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War for Men's Minds

An Open Letter to Chris Matthew Sciabarra
by George W. Cordero


Dr. Sciabarra,

A common tendency among Objectivists is to present current events in the same highly pessimistic, and at times apocalyptic, terms as the extreme Left and extreme Right do. This particular article by you, 'Caught up in the Rapture', is yet another example of deriving conclusions from sweeping generalities or singular cultural ‘blips’ whose importance and influence are vastly overblown.

Dr. Sciabarra begins his article using a 'Rapture' analogy derived from a television show. In that episode, a Christian fundamentalist is killed as a result of her naďve belief in the more apocalyptic interpretations of the Bible. From this Dr. Sciabarra tells us that, "I couldn’t help but feel as if I were watching an allegory about an America whose time has come, an America that is so caught up in the rapture of religion that it is headed for the same fatal impact."

It is an interesting allegory indeed. But is there any direct evidence of such a thing? And more importantly, do those whose mental process mirror the fictional character of that TV episode represent any significant number of Americans, or are they a miniscule minority of highly vocal people? I submit that it is the latter that is far more probable. While there have been isolated cases of Americans acting on their apocalyptic beliefs, for the most part these incidents are far and few in-between, and from a historical point of view the number has never been lower.

The evidence indicates a nation that has become increasingly secular in every aspect, including within its religious practices. From the Salem Witch trials to alcohol prohibition – from Prohibition to Roe vs. Wade – from Roe vs. Wade to the debate on stem cell research – and now, from stem cell research to the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, one can see a steady decline in the more ‘fundamentalist’ extremist debates towards an ever increasing trivialization of religious extremism. Today, religious extremist are almost wholly confined to battles over specifics or peripheral issues – having long ago lost the battle of fundamental principles.

Even the abortion issue, a staple of Christian fundamentalism, is no longer in the forefront – at least not in the same manner as before. Culturally speaking, the position of the anti-abortion advocates today is hugely watered down from just 20 years ago. Although the issue is presented in either-or terms (legalized abortion-on-demand at any point in pregnancy, or the banning of abortion at all times and without exception), the majority of Americans who once counted themselves among the ‘total banning’ group are insignificant in number. Today, unlike a mere 20 years ago, the majority of anti-abortion advocates have a slew of caveats for when an abortion should be legal. Many have moved to, ‘only during the first trimester, or if she’s raped, or if her life is endangered’ as the basis of their argument. The recent debate over partial-birth abortion is not indicative of the triumph of religious fundamentalism; on the contrary, it is indicative of how peripheral and narrow the extremist arguments have become - needing to appeal to the psychological impact the image of a 9-month fetus being ripped apart in order to be taken seriously even to a small degree. This is quite a step down from no abortion beginning from the moment of conception!

The extreme left that dominates the mass media never tires of presenting America an endless series of highly dramatized examples of the evil and growing influence of Christian fundamentalism. The left's antipathy for Christianity has no limits. Self-described Christian Americans are derided by the left because of their unwillingness to adopt or submit to the extreme left's agenda of so-called ‘progressive’ reforms. I point this out to remind the reader that in all questions concerning religion, the media will present you with a ‘sky is falling’ portrayal. The left needs its bogeymen as much as the right does – you can’t push socialism down the throats of Americans without giving them their scapegoat to fear and hate. The media's primary means of vilifying Christian Americans is: exaggeration. Many academic intellectuals use the same weapon as well.

Later in his article Dr. Sciabarra arrives at the conclusion that the recent demise of Christian Conservatism is not that its appeal and power have dwindled, but rather that they have now become ‘mainstream’ and incorporated into the Republican party's orthodoxy, and into ‘pop culture’ itself. I suppose that could be one explanation – on the other hand, perhaps its demise is just that – a demise! Perhaps the arguments made by Jerry Farwell or Pat Robertson no longer resonate in enough Americans as to give them their former influence. Apply ‘Occam's Razor’ to these 2 possibilities and which one do you think is more probable?

As evidence, Dr. Sciabarra points to the upsurge in ‘Christian Rock’, "Christian-themed books’, and the recent motion picture, ‘The Passion of Christ’. If this is the evidence, then the case will never make it past the first hearing. If ever there was evidence of the continued secularization of modern Christianity, it's Christian Rock! Imagine such a thing a mere 30 years ago – no way! A longhaired Goth dressed from head to toe in black, and wearing 2 pounds of makeup while carrying a Bible - this may just be the deathblow to Christian fundamentalism! The popularity of fictionalized accounts of biblical themes is yet another example of how Americans are taking their religion with an ever-increasing ‘grain of salt’ – Americans have now begun to mix their fiction hobby reading with their supposedly non-fiction biblical beliefs! As to the 'Passion of the Christ', I can only say – "so what?!" - a blip on the radar screen, a talking point for television talk shows, an excuse for the newspaper editorial pages to waste 50,000 words on the inconsequential. Where are the massive film projects for more ‘Passions’? Is a revised ‘10 Commandments’ in the works at MGM? Is there any evidence of a sudden surge in the widespread demand, production, or popularity of Middle-Ages-based biblical movies? Culturally speaking, Americans have never before secularized and commercialized their religious beliefs as they have now. All around you lies the evidence of the American Enlightenment – our Dark Ages are behind us.

So does this mean that the nation is suddenly an Objectivist utopia? Of course not. Just as in the time of St Thomas Aquinas, religion in America is in the process of re-defining itself along a more rational and secular fashion. This does not imply the end of Christianity as the dominant ideological influence on Americans. What it does imply is a far more benevolent result from that influence. Ask yourself, exactly what are the political positions of the average Christian Conservative today regarding race, abortion, homosexuality, drugs, censorship, porn, etc. ... and what were those positions in 1930, or 1950, or even 1970? No, America is not about to embrace atheism, but even if it could – should it? I am an atheist and reject mysticism in every manner for a specific set of reasons that are based on Objectivist philosophy. But, is that the case for the majority of atheists? Unfortunately, throughout the world the majority of those persons who identify themselves as atheist are persons who strongly espouse socialism, communism or hedonism. So what’s my point? The point is that the alternative for America at this particular moment in history is not between Objectivist atheism or mysticism – but between socialistic/hedonistic atheism (or agnosticism) or secularized mix-premised Christianity.

From here Dr. Sciabarra goes on to correlate the recent policies of the Republican Party under George Bush and his assertion of a religious revival in Republican ideology. His 3 talking points are: the proposed ban on gay marriage, the increase in budget deficits for expanded social programs, and the nation-building in Iraq. He asserts that on all 3 points he can see evidence of a religious messianic trend in American politics. My reply: Nonsense!

Gay marriage is among his weakest arguments. 100 years ago many homosexuals were imprisoned or sent to insane asylums. 50 years ago every state in the union had laws on the books against various homosexual practices. 30 years ago the concept of ‘civil unions’ for homosexuals would have met with derision. We have now reached a stage in America's development where the argument against homosexuality is not whether it should be a crime (the majority of Americans reject this), not whether these persons are perverts (the majority of Americans reject this), and not whether they should be banned from adoption, military service, political office, and in some cases even high positions within the church itself! The argument is now whether this group should be granted the title of ‘married’ from a legal standpoint, while still retaining ALL of the fundamental rights of people who are married. Does Dr. Sciabarra realize the enormous leap that has taken place here? Is he aware that to even couch this argument is these terms is an implicit recognition that homosexuals should have the same inalienable rights as all other Americans?

Now, of course the gay marriage amendment is wrong and biased, and we should fight it and proclaim it as a blasphemy to the spirit of our constitution. But the gay marriage amendment is a peripheral attack on homosexuality by a group of people who no longer are capable of launching a frontal attack against the very concept of homosexuality itself. The Republican Party, by accepting the idea of civil unions, has moved to a position that is a leap forward in safeguarding the individual rights of homosexuals, and a tacit admission that the extremist homophobes have lost the battle of ideas.

Dr. Sciabarra’s position on the nation-building in Iraq is somewhat stronger but still leaves much to be desired. He postulates a messianic president, influenced by messianic neo-cons, in pursuit of a religious social agenda. His evidence: Bush’s references to God's impact in his personal life and his framing of the Iraq war in terms of – building a democracy. First of all, Bush's becoming a Methodist is not the equivalent of joining a radical Christian cult led by Jim Jones or David Koresh – yet Mr. Sciabarra implies this in his comments by making it take on the dimensions of some major event.

Actually among the Christian denominations, Methodist are very mild, far from being among the most ‘charismatic’ and dogmatic – this title belongs to the Pentecostals and Baptists. As to his comments that Bush references God and the Almighty, I dare say that if I were to go back and catalogue such references from past presidents in time of war – then my conclusion using Mr. Sciabarra’s logic – is that every American President during wartime has been a religious fanatic bent on a messianic crusade. Dr. Sciabarra’s arguments of a Bush/neo-con religious ‘crusade’ are gross exaggerations and belied by the relatively meek response America has had to being attacked by Islamic extremists. As to the nation-building in Iraq as proof – well, I suppose that could be one explanation; on the other hand, perhaps after failing to find the WMDs and seeing that there would be no support for an expansion of the war into Syria, Mr. Bush needed a new reason and settled on the altruistic-sounding Wilsonian model in order to try and disarm the left's attack on him by appealing to their own altruistic claptrap. Apply Occam's Razor again – which is more probable: a pragmatic Bush administration muddling along its war, or a messianic Conservative Crusade supported by the millions of former Moral Majority members who now dominate the Republican Party?

Dr. Sciabarra’s last argument is a socio-economic one – on this one he once again exaggerates. Pointing to the expanse of the social programs (prescription drugs), while ignoring the tax cuts, pointing to ‘faith-based initiatives’ while ignoring the rejections of the Kyoto Protocol that would throttle industry, pointing towards Bush’s politically correct ‘compassionate conservatism’ with its handouts to social programs abroad, while ignoring the fact the Republicans do such things strictly for image reasons (the Democrats would spend 10 times the money if they could).

The economic policies of Republicans are ones that I dislike – they are the policies of the ‘mixed economy’ with a slight emphasis on capitalism (the Democrats are identical, with a slight emphasis on socialism). However, the recent policies of this administration are perfectly in line with traditional Republican economic policy since Richard Nixon, a mix of apologetic capitalism and populist social engineering. That said, the sky is not falling – there is no more ‘activism’ in Bush’s economics than Clinton's or Reagan's.

In conclusion, Dr. Sciabarra states, "It will take nothing less than an intellectual and cultural revolution to rediscover — and implement— these sacred political principles that stand at the core of the distinctly American imagination."

Yes sir, it is a distinctly American imagination! An imagination that has produced the wonders that you see all around you, an imagination that is grounded in reason, benevolence, and individual freedom. Ours is not a time of rediscovery, for this nation has not yet lost its founding principles. The birth of this nation in 1776 in the midst of a world engaged in colonialism, primitivism, and the tyranny of monarchies was the greatest event in history – the culmination of the Enlightenment's highest ideals. In the 230 years of this nation's history, our founding principles have been tested many times, for these principles were way ahead of their times, and so the nation would suffer the growing pains of learning to fit into these ideals.

I am no ‘Pollyanna’, Sir, I am not asserting the never- ending predetermined progress of humanity or of this nation; trust me, I understand the pitfalls, and the dangers that our great nation faces. Progress and Freedom are no given – they must be earned and fought for, otherwise they will be lost. However, when I look around me and see the wonders this nation has achieved in just the last 20 years, the leaps in science, industry, and the world-wide spread of the American ideal – you must excuse me, Sir, for concluding that we are not at the dawn of our eclipse, nor in the midst of any dark age from which we must awaken or ‘rediscover’ our lost principles.

On the contrary, what I see around us is the beginning of the fulfillment of this nation's great promise, the 3rd round of a boxing match we began in 1776, and by any objective analysis, we are way ahead on the scorecard. America is 4 years into the 21st century, and she has never stood taller than she does now; she has never before been a greater beacon of truth, freedom, and reason than she is now. If the day comes that a historian will write a history of this nation titled The Rise and Fall of the American Nation, our century will only be Chapter 3.

And if each century were to be named after the individual who had the greatest impact, then the title of this chapter will read: 'Chapter 3, the Century of Ayn Rand.'

Sincerely,

George W. Cordero



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