Thursday, February 19, 2009

Us and Them

"Haven't you heard it's a battle of words
The poster bearer cried
Listen son, said the man with the gun
There's room for you inside..." -- Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

The belief in a transcendent moral code seems to be instinctive. Even those whose belief systems cannot accommodate a God in Heaven, or any sort of non-material reality at all, behave as if there exists a moral vision which commands our respect and should command our obedience. For example, there were three books published recently by individuals who can best be described as evangelical atheists -- Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation; Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion; and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Far from presenting an amoral vision, moral indignation practically drips from the pages -- in Hitchen's case, it spouts like a Old Faithful. Leave it to Dawkins, though, to suggest that Christianity is a form of child abuse, and that children should be taken from parents who try to force it on them. These atheists present a moral vision, all right, just not a very coherent one. As Doug Wilson explains here to Hitchens (much as a janitor explains clean floors to a mop), such inflamed moral umbrage does not follow from the thin broth of a materialist philosophy. To hold any legitimate sway over us, morality must somehow be greater than we are -- and exactly how, within the cramped closet that comprises the entirety of the materialist cosmos, can that possibly be? Materialism reduces morality to a mere conceit, which exists only in our minds -- much like Superman and Mother Goose. To throw their moral darts at Christianity, atheists are forced either to borrow from the spiritualist worldview the idea that morality exists on a higher plane than mankind, or else confess (if only to themselves) that they are merely expressing their own mundane preferences and irritations which carry no moral weight at all, and dressing them up as a moral vision only to impress the rubes.

Which brings us to politics, which is simply philosophy plus force. Imposing a moral vision on the citizenry is not an ancillary exertion of government, nor a regrettable sidebar, but rather its defining role. It can be a benighted moral vision -- the human sacrifices of the Mayans, for example, or the extermination camps of the Nazis and Cambodian Communists. It can be something from our not-too-distant past, such as in Colonial days when people who missed too much church were pilloried. Or it could be our present situation, as daily and hourly we are instructed how to think and feel on a large range of issues by the "smiley face" of liberal fascism, and confronted with its ever-growing laundry list of politically-correct attitudes. Politics is never a struggle between a moral vision on one side vs. a morally neutral vision on the other; it is always a struggle between competing moral visions. This is by necessity: government derives its authority from the notion that it serves a higher purpose. Any time "the good" appears in an argument, it becomes a moral argument. The law, therefore, is always an imposition of someone's morality; someone's moral code will win out, and the only question is, whose? That may sound odd to someone who has been trained to believe that only religious folks want to impose their morality on everyone. But what is the liberal welfare state, if not an imposition of morality on taxpayers who might otherwise feel disinclined to pay its considerable, whopping bill? Paying taxes is not optional; you can only refuse to pay but for so long, until at last someone from the government settles the issue by pulling a gun. Liberals always demand that Christians not impose their morality on others, but we should be clear about the nature of their objection: it's not the imposition of morality per se that enrages liberals; it's the Christianity. Liberalism, too, is a jealous god.

Socialism is the moral ideal and political goal of liberalism. To grasp its underlying philosophy and moral vision, read John Rawls, the patron saint of modern American liberalism. Nobody does a better job of explaining it. Socialism reflects the materialist's notion that all injustices are economic, and its charter is, through economic redistribution, to right all the wrongs created by accident of birth or circumstance. It may be a deeply flawed moral vision (and I think it is), but it is a moral vision nonetheless, and as such can only be beaten by an opposing moral vision. Socialism's pretensions of economic effectiveness have been debunked many times, by far better writers than yours truly. But, so far, no one has been able to propose an alternative moral vision which can unite socialism's disgruntled but disunited critics. Capitalism, the best economic alternative, offers no compelling moral vision -- and so, even though it may continue to win the arguments, on its own it is still doomed to lose the elections. It is hard to sell the quest for economic efficiency as a higher truth. In the struggle against liberalism, socialism, communism, and all such philosophies which exalt man and shake their fists at God, free market economic principles must always be cast in a supporting role, and the star of the show must always be the big fellow to whom we refer when we say,

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
So remember this the next time a secular conservative, or a libertarian economist, or a Republican plutocrat expresses impatience with Christian conservatives. They are embarrassed by their Christian fellow travelers; they believe the Religious Right should come out of suspended animation once every two years to vote Republican, write big checks for the GOP coffers, and then be good enough shut up and go back to sleep until the next election. They all think that the struggle against liberalism and socialism can be won with their economic theories, their Laffer curves, open trade, tax incentives, and Fox Business News. They're wrong. A moral vision such as liberalism which flatters mankind with delusions of his own fairness and wisdom must be met head on with the moral reality that mankind has no intrinsic goodness other than what God in his mercy imparts, according to His own perfect, transcendent will.

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