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No faith in a thesis on politics

Times Staff Writer

THE influence of resurgent American religiosity on contemporary American politics is something that demands to be understood more clearly. The educator and magazine writer Earl Shorris attempts to address that need in “The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times” but falls short in frustrating, sometimes rather silly ways.

Reduced to its essence, Shorris’ thesis is that a fear-based alliance of neoconservatives and religious believers -- fear of political tyranny for the former; fear of death for the latter -- have dangerously undermined the natural optimism that underpins American democracy. It’s not a very satisfying or particularly useful analysis, nor does it speak to the actual lives of the Sunbelt evangelical Christians who provide the majority of the religious right’s political shock troops. They are, if anything, poster children for optimistic, capitalist American exceptionalism, and they’re pugnaciously willing to defend it against all comers.

It’s easy to lose sight of this in an avalanche of references stretching back to the classical philosophers. As an educator, Shorris advocates a systematic reading of the Great Books, and his approach has the magpie quality that occurs when that approach to intellectual inquiry goes awry. Unless it’s tethered to the facts, this becomes an endless series of pithy quotations, less a harmonious understanding than a chaotic nest woven from every bright rhetorical bauble that catches the authorial fancy. The problem with “The Politics of Heaven” is that the author knows too little of the history or contemporary practice of religion in America and tries to conceal this -- unconsciously, one must suppose -- by telling you how much he knows about everything else.

One of the frustrating things about Shorris’ book is that, informed classicist that he is, he has sprinkled the text with chewy apothegms that leave a reader hungry for more than the text he presents. For example, in an otherwise elliptical digression on the link between laughter and democracy, there is this: “In a wounded society there is no laughter, only unhappy philosophers and bitter satirists.”

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The author’s grasp of the latter -- he ranges from Lenny Bruce to Jon Stewart -- seems rather crabbed and earnest, alluding to Aristotle’s lost book on laughter. It’s no surprise, then, that the strongest section in “The Politics of Heaven” is Shorris’ extended explication of the philosophers who have influenced the religious right’s neoconservative allies. This is familiar territory for the author, whose 2004 Harper’s essay on Leo Strauss made a couple of extremely shrewd and helpful points concerning the neoconservatives’ intellectual godfather.

Strauss fled the rise of Nazism, and Shorris made a telling point in locating the conservative philosopher’s all-encompassing pessimism in the disillusion he suffered when the philosopher he idolized, Martin Heidegger, embraced national socialism in 1932. Similarly, Shorris made a provocative point in arguing that the origins of Strauss’ deliberately obscure literary style -- he called it “esoteric writing” -- could be found in his reading of Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed.” That medieval classic was deliberately composed on two levels: a deliberately transparent one, written so as not to upset “simple” believers, and a hidden, more sophisticated level intended only for the philosophical elite.

In “The Politics of Heaven,” Shorris adds an interesting observation on why Strauss and his contemporary neoconservative acolytes are so devoted to liberal democracy and yet so often hostile to the products of the liberal arts:

“Strauss was born into a society richer in the knowledge of the humanities than perhaps any other in modern times. Among those people who rose to the top of the Nazi government were students of humanities, former scholars. Joseph Goebbels had studied history and literature at the University of Heidelberg. Reinhard (Hangman) Heydrich was the child of a pianist and an opera singer who founded a conservatory. Ernst Kaltenbrunner studied law at the University of Prague. More than a third of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic belonged to the Nazi Party. Albert Speer, who ran the business side of the Nazi war machine, was an architect.”

Here, both Strauss and Shorris, as atheists and fundamentally secular thinkers, are brought up short by their system’s limitations. Like it or not, they’re hard up against the question of evil, which is what anyone seriously considering 1930s Germany must confront. The persistence of evil, like the miracle of altruistic goodness, is essentially a religious question.

Though he never makes it explicit, Shorris’ point seems to be that the neoconservatives, bearers of all that Straussian pessimism, and religious conservatives, whom he seems to conceive almost entirely as evangelical Protestants freighted with a fear of death and the imminence of the Apocalypse, are allies in fearful disillusion.

The notion that all religious conviction stems from a fear of death is fairly shopworn; Shorris’ particular notion that American society has undergone a resurgence of religiosity because of the dawn of the Nuclear Age, reinforced by Sept. 11, and produced a pervasive culture of fear won’t gain enough currency to wear itself out. It’s a vulgar idea that utterly neglects the vigor and varieties of American religious experience, which have to be part of any rational discussion of the problems posed by the neoconservative elite’s most cynical calculation. That’s the belief that they can use the religious right to achieve Republican electoral success, toss the rednecks and sweaty fanatics a few scraps of domestic red meat, then get back to the serious business of imposing their enlightened tutelage on the rest of the world.

Other than a vague wish that something be done to draw what he condescendingly labels “reasonable religious cohorts” out of an alliance that, at times, seems on its way to transforming the GOP into a kind of American Hezbollah, the Party of God, Shorris has painfully little to say that’s of any real use on his chosen topic. That’s unfortunate, because in that same Harper’s essay in which he explored Strauss’ legacy, he pointed to the fact -- as he does again in passing in this book -- that his subject’s great philosophical antagonist was Isaiah Berlin, the great exponent of pluralism. Moral relativism is the great Satan to social conservatives and the religious right, and Berlin spoke directly to the difference between that admittedly deplorable condition and an authentic pluralism that can be the only way forward for a nation as diverse and religious as the United States.

“Liberty for wolves is death for sheep,” Berlin said, explaining why no sane society can avoid making choices between competing notions of what is virtuous and good, balancing one against the other. And yet, he wrote, “I prefer coffee, you prefer champagne. We have different tastes. There is no more to be said. That is relativism.” Pluralism, by contrast, “is the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or the novels of medieval Japan.”

Something like that would have made a contribution of “Politics.” It isn’t there. Those concerned with this question are advised to look elsewhere.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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