18 March 2013

The invention of Judeo-Christian values

The latest Journal of American History has an interesting piece by K. Healan Gaston on the mid-20th century intellectual Will Herberg. Gaston is a historian of the American "New Right," the anticommunist and anti-liberal movement that emerged in the early Cold War years. One of his theses is that the "Judeo-Christian" values so often invoked by Republicans and others are a kind of invented tradition, conceived as the core of a religiously-based democracy and promoted to encourage ecumenical action against "godless" Communism. Gaston distinguishes between "Judeo-Christian pluralists," who were mainly interested in promoting tolerance, and "Judeo-Christian exceptionalists," among whom he ranks Herberg. The exceptionalists "regarded belief in a Judeo-Christian God as democracy's indispensable foundation, and deemed secularism the greatest threat to democracy in the modern world." From Gaston's account, the exceptionalists defined "democracy" as "limited government." Monotheism was conducive to "democracy" in this view because it discouraged people from thinking of the state (not to mention its leaders) as their god  and reminded leaders that they remained accountable to somebody, ultimately. Abrahamic monotheism -- whether Islam would work as well wasn't considered back then -- importantly emphasized human imperfection (our "fallen" nature) and supposedly discouraged efforts to perfect life in this world. This was a good thing since such efforts typically became coercive and made life more miserable for most people. Herberg himself was a collegiate Marxist but rejected Stalin. Gaston ascribes to him an "intense dislike of centralized institutions," Herberg believing that excessive bureaucratization only enhanced a tyrant's control over everyone. He became convinced that "the tendency toward bureaucratic centralization stemmed from human nature," and that "no purely structural solution could prevent socialism [in inevitably bureaucratic form] from devolving into totalitarianism." This was because, absent faith in a transcendent God, secular people would regard themselves as "the supreme power in the universe" and act accordingly with no sense of limit. Somehow a belief would result in the omnipotence of the state and its ownership of all people. Only by asserting God's claim on each individual could people hope to check the state's inevitably absolute claim on them.

I remember reading Herberg's most famous book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, for an undergraduate sociology course. It popularized a now-discredited generational theory of assimilation according to which third-generation immigrants, i.e. the grandchildren of the actual immigrants, would reassert their ancestral identity not by embracing ethnic chauvinism but by re-embracing a religion they could share in America with other ethnicities. Believing this, Herberg saw religious loyalties as crucial to the defense of American "democracy" against Communism and the secularism that softened resistance to it. In the 1950s, he strove for greater harmony between Jews and Christians -- in practice, at that time, between Jews and Catholics -- in defense of "democracy." Toward that end, he participated in the Foundation for Religious Action in the Social and Civil Order (FRASCO) and joined the staff of National Review, the conservative journal edited by the Catholic William F. Buckley Jr. It's interesting to see in Gaston's account how much anticommunism in that era was identified with Catholicism rather than Protestantism. Herberg himself was influenced by the Protestant theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and promoted it among his fellow reactionaries, but Niebuhr himself resisted the "conservative" label. Meanwhile, Herberg criticized Jewish conservatives for withholding cooperation from Catholics on suspicion of Catholic anti-Semitism while encouraging Catholics to scale back the theological litmus test they proposed for FRASCO membership -- its Catholic co-founders wanted members to affirm that Communism was "diabolical." But as Gaston notes, Herberg's own requirement that members avow loyalty only to "a democracy, in short, that explicitly or implicitly recognizes a majesty beyond itself" was "a distinction without a difference." It was true, however, that peculiarly Catholic phraseology (does "demoniacal" count?) might alienate otherwise sympathetic Jews or Protestants.

Also interesting is how little economics seemed to matter to Herberg. Gaston observes that "free-market ideals played little role in Herberg's conservatism," which seems to have been all about fear of the state based on his encounter with Stalinism. Herberg was one of those who assumed that if you didn't worship God, you'd only find something else to worship; he also assumed, as did many like him, that the most likely candidate for worship would be the state or its leader. This idea may have rang true for him because it mirrored his own course. Refusing to worship Stalin, he had to worship the God of Abraham. Many people today still refuse to accept the premise that other people don't actually "worship" anyone or anything, and thus are never as abject slaves to their causes or leaders as critics suspect. But if Herberg offered no defense of free enterprise that Gaston tells us about, it's an easy step from his distrust of the state's presumed demand for worship to the "don't tell me what to do" attitude that defines Republican conservatism for many unschooled in economics and makes it the perennial champion of the entrepreneur against the regulator. There's the slightest hint that Herberg's suspicion of bureaucratization -- an attitude typical of lapsed Leninists -- extended to the private sector along with the public sector, but since no corporation seemed to demand worship the way Stalin did -- they just wanted your money -- corporate America probably loomed little if at all as a threat to Herberg, except to the extent that it contributed to secularization. Of course, if being made to worship something or someone was the worst thing Herberg could imagine, he was probably even more out of touch with ordinary Americans than his flawed scholarship suggests. I don't mean to say that other Americans wouldn't mind genuflecting to some Great Leader, but just as some people fear having their house broken into more than being shot at randomly in the street, some people may reject the idea of worshiping a person without feeling the existential dread someone like Herberg did. Is that fear reason enough to leave everyone to the mercies of the Market? Men, not God, must judge.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not once in the gospels did Jesus ever refer to a "free market", in fact, he pretty much denounced materialism and those who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of wealth.

The founding fathers, in the very first amendment to their constitution, made damned sure that government would never favor one religion or sect over another.

Idiot politicians may think otherwise, but that only proves me right in calling them idiots.