03.16.09

Who Made Frank Rich God?

After eight years of fulminating against the religious right, now Frank Rich tells us the culture wars are over. Lee Siegel on the Times columnist's sudden conversion.

The way the news cycle’s impatient dynamic fabricates its own news is, well, newsworthy. For example: Imagine that you’ve been bravely pounding your breast for the past eight years over the religious right’s brutal domination of American public life, and suddenly, 50 days into a new administration, you realize that the religious right has disappeared.

Just five years ago, in a typical outburst of alarm, Frank Rich saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion, came back home, and hysterically worried in a column that “America is 82 percent Christian, and 60 percent of the population believes the Bible is historical fact. (The Jewish population is 2 percent.)” These terrifying statistics, combined with the fatal catalyst of Gibson’s blockbuster, actually made Rich “feel less secure as a Jew in America than ever before.”

Rich exemplifies the smug liberal belief that behind every conservative belief is a nihilistic opportunism. In this view, all it takes to dispel the gloom of religious sentiment in public life is a burst of happy rationalist sunlight.

But now Rich has some great news: Everything has changed! It’s safe to be a Jew in Manhattan once again.

This past Sunday, Rich wrote a column in the New York Times titled “ The Culture Warriors Get Laid Off.” For Rich, Obama’s election as president has radically changed the cultural climate. His proof? When George W. Bush received an intelligence briefing on August 6, 2001, with the subject heading, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” he ignored it, and instead delivered a major speech three days later condemning stem-cell research. What a contrast with today.

Now, Rich writes, “when Barack Obama ended the Bush stem-cell policy last week, there were no such overheated theatrics.” There was “no hysteria from politicians, the news media, or the public.” You see? Big difference. According to Rich, just as the Great Depression drove the religious right and their moral crusades from political life, so our current economic crisis will do the same. And so having declared the cultural climate radically changed, Rich asks “What has happened between 2001 and 2009 to so radically change the cultural climate?”

It’s a good question, since as recently as weeks before the election last November Rich feared that McCain and Palin, who were playing the culture card with wild explicitness, were going to win. Now that a Democrat is in the White House, however, it’s not enough for Rich to breathe a sigh of relief that Obama won thanks to the perfect convergence of economic calamity, the opposition’s two-knucklehead presidential ticket, and the seeming desire of the Republicans to allow the Democrats to take the White House and to thus take the fall during a remarkably bad historical moment.

Rather, Rich is in the trend-proclaiming business, and so he has to proclaim a trend: The culture wars are dead, religion has lost its influence in American life, progressive secularists will run the country for another “40 years.” All in the space of eight years—during most of which time Rich loudly lamented the power of the culture wars, the authority of religion, and the seemingly permanent ascendancy of right-wing fanatics.

Rich exemplifies the smug liberal belief that behind every conservative belief is a nihilistic opportunism. In this view, all it takes to dispel the gloom of religious sentiment in public life is a burst of happy rationalist sunlight. The enemy is deluded; we are authentic and real. Rich and his ilk refuse to entertain the idea that along with the usual political gamesmanship, there is such a thing as decent and principled opposition to issues like abortion and stem-cell research. They refuse to accept the fact that the “culture wars” are anchored in competing outlooks on life.

Part of this absence of empathy is an incapacity for self-examination. Last October, Rich referred to a passage in the now-famous speech on race that Obama delivered in Philadelphia a year ago. In an effort to quiet fears about his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, fears provoked by Wright’s black militancy, Obama referred to his forgiveness of his own white grandmother’s occasional bigotry, to “her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”

Rich sank to the occasion. With pious self-regard, he wrote that Obama “hit a chord because many of us have had white relatives of our own like his, and we, too, see them in full and often love them anyway.” Oh really? How much less condescending it would have been for Rich to confess, with more plausible psychological truth, that many of us ourselves—white and black—have felt the same fear when, in a bad neighborhood, late at night, a black man or men passed by us on the street. Obama’s empathetic genius in that speech was to candidly imply a universal experience, not self-righteously condemn a particular one. But Rich has too much invested in the public display of his own virtue to ever risk putting it in question.

Such complacency leads Rich in his latest column to reinterpret American history in the light of his newly proclaimed trend. The result is an outrageously inaccurate picture of history.

In Rich’s view of the American past, the Great Depression led to the New Deal, which led to the defeat of religion’s influence on public life. “After the humiliations of the Scopes trial and the repeal of Prohibition,” Rich writes, “it did take a good four decades for the religious right to begin its comeback in the 1970s.” This is nonsense.

For one thing, the “religious right” forcefully asserted itself just a few years after FDR died, in the early 1950s, with Joseph McCarthy, whose anticommunist crusade was fueled by religious sentiment, especially that of right-wing Catholics. The seeds for that particular political movement had, in fact, been planted during the New Deal, most explicitly by the demagogic radio personality, Father Coughlin, the Rush Limbaugh of his day. Roosevelt’s (rational and humane) policies created a divide in American social and political life that was exploited by the political and religious right again and again, by Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes.

More important, the religious right never made a “comeback” in the 1970s. They had nothing to come back from. Their rise to political power, consummated by President Reagan, was the first time they had ever wielded direct political influence. In the pendulum motion of American politics, the breakdown of one social barrier after another during the '60s opened the door to religion’s ascendancy in public life. But up until that time, religious people in this country never felt that they needed to be represented in Washington, for the simple reason that religious authority was never in serious dispute. Religion didn’t need to be assertive in politics because it discreetly ruled civic life. Eisenhower was not voted into the White House in 1953 by masses of atheists and agnostics. The Cold War was seen in this country as a struggle between the God-fearing and the godless. The idea that FDR drove religious sentiment from playing a consequential role in politics is absurd.

For Rich, trends are an all-or-nothing proposition. He cannot accept the idea that at a time of economic crisis, economics will be uppermost in people’s minds, but that this does not mean that the same people will abandon values and beliefs embedded their hearts and minds. No, for Rich, economic issues are in, cultural issues are out. Everything changes in an instant. Limbaugh is a buffoon, and the GOP is a mess.

Well, Coughlin was a buffoon, too, and in 1932, the party of Herbert Hoover was also in disarray. Yet after FDR died in 1945, the Republicans and their (mostly) religious constituents controlled the White House for 37 of the next 63 years, beginning in 1953—and three of those five Democratic presidents were unabashedly practicing Southern Baptists, one was a devout Catholic, and one was a member of the Disciples of Christ.

As for our current president, he has a team of evangelical pastors on hand to advise him, and he invited Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the benediction at his inauguration, a savvy political move for which Rich— a culture warrior to the very end—still cannot forgive him.

Cultural “trends” come and go, the news cycle spins and dries and spins again—but cultural attitudes are, if not forever, stubborn and persistent. So is the power of belief, even--imagine!—among people we don’t agree with, or even like.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.