Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Liberalism, Religion and the Enlightenment

Representative Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri, was recently asked about NBC’s removal of the words “under God” from a clip of the Pledge of Allegiance during coverage of the U.S. Open. “Well, I think NBC has a long record of being very liberal, and at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God,” Akin told radio host Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. “This is a systematic effort to try to separate our faith and God, which is a source in our belief in individual liberties, from our country. And when you do that you tear the heart out of our country.”

Akin, who is running in the GOP primary for Missouri’s Senate seat, initially told a radio station, “I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for. I’m not going to apologize for what I see liberalism doing.” But he then released a statement saying he and his family would never “question the sincerity of anyone’s personal relationship with God. My statement during my radio interview was directed at the political movement, liberalism, not at any specific individual. If my statement gave a different impression, I offer my apologies.”

There are several things to sort through in all this, starting with this: NBC’s intentional deletion of the words “under God” revealed a ridiculous discomfort and animus toward even the most common and generic reference to God, one millions of schoolchildren use every day. What NBC did was stupid; it deserved to be roundly criticized. But not in the way that Representative Akin did. After all, there are countless liberals – from Dorothy Day, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Mario Cuomo, to Tony Campolo – who did not/do not harbor a “hatred for God.” Nor is modern liberalism synonymous with militant atheism, even though there are some liberals who are militant atheists (just as there are a few conservatives who are as well).

That said, there is no question that liberalism has manifested an aversion toward, and concern about, religion – an aversion and concern rooted in part in the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment, it’s important to recall, was a response to religious wars and religious persecution that dominated the European continent. In response, the Enlightenment emphasized man’s use of reason and the empirical sciences as the means by which he was able to achieve freedom and prosperity, happiness and knowledge. It did great good.

At the same time, many of the Enlightenment’s leading figures — Descartes, Bacon, Voltaire, Hobbes, Newton, Paine, and Locke — tried, in varying degrees, to replace God with science, to make man the center of all things, to replace religion with reason, “man’s only star and compass,” in the words of Locke. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his famous  Harvard commencement address in which he attacked modern Western societies, declared that “anthropocentricity” — man as the center of all things — was the legacy of the Enlightenment. And that, in turn, led to what he called the “spiritual exhaustion” of the West.

There is something to the warning issued by Solzhenitsyn. And in our time liberalism has shown if not an outright hatred for God, then a deep concern about religion as a source of intolerance, as fostering social conflict, and as threatening public peace. Many liberals — not all, but many — want to keep the public square free of religious influences or language (see NBC’s decision). Religious beliefs are fine, so long as they are kept private.

It is not as if liberalism’s concerns about religion are completely illegitimate or detached from historical events; religious faith has led to fanaticism and a prosecutorial zeal. But that is certainly not the whole story. And religion, rightly understood, is a friend of a liberal, decent society. That is something virtually all of America’s founders understood. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” is how George Washington put it in his Farewell Address. “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

None of them would object to the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

As a general matter, liberals and conservatives view religion in the public square in very different ways, with many liberals alarmed at the prospect and many conservatives encouraged by it. Both sides have some historical justification for their views. But conservatives, in the here and now, have, I think, the much stronger case. The quickest way to undermine it is to make claims that are too sweeping and therefore false, the product of rage rather than reason. Which brings me full circle to Representative Akin’s comments, which didn’t do him, his cause, or his country any good.