Election Eve Thoughts: Which Is To Be Master?
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
I really didn't want to write about politics again, but with election hysteria at its height I'm having difficulty putting much thought into other things. Never have I been so tempted to turn this into a mostly-political blog, or to start another one for that purpose.
As a rule I don't think the presence of a Republican or a Democrat in the White House represents any sort of fundamental shift in our situation, because presidents have less power than many people seem to believe. (That belief itself may be indicative of a deep-down longing to be ruled by a wise king, which longing is in turn an accurate intuition about fundamental reality, though not necessarily a good way to approach here-and-now political arrangements.) But this election is a little different, because of the Obama adminstration's attack on religious liberty. Not everyone, even among practicing Catholics, thinks this is terribly serious, but I think it is very serious indeed, by far the most important thing at stake in the election. I am no fan of Mitt Romney or the Republicans, but this is a choice, as usual, between an unreliable ally and an enemy, and the enemy's intention is to institutionalize the "dictatorship of relativism" which Benedict XVI has spoken of.
I really have not turned into an end-times nut, either. Nor am I getting lost in paranoia about dark forces operating as secret puppet-masters in politics. But I have not been able to put out of my mind the thoughts I was mulling over a few weeks ago about the presence of the anti-Christ in our time.
To a great extent the opposition now facing the Church is simply the old familiar trio of world, flesh, and devil, varying their tactics to suit the times. But there seems an element of something more now, and it's bound up with our wealth, our technology, the size and intrusiveness of our government, and its deployment as the vanguard and enforcer of consciously post-Christian principles.
The point that a post-Christian society is not the same as one which was never Christian has been made pretty often over the past century or so, and one of the major differences between them is that the post-Christian one believes it knows what Christianity is, and regards it as an enemy. This accounts for, to pick one example, the fact that many Western liberals are far more sympathetic to Islam than to Christianity. Contemporary secular liberals view Christianity as a deposed despot who still threatens them.
Secular liberalism is a faith--it was called "secular humanism" in the early days of the culture wars, though the term has fallen out of fashion now. Perhaps post-Christianism would be a better term, because it retains deep habits of mind formed by Christianity, most importantly the idea of salvation. It commands us to forget God and to seek our salvation in this world. It expects the state to be lifted up and to draw all things to itself. It has its own list of works of mercy, which sometimes echoes and sometimes contradicts the Christian set, but these are mainly to be performed by the state or its contractors (e.g. Planned Parenthood). It has its beloved creed and hymn in John Lennon's "Imagine." And the most significant aspect of the current presidential campaign is that the incumbent administration is attempting to settle the question of Which shall be master? once and for all in favor of this post-Christian faith.
This curious place called the United States of America, land of extremes and contradictions, is both a progenitor and a natural enemy of the new faith; there seems to be more fight left in the older ways of thinking here, though they have undergone strange mutations. It may seem odd to think of anarchic American evangelicalism as a defender of traditional faith, but in important ways it often is.
What makes this different from the old conflict between Caesar and Christ is that Caesar is now in a much more powerful position: he can go a lot further toward making his subjects comfortable in this world, toward providing them with what he believes to be the good life, but his definition of the good life as well as his means of achieving it place him at odds with the Church. And so the Church must be put in its place, its claim not only of moral authority but of the right to moral influence in public matters denied. It is this recurring image of a pleasant earthly regime which can be sustained only by the supression of the Church that makes me think of anti-Christ.
The thought pushed itself back into the forefront of my attention one day last week when I was reading the "Brave Thinkers" feature in the November issue of The Atlantic. I've remarked at least once here that there is always at least one thing in every issue of this magazine that makes me want to cancel my subscription, and at least one that makes me want to keep it. I don't think this issue passes that second test, so maybe it really is time for me to dump the magazine. Many of their "brave" "thinkers" do not strike me as particularly brave, and many of them are included for their actions, not for their thinking, like the Saudi woman who struck a blow for women's rights by driving a car. The genuinely brave ones are those who, like this woman, have defied oppressive regimes. Many of the others have simply said or done things that got them criticized by The Atlantic's list of internal enemies: Christians, the Catholic Church, and anyone who believes that marriage is something that happens between a man and a woman and normally produces children.
The Atlantic is essentially a magazine by and for well-to-do secular liberals for whom total sexual freedom is a dogma. And so this list of "brave" "thinkers" is interesting for what it says about those who did the selecting. What's really striking is the proportion of them who are notable only for having challenged or at least irritated those who deny that dogma. Of the twenty-one "thinkers," six or seven are there only because they either made some statement in support of the dogma or against the Catholic Church, which of course is the most formidable opponent of the dogma. (The number is six if you don't count the praise of Chief Justice Roberts for upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare, which is the tool now being used by liberalism to settle permanently the question of who is to rule.) So roughly a third of the entries on the list are there only for their service to sexual liberation. (The traditional and professed concern of liberalism for the poor is not in evidence.)
One way of looking at the culture war is that it is the final and public disintegration of the American attempt to pretend that the state can remain entirely neutral about first principles. The usual argument for the HHS mandate involves a conjectured absurdity: "Suppose there's an employer who belongs to a sect that approves no medical treatment beyond the application of leeches, and objects to paying for insurance involving medical doctors?" (The real answer to this is that the employer shouldn't be supplying the insurance in the first place, but that's another discussion entirely.) This line of argument assumes that there is no difference in kind between the sect's view and the Church's. It maintains the fiction of a religously-neutral but extremely powerful state which pretends to treat all beliefs the same, and avoids confronting the question of whether every imaginable view deserves equal consideration. We Catholics assert that the Church's teaching is objectively an intellectually respectable and morally serious position. Such a view is met with cries of "What is truth?!", and is ipso facto out of court in the secular intellectual environment; it is not an admissible argument.
Like the mandate, the push for same-sex "marriage," which has become a core principle of the Democratic party, has forced the issue; the state will decide what the word "marriage" is to mean, at least in public, and require those who disagree with its definition to go along with it, at least in public. And this implies that a number of related words must also be redefined or eliminated: "husband," "wife," "mother," "father," as is reportedly now the official state policy for government documents in France. This is an attempt to reshape by force fundamental human realities. If successful, it could not last indefinitely, but it could certainly do a great deal of harm while it did last. No one should be under the illusion that the defeat of President Obama would constitute any sort of permanent victory in this conflict, but it still seems to me a battle worth winning.
(You can see The Atlantic's list of "Brave" "Thinkers" here. My posts about politics and anti-Christ are the Sunday journals for September 9 and September 16. I did not re-read them before writing this one, and I probably should have; apologies for any repetition.)