Those on the religious right get angry when progressives accuse them of being similar to the Taliban. In their more candid moments, almost as a slip, they will protest that they are much milder: “Not that bad.”
How good is “not that bad”? Is the line that divides them from the crazies firmly in place? Does it waver? What makes Islamic extremists worse than Christian extremists? Is it simply a matter of degree, and can we know with certainty that the line cannot shift — perhaps dramatically, in the blink of an eye?
Perhaps I am more concerned about these questions than most people. I’m a doctrinally orthodox, fairly conservative Episcopalian, and a libertarian Republican. I am also a lesbian and a feminist. I am too much the grateful inheritor of both the conservative and the progressive traditions to sacrifice my commitment to either portion of my heritage for the sake of the other. To contemplate cutting myself off from either would be like debating over which of my arms to amputate.
I think it crucial to remember that both the Right and the Left, in America and elsewhere in the West, grew out of the same Judeo-Christian soil. Americans on both the Left and the Right can affirm the same religious faith and claim the same love of country. This is why, to outside observers, our squabbles over who among us is the truer Christian, or the more patriotic citizen, can seem so absurd.
Outsiders see the family resemblance, even if we don’t. If I were not a woman, I would likely not be a feminist. If I were not a lesbian, I would probably not care much about gay rights. But I would still, if born on American soil in what remains at least nominally a Christian nation, share with most of my fellow citizens a concern for the basic human dignity of those whose voices, in many religious countries, are not heard.
Therein lies the difference. In much of the rest of the world, all human beings are not considered fundamentally equal in worth. Here, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one . . .” There, being Jew or Greek, male or female, gay or straight can mean the difference between slavery and freedom, perhaps even life and death. All too often we take that difference for granted and treat our precious inheritance as a universal given.
Goldwater did not say, and certainly cannot have meant to suggest, that extremism was hunky-dory in absolutely every circumstance.
Freedom is not like oxygen. It does not flow, unimpeded, over the face of the earth. It is often, just like the air we breathe, so obvious to us that we forget it is invisible. But because it is invisible, and because we cannot simply breathe it in, we often forget that it is there. Or that it matters as much to others as it does to ourselves.
“I would remind you,” a hero of mine, Senator Barry Goldwater, once thundered, “that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” This is, unfortunately, often quoted by those who would use extremism not to defend liberty but to attack it. They get the part about extremism being no vice, but they lose the rest of it completely.
Senator Goldwater is my hero, at least in part, because he also said, “Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.”
Those who quote Barry Goldwater for the purpose of promoting not liberty but their own brand of power — even though they often do so in the name of liberty (their own, never anyone else’s) — almost always seek absolute power. At the very least, they use those words as a rebuke against those who would hold their power in check. We should bear in mind that the senator said extremism in the defense of liberty was no vice. He did not say, and certainly cannot have meant to suggest, that extremism was hunky-dory in absolutely every circumstance. Nor have we any reason to conclude that he recommended liberty only to some and not, in equal measure, to others.
The Right has made much of the tendency of some on the Left to regard their familiar heritage with contempt, of the way they sell their western, Judeo-Christian birthright for a mess of multicultural pottage. That birthright should be duly noted and remembered by people who are quick to find fault with America, while neglecting much worse things that happen in other cultures. If it is wrong to fire one gay man from his job because of his sexual orientation, then surely we cannot look the other way, in the name of “tolerance,” when Islamic zealots murder another. If one woman is poked and ogled on an American street because her tank top is revealing, surely it merits no “tolerance” when another is stoned to death because she was the victim of rape.
But there is blindness aplenty on the Right as well. The same hunger for unchecked power burns in the hearts of political fundamentalists, Christian and Islamic alike. There is little to suggest that Christian zealots would not be sorely tempted to extend their own “liberty,” their own power, as far as possible.
“But we’re different,” they plead, and to some degree they’re right. What is not so often duly noted is why. The “secular humanists” they love to denigrate provide the crucial restraining force. The religious ought to thank the nonreligious, for saving them from themselves; but instead they fume. They may even snarl that these heathens ignore the debt they owe to their culture. But they do pay it; they pay it by checking the power of rapacious Christian extremists. The extremists seem not to notice that the rich soil of their own tradition — so honored by them when they find it convenient — is there to hold the humanist heathens firm when the ostentatiously devout betray it.
They can’t get away with what the Islamic extremists do because those damned secular humanists won’t let them — and that, my friends, is nothing less than our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition at work. Thank a godless liberal heathen the next time you see one. He may not realize why he finds homegrown religious tyranny so repugnant. What matters is that even if he knows not why he does what he does, he does it nonetheless.