Recently I posted a short piece saying that the specter of a “Christianist” takeover of the United States is a figment of overheated imaginations, mostly on the left. Every few years a leftie journalist dabbles in right wing websites and obscure theological debates and emerges with horrifying tales of totalitarian Dominionist plots to turn the United States into something like the dystopian world of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.
Andrew Sullivan thinks I am blind to the inquisitorial realities of Republican politics today. Writes Sullivan:
Has he [Mead] been conscious since Roe vs Wade? The point here, it seems to me, is that Focus on the Family is no longer necessary. Its positions – once radical – are now litmus tests for every GOP candidate save one. It controls the party on social issues so completely the likeliest nominee began his campaign at a prayer rally. The winner of the Iowa straw poll is not just anti-gay, but actually has a business “curing” them. Criminalizing all abortion is now not even up for debate within the GOP, and blind, faith-based support for Greater Israel in a global war against Islam is also de rigueur. Mead can dream on … but you don’t need a religious right when the GOP has itself become synonymous with it.
Many younger readers will have trouble believing that anybody older than Andrew Sullivan exists, but I am not only a good bit older than Mr. Sullivan, I’ve been immersed in American life much longer, and I can remember when the Right was really Right. I remember KKK billboards on the roadside, and I especially remember one showing a picture of Martin Luther King in a photograph captioned “Martin Luther King in a Communist training school.” I remember when you couldn’t buy a drink in much of the South, when mixed race dating led to bloody beatings if not death, when the liberal position on homosexuality was that it was a terrible and destructive disease that might, possibly, be treated by years of psychotherapy, when divorced people couldn’t get re-married in mainline Protestant churches, abortion was illegal, Ulysses was banned, marijuana was a life-threatening drug that beatniks and jazz musicians used in New York, and members of the Communist Party couldn’t speak on university campuses or hold teaching jobs.
The infamous billboard (Blogforarizona.com)
In other words, I remember a United States where Andrew Sullivan’s darkest fantasies were fulfilled — and I’ve watched us move steadily away from that for nigh on sixty years. (Yes, kids, people can be that old and still blog, but that’s only because my teams of underpaid, starving research associates can transfer my cursive Gothic script from the parchment I like onto one of those computational devices you young people use.) In more than half a century of watching the ebbs and flows of American politics, I’ve seen this country steadily become more tolerant, more thoughtful, more open and in many ways more just.
The Christian right that apparently keeps Mr. Sullivan up at night shivering with fear is a pathetic, compromising bunch of namby pamby wimps compared to the holy warriors of my youth. If Focus on the Family or even Michelle Bachmann scares him so badly, he should try listening to a standard Sunday morning sermon on AM radio circa 1956 — or read how Time magazine covered homosexuality back then.
An April 1979 cover of Time (Time Magazine archives)
Sullivan doesn’t, I think, get the whole sweep of American life. On a couple of issues — abortion comes to mind — the social policy consensus is creeping a bit to the right, but generally speaking the Christian right today stands for positions that were considered fairly liberal not all that long ago. Liquor by the drink, gambling, lesbian and gay equal rights, premarital sex, birth control, pornography, interracial marriage: on a whole variety of issues, some noble and important, some hedonistic and perhaps a bit more questionable, the United States has moved steadily and inexorably toward a more permissive and open stance.
The Christian right has often fought that trend, but over time the right moves left as the center moves on. Divorcees were once shunned outside a handful of big cities in this country and many states made divorce very difficult to get; these days, the right worries about keeping its own marriages intact more than about interfering with other peoples’ lives.
The Left has been winning most of the cultural arguments, but its fear of the Right grows even as the country continues by and large to move culturally toward tolerance and acceptance of diversity. My guess is that this is due to the country’s equally pronounced drift toward the Right on a number of political and economic issues. New Deal values and suspicion of unfettered free markets were much more widespread in those far off halcyon days when I first attended the still-segregated Pundit Elementary School: this was a much more collectivist country in 1958 than it is today.
If anything, what we are seeing is the continued triumph of individualism in American life — a force before which both the Christian Right and the Secular Left must bend. The Right sees the advance of individualism and fears that all is lost, that the socialists are about to take over; the Left sees the rise of libertarian individualism in economic life and policy and fears that this is part of an impending total triumph of the Right.
The biggest victory for the Right in the culture wars has been the fight over guns and gun control: the libertarian principle won out there, as it wins out in the gay rights question. But where the Right or the Left seeks to limit individual autonomy in either economic life, sexual expression (among consenting adults), thought or the arts, the cause of liberty tends to win.
Like virtually everyone in the United States, I find that this national tendency toward an ever greater, ever more radical individualism is not without problems. Even as I revel in some aspects of our increasingly free social life, other aspects of it give me pause. But this great human movement toward less external constraint on individual freedom seems to be the essence of American life. It is the mighty Mississippi River flowing down our national history, fed by tributaries from its right and left banks, gathering force and volume in its irresistible progress from colonial times right up through the end this very week of DADT. That river will roll on, swamping teacher unions trying to prop up the old school bureaucracies, drowning religious groups fighting issues like gay rights. The trend toward greater individual choice is too deep, too strong, too wide to be dammed (or damned, for that matter).
And so I say it again to all my many friends on the secular and religious left: relax. The Christianists aren’t coming to lock you up in camps. George W. Bush was the first president to choose a vice presidential running mate with an openly lesbian daughter; the dark night of fascism isn’t preparing to fall. The Left likely must resign itself to a long term trend of less compulsory social solidarity and more individual economic freedom; the right must accept that individuals in our society can only be compelled by their own consciences on an ever growing list of social and cultural issues. No one will be completely happy about the state of this society; Americans have been lamenting the downsides of American individualism for almost as long as we’ve been becoming more individualistic. And the less we can rely on external forces (laws and mores with as much binding power as law) to govern our behavior the more we as a people must learn to manage our liberty wisely.
The Christianists (and the socialists) haven’t got a prayer of reversing this trend; American individualism has its positive and negative aspects, but there is little in American life more certain than that the trend toward greater personal autonomy is here to stay.