At some point since last Novembers elections, a new term --
which appears to have seismic connotations -- has entered the American
political lexicon. I only heard it two weeks ago, from right-wing
propagandist Mary Matalin, on "Meet the Press."
Throughout this session of "Meet the Press," which included Matalin's
Clintonite husband James Carville, Matalin doggedly established the
term "secular Left" as a synonym for "the Democratic Party." At first,
I thought Matalin had just suffered a slip of the tongue. Or maybe she
was just being cute. But, she kept saying "secular Left" -- more often
than "Democrats." Never once did she describe her ideological foes as
either "liberal" or "progressive."
This emergence of "secular Left" as the Right's preferred pejorative
for both Democrats and liberals is remarkable, if only because it
suggests that Republicans and conservatives appear to have absorbed
themselves, willingly, into the narrow faction of the "religious
Right." After all, if everyone west of the political center is now the
"secular Left," then everyone right of center must be the "religious
I hesitated at so radical a corollary, until I considered the source.
Matalin has never been closely linked to the born-again extremists in
her party, such as Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell and Elmer
Gantry. Indeed, she has gone so far as to marry out of her "faith," to
a prominent secular Leftist.
But if Mary Matalin -- among the most secular conservatives -- now sees
America as divided between a secular Left and the religious Right, she
has clearly accepted Christianism as the guiding light of Republicanism.
Now, everyone agrees that Republicans make the rules today in U.S.
politics. Ergo, the Matalin Rule must be this: The U.S. is split
between those who believe, with the secular Left, in separation of
church and state, and those who would repeal this separation in favor
of a far more theocratic state. This churchified state, based on the
tendencies of the religious Right, would be stridently Christian,
evangelical and not very tolerant. The implications for Jews, Muslims,
agnostics, scientists -- to name several non-Christian minorities --
are less than cheery.
Democrats and progressives are sure to insist that the term "secular
Left" just won’t stick, as soon as rank-and-file Americans grasp the
significance of a nation divided between the Bill of Rights and the
Holy Bible. History, after all, tells us that the Puritans, who were
religious refugees, sailed west to found a community built on secular
principles because they had been persecuted by an Anglican theocracy in
England. Although the Puritans themselves faltered in the secular ideal
-- the witch-burning business, for example -- their principles inspired
America's Founding Fathers, among whom were Christians and Jews,
Catholics and Protestants, agnostics and clerics. All were fiercely
true to the idea that no faith can be allowed to dominate a free
people, and that the best defense against theocracy is to ban all
faiths from a role in the government of the United States.
The historical record is clear and incontrovertible. As Casey Stengel
-- another of our Founding Fathers -- said, "You could look it up."
One problem, though. Historical literacy is at an all-time low right
now in the U.S. Not only do most Americans not know the history of
church/state separation, they have no idea where to look it up.
And Casey Stengel is dead.
A bigger problem is that conservatives -- er, the religious Right --
are the undisputed arbiters of political language. Consider, for
instance, the right-wing campaign to discredit the word "liberal." The.
U.S. was founded as a liberal republic, but nowadays, a "liberal" risks
being stoned to death in the public square by admitting to
"liberalism." "Liberal" has become "the L-word," like some four-letter
vulgarity unutterable in front of the children.
Likewise, the great right-wing machine of semantic revision -- with
often unwitting and uncritical assistance from TV news -- has turned a
progressive tax on extreme inherited wealth into a "death tax" that --
mythically -- robs middle-class Americans of their mom-and-pop candy
stores and family farms. Among other pejoratives and euphemisms of the
American vernacular generated by G.O.P. semanticists, each as
misleading as it is universal, are these: "Axis of Evil," "Evil
Empire," "evildoers," "clear skies," "compassionate conservatism,"
"culture of life," "faith-based," "flip-flopper," "free speech zone,"
"homosexual agenda," "judicial activist," "liberal bias," "liberal
media," "ownership society," "partial-birth abortion," "pro-life,"
"racial quotas," "regime change," "shock and awe," "Social Security
crisis," "tort reform," "war of choice," "welfare queen," and, of
course, Swift Boat Veterans for "Truth."
"Civil liberties," a term that embraces such basic American
prerogatives as privacy, consumer rights, freedom of speech, freedom of
the press and, yes, freedom of religion, are seen today as the
purchased privileges of a "liberal elite." This distortion is the
linguistic legacy of the same American right wing that now cubbyholes
its foes as the "secular Left," and seems happy to gather at the river
under the big (revival) tent of the religious Right.
"Secular Left." Yeah, maybe it's just a couple of words. But it's
coming from the people who today, in American politics, get to make up
all the words, and then make everybody else repeat them endlessly, like
"Hallelujah," and "Praise the Lord." And the only opposition is a
tongue-tied cluster of Democrat/ liberal/ progressives whose only
articulate utterance in the political and semantic struggle of the last
decade has been a strangled bleat that sounds a lot like "Uncle!"
Sticks and stones, indeed!
David Benjamin, a novelist and journalist originally from Wisconsin,
now lives in Paris. His latest book is The Life and Times of the Last