April 24, 2005

Frank Rich's Flaming Sword of Secularism

Frank Rich's concept of liberty sometimes seems reduced to the consecration of the male anus as an erotic object, and a defense of the risqué in the public arts. This genital definition of liberty and progress has become ubiquitous, as the other objects of ressentiment among the knowing ones have failed or disappeared.

This genital progressive, naturally, then, does not select as villains the tyrants or the slave-traffickers, but those whose preach an ethos or a creed that includes a measure of sexual restraint. First among these are the traditionally religious, Catholic and Protestant. Thus it is no surprise that in this piece Rich views with alarm "Justice Sunday," a broadcast, under evangelical auspices, intended to promote the confirmation of Pres. Bush's appointees to the federal bench and to condemn the minority's use of the filibuster to prevent it.

This is a particularly vicious piece. There appears to be a collective hysteria on the left about two hardly radical notions: that the Senate should be able to consent to judicial nominations by majority vote, and evangelical Protestants should be able to participate on an equal footing by others in political discourse in this country. Thus people like Rich regard the "Justice Sunday" event not as simply another event in a national political discussion, but as the camel's nose of theocracy in the American political tent.

What is really happening here is that hatred for any version of Christianity that differs from the liberal consensus on social injuries has become both respectable and widespread. Incidentally, among secular and liberal Jews, the same attitude prevails with respect to Orthodoxy.

Rich repeatedly expresses this bias in his piece:

  • The title, first of all, is "A High-Tech Lynching in Prime Time." Even if Rich has borrowed the catch-phrase from Clarence Thomas, the association of evangelical Protestantism, in whose ranks the South is disproportionately represented, is a way of making an amalgam between this form of American religion and the shameful history of lynching in the South. Rich presumably would not defend such an amalgam except by saying he was being hyperbolic; by even a relatively relaxed standard, however, this title itself is bigoted.

  • This reference to racism is repeated, this time by a sudden allusion to the late George Wallace's attacks on federal judges who enforced desegregation, with a leap to cross-burning and bombing directed against Judge Frank Johnson and his mother in those bad old days. To an implication of racism, which Rich does not identify in fact in these churches, Rich implies that criticism of judges leads inexorably to violence against judges. In other words, Bill Frist may not throw bombs himself, but if he criticizes judges, he might has well have been caught buying Semtex for a homicidal nutcase.

  • Rich then goes on to view with alarm the fact that this particular event is under evangelical Christian auspices, and like Pope Benedict, these folks believe their own religion to be true, and thus others, including Catholicism, are not. This has of course been the belief of most serious evangelicals for hundreds of years, just as Catholics have held the parallel belief that there is no salvation outside the Church. One may not accept either or both of these doctrines, but in America we have lived for a long time with various faiths that proclaim themselves the only keepers of the keys to salvation, and managed to allow their followers to proclaim these contradictory truths without excluding them from the body politic. To condemn these beliefs, as opposed to differing with them, is in effect to reject religious freedom.

  • Rich goes on to make another historical analogy -- from the sponsors of "Justice Sunday" to Billy James Hargis, a preacher who organized a national crusade against communism, and as Rich carefully puts it, "his career was ended by accusations that he had had sex with female students at the Christian college he founded as well as with boys in the school's All-American Kids choir." In short, the sponsors of "Justice Sunday" are (by Rich's amalgam) hypocrites and sexual abusers of children.

Now among those of every creed, and those of no creed, there are hypocrites and sinners. The existence of hypocrisy and lust in a movement does not disqualify all its leaders from participating in public debate. If it did, Rich would no doubt be demanding that Bill Clinton maintain a repentant silence, and that Congress abolish the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King, a notorious womanizer. Or even better, arguing that because modern Democrats are heirs to the New Deal and the Great Society, and Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson's adultery is reason enough to suspect today's Democrats of similar sins and accordingly urge that they not participate in our national debate.

It's particularly odd that Rich should focus on the alleged sexual transgressions of the late Rev. Hargis in denouncing "Justice Sunday," because in the same piece he claims that the semi-secret agenda of its sponsors is anti-gay bigotry:

The judges being verbally tarred and feathered are those who have decriminalized gay sex (in a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy) as they once did abortion and who countenance marriage rights for same-sex couples. This is the animus that dares not speak its name tonight. To paraphrase the "Justice Sunday" flier, now it's the anti-filibuster campaign that is being abused to protect bias, this time against gay people.

One wonders if the disapproval of homosexual behavior by the traditionally religious is some kind of dark secret. Both Pope Benedict XVI (whose church Rich doesn't condemn in this piece, choosing instead to employ it is a foil for the evangelicals) and Bible-believing Protestants, like Orthodox Jews, regard such behavior as sinful, and the efforts of some activist judges to redefine "marriage" as unconnected with reproduction, child-rearing, or the union of people of opposite sex as wrong-headed and destructive. This has been the dominant view in the West for thousands of years, and though one may differ with it, as Rich obviously does, it is a bit early to take the "progressive" step of driving from the public square all those who are still "heteronormative."

Frank Rich, like many of his fellows, has developed a particular hatred of James Dobson, leader of "Focus on the Family." That Dr. Dobson is a thoughtful and compassionate radio host and author escapes Rich, who no doubt has never spend much time listening to and reading Dobson. For Rich, Dobson will always be the fellow who criticized Sponge Bob for appearing on a pro-gay PBS segment, and therefore an ignorant rube.

It is this kind of effort to delegitimize, as opposed to disagree with, all discussion by the spokesmen for an important segment of the American community, that is so offensive. Can one not question both the wisdom and the legal reasoning that went into Justice Kennedy's recent decisions finding an unwritten constitutional prohibition against homosexual acts, and using foreign law among other things to tease out of the Constitution an absolute prohibition against the executions of murderers who were under the magic age of 18 when they did their crimes, as well as Massachusetts justice's creation of a right to homosexual marriage by judicial fiat as opposed to legislative act?

Defend the decisions, Frank. Tell us why Judge Pryor, who is a practicing Catholic, is for that reason disqualified for the federal appellate bench, and that something other than anti-Christian bigotry motivates his opponents. But don't flog people who think you are wrong.

This column contains a couple of other points worthy of comment. On both of these, Rich has lurched into a bit of truth.

First, Rich points out that Bill Frist, a doctor, gave a public diagnosis of Terry Schiavo, a patient he had never seen, and tried to duck a question about the dubious science behind some federal publications on AIDS transmission. Dr. Frist probably erred on both scores, and merits criticism.

Second, evoking the Schiavo case and the hasty legislation Congress passed, Rich questions the right's shorthand condemning "activist" judges. "Activist" is, of course, an epithet the right uses for judges who make up constitutional rights to suit the liberal mood of the moment, deferring neither to the constitutional text nor the the political process.

Because our jurisprudence has strayed beyond reason from fidelity to the text, deference to the people and the legislative branch, and toward the expansion of federal power, any attempt, on the center-right, to swing the pendulum back even a bit, will also be tinged with activism.

The truth is, as with states' rights or the filibuster, most people in political life, living on two to six year cycles, are result-oriented, and not "activist" or "quietist," centralist or federalist.

Frank Rich is certainly a clever propagandist, and in this case he cleverly panders to the worst fears of his latte-swilling readers by citing the novel and film Elmer Gantry and evoking the strange fruit of lynching and the ghost of George Wallace. America, however, contains communities whose thought is undreamed of in the philosophy of Rich and Sulzberger. Rich would post secular cherubim with flaming swords to exclude evangelicals of these from our garden. To me, that makes Frank Rich a bigot.

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