Ann Coulter Has a Point, Kind Of (Hear Me Out...)

Coulter's argument against liberalism has been a commonplace in democratic theory for some time, and thoughtful folks (left and right) have already moved beyond it.
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I'm not talking about her indefensible, hideous, inflammatory, attention-getting (look at me, look at me!) 9-11 widow bashing. Oh, what a nervy baaaaad girl, taking on those liberal brutes!

Rather, the main thesis of her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism is that liberalism professes hostility toward religion yet exhibits many of the practical attributes of religion, such as the acceptance of certain propositions mainly on faith. But such faith, she continues, doesn't recognize a godhead, hence the liberal variant is a precarious and ultimately self-contradictory faith. The crux of her extended rant is that liberals are disingenuous about their tenets of faith: they pretend to be tolerant, and yet they impose their dogmas on others. They purportedly adhere to a wall of separation between church and state, and yet they enlist the state to promote their particular sacred cows. She takes liberals to task time and again for such hypocrisy, arguing, for instance, that the state-sponsored adherence to evolution in the name of scientific rationality actually betrays several unexamined core beliefs. The bulk of the book is an exposé of others' blind spots. When she finally shows her own cards, she seems to be claiming that her faith is, by contrast, more admirable because it explicitly acknowledges that everything depends on the existence of God. God is her trump card.

If Coulter had done her homework (or if her publisher had held her to customary research standards), she might have realized that others have made such a case against liberalism in much more elegant and compelling terms. In fact, such an argument against liberalism has been a commonplace in democratic theory for some time, and thoughtful folks (left and right) have already moved two or three steps beyond it.

The case is hardly new. Karl Marx said much the same thing as Annie-Come-Lately Coulter in his famous essay, "On the Jewish Question." Liberalism in its public face feigns neutrality toward all worldviews, Marx argued, and yet it enacts insidiously, under a secular cover, many unacknowledged biases and pursues them with religious ferocity.

Likewise, John Stuart Mill, the foremost proponent of political liberalism in the 19th century, would provisionally agree with Coulter's definition of liberalism: "Liberalism is a comprehensive belief system denying the Christian belief in man's immortal soul." The central tenets of liberalism, liberty of thought and expression, require, for Mill, vigilant self-skepticism about dogma, especially religious dogma. Mill would thus challenge Coulter's haughty self-assurance about the truth of Christianity (albeit in a much more civil tone than she deploys to shatter others' presumptions of infallibility). Allow me to quote a passage from Mill's On Liberty at some length, because it seems to speak to Coulter's condition, if I may say so:

By Christianity I here mean what is accounted such by all churches and sects--the maxims and precepts contained in the New Testament. These are considered sacred, and accepted as laws, by all professing Christians. Yet it is scarcely too much to say that not one Christian in a thousand guides or tests his individual conduct by reference to those laws. The standard to which he does refer it, is the custom of his nation, his class, or his religious profession. He has thus, on the one hand, a collection of ethical maxims, which he believes to have been vouchsafed to him by infallible wisdom as rules for his government; and on the other, a set of every-day judgments and practices, which go a certain length with some of those maxims, not so great a length with others, stand in direct opposition to some, and are, on the whole, a compromise between the Christian creed and the interests and suggestions of worldly life. To the first of these standards he gives his homage; to the other his real allegiance. All Christians believe that the blessed are the poor and humble, and those who are ill-used by the world; that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven; that they should judge not, lest they be judged; that they should swear not at all; that they should love their neighbour as themselves; that if one take their cloak, they should give him their coat also; that they should take no thought for the morrow; that if they would be perfect, they should sell all that they have and give it to the poor. They are not insincere when they say that they believe these things. They do believe them, as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed. But in the sense of that living belief which regulates conduct, they believe these doctrines just up to the point to which it is usual to act upon them. The doctrines in their integrity are serviceable to pelt adversaries with; and it is understood that they are to be put forward (when possible) as the reasons for whatever people do that they think laudable. (On Liberty, chapter 2).

John Rawls'1971 classic, A Theory of Justice, which became the liberal bible (in academic and legal circles) for many decades, also seems quite vulnerable to Coulter's belated critique: Rawls, in good liberal fashion, maintained that the state ought to adopt a position of strict neutrality toward various religious views. Many post-Rawlsian commentators, from feminists to neo-conservatives, have pointed out that the liberal claim to state-neutrality is untenable and even duplicitous.

For some time, political theorists have been rethinking the Millsian or Rawlsian liberal animus against religiosity. Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel has been saying for decades that liberals cannot simply "bracket out" religious convictions and identities. Georgetown political theorist Patrick Deneen has recently published an excellent book called Democratic Faith. The Johns Hopkins University professorial eminence Bill Connolly, a person who is deeply committed to political pluralism, nonetheless wrote a captivating book called, Why I Am Not A Secularist (responding to Bertrand Russell's famous essay, Why I Am Not A Christian). And the list goes on and on, with multiculturalists and Straussians and all sorts of engaging writers chiming in. Methinks Ann Coulter needs to read more before she speaks forth.

My own intervention in this debate would be thus: If Ann Coulter wants to deride Cindy Sheehan, the 9-11 widows, pro-choice proponents, evolutionary scientists, and secular liberals generally for their (concealed) presumptions of infallibility, then she ought to practice what she preaches, rather than adopt an asymmetrical "do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do" position. That is to say, if secular liberals ought to accommodate, respect, and even embrace religious belief within public discourse, then such civic interrogation ought to proceed in both directions. Religious thinkers need to explain and defend their views better, opening them up to challenge, rather than simply asserting them as sacred and thus off-limits. If Ann Coulter is going to disqualify Cindy Sheehan's trump card of infallibility, then Ann Coulter cannot simply play her own trump card in response.

I, for one, would appreciate more public discussion and earnest examination about the core beliefs of Christianity--especially if they are to influence public policy. I'll lay down my own cards: I was raised in a fervently Christian setting, both and at once Catholic and Protestant. For more than twenty years I've assigned religious texts in almost every course I've taught. I take religious faith seriously. Where I myself stand now: While I appreciate, to say the least, the fact that Christianity in particular has provided solace and profound meaning to millions of believers, I find its core narrative--what I take to be the heart of its theology--unconvincing and uninspiring. If you're still reading this post, please allow me to quote at length from one of my own past books--I'll simply close with this passage therefrom:

Christian writers drew upon another Old Testament and classical motif [in addition to the messianic tradition]--that of sacrifice. Herein (I want to suggest a bit grandiosely) lies the essence of Christology. The thematics of salvation provide undeniable textual continuities between the old and new testaments, and the whole inner logic of the Christian salvational system hangs on this notion applied to the life, and not just the death, of Jesus Christ.

God so loved a world, John 3:16 tells us, he gave his only Son. This lead maxim for many Christians requires the background belief that humans are basically fallen since the time of Adam and Eve. Despite the covenant, and the new covenant after Noah, no one, therefore, up to Christ's appearance, was able to enter the gates of heaven. God at some point evidently decided to rectify this sad state of affairs (though no one knows why it took him so long to build up a sufficient reservoir of superabundant love before he took decisive action). At any rate, he eventually sent his only Son as an emissary, whose death would wash away the sins of all humankind. The key to this scenario is that Jesus, in some important if unclear sense, is half-human and half-divine. Such an ambiguous, amalgamated nature allows him to enter the gates of heaven and to get the rest of us admitted as well. But underlying this scheme of things are some unspoken assumptions, which should be spelled out clearly but seldom are. There is indeed a logic to this narrative; the theology of salvation doesn't rest finally on a complete mystery.

First, God's sending his only son is meant to emphasize how dear that son is to him, and thus how much of a sacrifice he is making on our behalf, and thus how much he loves us (the transitive theorem). But according to the logic of that extended love, God's character must be chauvinistic and petty. Clearly this notion is a borrowing from the Old Testament sacrifice of Abram's only son Isaac, and thus a play upon the Jewish people as the favorite sons of God. But in this new version, God is willing to save his son, despite the fact that Jesus is half-human, because, after all, Jesus is God's son and thus half-divine. But this means that God loves his son more than he loves the rest of us (this invidiousness doesn't seem to bother Christian believers, because it is pretty much taken for granted that parents love their own children more than other children; and even though we are all God's creatures, divine blood in this case is apparently thicker than created blood).

Christ is our savior because he takes advantage of his ambiguous nature for our sake. Once he has his foot in the door of heaven, he sets a precedent for all humanoids. If God is going to save his own son, then he is going to need to lower his admission standards generally, allowing entrance in principle to almost any otherwise fallen human being. But the unspoken key to this scheme is that God is ambivalent, torn, at odds with himself over the whole affair. Part of him wants to save humans, but he feels he must go through a roundabout procedure, first sacrificing his beloved half-human son as a sort of guinea pig. Again, clearly this story borrows from and plays upon the old Hebraic theme of sacrifice. But in the Old Testament, and in all other classical sources, a sacrifice is burned in order to make an appeal to God, to change his mind about some matter. In the New Testament version of sacrifice, God, too, makes a sacrifice. But the bizarre thing about the new version is that God, in sending his only son, is making a sacrifice--to himself. God makes a sacrifice in order to change his own mind! One wonders why he, out of that same supposed love for us all, didn't just save us without all the hassle. Doesn't God have complete control over the gates of heaven?

In short, how could Jesus be both a sacrificial emissary of God and a human sufferer? We probably must conclude that this central narrative of Christology is a flawed reworking of older themes of sacrifice....

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