Friday, January 01, 1999


This is for Burry, for Issac, for Ben, for Budddha, for Biur and for anyone else who writes about the confluence of politics and morality. I don't expect a reply - Burry, Issac and the others don't answer articles that challenge directly their dearly held beliefs about the world. I hope only that they will read the article, and think about it.

The Elect
by Leon Wieseltier

Perhaps the most odious feature of contemporary conservatism is its equation of success with virtue. In the realm of economics, this long ago resulted in the strange belief in the moral superiority of the wealthy, a vulgar Calvinism according to which money is a proof of merit and riches are a mark of righteousness. How else is wealth acquired in America, after all, except justly? And now, in the aftermath of the election, the equation of success and virtue, the conflation of outer worth with inner worth, has been extended to the realm of politics. We are instructed that the Republicans won because they have "values" and the Democrats lost because they do not have "values." (Or quantitatively speaking, 59.5 million Americans have "values" and 55.9 million Americans do not have "values.") Winners are good, losers are bad.

It is not the triumphalism of the Republicans that is so distasteful (victory indeed is theirs), it is the sanctimony; and this is owed to a further refinement of the Republican worldview, according to which moral values are finally religious values. It is philosophically and historically obtuse, of course, to think that morality cannot exist without religion, or that immorality cannot exist with religion; but for the Republicans "values" are the entailments of "faith." The good are with God, the bad are without God. And since winners are good and losers are bad, it follows that the winners are with God and the losers are without God. What clarity!

In the days after the election, the losers seemed to be falling for the winners' clarity. Democrats, it was everywhere observed, are catastrophically wanting in "respect" for American believers. They must immediately "learn to talk about" moral questions and "learn to talk to" religious people. Suddenly the most significant obstacle to political power in America is secularism. It is certainly the case that John Kerry was not exactly a man with the common touch; and that liberals more generally have trouble imagining common people except as poor people. For this reason, liberals have once again been harshly taught that homo economicus--more concretely, homo Shrumicus--is a fiction. Money is often not the most important thing in the world for poor people, perhaps because they have so little of it. They do not define themselves only, or mainly, by what they lack; whereas they are rich in loves and principles, and so the communal and national and cultural and spiritual dimensions of their identity may loom larger than the economic dimension. (The Bush administration has demonstrated, by contrast, that economic man is more likely to be found among the wealthy, for whom money often does seem to be the most important thing in the world, perhaps because they have so much of it.) So liberals must indeed develop a fuller and more vivid comprehension of the Americans whom they rightly wish to help; but that is all the intellectual contrition that they need muster. For they have values even when they do not have faith; and they should not contrive to have faith so as to gain values, unless they wish to degrade faith by promoting it mainly for its political utility, as some conservatives do.

I will not be God-whipped. For a start, it is not at all clear that the "values" analysis of George W. Bush's reelection is correct--my splendidly unquantified suspicion is that he owed his majority to the tiresomely predictable failure of John Kerry to persuade 3.6 million people that he would unambiguously commit American power to the cause of American security--even if the cunning referenda on gay marriage did bring more conservative voters to the polls. (If this were 1960, Karl Rove would have arranged referenda on segregation.) Moreover, the "faith" that is being praised as the road to political salvation, the Bush ideal of religion, is a zealous ignorance, a complacent renunciation of proof and evidence and logic and argument, as if the techniques of reason were merely liberal tools. A few weeks before the election David Brooks explained to his readers that Republicans and Democrats have different notions of leadership. Republicans admire "straight-talking men of faith," whereas Democrats prefer leaders who are "knowledgeable and thoughtful." Brooks was serenely unaware of what a damning admission he had made. There is no reason why liberals, even in defeat, should entertain such a surrender of intelligence.

The faith fetish, the belief in belief, is an insult not only to the mind, but also to the soul. For there are many varieties of faith, and the "faith" of the Republicans, which does not grasp the old distinction between fideism and faith, represents only one of those varieties. Not all religion in America is as superstitious and chiliastic and emotional and dogmatic and political as this. And not all religion in America is as Christian as this. When the spokesmen for Bush's holy base call for the restoration of religion to a central position in public life--for the repeal of the grand tradition of mutually beneficial separation that began with Roger Williams's heroic alienation from the theocracy of Massachusetts--they are usually calling for the restoration of their religion.

Consider the bioethical controversies. In the discussion of stem-cell research, reproductive technologies, birth control, and abortion, politics has collided, and colluded, with theology. Liberals are regularly castigated for insensitivity to religion when they articulate their views about the proper use of these scientific powers. But they are not being insensitive to religion. They are being insensitive to Catholic and evangelical Christian religion. It happens that the Jewish understanding of the sanctity of life leads Jewish law to rule much differently, and much more "liberally," in all these matters. Why, then, are so many conservatives insensitive to my religion? The question answers itself. They have no choice. They believe what they believe. They do not mean to wound me; but all the ecumenical talk about respect, and all the political talk about healing, cannot dissuade them from their consciences. I understand this. I expect them to think as they think. But they had better understand this, too. I think as I think. Like them, I cannot be dissuaded from my conscience. I intend no disrespect, but I also intend no phony respect: Like them, I believe that on certain fundamental issues facing American society, those who think as I think are right and those who think as they think are wrong. The liberal conscience is not a human failing. It is another kind of conscience. It has reasons. It is a thing of principle, not a thing of taste. The religious right complains of liberal condescension, and often properly; but then it condescends to liberalism by reducing it to class or to culture, and by regarding it not as a moral creed but as a moral corruption. The offense that religious conservatives regularly take from secular liberals is a little ridiculous. Why do they care so much about our disapproval? They are also in the business of disapproval. The truth is that this kind of conservatism is sustained by its feeling of victimization. Grievance makes it glad. It allows the right to combine the power of a majority with the pity of a minority.

When I complain about the scanting of my religion in the bioethical debate, I am not being altogether serious. Obviously I do not expect Congress to act on the sanctity of Judaism when it makes laws about stem-cell research or abortion. This is not only because Judaism has too few adherents to carry the day. It is not the politics of a democracy, but the philosophy of a democracy, that requires me to accept these limitations upon the reach of my faith. For my faith is my faith, even if I believe it to be universally true. The reasons of my religion cannot compel the assent of people who do not share my religion. They have the reasons of their religion, which cannot compel my assent. That the Pope, or some distinguished evangelical divine, holds a certain view is a matter of indifference to me. The Pope may be right and he may be wrong. I may be persuaded of his view, but not because of his authority. I need to be given arguments that I may rationally consider. (I harbor the same skepticism--the same liberalism--about authority in my own tradition. Reason is not an instrument for criticizing other people's religion.) This is what Adam Michnik meant when he wickedly remarked, in support of the American war against Saddam Hussein, that if Jesus is telling Bush what to do, He is giving him some very good advice.

John Kerry, and his recreational complexity, made the simplicity of George W. Bush look like clarity. This clarity seems perfectly consistent with the president's religiosity; but in fact the relation of religious faith and political clarity is much less edifying and much more onerous. The belief in God does not guarantee the knowledge of God's wishes. This is the most elementary lesson of the history of religious faith. The believer lives in the darkness more than he lives in the light. He does not wallow in God's guidance, he thirsts for it. And when God's guidance comes, it does not take the form of policy recommendations, unless he has created his God in the image of his desire. What deity is this, that has opinions about preemption and taxation and Quentin Tarantino? In this regard, there is no more ringing refutation of the religion of George W. Bush than the religion of Abraham Lincoln. "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other," Lincoln proclaimed at the beginning of his second term, and in the middle of a war. "The prayers of both could not be answered--that of neither has been answered fully." For Lincoln, his party was not God's party; or rather, the other party was as much God's party as his party was. And he explained this repudiation of human certainty this way: "The Almighty has his own purposes." He did not know what they were, he knew only that they were. Beware the politicians, and the politics, that know more.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of TNR