Uncivil disobedience

Has the religious right taken leave of America -- or just its senses?

Published November 15, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

usually the sight of the Weekly Standard on the newsstand inspires  in my case, at least  no more magazine lust than, say, back issues of The Journal of Hermeneutic Ontology might (if there were such a thing). But last week's issue of the neo-con tip sheet was different: a little yellow triangle on the top left of the cover promised the inside scoop on "The Right's Anti-American Temptation."

One right-winger impugning the patriotism of another? How could I resist? I bought the magazine at once, and on the train home settled comfortably into Weekly Standard senior editor David Brooks' massive attack on the conservative monthly First Thingsan ecumenical journal whose November issue features a symposium dedicated to the proposition that the end of democracy in America is imminent, and suggesting that unless America's plunge into amoral secularism could be forestalled, right-thinking Christians (and perhaps Jews) might have to renounce their allegiance to the country.

Though FT's politics are as reactionary as those of any Moral Majoritarian'sthe "abomination" of homosexuality is a regular topic in its pagesthe journal is normally given to more, well, measured rhetoric. Now, it seemed, First Things was suggesting something close to treason. I wondered: were American religious conservatives heading into militia territory?

It took me a little work to track down the offending issue of FT; apparently, it's been flying off the shelves. The symposium lives up to the hype, and then someas might any symposium featuring the slightly mad ravings of both failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and former Watergater and born-again Christian Charles Colson. In their opening salvo, the FT editors ask if "we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime"and they follow up this dramatic question with a comment that kind of, sort of implies that America might well be turning into something kind of, sort of like Nazi Germany.

The Nazi reference more or less sets the tone for the rest of the discussion. Russell Hittinger, a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, suggests that civil disobedience might soon be the only "option remaining to right reason" against the government's "despotic rule." In these trying times, Hittinger suggests, "prompting [a] constitutional crisis is the responsible thing to do." And Colsonno shrinking violet himselfinsists that Christians "in good conscience" need to "slowly, prayerfully, and with great deliberation and serious debate" prepare themselves for "open rebellion" against a no-longer democratic government.

What's gotten the First Thingers ready to head for the hills? Not Bill, or even Hillary. Not Janet Reno. Not even, as some on the militia fringes would have it, the secret machinations of the Zionist Occupation Government.

No, what disturbs these "right reasoners" is the alleged usurpation of democratic power by a smallalbeit unlikelycabal of robed conspirators: the Justices of the Supreme Court.

Well, most of the Justices, anywayClarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia (naturally enough) escape the FT barrage. But the rest of the Justices, as Bork puts it, "have decided to rule us without any warrant in law." This "band of outlaws" (as Bork's wife has apparently taken to calling them) has decided to force baby-killing, physician-assisted suicide, andgasp!homosexual marriage down the throats of the good people of the nation.
I confess I don't quite grasp how these particular issues have become the litmus test of the Supreme Court's legitimacy, but evidently they have. Bork rails at the Court  which he now believes is fundamentally incompatible with democratic government  for "[making] up its own Constitution" and inventing new rights, though it's not altogether clear that Bork quite understands the Constitution we've already got. "They order our lives, and we have no recourse, no means of resisting, no means of altering their ukases," he laments. Well, actually, we do. Congress can pass amendments; presidents can appoint new Justices  and, indeed, the majority of the Justices were appointed by Reagan and Bush, presidents the First Thingers themselves helped to elect.

But the First Thingers have little patience for the complexities and the compromises of real politics. "As events at this summer's Republican National Convention ...show, the putative alliance between the religious right and the Republican Party offers little solution," Colson warns. "Events in America may have reached the point where the only political action believers can take is some kind of direct, extra-political confrontation of the judicially controlled regime." Fire up the tanks, and surround the Supreme Court! Those Justices can't get far in those heavy robes.

Not surprisingly, as the Standard reports, the FT symposium has provoked a certain degree of controversy, even among the members of the journal's editorial board. Sociologist Peter Berger and historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (the mother of William Kristol, editor of the Standard) have both resigned from the board. And Commentary founder Norman Podhoretz (though not a First Thinger himself) has written FT a letter the Standard describes as "quite heated."

Still, I wonder a little at all the fuss. Sure, the symposium is slightly daft, but then again so is Bob Dornan, and until recently, as I understand it, he was some sort of elected official. Over here on the left, of course, critics regularly (and often quite tiresomely) challenge the legitimacy of the modern state. (The Communist Manifesto, you may recall, describes democratic government as nothing more than "a committee for managing the common affairs of the ... bourgeoisie.")

And that little tag line on the cover of the Standard rankles a bitfor there's nothing anti-American about the First Thingers' religious alienation. Americans are cantankerous rebels almost by definition, and religious outsiders are as American as America Online (not to mention much less likely to return a busy signal when you call). Consider the Puritans, who felt so alienated from the Church of England that they fled to a whole other continent (ours) to escape it; and the Mormons, who fought pitched battles with angry mobs in Missouri and Ohio, before marching into the then-Mexican territory of "Deseret" (now Utah) and claiming it as their own.

Indeed, as Cornell University historian R. Laurence Moore points out in his provocative book "Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans," "Outsiderhood is a characteristic way of inventing one's Americanness," and generations of Americans have nurtured their American character by setting "a carefully nurtured sense of separate identity against a vaguely defined concept of mainstream ... culture."

Still, there is a distinct difference between founding your own Heaven on earth (on a suitably isolated plot of land) and attempting to force everyone else in America to live up (or down) to your particular sectarian tenets. If you're going to play the democratic game in America, you can't simply quit when the game goes the other way. The argument that the Supremes have "usurped" power seems churlish at bestsince the majority of the Justices were appointed by Presidents the First Thingers themselves helped to elect.

Of course, I can't imagine the First Thingers want to hear that coming from mea secular pinko with a grudge. But perhaps they might listen to one of their own. Several years back, in a thoughtful (if intermittently homophobic) essay entitled "Christian Conviction and Democratic Etiquette," First Things editorial board member George Weigel laid out an argument for gentle political persuasion over self-righteous ideological confrontation. "Playing the Gospel as a trump card is not only offensive to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and secularists," Weigel warned. "[I]t is also offensive to other Christianseven (perhaps especially) to those Christians who may be otherwise inclined to make common cause on public policy issues."

After the revolution, I wonder if the rebels will let poor Mr. Weigel live.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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