Friday, June 03, 2005

Everybody always talks about religious conservatives, but nobody ever
does anything about them.

By Matt Taibbi

The topic for my column this week is religious conservatives. There
are a few reasons for this. The 80th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey
trial is approaching, for one. For another, the city of Dover,
Pennsylvania, has just approved the teaching of "intelligent
design"—the latest semantic end-around for use in questioning
Darwinism. But the real reason to talk about religious conservatives
is because the last few months have been something of a coming-out
party for them as a mainstream political force.

Beginning with the Terri Schiavo affair, and continuing most pointedly
with the latest fight against the filibuster, what we have seen lately
is something new: the congressional leaders of the ruling political
party (Tom Delay, Bill Frist) signing on with the more extreme
representatives of the evangelical movement to push highly dubious and
eccentric political objectives. The presence of such people as James
Dobson and Al Mohler side by side with leading congressional
Republicans has even led some respected political commentators to
wonder aloud if a schism is developing within the Republican party, if
the fiscal conservatives who have long been stomped on in the Bush
years are finally going to start wondering what payoff they're getting
for their political support. Even Andrew Sullivan, that foul whore of
right-wing commentary, admitted as much recently in the New Republic.
"Conservatism isn't over," he wrote. "But it has rarely been as

All of this talk has led to false hope among progressives, who think
they see an opening in the Republicans' apparent strategic error in
backing fundamentalist causes.

The decision by Tom Delay to jump in
bed with the snake-handlers in the Terri Schiavo case—when polls
showed that even a majority of evangelicals opposed him—seemed to
indicate a rare suspension of electoral judgment by his party. There
is a feeling among the pointy-headed secular set that the evangelicals
are a doomed anachronism who will die out with increased exposure to
the open air, and that hitching a political wagon to their causes must
result in failure.

This idea was put most explicitly by Tom Junod in Esquire a few months
back, when he wrote: "Whether the issue is Internet porn or stem-cell
research, what conservatives are up against is not Blue-State America,
or liberal America, or secular America, or decadent America, or
enlightened America. It's not even, as some have suggested, the
Enlightenment itself. It's technology, and it's time."

This is a common belief among the overeducated east coast set. It is
also exactly what H.L. Mencken believed 80 years ago, when he filed
what he thought was the obituary of American yahoo-ism from Dayton,
Tennessee. He concluded from the Scopes trial: "On the one side was
bigotry, ignorance, hatred, superstition, every sort of blackness that
the human mind is capable of. And on the other side was sense. And
sense achieved a great victory."

Little did Mencken know that 80 years after Dayton, the supporters of
William Jennings Bryan's point of view would still outnumber the
supporters of Clarence Darrow's opinion by a ratio of about five to
one; not just in Tennessee, but in the country at large. Polls on the
issue have been remarkably consistent for decades. A New York Times
survey last year showed that 55 percent of Americans believed that
"God created us in our present form," while only 13 percent believed
that "we evolved from less-advanced life-forms over millions of years,
and God did not directly guide this process." A similar Gallup poll in
1997 placed those numbers at 44-10; in 1991, the numbers were 47-9.

Progressives in this country have always maintained a kind of fuzzy
belief that fundamentalists will eventually just disappear, as if by
magic, that the phenomenon of grown men and women believing in devils
and witches and angels will inevitably be outgrown, the way children
outgrow Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Marx. When some pastor in
rural Alabama takes the pulpit to denounce SpongeBob Squarepants as
the agent of the Evil One, we figure no response is really
necessary—folks will figure out the joke on their own, somewhere down
the line.

Because of this, nothing like an organized resistance to this
buffoonery has ever taken root in America. Though fundamentalists
themselves imagine their secular opponents as a great and unified
conspiracy, in truth the only weapons trained on Christians in this
country are the occasional lawsuit by the ACLU (a group which normally
opposes not religion itself, as I would prefer, but some ostensibly
unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the public sphere) and the
sarcastic barbs of ineffectual heathen media figures like Maureen Dowd
and Jon Stewart.

Our pornographic pop culture, seen by religious conservatives as a
coordinated, premeditated military offensive against Christian values,
is as indifferent to Christianity as it is to environmentalism. It is
not a true opponent of fundamentalist Christianity, because it doesn't
give a shit about fundamentalist Christianity—or about anything else
for that matter, except ratings and sales.

What organized political resistance fundamentalists do encounter comes
in the form of groups that oppose their political objectives, not
Christianity itself. Even pro-choice groups like NARAL, which come
into direct and often violent contact with Christians, restrict
themselves to agitation for abortion rights, and leave the issue of
their opponents' religion alone. In general, there is almost no public
figure, anywhere, who has ever suggested publicly that fundamentalist
Christianity, as a thing-in-itself, should be opposed. The strongest
suggestion most critics will make is to say that it should be
contained, and indeed that seems to be the best-case strategy of
progressives: that the God-fearing set can be boxed in, kept from
being a nuisance and from meddling in areas where they don't belong,
just long enough for them to eventually die out of natural causes.

This is a mistake, and it is the same mistake people have made for
centuries: underestimating the American zeal for superstition, for
boobism, for living the intellectual lives of farm animals. A large
statistical majority of Americans would rather live their whole lives
in perpetual fear of the devil than listen to ten minutes of common
sense. When you consider where these people live intellectually, the
idea that the Democratic Party can somehow succeed in Middle America
by making small tactical changes, by waving a few more flags, seems
absurd. You either believe in the devil or you don't; and if you
don't, you're never going to fool these people. The Republicans, for
all their seeming "confusion," understand this now better than ever.
Their seemingly open attempts in recent months to radicalize and
embolden their evangelical base may have had a temporary desultory
effect with regard to their poll numbers.

But this current crew of Republican strategists has always understood
American thinking better than the Tom Junods of the world. They know
that most political trends are fleeting. Liberalism vanished at the
first sign of trouble; pacifism disappeared one generation after
Vietnam; even fiscal conservatism is easily forgotten. The one thing
that never disappears in this country is stupidity, and if you court
it, you'll always have votes down the line. Especially when it lives
on unopposed.