A Battle Between Worldviews

Several sources have now reported on a speech that MAGA House speaker, Mike Johnson, recently gave at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., at an event for the National Association of Christian Lawmakers. Although the address was being livestreamed, Johnson seemingly believed he was speaking privately when he told the audience that “the Lord had called him to be a new Moses.”

The Lord! (Can we say “self-important”?)

Johnson then said something with which I do agree. He told the audience that the U.S. is “engaged in a battle between world-views” and “a great struggle for the future of the Republic.”

Johnson clearly believes that far-right Christians will prevail–a belief that the history of culture change fortunately doesn’t support, and that I don’t share. The conflict between world-views that Johnson referenced is not new. It formed the organizing thesis of my 2007 book, God and Country: America in Red and Blue. (Still available at Amazon…)

When I was researching that book, I came across a legal historian’s very useful description of the two different groups that created the United States–the  “Planting Fathers” and the “Founding Fathers.” The Planters were the Puritans. They came to the New World for “religious liberty,” which they defined as freedom to worship the right God in the right church and to establish a government that would require their neighbors to do likewise. One hundred and fifty years later, those we call the Founders–the men who drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights– defined liberty very differently. For them, liberty was the right to form and follow one’s own beliefs, free of government interference.

What had intervened between the two sets of founders– what had caused a significant  change in Americans’ then-predominant world-views– was the Enlightenment. And therein lies the problem we still face today, because this country is still home to a significant number of Puritans.

Our Puritans are a minority, but they are a fervent and activist minority. America’s legal framework is based on the Enlightenment understanding of liberty and the proper role of government,  but America is still grappling with the intransigence of the Puritans who reject that understanding– along with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, evidence and empiricism. The Speaker of the House is rather clearly one of them.

America’s increasingly acrimonious culture war is being waged between our contemporary Puritans, on the one hand, and the rest of us– secularists and adherents of  non-fundamentalist religions– on the other. In the abstract, it raises some important and too often neglected questions: what good is religion? do modern societies still need it? what separates “good” religions from harmful ones? what’s the difference between a religion and a cult? between religion and philosophy?

The problem is, we don’t have the luxury of considering and debating those questions in the abstract.

We really are engaged in a battle between totally inconsistent intellectual paradigms. America’s two political parties have sorted themselves into tribes with contending and incommensurate world-views. Today’s GOP has for all intents and purposes become a cult,  fixated upon imposing fundamentalist religious precepts (and its disdain for nonWhites and nonChristians) on the rest of the country, and discarding inconvenient impediments like Separation of Church and State. The Democratic Party is far less cohesive, but despite deep disagreements on a wide array of issues, virtually all Democrats have accepted secular modernity and rejected Puritanism and theocracy.

Talk about “alternative realities”! 

Of course, not every Republican is a Puritan. But every single vote cast for a Republican candidate is a vote for a Puritan world-view that has been publicly and fervently embraced by Republicans like Michael Johnson and Jim Banks.

It really is not an overstatement to say that the 2024 election will be pivotable. That election will tell us whether Johnson is right in believing that, at least in the short term, Puritans will prevail–or whether my faith in the essential common sense and good-will of the American public will be vindicated. 

The assertion that we are engaged in a battle of world-views may be the only thing on which Johnson and I agree.



In a comment a couple of days ago, Sharon referenced a truly appalling situation in Floyd County, Indiana. She’d received a request for a donation from the Indiana Sheriff’s Association. The newsletter accompanying the request profiled a program instituted by the sheriff of Floyd County: Residents Encountering Christ. The newsletter described a 3 day retreat, reporting that Sheriff Bush “went in and talked to inmates, sharing his faith and encouraging them in theirs. In all, 41 inmates were baptized during this event. Local news media took note of the program’s success.”

As Sharon wrote, “I’m not sure which I find more appalling, that a law enforcement officer uses his position of power to proselytize to inmates or that local ‘journalists’ consider baptisms achieved under these conditions to be  ‘a success.'”

I am equally appalled.

Law enforcement officers assume an obligation to abide by the Constitution. There is a very lengthy string of  legal precedents confirming the lawlessness–and cluelessness– of Sheriff Bush’s behavior. 

That cluelessness extended to the news coverage.According to the local News and Tribune (paywall),

On July 24th, 41 Inmates at the Floyd County Jail that volunteered to take part in Residents Encounter Christ (REC) were baptized. What a powerful moment to witness! 

One has to be truly naive–or blissfully unaware of the reality of power relationships–to believe that inmates “volunteered.” (As numerous women can attest, when someone with authority to make your life miserable “requests” some “accommodation,” it’s hard to refuse.) 

There is absolutely no legal argument supporting Sheriff Bush’s appalling conduct. Numerous Supreme Court opinions have echoed Justice Black’s words in Engel v. Vitale:

The constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.

That case considered the constitutionality of a rule promulgated by the New York State Board of Regents, authorizing public schools to hold a short, “voluntary” prayer at the beginning of each school day. The Court held that state laws permitting prayer “must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs.”

It is true–and very troubling–that the current Supreme Court has eroded previous First Amendment jurisprudence. But even those regrettable decisions don’t come close to making Sheriff Bush’s activities permissible. Perhaps someone should share these paragraphs from Justice Black’s decision with the Sheriff.

By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services. They knew the anguish, hardship and bitter strife that could come when zealous religious groups struggled with one another to obtain the Government’s stamp of approval from each King, Queen, or Protector that came to temporary power.

The Constitution was intended to avert a part of this danger by leaving the government of this country in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of any monarch. But this safeguard was not enough. Our Founders were no more willing to let the content of their prayers and their privilege of praying whenever they pleased be influenced by the ballot box than they were to let these vital matters of personal conscience depend upon the succession of monarchs. The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say – that the people’s religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office. Under that Amendment’s prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.

Sponsorship of religious activity by a government official is unconstitutional.

Floyd County has a Sheriff who is either ignorant of the Constitution or willing to ignore it. In either case, he’s unfit for public office.


Don’t Know Much About History…

Before my stint as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I had never heard of David Barton. When that job required me to engage in discussions with people who refused to believe in the separation of Church and State, however, he was frequently quoted.

Barton–a total fraud–was frequently touted in these debates, cited as a “respected Christian historian,” and it was unsurprising that  the folks making those assertions  dismissed the debunking protestations of a female ACLU lawyer (Jewish, to boot!). 

That background may explain why I immediately clicked through to read a Politico article titled “The Bogus Historians Who Teach Evangelicals They Live in a Theocracy.” Here’s what the author–himself a devout Evangelical–had to say about Barton:

The people packed into FloodGate Church in Brighton, Mich., weren’t here for Bill Bolin, the right-wing zealot pastor who’d grown his congregation tenfold by preaching conspiracy-fueled sermons since the onset of Covid-19, turning Sunday morning worship services into amateur Fox News segments. No, they had come out by the hundreds, decked out in patriotic attire this October evening in 2021, to hear from a man who was introduced to them as “America’s greatest living historian.” They had come for David Barton. And so had I.

It would be of little use to tell the folks around me — the people of my conservative hometown — that Barton wasn’t a real historian. They wouldn’t care that his lone academic credential was a bachelor’s degree in religious education from Oral Roberts University. It wouldn’t matter that Barton’s 2012 book on Thomas Jefferson was recalled by Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest Christian publisher, for its countless inaccuracies, or that a panel of 10 conservative Christian academics who reviewed Barton’s body of work in the aftermath ripped the entirety of his scholarship to shreds. It would not bother the congregants of FloodGate Church to learn that they were listening to a man whose work was found by one of America’s foremost conservative theologians to include “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.”
All this would be irrelevant to the people around me because David Barton was one of them. He believed the separation of church and state was a myth. He believed the time had come for evangelicals to reclaim their rightful place atop the nation’s governmental and cultural institutions. Hence the hero’s welcome Barton received when he rolled into FloodGate with his “American Restoration Tour.”

Throughout his decades of public life — working for the Republican Party, becoming a darling of Fox News, advising politicians such as new House Speaker Mike Johnson, launching a small propaganda empire, carving out a niche as the American right’s chosen peddler of nostalgic alternative facts — Barton had never been shy about his ultimate aims. He is an avowed Christian nationalist who favors theocratic rule; moreover, he is a so-called Dominionist, someone who believes Christians should control not only the government but also the media, the education system, and other cultural institutions. Barton and his ilk are invested less in advancing individual policies than they are in reconceiving our system of self-government in its totality, claiming a historical mandate to rule society with biblical dogma just as the founders supposedly intended.

The author went on to describe the speech Barton delivered, which he described as “exalting a curious version of the Christian ideal.” Evidently gun restrictions are un-Christian. So too are progressive income taxes, government health care and public education. During his denunciation of critical race theory, he shared a slide showing logos for The New York Times’s 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter framed around a Soviet hammer and sickle.

There was much more…

What the deeply religious author described is part and parcel of a phenomenon that has become increasingly obvious over the past several years: the transformation of Evangelical Christianity from a religion into a political ideology. In this essay and in his new book,”The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism,” he documents what he calls the “deterioration of American Christianity.”

The Politico article is quite lengthy. And terrifying. I strongly encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety. It illustrates the politicization of the churches the author witnessed firsthand in his research for the book–research that took him to “half-empty sanctuaries and standing-room-only auditoriums” and included shadowing big-city televangelists and small-town preachers. He says he reported from inside hundreds of churches, Christian colleges, religious advocacy organizations, denominational nonprofits, and assorted independent ministries.

Among the other things his chilling descriptions illuminated was the importance of  teaching accurate history–and the motives of the Christian Nationalists who are attacking the public schools that teach that history.


Twenty-First Century Puritans

Being out on the ocean prompts reflection… 

When I taught Law and Public Policy, I approached the material through a constitutional lens, because I was–and remain–convinced that a basic understanding of American history and the philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for anyone hoping to understand today’s politics.

The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way people today understand and define human rights and individual liberty.

We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty.

Puritans saw liberty pretty much the same way current politicians like Mike Pence and Mike Johnson do– as “freedom to do the right thing” as they definied it. That meant their own freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and it included their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors did likewise.

The Founders who crafted the American constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.

America’s constitutional system is based on the Enlightenment concept of liberty, not the Puritan version. It’s an approach we sometimes call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government (nor necessarily “God given” either). Most of them–especially the Deists– believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.

That philosophical construct is why–contrary to popular belief–the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human, and it protects them against infringement by an overzealous government. As I used to tell my students, the American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions.

Most Americans today live in a post-Enlightenment culture. We accept and value science. We understand liberty to mean our right to live our lives free of government control so long as we are not harming others, and so long as we respect the right of other people to do likewise. But there is a persistent minority that has never accepted an Enlightenment worldview, and that minority currently controls the Republican Party. These contemporary Puritans–who, along with their other religious convictions tend to see Black people and non-Christians as unworthy subordinates– use the word “freedom” in the older, Puritan sense of “freedom to do the right thing” as their reading of their holy book defines “the right thing.” They also  believe it is government’s job to make other citizens do the “right thing” –to impose their version of “Godliness” on the rest of us.

These contemporary Puritans are throwbacks to the early American settlers who defined “liberty” as the imposition of the correct religion on their neighbors. The Enlightenment construct of “live and let live”–the notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish, the right to follow our own set of moral imperatives (again, so long as we are not harming the person or property of someone else) was utterly foreign to those original Puritans, and it is evidently equally inconceivable to their philosophical descendants.

(Interestingly, these throwbacks to Puritanism never seem to doubt that they know precisely what God wants–that, as a friend once put it, God hates the same people they do. But that’s a phenomenon for a different post.)

If you had told me ten years ago that American government would once again be under the thumb of Puritans, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are–with a Speaker of the House of Representatives who is a full-blown Puritan throwback and a Republican Party that has rejected the Enlightenment.

When I have computer problems, I reboot. That usually returns my laptop to working order. Can we reboot America?


Clarifying The Stakes

I have often remarked upon the dramatic changes during my lifetime in what people consider “conservative.” I’ve speculated about the causes, pointed to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the contemporary GOP, and speculated that the current “conservative” movement (note quotation marks) is basically an intellectually incoherent expression of MAGA’s underlying fear and racism.

The fear and racism are certainly there, but recently I came across an essay in Persuasion that described an all-too-coherent philosophy underlying the current assault on the American Idea. 

Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of contemporary American conservatism. The more familiar—traditional conservatism—holds that the founding principles and institutions of the American polity remain sound but have been distorted by waves of progressive activism that have eroded our commitment to individual liberty and limited government. The task is to preserve these fundamentals while restoring their original meaning and function. 

The second kind of conservatism claims that America was flawed from the start. The focus on individual rights comes at the expense of community and the common good, and the claim that government exists to preserve individual liberty creates an inexorable move toward moral anarchy. These tendencies have moved us so far from traditional decency and public order that there is little of worth left to “conserve.” Our current situation represents a revolution against the forces—religion, strong families, local moral communities—that once limited the worst implications of our founding mistakes. The only remedy for this revolution is a counter-revolution. Instead of limited government, we need strong government capable of promoting the common good and defending moral common sense against the threat posed by unelected elites.

This proposed counter-revolution has little to do with conservatism as traditionally understood. It seeks not to limit the flaws in our founding principles but to replace them. Specifically, it is a revolt against liberalism, the political theory rooted in the Enlightenment that inspired the Declaration of Independence. This New Right is unabashedly anti-liberal, at the level of philosophical principle as well as political practice.

The essay distinguishes between different kinds of anti-liberalism. Fascism, for example, finds legitimacy in the “culture and spirit of a specific people.”  Then there is what the essay calls integralism, defined as a distinctive form of religious anti-liberalism that originated within Catholicism.

It arose many centuries before the emergence of liberalism, as a justification for the integration of Catholicism and political power that began under the Roman emperor Constantine and was completed in 380 by emperor Theodosius I, who embraced Christianity not only as his personal religion but also as the religion of his realm. At the end of the next century, Pope Gelasius I formalized the Catholic understanding in his famous distinction between priestly and royal authority. In matters concerning religious practice and ultimate salvation, Gelasius argued, political authorities are required to submit to the authority of the Church. 

The essay proceeds to outline the history of this melding of church with state, and its eventual decline, thanks to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. While MAGA voters are highly unlikely to have heard of integralism, its resurgence among intellectuals on the Right is clearly influencing and shaping our current culture war. “Integralism” is at the root of current attacks on the very basis of the Enlightenment liberalism that undergirds America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Liberal philosophy distinguishes between public and private, and prohibits government from invading the zone of personal autonomy. Liberals may argue about where the line between public and private should be drawn, but they agree that the distinction exists and–more importantly– that it is morally fundamental.

Integralists “reject freedom of religion, and they are prepared to use government power in the name of public morality to control what liberals consider private and individual decisions.” They reject the goal of a legal or public culture that is neutral– that accommodates different beliefs about morality and/or religion.

That philosphical approach explains a lot.

For Integralists, culture war is the only war: seeing neutrality as a myth, they see the battle as Manichean, a war between advocates of personal autonomy and defenders of (their version of) traditional morality. 

This explains one of the most confusing aspects of Republicans’ U-turn from their former commitment to limited government. These “common good constitutionalists” want a government with the power to impose their version of the good society on everyone.

If political power always shapes culture, as increasing numbers of traditionalists are coming to believe, they will conclude that they must seize and use this power—if necessary, without the limits they have long advocated.

It’s a war between fundamental–and irreconcilable–world-views. One is consistent with American constitutionalism; one is unambiguously not.