Will Wilkinson, who writes for the Economist’s group blog, “Democracy in America”, has been on something of a roll lately. Last week, for example, he had a very interesting take on libertarian populism. But nothing quite prepares you for the brilliance of yesterday’s piece on religion, democracy and the neoconservatives.*
Wilkinson’s foil is veteran conservative pundit George Will, who argued in National Affairs that “citizens concerned for our limited government should be friendly to the cause of American religion, even if they are not believers themselves.” There’s a lot of good and interesting material in Will’s essay, but his central point seems to me completely misguided.
That’s Wilkinson’s view as well, and he’s pretty uncompromising in expressing it; at one point he says Will’s “line of reasoning is stupefying in its ignorance and absurdity.” The experience of many countries, especially in modern Europe, shows that democracy and freedom can manage perfectly well without religion:
The evidence suggests either that greater secularisation is a boon to freedom and happiness, or that it doesn’t matter. There is no good reason to believe that irreligiosity generally leads to a struggle with nihilism, or that it threatens liberal political and economic rights. America is the anomaly. It’s unusual that a country so religious should be nevertheless so free. The data is plain, and it’s shabby of Mr Will to pretend to know something so clearly false.
But Wilkinson’s target is broader than just Will’s own view, because Will is typical of the intellectual chaos among what passes for the more enlightened parts of the American right. Locked into an alliance with unashamed theocrats, know-nothings and white supremacists, the representatives of what was once a vibrant intellectual scene are sounding increasingly desperate.
The change is symbolised by the shift from Irving Kristol, one of the founding neoconservatives cited by Will, to his son Bill Kristol, who rose to fame as (I kid you not) an ideas man for Dan Quayle, and whose Weekly Standard has become a mouthpiece for the most partisan sort of conservatism.
So although Will is properly a conservative rather than a neocon, it’s not unfair for Wilkinson to characterise his argument as “the standard line of the secular neo-conservative intellectual casting about to find some sort of dignified ideological accommodation for his conservative Christian allies.” And the biggest bond between neocons and conservatives in recent times has been their common enthusiasm for military adventure.
Which leads into Wilkinson’s most biting passage – it’s worth quoting in full:
When Irving Kristol’s literal and figurative heirs get hot and bothered about the spectre of nihilism that they imagine haunts America, they clamour for war. Why? So that American kids who might have languished in a half-life of Playstation and internet porn can instead kill foreigners and perhaps gloriously, honourably die themselves—or at least survive the spiritual invigoration of war to enjoy daily the transcendant meaningfulness of prosthetics and brain damage and post-traumatic stress. This sort of thinking is Fascism 101, and Mr Will ought to be ashamed of himself for dabbling in it. It’s almost impossible for normal people to believe that, if not for American neoconservatives unaccountably fretful about the meaninglessness of secular liberal capitalism, many many thousands of dead Americans and Iraqis might be alive today, but it really might be true. In any case, the childish neocon horror of meaninglessness is incalculably more dangerous to human life and peace than godlessness, consumer capitalism, cosmopolitan deracination, or whatever it is one worries will extinguish meaning from life.
I can’t add anything to that. Go read the whole thing.
* Thanks to my friend Andrew Norton for pointing it out.