The rejection of reason is at the heart of modern American conservatism. Although polling indicates that the public is eager for more egalitarian leadership, Washington has continued on its decades-long, seemingly intractable backslide into a morass of anti-intellectualism, fear- and emotion-driven governance, and social and economic policies that value institutions over real humans. The coalition of corporate interests, religious fundamentalists, and anti-government populists that we loosely call “The Right” has seized the American political system — and the cost to ordinary citizens has been great.
A lucid, sharp, and unabashedly secular salvo in the culture wars, David Niose’s Fighting Back the Right lays out the terrain for a battle that is anything but academic. God is on our money, in every politician’s signature signoff phrase, and in our pledge of allegiance — where, significantly, He precedes “liberty and justice for all.”
In the following passage, Niose takes aim at the strain of Christian fundamentalism that has taken its place at the forefront of our culture, and instilled a destructive ignorance at the highest levels of government.
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Today, it’s natural to assume that every president since Washington has concluded every major speech with “God bless America.” If that’s all you’ve ever heard, why would you think otherwise? Even liberal politicians, who supposedly are less prone to wearing religion on their sleeves, proclaim “God bless America” all the time, so there would be no reason to suspect that it’s a relatively recent innovation.
In fact, however, these kinds of common misunderstandings help explain the tragic state of public policy today. Although the brief history of “God bless America” may seem trivial, it is just one example of the widespread misperceptions Americans have about their country, its history, and its core principles, and the sum total of these misperceptions has had calamitous consequences. What we now unquestioningly accept as “the American way” — politically, economically, and socially — is often a relatively new invention, far less deeply ingrained than we realize, yet these flawed assumptions greatly impact contemporary society.
Indeed, for those frustrated by the less admirable aspects of American culture — the plethora of social problems, for example, from high incarceration rates to rampant anti-intellectualism — it helps to realize that our current trajectory was not inevitable, that the seeds of democracy planted by the framers were not necessarily destined to create the conditions that now define the culture. As we shall see, there were many directions that the nation could have taken after the founding era and many junctures thereafter. The current state of affairs was not a preordained destination but the result of developments — institutions, technologies, systems, and paradigms — that were unimaginable to the framers, just as today’s realities would be unrecognizable to them.
As the ink dried on the Constitution in 1787, for example, it would have been unfathomable to the drafters that in 2008 a candidate such as Sarah Palin would have been a leading contender for the vice presidency of the nation they had created. In some ways this reflects positive social and political developments (not only have women won the right to vote, but they now can stand as viable candidates for high office), but in other ways the developments are less admirable. The framers, after all, were intellectuals who would be dismayed to learn that over two centuries later — after generations of stunning scientific discoveries and advancements in human knowledge — the nation almost elected a person, man or woman, who embraced fundamentalist religion and was sympathetic to biblical literalism, a candidate who was ignorant of basic facts of geography, history, and science.
There can be no dispute that American economic and military powers have grown mighty since the nation’s humble beginnings, but it is just as indisputable that this success has not always translated into positive social and economic outcomes for the general population, and that many of the realities facing average citizens and families — the disappearing middle class, the exportation of jobs overseas, rates of violent crime and other social ills that are among the worst in the developed world, the spiraling costs of health care and higher education — reflect a serious political dysfunction. Indeed, these negatives are especially puzzling in light of the image of economic and military greatness that the nation promotes for itself on the global stage, and they indicate that certain institutions — governmental and corporate — are more often the real beneficiaries of the nation’s might, whereas ordinary citizens are not.
These kitchen-table realities result from the failure of rational, progressive Americans to effectively advocate for human-centered, fact-based public policy. Reminders of this failure are constantly present in the political arena, where the nation’s elected lawmakers regularly provide us with embarrassing fodder. Consider comments such as those of Representative Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican, who told an audience in 2012 that the big bang and the theory of evolution are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” This is just one example, but it’s especially pertinent since it came not from an obscure backwoods state legislator, and not even just an ordinary U.S. congressman, but a member of the House Science and Technology Committee! Broun, sitting on a key panel responsible for shaping national science policy, claims the earth is “about nine thousand years old” and “was created in six days as we know them.” God bless America, indeed.
Antireason has become too strong a force in the United States — to the detriment of rational, progressive policy — in part because even progressives have been too quick to define “the American way” using incorrect conservative assumptions about history, the economy, patriotism, and religion. For example, as Americans unquestioningly accept that God blesses their nation, they also accept the simplistic statement, often repeated by liberals as well as conservatives, that America is (and always has been) a very religious country. As we’ll see, this is not only wrong but inherently hostile to the progressive agenda (even though, of course, many progressives are religious). By exaggerating the real role of religion, historically and currently, in the lives of most Americans, such a definition lends legitimacy to religious fundamentalists and their agenda, thereby ushering the nation down a path that is anti-intellectual, fear-based, and hostile to the interests of ordinary people. Moreover, it downplays or ignores the important role that reason, science, and religious skepticism have played in the American saga.
Such misperceptions have redefined the nation, shaping present reality to conform to a mythical narrative. They go far beyond questions of religion, affecting beliefs and attitudes toward corporations, the role of government, war and peace, and a myriad of other issues. These misperceptions have too often allowed the politics of fear and anti-intellectualism to succeed, thereby serving interests that conflict with those of average working people. By understanding these misperceptions, rational progressives can strategize more effectively to give fact-based, human-centered policy a better chance of success.
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Excerpt from Fighting Back the Right by David Niose. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
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