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The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine
By Gus diZerega
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2013 Gus diZerega
All rights reserved.
SECULAR MODERNITY AND THE HISTORICAL ROOTS OF OUR CRISIS
As the 1960s opened many academics agreed that two broad cultural and political patterns promised to extend indefinitely into America's future. The first was a wide bipartisan agreement about the shape of American democracy. A new consensus had arisen out of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the unifying impact of World War II, and the subsequent Cold War. Under Eisenhower the Republicans had not tried to roll back Roosevelt's innovations. Traditional ideological battles had apparently ceased to matter. A kind of technocratic pragmatism promised to become the basic rule for the American political game.
Second, Western modernity seemed to have entered a process of increasing secularization. Except for cultural backwaters, mostly within the former Confederacy, religion sought peace with science on science's terms, becoming a purely personal affair and providing social cohesion. Responding to concerns that his Catholicism would compete with his loyalty to America's founding principles, John Kennedy said, "I hope that no American ... will waste his franchise and throw away his vote by voting either for me or against me solely on account of my religious affiliation. It is not relevant." His critics worried about his sincerity, not his sentiments.
America's future appeared to be one of increasing middle-class affluence within a capitalist economy whose sharpest edges had been blunted by technocratic government and corporate management. A few clouds appeared on the horizon, most importantly the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union and the long history of America's brutal treatment of Blacks. But on balance America seemed the very model of a successful liberal democracy, with a solid middle class and its old political and religious divisions mere shadows of what they once had been.
So much for extrapolating the future from the present.
Today the American middle class is shrinking, political partisanship is at its highest level since the Civil War, and religious divisions dominate the country. Profound shifts in the cultural and spiritual strata underlying what seemed a stable American political landscape have shattered the optimistic expectations of those times. This crisis has economic and cultural dimensions, but the cultural dimensions cut deepest. Economic issues involve money, and money facilitates compromises because dollars can be divided many ways. Cultural issues are not so easily compromised. Worse, economic interests can manipulate them to strengthen their own positions.
Contemporary American discussions of our crisis are usually framed in terms of a "right" versus a "left." The right has a religious component, characterized by politicized Baptists, Pentecostals, conservative Catholics, and Mormons, and a secular component dominated by neoconservatives, libertarians, and their allies. On the left we have secular New Deal liberals and progressives that arose to oppose that same New Deal establishment, as well as spiritual communities usually identifying with liberal Christianity or with what are often termed "new religious movements." America's right and left are remarkably diverse, but virtually all, particularly on the right, share a preoccupation with gender.
Our culture war's major protagonists can be distinguished by the contrasting roles played by masculine and feminine values in their self-images. "Culture warriors" use strongly gendered language claiming to exemplify a manly competitive warrior ethos while "liberals" are effeminate men and masculine women. The right's religious movements emphasize a purely masculine image of sacred transcendence.
Secular American liberals see themselves as defending women's rights. Religious groups on the left give greater emphasis to divine immanence and a focus on both masculine and feminine images of the sacred. However, few of these groups see themselves as primarily feminine, more often describing themselves as "balanced."
This cultural and spiritual distinction is not all we need to understand America's contemporary crisis. There is also the increasing consolidation of wealth into a new plutocratic aristocracy and America's overwhelming military power after the Cold War ended. But America's reaction to these phenomena is powerfully influenced by the culture war. A large majority of Americans want higher taxes on the super wealthy rather than cutbacks on basic social services, yet they have not come together on that issue. Both progressives and rank-and-file Tea Partyers worry about excessive corporate dominance, yet they do not cooperate, seeing themselves as separated by more basic cultural issues. We will return to these more traditional political and economic concerns but, important as they are, oligarchy, aristocracy, and empire are familiar patterns in history. The culture war is something else again.
I begin exploring America's shifting cultural geology by examining secularization, which played a pivotal role in modernity's rise.
The modern world is characterized by liberal democracy, science, and previously unimagined physical health and material prosperity. Central to its animating vision is the belief that human action can make life better for all through the use of reason. Progress is real. This modern view is largely the result of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It has born some very sweet fruits indeed.
The issue is different regarding modernity's vision of the meaning of life. The religious and secular right as well as the secular and spiritual left grew out of successive waves of secularization that transformed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and the new United States. All are modern phenomena. None are truly traditional. Nearly all are responses to the collapse of the traditional moral world and the failure of a new moral order to take its place.
History is a complex tapestry. Many story threads are unfolding at any one time. But for Americans today, this thread is among the most important. To understand the inner tensions within modernity and the secular and spiritual reactions to them, we need to understand secular modernity in the context from which it emerged.
THE SECULARIZATION OF POLITICS AND THE BLESSINGS OF DIVERSITY
Secularization refers to the gradual pushing of religious belief out of our political and social institutions and, for some, out of our lives. Secularization therefore exists in three dimensions: the political, the social, and the personal. The secularization of politics removes religion as a goal of public policy and attempts to remove religious doctrines from political debate. The secularization of society removes religion as a basic social organizing force though it can still have personal importance and be a strong force in community solidarity. The secularization of ourselves removes religion and spirituality as significant forces in our personal lives. The first two are compatible with strong personal spiritual and community religious beliefs; the third rejects them all.
Political secularization is the most visible, least contested, and easiest to understand. Visiting the United States in the 1840s, Alexis de Tocqueville, himself a religious man, remarked on the unusually peaceful relations between different religions, in contrast to Europe. He found that clergymen "differed upon matters of detail alone; and that they mainly attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country, to the separation of Church and State."
People's religious beliefs will always influence their political actions, and few if any of our Founders desired it to be otherwise. But when the two are legally separate, no political decision can deliberately encourage or discourage any particular religion or religion in general. The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
George Washington wrote a treaty with Muslim Tripolitania, later unanimously adopted by the Senate, and signed by John Adams, our second president. It stated: "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." In signing it Adams wrote, "I ... accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and articlethereof."
But the Founders were not hostile to religion. They wanted religion to motivate people but not itself enter into political contention. My religious beliefs may give me the inner strength and confidence to take a stand, but the reasons I give my fellow citizens for why they should agree with me need to be framed more inclusively. People have to make their case in terms convincing to people who do not share their religious beliefs. They have to argue as inclusively as possible, as citizens not sectarians, thereby educating society as a whole by emphasizing a common moral framework. From abolishing slavery to civil rights and wilderness preservation, many of America's best moments exemplify this process. When carried out through persuasion and seeking common ground, this kind of religious influence has consistently enriched our society, as was intended.
Today culture warriors attack the separation of church and state, buttressing their claims with quotes by our Founders taken out of context and often falsified. Consequently we need to remind ourselves why even very religious Americans supported political secularization. Separation of church and state arose because of horrendous events that took place when there had been no such separation.
Religious wars, ending a little over one hundred years before our founding, had devastated Europe. Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists, and many smaller groups confidently interpreted the Bible's message as universal and binding, but in mutually exclusive ways. Absolute confidence in their understanding combined with condemnations of different readings led to war, which ended with the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555 decreeing that people had to follow their ruler's religion. In time the Catholic Church sought to install Catholic rulers in place of Lutheran ones to force their Protestant subjects to become Catholics again. In 1618 an even larger and bloodier war broke out.
During the Thirty Years' War millions died as Christian killed Christian for not being the right kind of Christian. Thirty to forty percent of some countries' populations died. So great was the carnage that parts of Europe took one hundred years to rebuild their populations to prewar levels. In terms of the percentage of people killed, the Thirty Years' War probably ranks as Europe's worst.
The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 sought to remove religious reasons for warring against neighboring countries. Calvinists as well as Lutherans and Catholics were allowed to practice their worship, even if the prince followed a different denomination. Catholic Spain recognized the independence of Calvinist Holland, acknowledging that Protestantism was here to stay. Catholics in Protestant lands and Protestants in Catholic lands still suffered frequent and harsh discrimination, but the treaty marked a major step toward recognizing the legitimacy of religious diversity.
Smaller denominations such as Anabaptists, Pietists, and Quakers continued to be outlawed virtually everywhere because no princes followed these faiths. However, given the opportunity, even some of these denominations proved they could also oppress others. Many within these smaller sects ultimately emigrated, first to the Netherlands and later to North America, seeking to practice their religion as they wished. However, except for the Quakers, once they had the power to do so, they always denied religious freedom to others.
Virtually no Christians anywhere believed they should tolerate alternative views when they possessed the power to suppress "error." If correctly following their religion was necessary for salvation, different groups felt obligated to wage war on other points of view.
The Treaty of Westphalia's success in establishing international tolerance raised hopes among many that genuine tolerance might also ultimately succeed within countries. Initially only the Netherlands pursued this path, permitting religious dissenters and even Jews to live together amicably with the official state Calvinist Church, although Catholics were still discriminated against. It created an oasis of religious peace surrounded by a desert of intolerance. During this time, and not coincidentally, the Netherlands became Europe's economic, scientific, and cultural center. It also profoundly influenced America.
From 1683 to 1689 John Locke lived in exile in Holland to avoid execution in England. Locke's political writing established liberalism and ultimately made him the philosophical father of America's Declaration of Independence. But making the case for political freedom was not his only service. Based on his experiences in the Netherlands, in 1689 Locke published "A Letter Concerning Toleration," advocating religious toleration even for pagans and Muslims.
Locke argued that a person need only be a good citizen to merit religious toleration. So long as that condition held, a person's private beliefs should not matter. God could handle it. Locke's argument for toleration was rooted in our being able to separate our duties to our society from our duties to our religion. If we could do this, toleration was possible.
The Founders' Views
Locke's argument persuaded many of our Founders. In 1776 Thomas Jefferson cosponsored a bill in Virginia's legislature to allow Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestants to become citizens. In making his case, Jefferson repeated Locke's argument that "neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion." Under James Madison's leadership the bill became law in 1786.
In 1790 George Washington expressed identical sentiments, writing to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: "All possess alike liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship.... Happily the Government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
During the Constitutional Convention the question arose whether a religious test should be required of anyone holding national office. Religious tests had long been employed in England and many of the colonies. The idea was rejected. Future Supreme Court justice James Iredell of North Carolina explained why:
It is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened.... It would be happy for mankind if religion was permitted to take its own course, and maintain itself by the excellence of its own doctrines.
James Madison is frequently described as the "Father of the Constitution." His writings in The Federalist are widely considered the most powerful arguments for the proposed constitution, and his notes taken during the Constitutional Convention are our chief resource for knowing what happened during those epochal sessions. The Constitution was the work of many minds and much artful compromise, and no one's initial plans prevailed. But historians would probably agree that if any single person had a definitive view about its meaning, it was James Madison. In addition, Madison was responsible for introducing the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, and getting them through Congress. He was not just any Founder.
Excerpted from Fault Lines by Gus diZerega. Copyright © 2013 Gus diZerega. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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