The Peculiar Persistence of Tribalism

So I’m driving up Connecticut Avenue on my way to my reading at Politics & Prose and the cab driver has NPR on the radio. He’s not listening–he’s deep in Arabic conversation with someone on his Bluetooth device. But as I learned after a few more cab rides, NPR is pretty much par for the course in DC cabs (the private limo services that the Republican big wigs ride in must have the little TV sets in their back seats tuned into Fox). I go on about this at such length because in my Salon interview, I supposed that a lot of mainstream centrist Americans (those all-important swing voters) have at most a casual acquaintance with the hardcore right–perhaps, I suggested, from hearing a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh in a taxi (which was how I first made his acquaintance, back in the Clinton era). An angry commenter seized on that as proof that I am an elitist who has never been out of the liberal bubble or experienced the Fox hate machine for myself. Not only that, he added, I’ve apparently never even been in a taxi, whose drivers are all Somalis and Haitians and the like and don’t listen to Rush. As far as DC is concerned, I’ll give that one to him–NPR is definitely not Rush Limbaugh.

But I haven’t written my topic sentence yet and I’m already 500 words in. If anyone is still with me, I’ll get back to the point. So NPR is on, and Rick Santorum is making a speech somewhere (I Googled it back at the hotel and learned that he was talking to some ministers in Texas. Funny to think that JFK, another Catholic contender for the presidency, went to Texas to reassure a gathering of ministers that he believed in the separation of church and state).

Santorum’s topic is the liberal religion of secular humanism, a paradoxical construction I first encountered in Phillip Johnson’s brief for creationism, DARWIN ON TRIAL (I think Johnson actually called it “scientific materialism”). It is the most intolerant religion ever, Santorum tells the ministers.

“The intolerance of the left, the intolerance of the secular ideology, it is a religion unto itself, it is just not a biblical based religion….Just like we saw from the days of the atheists of the Soviet Union, it is completely intolerant of dissent. They fear dissent. Why? Because the dissent comes from folks who use reason, common sense, and divine revelation and they want no part of any of those things.”

“They want their world view to be imposed without question, and if you question them, you’re haters, you’re bigots, and you should be as a result of that ostracized from the public square,” he added.

He’s talking about me, I realized–if the author of THE NEW HATE isn’t one of those people who accuses regular folks of being haters then who is? If the fundamentalist right wing and Opus Dei-style Catholicism has a monopoly on reason, common sense, and divine revelation, what does that leave for the rest of us? Superstition, error, and vindictiveness, I guess. Unless it’s the other way around.

But that is precisely where I don’t want to go. I don’t want to get up on my high horse and say that there is no place for faith and feeling in one’s world view, because let’s face it–most of the injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount (or for that matter, The Ten Commandments) are categorical imperatives, not the product of a rational calculus of profit and loss. I don’t believe in divine revelation myself, but I don’t throw my whole lot in with reason, either. If pure religion can lead to the auto da fe, pure reason can just as easily take you to the gulags, to Auschwitz, to any number of nightmares perpetrated on the principle that noble ends justify the most despicable of means.

People are more than the sum of their ideas–they are formed by their families and tribes. The contraception controversy that we find ourselves in the midst of (and who in 1965 would have dreamed that the stuff of Griswold v Connecticut would be coming back to haunt us almost fifty years later, in a time when the parties to the original lawsuit probably imagined we would be wearing rocket belts and commuting to Mars) is interesting not so much because of the Church and the far right’s negative stance, which are both predictable and internally consistent, but the anguished unreason of some otherwise liberal Catholic pundits (Chris Matthews, E.J. Dionne), who, whether they follow the Church’s teachings on contraception or not, deplore the state’s intrusion into religion’s sphere. The Church, they say, shouldn’t be compelled to pay for something it disagrees with (even though non-tax exempt entities like me and my family are compelled to pay for things that we don’t approve of all the time).

Joan Walsh has a really good piece in Salon on the persistence of tribalism in American Catholicism. Atavistic memories of anti-Papistry are roused when the Church is attacked, she says. And there is guilt too.

There may be an element of remorse involved when liberal Catholics defend their faith, especially among those who defy the church (rightly, in my opinion) on its most blinkered teachings in the realm of women’s rights, gay rights and sexuality. For some it may be guilt: OK, I might not listen to the bishops, but I think we ought to demand that they’re respected in the public sphere. And for some it may be grief: We grew up with a rich tradition of social responsibility and spiritual meaning that’s unfortunately been warped by leaders who worship worldly power and have odd views about sex as well as women. While the child abuse scandal makes most Catholics sick, sometimes even I wince when non-Catholics judge the whole church by the corruption of a comparative (though very powerful) few.

All of this is understandable, but it’s not something that should be blandly enabled. As Walsh goes on to say, it has a serious bearing on the 2012 election. And it puts some Catholics in league with some very strange bedfellows:

It wasn’t until I debated the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins on “Hardball” this week that the craziness of the right-wing Catholic alliance with conservative evangelicals became particularly obvious to me. They’ve locked arms with some of the very forces that once persecuted their ancestors – some of whom still despise Catholicism to this day. On “Hardball,” Perkins posed as a defender of the Catholic bishops’ position on Obama’s contraception rules. But he’s also been an ally to virulent anti-Catholics like Rev. John Hagee, who called the church “the great whore” and a “false cult.” And Rev. Robert Jeffress, who likened the church to Satan and labeled Catholicism a “fake religion.” Like Zionist Jews who’ve made common cause with right-wing evangelicals over Israel, some Catholics are lining up, in the name of religious freedom, alongside folks who want to wipe out their religion.

I could write an even longer and windier post on the bizarre alliance between Zionism (some Zionists) and the Evangelicalist (some Evangelicalists) right. Perhaps I will.

PS. If you’re a Goldwag completist, you might be interested in reading a different version of this piece, which I just posted at Killing the Buddha.

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One thought on “The Peculiar Persistence of Tribalism

  1. “Santorum’s topic is the liberal religion of secular humanism, a paradoxical construction”

    A couple of episodes ago, Bill Maher said (quoting from memory, may not be exact) that calling atheism a religion is like calling abstinence a sexual position.

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