Casual observers of cable television news programming might be forgiven for assuming that Christianity is a religion characterized by a toxic combination of ignorant belligerence and whiny self-pity. Turn on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show and you are likely to be greeted by a lunatic named William Donohue, president of something called the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who complains that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular," and that "Hollywood likes anal sex." During the 2004 election campaign, he could be heard lamenting that John Kerry "never found an abortion he couldn't justify" and attacking the publishing industry for its cover-up of the "gay death style." In a more recent Scarborough appearance, Donohue returned to his favorite topic, explaining to viewers that many in "Hollywood" which, remember, is controlled by you-know-who love money so much they would happily "sodomize their own mother" onscreen.
In a less flamboyant though more revealing episode last year, CNN's star anchor, Wolf Blitzer, questioned traitorous right-winger Robert Novak and liberal Paul Begala about the death of Pope John Paul II. Blitzer opened the segment by suggesting that, while "I am sure Bob is a good Catholic, I am not so sure about Paul Begala." Novak converted from Judaism to an Opus Dei form of Catholicism, while Begala was raised in the faith, remains devout and even named his eldest child John Paul. When he asked Blitzer, "Well, now, who are you to pass moral judgment on my religion, Mr. Blitzer ... on the day of my Holy Father's funeral?" adding, "I don't think anybody should presume that a liberal is not a good Catholic" and "The Holy Father is liberal. ... The Holy Father bitterly opposed President Bush's war in Iraq. He came to St. Louis and I was there and he begged America to give up the death penalty. President Bush strongly supports it, as did President Clinton and others. Many of the Holy Father's views, my church's views, are extraordinarily liberal. I mean, the pope talked about savage, unbridled capitalism, not Bob Novak's capitalism." The CNN anchor instructed Begala, "Don't be so sensitive," as if he had unflatteringly critiqued Begala's makeup.
The moronic level of cable discourse notwithstanding, missing from almost all discussions of the role of religion in public life is what William James famously termed the "varieties of religious experience." The right-wing hijacking of religion's public role in our political discourse is as undeniable as it is inappropriate, and represents one of liberalism's most serious problems.
In the 2005 election, Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine managed to win the governor's mansion only after the former Catholic missionary convinced skeptical voters that one can be both Christian and anti-death penalty. "My faith teaches me life is sacred," Kaine said, fighting off the accusation that he was a dreaded "liberal."
At a valuable conference on liberals and religion organized by Columbia University's American studies program in mid-February, E.J. Dionne, a liberal and a devout Catholic, conceded that conservatives have a number of natural advantages when seeking to marry religious devotion to politics. They own the word "tradition," for one. And as Russell Kirk pointed out in his 1953 book The Conservative Mind, the canons of conservatism tend naturally to appeal to the faithful: Conservatives, he wrote, believe in "a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience." Their attachment to "custom, convention and old prescription" provides a check on "man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power." Liberalism, on the other hand, arose in revolt against many of these same customs and conventions, particularly the oppressive power of the church.
Moreover, as Christopher Lasch once noted, following the 1960s the left made the politically suicidal choice of cultural radicalism, which succeeded, over political and economic radicalism, which failed. Quoting Peter Steinfels, Dionne noted, "American liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice. ... Once trade unionism, regulation of the market, and various welfare measures were the litmus tests of secular liberalism. Later, desegregation and racial justice were the litmus tests. Today the litmus test is abortion." Liberals, as Michael Kazin put it, have morphed in the public imagination "from people who looked, dressed and sounded like Woody Guthrie to people who look, dress and sound like Woody Allen."
This, in so religious a nation, is not only politically self-defeating but historically atypical. For contemporary liberal rationalists who feel discomfort with the spiritual realm, we have no less an authority than John Dewey, who termed the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan "the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education." As Kazin notes in his brilliant new biography of the Great Commoner, Bryan "transformed his party from a bulwark of conservatism ... into a bastion of anticorporate Progressivism." Indeed, he adds, "American progressive reform has never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have us do."
And luckily we happen to have Christianity's deity on our side. Dionne offered just a few of the texts that liberal politicians and pundits might wish to commit to memory. There is the Gospel that explains, "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!" There's the prophet Isaiah, who commands us to "undo the heavy burdens ... let the oppressed go free." Martin Luther King Jr. frequently drew on Amos to insist, "We will not be satisfied until 'justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.'" Jesus demanded we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and tells us we will be judged by how we treat the "least of these my brethren."
If only somebody could tell Scarborough and Blitzer ...Eric Alterman is the media columnist for The Nation, where this piece originally appeared. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org