Jan 9th 2020

America’s Sacred Politics

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 

 

NEW YORK – Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland was the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Although one of the Founding Fathers, as a Catholic Carroll was not allowed to hold public office. This changed only in 1789, when the Constitution prevented Congress from establishing any religion, and religious affiliation ceased to be a test for those seeking public office.

Not everyone was happy about this separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson was attacked by some as a dangerous infidel, and zealots believed that religion would die in America if he were elected president. To this day, there are many people who would like to put religion back into the center of public and political life. This is presumably what US Attorney General William Barr, a deeply conservative Catholic, meant when he denounced “secularists” for launching an “assault on religion and traditional values.”

Prejudice against Catholics as enemies of liberty and potential traitors (because of their spiritual allegiance to Rome) also died hard. In 1821, John Adams wondered whether “a free government [can] possibly exist with a Catholic religion.” Anglo-American freedom and democracy was traditionally associated with rugged Protestant individualism; Catholics were believed to be reactionary slaves to an ecclesiastical hierarchy. Individualistic Protestants were free-thinking, industrious, and devoted to making the best of themselves (materially, as much as spiritually), whereas Catholics were backward and not infrequently lazy.

The idea that Catholics were not fit for capitalism was promoted at the beginning of the last century by the famous German sociologist Max Weber (a Protestant). John F. Kennedy, thus far the only Catholic US President, had to state clearly during his campaign that his loyalty was to the Constitution, not the Vatican. Anti-Catholic biases also played a part in English hostility to European unification, which was sometimes seen as a Popish plot to restore the Holy Roman Empire.

The strident views of a US Attorney General are not the only sign that times have changed significantly. Only one Supreme Court justice is a Protestant (Neil Gorsuch), and even he was raised Catholic. Three justices are Jewish. The other five are Catholics (some with ties to Opus Dei, a secretive organization that began to flourish in fascist Spain in the 1930s).

The other historic change, which began in the latter half of the twentieth century, is evangelical Christians’ political alignment with conservative Catholics. For a long time, American Protestants were happy to live with a constitution that shielded their religious lives from state intervention. Spiritually neutral governments could be ceded the public sphere, as long as they left religious believers alone. This changed after the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s, which alarmed many white Christians, especially in the southern states. Today, evangelicals, like Catholic conservatives, are among President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. They, too, believe that family and faith are under siege from liberals and secularists.

To both groups, the fact that Trump is not known to be religious, and that his life has been anything but a model of traditional Christian morality, is irrelevant. Such figures as Energy Secretary Rick Perry believe that Trump is “God’s chosen one.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested not long ago that Trump had been “raised” to save Israel. “As a Christian,” he said, “I certainly believe that is possible.”

To call this hypocrisy is to miss the point. Reverence of this kind does not demand that a leader be morally irreproachable. Even a sinner can be an instrument of God.

Not wishing to be accused of bias, people are sometimes reluctant to point out the religious background of public figures in America. Yet it is important to understand the history of certain types of belief in order to comprehend an extraordinary era in which a sinful president is surrounded by believers who are convinced that God put him in the White House to save Israel and redeem a wickedly secular America.

Obviously, not all Catholics are reactionary. Pope Francis is not, which is why Catholics like Steve Bannon, an early ideological influence on Trump, dislike him deeply. Liberation theology, popular in South America in the 1960s and 1970s, was a movement of the radical left. And US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of Trump’s main political opponents, is as much a Catholic as Barr.

But there is a strain of Catholicism, rooted in Europe, that never reconciled with the French Revolution, which broke the temporal power of the Church and overthrew the divine right of kings on which absolute monarchy rested. One of the most articulate and influential reactionary thinkers, Joseph de Maistre, believed that without the sacred authority of monarchy and church, society would descend into immoral chaos.

This line of anti-Enlightenment thinking never faded away. In France, it fueled right-wing nationalist movements, such as the anti-liberal, anti-Semitic, and anti-secular Action Française. But Catholic conservatives were not the only Christians to oppose the secularist legacy of the French Revolution. Until they merged with other denominations into a Christian Democratic Party, the main Calvinist party in the Netherlands was called the Anti-Revolutionary Party.

The attempt by contemporary Catholic conservatives and evangelicals to infuse politics with their religious beliefs obviously runs counter to the ideas of the French Revolution, which sought to uphold freedom from religion, but also of the American Revolution, which instituted freedom of religion. Both groups are targeting the carefully erected barriers between church and state.

This is dangerous, not only because it fosters intolerance, but also because it challenges, in the spirit of de Maistre, the idea that political argument should be based on human reason. Once political conflicts become clashes of faith, compromise becomes impossible. A believer cannot bargain over a sacred principle. For those who see Trump as an instrument of God, it doesn’t matter how rational his opponents’ accusations of malfeasance are. They must defend him. To call this unreasonable is to misunderstand their defense. You cannot argue with God.

It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result.


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.org
 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "This puts US Democrats in a difficult position. What is a political party to do when the other main party has been taken over by self-appointed holy warriors? To treat them as a loyal opposition worthy of engagement in a spirit of compromise and respect becomes almost impossible. Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and Joe Biden have sometimes been criticized by their own supporters for not fighting dirty and giving Republican fanatics a dose of their own foul medicine.  That would be a mistake. All legal means should be used to stop extremists from wrecking democratic institutions, but those institutions won’t survive if all parties turn politics into a matter of life and death. In a quasi-religious war, the far right will almost certainly win; they have more fanatics and, in the US, many more guns."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "In contrast to the index for consumer goods, which measures only the prices of final products, industrial producer prices capture all intermediate stages of production. They therefore have a certain prognostic significance for consumer prices, even though the final products won’t show such extreme spikes. ----- These new inflation figures are so extreme that the ECB’s position looks like willful denial. Germany is currently experiencing the strongest inflation in a lifetime. And the situation is not much better in other European countries. In September, France reported an 11.6% annual increase in industrial producer prices, and that figure stood at 15.6% in Italy, 18.1% in Finland, 21.4% in the Netherlands, and 23.6% in Spain."
Nov 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "So it could well be that, despite the faster spread of the infection, its ultimate health, social and economic impact proves negligible. We simply do not know at this point. But detecting more uncertainty than before, financial markets have reacted with panic. For example, the S&P500 tumbled 2.3% on Friday November 26 only to rise 1.1% on Monday November 29. Most markets gave up between 2% and 4%, which is a pretty substantial one-day fall."
Nov 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Momentous changes are casting a long shadow on China. The country’s political system will soon undergo a profound reform, pending final approval (a quasi-formality) at next year’s congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). President Xi Jinping, the Party chairman and the “navigator” of the country, has decided on a new course, abandoning the principle of collective leadership. Xi is leading China away from the path taken by Deng Xiaoping after the terror of the Cultural Revolution, and back toward a system of absolute rule by one person without term limits, as under Mao Zedong."
Nov 25th 2021
EXTRACTS: "”The biggest disappointment in Glasgow was the last-minute watering down of the proposed (and widely supported) agreement to “phase out” the use of coal in energy production. With India providing political cover for China in vetoing this language, the final conference proposal was to “phase down” coal”. ---- “China accounts for more than half of the world’s coal consumption, and has the largest amount of coal-fired generating capacity under construction. Pressed about why his country would not do more in Glasgow to help save the planet, China’s chief negotiator pointed to the commitments in the Communist Party of China’s current Five-Year Plan. So, our future now depends on the CPC’s program. The tragedy for the world is that the Party cannot be phased down, much less phased out, despite the fact that it is a huge threat to the future of all of us.” ------ “To save the planet, robust democratic leadership must be phased up – not phased down, let alone phased out. Rather than merely keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best, we should start by calling out the appalling behavior of dictatorships such as China and Russia.”
Nov 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The transitory inflation debate in the United States is over. The upsurge in US inflation has turned into something far worse than the Federal Reserve expected. Perpetually optimistic financial markets are taking this largely in stride. The Fed is widely presumed to have both the wisdom and the firepower to keep underlying inflation in check. That remains to be seen."
Nov 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "S&P projects that companies are planning to install 44 gigawatts of new solar in 2022. The year 2020, despite the onset of the pandemic, saw a record-breaking 19 gigawatts of new solar capacity installed in the U.S. So given the bids out there already, it appears that in 2022 solar installers will more than double their best year ever so far. The U.S. currently has 100 gigawatts of solar electricity-generating capacity, so in just one year we are poised to add nearly 50% of our current total. A gigawatt of power can provide electricity to about 750,000 homes. So the 44 new gigawatts we’ll put in next year have a nameplate capacity that would under ideal conditions allow them to power 33 million homes." ----- "Not only is there a lot of good news on the green energy front but there is good news in the bad news for fossil fuels. S&P finds that coal plants are being retired way before the utilities had expected. Some 29 gigawatts of coal retirements are expected from 2020 through 2025. "
Nov 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Zemmour’s way of thinking stems from a tradition going back to the French Revolution of 1789. Catholic conservatives and right-wing intellectuals, who hated the secular republic that emerged from the revolution, have long fulminated against liberals, cosmopolitans, immigrants, and other enemies of their idea of a society based on ethnic purity, obedience to the church, and family values. They were almost invariably anti-Semitic. When Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of betraying his country in the notorious scandal of the 1890s, they were on the side of Dreyfus’s accusers. ---- Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 gave reactionaries of this kind the chance to form a French puppet-government in Vichy. Zemmour has had kind things to say about the Vichy regime. He also has expressed some doubt about the innocence of Dreyfus. ---- None of these views would be surprising if they came from a far-right agitator like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Zemmour is the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Algeria who lived among the Muslim Berbers."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "performed strongly in last month’s parliamentary and regional elections. Officially, Communist Party candidates took 18.9% of the popular vote for the State Duma (parliament), compared to nearly 49.8% for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. But the Communists refused to recognize the results, insisting that the vote was rigged. And, indeed, some experts estimate that they should have gotten around 30% of the vote, with United Russia taking about 35%."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Powell was charismatic in the true sense of the term. Nowadays, this description is too often used to indicate an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. Internet lists of those who are regarded as charismatic include characters as varied as Adolf Hitler, Bono, Donald Trump, George Clooney, and Rihanna. But the ancient Greeks and Saint Paul used “charisma” to describe values-based leadership infused with a charm capable of inspiring devotion. The Greeks believed that this quality was a gift of grace, while Christian theology regarded it as a power given by the Holy Spirit."
Oct 17th 2021
EXTRACTS: "But property-sector woes are not the only economic danger China faces in 2021-22. The Chinese government’s mounting crackdown on the country’s burgeoning tech sector may pose an even greater threat." ---- "According to a recent study by McKinsey & Company, the share of Chinese urban employment supported by private enterprises more than quadrupled between 1995 and 2018, from just 18% to 87%. The share of exports generated by the private sector more than doubled over the same period, from 34% to 88%. And private-sector fixed-asset investment jumped from 42% to 65% of the total. The message in the data is clear: clamping down on the private sector and threatening innovators is not the way to ensure sustained rapid growth. Chinese entrepreneurs can read the writing on the wall. They understand that their political and regulatory room to maneuver is shrinking, and that the balance has shifted in favor of state-owned firms and public officials. And they understand that this uneasy atmosphere is likely to persist."
Oct 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "We designed a programme that incorporated data from over 300 million buildings and analysed 130 million km² of land – almost the entire land surface area of the planet. This estimated how much energy could be produced from the 0.2 million km² of rooftops present on that land, an area roughly the same size as the UK."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "Britain in the 1950s was wedded to the US, acting as a partner rather than leading the charge. Now, while the UK continues to support the US, the influence it has seems negligible. While it may bring comfort to the UK to feel it is a partner to a superpower, being its stooge or subordinate is an unpleasant place to be, no matter how much you tell yourself it values your opinion."
Oct 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "That was then. Now, the Chinese government has doubled down, with President Xi Jinping throwing the full force of his power into a “common prosperity” campaign aimed at addressing inequalities of income and wealth. Moreover, the regulatory net has been broadened, not just to ban cryptocurrencies, but also to become an instrument of social engineering, with the government adding e-cigarettes, business drinking, and celebrity fan culture to its ever-lengthening list of bad social habits. All this only compounds the concerns I raised two months ago. The new dual thrust of Chinese policy – redistribution plus re-regulation – strikes at the heart of the market-based “reform and opening up” that have underpinned China’s growth miracle since the days of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. It will subdue the entrepreneurial activity that has been so important in powering China’s dynamic private sector, with lasting consequences for the next, innovations-driven, phase of Chinese economic development. Without animal spirits, the case for indigenous innovation is in tatters."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Wartime nostalgia plays an important part in Britain’s instinctive fondness for the special relationship. Like former Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, some British politicians might believe that the United Kingdom is the only European country with serious armed forces and the political will to use them. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Blair before him, seems to fancy himself a modern-day Churchill. Unfortunately (or not), Britain’s military power is insignificant compared to what Churchill could command in 1944. Wartime nostalgia has drawn Britain into several foolish American wars, which other European countries were wise to avoid."
Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."