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.

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Taking The Country Down With Them

In the run-up to electing a Speaker of the House, Moira Donegan considered the underlying reason for the GOP’s chaos. She wrote that “Republicans have no interest in public service, an ideological hostility to functional government and an insatiable thirst for attention.”

As Donegan also noted, there are few, if any, adults in the GOP’s room.

The “adult in the room” is a person willing to make difficult compromises, a person willing to sacrifice vanity for pragmatism, a person with a clear eye of their own priorities and needs and more determination to achieve them than a desire to make a point.

What the Republicans need, she wrote, is

someone more level-headed and serious, someone willing to accept imperfect compromises and to subvert his own ego for the good of the party, someone who might even possess a quality that passes for dignity.

Evidently, someone who isn’t currently a Republican.

Donegan was writing before the House GOP settled on someone who is emphatically not the adult she described. Instead, the GOP chose a previously-unknown theocrat with a dubious past, a set of extreme rightwing bigotries and a total lack of any leadership experience.

Donegan’s essay was written just after Jordan and Scalise had both failed to grab the brass ring, and she pointed out that these men– both “extremists and election deniers, comfortable with white supremacy and willing to discard democratic principles.”–had “ascended to what counts for leadership in the Republican conference, not in spite of the depravity of their positions, but because of them.”

They are the products of rightwing political, fundraising and media apparatuses that incentivize candidates to move further and further to the right – and which have left the Republican party itself both unable and unwilling to impose discipline on its politicians…

In a project that spanned decades, Republicans and their allies built a vast conservative media infrastructure and developed an impressive skill for shaping and whetting the ideological appetites of their audience, creating a more and more conservative base.

And as we now know, Republicans proceeded to elect extremist and election denier Mike Johnson as Speaker. Johnson was aptly desscribed by Jamelle Bouie as a right-wing fever dream come to life.

Mike Johnson is neither a moderate nor an institutionalist. Just the opposite. A protégé of Jordan’s, he comes, as you have doubtless heard, from the far-right, anti-institutionalist wing of the congressional Republican Party. And while he was not a member of the Freedom Caucus, he did lead the Republican Study Committee, a group devoted to the proposition that any dollar spent on social insurance is a dollar too much….

And what does Johnson believe? He is staunchly against the bodily autonomy of women and transgender people and supports a nationwide ban on abortion and gender-affirming care for trans youth. He is also virulently anti-gay. In a 2003 essay, Johnson defended laws that criminalized homosexual activity between consenting adults. In 2004, he warned that same-sex marriage was a “dark harbinger of chaos and sexual anarchy that could doom even the strongest republic.” Last year, Johnson introduced legislation that has been compared to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, and he continues to push to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.

If Johnson is known for anything, however, it is for his tireless advocacy on behalf of Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

As Bouie accurately notes, Johnson is Jim Jordan in substance but not Jim Jordan in style, which was evidently enough to win him the coveted title. Media, which had previously ignored Johnson, has begun an “after the fact” investigation.

The Guardian, for example, found that Johnson is “a believer in scriptural originalism, the view that the Bible is the truth and the sole legitimate source for public policy.”

Chalk up his elevation to the speakership as the greatest victory so far within Congress for the religious right in its holy war to turn the US government into a theocracy.

Since his fellow Republicans made him their leader, numerous articles have reported Johnson’s religiously motivated, far-right views on abortion, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights. But that barely scratches the surface. Johnson was a senior lawyer for the extremist Alliance Defending Fund (later the Alliance Defending Freedom) from 2002 to 2010. This is the organization responsible for orchestrating the 303 Creative v Elenis legal arguments to obtain a ruling from the supreme court permitting a wedding website designer to refuse to do business with gay couples.

There’s much, much more.

This delusional ideologue is Speaker of the House at a time when the U.S. faces a government shutdown and the global imperatives of two hot wars.

I suppose it could get worse, but I’m not sure how…..

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