There is something happening inside the soul of man right now and it doesn’t look good. Fundamentalism and rationality are coming into conflict more directly than ever before.
One of the worst bits of cant I heard after 9-11 was that the world had changed completely on that day. I thought that was a stupid thing to say then and it’s still rather silly today, but I’m beginning to see that the change for some was very real. The change that everyone felt was doubt. Doubt about the power of America, about our own safety, our protection. For me that change had already happened. I doubted America long before 9-11. I didn’t resent America or hate it, I was just skeptical of it. I knew and felt that there were always more sides to the story than what we saw on television or read in a newspaper. But there were some people who never doubted America before that day and they resented having doubt thrust upon them by terrorists.
That doubt has metastasized into fear and fundamentalism. As Andrew Sullivan writes at Marxism and Christianism:
The key defining divide of our time is no longer that between right and left, I think, but between fundamentalist faith and humanist doubt. I favor the latter, with a non-fundamentalist kind of faith to sustain it. And the struggle within conservatism right now is essentially between those who see history as without direction and those who see history as an unfolding of divine Providence. For these reasons, a conservative will reject Marxism and the eschatological Christianity of Paul and the extreme Whiggery of some neoconservatives. And he will find in Darwin and Jesus two natural allies.
Sullivan calls this creeping tide of fundamentalism, Christianism. More by Sullivan, Christianism, Debated
The difference between a world-view, based on empirical evidence or reason or personal experience and open to debate, and a religion, based on an inerrant text or revelation or church authority and closed to doubt, is that the religion demands to be taken much more seriously. It insists on its own divine authority - as it must - and that authority cannot be held hostage to the results of a political conversation or debate or election. It rests on God Almighty. By definition, therefore, the conflation of our politics with the will of God makes political discourse largely impossible, because we don’t all believe in the same God or even in God at all. And so the introduction of religious authority into politics makes all our political dealings inseparable from profound differences over the deepest things - the meaning of life, the existence of God, the nature of God, and so on.
Politics, as we have come to understand it in the West, cannot operate on those grounds. It did once. And Europe was filled with the smoke from the burning flesh of heretics. The decision to remove such profound issues from politics was definitive of the West’s emergence from the dark ages, and it is integral to any understanding of the American experiment in limited government and individual liberty. The absolute demands of fundamentalist faith make the West’s tradition of civil compromise impossible; and they constantly push the boundaries of what is acceptable to God, as religious purists outdo each other in proving their righteousness - whether it be keeping comatose patients alive for decades or defining a zygote as a full human person. Hence our politics has degenerated into a “culture war.” Wars are what happens when politics become impossible. And that is the corrosive effect of Christianism; and why it must be resisted - for the sake of American discourse and for the sake of a vibrant, humble apolitical Christianity.
I recently asked my good friend Eric to weigh in on Christianism. He makes a couple of good points about the need to respect each other’s beliefs. I agree that belief can inform politics, but respect is just as important. And sometimes that respect means acknowledging the right of another person to be dead wrong, or to believe something you find antithetical to all of your own beliefs. In fact the respect is sometimes more important than the belief. As Sullivan says above the genius of the West was partly based on the decision to remove the conflict over religion out of the public sphere. We cannot agree on everything so we must agree on a little, and that little bit is respect.