation, coupled with the tone of outrage that quickly became part of conservative media and an apocalyptic urgency for every election, set the stage for the creation of a profoundly destructive social force not only for the Republican Party but also for the nation.  Many conservative thinkers, Sykes says, made peace with this new Right, more out of fear than ideological support. 

Despite their sober analysis, both authors have not given up hope on the nation or their political tribe, and they make suggestions for the behaviors liberals and conservatives will need to develop if the United States has any hope for rebooting American politics.  Lilla suggests a “reset” on liberal and progressive politics can occur by practicing four principles: emphasizing institutional over movement politics, valuing democratic persuasion over aimless self-expression, promoting citizenship over group or personal identity, and deepening commitment to civic education as an antidote to “an increasingly individualistic and atomized nation.”  But, developing a more important behavior is also necessary.  Liberals need to learn to “listen” to conservative citizens with an ear to what is behind what are sometimes “false assertions” and “facts” gleaned from the conservative media machine, and to “imagine” ways to connect to those citizens somewhere beneath the differences.  Sykes calls on the Right to stop defending the indefensible and to cease treating every election cycle like an apocalyptic choice.  He also calls for the rejection of “reality based politics,” and the reclamation of real conservative interests: a commitment to truth, ethics, checks and balances, civil liberties, constitutional limits on executive power, and more importantly, a re-commitment to America “as an idea rather than a walled and isolated city.”  He has now decided to become a “contrarian conservative,” realizing that conservatism is a “remnant in the wilderness,” again using biblical imagery from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  But, getting driven out into the desert is not all bad for him.  “The wilderness is a good place for any movement to rethink its first principles, rediscover its forgotten values, and ask: Who are we really?”

These two books are different because two thoughtful individuals are questioning themselves and their own tribe, rather than trying to explain what’s wrong with others.  It is more than coincidence that they spend a lot of time talking about religion, because at their best, religions challenge us to constant self-reflection, asking ourselves how we live our values and principles, and forcing us to ask the same question: Who are we really?  As people of different faith traditions engage each other to address the urgent problems of the world, we are just starting to realize that our “we” is a lot bigger than most of us have ever thought.