Friday, February 02, 2007


I wanted to blog briefly about a talk I just heard by Alan Wolfe, whom I admire and have commented about in this space a time or two. His title today was "Who's Afraid of American Religion?" Wolfe began by remarking on the recent run of new books that are critical if not hostile toward American religion: the Richard Dawkins school of wanting to overthrow religion per se; the David Kuo / Damon Linker strain of religious conservatives who became disenchanted at the crossroads of religion and politics; and the Michelle Goldberg / Kevin Phillips school warning of creeping right-wing Christian theocracy in American politics. Wolfe has a three-part argument why he deosn't fear a right-wing American theocracy.

  1. The separation of church and state is a well-established tradition in this country. When push comes to shove, even evangelicals may come to remember how they have relied historically on the protections of the First Amendment. (Dr. Wolfe discussed John Leland, a Baptist preacher and contemporary of Madison and Jefferson, who influenced Madison to insist on the First Amendment in the Constitution.)
  2. If we were to establish a religion in this country, which one would it be? The largest single religious category in the U.S. is Catholic, but that only represents 20% of the populace. (Interesting tangent / fun fact: 5 out of 9 current Supreme Court justices are Catholic, and there is much more rigorous political and legal writing coming from the Richard John Neuhaus crowd than from anybody in the Protestant camp. So maybe it would be a Catholic theocracy, based on the principle of the smartest group winning out. Yeah, that's often been the case in American history.)
  3. America is a religious nation but not a theological nation, which would be a barrier to installing any religious-based political program.

A good discussion ensued, especially about the third point. Another way of putting it is, religious labels are less important than they were, say, in the 1960 JFK campaign. Nowadays pro-life Catholics and pro-life Baptists accentuate their common ground rather than their differences. One audience member commented, with some justification, that this argues against Points 1 and 2.

Wolfe made a personal reflection -- The AJC controversy that Matthew Yglesias and Jonah Goldberg and other bloggers have been involved in, has swept up Alan Wolfe as well. Basically, he's been tarred as an anti-Semite for criticizing the Israeli government, despite being a Jew himself. He finds it interesting that one's views of US foreign policy seem to be the measure of how good a Jew one is -- by that measure Condoleeza Rice is a heckuva good Jew.

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