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August 19, 2006

Theopolitical Philosophy: Starting with "Yes"

Heather Mac Donald claims, in a piece that has set off a small tinderstorm in the Corner, that religious conservatives and secular conservatives are "temperamentally compatible allies." It is a matter of definition that we are intellectually so, but when it comes to temperament, I find myself wondering whether Mac Donald's own argumentation bears out her assertion.

For one example, consider the rhetorical trick (requiring not a little misreading) with which she responds to a believer's point that "something has to be fixed in place to assert something, and for religious people what is fixed is God." Mac Donald scoffs not at the notion that something must be fixed in order for any assertion to have any basis, but at the unmade claim that religious people, or even just Christians, have achieved "harmonious agreement" or "unanimity." It's easier, I suppose, to punctuate a misreading with references to "bloody sectarian wars" than to address a key argument against her secularism.

In her initial piece, Mac Donald writes, "Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular." This point, which is obviously arguable on the specifics, logically leads exactly to the reason that we need something to be "fixed in place" in order to make reliably moral assertions. If we haven't a transcendent external something, then on what do we base our zealotry for being humane? The answer that Western society has often supplied over the past fifty years or so has been to raise the ideal itself (e.g., humaneness) to a transcendent level. But herein difficulty arises: Humane by whose standards and from whose perspective? What do we do about competing claims?

One need read no more deeply in the standard texts of this discussion than Chesterton's Orthodoxy to encounter the argument that such self-fixed principles have a way of working around to their opposites. Handed the dictate to "be humane," humanity finds itself underwriting the livelihoods of delinquents and catering to the emotions of small, discrete groups to the detriment of countless families that can no longer maintain close ties, either geographically or emotionally. (Never mind the underwriting's encouragement of soul-sapping dependency in its recipients and the catering's affirmation of destructive mindsets.)

Moreover, the mandate to follow mushy principles, largely on the basis of gut emotion, creates opportunity for nothing so much as demagoguery. This, it seems to me, is part of what a correspondent to Jonah Goldberg calls society's "totalitarian temptation." Swept up in the quest for Heaven on Earth, feeling the tantalizing proximity of a more humane world, we are easily manipulated for the benefit of a few.

Mac Donald counters the unattributed suggestion that "what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith" with the assertion that "what makes Republican principles superior to Democratic principles is that they are based on a more accurate assessment of human nature." But politicians, by their nature, will follow inclinations where they lead, guiding the movement toward their own gain. Unrooted or vaguely rooted "political philosophy" may be adequate to guide the individual, but when individuals march together, philosophy tends to be trampled by desire. Consequently, we don't necessarily want our politicians to accurately assess human nature. (One could argue that Mac Donald's stated ambivalence toward the success of Republicans indicates that she objects to the party's readjustments meant to capitalize on just that assessment.)

Religion — specifically Christianity — grounds us across cultures and generations in soil that is neither so contradictory as human nature nor so apt as deified principles to send us tumbling of our own momentum into a totalitarian noose. It offers the most full expression of human nature to enable, as Chesterton puts it, the "lion [to] lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity" — his essential nature as a lion. Left to our own devices, humanity is prone either to bind the lion in wool or to thrust the lamb into battle.

Mac Donald could object that taking abstracts to the point of obsession, that susceptibility to mush-minded demagogues, and that one side of our nature's being sublimated to the other need not be the case in a Godless universe, and abstractly, perhaps she's correct. But it invariably becomes the case without a distant, unreachable pole star Who is only indirectly related to the particular issue before us, Whom we believe to have our best interests in mind, and Who ties all of creation into a meaningful whole.

"The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day," Mac Donald writes. While I am very sorry to hear that she must personally witness the slaughter of innocents daily, with no apparent hope for counterbalance or meaning (in which case, it's a veritable miracle that she's so even tempered), I must insist that her empirical laboratory is insufficiently broad to justify judgment against God. That innocents die, especially when slaughtered by human agents, only conflicts with the notion of a loving and just God if the materialistic view of the world is prior — if this life is all. In a world that Christians see as fallen, anyway, divine justice need not manifest, and divine love need not be fully expressed, within its boundaries.

Similarly, I cannot comprehend why Mac Donald sees "perhaps a tension in arguing simultaneously that Western individualism is a legacy of Judeo-Christianity while blaming our turn away from that religious tradition for our excess of individualism." As the individualism is a legacy of the religion, so is the religion a prerequisite of the individualism. Throughout such discussions between believers and unbelievers, evidence abounds that the unbelievers are almost willfully arguing against the logic of religion when what they really object to are the assumptions. And believers are not immune to their own version of this error. This is the split of faiths between those who choose each of the possible one-word beginnings: "yes" and "no."

Ultimately, therefore, I'm not inclined to disagree with Ms. Mac Donald: a given individual does not need God in order to arrive at any particular conclusion after picking and choosing from among the myriad priorities, principles, and predilections. Every lunatic in the asylum can attest to our ability to do such things. But humanity is a collection of individuals; creation is a construction of pieces. And it is at that level that God is much more clearly a necessity. I find that to be suggestive of His actual existence, but at the very least, those of conservative temperament should correctly identify — and not actively rail against — the advantages of encouraging our fellow man to start with "yes."

Posted by Justin Katz at August 19, 2006 2:27 PM