Reading the news about American politics these days feels like I’m watching a slow motion train wreck. It’s much more than the nut job reality television personality who inhabits the oval office, it’s the whole atmosphere of combat politics being played out like some dystopian reality television show that disgusts us while captivating our attention. Entertainment politics that produces almost nothing other than tax cuts for the wealthy and division among the masses.
The latest bit of insanity has been states like Alabama and Georgia passing laws intended to criminalize abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or severe fetal deformity. Florida hasn’t joined the crazy parade yet, but it looks like we may soon go down the zealot rabbit hole as the Republican Party morphs itself into an American version of the Taliban, armed with both guns and zealotry. State Representative Mike Hill, from Pensacola, recently said he intends to submit anti-abortion legislation similar to Alabama and declared that G-d told him to stop pursuing restrictions that allowed for exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and the health of the mother.
I find it strange that nobody seems to question whether Representative Mike Hill is truly a modern day prophet. Hasn’t history shown us enough false prophets that we should at least be skeptical about such claims? Incidentally, this was just a few days before Representative Hill seemed to be in agreement with a constituent’s suggestion that Florida should enact a law providing for the execution of homosexuals based upon the constituent’s understanding of the Bible. I suspect that neither Hill nor the constituent have ever actually read the Bible. I say this because during that same town hall meeting, when bashing the Supreme Court to his constituents, Representative Hill told them that the Florida constitution doesn’t contain a privacy provision. Representative Hill is either a liar, or he’s never read the Florida Constitution and probably shouldn’t be talking about it. Article 1, section 23 says:
“Right of privacy.—Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided herein. This section shall not be construed to limit the public’s right of access to public records and meetings as provided by law.”
As a supporter of reproductive rights, and having fought to protect women’s rights to make healthcare decisions during their pregnancies, I feel increasingly anxious about the direction American law may take in the near future on this and many other matters.
As person trained in law and science, I spend a lot of time challenging my own ideas and perspectives on any subject that I’m trying to understand, which is what I’ve been mentally doing with this and the many other bizarre political happenings of our time.
I think the answer is found in the reason there is this marriage between evangelical Christians and “conservative” politicians and pundits such as Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh (a group, who collectively have been married 10 times). The lack of moral compass among these men has been well documented in the press, yet they remain heroes to many whose identity is tied to biblical morality.
The common ground between these two seemingly disparate groups isn’t morality or religion. It’s the rejection of Enlightenment thinking, which I call “evangelism” and it poses a direct threat to American democracy which is rooted in Enlightenment ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. It was Enlightenment ideas which undermined the authority of the Church and monarchs and gave rise to the revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the American Revolution which created the United States.
Evangelism is not simply a religion, but a push-back against Enlightenment thought and is an outright rejection of science, reason, tolerance, and natural rights. It seeks to replace data driven analysis with faith and belief, progress with tradition, and universality with tribalism.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized science, reason, and a belief in natural rights. The Enlightenment was a potent antidote to the religious stranglehold of the day where the Church and government were entwined and religion restrained progress and the expression of ideas.
Evangelistic thinking is what drives the Taliban and other religiously based terrorist groups to want to attack the West. It’s not that they “hate our freedom”, it’s that our science, reason, and tolerance challenge their beliefs and societal structures. Trump and the members of the fascist posse routinely reject science, reason, calls for tolerance, and any notion of natural law. In many ways they have much more in common with the Taliban than with founding fathers such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. They are clearly anti-Enlightenment thinkers who, while not adopting Christian Evangelical religious beliefs, hold an Evangelical mindset.
Allowing Evangelism to triumph over enlightenment thought would be tragic. To say that Enlightenment thinking transformed the world for the better is an understatement. Rather than stripping us of our humanity through a loss of divinity, Enlightenment thought brought out our very best, stopped historical injustices, and gave us freedom and leisure on an ever increasing level that was previously unimaginable.
Prior to the Enlightenment, if a child was dying from disease, it was attributed to divine will. Generations of mothers prayed over their sick children to no effect. The Enlightenment brought the application of science and reason to fighting disease and sickness and, in a few generations, reduced the infant mortality rate from 20-30% in colonial times to 0.05% in modern times. In just over two centuries, life expectancy has risen from approximately 30 years worldwide to more than 70, and no country in the world today has a lower life expectancy than the highest country did in 1800.
Not only are our lives longer, but we enjoy higher quality lives than at any time in human history. Famine used to be a regular occurrence, but through scientifically based agriculture (rather than praying for a good crop) what famines do exist are largely the product of political conflicts rather than natural disaster. In the United States one of our fastest growing and most significant health problems is obesity, a disease resulting from overabundance rather than scarcity. Compared to famine, I prefer an obesity epidemic.
Enlightenment thinking brought about the end legal slavery, massively reduced racism and ethnic violence, emancipated the majority of women on the planet, and provided the highest protections in history for speech and artistic expression. All of these things were accomplished in the face of Evangelistic thinkers who argued that such ideas offend their deity and that Armageddon is about to descend.
Despite all we hear about violence and poverty, we have the lowest rates of global poverty in recorded history and the lowest rates of people dying due to violence and war in recorded history. For a detailed examination of these facts, including statistical tables, I recommend Steve Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”.
If the United States is defined by any specific feature it is our commitment to democracy, rule by the people rather than by Kings supposedly appointed by G-d, is a product of the Enlightenment. Our nation is not a product of G-d or of any biblically ordained prophecy, but of reason, logic, science, and a deep belief in the natural rights of human beings. To state otherwise is to deny history.
Founders such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison were all students and followers of Enlightenment philosophers. They rejected Evangelical thought and most historians see them as deists (G-d created the world, but does not directly interact with it.) They believed that all men were created with rights, a concept known as “natural law”. We see this in Jefferson’s writings in the Declaration of Independence in which he wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Jefferson is clearly a describing natural law approach to human rights, one of the Enlightenment’s values. Note, Jefferson is not rejecting religion per se, he still envisions some sort of a creator, but he’s speaking of enlightenment values.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the amazing success and transformation of our world by Enlightenment ideas, it is between Enlightenment thought and Evangelism that is the battle ground, not just in America, but the world today. Populist leaders word-wide are running on anti-Enlightenment messages, such as the anti-immigrant messages espoused by supporters of the Brexit vote. These messages appeal to emotion, usually fear, rather than reason.
We see Evangelical thinking promoted by politicians in modern America who call for “thoughts and prayers” when we experience yet another mass shooting from a crazed person with an assault rifle while our government refuses to fund research into gun violence.
While Trump is hardly a model of Christian virtue, he is deeply evangelical in his thinking and in his absolute rejection of Enlightenment values. Bothersome facts and data, such as those on climate change, he rejects out of hand, preferring instead his own mythology. Where Enlightenment values encourage a respect and fair dealing with all other humans based upon the belief in natural law, Trump and Evangelical thinkers retreat into tribalistic thinking and view foreigners and strangers as lesser. I want to stress here that when I speak of Evangelism, it may be wrapped in paper-thin religious dogma, but it’s completely divorced from an in-depth understanding of theology such that the most repeated commandment in the Bible “Do not oppress the stranger” is ignored. It is a mistake to confuse evangelism with religion. I believe that one can be religious and not be Evangelistic.
Once people abandon the demand for reason, scientific inquiry, and fact based conclusions, conspiracy theories can run rampant. Recall the alt-right conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, where Trump supporters spread the rumor that Hillary Clinton was running a child-sex ring out of a Washington, DC pizza restaurant. Conspiracy theories are the stock and trade of propagandists such as Rush Limbaugh who is a master at innuendo based upon selective fact-picking. Of course, even Rush Limbaugh doesn’t come close to the outlandish conspiracy theories promoted by websites such as Info-Wars who convinced followers that the Sandy Hook murders were staged and that grieving parents were fakers.
It is tempting to think that Evangelism is strictly a right wing philosophy, but that would be unfair. The left has its own forms of Evangelistic thought, although it has failed to achieve the political power of right wing evangelist thought. For example, the anti-GMO movement is based largely on emotion and lacks any rigorous scientific support for its claims that genetically modified foods pose a health risk. Likewise, there is very little scientific support for claims that there are health benefits to organic foods. Another example would be leftists who object to research into nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. We’ve even seen left-wing conspiracy theories that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11, 2011 attacks. Is any of this that much crazier than the American right’s denial of climate science? I believe that one very rarely finds Enlightenment thought at the political extremes because extremism is almost always disconnected from reason and logic.
In my field of law I believe we’re seeing this anti-Enlightenment movement in the Federalist Society which, founded in the 1980’s, now yields a lot of political clout and which promotes benign sounding legal theories of “legal restraint” and “textualism” as remedies for what they describe as “judicial activism”. Basically, the Federalist society recruits 1st year law students into its membership and then indoctrinates them into its fundamentalist legal philosophies which they claim to be the “true” and “original” way of interpreting laws and the Constitution. For members of the Federalist Society, adherence to this legal doctrine is paramount regardless of the outcome. They believe that justice is no longer a concern of the law and they believe that Courts should only recognize those rights specifically stated in our Constitution.
Our courts are currently being packed by members of the Federalist Society and I worry that we are soon to be ruled by a generation of judges who believe that they can interpret the law with the mind of an 18th century framer of the Constitution, and that emerging standards of justice are not their concern. In their minds, Courts seeking to create justice, such as ensuring fair voting districts, is an “activist” activity and that they should divorce their thinking from ideas of justice.
It may be that abortion isn’t as much about men trying to dominate women, but more about a part of a larger framework rejecting Enlightenment thought arising from a delusional belief by Evangelical thinkers that we can turn the clock back to an imagined golden time when science, reason, and logic didn’t discredit their narrative about the world and morality. Moreover, the men vs. women arguments worry me because I worry that such arguments will create division, alienating men from the up-coming battle to protect reproductive rights and Enlightenment values.
Ultimately the struggle that our nation and world faces is much larger than any single issue such as abortion. Evangelistic thinkers are obstacles to human progress who seek to return us to an age in which we are ruled by people claiming divine right rather than the rule of law. If they succeed, America may continue to exist in name, but the spirit, the ideas and values that made us one of the great nations of history, will be lost.