Jonah Goldberg’s most recent “Goldberg File” comments at length, and with several good points, on the maddening way that modern liberalism presents itself as an objective, secular belief system above the superstitious, backwards fray of traditional (and non-traditional) religions:
Speaking of Liberal Fascism, one of its core themes — and mine — is that modern liberalism is a political religion.
That’s why I’ve been so intrigued and frustrated by the discussion around Rick Santorum and his various comments, including: His ham-fisted remarks about wanting to vomit after reading JFK’s church-state speech, his defense of religious freedom, his insistence that Obama’s environmental theology is “not a theology based on Bible. A different theology,” his claim that David Axelrod is the reincarnated snake God Thulsa Doom. These have all sparked controversy, save for the last one, which I simply wish Santorum said.
I basically agree with the substance behind everything Santorum has said in this regard, even if I think his phrasing, timing, tactics, tone, tenor, and emphasis leave something to be desired. How’s that for an “I agree with you in principle but . . . ” statement?
The idea that liberalism is a political religion is not an obscure contention of crackpots — even if I do hold it. As I’ve argued — some would say incessantly — the Progressives saw their political movement as a fundamentally religious one.
The 1960s have been seen by many liberal and leftist intellectuals as a religious awakening. As I wrote in LF:
The religious character of modern liberalism was never far from the surface. Indeed, the 1960s should be seen as another in a series of “great awakenings” in American history — a widespread yearning for new meaning that gave rise to a tumultuous social and political movement. The only difference was that this awakening largely left God behind. Paul Goodman, whose 1960 Growing Up Absurd helped launch the politics of hope in the first part of the decade, came to recognize in the second half how insufficient his original diagnosis had been: “I . . . imagined that the world-wide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, to which I was sympathetic, but I now saw [in 1969] that we had to do with a religious crisis of the magnitude of the Reformation in the fifteen hundreds, when not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon.”
And a bit later:
In 1965 Harvey Cox, an obscure Baptist minister and former Oberlin College chaplain, wrote The Secular City, which turned him into an overnight prophet. Selling more than one million copies, The Secular City argued for a kind of desacralization of Christianity in favor of a new transcendence found in the “technopolis,” which was “the place of human control, of rational planning, of bureaucratic organization.” Modern religion and spirituality required “the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” Instead, we must spiritualize the material culture to perfect man and society through technology and social planning. In The Secular City “politics replaces metaphysics as the language of theology.” Authentic worship was done not by kneeling in a church but by “standing in a picket line.” The Secular City was an important intellectual hinge to the transition of the 1960s (though we should note that Cox recanted much of its argument twenty years later).
“Man is homo religiosus, by ‘nature’ religious: as much as he needs food to eat or air to breathe, he needs a faith for living,” wrote the late Will Herberg. As the Chestertonian line goes, if man stops believing in God, he won’t believe in nothing he’ll believe in anything. You can make a religion out of anything. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a stupid religion.
I could go on. Really. (“Please, no more about Immanentizing the Eschaton, please.” — The Couch.) I honestly think that today’s liberals have little to no conception of how liberalism has become a religion unto to itself. Indeed, modern politics could be seen as “a chapter in the history of religion.”
This is a huge, fundamental, first-order point about the state of contemporary life that we don’t have nearly the vocabulary to discuss adequately. And that’s why Rick Santorum’s discussion of this stuff is so frustrating: because he’s right, and yet neither he nor the rest of us have the vocabulary to discuss it easily.
If you clear the public square of what we traditionally call religion — Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism etc. — we will not have a public square free of religion. We have a public square full of religion fighting under the false flag of “secular values” — with no opposing sources of moral authority to resist it.The utopianism, millenarianism and radical egalitarianism at the emotional core of liberalism are fundamentally religious in nature. That doesn’t mean liberalism is evil or totalitarian. But it is less than totally self-aware. The nice thing about traditional religion is you know where it comes from. The unwritten faith of liberalism masquerades in the costumes of modernity, progress, social justice and the like without recognizing that liberalism requires leaps of faith, too.
Liberalism’s lack of self-knowledge about its nature makes it very powerful and very dangerous. Liberals can simply claim — without seeming like they’re lying, because they actually believe it — that they are cold, rational presenters of fact and decency. Comte’s “religion of humanity” has forgotten that it is a religion at all. But forgetting something doesn’t make it any less real. Wile E. Coyote forgets there’s no land underneath him. His ignorance doesn’t keep him aloft.
Goldberg’s point about the lack of vocabulary is a very significant one, and evidence of it is all around us, if we are paying attention. One example from my own experience is that trying to explain—even to serious Christians or those who consider themselves politically conservative—that modern liberalism is essentially religious in nature often evokes either blank looks or even knee-jerk dismissals. People are even prone to saying, “Hey, we all really want the same thing; we just disagree on how to get there.” Really? What, exactly, is that “thing”? Justice? Peace? Equality? Happiness? And what, exactly, do those words mean and upon what basis—philosophically, metaphysically, politically, otherwise—are they rendered, defined, and pursued?
These are issues that James Kalb, author of The Tyranny of LIberalism, has been and will continue to address in his CWR column, “Ecclesia et Civitas”. His first column was titled, “The tyranny of misunderstood freedom”, and his next column, “God and Liberal Modernity”, which will be posted soon, will investigate some of the points above, but in a more systematic way, beginning with this question: “What lies behind the radically anti-Catholic form of society to which we are tending, one in which Catholic beliefs count as patently delusional and Catholic moral doctrine as an outrage that must be suppressed?”