TCS Daily


Science and the GOP

By James Pinkerton - July 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: this is part of a continuing series on the interplay of religion, science, and politics. Pinkerton last touched on these themes in his June 6 piece.

Are you a "Bright"? If you're reading TCS, it wouldn't be a surprise if you are. "Bright" as a noun, not an adjective, was introduced to Americans in a July 12 op-ed in The New York Times. In this usage, "Bright" means agnostic, or atheist. As op-ed author Daniel Dennett explains, the idea behind Bright is to give non-belief an "image buffing" so that the millions of Americans -- Dennett claims that Brights are, in fact, a "silent majority" -- can gain a stronger place in politics.

And boy, the forces of secularism -- the folks who would like to revive the Enlightenment idea of progress, especially in medicine; the people who would separate church and state and, this time, really keep it separate -- could use a boost right about now. However, it's not so clear so that Bright is the right word to use.

The Bright idea comes from Martin J. Willett, professed atheist and proprietor of www.mwillett.org. In his telling, there's no implied superiority in claiming Bright:

It is a word without a natural opposite. You are either bright or you are not. It is not for us to call the religious dim or dull or straight: they are not straight, not normal, just not bright. You could say that the opposite of bright is religious, but it isn't really a useful thought. Being bright isn't something that needs an opposite, just like Thursday doesn't need an opposite.

Well, OK, but I'm not sure I buy it. His argument that a positive word such as Bright casts no implied darkness on others strikes me as disingenuous; his presumption mirrors the disingenuousness of Christians who display bumper stickers proclaiming, "Christians aren't better. They're just forgiven."

Dennett, by the way, is an important figure in the continuing battles over evolution and the implications of evolutionary science; his many books, including, notably, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, are filled with positive endorsements for libertarian notions of freedom and the libertarian-related notion of free scientific inquiry. Indeed, Dennett's latest book is vividly entitled, Freedom Evolves. And so many TechCentralStationeers might cheer when he writes in his Times piece, "We can be a powerful force in American political life."

Not surprisingly, Dennett's op-ed generated considerable backlash; in Wednesday's Times, no fewer than seven letters appeared, most of them critical. The most pointed letter took Brights/atheists to task for whitewashing the past political impact of Brights: "For most of the 20th century, officially atheistic regimes ruled a large part of the world," wrote John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont, Ca. "I don't think that the prisoners of the gulag saw much that was bright."

Pitney, a well-known political scientist, raises an interesting issue that's more than an historical question; it's central to the future march of science.

But first, a bit of history. For most of the last century, leading conservatives and libertarians were persuaded that they faced a binary choice: on one side was a government based, in part, on religion; on the other side was a government based on collectivist thinking. And so, to pre-empt the Reds, mostly secular conservatives and libertarians sought out alliances with religious leaders, eager to create a common front against socialism and communism.

These new groupings were a worldwide phenomenon. In post-war Europe, for example, the anti-communist coalition was oftentimes an alliance of big business, the various Christian Democratic -- and sometimes also Social Democratic -- parties, plus whatever celebrities, opinion leaders, and publishers could be cobbled together in the days when most intellectuals were solidly on the left. In Japan after 1945, the alliance was built around the mercantilist Liberal Democratic Party. To be sure, sometimes these alliances were more unholy than holy, as in Franco's Spain or any number of incompetent and/or kleptocratic Third World regimes.

To be fair, for much of the 20th century, communism loomed as a significant threat; the stakes were high back then. From the 30s through the 50s, many non-communists believed that communism was nevertheless a better economic system; they opposed communism as a freedom-squelching tyranny, but had no reason not to believe those fake numbers coming out of the Soviet Union. It seemed that Stalinism was Keynesianism on steroids. And so the counter-strategy was to keep the restless proletariat firmly anchored in faith and tradition; if a little God-talk would help keep the workers and peasants on board, fine. Raise up the Cross -- and sometimes also, the Islamic Crescent -- to smite the Hammer & Sickle.

In the US, this coming together of free-market ideology and old-time religion was called "fusionism." George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, published in 1976, ably describes the conjoining of such conservatives as William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk alongside, more or less, Friedrich Hayek and Murray Rothbard. Their preferred political vehicle was the Republican Party, although there was still a huge hawkish wing in the Democratic Party.

Thus did mostly secular economists and anti-communists make common cause with priests, ministers, and rabbis. There were tensions, to be sure; religious-minded populists who grew up on the Social Gospel -- listening to William Jennings Bryan and then Franklin D. Roosevelt denounce "the rule of capital" -- found themselves in the same league with capitalist rulers. And at the same time, the secularists had to accept that their new teammates had agenda items, too; so as part of the intra-alliance wheeling and dealing, conservative religious values penetrated the once-secular public square. The words "under God" were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance by an act of Congress in 1954; in the following year, "In God We Trust" became mandatory on all coins. Finally, in 1956, Congress completed its religious mission by making "In God We Trust" the national motto.

And it worked. Communism was the God that Failed.

In America, the alliance between capitalists and moralists, hammered out in the late 40s, continues down to this day. But instead of being a bipartisan phenomenon, as it was in the days when, say, Strom Thurmond was a Democrat, today it is almost entirely a Republican matter.

Ironically, even as communism was waning, the conservative fusion in the GOP was getting stronger, for reasons that had little to do with foreign policy.

The hinge was 1973. That was the year of the Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion. The Republican Party, hungry for votes after Watergate, made an alliance with the energized anti-abortion "Religious Right." The deal was that conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants, mostly from South, would abandon their ancestral Democratic Party. So a huge trading of places took place: cultural conservatives flooded into the GOP, while many old line Republicans, many of them culturally laissez-faire -- including, no doubt, quite a few quiet Brights -- fled out of the GOP. When the shifting was done, the Republicans had become the right-to-life Party and, more broadly, the "traditional family values" party.

For their part, the Democrats continued in the lifestylish direction they were heading in anyway, toward being the pro-choice party of toleration and secularism. As Bill Clinton said to a multicultural audience at the 1992 convention, "If the Republicans don't want you in their party, come and join ours."

The Democrats won that election, but as political analyst Michael Barone has observed, in the "battle between the churched and the non-churched," the church party has the overall edge. In fact, since the Religious Right cemented its alliance with the GOP in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was nominated, the Republicans have won four of the last six presidential elections; moreover, they have controlled the Senate for most of the last 23 years, and the House for much of that period. Or to put it another way, the party that represents more non-Brights has bested the party that represents more Brights.

So what's not to like? The issue is that the issues have changed. Today, there's no reason to fear a return to the threat of gulags; atheism may still be around, but atheistic communism is on the ash heap of history. In fact, the greatest overseas threat that Americans face might well be Islamic fundamentalism. In other words the same Muslims who were sometimes on our side -- including Osama Bin Laden, Afghan "freedom fighter" in the 80s -- are now, some of them, our worst enemies. All of which goes to show that the freedom-loving forces of progress and science may be in temporary alliance with backward-looking forces, but it's unlikely that such an alliance could or should be permanent.

Yet in America, 14 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the anti-communist alliance of capitalists and moralists still exists. There's nothing wrong with that per se. However, as with any dynamic process, feedback occurs in unexpected ways. And so the Religious Right's large presence within the conservative coalition has shifted the Republican Party's position on the issue that is arguably the mega-issue of the 21st century: biotech. And on that issue, the essentially reactionary nature of the Religious Right becomes a hindrance, not a help. That is, the same traditionalism that inspired conservative Catholics and Protestants to oppose communistic experimentation now inspires them to oppose scientific experimentation. To be sure, humane balance is needed between Mary Baker Eddy and Dr. Frankenstein. But right now, the Religious Right isn't interested in balancing medical progress and bioethics; instead, conservatives aim to stymie medical progress in the name of Biblical ethics. Thus the paradox: the Religious Rightists who bulked up the anti-communist movement, who helped the Republican Party achieve majority status, have now become the major obstacle to saving and improving lives. And that's not only bad for America, that's bad politics for the GOP.

And the key issue in biotech today is stem-cell research. Even a cursory glance at headlines -- "Muscular Dystrophy Might Be Treatable: Stem-cell research yields hopeful signs" (Newsday, July 15); "Stem cells enable paralysed rats to walk" (New Scientist, July 3) -- shows how vital stem-cell research is to the hopes of millions, even billions. So it is no surprise that the New England Journal of Medicine has fired an editorial salvo; the editors all pledge to "do our part" to promote stem cell research.

Yet for the most part, conservative Christians oppose this research; they have been seeking to ban it for years now. By contrast, Brights, given their greater scientific orientation, are much more inclined to support such research. Meanwhile, born-again President Bush is an ally of the anti-stem-cellers; he has done what he can to restrict such research by administrative fiat, and he supports even more restrictive legislation. So it would seem like a sure thing that stem-cell research would get squashed. But it hasn't happened. Interestingly, one leading supporter of stem cell research is Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania. One wonders if he might not be a closet Bright. And one wonders if a Republican Party with more Specter types at the helm wouldn't attract the support of a lot of other scientific progressives, including, maybe, some quiet Brights defecting from the Democrats.

But even now, many of the leading intellectuals in the conservative and libertarian movement have not really come to grips with the stem cell issue. To be sure, there have been other issues on people's minds for the past two years, but the stem cell issue will only get bigger, as the potential medical gains get bigger -- and thus the opportunity cost of forgoing those gains. Which is to say, it's time for the old coalition to rethink its partners, and its platform.

The Fusion Right won the Cold War because of the alliance between The Wealth of Nations and the Bible. Fine. But now, in laboratories and clinics, a new chilly struggle is coming, between pro- and anti-stem cellers.

This time, the Brightish forces associated with the pro-science side can't even be remotely linked to gulags, because there are no gulags -- and barely any socialists. But even so, the anti-science non-Brights can still summon up much of the old anti-communist coalition, in the form of the Republican Party.

It's time for that alliance to change, for the simple reason that the issues have changed. It may be too much to ask the Grand Old Party to embrace the Brights, but at least it ought to be bright enough to stop blocking medical progress. If the GOP fails to change, then the Democrats get the stem cell issue to themselves -- and all the scientific cachet, and business cash -- that comes with being on the winning side of scientific history. Following Dennett and Willett's terminology, an anti-science GOP will have a dull future indeed.
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