The religious roots of the elite liberal agenda: Today's liberal crusades are yesterday's Christian anxieties
For nearly 80 years, social critics of the Right and far Left have been trying to understand American liberalism by studying a specific social class. These critics share a belief that liberal ideas of a certain type dominate American life, and that they emerge from a social caste produced by American meritocracy. It's a class that sets the moral tone and imperatives for our society, that shapes our tastes and conversation.
One of the first attempts to dissect this tribe came from former Marxist turned conservative James Burnham, who theorized about an emerging "managerial class" that existed between capital and labor, and was made up of professionals, corporate executives, and executive administration officials. Like a good historical materialist, Burnham believed that material ambitions generated ideology. Using this as his guiding light, he hoped to understand and reveal the character of America's new elite, as well as determine what would happen to a country ruled by them.
In the 1960s and ’70s, neoconservative thinkers like Daniel Bell wrote about the "New Class," which was slightly less expansive in scope and focused mostly on professors and social scientists. A little later, the populist and left-leaning social historian Christopher Lasch wrote The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, slashing at the educated classes for abandoning socialist economics in favor of the politics of cultural revolution.
These theorists were offering a critique of the educated and liberal classes, with neoconservatives and socialists both lamenting the betrayal of older liberal ideas about the economy or about America's role in the world.
All three of these diverse theories have had a deep influence on modern conservative thinking in America. Many of my peers were influenced by Bell and Lasch, and I primarily by Burnham. But with the publication of Joseph Bottum's new collection, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, I wonder if these earlier thinkers haven't all been surpassed.
Bottum's thesis is that there really isn't a new American caste. This "class" that has outsize influence on America's moral and spiritual life is roughly the same class that has always had it: Mainline Protestants, only now without the doctrinal Protestantism or the churchgoing.
Of course, on one level, the startling truth about the past 50 years of American social life is the collapse of Mainline Protestantism. In 1965, more than 50 percent of Americans belonged to the country's historic Protestant congregations. Now less than 10 percent do, and that number continues to drop. But Mainline Protestantism long existed as a column of American society, able to support the American project and criticize it prophetically at the same time. It would be even more startling if the spiritual energies it captained, and the anxieties it defined, ceased to exist the moment people walked out the door.
In Bottum's revisionist account, Protestant preacher Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) looms as the figure who most succinctly defined the spiritual mission of 20th-century Mainline Protestantism and its heirs. He put "social sins" at the front of the Mainline imagination. "The six social sins, Rauschenbusch announced, were bigotry, the arrogance of power, the corruption of justice for personal ends, the madness of the mob, militarism, and class contempt," Bottum writes. These six would fittingly describe an enemies list for liberals today: racists and homophobes, hedge-funders who claim to be victims, the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, Dick Cheney and the neocons, and the Koch brothers again.
Not all of Bottum's post-Protestants are directly descended from Mainline members. Jews, Catholics, and even atheists join this unofficial spiritual-but-not-religious tribe, just as before many Jews, Catholics, and nonbelievers joined Mainline churches as a way to signal their arrival in a new, important social class. For Bottum it isn't quite right to define these post-Protestants as an elite — many of them are not at all wealthy, and do not have direct social power. Instead, they are an "elect" class, so named because they seem to constitute a churchly class: moralistic, possessed of self-superiority, and drawn from across economic classes, a mingling of poor artists, middlebrow activists, and rich benefactors.
For Bottum, what is remarkable is the way the spiritual experience of Rauschenbusch's "social gospel" is so like the experience of modern liberalism. According to Rauschenbusch, one opposes these social sins through direct action, legislative amelioration, and simply recognizing their effect and sympathizing with their victims. Rauschenbusch wrote, "An experience of religion through the medium of solidaristic social feeling is an experience of unusually high ethical quality, akin to that of the prophets of the Bible."
The post-Protestants Bottum identifies have just that, "a social gospel, without the gospel. For all of them, the sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob."
With the proper feeling comes a proper sense of guilt, and a missionary's zeal to correct wrongs. Over a century ago Rauschenbusch wrote, "If a man has drawn any religious feeling from Christ, his participation in the systematized oppression of civilization will, at least at times, seem an intolerable burden and guilt." Bottum deftly notes that in theological terms this signals "a nearly complete transfer of Christian fear and Christian assurance into a sensibility of the need for reform, a mysticism of the social order — the anxiety about salvation resolved by ecstatic transport into the feeling of social solidarity."
Can we not hear in the progressive's soul-searching examination of his own "privilege," as well as his unconscious participation in structural injustice, an echo of Rauschenbusch's words? Whereas Catholics make an examination of conscience before confession, and confess their personal sins before promising to amend their life, today's progressives examine their place in the social structure of oppression, and then vow to reform society. That is what it means to have a "social gospel without the gospel" — to be motivated by religious impulses, but believe it is entirely secular.
Bottum's theory also makes sense as theological-political genealogy. Rauschenbusch's main theological opponent was John Gresham Machen, a champion of Reformed Protestant theology, who founded Westminster Theological Seminary, one of the most important institutions informing conservative Evangelical life and thought. It makes sense that nearly 90 years later, conservative Evangelicals along with Catholics are still providing the lion's share of the moral and philosophical opposition to the heirs of this Mainline tradition. Then, as now, our political arguments are fed by a reservoir of religious and spiritual anxiety.
Besides providing an interpretive guide with great explanatory power for understanding modern American liberalism, Bottum's theory offers suggestions for further exploration. In an offhand way, Bottum notes that the more utopian and radically democratic impulses behind Occupy Wall Street would be recognized by any religiously literate age as those that lay behind the Radical Reformation. One can speculate that many of Occupy's members were once more-conventional liberals. Perhaps if the reformist impulses of our post-Mainline liberals continue to be frustrated, their spiritual longing for redemption will impel them toward radicalism as well.
There's Always the Lawless Approach to Immigration
With approximately 12 million illegal aliens living, working and receiving taxpayer-paid benefits within U.S. borders, immigration reform has long been the perpetually unfulfilled promise. In 2008, Barack Obama pledged to make it a “top priority” in the first year of his first term. Four years later, he promised to tackle it in the first year of his second term. Perhaps third time's the charm, but no thanks. As Obama morphed from a candidate who feigns belief in Rule of Law to a president who openly believes in rule of one man – himself – his approach to immigration has changed.
In November of last year, for example, he pretended to be constrained by law in acting on immigration reform. Responding to a request that he issue an executive order on immigration, Obama said, “If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing this through Congress, then I would do so. But we're also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition.” The irony here is that he had already begun disregarding the law long before. Indeed, in 2012, he issued an executive dictum ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to halt certain deportations.
Then there was his statement earlier this year, when he basically announced that Congress could take a long walk off a short pier, threatening, “Where Congress isn't acting, I'll act on my own.” And of course his now infamous “I've got a pen” remark. Spoken like a true tyrant.
Turns out, however, that when it comes to immigration, Obama hasn't used a pen at all, just an eraser. And through an extra-legal policy of selective law enforcement, Obama granted de facto amnesty to virtually every illegal immigrant. According to an analysis issued by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the Obama administration has given a free pass to millions of illegal aliens – not only those in the United States today but also those who may be in the United States in the future. The reports notes that “a review of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) published enforcement statistics for 2013 reveals a shocking truth: DHS [Department of Homeland Security] has blocked the enforcement of immigration law for the overwhelming majority of violations – and is planning to widen that amnesty even further.” Specifically, ICE has stopped deportations for virtually all illegal aliens except those who are caught crossing the border, are convicted criminals, or are fugitives or habitual breakers of immigration law.
What does this mean in real numbers? According to the analysis, in 2013, ICE recorded 368,000 removals. Of these, 235,000 were border apprehensions (which are not typically counted as deportations), and 110,000 were removals of convicted criminals. Of the remaining 23,000, which are termed “interior removals” (as opposed to border removals), 13,000 were “either fugitives or habitual offenders/previous deportees.” This leaves just 10,000 – or 2% of the 368,000 removals – deported for breaking immigration law without additional demerits against them. Placed in context, those deported simply for breaking immigration law – without having criminal convictions or being habitual immigration law offenders or previous deportees – comprised a total of 0.08% of the 12 million individuals who are currently in the United States illegally.
By refusing to enforce immigration law, Obama has granted amnesty to nearly all of the illegal aliens living in the United States today and granted near carte blanche immunity (and don't forget government benefits) to the vast majority of those considering entering the U.S. illegally tomorrow.
Perhaps this is why Republicans have reined in their efforts at immigration reform. After all, even were it to pass, what good is a law in the hands of the chief lawbreaker?
Democrats' ObamaCare albatross
IN SEPTEMBER 2010, six months after signing the Affordable Care Act and just weeks before his party's massive losses in the midterm elections, President Obama wondered whether the law's unpopularity might be due to a communication failure on his part. "Sometimes I fault myself," he told an audience in Virginia, "for not having been able to make the case more clearly to the country."
There was nothing wrong with the president's communication skills. The case he made for his sweeping health care overhaul was straightforward and appealing: It would make health insurance available to every American, especially the more than 40 million people who were uninsured. It would significantly reduce insurance premiums for individuals and families. It would guarantee that Americans who already had a health plan they liked, or a doctor they liked, would be free to keep them.
The case for ObamaCare was perfectly clear. But those claims rang false even before the law was passed. Nothing is left of them now — and another midterm election season is underway.
The Affordable Care Act turned 4 years old this week, as unpopular as ever. It has been underwater in hundreds of national polls, frequently by double-digit margins. Despite the elaborate and relentless marketing campaign the White House and its allies mounted in support of the law, Americans don't like it any better now than they did back when Democrats muscled it through Congress over unified Republican opposition.
By its proponents' own empirical benchmarks, ObamaCare has been a debacle. The rosy promises about no one being forced to change doctors or health plans have been ditched. So has the enticing prospect of $2,500 premium reductions for every family. Instead, the "Affordable" Care Act in most states is driving up underlying premiums, even doubling them in some parts of the country.
Voters rewarded the GOP for standing fast against the law four years ago, and there is a growing sense that they're going to do so again this fall. Obama has been warning Democrats for months that they are likely to "get clobbered" at the polls this November. It's not just widespread disapproval of the president's signature legislation that makes his party so vulnerable — it's the intensity of that disapproval. "The people who favor ObamaCare, which is a minority, aren't really that enthusiastic about it even if they favor it," says political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "But the majority who oppose ObamaCare are much more charged up, and they're the people who tend to turn out" for midterm elections.
It had been widely assumed on both sides of the debate that as the Affordable Care Act was implemented, the law's frontloaded benefits and subsidies would quickly become such sacred cows that repealing the law would soon be a political impossibility.
So far it hasn't worked out that way. Most Americans haven't come around to accepting the massive law and its unprecedented mandates as a permanent feature on the landscape. Ardent liberals, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have been telling Democrats to run as unabashed defenders of ObamaCare, insisting "it's a winner" of an issue for them. But it proved a losing issue for Democrat Alex Sink, who was beaten in Forida's special congressional election this month by Republican David Jolly. ObamaCare was a key issue in the race, which pitted Jolly's "repeal and replace" message against Sink's "don't nix it, fix it" theme. The pro-repeal candidate won.
A single special election doesn't prove a GOP sweep is coming, but the outcome in Florida wasn't lost on Scott Brown, who knows better than most what it's like to win a special election on the strength of an anti-ObamaCare refrain. "A big political wave is about to break in America, and the ObamaCare Democrats are on the wrong side of that wave," Brown told a Republican crowd in Nashua three days after Sink's defeat. "If we don't like ObamaCare, we can get rid of it. Period."
That was probably overstating it. Politics is the art of the possible, and even with a slew of midterm pickups, it would be impossible for opponents of ObamaCare to "get rid of it — period." But there is nothing impossible about replacing the Democrats' unpopular monstrosity of a law with alternatives that expand freedom and competition in health insurance, rather than suppressing them. Four years of ObamaCare have shown what arrogance, deception, and top-down control can accomplish. No wonder voters want to see if Republicans can do better.
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