To be Catholic, liberal and a constitutional junkie these days (I am frequently all three) is to be, as the vulgar acronym has it, SOL -- smack out of luck. A little vulgarity now and then is a good thing, as Thomas Jefferson would put it today if he could see past his apoplexy, now that a grand inquisitor's version of the Holy Trinity has descended upon us. With Joseph Ratzinger, George Bush and Antonin Scalia about to share the world, body politic and soul between them (Scalia isn't chief justice, but soon may be), I'm beginning to get a feel for what it was like to be Jewish in 13th century Europe or Protestant in 17th century France or conservative in 1960s America for that matter, back when the country was emerging from its latest reactionary trance. Taunting conservatives in 1962, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. could boast that "self-righteousness has ceased to be the main instrument of our diplomacy," that "the life of the mind enjoys a new freedom and a new status," and "wit has become respectable."
Look who's laughing now. Anne Coulter, that gnawing wit of the Republican witless, claimed the cover of Time between the last one devoted to John Paul II and the first one devoted to Benedict XVI. The curiously evolutionary alignment was reminiscent of Time's "Secrets of the Nativity" cover last December being followed with George W. Bush's second Man-of-the-Year crowning two weeks later. No secrets here. You can hear George, Joseph and Antonin pick up where the Blues Brothers left off, minus the laughs and the cool shades: "We're on a mission from God." Take cover. All three think they know The Truth. All three think relativism, which is the conservative euphemism for pluralism, is from the devil. All three believe in the infallibility doctrine (theirs). Those are not the beliefs of democratic minds, but of fundamentalists.
Their business or ours?
It's an unspoken covenant between the press and its audience that matters of faith are to be left to the faithful. Religion gets a lot of coverage, but along much the same lines as business does. The coverage for the most part is respectful, admiring, uncritical, in a way that coverage of politics or culture isn't. Self-preservation has something to do with it. Businesses advertise, the faithful subscribe. Alienating either could hurt the bottom line the way taking on public officials or impersonal cultural issues can't. Occasional scandals break the pattern. It was impossible to ignore the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal or the corporate scandals unraveling at about the same time. They were too big. But in the end the coverage, intense but brief, exposed. It didn't explain. It criticized. It didn't seek to change anything -- beginning with the press' arms-length deference toward business and religion. We're back to where we were in 2000, which is where we were in 1950 or 1920. The inner workings of business and religion are immune from scrutiny, because they're "private."
Businesses are indeed private. But as a collective they affect the public good more than all the country's governments combined. Religions ought to deal with matters of private faith, but when the Vatican, with all the power it wields over individual conscience, inserts itself in the gay-rights debate, when it demeans women, when it trivializes AIDS, when it condemns contraception and yet pretends to speak for the wretched of the Earth, its doctrines are no longer the exclusive concerns of the church. They're public policy, and they're fair game for public criticism. The same can be said of America's religious right, whose political machinations under the guise of religious exemptions has made it the de-facto third party of American politics. And still the doctrines and policies of evangelicals, which have the whiff of those Muslim madrassas where extremism is taught and bred, keep coasting stealthily along, unexamined and unopposed.
A fundamentalist is pope, a fundamentalist is president and a fundamentalist is about to become chief justice in a world supposedly in a life-and-death struggle with Muslim fundamentalists. Call it what you will -- coincidence, divine intervention -- but earthly powers point in a more disheartening direction. It is a consequence of liberalism's failure to question and oppose, as it once so powerfully did, the illiberal institutions and agendas controlling people's fate. In that sense, the media have been as liberal as ever for exemplifying the philosophy of "whatever": Don't ask, don't question, don't bother.
In vacuums like these, it's a fundamentalist's Eden.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
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