America’s unholy holy war

Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

For decades now, liberals have been agonizing because conservatives seem to win even when polls show that the public generally disagrees with them. In their postmortems, liberals have placed blame on the way they frame their message, or on the right-wing media drumbeat that drowns out everything else, or on the right’s co-opting of the flag, Mom and apple pie, which is designed to make liberals seem like effete, hostile foreign agents.

It’s understandable that liberals prefer to think of their subordination as a matter of their own inadequacies or of conservative wiles. Theoretically, you can learn how to improve your message or how to match wits with adversaries, and a lot of liberal hand-wringing has been dedicated to doing just that. But it is becoming increasingly clear that liberals haven’t just been succumbing to superior message control, or even to a superior political narrative (conservatives’ frontier individualism versus liberals’ communitarianism). They are up against something far more intractable and far more difficult to defeat. They are up against religion.

Perhaps the single most profound change in our political culture over the last 30 years has been the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges and forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement, with the absolute certainty of religious belief.


I don’t mean “religious belief” literally. This transformation is less a function of the alliance between Protestant evangelicals, their fellow travelers and the right (though that alliance has had its effect) than it is a function of a belief in one’s own rightness so unshakable that it is not subject to political caveats. In short, what we have in America today is a political fundamentalism, with all the characteristics of religious fundamentalism and very few of the characteristics of politics.

For centuries, American democracy as a process of conflict resolution has been based on give-and-take; negotiation; compromise; the acceptance of the fact that the majority rules, with respect for minority rights; and, above all, on an agreement to abide by the results of a majority vote. It takes compromise, even defeat, in stride because it is a fluid system. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once put it, the beauty of a democracy is that the minority always has the possibility of becoming the majority.

Religious fundamentalism, on the other hand, rests on immutable truths that cannot be negotiated, compromised or changed. In this, it is diametrically opposed to liberal democracy as we have practiced it in America. Democrats of every political stripe may defend democracy to the death, but very few would defend individual policies to the death. You don’t wage bloody crusades for banking regulation or the minimum wage or even healthcare reform. When politics becomes religion, however, policy too becomes a matter of life and death, as we have all seen.

That is one reason our founding fathers opted for a separation of church and state. They recognized that religion and politics could coexist only when they occupied different domains. Most denominations, which preach and practice tolerance, have rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Religious groups may have found a community of interest with a political party to further their aims; they have not, by and large, sought to convert the political system into a religious one. Until now.

The tea-baggers who hate President Obama with a fervor that is beyond politics; the fear-mongers who warn that Obama is another Hitler or Stalin; the wannabe storm troopers who brandish their guns and warn darkly of the president’s demise; the cable and talk-radio blowhards who make a living out of demonizing Obama and tarring liberals as America-haters -- these people are not just exercising their rights within the political system. They honestly believe that the political system -- a system that elected Obama -- is broken and only can be fixed by substituting their certainty for the uncertainties of American politics.

As we are sadly discovering, this minority cannot be headed off, which is most likely why conservatism transmogrified from politics to a religion in the first place. Conservatives who sincerely believed that theirs is the only true and right path have come to realize that political tolerance is no match for religious vehemence.


Unfortunately, they are right. Having opted out of political discourse, they are not susceptible to any suasion. Rationality won’t work because their arguments are faith-based rather than evidence-based. Better message control won’t work. Improved strategies won’t work. Grass-roots organizing won’t work. Nothing will work because you cannot convince religious fanatics of anything other than what they already believe, even if their religion is political dogma.

And therein lies the problem, not only for liberals but for mainstream conservatives who think of conservatism as an ideology, not an orthodoxy. You cannot beat religion with politics, which is why the extreme right “wins” so many battles. The fundamentalist political fanatics will always be more zealous than mainstream conservatives or liberals. They will always be louder, more adamant, more aggrieved, more threatening, more willing to do anything to win. Losing is inconceivable. For them, every battle is a crusade -- or a jihad -- a matter of good and evil.

There is something terrifying in this. The media have certainly been cowed; they treat intolerance as if it were legitimate political activity. So have many politicians, and not just the conservative ones who know that if they don’t fall in line, they will be run over. This political fundamentalism has also invaded the general culture in deleterious ways. The ugly incivility of recent months is partly the result of political fundamentalists who have nothing but contempt for opposing viewpoints, which gives them license to shout down opponents or threaten them, just as jihadis everywhere do.

Those who oppose the religification of politics may think all they have to do is change tactics, but they are sadly, tragically mistaken. They can never win, because for the political fundamentalists, this isn’t political jousting, this is Armageddon.

With stakes like that, they will not lose, and there is nothing democrats -- small ‘d’ and capital “D” -- can do about it.