When I watched Glen Beck’s rally at the Lincoln Monument and saw it veer into a religious revival in the name of God and the “American Way of Life,” it occurred to me that it might be time for a “Rally for Reason” on the National Mall as soon as possible.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, deists and children of the Enlightenment, made it clear that combining any flavor of doctrinal religion with American governance was a fast road to tyranny and suspension of liberty. Ironically, that is exactly what Beck says he is trying to prevent. If that is the case, he has a bad plan and a tin ear — God actually never did ask him to lead a new American Christian Crusade.
Paul Johnson, in his monumental study of the 20th century, the book “Modern Times,” makes the point that the last 13 thousand years of organized human history could be seen as a never-ending struggle between “culture” and “civilization,” a point also made nicely in Andre Comte-Sponville’s book, “Atheist Spirituality.” At the local, tribal and national levels, people embrace their culture — often termed their “way of life” — as a social and civic order that they understand and choose to live with because it’s worked for a while, they are comfortable with it, and it provides clear codes and recipes for living. It also serves to provide them psychological support, orderly structure, and often a sense of superiority and independent identity in their struggles with other tribes or nations — or even within their own families. When religion is embedded in the culture, it further reinforces these feelings of superiority and uniqueness, and can often lead to violent behavior. This is because a culture which believes it has a unique franchise from God is more likely to be more uncompromising and unrestrained in inter-cultural struggles and more “tyrannical” over its own people … because it is “right.”
This is why Jefferson (whom the American religious right has begun to strongly dismiss) and Washington (who is probably next on the list) established America as a country opposed to any role for doctrinal religion in governance. They were deists, and felt that a reference to the Creator would ennoble the goals and behavior of the country and provide a foundation for individual liberty and human dignity; but they fully resisted the insertion of any religious doctrine, ritual or codes into the governing process.
Comes now the self-ordained “culture warriors,” who presume to define and endorse the religion-based view of the American “Way of Life.” These fashionable crusaders prominently display their gold and crystal crosses across their chests as they deliver their political speeches and nightly cable news commentary, reminiscent of the original Crusaders who wore their crosses on breastplate and shield. And you remember how the original Crusades turned out as an effort to defend a way of life by conquering the ironically-named, celestial oxymoron, “Holy Land” (God must be busting a gut laughing over that name), and bankrupted many Medieval European treasuries in a failed effort.
Much as the Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech anniversary got hijacked by the Beck rally, the founding American values of a state separate from any particular religious view also got hijacked along the way by these “warriors for Christian values” (oxymoron/irony alert, again). It is amusing, to me at least, when we are treated to the annual demand for Christmas symbols in public places, that Christmas was never even a national holiday — never really embedded in the public culture — until the 1880’s, although the heavy promotion since then has established it as central to our “way of life.” I personally enjoy Christmas, but the retail meaning of Christmas as well as the “real” meaning of Christmas are replete with serious problems, especially as political statements, as I touch on in my book.
What is actually needed now is what was needed during the Enlightenment and the subsequent founding of America: reason and reasonableness, commodities in short supply in the public religious debate (or non-debate) in America. What I call for is a new generation of “civilization warriors” to aggressively “inflict reason” on the current American political debates. Warriors who will point out that America was founded as a state that cleanly separates (all) church and state. An America that is reasonable and tolerant — not “Christian, but tolerant,” as Samuel P. Huntington advanced at Harvard. Civilization warriors who aggressively challenge these “culture warriors” for hijacking our core American principles and broadcasting them relentlessly on nightly cable news and on the National Mall.
I think this war of reason and reasonableness is critically important today because the stakes are beginning to reach the tipping point of our survival. When cultures used religion as their proxies for tribal and national struggles in the Middle Ages, they basically threw rocks and spears at each other, causing limited, localized damage, but nothing that threatened real extinction. Now we have global religious/cultural rivals that are on the verge of having and using nuclear weapons and long range delivery devices. When the Iranian leadership says that they need to inflict huge losses, if not extinction, on the infidels in order to bring back the “hidden Imam” and their version of a Muslim Renaissance, they mean it. They painted the Imam’s name on the side of the long-range, nuclear delivery system missile they tested in the last few weeks. The colorful image they promote of the Persian Gulf as a “sea of fire” is well within their military capability — and it would destroy the world economy overnight, as well as any “way of life” that we would aspire to.
That is not a negotiating tactic. It is not an opening to reasonable, political negotiations. It is a statement of fact — they believe God wants them to develop these weapons and use them to inflict as much damage as possible. It is non-negotiable — there is no “counter-deterrent” or counter argument.
And so the real goal of “civilization warriors” is to make the political debate in America less doctrinal and more reasonable, and then advance a reasonable, but also realistic set of international policies to expose the “theocracies” as the frauds they are — representing neither the word, nor the intent, of any real God. But there is no way for America to take a leadership position on this issue if we have many advancing the idea that we, too, are a doctrinal religious state. We can never create a language for confronting state-sponsored religious fraud if we too are guilty of it.
The good news is that there is some real hope in America. Although, according to a recent Pew Foundation poll, a vast majority of Americans indicate they belong to a religion, that same majority is interested in reasonable, humanist argument and discussion … pretty much what Jefferson and Washington really had in mind for America. So, humanists, rise up! Reclaim your country! Inflict reason! And, at some point in the near future join me for a Rally for Reason on the Mall. There must a million reasonable people somewhere in America. Probably a lot more! It is time for them to speak up and describe the “way of life” they seek for Americans and their children.
Grady Means served in the White House and managed several major consulting firms. He is the author of “The New Enlightenment” as well as “MetaCapitalism” and “Wisdom of the CEO.” His latest work can be found on his website, thenewenlightenmentbook.com.