Gingrich and the privative theory of paganism

No, being a bad Christian doesn’t make you a pagan.

I notice that Newt Gingrich, speaking to a group of Christianists in Virginia, said that he and the rubes he was appealing to were “surrounded by paganism.”

I wonder how this will go over with Hindus, whose religion fits the Christian definition of “paganism” as meaning polytheism, and especially a polytheism where the focus of the worship service is on sculptural representations of the various divinities.

Of course, Gingrich’s hate-mongering wasn’t really directed at Hindus, or at the New Age/Wiccan neo-pagans. In the mouth of a Gingrich, a “pagan” is simply someone who is not what Gingrich calls a “Christian,” using that term to mean “fundamentalist.” Old-fashioned Protestant bigotry called the Catholic veneration of saints and the use of saints’ images “paganism” (or “idolatry”) but that’s been pretty much out of fashion since about the ascension of John Paul II. [Here’s a screed from the National Catholic Register making the same equation of paganism and irreligion. Sometimes I think the rest of us were safer back when Catholic fanatics were burning Protestants at the stake and Protestant fanatics were hanging, drawing, and quartering Catholic priests. But even then, they mostly agreed on persecuting everyone else.]

In this, as in little else, the fundamentalists (and their new-found ultra-Catholic allies) have actually managed to return to the practice of the primitive church, as the Reformers insisted &#8212 not very accurately &#8212 they were doing.

Paganus in Latin means, roughly, “peasant,” “country bumpkin.” As used by the Imperial Roman soldiery, it was a pejorative directed at civilians generically: if you weren’t a miles, you were a paganus. Christians among the Legionaries applied the term (which had come to mean more or less “all the folks not like us”) to non-Christians: not just the followers of the official Roman image-centered polytheism, but also, for example, to worshippers of Mithra.

What’s deeply weird about this is that any contemporary polytheist is likely to be more religious than the average contemporary monotheist; India is well-known to be among the most devout countries on the planet. (We’ll skip over whether a sophisticated Hindu really believes in multiple independent deities rather than multiple manifestations of a single Godhead; there’s evidence that sophisticated thinkers of classical Greece were of the latter persuasion.)

One might call Gingrich’s approach &#8212 classing the people Gingrich wants to insult, the occasionally churchgoing and not-very-pious Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Congregationalists and United Methodists, with pagans &#8212 might be called the privative theory of polytheism. Of course it’s nonsense about on a par with the privative theory of evil as the mere absence of good. A bad or lax Christian is no more a pagan than a bad or lax conservative is a liberal. But it’s all red meat for the wolf-pack Gingrich is trying to raise.

Footnote C.S. Lewis knew better. His Cliche Came Out of its Cage lampoons the idea that the falling-away from devout Christianity equated to a return to pagan values. Lewis imagines an English monarch pouring out libations to the Erinyes in the House of Commons, or Bertrand Russell sacrificing to the Muses in gratitude for having proven a theorem.

The poem points out that the rituals of actual paganism would have only puzzled and offended his contemporaries, and that they utterly lacked the moral fortitude required by a truly pagan world-view: for example, to celebrate moderation and eschew hubris, or to stand by Odin and Thor in their inevitable defeat at the Ragnarok. By the same token, of course, Gingrich utterly lacks the moral fortitude to live according to Gospel precepts, for example by not dumping an inconvenient spouse or by loving his enemies and blessing them who curse him.

[I thought I remembered from that poem a description of a mid-century housewife being laid on her funeral pyre with her prized looking-glass and a “hired help,” or maybe it was “hired girl.” But I have Googled in vain. Can someone point me to another poem on the same theme that does contain that image? It’s just about inconceivable that I could have made it up for myself, so I suspect it’s out there somewhere.]

Update Where Googling failed, blegging succeeded. A single reader knew where to find the relevant poem, despite the fact that the key-phrase turned out to be “daily help” rather than “hired help.” The poem turns out to be by Auden (which I how I originally remembered it; I was surprised to find the C.S. Lewis poem), and is called “Thanksgiving for a Habitat.” I found it instructive to note how much I had misremembered about the poem; it’s clear that I had conflated the Auden with the Lewis. The opening verses are below. (In the process, I also learned that New Yorker subscribers have on-line access to the magazine’s entire back-file.)

Thanksgiving for a Habitat

Nobody I know would like to be buried

    with a silver cocktail shaker,

a transistor radio, and a strangled

    daily help, or keep his word because

of a great-great-grandmother who got laid

    by a sacred beast.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: