By Jeff Sharlet
Does history have meaning? And if so, what does it have to do with tomorrow’s headlines? Most of the participants at the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s December 7-9 Key West seminar on “religion and public life” wisely dodged the question, but a couple of the big thinkers who were there on official lecturing duty took it on. The question of “history’s meaning,” said James Davison Hunter, is the underlying question of the apocalyptic beliefs that fuel much of the Christian right’s participation in politics. And tomorrow’s headlines, argued Walter Russell Mead, are increasingly determined by those whose apocalyptic fervor is so great they struggle to make armageddon real here on earth, now.
Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke from notes for his forthcoming book, Is God On Our Side? His title is not entirely ironic; even as he dismissed the theologically crude notion that a divine entity is whispering orders in Bush’s ear, he spoke repeatedly of “us” against “them,” from the British (“us”) fighting the Spanish Armada (“them”) to the big Us and Them of today — the U.S. vs. Al Qaeda, and, said Mead, France (diplomatically speaking). When co-panelist Christopher Hitchens argued that if there are going to be mosques in the U.S., the U.S. should insist on Christian missionaries in Muslim societies, Mead played a trump card: Cancel both, he said, at least in their militant varieties.
But Hitchens was not to be undone. Some might argue that Hitchens is a rhetorical bomb thrower in the tradition of H.L. Mencken; The Revealer suspects that he is actually a better-educated Westbrook Pegler. “A secret army has been created within our borders,” Hitchens warned, and the only hope for America lies in requiring Muslims to take loyalty oaths. For that matter, he added, everyone ought to declare which side they’re on. “I want people to declare where their real allegiance lies,” he announced.
It took the ostensibly more conservative David Brooks to play the part of the ACLU, reminding the room that “loyalty” is a vague concept and not a likely criterion for separating the good guys from the bad. But then, Brooks has stepped into the liberal role more than once lately, as The Revealer observed when it noted Brooks’ New York Times column making a conservative religious case for gay marriage. Brooks’ argument was strong enough to persuadeThe New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen, who told the assembled media bigs that Brooks’ column in particular had led him to the point of conversion — he may be coming out soon (in terms of legal theory, that is) for gay marriage.
Bring on the Culture Wars!
Not that Rosen was stumping for Lawrence or Goodridge, the major court cases decided in favor of gay rights recently. Like Roe v. Wade, he argued, both are “adventurous” law, ahead of public opinion and likely to spur massive conservative reaction rather than settling anything.
That’s because such decisions — whether one views them as bold or extreme — fail to allow opponents a “dignified defeat,” argued the seminar’s other speaker, James Davison Hunter. A sociologist at the University of Virginia, Hunter had come to update his seminal 1991 book,Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. More, it seemed, he had come to warn the assembled media elite that their roles in the battle are not as observers, but as main combatants. The power of culture, he declared, is the power to name things — this to a room full of professional catchphrase creators.
Culture, in fact, seemed to be the name given religion by most of the participants, who neglected Hunter’s warning in favor of a discussion of when and where the next culture war would take place with a vim lacking whenever Hitchens (the room’s most outspoken atheist) tried to inject theological precedents into the conversation. Proof, perhaps, of Hunter’s decription of cultural authority — amply represented there by editors and senior writers from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Economist, and other august institutions. “Dissent,” said Hunter, “is not possible because dissent is not imaginable.”
Ah, but they are trying! And junkets such as these do spur the imagination, a truth reflected in Rosen’s reconsideration. In the coming weeks, look for more signs of dissent — or at least new culture war critiques — in the writing of The N.Y. Times’ Brooks, Elisabeth Bumiller, andSteven Weisman; The Wash. Post’s Alan Cooperman; The New Republic’s Rosen andFranlin Foer; U.S. News’ Michael Barone and Jay Tolson; and, as always, the never-less-than-provocative work of the man who would be Davy and Goliath at the same time, Christopher Hitchens.
The Revealer salutes Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center for bringing them all together in one arena, and a remarkably amiable one at that. The Geneva Conventions were strictly observed.