Blog author: eschansberg
by on Saturday, March 15, 2008

The title of Curtis White’s provocative but flawed essay in Harpers

As an intro to his primary topic (politics), White has some provocative things to say about the contemporary (American) understanding of our “beliefs”…

The most bewildering and yet revealing gesture of a truly fundamental American theology takes place when an individual stands forth and proclaims, “This is my belief”. Making such a simple and familiar statement implies at least three important things. First, it implies that I have a right to my belief. Whether this right is God-given, one of the laws of nature, or simply something we wrangled politically out of the process of constitution-making, it is something we believe we have. Second, my statement carries with it the expectation that you ought to respect my belief, or at least my right to it, even if my belief makes no sense to you at all. Third, and most important, my belief doesn’t have to make sense in order to carry legitimacy.

And now to how this relates to politics…

On the basis of this belief I not only will claim the right to order my own life but also will feel free, without embarrassment, to enforce my belief universally through the election of politicians and through the sponsorship of legislation…

What we require of belief is not that it make sense but that it be sincere. This is so even for our more secular convictions….Clearly, this is not the spirituality of a centralized orthodoxy. It is a sort of workshop spirituality that you can get with a cereal-box top and five dollars. And yet in our culture, to suggest that such belief is not deserving of respect makes people anxious…

Consequently, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that our truest belief is the credo of heresy itself. It is heresy without an orthodoxy. It is heresy as an orthodoxy. The entitlement to belief is the right of each to his own heresy….For Nietzsche, European nihilism was the failure of any form of belief (a condition that church attendance in Europe presently testifies to). But American nihilism is something different. Our nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It’s all good!…

Once reduced to the status of a commodity, our anything-goes, do-it-yourself spirituality cannot have very much to say about the more directly nihilistic conviction that we should all be free to do whatever we like as well, each of us pursuing our right to our isolated happinesses. Worse yet: for that form of legal individual known as the corporation, the pursuit of happiness can mean fishing with factory trawlers, clear-cutting forests, and spreading toxins across the countryside with all the zeal of a child sprinkling candies on a cupcake.

Let me jump in here by saying that White is correct insofar as he goes. But it’s odd to point out corporations (and in a part I excised, “social morality” interest groups) without pointing to the role of special interest groups in politics– rather than corporations or concerned citizens per se.

And now, White goes with a relatively obscure but effective Biblical reference. Among other things, this gives him the title to his essay…

Aren’t these the false gods that Isaiah and Jeremiah confronted, the cults of the “hot air gods”? The gods that couldn’t scare birds from a cucumber patch? Belief of every kind and cult, self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of every degree, all flourish. And yet God is abandoned. For first and foremost, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18). And that is the problem that we ought to have at heart: our richness of belief masks a culture that is grotesquely unjust.

“Grotesquely unjust”…Preach it, brother! Given the differences in our worldviews and his limited training in political economy and economics, I don’t think we point to the same set of policy issues. In any case, he’s right on the proverbial nose with his critique…

White does see some good news:

A more positive way of looking at the situation I have described is to say that through the concept of religious freedom, American political culture has succeeded in mediating the competing claims of true religion and idolatry. If it has not purged the hatred from this distinction, it has at least prohibited most of the violence. And if there is wisdom in this, it is less the wisdom of benevolence than the pragmatism of imperial policing….

But then he gets silly on us…

Capitalism has been so successful in this orchestration of reality that it has even created the illusion that, in spite of every fact, the Market works for all of us, or will eventually. In spite of the fact that the poor are ever greater in number, and that education, health care, and retirement are ever more inaccessible, the majority of Americans persist in believing (with all the obliviousness of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss) that our economic system is “the best of all possible worlds”. This is a form of wishful and magical thinking no stranger than the belief that a statue of the Madonna can cry.

Here, White reveals his bias and ignorance– or his “wishful and magical thinking” (if he prefers). He’s pointing the finger at the Market. But all three of these realms are largely controlled by the Government! And in each of those, it is clear that Government involvement has caused vast damage to the poor. I love it when people blame “capitalism” to embrace government– when government is so heavily involved already!

His last three words are “the Market God”. But White is blind to his own idolatry– a blind critique of markets (not that some critique is not available to him) and a blind, idolatrous embrace of “the Government God”.