Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, November 18, 2004

THE ENLIGHTENMENT VS. DEMOCRACY

I've always been a fan of Timothy Garton Ash, who has some wonderful writings about the Velvet Revolution in eastern Europe. And in this Guardian piece he is trying to be conciliatory. But unfortunately, he seems not to have followed lefties like Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff and Tony Blair and converted to sympathy for the neoconservatives, who are giving Iraqis the chance that he so eloquently celebrated eastern Europeans getting. Instead, he's in thrall to the usual knee-jerk anti-Bush prejudice. He doesn't even give the American Right a hearing. He calls this "defense of the Enlightenment."

Battle may soon be joined to preserve the strict separation of church and state that the founding fathers intended. Or, to put it another way, to defend the legacy of the Enlightenment.


First, this is not what "the founding fathers intended." The key word in the First Amendment, which states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...


is Congress. Massachusetts had church-attendance laws at the time, which were understood not to be overturned by the Constitution. The founders meant simply that religion is a matter for the states. I wouldn't expect Ash to be aware of little-known facts like that, but I do wonder, how does he think separation of Church and state is threatened? In a way, I agree: the state has become the active propagandist of a secular humanist church, and compulsory taxpayer-funded education in which the government controls the curriculum should be unconstitutional, in an ideal world. But what does Ash mean by it? Here's a clue:

The United States is torn not just about what America should do but about what America should be. If Bush nominates to the supreme court judges who, for example, want to ban gay marriage or abortion, this could split the country, as such nominations have in the past.


Now, first: no one thinks the Supreme Court would "ban abortion." What they might do is overturn Roe vs. Wade, which would leave abortion to the states, many of which would surely keep it legal. But how would it be a betrayal of the Enlightenment to ban abortion? I've read a lot of Enlightenment writings and I don't recall abortion even being mentioned.

The gay marriage example is even weirder. Bush proposes to ban gay marriage through a constitutional amendment, not through the courts. Surely Ash knows this, so what does he mean? I suppose he means supreme court judges who would fail to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, and thus keep gay marriage banned in most of the country. Or judges who would fail to overturn the various amendments at the state level. Unless Ash is just ignorant, he seems not only to want gay marriage imposed by judicial fiat on an unwilling electorate, but he is willing to label this radical and anti-democratic innovation "the Enlightenment" and equate it with "separation of Church and state."

Ash gets one thing right:

We [in Europe] don't have so many Christian fundamentalists any more. Compared with the American religious right, Rocco Buttiglione, the withdrawn Italian Catholic candidate for European commissioner, is a dangerous liberal. But we do have Islamic fundamentalists, in growing numbers. And, I would say, we have secular fundamentalists: people who believe that to live by the tenets of Islam, or other religions, is incompatible with what it is to be fully human, and want citizens to be educated and the state to legislate accordingly. (me emphasis)


Does Ash imagine that he is not one of these secular fundamentalists? Clerics have no legal authority in this country, so if Ash wants to separate Church and state further, he will have to somehow prevent people from letting religion influence their decision how to vote. And he is ready to resort to judicial fiat when he thinks religiously-motivated voting is giving the wrong result.

I stand by what I wrote about the neocons in my Bush endorsement:

I first encountered neocon thought in the revisionist histories of Paul Johnson and Niall Ferguson, whose work is infused with a brave reassertion of truths which had become unfashionable, such as the superiority of market capitalism, the unique virtue of Western civilization and its traditions, the moral necessity of particular civic freedoms, and that the lethal horrors of the 20th century not only must be condemned, but also discredited the various communist and national socialist ideologies which had caused them, in Europe and in the post-colonial Third World. The original neocons were ex-Trotskyist Jews, and the radical roots of neoconservatism merit new emphasis now that neocons have taken to going abroad in search of Bastiles to destroy. The neoconservative movement is a bit like the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that believes in liberty and individualism, checks and balances in government, popular sovereignty, free inquiry and market economics. Yet neocons also consciously reject the legacy of the Enlightenment inasmuch as it planted the seeds of so many murderous revolutions. So they respect tradition, cultural conservatism, and religious faith—they are their heirs both of Thomas Paine and of Edmund Burke.


But let me add that maybe the most outstanding legacy of the Enlightenment is that of free reasoning and debate. And free reasoning and debate involves listening to the arguments of the other side. Not resorting to name-calling ("fundamentalist") against those who disagree with you. Not subordinating society to a secular clerisy. Ash and his fellow Euro-lefties are on the wrong side of the Enlightenment legacy.

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