Thursday, August 25, 2011

Socially Acceptable Bigotry

For those who find political talk shows entertaining there's been ample opportunity for chuckles provided by the talking heads and media sages who've been commenting with great derision and superciliousness on the religious beliefs of those fringy, tea party-type conservatives. Rarely do any of these opinionators actually understand the people or the beliefs they smugly lampoon, but that hardly deters them. Intent on embarrassing their target they often wind up embarrassing themselves thereby affording their viewers much mirth and merriment.

Mike Gerson writes a fine piece on this very topic in the Washington Post. Gerson chooses to focus on the utter silliness of the guilt by association tactic to which a number of writes have resorted in order to smear Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. What's intended is to marginalize Perry and Bachmann as a couple of religious freaks, but what results is that, not only do the writers make themselves look silly, they manage to caricature as loony the religious beliefs of millions of Americans who believe pretty much what Perry and Bachmann believe.

Here's Gerson's take on the attempt to discredit the tea party by painting its members, particularly Perry and Bachmann, as some sort of American Taliban:
Now the heroes of the Tea Party movement, it turns out, are also closet theocrats. “If you want to understand Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry,” argues Michelle Goldberg in Newsweek/Daily Beast, “understanding Dominionism isn’t optional.” A recent New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza contends that Bachmann has been influenced by a variety of theocratic thinkers who have preached Christian holy war.

The Dominionist goal is the imposition of a Christian version of sharia law in which adulterers, homosexuals and perhaps recalcitrant children would be subject to capital punishment. It is enough to spoil the sleep of any New Yorker subscriber. But there is a problem: Dominionism, though possessing cosmic ambitions, is a movement that could fit in a phone booth. The followers of R.J. Rushdoony produce more books than converts.

So it becomes necessary to stretch the case a bit. Perry admittedly doesn’t attend a Dominionist church or make Dominionist arguments, but he once allowed himself to be prayed for by some suspicious characters. Bachmann once attended a school that had a law review that said some disturbing things. She assisted a professor who once spoke at a convention that included some alarming people. Her belief that federal tax rates should not be higher than 10 percent, Goldberg explains, is “common in Reconstructionist circles.”

The evidence that Bachmann may countenance the death penalty for adulterers? Support for low marginal tax rates.

Bachmann is prone to Tea Party overstatement and religious-right cliches. She opened herself to criticism by recommending a book that features Southern Civil War revisionism. But there is no evidence from the careers of Bachmann or Perry that they wish to turn America into a theocratic prison camp.

It is a common argument among secular liberals that the application of any religiously informed moral reasoning in politics is a kind of soft theocracy. Dominionism is merely its local extension. As always, this argument proves too much, making a Dominionist of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Obama, by this standard, would be a theonomist as well, on the evidence of his Call to Renewal speech in 2006 — a refutation of political secularism.

Such secularism shows a remarkable lack of self-consciousness. Like any ideology, this one has philosophic roots that are subject to argument. Yet secularists often assume their view is the definition of neutrality and thus deserves a privileged public place. The argument that religion is fundamentally illiberal thus provides an excuse to treat it illiberally. Pluralism is defined as the silencing of religious people.
In other words, when the other side has good ideas and good arguments the tactic of choice is to smear them somehow. The smear doesn't have to be true, it just has to be scary. Facts don't matter, they just confuse people anyway. It's best to just throw a bunch of empty shibboleths (like "Rick Perry is a Dominionist") at the wall and hope one of them sticks.

We see a version of this tactic in the charge that those who doubt global warming is the threat Al Gore claims it is, or who doubt that mechanistic Darwinism is the correct explanation for the emergence and diversity of life, are "anti-science". It's amusing to hear media types who know little about the reasons for doubting the global warming alarums and even less about the reasons for questioning Darwinian evolution scoff at any public figure (or I should say any Republican public figure) who's skeptical of either or both of them.

It would be fun if some politician, upon being grilled about their doubts concerning Darwinism by Chris Matthews or any of the other pomposities at MSNBC, simply asked the individual firing the questions to explain exactly what it is he means by the term "evolution", and then sit back and enjoy the ensuing stutters, stammers, and other manifestations of ignorance from across the table.

Anyway, once you've read Gerson's piece try out Rod Dreher's column at First Things. It's just as good.