Why the cultural right feels besieged

Less than half of Americans identify Easter with the Resurrection.

At first blush, the notion that contemporary American culture is somehow hostile to Christianity doesn’t pass the giggle test. The country still stands out from the rest of the developed world for its high religiosity – Nicholas Sarkozy never even thinks about closing a speech with “Que Dieu benisse la Republique Francaise!” – and Christianity remains the dominant faith. So it’s easy, from the outside, to dismiss the whole “war on Christmas/Godless public square” nonsense as either paranoia or deliberate manipulation. The Red team in the cutlure wars is certainly crazy enough and dishonest enough for either explanation to fit.

But James’s Easter post links to a survey showing that only 42 percent of Americans think of Easter as being primarily about the Resurrection, while only 2 percent “would describe Easter as the most important holiday of their faith.” The 18-to-25 crowd is least likely to think of Easter as the season of the Passion. Apparently the holiday is now mostly bunnies and eggs, just as Christmas is now measured in “shopping days.”

Seventy years ago, H.L. Mencken, an atheist writing for an audience of sophisticates, irreverently described the Abdication Crisis as “the greatest news story since the Resurrection.” It’s hard to imagine anyone making that quip today: not only would the Limbaughs be all over him like a cheap suit, but most of the audience simply wouldn’t get it. Today’s increasingly politicized and fundamentalist Christianity (for these purposes the Catholic/Protestant distinction is largely irrelevant) is increasingly assuming the characteristics of a cult, or a faction. (You can see the same sort of thing happening within Judaism, with more and more Black-Hattery on the one hand and more and more utter indifference on the other.)

So cut your cultural-conservative friends some slack. It’s tough being on the losing team.

As for me, I continue to think that Christianity and Judaism have within them great resources for good, and that the loss of those bits of cultural heritage – following the substantial loss of Classical culture – will constitute a major loss. But if Ratzinger and Peter Akinola and Tim LaHaye define Christianity, and Chabad and Dennis Prager define Judaism, then any tears I shed will be for the corruption of the traditions, not for the fact that the corrupt traditions exert less and less pull on our common life.

If only someone on the New Age side of things had Cranmer’s literary talent!

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

21 thoughts on “Why the cultural right feels besieged”

  1. Chabad corrupt? How will "Christians for Schneerson" ever have interfaith dialogue with "Jews for Jesus" if this is the case?

  2. I'm a Universalist, and I think we've got it covered pretty well. We use Christian imagery all the time despite most of us not believing in Christ as divine. (Probably almost all of us, though I think we should be more accepting of Trinitarians in our services.) That didn't stop us from singing Jesus Christ Has Risen This Day this morning, although the minister did preface it by saying, "I assume you all can grasp allegory."

  3. As a non-Christian American adult, I find it troubling that the poll appears to equate "American adult" with "American Christian adult." If only 2% of American adults consider Easter the central holiday of _their_ faith, perhaps it's because some significant percentage of adults don't profess the Christian faith.

    BTW, I am fully aware, and was fully aware before reading this article, that Easter is all about Christ's resurrection and that it is the most important holiday of the Christian faith.

  4. As an atheist, I wouldn't mourn the passing of Christianity at all, were it not for the troubling fear that, once the mental niche was empty, something nastier would fill it.

  5. If only someone … had Cranmer’s literary talent!

    The alarming thing is that much of the best English in print was printed soon after the introduction of the printing press. I have no doubt that the printing press damaged the language. Of course actual printing on actual paper is obsolete.

    I shudder to think what is being e-mailed towards Bethlehem to be tweeted.

  6. The printing press didn't damage the language, it merely made preserving works cheap enough that the inferior got preserved along with the superior. It kind of like thinking "they really built to last in the old days!", just because all the really old buildings you see are pretty sturdy: The ones that weren't, you don't get to see.

  7. Karen Armstrong brought out the same point in her book "The Battle for God" printed in 2000.

  8. For once, I'm in total agreement with Brett B. – and will go further: IMO, the introduction of the printing press (in English, anyway) far from damaging the language, helped to stabilize it. Prior to Caxton, written English was a hodgepodge of local dialects and variants with only vague set rules for spelling and grammar. The dissemination of printed works made some sort of "standardization" of the language desirable (if not necessary), and has helped to make English intelligible for centuries.

    Chaucer's "English" is virtually a foreign language; Malory's changed greatly in a hundred years; but is still (when set in type) vaguely readable by moderns: Shakespeare's writings, a hundred years later again are recognizably "modern", while Defoe's and/or Samuel Johnson's are scarcely different from today's tongue. The printing press made all this possible. Which, sadly, the TXT does threaten to undo

  9. I agree with you Mark, and with Yeats: "The centre cannot hold."

    The extremes become more extreme.

    Religions disintegrate into cults.

    Or as Yeats put it: "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

    But let's take that idea forward into future fantasy.

    As "shopping days" and "bunny and eggs" gain yet greater sway…

    As science gains yet more ground and swells to fill the center…

    Will extremes combine?

    Arthur Clarke in "The Hammer of God" imagines a future where the rude crumbs of religion's demise come together:

    "Chrislam was not yet officially a hundred years old, though its origins went back another two decades to the oil war of 1990."

    CHRISLAM! What a cool coinage for such a nuclear hot idea.

    As the central sway of science grows and the central sway of religion wanes, there will ultimately be a union of religion's worst forces.

    We can see traces of it now when teabaggers talk about armed insurrection…

    They are at war with science…

    And in love with their talking snake…

    These underlying forces will drive religious dregs together in an unholy matrimony…

    Chrislam indeed…

  10. Why doesn't Kleiman offer a few words of analysis on the Tax Cannabis referendum coming up in California's November election?

    Now that's one area where his expertise is undisputed–the policy implications of drug law reform. Instead, the blog seems to be an outlet for his more dilettantish impulses.

  11. hmm… asks an excellent question: why does Kleiman write about what Kleiman wants to write about, instead of writing about what hmm… wants Kleiman to write about?

    Snark aside, I'd be interested to read Kleiman on the Pot Referendum. And given that he's a Californian interested in drug policy, I fully expect Kleiman will write about it, on this blog or for some magazine or both, well before the vote (that's the first Tuesday in November – Kleiman has less than seven months to prove me right or wrong!). But I don't think hmm… has really grasped the concept of unpaid blogging.

  12. Some bishop is well known (though not by name, to me) for saying "if people do not believe in traditional religion (having in mind Christianity, of course), they will not believe nothing; they will believe anything." A lot of what passes for non-traditional religion in the US and elsewhere, some of it calling itself Christian, is a demonstration of the wisdom of that bishop.

    The literary critic and ordained Christian minister Northrop Frye used to remark in his classes on literature and the Bible that Easter did not have the pagan surroundings of Christmas (date originally chosen to blend in unnoticed with Saturnalia) and thus had never been as popular as Christmas.

  13. Maybe you're thinking of Gilbert K. Chesterton, who said, "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything." Chesterton was a prolific writer but not a clergyman. Perhaps he is best known today for his Father Brown mystery stories.

  14. Chesterton – in real life a Catholic bigot and an anti-Semite, but a master of the language all the same – also said, "God is not mocked. When men cease to believe in Him, He causes them to believe in Nostradamus instead."

    If Christianity meant only Pope Bingo and the mega-churches, I too wouldn't be sad to see it disappear. But Christianity is also a Byrd motet, the Book of Common Prayer, the rose window of the Prague Cathedral, and the Pietà, to say nothing of Bishop Wilberforce and Archbishop Tutu. It is also the lovely, mystical, somewhat Taoist-flavored reaction to the rabbinic Judaism of the Augustan age presented by the Nezerener Rebbe Yeshua bar Miraim, and recorded in the Gospels. "Is it forbidden to do good on Shabbat, or evil?" "Take no thought for the morrow." "It is not what goes into a man's mouth that condemns him, but what comes out of it."

    Yes, if the current generation of Christian pastors and believers manages to run the enterprise into the ground, the world will be the poorer for it in important ways.

  15. "So cut your cultural-conservative friends some slack. It’s tough being on the losing team."

    No, they're on the winning team, they just don't know it. They all vote Republican, the party of untrammeled big business. Who do you think is turning Easter into a festival of chocolate bunnies, Michael Moore or Hershey's? Who has made Christmas about shopping, the ACLU or the Sears catalog?

    As always, the dimwits on the right simply get angry at whoever the liar on the radio tells them to be angry at. It passes the time, I guess.

  16. The literary critic and ordained Christian minister Northrop Frye used to remark in his classes on literature and the Bible that Easter did not have the pagan surroundings of Christmas…

    That sounds wrong to me. Did Frye think it coincidence that Easter (like Passover) just happens to come in the Spring, a sort of natural time for celebrating resurrection, liberation, etc.?

  17. Frye was very well aware of the pagan myths of the sacrificed god and the return of spring. But Easter itself was not traditionally as much of a festival as Christmas. It's been a very long time since I took a course from Frye or read him, so I should probably not venture into the topic, except that the comment about the relative popularity of Easter and Christmas stuck in my mine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northrop_Frye

  18. I think this analysis takes the christianist right way too much at face value. Sure, some of them are out there protesting Harry Potter and Hallowe'en and christmas trees and easter egg hunts. But most of them have long since abandoned the religious aspect of christian holidays for the tribal one. Consider that even a generation ago (well, the 50s through 70s) the devout christian position was against the commercialization of jesus's birth. Now anything but full-on shopping and "Merry Christmas" on the lips of every shop clerk is a sign of the War Against Christmas.

  19. Chesterton was a bigot for sure, but he was also bigoted against the rich and powerful. His mastery of language is well illustrated at the end of What’s Wrong With The World, where he was outraged by government measures to control head lice by cutting off the hair of poor children. From the tone of the piece, it could well have been written by Pyotor Kropotkin, who wrote a powerful article on the duty of the doctor to be a revolutionary when faced with the health consequences of abject poverty. Gutenberg has the whole book.


    …the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice…

    In truth, it is only by eternal institutions like hair that we can test passing institutions like empires. If a house is so built as to knock a man's head off when he enters it, it is built wrong…

    Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution…

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