Separation of church and state cannot be rationally defended except on one ground: that religious beliefs are fundamentally false and worthless drivel, no more useful than astrology or alchemy. The notion that religion is the ultimate and most beneficial truth, but for some reason must be nonetheless be walled off from politics, defies common sense. Nobody advocates separation of science and state, math and state, physics and state — or even separation of the state from softer sciences such as economics and sociology.
So it’s hilarious to watch purported believers, usually religious liberals or moderates, trying to justify separation on other grounds. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, promoting her book The Mighty and the Almighty, took a crack at it the other night on The Colbert Report. Here she addresses the problem of religious elected officials keeping their faith out of public policy:
Albright: I think that we have to keep the separation of church and state, but we cannot separate people from their faith.
Colbert: Right, how do you separate people from their job . . . if the faith is in them, and they’re in their job, the transitive property of religion says their faith has got to be in their job also, right?
Her statement was complete double-talk, and Colbert nails her hard. Unfortunately, the audience reaction suggested to me that they were as clueless as Albright. They laughed at his question as if it were nonsensical (perhaps in part because of his usual mock-serious delivery), but what’s nonsensical is claiming you simultaneously “bring your faith to your job” without letting it influence you in the least.
The notion of Progressivism per se really comes from that brief and amazing period in the early 20th century when technological advance was lifting so many out of misery that social justice actually began to seem a plausible political goal rather than an idealist fantasy, and social reformers raced to catch up with the advances of telephones, motorcars, and sanitary engineering.
Progressivism also may have been fatally tied to the accompanying reality of robust industrial economic growth, which itself was tied to abundant new energy resources, mainly oil. The belief that more of everything would become available raised the moral issue of allocating it fairly. Since we now face declining energy resources, and perhaps long-range economic contraction, we would appear to also now face the awful task of allocating less of everything — which may be as impossible in practice as it sounds.
So the question now might be: what kind of economic justice is possible?
The entire thrust of American life the past forty years has been toward the privatization of public goods. That is why suburbia will turn out to be such a fiasco — because the public realm, and everything in it, was impoverished, turned into a universal automobile slum, while the private realm of the house and the car was exalted. The private goods of suburbia will now have to be
liquidated and we will be left with little more than parking lots and freeways too expensive to use.
A true Progressivism of the years ahead has to begin by concerning itself with a redefinition of what our public goods really are — and in practical, not abstract terms. That’s why I harp on the project of restoring the railroad system. Not only will it benefit all classes of Americans in terms of sheer getting around, but it would put tens of thousands of people to work at something with real value. It would also begin the process of healing public space ravaged by cars for almost a hundred years.
A true Progressivism would concern itself with the comprehensive reform of all land use laws, policies, codes, and tax incentives that promote more new car-dependent suburban development. A new Progressivism would put dwindling public monies into the re-activation of our harbors and shipping infrastructure. We’re going to need it. It would direct remaining agricultural subsidies into explictly organic, local farming enterprises, not to the Archer Daniel Midland corporation. It would revive the legal practice of restricting monopolies in business. It has to lead us in the direction of making other arrangements for how we live.
I think all that’s true even if Kunstler is wrong, or mostly wrong, about the magnitude of the coming crash, as I hope he is. Whatever happens, what we are witnessing now is exposing, clearly and painfully, the failure of anti-progressive conservatism. And Kunstler’s recipe for the kind of progressive thought that we need to put in its place sounds tasty to me.
I keep seeing that in the lower discourse of the Internet, people saying, "Oh, they’re doing it anyway." In some way our culture believes that, and it’s a real problem, because evidently they haven’t been doing it anyway, and now that they’ve started, we really need to pay attention and muster some kind of viable political response.