Whittaker Chambers's Anxious Age
In his compelling recent book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, Catholic author Joseph Bottum argues that the modern left is a religious movement. Liberals, like everyone else, crave the self-esteem that comes with being virtuous. It's just that their virtue comes from dogmatic adherence to and promotion of the canon of the modern left: environmentalism, feminism, and socialism.
Bottum traces the religious urge of the modern left back one hundred years to Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist minister who helped promote the Social Gospel movement that held that there were six key sins: bigotry, the arrogance or power, the corruption of justice for personal ends, militarism, the madness of the mob, and class contempt. For today's left, the great Satanic evils are racism, homophobia, classism, white privilege, etc.
This might be the reason modern liberalism is so terrifying. For the left, the religious conviction at the heart of their philosophy means that there is no limiting principle to their demands. Whereas an atheist or libertarian might not like conservatism, he can easily acknowledge that the world is not perfect, that we are mortal, and that there are limits to what we can achieve in this life. For today's liberals no such barrier exists -- indeed, even the suggestion that a limit exists is itself blasphemous.
Although it is a perceptive argument, Bottum leaves out one of the best examples of the left's religious zealotry -- the attempted destruction of Whittaker Chambers, which was the beginning of the modern culture war. Chambers is remembered as the American writer who joined the Communist Party in 1925, but then defected in the late 1930s. Chambers fingered Alger Hiss, a New Deal darling and president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, as a communist spy. It is now known that Hiss was guilty, but in the late 1940s when there were hearings and then two trials involving the case, liberals were bitter and vociferous in their defense of Hiss. Their condemnations of Chambers -- and this is where Joseph Bottum's thesis comes into play -- were often religious jeremiads.
One of the most ardent, and appalling, occurred during one of the trials. Hiss's lawyer, Lloyd Paul Stryker, described Chambers as "an enemy of the Republic, a blasphemer of Christ, a disbeliever in God, with no respect either for matrimony or motherhood...he believes in nothing...and there is not one decent thing that I can think of that Whittaker Chambers has not shown himself against...Roguery, deception and criminality have marked this man Chambers as if with a hot iron. He shows the pattern of an unusual personality, and his life is filled with strange incidents. He began as a petty larceny thief, and was dismissed from his library job for stealing books from Columbia University. He believed as a Communist Party member in lying, stealing and fighting as tenets of that party."
In another part of the trial Stryker offered the jury this: "In the warm southern countries, you know, where they have leprosy, sometimes you will hear on the streets, perhaps among the lepers, a man crying down the street, 'Unclean! Unclean!' at the approach of the leper. I say the same to you at the approach of this moral leper."
Hiss was found guilty of perjury. But Chambers always suspected that the left would be on the winning side of history. They were zealous, true believers, whereas the conservatives and traditionalists had grown soft in their defense of genuine freedom and true faith. At one point just before the trial Chambers was interviewed by a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. To prepare for the trial, Chambers was reading two books: the Dostoyevsky's The Possessed and The Age of Anxiety by W.H. Auden. The former was about the demonic fury of the revolutionary; the later, whose title was a reference for Joseph Bottum's An Anxious Age, concerned the loss of faith in the Western world. "The world has always been in turmoil," Chambers told the reporter. "But the disturbances are getting considerably worse -- and now are of seismic proportions. The vibrations are felt everywhere."
This observation was made in 1949, at least ten years before the full Cultural Revolution. Chambers never lived to see feminism, the drug epidemic, Vietnam, or gay marriage. But one thing he would certainly recognize -- the left's use of moral language to cast the other side into hell. Whereas Hiss's lawyer once called Chambers a leper, today's liberal intellectuals condemn Republicans as evil. Chambers was a "blasphemer of Christ"; Paul Ryan is the author of an evil budget. A scroll through the comments section of the Huffington Post reads like the Old Testament -- to hell with the right wing and the Koch brothers, those two Great Satans!
As Joseph Bottum observes in An Anxious Age, people seem to be hardwired to want to feel virtuous. When major religions collapse, as many did in the later twentieth century, they will still worship, even if they only praise themselves. They are still believers in utopia, even if it is of a different kind from the one dreamt of by Alger Hiss. Whereas once communists waited for the new world of a worker's paradise, now liberals pine for a kind of free-floating bliss, a world free of white privilege, individuality, heterosexuality, racial micro-aggressions, or really any limits on anything that would cause them discomfort. Those who question this goal, and the attendant dogma that goes with it, not matter how irrational that dogma is, cannot be reasoned with. And they should not be reasoned with, because there is nothing to reason about. Conservatives are blasphemers against the sacred: the New Deal, gay marriage, and identity politics.
It's a twist on the old joke about the Bible and fundamentalist Christians: The New York Times said it, they believe it, and that settles it.