The political scene is changing rapidly in America. The religious right is on the defensive, acceptance of gay rights is at an all-time high, social conservatives are struggling for relevance, and more Americans than ever identify as nonreligious. What does this mean for the country and the future? With these demographic shifts, can truly progressive, reason-based public policy finally gain traction? Or will America continue to carry a reputation as anti-intellectual and plutocratic, eager to cater to large corporate interests but reluctant to provide universal health care to all its citizens? Fighting Back the Right reveals a new alliance in the making, a progressive coalition committed to fighting for rational public policy in America and reversing the damage inflicted by decades of conservative dominance. David Niose, Legal Director of the American Humanist Association (AHA), examines this exciting new dynamic, covering not only the rapidly evolving culture wars but also the twists and turns of American history and politics that led to this point, and why this new alliance could potentially move the country in a direction of sanity, fairness, and human-centered public policy.
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Fighting Back the Right
Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason
By David Niose
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2014 David Niose
All rights reserved.
Presidents give many speeches, but this one was more important than most. Critical domestic events were unfolding, and the president needed to connect with the American people, so this address would be delivered on live national television. Trying to convey a sense of optimism, he sat before the camera in the Oval Office and discussed in detail the drama that the nation was facing. Toward the end, he asked his fellow citizens for their prayers, and then he concluded his remarks with the following words: God bless America. And God bless each and every one of you.
The year was 1973, and the president was Richard Nixon. The subject of the speech was the resignation of three administration officials, including the attorney general, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, which of course would claim the president himself the following year.
Ironically, this speech—delivered by the president whose name has become most synonymous with corruption, addressing the most notorious White House scandal in history—was the first known instance of any president concluding a speech with the words "God bless America." To those of us who have grown up since that time, when it seems that every major presidential address necessarily ends with those three words, it may come as a surprise that the idea of incorporating God into virtually every political speech is very much a modern phenomenon.
"God bless America" is just one of the numerous religious-patriotic references that many Americans mistakenly assume has roots going back to the nation's founding, or close to it. In fact, even the song "God Bless America," which first injected the phrase into popular culture, dates back less than a century. Written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, the song wasn't popularized until it became the signature hit of Kate Smith, who first sang it in 1938. The quintessentially patriotic image of the song has grown in recent years, as it has become a staple of professional baseball games and other sporting events in the post-9/11 era. This affirmation of public religiosity, with no basis in history, is consistent with other relatively recent efforts to combine religion and patriotism—such as the national motto of "In God We Trust" (adopted only in 1956), the insertion of "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance (by legislation passed in 1954), and the creation of an annual National Day of Prayer endorsed by the federal government (by legislation in 1952).
All citizens, religious and nonreligious, would be wise to remember the Nixonian origins of "God bless America" in speech making, for the combination of religion, patriotism, and politics should be viewed with utmost skepticism. Elected officials are hired by the people to craft and implement rational public policy—to pass budgets, administer government, and much more—and there is no end to the important work to be done. Inevitably, there will be disagreements over how to solve the problems facing the country, but those disagreements only highlight the need to utilize time wisely, intelligently analyzing facts and considering viable options.
Thus, one must wonder what lawmakers in Pennsylvania were thinking, for example, when in 2012 they broke from earnest legislative tasks to instead debate and pass a bill to declare that year the "Year of the Bible," or what motivated Louisiana legislators to push a bill in 2014 to make the Bible the official state book. When politicians opt to digress like this from serious policy discussion to make references to religion and deities, constituents should immediately ask themselves an important question: With all the complex issues that need to be addressed, why are these public servants distracting us with religious pandering? The presumptive answer, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, should be that the politicians lack constructive, intelligent ideas for addressing the social and economic issues facing their constituents.
THE AMERICAN WAY
Today, it's natural to assume that every president since Washington has concluded every major speech with "God bless America." If that's all you've ever heard, why would you think otherwise? Even liberal politicians, who supposedly are less prone to wearing religion on their sleeves, proclaim "God bless America" all the time, so there would be no reason to suspect that it's a relatively recent innovation.
In fact, however, these kinds of common misunderstandings help explain the tragic state of public policy today. Although the brief history of "God bless America" may seem trivial, it is just one example of the widespread misperceptions Americans have about their country, its history, and its core principles, and the sum total of these misperceptions has had calamitous consequences. What we now unquestioningly accept as "the American way"—politically, economically, and socially—is often a relatively new invention, far less deeply ingrained than we realize, yet these flawed assumptions greatly impact contemporary society.
Indeed, for those frustrated by the less admirable aspects of American culture—the plethora of social problems, for example, from high incarceration rates to rampant anti-intellectualism—it helps to realize that our current trajectory was not inevitable, that the seeds of democracy planted by the framers were not necessarily destined to create the conditions that now define the culture. As we shall see, there were many directions that the nation could have taken after the founding era and many junctures thereafter. The current state of affairs was not a preordained destination but the result of developments—institutions, technologies, systems, and paradigms—that were unimaginable to the framers, just as today's realities would be unrecognizable to them.
As the ink dried on the Constitution in 1787, for example, it would have been unfathomable to the drafters that in 2008 a candidate such as Sarah Palin would have been a leading contender for the vice presidency of the nation they had created. In some ways this reflects positive social and political developments (not only have women won the right to vote, but they now can stand as viable candidates for high office), but in other ways the developments are less admirable. The framers, after all, were intellectuals who would be dismayed to learn that over two centuries later—after generations of stunning scientific discoveries and advancements in human knowledge—the nation almost elected a person, man or woman, who embraced fundamentalist religion and was sympathetic to biblical literalism, a candidate who was ignorant of basic facts of geography, history, and science.
There can be no dispute that American economic and military powers have grown mighty since the nation's humble beginnings, but it is just as indisputable that this success has not always translated into positive social and economic outcomes for the general population, and that many of the realities facing average citizens and families—the disappearing middle class, the exportation of jobs overseas, rates of violent crime and other social ills that are among the worst in the developed world, the spiraling costs of health care and higher education—reflect a serious political dysfunction. Indeed, these negatives are especially puzzling in light of the image of economic and military greatness that the nation promotes for itself on the global stage, and they indicate that certain institutions—governmental and corporate—are more often the real beneficiaries of the nation's might, whereas ordinary citizens are not.
These kitchen-table realities result from the failure of rational, progressive Americans to effectively advocate for human-centered, fact-based public policy. Reminders of this failure are constantly present in the political arena, where the nation's elected lawmakers regularly provide us with embarrassing fodder. The "lies straight from the pit of hell" statement of U.S. Representative Paul Broun, mentioned in the introduction, is just one example, but it's especially pertinent since it came not from an obscure backwoods state legislator, and not even just an ordinary U.S. congressman, but a member of the House Science and Technology Committee! Broun, sitting on a key panel responsible for shaping national science policy, claims the earth is "about nine thousand years old" and "was created in six days as we know them." God bless America, indeed.
Antireason has become too strong a force in the United States—to the detriment of rational, progressive policy—in part because even progressives have been too quick to define "the American way" using incorrect conservative assumptions about history, the economy, patriotism, and religion. For example, as Americans unquestioningly accept that God blesses their nation, they also accept the simplistic statement, often repeated by liberals as well as conservatives, that America is (and always has been) a very religious country. As we'll see, this is not only wrong but inherently hostile to the progressive agenda (even though, of course, many progressives are religious). By exaggerating the real role of religion, historically and currently, in the lives of most Americans, such a definition lends legitimacy to religious fundamentalists and their agenda, thereby ushering the nation down a path that is anti-intellectual, fear-based, and hostile to the interests of ordinary people. Moreover, it downplays or ignores the important role that reason, science, and religious skepticism have played in the American saga.
Such misperceptions have redefined the nation, shaping present reality to conform to a mythical narrative. They go far beyond questions of religion, affecting beliefs and attitudes toward corporations, the role of government, war and peace, and a myriad of other issues. These misperceptions have too often allowed the politics of fear and anti-intellectualism to succeed, thereby serving interests that conflict with those of average working people. By understanding these misperceptions, rational progressives can strategize more effectively to give fact-based, human-centered policy a better chance of success.
From a progressive standpoint, the intermingling of religion and politics would be less troublesome if the theology promoted by America's activist Christians were some variation of the social gospel—urging the use of public resources for feeding the poor, healing the sick, and promoting peace. Sadly, that's not the case. The most politically outspoken fundamentalist Christians nowadays tend to see their theology as justifying—if not requiring—a harsh brand of conservative policy that would make Jesus look like a radical hippie.
Consider Tennessee congressman Stephen Fincher, an excellent example (and there are many) of this breed of Christian conservative. Fincher, citing his religious values, not only supports cutting aid to the poor but quotes the Bible to justify doing so. In 2013 he argued that $4.1 billion in food stamp funding should be slashed from the federal budget, quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." Of course, many Christians, perhaps most, are appalled by such rhetoric, which would seem to contradict the commonly understood Christian message of charity and compassion. But as we will see later, despite their opposition, moderate and liberal Christians have failed to advance more progressive policy, in part because they've actually contributed to the promotion of antireason by accepting conservative narratives like the notion that America is a "very religious country."
Even most of these more rational Christians would acknowledge that, from a standpoint of political visibility and outspokenness, fundamentalist and conservative Christians often dominate the media spotlight. It's not that moderate and liberal Christians are inactive in politics, but they are less likely to emphasize their religion as a political selling point or as a basis for policy positions. Conservatives, in contrast, routinely ramp up the religious rhetoric, with direct references to Christianity and talk of "morals" and "values" at seemingly every opportunity, while simultaneously exhorting antigovernment positions that would decimate social safety nets.
Fincher's statement is a good example of how two seemingly unrelated forces—conservative religion and anti-egalitarianism—have converged in modern America to create a potent conservative formula that has had terrible consequences for the nation. The utter failure of progressive, rational, people-oriented public policy in America—a failure that coincides with the nation's lurch to the right in recent decades—stems from this convergence. Politically, the institutional interests backing conservative religion and anti-egalitarianism have developed a symbiotic relationship that has suffocated the progressive agenda, ensuring that almost all real-world policy making takes place on the conservative end of the spectrum.
Most Americans are well aware of the Religious Right's influence on social policy and issues such as reproductive rights and church-state separation, but its role in advancing the entire anti-egalitarian conservative agenda—including the attack on social services and regulatory agencies and much more—often goes unnoticed. Because of the convergence of religious and anti-egalitarian interests, the advocates of the harshest conservative economics often become the darlings of the Religious Right.
For example, Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan, whose "Ryan budget" has been the centerpiece of Republican efforts to dismantle the federal government, is seen by the Religious Right as a great hope for the future. When Mitt Romney chose Ryan as his vice presidential running mate in 2012, leaders of the Religious Right lauded not only Ryan's pro-life and other socially conservative stances but also his fiscal positions. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a fundamentalist Christian advocacy group, said the selection showed that Romney "is serious about getting America's fiscal house in order," adding that Ryan "believes that social, fiscal and national security conservatism is indivisible." Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition called Ryan "an inspired, outstanding selection" and specifically noted that Ryan was known for "sound budgets." And even the Catholic Association praised not just Ryan's extreme pro-life position (like the Catholic Church, Ryan opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest) and opposition to same-sex marriage, but even implied that it approved of his anti-poor budgetary priorities, saying Ryan "has been thoughtful and articulate in applying Catholic principles" beyond those of abortion and marriage.
Unfortunately, these conservative religious voices and the anti-egalitarian politicians they support are empowered by the misperception that America is a very religious country where the intermingling of religion and politics is generally welcomed. Even liberals have come to expect, and too often accept, an atmosphere of visible public piety, even though it is historically invalid and unquestionably obstructs egalitarian policy. The entire American political landscape has swung violently to the right since the rise of the Religious Right, yet those who oppose the conservative agenda seem blind to the correlation, or at least unwilling to seriously address it.
As conservative religion and anti-egalitarianism have come together to empower the Right in modern America, it's important to understand their histories. Each arises from an underlying conflict that has been ongoing since the early days of the Republic: the former from the struggle of religious versus secular worldviews and the latter from the struggle of egalitarian versus anti-egalitarian worldviews. In the religious versus secular conflict, we see continuous debate over the proper role, if any, of religion in American politics and government. In the egalitarian versus anti-egalitarian debate, we see constant disagreements over how the high-minded ideals of liberty and equality should be applied, both socially and economically.
The ongoing and still-unresolved dialectical tensions of religion versus secular and egalitarian versus anti-egalitarian, when considered in appropriate context with other factors (such as, for example, the advancement of technology), shed light on our current political landscape. In both of these conflicts, the two sides have historically traded victories and defeats, but the strong conservative trend of recent decades can be understood as the simultaneous predominance of the religious side in the former struggle and the anti-egalitarian side in the latter. Moreover, by discovering the power of working together for political ends, these religious and anti-egalitarian interests have redefined the American political landscape.
Excerpted from Fighting Back the Right by David Niose. Copyright © 2014 David Niose. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Politics of Anti-Reason
Chapter 1: Corrupt Blessings
Chapter 2: Real-World Change
Chapter 3: Of People and Humans
Chapter 4: The Boomer Bust
Chapter 5: No Corporations in Foxholes
Chapter 6: ‘Our Son of a Bitch'
Chapter 7: Fair to All
Chapter 8: New Traditions
Chapter 9: Same Old Deal
Chapter 10: A Higher Common Denominator
Chapter 11: Impossible Vigilance
Chapter 12: Sarah Palin's Massachusetts
Chapter 13: Taking Control
Chapter 14: Reason for Winning
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful, insightful, and helped me to see there are other people out there like me. Understanding how our country has come to be is a bit frightening, but has also given me hope knowing many people are trying to bring our country back to critical thinking. This book has helped me to have more courage to speak up for what I believe. Thank you David.
Couldn't put it down. Explains many things about why America is such a mess, in an understandable way that makes sense. Full of information but not overwhelming, very readable. Goes after the religious right and Wall Street, and explains exactly how the system got swiped away from ordinary people. Loved it.