American politics is possessed by religious mania. One by one, our leaders and their constituencies are seized by the modern equivalent of Saint Vitus' dance. They're in a frenzied whirlwind to prove they—and their politics—are right with God.
What else explains the long, lavish, unrelenting coverage of the death of one pope and the installation of another? Pageantry and history are worth an appreciative look, just as many of us were momentarily mesmerized by the wedding and funeral of Princess Diana. One shouldn't be surprised that the Catholic cardinals chose a conservative leader in Benedict XVI: You don't keep institutions like this running for millennia (16 Benedicts alone!) by letting open-minded liberals lead them.
But the length and intensity of the coverage suggests there was more at work than televising a colorful medieval pageant. The media whipped it to the level of religious pornography, not to mention unrelenting idolatry, which is what TV, in particular, does best (see American Idol). It had resonance as religious propaganda for the fact that it became a stage on which people— including some very powerful people—could demonstrate their religiosity.
On paper, the Vatican, a sovereign state, is the word's smallest country. It is also one of the least democratic. Its form of government is ecclesiastical; the only people who can vote are a couple of hundred handpicked elderly men. It is an absolute monarchy, the kind our foreign policy purports to oppose. According to Bush, democracy's evangelist, the Vatican should look less like an institution deserving homage than a state ripe for invasion and democratization. During his visit, a few Marines could easily have shocked and awed the Swiss Guard and freed the oppressed. The Vatican still awaits liberation.
When the Bushes and Bill Clinton went on their pilgrimage to Pope John Paul II's funeral, they took advantage of the chance to be seen kneeling in a holy space before God. Republican and Democrat, our political ebony and ivory, brought together by a common deity. There was a time in this democracy when no president would be seen kneeling or bowing before a foreign monarch, alive or dead, lest he risk impeachment.
Sunday, members of America's religious right hosted their own nationally televised service to bash federal court nominees who dare follow and vote their conscience. James Dobson, the chairman of Focus on the Family, was quoted in The Washington Post, speaking from the pulpit: "The court's majority, Dobson said, 'are unelected and unaccountable and arrogant and imperious and determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values, and they're out of control.'" He could also have been talking about the Catholic Church. Or he could have been describing his own religious right, a group of unelected fundamentalist fanatics determined to impose their narrow version of Christianity on the rest of us. You know the biblical adage about casting stones? The religious right has learned that you don't get anywhere without casting the first stones hard and fast. If you smite (I'm in biblical mode here) your enemy, your own hypocrisy doesn't matter because your glass house is standing and your enemy's isn't.
While Dobson is casting stones at our constitutional courts, liberals are playing catch-up. There is much talk from the "religious left" about taking back God and the Bible. Jim Wallis, the liberal evangelical Christian author of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It, makes a passionate case for lefty, God-driven politics that claims Martin Luther King Jr. as patron saint. It tends to focus on the compassionate Christ of the Gospels rather than the wrathful demiurge of the Old Testament. But while Wallis' interpretation of Christianity might be more inclusive and tolerant than most of his fundie brethren, it's still a fight against secularism. It's a fight over who owns the Bible. "Conventional wisdom suggests that the antidote to religious fundamentalism is more secularism. But that is a very big mistake," he writes. "The best response to bad religion is better religion, not secularism." For non-Christians (and non-Jews and non-Muslims), the meaning is clear: All the rest of you can exit the public square while we battle over God's messengers and messages.
That doesn't get us anywhere. The problem with the monotheists is that only one of them can be right. But that isn't true in a genuine democracy under which there can be more than one right answer. And a key element to an open society is the ability of those in power to be held accountable for mistakes. Infallibility is not a virtue in democratic leadership.
The blithe dismissal of secularism by both right and left is worrisome. I'm not saying people shouldn't be informed by the gods or spirits that move them. I certainly am. But democracy works best when minds are open to change, to ideas, and to reason.
While so-called secular liberals have become the punching bags for Christians right and left, let me ask for the secular right to start stepping forward to call an end to the extreme nonsense on their side. Libertarians, scientists, economic and Wall Street realists, and old-school flag-waving conservatives who agree with Barry Goldwater that religion should butt out of politics need to join the secular center and the secular left to speak up against the religious takeover of America.
Unless, of course, they want our country run like the Vatican.