THE POLITICS OF HEAVEN: AMERICA IN FEARFUL TIMES
By Earl Shorris
W.W. Norton, 371 pages, $25.95
Some of the meanest people in the world are nice.
That’s the conservative evangelical paradox: the smiling churchgoer who will kindly volunteer his last crust of bread with one hand while voting to gut what remains of welfare with the other. The impersonal is the political, and the rest is Christian charity. This attitude bedevils liberal observers of American political culture. How can such inconsistency not corrupt the logic of Christian values? And how can these same people sabotage their own economic interest by supporting tax-slashing politicians?
The past decade has seen a succession of books that offer answers to these questions, including such notable titles as Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? and George Lakoff’s Moral Politics. The most recent addition to the field is Earl Shorris’ sprawling, erudite The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times, and though sympathetic to his fellow liberals, Mr. Shorris feels that they often furnish solutions without fully appreciating the magnitude of the problem.
According to Mr. Shorris, the “absurdity” of most discussions about conservative political allegiances “is that the journalist or scholar [claims to know] the interests of the voters better than the voters themselves.” Middle Americans, he argues, may be voting against their economic interests, but they’re not voting against their best interests, at least as far as they’re concerned. Until liberal analysts stop viewing conservatives as confused, irrational yokels, the unifying power of conservatism will remain mysterious.
So far, so what, you might ask: Several writers have reached similar conclusions. But Mr. Shorris goes beyond polemics that look at history at the level of election cycles. “As much as any other single attribute,” he writes, “the possibility of mass destruction describes contemporary life.” Since the bombing of Hiroshima, he argues, America has been in thrall to a radical fear that has forged a conservative national political movement “even more potent and more encompassing than the New Deal.” The conservative movement has been the guiding force in American life for over half a century and it has proven corrosive to our democracy.
Mr. Shorris believes that the rise of the conservative movement is the result of “confluence” shifting the mood of nation. “Confluence,” in his theory of history, is “Junction, union, flow, assemblage; rivers or people or currents coming together.” That’s as close as he gets to defining the term, though he speaks directly about what history-as-confluence isn’t. It’s not, as some people claim, “one damned thing after another.” Nor does confluence function like Marx’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis progression. Mr. Shorris’ idea is more rhetorical than analytical—he likens it to pulling apart the threads of a densely woven fabric—and it allows him to include Aristotle and Martin Luther alongside Lincoln and F.D.R. as major contributors to American history. This strategy is perfectly acceptable when the idea is to stimulate curiosity about the connection between the Katrina disaster and Goldwater conservatism, or whatever, but when the book uses “confluence” to support direct cause and effect, as it occasionally yet reluctantly does, the concept veers dangerously close to deus ex machina.
Putting these concerns aside and taking Mr. Shorris on his own terms, the 62 years since the Enola Gay’s infamous flight have seen such disparate events as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, the ascendancy of the economic shock doctrine, the rise of both the Christian Coalition and neoconservative thought, 9/11 and a multitude of other events and ideas, all of which have contributed to the confluence and our current political movement.
The end result of this history, argues Mr. Shorris, has been the replacement of American optimism with various forms of pessimism, most importantly theological and political pessimism. People began to anticipate catastrophe. “And if enough people expect a catastrophe,” he writes, “no real catastrophe need occur; the expectation is a catastrophe.”
This is bad news because safety—financial, social and theological—then becomes the paramount societal concern, weakening citizens’ commitment to civil liberties, civic dialogue and the state itself. The most “salient” representative of this political movement, argues Mr. Shorris, is the conservative Christian evangelical, a kind of anti-mascot that unites political cynicism with Christian eschatology.
The Politics of Heaven is a frustrating book. At times it’s oblique, vague and circular. But it’s also learned, thoughtful and humane. Mr. Shorris pulps a lot of history to make his argument. Depending on your personal politics, you might call it dynamic synthesis—or interpretive extravagance. But this is how history is written: drawing narrative connections through the innumerable entanglements and complications that time has presented. Mr. Shorris is right more than he’s wrong when he discusses how conservative intellectual developments have informed each other, but his book fails to prove that fear ushered in a national political movement. If anything, fear shaped our entire national culture, and if that’s what Mr. Shorris meant, I wish he’d said so.
But the value of The Politics of Heaven lies outside any specific argument. Earl Shorris understands that each political moment is the result of tremendous philosophical, theological and moral complexity, a fact that most books about current affairs blithely disregard.
Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY.