Many are the cheap and easy laughs in which one could indulge at the extraordinary, pitiful hysteria of the defeated Democrats. “Kerry won,” according to one e-mail I received from Greg Palast, to whom the Florida vote in 2000 is, and always will be, a combination of Gettysburg and Waterloo. According to Nikki Finke of the LA Weekly, the Fox News channel “called” Ohio for Bush for reasons too sinister to enumerate. Gregory Maniatis, whose last communication to me had predicted an annihilating Democratic landslide, kept quiet for only a day or so before forwarding the details on how to emigrate to Canada. Thus do the liberals build their bridge to the 20th century.
Who can care about this pathos? Not I. But I do take strong exception to one strain in the general moaning. It seems that anyone fool enough to favor the re-election of the president is by definition a God-bothering, pulpit-pounding Armageddon-artist, enslaved by ancient texts and prophecies and committed to theocratic rule. I was instructed in last week’s New York Times that this was the case, and that the Enlightenment had come to an end, by no less an expert than Garry Wills, who makes at least one of his many livings by being an Augustinian Roman Catholic.
I step lightly over the ancient history of Wills’ church (which was the originator of the counter-Enlightenment and then the patron of fascism in Europe) as well as over its more recent and local history (as the patron, protector, and financier of child-rape in the United States, and the sponsor of the cruel “annulment” of Joe Kennedy’s and John Kerry’s first marriages). As far as I know, all religions and all churches are equally demented in their belief in divine intervention, divine intercession, or even the existence of the divine in the first place.
But all faiths are not always equally demented in the same way, or at the same time. Islam, which was once a civilizing and creative force in many societies, is now undergoing a civil war. One faction in this civil war is explicitly totalitarian and wedded to a cult of death. We have seen it at work on the streets of our own cities, and most recently on the streets of Amsterdam. We know that the obscene butchery of filmmaker Theo van Gogh was only a warning of what is coming in Madrid, London, Rome, and Paris, let alone Baghdad and Basra.
So here is what I want to say on the absolutely crucial matter of secularism. Only one faction in American politics has found itself able to make excuses for the kind of religious fanaticism that immediately menaces us in the here and now. And that faction, I am sorry and furious to say, is the left. From the first day of the immolation of the World Trade Center, right down to the present moment, a gallery of pseudointellectuals has been willing to represent the worst face of Islam as the voice of the oppressed. How can these people bear to reread their own propaganda? Suicide murderers in Palestine—disowned and denounced by the new leader of the PLO—described as the victims of “despair.” The forces of al-Qaida and the Taliban represented as misguided spokespeople for antiglobalization. The blood-maddened thugs in Iraq, who would rather bring down the roof on a suffering people than allow them to vote, pictured prettily as “insurgents” or even, by Michael Moore, as the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers. If this is liberal secularism, I’ll take a modest, God-fearing, deer-hunting Baptist from Kentucky every time, as long as he didn’t want to impose his principles on me (which our Constitution forbids him to do).
One probably should not rest too much on the similarity between Bin Laden’s last video and the newly available DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11. I would only say that, if Bin Laden had issued a tape that with equal fealty followed the playbook of Karl Rove (and do please by all means cross yourself at the mention of this unholy name), it might have garnered some more attention. The Bearded One moved pedantically through Moore’s bill of indictment, checking off the Florida vote-count in 2000, the “Pet Goat” episode on the day of hell, the violent intrusion into hitherto peaceful and Muslim Iraq, and the division between Bush and the much nicer Europeans. (For some reason, unknown to me at any rate, he did not attack the President for allowing the Bin Laden family to fly out of American airspace.)
George Bush may subjectively be a Christian, but he—and the U.S. armed forces—have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled. The demolition of the Taliban, the huge damage inflicted on the al-Qaida network, and the confrontation with theocratic saboteurs in Iraq represent huge advances for the non-fundamentalist forces in many countries. The “antiwar” faction even recognizes this achievement, if only indirectly, by complaining about the way in which it has infuriated the Islamic religious extremists around the world. But does it accept the apparent corollary—that we should have been pursuing a policy to which the fanatics had no objection?
Secularism is not just a smug attitude. It is a possible way of democratic and pluralistic life that only became thinkable after several wars and revolutions had ruthlessly smashed the hold of the clergy on the state. We are now in the middle of another such war and revolution, and the liberals have gone AWOL. I dare say that there will be a few domestic confrontations down the road, over everything from the Pledge of Allegiance to the display of Mosaic tablets in courtrooms and schools. I have spent all my life on the atheist side of this argument, and will brace for more of the same, but I somehow can’t hear Robert Ingersoll * or Clarence Darrow being soft and cowardly and evasive if it came to a vicious theocratic challenge that daily threatens us from within and without.
Correction, Nov. 9, 2004: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Robert Ingersoll as “Ralph” Ingersoll.