A High Priest in the First Church of Anti-Liberalism
Let me tell you about a man named Dennis Prager. An extreme right-wing pundit, Dennis Prager is an idiot cloaked in a thin-veneer of intellect – a white-knuckle blowhard who has troubled telling the difference between loud voices and good arguments. But more to the point, he is also a High Priest in new religious order: The First Church of Anti-Liberalism.
Normally, it’s considered bad form to fill an essay with ad hominem attacks, let alone start with them. And rightly so – that sort of thing rarely gets us out of the woods and into a place where we can begin to understand one another. Yet it would be perverse to ignore a history of shoddy reasoning and wild fanaticism in assessing the value someone’s work.
In that regard, Prager’s partisan hysteria and thoughtlessness is the core issue. This is a man who has made a career out of enthusiastically mistaking his feelings about how the world ought to be for facts about how the world really works. He even runs a “university” dedicated to the practice. Human as that is, it is also very foolish. In a struggling representative democracy aching for serious, reasoned discourse, it is also extremely dangerous.
Don’t take my word for it. The evidence is out there. This summer, he described how Christianity and Judaism once filled the lives of people in the West with meaning. Fair enough. But he doesn’t stop there. “All of this has disappeared for most Westerners,” he laments. Doing so, he fails to note there are data on this. Those data tell us that in the United States, 70.6% of the population identifies as Christian. A much smaller percentage identifies as Jewish, but all told, about 73% of Americans embrace some version of Judeo-Christian teachings. Only a little over 3.1% openly identify as atheists. Milquetoast and indecisive agnostics fill out another 4%. Some European countries are a lot less religious than the United States, but even in a country as full of degenerate pagans as France, 63% of people still call themselves Christians. For the region writ large, Christianity remains the religious backbone for just over 76% of the populace.
Indifferent to or ignorant of these facts, Prager soldiers on. He aims to build a case that declining religiosity has turned liberal politics in the West into a kind of secular religion. Leftists neglect the Bible and “divine instruction.” So doing, they are left grasping at straws for meaning and direction. Prager never really defines what he means by “Leftist”. He deploys the word as a kind of brittle, airy, boogey-man. It’s a hook for anyone who might already be concerned about what those confounded Liberals are up to.
If we assume Prager is thinking of Democratic or Democratic-leaning individuals, then we can grant that he has stumbled into a position crudely similar to reality: in the United States, the political Left is less religious than the Right. But this observation demands a caveat. The difference between liberals and conservatives in the realm of religiosity is one of degree, not kind. While 90% of conservatives are fairly or absolutely certain there is a god, a measly 76% of the unwashed heathens on the political left agree with them.
Weird. American liberals are less devout that conservatives. But it still looks like a lot of them are pretty religious in a fairly conventional sense. Most liberals draw substantial meaning and direction from the very sources Prager celebrates.
So, who are these Leftists Prager is so worked up about? Perhaps they are the fanatical relativists and censorious crusaders who occupy the extreme flanks of modern American liberalism. These people have indeed turned their political beliefs into a kind of secular religion, but it is important to recognize that is not an exclusively liberal phenomenon. Nor can it be sensibly argued to characterize liberalism writ large.
Indeed, there are several domains where Republican-leaning folks seem to have a loose grip on reality. Many conservatives and libertarians champion versions of free market fundamentalism completely divorced from any and all evidence about what humans or the economic systems they shape are actually like. Similarly, denial of anthropogenic climate change and the reality of biological evolution – areas where scientific evidence is both abundant and unambiguously affirmative – is far more common on the political right.
Reasoning clouded by ideology is a starkly bipartisan phenomenon. Extremists can pop up anywhere. Disturbingly, however, there is one party in the United States that has made political extremism and the compulsory rejection of inconvenient facts – what Dennis Prager might call “secular religion” – the chief basis of their political platform.
There are other examples of Prager’s thoughtless embrace of secular fanaticism. Watch his “conversation” with Michael Shermer, if you can bear it. Prager argues that religion is the source of morality. True, it is a source. But the idea that it is the source – or even a primary source – is objectively absurd. Systems of morality existed before the advent of modern religion. They also exist today where religion is absent. Prohibitions on murder, for example, are a human universal. Prager’s not interested in hearing any of this. If there is a moment in their conversation where he actually listens to or responds to any of Shermer’s points, I definitely missed it. Mostly, he just talks over his interlocuter and redefines the bounds of discourse so the only conclusion available is his own. This is not the behavior of a thoughtful, principled advocate of conservative values. It is the behavior of a religious fanatic.
The First Church of Anti-Liberalism and Its Acolytes
To the degree that there is a kettle in modern liberalism brewing up an ugly batch of religious fervor, Prager’s criticism comes dressed in the trappings of the blackest pot. His political outlook is rarely manifest in any sort of positive claims about how society can be improved. This a man who positions himself as strict moralist, yet champions political causes that expose him as bereft of principles, enslaved to a bitter stew of paranoia of loathing.
Instead, his ideology represents a stark flavor of religious zealotry. Mostly, it is comprised of rabid anti-liberalism. Dennis Prager thinks liberals pose such a grave threat to society that he is willing to abandon all pretense of traditional Judeo-Christian principle to support a pedophile like Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate and an unhinged, unqualified carnival barker and proud sexual predator named Donald Trump for President. Liberalism, in Prager’s imagination, is such a severe concern that he is willing to align himself with neo-Nazis, the Klu Klutz Klan, and a Russian despot (all active supporters of the modern GOP and Donald Trump in particular) and proudly support the most corrupt and dysfunctional presidential administration in generations to defeat it.
Reflexively and reliably, that kind of outlook aggressively hobbles thoughtful, dispassionate analysis. Frighteningly, it is an attitude that has come to dominate the Republican Party and its supporters. How else are we to explain the wholesale rejection of reason and principle underway in the GOP? A recent Oxford study supplies evidence that the extreme right has become dangerously unhinged. Far-right conservatives and Trump supporters share more junk news and conspiracy-soaked nonsense on Facebook than all other political inclinations combined. In a real sense, Dennis Prager is just a public face of a more widespread trend – the Republican abandonment of reason and principle in favor of a gibbering and dangerous variety of zero-sum partisanship.
In this regard, Dennis Prager is not a distinctive voice in modern Republicanism. Instead, he is best viewed as a distillation of what the Republican Party has become: The First Church of Anti-Liberalism. Politics often boil down to questions of values. That’s why it can be so frustratingly difficult to come to a consensus about facts. Conservatives and liberals have different ideas about what a good society should look like. In a healthy democracy, that kind of disparity is fine. All that matters is that we all cleave to some sense of shared reality.
Serious problems arise when one side abandons appeals to verifiable truth and all discernable commitments to the values that define American democracy. The Republican Party has jettisoned all pretense of dedication to the principles enshrined America’s founding documents in favor of a hysterical religious creed: there’s a comet headed to earth, its name is “socialism”, and the dastardly, mustache-twirling Democrats are doing their best to see that it makes impact. Like Prager’s frenzied crowing about Leftism, the socialist threat is poorly defined, cloaked in vague and unsupported allusions to Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot.
Yes, in the information echo-chamber feeding the Republican Party, Nancy Pelosi is akin to a maniac who had people murdered for sporting glasses. Chuck Schumer is hard to tell apart from the man whose radical social reforms starved millions. Barack Obama might as well have murdered millions of his political opponents or had them shipped off to gulags, for the all the horrors that unfolded under his administration. Never mind that there isn’t a shred of evidence to corroborate any of this. The important thing to remember is that the threat is out there and Democrats are its primary vehicle.
In reality, socialist programs have been an important – and screamingly popular – part of the American political landscape for nearly a century. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid, interstates, police and fire departments, the U.S. military – these are all unambiguously socialist institutions. They play pivotal roles in American life and typically enjoy huge margins of support among the American electorate, regardless of political persuasion. A recent Reuters-Ipsos poll even found that 70% of Americans – including 51% of Republicans – support Medicare for all. This is socialism. Another 60% support the idea of free college tuition. This too is socialism. Yes, the specter of socialism looms large in American life. It just happens to be both boringly commonplace and wildly popular.
Meanwhile, the First Church of Anti-Liberalism (formerly the Republican Party) has managed to convince its congregation that the Affordable Care Act is a socialist program and its popular namesake, President Obama, was some sort of Fabian socialist. Regarding the former claim, the AFA is a market-based program that emerged from conservative think-tanks. Regarding the latter, Obama was only a Fabian socialist insofar as he supported socialist programs that have been part of traditional American life for generations. In realm of facts and figures, Obama was the head of a marginally center-left administration that bent over backwards to work with an opposition party built around the dual creeds of extreme free market fundamentalism and radical anti-liberalism.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are verifiable facts. To disbelieve them is to reject reality. Yet that is what the Republican Party and the swarms of ignorant, fear-drenched yokels who kneel at the alter of anti-liberalism do.
To be clear, there are still plenty of principled conservatives in the United States. And they have an important part to play in our political system. They just aren’t in the Republican Party anymore. Upstanding, thoughtful conservatives recognize that the Grand Old Party has become completely unmoored from truth and principle. The GOP is no longer the party of personal responsibility, small government, and balanced budgets. It’s the party of tinfoil hats and frothy paranoia, racist dog-whistles and voter suppression.
How else are we to explain the character of the modern Republican? Roy Moore – very probably a child molester – won 48.3% of the vote in the 2017 Alabama special election. Though his sexual proclivities were only his most disqualifying trait among many, huge numbers of Republicans voted for him simply because the central doctrine of the First Church of Anti-Liberalism is reflexive opposition to the anyone and anything with a “D” next to it. Maybe there’s a secret recipe where the right combination of principle and studious attention to the facts can yield that kind of thinking. But to those left scratching their heads on the outside, it just looks like blind partisan zealotry.
Likewise for the election of Donald Trump. Few people were enthusiastic about a Hillary Clinton presidency, yet millions made a rational, adult choice on November 8, 2016 and voted for her anyway. They closed their eyes, held their noses and took their medicine. Instead of childishly voting for the person they’d most like to have a beer with, they voted for the person who would best serve the interests of the United States.
These Americans recognized that it was literally impossible to reconcile a vote for Donald Trump with the facts on the ground and the principles outlined in the U.S. Constitution. On the one hand, there was an unsavory, inauthentic career politician. On the other, a malignantly narcissistic, pathologically dishonest sexual predator who failed to evince even a basic understanding of our political system or the values it is built to perpetuate. Unfortunately, millions of Republican voters have become so thoroughly divorced from conservative principles and the basic features of reality that they voted for Donald Trump anyway. They are so deeply entrenched in the wild doctrines of a religious cult steeped in fear and resentment that they are incapable of making tough choices for the good of the nation.
Republican voters now reliably chalk up any information that fails to ratify their anti-liberal hysteria as left-wing bias or “fake news.” Meanwhile, they consume a diet of frequently conspiratorial nonsense that tells them all their suspicions are Right and True and Righteous. Trump supporters sport t-shirts with the slogan “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat.” Roughly translated, this means “I’d rather be a traitor to the United States than vote for a party defined by moderate commitments to neoliberal economic policy and broad sympathies to the plight of the less fortunate.” Sure, this could be just a bizarre instance of partisan trolling. But that is exactly the point: Republican voters are more interested in pissing off liberals than in pursuing anything that approximates traditional conservative values.
In all of this, it is important to remember that these people are our friends and family and neighbors. Sadly, their indoctrination into the fevered cult of impulsive anti-liberalism has also morphed them into something deeply disturbing: enemies of the American experiment. That puts everyone else – principled conservatives, thoughtful libertarians, independents, liberals, and progressives – in a very difficult position. Somehow, we have got to peacefully and compassionately minimize the damage the First Church of Anti-Liberalism poses to the American Republic.
That’s a tricky thing to do. Convincing people so detached from the raw facts of reality – whose reaction to any information that doesn’t reaffirm their preconceptions is spontaneous rejection – is a Sisyphean task wrapped in a gordian knot. Likewise for people who don’t cleave to any principle beyond sticking it to the Democrats. It means everyone invested in building and maintaining a free and open society – a “more perfect Union,” as it were, something, perhaps, dedicated to “establish(ing) justice, insur(ing) domestic Tranquility, provid(ing) for the common defense, promot(ing) the general Welfare, and secur(ing) the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” – will have to put aside meaningful ideological differences for a while and work toward a common cause. We are going to have to suffer uncomfortable allies and put aside serious disagreements for a while to strip the modern Republican Party of its power and influence.
This isn’t a partisan screed, mind you. Anyone dedicated to the founding principles of the United States should want conservatives to have a voice on the political stage. The same goes for libertarians and progressives. For my part, I shun partisan allegiances and work to build my political opinions piecemeal. Often enough, I am sympathetic to liberal policies. But I can read Thomas Sowell or Milton Freeman or Edmund Burke and see the sense in a lot of their critiques. Similarly, I can look at the Democratic Party and see a deeply flawed institution. But more importantly, I can look at people who agree with me about the basic aims of the American project but disagree with me about how best to see those aims fulfilled and see nothing beyond a difference of opinion.
That’s the problem with a fanatic like Prager. It’s not that his opinions differ from my own. It’s that the man is thoroughly immune to the force of reason and evidence. He doesn’t care what is actually true of the world. If a claim strikes his fancy, he incorporates it into the ramshackle architecture of his worldview. But if it contradicts what he has already decided must be so, he wantonly casts it into a scrap heap built from pieces of ideologically inconvenient information.
Politics is often enough a contest of values. As long we can at least agree about the facts, diverging opinions about the role of government, importance of traditional values, appropriate size and use of the military, or structure of the tax system aren’t insurmountable obstacles. Rather, they supply the variation and diversity essential to building a healthy representative political system.
Extremism, on the other hand, is of limited use. Typically, it is a result of succumbing to our baser instincts (tribalism, confirmation bias, pride, etc.) and failing to change our minds in light of new information. It can crop anywhere, regardless of political persuasion. It just so happens that it is currently the official doctrine of one political party and the primary motivation of its voters.
Toward Dismantling the Church and Saving Democracy
In Dennis Prager’s deranged worldview, meaning and truth are uncovered through “divine instruction.” Like Leftists, this is something he fails to define, but it is clear from the context that divine instruction is a tautology: it’s whatever leads you to the same conclusions as Dennis Prager. For Prager, the only alternative to divine instruction is “following your heart.” That is what has turned Leftism into a secular religion.
Of course, the distinction between following your heart and divine instruction is vague and slippery. Both operate on engines cobbled together from hope and raw emotion. Though the target organ is different, following your heart is presumably similar in execution to “following your gut.” This was a strategy championed by George W. Bush, a man Dennis Prager admits to having “loved and admired.” In practice, it works like this: believe whatever you want, don’t ask questions, and whatever you do, don’t change your mind.
Here, I humbly suggest a third strategy: use reason, follow evidence, and abandon long-term partisan allegiances. Instead of the endlessly diverging opinions we get by following our guts or hearts or divine instruction, we can cast aside partisan identity. Then we can use reason, guided by evidence, to converge on a shared understanding of what the world is actually like.
By and large, this will rid us of all forms of dangerous political extremism and secular religion, regardless of their partisan complexion. It will help us recognize a rather startling and refreshing reality. Sometimes the best solution to our political problems will have a liberal patina. Other times it will look like conservatism.
Prager’s partisan zealotry – and that of the Republican Party writ large – ensures he and people like him will never take a host of viable solutions to real problems seriously. Ignore the fact that environmental regulation has been enormously successful. Forget that basic economic theory recognizes the existence of things called “unpriced externalities” that markets don’t seem to be very good at addressing without government meddling. Give anyone who dares relate facts about the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change a good, hard look at your middle finger. Shun John Stewart Mill’s humble suggestion that people ought to be free to do what they want so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Just plug your ears, wail about the threat of socialism, and make damn sure those bloody Democrats never get into office.
The physicist Steven Weinberg once said, “For good people to do bad things, that takes religion.” That has been true at various points in history, but it is too narrow. It places too much of the onus for rotten behavior on supernatural belief systems. Better to broaden it: For good people to do bad things, for otherwise smart people to behave very stupidly, that takes ideological fanaticism. An inability to distinguish imagined worlds from the one we occupy is the principle basis for Dennis Prager’s worldview, and it has the effect of making him look both embarrassingly dense and dangerously unhinged. This is ideological fanaticism. This is secular religion. It has also become the chief basis for ticking a box with an “R” next to it at election time.
As manifest on the political stage, the Republican Party has morphed into a religious cult. The GOP and the voters who empower it would rather steer the ship into an iceberg than see it momentarily captained by Democrats. They would prefer to see the American experiment fail than risk a close call with the vague specter of “socialism”. In the long run, that is not a sustainable foundation for a healthy democratic system. And it is definitely not a route out of the wilderness of political extremism and polarization we’re currently lost in.