16 October 2016
Does the U.S. need a religious right?
Ross Douthat thinks so. One of the New York Times' house conservatives -- which means that many self-described conservatives probably won't recognize him as one of their own -- Douthat thinks that liberals are gloating too soon at an apparent crack-up of the established religious right over the issue of Donald Trump. The crack-up has split religious conservatives into pro and anti-Trump camps, the latter unable to endorse him after repeated revelations and accusations of sexual thuggery, the former willing to forgive too much, in the eyes of the latter, for no better reason than anti-Clinton partisanship. Douthat doesn't support Trump but wants readers to understand why some devout, apparently moral people might. The main reason is that they think Clinton will be worse for them -- they fear some sort of persecution -- while another is that her condoning of abortion is more immoral than Trump's alleged deeds or recorded fantasies. Douthat also reminds us that many on the religious right opposed Trump during the Republican primaries, preferring Sen. Cruz, Sen. Rubio or Dr. Carson. Overall, however, Douthat is looking beyond 2016. Taking Trump out of the equation, the columnist argues that the country needs a religious right, albeit a really religious one. The Trump movement, he argues, is what you get when you secularize American conservatism. It becomes more divisive than anyone imagined the Moral Majority-era religious right to be. A truly religious right, Douthat hopes, would restore "the pull of transcendance" to conservatism; without it conservatism becomes mere tribalism -- "tribal, cruel and very dark indeed." On an intellectual level I understand what he's trying to say, or at least I understand that he identifies "transcendence" with religion. But there's a certain abstract naivete in his recommendation, since to have a civil society in our time, religion itself, whatever its commitment to transcendence, is one of the things to be transcended. If there's an axis of opinion with "tribalism" at one pole and "transcendence" at the other, it should be obvious to any observer that religion, in any society of many faiths, will always gravitate closer to tribe than to transcendence. The truly transcendent ideal has to be secular in nature because we want citizens' first loyalty to be to the nation and its people as a whole, rather than to the idols or dogma of a particular faith. If anything, Trump's supporters who identify as "religious right" are transcending their dogmas not out of rank partisanship, as Douthat suspects, but out of a sincere if misguided belief that the nation's secular salvation depends on Trump's alleged leadership qualities. But if they're thinking essentially in secular terms, they still remain a sort of religious right. Their religion just happens to be Trump, and that may be what really bothers Douthat. A cult of personality has come into being, increasingly as intolerant of irreverence toward its idol as many Muslims are in their defense of Muhammad. The growing ugliness of this cult may make Douthat idealize the old religion and the old religious right, but those truly committed to secular civilization should reject the idea that the only alternative to some sort of Trump cult is a religious right that did little good for the nation in its heyday and is unlikely to help in the future.