Sunday, September 5, 2010

Nixon, Conservatives, And The Cultural Wars

In 2008's Nixonland, Rick Perlstein argued that Richard Nixon helped ignite today's culture wars with his law-and-order, southern-strategy, damn-the-radicals campaign in 1968. As I blogged at the time, Perlstein's sprawling, colorful narrative didn't close the deal for someone who believes that conservative culture warriors were the chief beneficiaries of Nixon's demise. In fact, as I wrote on the Nixon foundation website in 2002, it was the best thing that ever happened to Ronald Reagan:
While the fringes of American politics might not have the sheer numbers, they have massive influence. In a political firefight, embattled centrists can be weakened and even done in by flanking fire.

It happened to Richard Nixon during 1973-74. The left had always hated him for his crusading anti-communism. Their antagonism was magnified by his Vietnam policies, which many so-called neoconservatives, ironically, vastly underrate to this day. But we sometimes forget that many on the right also disliked his domestic and economic policies as well as his rapprochements with China and the Soviet Union.

During Watergate, no one was surprised when leftist antiwar firebrands such as Robert Drinan and Bella Abzug demanded his resignation. But the political earth moved when they were joined in March 1974 by conservative GOP Sen. James Buckley. Buckley warned that if RN didn’t resign, Republicans would be wiped out in that November’s mid-term elections.

After learning in August 1974 that conservative lions such as Barry Goldwater had also abandoned him, President Nixon gave up the fight, even though he hadn’t yet been impeached. Republican House and Senate candidates took a massive hit in November. Indeed the party did so badly that it’s reasonable to speculate it would’ve fared better in 1974 if the President had stayed in office until the House could impeach and the Senate try him.

Perhaps remembering what had happened to Republicans that dark November, during 1998-99 most leftist Democrats, many of whom despised President Clinton, stuck by him through his impeachment crisis. Suffering no left-wing defection comparable to Buckley’s and Goldwater’s was the key to his political survival.

The dynamic was subtly different during and after Watergate. For many conservatives, after the Goldwater debacle in 1964 the issue wasn’t so much whether the GOP would dominate politics but who would dominate the GOP. Perhaps some conservatives anticipated that MR (moderate Republicanism) would be discredited along with RN.

I doubt many Republicans intentionally moderated their support for President Nixon to help pave the way for President Reagan. But their profound antipathy to many of his policies might have kept some from fighting as hard as they would have for someone they considered a true-believing conservative.

Whatever conservatives’ calculations at the time, Watergate and its aftermath unquestionably revived the prospects of the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the party.
An analysis in the New York Times by Sam Tanenhaus (biographer of Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Jr.), makes clear that the right's distrust of Nixon (which had some sinister aspects as well) was actually, pace Perlstein, the genesis of today's culture wars. Tanenhaus argues that the same dynamic, but with an essential theological coloration, is now dogging Barack Obama. Here's an extended excerpt, but please read the whole thing:

To an early supporter like the writer Andrew Sullivan, Mr. Obama’s religious journey offered possible deliverance from decades of ideological strife. “He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult,” Mr. Sullivan observed in a celebrated essay in the December 2007 issue of The Atlantic. “But — critically — he is not born-again. His faith, at once real and measured, hot and cool — lives at the center of the American religious experience.”

In retrospect the idea seems not only mistaken, but perhaps misbegotten, for it was premised on a misreading of America’s ideological warfare, in particular the influence of evangelical religion on the tenor of American politics....

Conservatives disenchanted with the moderate presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford threatened to bolt the Republican Party, prefiguring the Tea Partiers of today.

[Conservative publisher Bill] Rusher, for one, urged restive conservatives to form a third party, the Independence Party, that would form a “great coalition” composed of “the great bulk of middle-class Protestants.” Its natural tribune, Mr. Rusher wrote, was Ronald Reagan, who would in fact go on to challenge Mr. Ford in 1976 — a campaign that had the crusading atmosphere of a third-party insurgency.

All this signaled that political protest had migrated from the fringes to the mainstream, where it remains today. Seen from this perspective, Mr. Obama, who fits the 1960s idea of a consensus politician, appears to be firmly planted in one camp, with his establishment pedigree and his urban sensibility. He has overt connections to the underclass, through his work as a community organizer, and to the overprivileged, through his Ivy League background, but little to the alienated middle class. To this group he seems not so much the outsider of his actual biography but, rather, a burnished product of “the new elite” or “the new class,” to quote terms that came into vogue in the 1970s.

Mr. Obama’s Christianity also puts him in a particular camp. He is the Christian who seems as deeply immersed in the Social Gospel as in the Gospels, who acknowledges “I didn’t have an epiphany,” and describes his faith as “both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey.”

It’s not that Mr. Beck and his followers don’t recognize Mr. Obama. They do, or think they do, all too well.

Tanenhaus's analysis rings instantly true to the practicing pastor. Rusher's crusading early-1970s Protestantism has long since burst most denominational constraints. As an Episcopalian in Orange County, California, I do ministry along the edges of the chasm that's opened between mainstream Protestantism (what Obama has been practicing as a member of the United Church of Christ) and neo-evangelicalism. Rick Warren and Saddleback Church (a Southern Baptist church that tries hard to look fashionably post-denominational) are just two miles up the freeway from St. John's, after all.

Besides that, ask any Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, or indeed UCC congregant how often she's disclosed the name of her denomination only to have a suburban neighbor or coworker reply, "I go to a Christian church." What are we, chopped liver? Just about. Ask the teachers at a Corona, California evangelical school about it. They were fired this summer because their baptisms weren't legitimate -- the school's way of saying they weren't really Christians.

That's just what some are saying about Obama, isn't it? Not a real Christian. As good as a Muslim.

Three cheers for Sam Tanenhaus for nailing this.


MK said...

I didn’t find Tanenhaus’s piece very persuasive, but that’s because I know the extent to which people had choices in the path they followed. To me, people who constantly “other” those unlike themselves (calling them “not real Christians” or “not real Americans”) come across as tremendously insecure and lacking in what I would call a genuinely solid faith in their religion or party or, at times, country. To me, “othering” signals someone is struggling fundamentally with self esteem and self confidence. I call it the “I can only be somebody if I view you as nobody” syndrome. It’s particularly jarring to see in matters of faith, because for me, faith is associated with humility, serenity, hope, and above all, grace. Not anger, envy, fear of others, or obsession with one’s own status among or as compared to others, whether it’s linked to where one goes to church or how one votes.

I don't doubt that both the Vietnam war during the 1960s and economic issues during the 1970s stressed the lives of many Americans. But I think the people who had a predisposition towards facing off with "the other side" to begin with were the ones who ended up fighting the culture wars. Many of us Middle Americans never did.

Towards the end of Nixon’s term in office, I was a church going, hard working Middle American. I worked full time while in graduate school (paying my own way). I entered the workforce in 1973 (1971 if you count my summer jobs while an undergraduate) but came to embrace from the start a solution oriented rather than adversarial work environment. Or, I should say, workplaces that were geared towards solutions and over time came to value teamwork and collaboration, both of which require understanding rather than demonizing others. I considered myself a conservative or at least a Republican from 1968 until 1989. So I know one could be a plain old Middle American during the Nixon and Reagan years and not join the pity party, which for me came to be the defining vibe of the New Right.

Tanenhaus writes that “Meanwhile, the New Right, as it was called, identified other institutional adversaries: ‘the dominant media, the major foundations and research institutions, the educational establishment, the federal and state bureaucracies,” as William Rusher, the publisher of National Review, wrote in 1975.’” Opinion leaders who led that effort really let the country down, in my view. They helped sissify instead of bolster those who listened to them. Because culture wars and adversarial posturing weaken people. Learning to cope and understand each other and to oppose them honorably, if necessary, strengthens them. That doesn’t mean giving up one’s values and principles. It does mean avoiding the trap of pity parties and reaching for victimology as SOP. The New Right contributed to the weakening of the American character, just as some 1960s era members of the New Left did earlier.

Maybe my rejection of the culture of blaming and the pity parties of the New Right has something to do with the fact that I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment. The comment under Ross Douthat’s essay today that I most liked was poster #25, who lives in Washington. He wrote, “One great benefit of living in a big city is to daily surround myself with complete strangers. I don't see partisan rage and political perversions, nor do I see cold demographic profiles. I see Americans (among others), people . . .working and share a kind word or pleasant joke in a passing interaction. I see an America that demonstrates that, at the heart of our society of screeching media we have communities of respect and trust.

We've got more in common than not. It's a great feeling to feel at home, even with strangers.”

Too bad more people don’t find that type of serenity, whether they go to church (as I still do) or not.

Fr. John said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, MK. Beyond the main reason I liked Sam's piece (the Nixon vs. Reagan struggle for the soul of the GOP), I feel he's onto something about neo-evangelicalism, at least from what I've been able to see from my suburban point of view.

I know what Douthat's correspondent and you are onto when you talk about the urban cultural and social experience, which I relished during the 10 years I lived in the New York City area as well as my visits to Washington.

But in the southern California suburbs, the neo-evangelical mindset feels a little different from what you describe. I certainly don't discount your points about the insecurity and even fear that can be present when we make determinations about "otherness." But we can also do it because we're smug and perfectly satisfied with the way things are. Saddleback hasn't thrived because it teaches a radical gospel message (or indeed because it teaches anyone to fear the other). Instead, it encounters people where they are and doesn't go too much further than making them feel good about themselves. Actually, I'm not sure we do it much differently at St. John's.

What the evangelical outlook also expresses, and Tanenhaus puts his finger right on this, is a subtle but discernible hostility toward mainstream Protestant denominations and especially Roman Catholicism. Since this divide has always been present in the U.S., we're used to it, and we don't talk about it very much. ("Are you a CA-tho-lic?" the Julia Roberts character says to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War." "Greek Orthodox," he replies. "That's still Christian," she graciously concedes.) I know that there are congregants and pastors at some of these churches who would still be inclined to argue that I am (and maybe you are!) a member of a heretical sect. Not far from that way of thinking to saying that Obama's not a Christian and therefore that he might as well be a Muslim (according to the idea of symbolic belief that Douthat wrote about today). That's the problem Tenanhaus helped solve. It's not that people are ignorant, necessarily. It's just that they're pretty sure that they're saved and a bunch of the rest of us, Christians or not, aren't.

MK said...

Interesting, John, thanks for the explanation. By coincidence, I just read a letter to the editor in the Washington Post just now in which the writer rebuts what another writer said about Glenn Beck's DC rally. The writer concludes, "The Bible rejects a simple division of the world into the evil oppressor and innocent victim, perhaps because -- to borrow from Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- the wavering line between good and evil runs through every human heart."

What sometimes pulls people off of the path on which they should be walking is politics. How many politically right leaning Evangelical pastors preach against the spreading of lies or caution congregants against forwarding or voicing agreement with some of the falsely premised political emails the receive? Not nearly enough, judging by the number of people who blithely spread lies about the other side, for political reasons. I have a hard-right leaning friend who sent me an email by a professor I know who actually had put up a disclaimer at his blog, explaining that a fake email purportedly from him was in circulation. Sending my friend the link to the academic’s disclaimer wasn’t enough to get him to post a retraction and apology to his email list. Perhaps he felt it was better to let lies continue to circulate. So much for valuing character building.

One reason I don't focus on things such as whether one was baptized as an infant or in full immersion as an adult is that it just isn’t a predictor of how one lives one’s life. Just as Robert Hanssen's frequent attendance at Mass and association with Opus Dei were not predictors of his resisting the urge to etray his country. In fact, I chuckle to myself when I see some Catholic writers in certain forums declaim that the true path lies in their church. And then click over to another site and see an Evangelical claim that only people like him are true Christians. They can’t both be right, LOL. Since I’m mainstream Protestant, I’m glad I don’t have to get caught up in those things, which, although not necessarily stirred up within the church they attend, some people feel compelled to focus on. Me, I just leave it all to God to sort out and don't worry about it.