Obama2. His Cultural Conservative Critics.30.01.13

I vividly recall in the summer of 1987 when Michael Marrus brought up to our cottage Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I read the book and offered Michael what I thought was a devastating critique. Though the book was a surprising best seller, little did I anticipate that it would become the cultural bible for social conservatives whom I would be analyzing 25 years later. Cultural conservatives are radically different than economic conservatives. Cultural conservatives believe strongly in using the state for social engineering, not to facilitate greater equality or even greater equality of opportunity but to facilitate the reinforcement of a set of social values. Economic conservatives are adamantly opposed to the engineering state.

 

David Frum, as an economic conservative, has been highly critical of the cultural conservative attempt to take control of the Republican Party agenda and claims that, because of them claims, “The Republican Party is becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.” (“How the GOP Got Stuck in the Past,” Newsweek, 11 November 2012) Unlike his friend and fellow economic conservative, Conrad Black, Frum opined that, “When eco­nom­ic conditions are as bad as they were in 2012 and the incumbent wins anyway, that’s not ‘close’.”  Frum is inclined to blame Romney’s election loss to Obama on the cultural conservatives (otherwise known as the combative conservatives) and the reason why “the GOP is becoming the party off yesterday’s America.” Instead of Romney running as a strong fiscal conservative with a track record as a competent manager with a pragmatic disposition, Romney was forced by the cultural conservatives into a corner in order to win the nomination to refashion himself and come across as a contradictory weak-kneed amorphous persona. My interest is to analyze the nature of that opposition and to try to understand the extent to which that opposition demonizes Obama and is responsible for the chasm between Obama’s public image and the reality of his policies and actions. Frum wanted the cultural conservatives to be reborn as social conservatives and become religious and secular activists for the needy independent of a nanny state. However, Rick Santorum was the only Republican candidate who recognized that the middle class had become economic losers.

 

This recognition is not what drives the vast majority of cultural conservatives. William Bennett, needless to say no relation to Naftali Bennett leader of the Habayit Hayehudi pro-settler party in Israel that I wrote about last week, was the Secretary of Education in the George Bush Sr. administration from 1985 to 1988.  In a CNN piece “Republicans lost the culture war” dated 14 November 2012, Bennett drew attention to the claim that the Republicans were involved in a culture war more than a war over economic doctrine. (http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/14/…/bennett-gop…/index.html – United States) Cultural conservatives are a different breed than economic conservatives. They cite Plato and his dictum that the future depends on who teaches and what they teach. For cultural conservatives, the Lefties who preach multiculturalism rather than a one-size fits all American identity, who praise socialism and disparage capitalism, who teach relativism rather than certain moral precepts, who celebrate diversity at the cost of faith in American exceptionalism, who sew class divisions with special privileges, including preferential university admissions for minorities, need to be displaced and cultural conservatives with their moral foundations in family, faith, freedom, community country and moral conduct restored to supremacy. The universities and colleges have to be retaken or America is lost. Their battle is not an intellectual exchange but an institutional takeover.

 

Though William Bennett and Naftali Bennett are not blood relatives, they share a number of common traits. Both are paired with economic conservatives to pull the conservative polity further towards what is represented as the right. In the Israeli election, Naftali Bennett was the one to make Netanyahu more extreme, yuktzan Netanyahu, in contrast to Yair Lapid who was elected to make Netanyahu more moderate, yemurkaz Netanyahu. The cultural right in America also works to pull the Republican Party more towards the right.

 

Samuel Goldman in The American Conservative offered an analysis of “Naftali Bennett and the Continuing Appeal of Religious Nationalism” (14 January 2013) just before the elections in the wildly mistaken expectation that Naftali Bennett would possess the second largest cluster of seats in the Knesset. The legacy of the religious Zionists under Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Yehuda Kook was revived with the settler movement to re-establish religion as the foundation of the new Israel by becoming the settlers on the new frontier of Samaria and Judea and officers in the IDF. Religious settlers would displace socialist kibbutzniks as the icon of Israel reborn. Instead of the religious playing a role of keeping religion alive simply by partnering with the secular leading Zionists, or feeding off the trough of the state as religious welfare bums, the religious would soar into a leading role through their sacrifice and messianic leadership.

 

What are the ideological similarities of both groups? Naftali Bennett proposed annexing 62% of the West Bank and turning the remainder into a self-governing Bantustans. Imperialism married to exceptional state leadership inspired by religious precepts was alive as an ideology. The cultural right in America and Habayit Hayehudi both represent religious nationalist sentiments, to return the core of the respective nations to their true home, the heartland of America and Judea and Samaria respectively. If the West Bank settlers want to occupy Israel (see Ari Shavit’s piece in Haaretz on 3 January 2013), the cultural right want to retake America. They do it with a pincer movement by effectively establishing their own party, The Tea Party in America, and by taking control of a mainstream party by driving out the more moderate members, Meridor and Begin in the Likud in Israel and Colin Powell and the Rockefeller heirs in the Republican Party in America.

 

Though cultural and religious conservatives can be distinguished, unlike the link with economic conservativism which is only opportunistic, religious and cultural conservatives overlap considerably, though only the religious conservatives openly oppose the separation of religion and state and want to revive the influence of religion on politics. Both cultural and religious conservatives want to advance their goals through political participation in party politics. Both politicize religion. Basically they believe that a nation is held together by common bonds drawn from religious or classical sources. Their enemies are relativism and diversity when it comes to the national core values. Instead of multiculturalism, they espouse a more authentic version of identity. In Israel, the foundation stones of authentic life are the land of Israel (Eretz Israel), the Torah and Am Israel (the people of Israel). In America, the foundation stones are the American heartland, the American constitution interpreted as the genesis code for a great nation, and the people of American, an identity projected in the ideal image of small town America.

 

Rogers Brubaker, a colleague consulted when we undertook our study of genocide in Rwanda, wrote an article called “Religion and Nationalism” that was published in the journal Nations and Nationalism in 2011. Instead of regarding religion and nationalism as analogous phenomena or explaining nationalism through religious motifs as Sanford Levinson did in his book on Constitutional Faith (Princeton University Press) whereby a set of beliefs that had been secularized provided a sense of coherence to the American identity by being embodied in the Constitution, or adopting a third option and demonstrating how politics and religion were intertwined by politicians such as George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, the cultural right propagate a distinctively religious or quasi-religious form of nationalism.

 

Nationalism itself aspires to a congruity between the nation and the state. That is why separatists in Quebec and Scotland, though they currently come from the left and oppose religious nationalism, seek to secede. The state has the job of protecting the nation. Further, they espouse a fundamental ground for authority in the spirit of the nation whence the values that bind the nation arise. Those values provide the basic legitimacy for the activities of the state. The nationalism that became predominant in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries was secular and defined in opposition to and rivalry with religion. It espoused that individuals operated not only in two autonomous realms of religion and state but in a multitude of autonomous realms, the universities, the economy, the polity, civil society. The new religious nationalism said that if these realms were allowed to remain autonomous, the nation would disintegrate and wither away. The greatest danger to the nation came from the universities for they taught students that relativism and secularism were the norm. Instead of making claims for the nation that conjoined with religious claims, as Bush Jr, and Jimmy Carter had, religion was seen as providing authenticity to the nation. Instead of politicians just using religious symbols to advance their political programs, in religious nationalism, God spoke to his people; his people received their inspiration from religion which was both the foundation for the nation and the state, and the guarantor of the integrity of both.   

 

As Roger Friedland argued in an older 2001 article, (“Religious Nationalism and the Problem of Collective Representation (Annual Review of Sociology 27, 125-152), collective solidarity is located “in religious faith shared by embodied families”. The family is the backbone of the nation. Politics cannot be dependent on inclusiveness and diversity

So why do the cultural conservatives hate Obama even more than the economic conservatives? After all, Obama is a very strong family man. He is not only a Christian but claims in his writing to have been born again, not in the sense that he suddenly received the light and the spirit of Jesus took over his very being, but in the sense that he was brought up without faith in Christianity and returned to embrace that faith of his mother’s parents as an adult. He has confessed his sins and made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as his saviour “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.” As Joel Hunter (former president of the Christian Coalition started by Pat Robertson and author of A New Kind of Conservative as well as a Methodist and spiritual adviser to Obama) has testified, “There is simply no question about it: Barack Obama is a born again man who has trusted in Jesus Christ with his whole heart.” But Obama is a liberal. As he said in a 2006 speech, “secularists shouldn’t bar believers from the public square, but neither should people of faith expect America to be one vast amen corner.”

 

Most community conservatives decry these claims as a fraud and a ruse. Because Obama’s Christianity harks back to the social gospel, to social service and taking care of those in need and not to conservatism. Obama is a strong family man and a Christian who is a twentieth-century liberal. In 2008, when presented with a choice between someone who was not born again, McCain, and Obama, many actually voted for Obama. Those numbers declined in 2012, but still an estimated six million evangelicals supported Obama, particularly if they were young. Why? Because they too were Christian liberals and supported healthcare, support for education and a fairer allocation of taxation relative to income.  (http://www.christianpost.com/news/young-born-again-christians-lose-interest-in-obama-barna-group-says-84496/#2M6aplFRqYIGEz9g.99)

 

The strident opposition comes from evangelical Christians who are social conservatives for whom Obama’s family and Christian values give them apoplexy. A secular liberal is one thing but a Christian and a strong family man who is a liberal is another. The fight over alternative worlds versus alternative economic ideologies is much more heartfelt and vicious. Since it is about the moral quality of the person, it is doubly disconcerting to see the leader of your country as apparently upholding your religious and family values so if one is a community conservative, it is imperative that the ostensible believer be revealed as a fake and a dissembler. Denigration and demonization become central to the cause of discrediting Obama.   

 

So we have two groups, one adamantly and the other doubly opposed to Obama and eager to blacken his name and portray him as not only opposed to what they believe but as a failure. Is that sufficient to explain the alignment of his electoral support with his approval rating? After all, many a politician who one would not vote for is seen as a success even if one disagrees with his or her political agenda. To try to probe deeper I will examine first Obama`s cheerleaders and then his equivocal supporters.

[tags Obama, USA, President, politics, community conservatives]

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