Monkey Business

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The topic for my column this week is religious conservatives. There are a few reasons for this. The 80th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey trial is approaching, for one. For another, the city of Dover, Pennsylvania, has just approved the teaching of "intelligent design"the latest semantic end-around for use in questioning Darwinism. But the real reason to talk about religious conservatives is because the last few months have been something of a coming-out party for them as a mainstream political force.

Beginning with the Terri Schiavo affair, and continuing most pointedly with the latest fight against the filibuster, what we have seen lately is something new: the congressional leaders of the ruling political party (Tom Delay, Bill Frist) signing on with the more extreme representatives of the evangelical movement to push highly dubious and eccentric political objectives. The presence of such people as James Dobson and Al Mohler side by side with leading congressional Republicans has even led some respected political commentators to wonder aloud if a schism is developing within the Republican party, if the fiscal conservatives who have long been stomped on in the Bush years are finally going to start wondering what payoff they're getting for their political support. Even Andrew Sullivan, that foul whore of right-wing commentary, admitted as much recently in the New Republic. "Conservatism isn't over," he wrote. "But it has rarely been as confused."

All of this talk has led to false hope among progressives, who think they see an opening in the Republicans' apparent strategic error in backing fundamentalist causes. The decision by Tom Delay to jump in bed with the snake-handlers in the Terri Schiavo casewhen polls showed that even a majority of evangelicals opposed himseemed to indicate a rare suspension of electoral judgment by his party. There is a feeling among the pointy-headed secular set that the evangelicals are a doomed anachronism who will die out with increased exposure to the open air, and that hitching a political wagon to their causes must result in failure.

This idea was put most explicitly by Tom Junod in Esquire a few months back, when he wrote: "Whether the issue is Internet porn or stem-cell research, what conservatives are up against is not Blue-State America, or liberal America, or secular America, or decadent America, or enlightened America. It's not even, as some have suggested, the Enlightenment itself. It's technology, and it's time."

This is a common belief among the overeducated east coast set. It is also exactly what H.L. Mencken believed 80 years ago, when he filed what he thought was the obituary of American yahoo-ism from Dayton, Tennessee. He concluded from the Scopes trial: "On the one side was bigotry, ignorance, hatred, superstition, every sort of blackness that the human mind is capable of. And on the other side was sense. And sense achieved a great victory."

Little did Mencken know that 80 years after Dayton, the supporters of William Jennings Bryan's point of view would still outnumber the supporters of Clarence Darrow's opinion by a ratio of about five to one; not just in Tennessee, but in the country at large. Polls on the issue have been remarkably consistent for decades. A New York Times survey last year showed that 55 percent of Americans believed that "God created us in our present form," while only 13 percent believed that "we evolved from less-advanced life-forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process." A similar Gallup poll in 1997 placed those numbers at 44-10; in 1991, the numbers were 47-9.

Progressives in this country have always maintained a kind of fuzzy belief that fundamentalists will eventually just disappear, as if by magic, that the phenomenon of grown men and women believing in devils and witches and angels will inevitably be outgrown, the way children outgrow Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Marx. When some pastor in rural Alabama takes the pulpit to denounce SpongeBob Squarepants as the agent of the Evil One, we figure no response is really necessaryfolks will figure out the joke on their own, somewhere down the line.

Because of this, nothing like an organized resistance to this buffoonery has ever taken root in America. Though fundamentalists themselves imagine their secular opponents as a great and unified conspiracy, in truth the only weapons trained on Christians in this country are the occasional lawsuit by the ACLU (a group which normally opposes not religion itself, as I would prefer, but some ostensibly unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the public sphere) and the sarcastic barbs of ineffectual heathen media figures like Maureen Dowd and Jon Stewart.

Our pornographic pop culture, seen by religious conservatives as a coordinated, premeditated military offensive against Christian values, is as indifferent to Christianity as it is to environmentalism. It is not a true opponent of fundamentalist Christianity, because it doesn't give a shit about fundamentalist Christianityor about anything else for that matter, except ratings and sales.

What organized political resistance fundamentalists do encounter comes in the form of groups that oppose their political objectives, not Christianity itself. Even pro-choice groups like NARAL, which come into direct and often violent contact with Christians, restrict themselves to agitation for abortion rights, and leave the issue of their opponents' religion alone. In general, there is almost no public figure, anywhere, who has ever suggested publicly that fundamentalist Christianity, as a thing-in-itself, should be opposed. The strongest suggestion most critics will make is to say that it should be contained, and indeed that seems to be the best-case strategy of progressives: that the God-fearing set can be boxed in, kept from being a nuisance and from meddling in areas where they don't belong, just long enough for them to eventually die out of natural causes.

This is a mistake, and it is the same mistake people have made for centuries: underestimating the American zeal for superstition, for boobism, for living the intellectual lives of farm animals. A large statistical majority of Americans would rather live their whole lives in perpetual fear of the devil than listen to ten minutes of common sense. When you consider where these people live intellectually, the idea that the Democratic Party can somehow succeed in Middle America by making small tactical changes, by waving a few more flags, seems absurd. You either believe in the devil or you don't; and if you don't, you're never going to fool these people. The Republicans, for all their seeming "confusion," understand this now better than ever. Their seemingly open attempts in recent months to radicalize and embolden their evangelical base may have had a temporary desultory effect with regard to their poll numbers.

But this current crew of Republican strategists has always understood American thinking better than the Tom Junods of the world. They know that most political trends are fleeting. Liberalism vanished at the first sign of trouble; pacifism disappeared one generation after Vietnam; even fiscal conservatism is easily forgotten. The one thing that never disappears in this country is stupidity, and if you court it, you'll always have votes down the line. Especially when it lives on unopposed.

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